Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Doctor Who
Simon A Forward

The sky cracked again and again. The bedroom window exploded with colour. But kept the rainbow blasts trapped safely inside the glass. Blossoming over and over around the Doctor’s grey reflection.
My parents would flip. Some old man sneaking into my room. But he did. One night, every year. Not always with the same face. And never so moody as he looked tonight.
“Is that them?” I asked, knowing full well it wasn’t.
“What?” He stared at me, cross. “Don’t be daft. It’s the fireworks.”
“They said. On the news. The war. They could be coming here next. Next year.”
“Well, of course, they could. But it’s not next year, is it?”
“Well, yes, I can tell that from the fireworks. But nearly’s not yet. Anyway, you mustn’t believe everything you hear on the news. They make stuff up. Sometimes.” He turned from the window and swatted Teddy from the bedside chair, taking his place. Then caught the look I gave him and picked Teddy up and sat him on his lap. He didn’t look too happy about it, but Teddy looked comfortable. I had to laugh. “Anyway, you shouldn’t be watching the news at your age.”
“I know. I should be out playing with the other children.” He didn’t answer. He didn’t need to say a word. I bit my tongue. “Anyway,” I said, proving I could match him for ‘anyways’, “I know I shouldn’t. It scares me – but I can’t help it. I have to keep watching. I have to know.”
Otherwise the world – and the universe – was mostly this house. This room. But I didn’t want to say that out loud. No more feeling sorry for myself.
“Well, good for you. It takes courage. To admit you’re scared. Then keep doing the thing that scares you.”
Outside, the night fizzed and burned. Fierce and bright.
“So are you going to tell me a story?”
“You’re too old for stories.”
“Well, all right then.” He fished in his pocket and flashed his fancy screwdriver with a twirl. Waved it back and forth over the machine like a magic wand. “There! I can’t possibly concentrate with that thing chugging away. I’ve no idea why they make them so noisy.”
I rolled my eyes. The machine was quiet. I never even heard it these days. Especially tonight, with all the fireworks going off. Funny the things that annoyed him. Like Teddy and the faint tick and whir of the life support that I only noticed now that he’d silenced it.
He put the screwdriver away and propped Teddy on the window sill behind him. Then clapped his hands. “Right. A story.”
“Let me guess. Is it about you?”
“No, I’m more just the designated driver. Although I set the course and pick all the destinations and – so I suppose you could say I was quite instrumental. Pivotal, even. Quite But it’s really about a young girl.”
I perked up. “Is it about me?”
“No. Why do people always think things are about them? It’s very egotistical. No, it’s about a girl who was a bit older than you. Vicki, she was called. She travelled with me for a while. Oh, a long time ago. Then, once upon a time,” he stressed the words to show he was beginning his story, “I went back to find her again.”
The Doctor scowled, briefly, at the interruption. “Reasons. Anyway,” he stressed, to show that he was winning in our ‘anyways’ competition, “I’d been thinking about her lately. And I realised the universe could use her special talents.”
“What talents?”
The Doctor sighed. He knew this was how storytelling went between us. He couldn’t shut me up with his screwdriver. “She had a gift. For honesty. She saw things and called them what they were. Like the Chumblies.”
“Chumblies?” I laughed. It was that kind of word.
“Yes. Chumblies,” said the Doctor sternly. And that made it funnier. “Robots. Chubby and round and – well, they just sort of ‘chumbled’ around. You had to be there.”
“Okay,” I said, wondering how this Vicki was going to help the universe with a superpower like that.
“So yes, I popped by to see her. She was delighted to see me. Jumped at the chance to go travelling with me again. You know, after I’d convinced her it was the same old me. It was just like old times. And I took her to all sorts of places.”
“What sort of places?” I loved it when he took the trouble to describe all the magical worlds out there.
“Oh terrible places. All the absolute worst places I could think of.”
“Oh,” I said. Disappointed but somehow a bit more interested in his story. Thinking, there had better be a point.
“Yes. Our first stop was Mondas. Which wasn’t really that bad. Just a bit miserable. There was a recession on, ageing population, rising energy prices, lots to grumble about. But despite all the misery, the one thing people wanted most of all was to extend their lives. I know right? Somebody had this crazy idea to replace all their arms and legs and other bits with machine parts. As though life as silver giants – tin men without hearts – might be better somehow. Vicki and I went to this expo where they were showcasing some prototypes. ‘Handleplods!’ she shouted out as soon as she saw one. Some journalist caught the word and ran with it. And of course it stuck.”
