Saturday, 19 April 2014

The Sunday Story: The Girl On The Train

So I've set myself a challenge: one 500 word short story posted by Sunday each week. Starting now, posted early. Like an artist posting sketches, this is to keep my hand in - in the most embarrassingly public way possible! Comments welcome.

The Girl On The Train
by Jason Cobley

The girl on the train is vaguely Arabic, the brim of a grey hat a shadow in her eyes. Her eyebrows are thick but plucked, shaped clean. Her eyes, heavy lidded, a line of blue underneath her lower lashes, seem open, dark and deep. Sitting comfortable and warm in her turtle neck shirt and denim jacket, she clutches her blue shiny faux leather bag across her lap. She steals glances at a girl sitting diagonally opposite.

The Arabic girl smiles to herself, as if they are sharing something, or she is reminded of something that amuses her. The other girl is Chinese, maybe half so, pink ear buds playing music from her pink iPod Nano that she holds in the opening of her canvas handbag. She clicks, her thumb moves in a circle, as she selects the next track to listen to. Her black hair falls about the shoulders of her jacket. Her knees, heels and ankles are together, prim and precise. The other girl is now texting on her iPhone, her fingers smearing the screen. She swipes her nose with her forefinger, taps away.

The old man next to the Chinese girl bows his head, eyes closed, looks up every now and again as if surprised by a noise. The gentle chug and soft chatter of the train track is all. He snores lightly, the girl smiles again. Her eyes smile strongest as her eyes catch the old man’s daughter in the seat opposite. Blonde, dark-rooted straw of hair, white canvas jacket, tan skirt flaying beneath the cheap brown leather bag she bought in a market in Tunisia, on holiday on her own. Her amusement is absent. She gazes out now at the darkness through the train window, seeing only her own reflection and that of the other passengers. She stares blankly at herself.

The couple on the other side of the carriage, newly retired, share space but not company. He dozes, his trousers riding up to show his six year old Christmas socks. His wife, all floral skirt and severe haircut, flicks briskly through a novel she bought at a church table-top sale. The white back cover, splashed with a photo of a rose above the blurb, speaks of something lost in the pages that she searches for vainly. Behind them, a middle-aged couple sit, arms folded, silent, sour. They have nothing left to say to each other anyway.

Further down the carriage, strangers sit alone but together, friends chat and the unimaginative sit. Just sit. Others ruminate. So many lives, alongside and parallel, they are travelling forward but in different directions. One man writes in a notebook.

The middle aged woman gets up abruptly, makes off down the carriage. Not to the toilet. That was in the opposite direction. Her husband lifts a Sainsbury’s bag off the floor, places it where she was sitting. Maybe they weren’t married after all.

The gentle chug and soft chatter of the train track, blank stares, familiar strangers, chug and chatter.

Of Letting Go and Moving On: The Venice Project and the DVD Dilemma

We recently moved house. After a few months of great uncertainty, we finally had something firm to which we could anchor our floating futures. Moving from the bleak beauty of flat Fenland to the middle of middle England had its ups and downs. Our estate agent was golden, the removal men patient and helpful, even if they did manage to break a couple of things but not a big deal considering how much stuff we had. Stuff turned out to be the only real problem. We were doing what is usually called ‘downsizing’.  In effect, that meant downsizing everything I had accumulated in over twenty years of reading, listening, watching and dreaming. Fifty per cent of our books had to go. You’re welcome, British Heart Foundation. Mrs Cobblers wanted the DVDs to go. This was never going to happen. A few went. I was never going to watch ‘Heroes’ season 1 again, and ‘American Beauty’ just irritates me now, so some were easy. Conversely, despite them actually being terrible pieces of cinema, I couldn’t bear to part with the Green Lantern movie or Stallone’s Judge Dredd. Comic book movies. Have to have. But what to do with the DVD collection? Two deep and two wide, stacked in the living room, they still approached five feet in height. The X Files and Doctor Who box sets had to stay as they were, but for the rest, space was at a premium. Enter a little company called Arrowfile: big, thick photo album type folders that each hold 160 DVDs. Two of them duly filled. Blu rays? Still in their cases, in the one cupboard that holds them. I ought to get my head round this Ultraviolet thing at some point. CDs I’ve managed to hold on to – they’re on a handsome wooden rack in the snug. That’s already been trimmed anyway – I only have about 700 now. Another thing that had to go was audio equipment. I used to have a separates system to be proud of, which, as formats waned, trimmed down nicely in recent years to a good CD player, amp and floorstanding speakers. My Rotel amp had been with me for nearly twenty years and did good service until one sad day when it died, not long after followed by the CD player. So, on moving, we invested in a Roberts CD player / ipod dock / DAB radio and now we have the ideal setup. It’s small but perfectly formed, with the ipad connecting by Bluetooth and the laptop streaming Spotify straight into it. We have officially joined the twenty-first century. Finally.