I frowned. “Handleplods?”
The Doctor did a quick mime: grasping invisible handlebars somewhere around his ears. “They had this whole thing going on with – well, maybe you had to be there. Doesn’t matter. The point is, even as lumbering silver giants with the strength of ten men, you can’t go terrorising galaxies after that.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“Anyway, we visited all sorts of other places. Homeworlds of this race and that race, planets where first contact was made between certain races and other races they liked to invade. And I made sure Vicki was there to see them first. Before the would-be conquerors got to announce themselves or before their would-be victims got to give them a name. Basically, before any of the monsters could introduce themselves to the rest of the universe. We met the Shamblewhispers, the Nubbleskins, the Jacketspuds, the Cuddle Monsters. I tell you, even though Vicki liked the word ‘monsters’ for that last lot, the Great Intelligence had to go find a whole new set of servants after that.”
“The who?”
“The Great Intelligence. Long story. And he got to keep the name. Vicki’s not so good when it comes to naming invisible entities. Visual cues, behaviour, that sort of thing tends to be an important part of her magic.”
“I see,” I said, although I didn’t.
“Most of all, we visited Skaro. The home of those abominations you’ve seen on all that news you shouldn’t be watching. Just when a local chief scientist – nasty fellow, no sense of humour – was experimenting with what he called a Mark Three Travel Machine. And that was another thing about him – he just didn’t have Vicki’s imagination. Anyway, just as he’s arranged this demonstration and before he can distribute details of all the modifications he’s made, he wheels out his great project and Vicki – she can’t help herself – blurts out one word.” The Doctor paused, met my gaze. “Trundlebumps,” he said.
“That’s right. Only with more excitement and, well, a bit of applause. Which I thought was overdoing it, but you can’t contain enthusiasm like that. Of course, it earned a lot of stern looks from the scientists in the audience, but there wasn’t a great deal they could do about it. Once we’d done a runner, the word had been said. Out loud. Our work was done. No matter what the chief scientist wanted to call them after that, everybody else thought of them as Trundlebumps. And if there’s one thing that holds true throughout the universe, it’s that word gets around faster than a Trundlebump. And that, dear listener, is how they came to be known, forever after, as Trundlebumps. Like the Handleplods before them they were never so scary after that and they lost all their power to terrorise.”
I snorted. “That never happened. They don’t call them Trundlebumps on the news.”
“Ah but that’s the thing about my stories. They could happen.”
“Soon. In ancient Greece. Perhaps as soon as I’ve left here. They could happen any time. I could leave here tonight and go and find Vicki tomorrow and it could all happen yesterday.”
“I don’t believe you.”
The Doctor jumped up. “That, my girl, is entirely up to you. Time will tell. Perhaps when I come back next year, you’ll have to admit they’re a little less scary. And I’ll be sure to bring the humble pie for you to eat. Would you like it with or without custard?”
“With.” I smiled and shook my head and rolled my eyes all in one go.
“Time I was off. Places to be. Other children to visit. It’s not all about you, you know.”
And he smiled back at me, squeezed my hand and retreated to the big blue cupboard that he always parked next to the wardrobe. And he was gone, in a box that made a lot more noise than my machine.
Trundlebumps, I thought. And I replayed some of the news stories in my head. Replacing the name they used with Trundlebumps.
And I stared at the space where the Doctor’s box had stood. And I muttered at it, telling him he was right. I didn’t have to wait until next year. They were already a bit less scary.
I wondered if Vicki’s trick worked for everything. Maybe I could try it on all the long words the other doctors used. The words I’d practised so hard until I could pronounce them by heart, until I’d grown sick of hearing them. It might be tricky, because the thing was sort of like an invisible entity, wasn’t it? Like that ‘Great Intelligence’ thing. But under a microscope it would be visible and on the net there’d be pictures. Maybe I’d play that game. Tomorrow.
For now, I watched the fireworks spraying the window. Where Teddy sat. Where, if I squinted, I could still see the Doctor’s reflection. Or remember it anyway.
Making me feel a little bit better.

SAF 2016

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Black Dog Rising - October

You win, 2016. I give up.

The difference between defeat and a tactical withdrawal lies in how its perceived. And, I guess, whether you decided to retreat or were driven from the field.

Today, I can’t tell the difference. I hope it’s a tactical – or strategic – withdrawal, because I have come to some hard decisions. At the same time, I’m aware I was pushed. Trouble is, when you run from the Black Dog, it comes with you. And that does colour your perceptions.

Here’s the thing: I’d been doing quite well to build myself back up after a crushing August. What felt like this year’s final straw failed to completely finish me and I got back in the fight. I give myself a lot of credit for the progress I made. Although I couldn’t claim to have been winning, I was doing pretty well in the wake of where I’d been.

October was, on the surface, a good month. Seasoned with plenty of reasons to celebrate and/or feel good. A project came back to me with a big thumbs up from the editor and minimal edits requested. So that was both welcome news and a pleasure to work on, its completion one of the few achievements I can be proud of this year. Worth a yay! for sure. Had a great time at a local beer festival, a comedy gig the very next day, enjoyed some good films and TV, quality time with friends – you know, normal healthy functioning life type stuff. Also worth a yay!


Amid the highs, there were distinct lows and a number of real struggles. Even when I was doing okay, there was an undercurrent of a lack of confidence, perhaps worse -  the sense of moving forward on shaky ground...

Recently, I saw in my Facebook feed that a friend was having a hard time in their fight with the Black Dog. And I was set to write words of encouragement and support in the comments. But the words kind of stopped in my virtual throat. I choked. So I ended up just leaving a heart emoticon as a show of empathy and understanding. On the face of it, that may appear a feeble and empty gesture, but I can tell you that the 100 or so words I might’ve written were wrapped up, embedded, in that trite little icon and they were sincere, well-meant and heartfelt. For my friend.

For me, the words stopped because I seemed to run out of energy before I’d written them. What actually exhausted was belief. Whatever I said, however I phrased it, it was a message I no longer believed for myself.

It was a little after that moment that I properly appreciated how far from winning I’d been. And it was a little after that point that I carefully looked at what I wanted to do before year’s end and examined that next to what I knew I was capable of doing in the next two months. And it comes right back down to something I’ve realised – and mentioned here – before.

Whatever you consider realistic and achievable has to be re-eveluated and measured again in the light of your health. Just as if you’d broken a leg, you’d probably scale back on the number of marathons you’d planned to run in that twelve-month period.
So here I am, scaling back once more.

Which leaves me with just the short story, which even I can manage – because it’s for someone else and when others are depending on me I don’t let them down. It’s only when I’m depending on me that letting down is even permissible.

Two months shy of the end of this crappy year, I had only one other project on the cards in any case. The novel, fifth in my Evil UnLtd series, was already delayed. Now it’s struck from the To Do list. On the plus side, for various reasons I think it will benefit from further postponement, even if right now I mostly see the disappointment of another shelved project and another thing not achieved.

Back in January, I was in a much better state and the year was full of promise. Since then, so many projects, whether on the to-be-written list or even potential publications, have been diminished, reduced, tainted, disintegrated, sunk without trace, shelved or postponed. That’s hard to bear. I take responsibility for some of the shelving and postponing, of course, since I decided to scale back some of my aims and goals. Because I had to, quite simply. In the face of everything else that was falling apart one way or another.

So this latest step, likewise, amounts to cutting myself some slack. It probably reads like defeatism. And it’s meant to. Because, like I said, defeat and retreat are so hard to tell apart. I’m not sure I can trust a hundred percent which this is, but I know which I mean it to be.

I’m not going to sit at the water’s edge like King Cnut, denying the incoming tide. I’m going to go relocate up to the lonely clifftop. Where the next two months will be all about rebuilding, reorganising, preparing and laying a more solid foundation for next year.

In order for the writing to be any good, I have to focus on the writer for a while.

The difference between a defeat and a strategic withdrawal is in how it’s perceived. What feels and looks like defeat from one perspective might actually be the smartest, wisest move to make.

You win, Black Dog. I give up.

Except, you don’t. And I won’t.

SAF 2016

Friday, September 30, 2016

Black Dog Dead - September

I’ve spent more of this year broken than I would have liked. Much more.

Especially a large, long part of August that seemed to drag on forever. Now, the fact is, in the scheme of a 365-day year, maybe it doesn’t add up to all that much. But once again the extent to which I was broken skews my ability to measure such things. It takes a conscious effort to adjust the scale.

Generally when it comes to beating ourselves up, we’re straight in there with the boot. But it takes an effort to be kind to ourselves. To stop and judge ourselves more favourably.

Here we are now at the end of September and I am recovering from my broken August, day by day, but part of this month’s recovery process involved constant reminders of how far behind I’d fallen with my planned work. Tough to escape that when you’re getting yourself back on track and you’re coming face to face with how much you have to do daily if you want to meet that deadline you’d set yourself.

As discussed last month, some of that can be countered and remedied by paring back on your ambitions. In my case, that has amounted to narrowing my focus down to the single main project. Postponing other aims is hard and feels like failure, but we just have to remember that we can protect ourselves to some degree by separating what happens from how we react.

As always it’s a matter of control and while we can’t always control how we respond to anything, we stand a much better chance of controlling that than we do of controlling the things people do or say to us, or to just random shit chucked our way as part of life’s rich tapestry.

It’s up to me to be satisfied with achieving what I achieve, instead of feeling disappointed with what I’ve not managed. I’m not there yet, by any means, but I’m conscious of it and I’m trying to catch the self-critical thoughts before they sink their teeth in too deep. The best argument I can offer them will be what I do achieve when I meet that self-imposed deadline for the much narrower scope of ambition. If I can point to that by early November, then all that I didn’t achieve in August will no longer matter in the slightest.

That’s my theory anyway.

It amounts to mental filing, really. With that (sort of) dealt with my principal challenge for September was just handling the day to day. And I’m not sure where the idea came from exactly, but I recall thinking about how much better I’d been doing in January, despite the year starting so miserably for so many, with a number of celebrity heroes dying on us, and I guess it occurred to me that I’d quite like to celebrate those of my heroes who are still, thank goodness, in the realm of the living.

We’ve seen too many photos in 2016 with the letters R.I.P. attached, after all.
So I made it a daily practice to post a pic per day on Facebook of a personal hero of mine. It’s a small, trivial exercise but it helped. Just reflecting on these figures – in music, movies, TV, writing, whatever – and how they inspired me supplied a spot of daily inspiration. Like a snack for fuel for the soul.

There’s a risk, of course, in sharing your heroes – or anything you like – online. Some danger of trolls, people too quick to attack those things you treasure. And I say that as a caution to more sensitive souls than me. I’m lucky, I have a great collection of online friends and acquaintances, respecters of different tastes and opinions.

A sum total of one idiot trolled in with an abusive remark about one of my heroes. But he’d been on thin ice anyway, so that was his ticket to Blockland. If you’re plagued by the Black Dog and you feel like trying something similar, just be aware that these are your heroes, they’re for you and your own inspiration. They’re like flags on your Facebook page or wherever, to wave you on for that day.

And if even with that in mind you’re a little wary of sharing, then just make a note of them, or have a picture of them for your background on your PC for that day. If they’re musicians/singers, play one of their albums or a video they’ve done. Actors, watch a movie or TV episode or scene from such. Youtube is your friend.

Might not do anything for you. But it was a useful exercise for me throughout September. And it was fun, thinking of 30 muses.

What was not fun was the old insomnia pattern. Which was just getting worse, to be honest.

Short of knocking myself out every night, I have tried everything.

Or thought I had.

Often, I’d have such a crappy night I would get to about 3pm and feel a nap dragging at me like quicksand. And I would generally try to resist because, for one, I would usually wake from an afternoon nap feeling worse than when I’d zonked out, and for two, it would only make the subsequent night worse.

But one day I thought sod it and gave in to the nap urge. And on that occasion I woke feeling a bit better, a bit more alive anyway. And it occurred to me, why don’t I split my days into two mini days.

If I’m only going to sleep half a night, I may as well have a shorter night and shorter days.

It’s still relatively new, so I’m adjusting to this new cycle, but it has been showing some benefits thus far. Packing myself off to bed around 1am, reading for a short while, sleep – or time set aside for sleep anyway – until 6am, early breakfast (aka first breakfast), so begins the first day of that day. Then a scheduled sleeptime between 2pm-4pmish is followed by a second breakfast and the beginning of a second mini-day.

It’s a bit of psychological trickery, I guess, but I have found I do get a few hours sleep at night and 1-2 hours during that daytime kip. So while you’re out there having your Mondays and Tuesdays and so on, I’m just having my Monday As and Monday Bs, Tuesday As and Tuesday Bs etc. It also enables me to break down the day’s goals into smaller bite-size portions. And – so far – because I have embraced the idea of those afternoon sleeps I’ve found I don’t wake so groggy and worse for wear as when I fought it.

The days aren’t equal halves, but I seem to be getting about 6 hours of sleep – or rest anyway – per 24 hours, as opposed to my previous 4 if I was lucky.

So a combination of tricks has assisted me through the month of September and, assuming I make the adjustment, I’ll keep going with the new sleep schedule onwards into October.

Which reminds me, it’s coming up to 2pm now.

My second bedtime.

Goodnight. See you tomorrow morning later today.

SAF 2016

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Stranger Things...

It’s rare you’ll find me in church, let alone on a Monday. But Stranger Things Have Happened.

That’s how I kicked off my week, at a concert in St-Giles-in-the-Fields, London. There to see – and hear – Clare Maguire.

Back in the days when my parents used to force me and my sisters to go to church, if they’d told us there was going to be a show like that on instead of some dry priestly sermon we wouldn’t have kicked up such a stink. I’m still an irreligious soul at heart, but concerts of this calibre would confirm me as a regular churchgoer.

The support act, identifying herself as Klara from Sweden (check her out on Facebook) warmed us up with some hauntingly beautiful numbers, one or two that would not have been out of place as themes for some of the Nordic Noir crime dramas I’ve been watching lately, and then the main act was something else.

Solely on the strength of her Light After Dark album, I knew Clare was an incredible singer – it’s why I travelled up to London to hear her. But performing live, pared of production, turns out she’s even better than I knew. There’s an almost gospel quality to her voice that sells every song with power and emotion. Right at home, while bringing the roof down.

This was the start of her tour to promote Stranger Things Have Happened and due to circumstances beyond my control I hadn’t heard anything of the new album. At other concerts where I’ve heard artists’ tracks for the first time, the lack of familiarity has been known to create a degree of distance or detachment, but something definitely resonated on this occasion because every one of the new songs connected. Hit home – like bullets through my bones, you might say.

Put it down to that rare conjunction of talent, performance and a beautiful setting. This was my first visit to St Giles and it made for an amazing venue, accommodating a modest but enthusiastic crowd. Especially when Clare sent out for beer for the audience. Which maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned, because people might expect that at every show. But it’s a good illustration of the great sense of humour that seasoned the gig between songs and added to the all round entertainment.

Me, I didn’t avail myself of the beer – I had another train to catch after the show and who needs an alcohol buzz when the music buzz is that good – but I did stick around to say hello. And Clare took the time out for a chat and sign a CD which were pretty much the icing on the cake of a very worthwhile trip up from the remote reaches of Cornwall.

All in all, a brilliant night and as I headed back home, Clare was on her way to tour dates elsewhere, so if you happen to spot a poster saying she’s appearing at a venue anywhere near you, I seriously recommend you go treat yourself.

Might not be in a church. But it will be special.