Psychologically, I anticipated it being very painful to get rid of so many books and setups that I’d found comfortable over the years, but not so. Many age-friendly comics and graphic novels went to my nephew, who’s a bit of a Marvel fan. Try as I might, I haven’t been able to interest my daughter in comics, but she’s a voracious reader of everything else she can lay her hands on, so who am I to complain? So, we’re down to two (admittedly quite big) bookcases jam-packed with the books that are left. Standing in front of the British Heart Foundation book chute at the tip, wondering whether to get rid of Howard Jackson’s ‘Analysing English Grammar’ from university was worth it. It went, as did so many other books we hadn’t looked at since university, or hadn’t read, or had read but would never read again. My unread Ernest Hemingway collection survived though. I will read them. Honest. Sorting through like this unearthed some gems that went straight to the top of the re-read pile, hence me revisiting Darryl Cunningham’s ‘Psychiatric Tales’ and ‘Science Tales’, and Tom Gauld’s ‘Goliath’ last week. Next up is reminding myself of the joys of Magnus Mills’ oeuvre.

Then there’s the Kindle. That’s where most new fiction and non-fiction is going, as much as I love the solidity of a real hardback (that said, yesterday I bought Sting’s ‘Broken Music’ at a second hand bookshop – once read, it either stays or something else goes: one in, one out), so it was that I came to download a book that came as a real surprise.

‘The Venice Project’ by Philip Gwynne Jones (available for Kindle and in paperback) is extraordinarily well written, Phil’s voice echoing through every line. I know this because (vested interest ahead) Phil’s a friend from many years back. I was in the sixth form; Phil was a couple of years older at university. We were both part of a group of friends that – ahem – played role playing games such as Call of Cthulhu and Runequest (not Dungeon and Dragons, we were above that – serious players, and damn, we wrote good stuff). It coincided with that time in life when drinking and girls become important as well so, living in a small Welsh seaside town, it all came together nicely. Our holidays driving around Scotland and Wales and sleeping in cars and tents are fond memories, bridging that gap into adulthood. Phil played guitar at my wedding as I attempted to sing ‘Sultans of Swing’ (long story), and the last time I saw him was at his wedding at a castle just outside Edinburgh. ‘The Venice Project’ picks up where looming redundancy sends Phil and his wife Caroline to Venice to live, having retrained as English teachers and taking a massive leap. We seem to have faced similar book dilemmas. I recommend this book not because Phil’s a friend but because it’s so well-written and so different from the other let’s-live-in-another-country-for-a-year-and-aren't foreigners-funny memoirs. It isn't like that at all. There are good reasons why Phil and Caroline chose Venice. Check out the sample on Amazon.

And so that brings us to writing. ‘Amnesia Agents’ crawls along. I’ll be posting up some other short fiction soon. In the meantime, forget you saw me.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Remembering To Forget

I'm not sure whether many people are reading this blog any more, but here we are anyway...

I will be relaunching Tom Hickathrift on the Saturday of the weekend of 11th-12th April 2014,making my contribution to this year's Big Read: Norfolk Narratives at Downham Market Library. Hoping to see adults and children there for a reading, talk and Q&A. Although I've relocated to another part of the country I'm still very much connected to Norfolk.

I've resumed work on the new project: Amnesia Agents is a novel I'm working on intended for an older audience. I'm currently on a new draft after the lost-files disaster of last autumn. Good old pen and paper, then typing up when complete.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Review of 2013

2013 was a year in which I was reminded in the most dramatic way possible that there are some people who are capable of extreme kindness, but also others are driven by extreme cowardice and still others by harmful intent. I shouldn't be surprised but still it's a sad, sad thing to recognise. Kurt Vonnegut once said that the only thing worth learning is that we have to treat each other with kindness in this life. He's right.

Here's to 2014 being a year of kindness. Be kind to each other and have a great year.

Coming up from me in 2014 will be the return of Bulldog in Paragon. Don't forget, you can still download almost the entire Bulldog back catalogue for free from Beyond that, I'm still rebooting...

Sunday, 6 October 2013

BAM! and Paragon - Full Circle

#16 Bulldog is back!
Captain Winston Bulldog is, in a way, my life's work. I created the character many years ago, and he made his debut in his own comic back in 1993. (See previous post below, where you can see details of where to buy collections of his adventures) He hasn't been in print for a few years now, the last time being in the Bulldog Clips collection. Attempts to interest publishers in picking up the character since his last major appearance in The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga have failed significantly, despite a few blind alleys. Rejections have ranged from 'it's too young for us', 'it's too old for us', 'we don't do funny animal books' to 'it's too notorious' (never understood that one) or 'it's creator-owned so we won't pay your artist enough'. So. A few attempts to kick-start a self-published revival have hit the skids too. Until now. Davey Candlish at Paragon Comic , a small press anthology in a similar mould to Bulldog's old home in BAM! (Bulldog Adventure Magazine), kindly offered to give Bulldog a new home. He's back in his old environment, but hopefully able to reach a new and exciting readership as well as the old. Go to Davey's blog for more details - I've been trimming down a graphic novel-sized story I had to manageable chunks (6-7 pages per episode). It's an ideal jumping on point for readers new to Bulldog and/or to Paragon (which is available in print and ebook versions) and I'm really looking forward to it. Hope you are too!

In other news: it doesn't look as if Tom Hickathrift is going to get a sequel, but I'm hoping to set aside some time in early 2014 to write one anyway, so we'll see what happens. I have an idea for a Tom-related Christmas story which may wend its way into the world for the Yuletide season, though, so watch this space. In the meantime, I'm plugging away at Amnesia Agents when I have time (of which there is little at the moment)...

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

FREE Captain Winston Bulldog EBooks! UPDATED!

Added to the free Bulldog Ebooks Bonanza is BULLDOG CLIPS - with artwork by Andrew Wildman, Mike Collins, PJ Holden and many many more!!! It also features Samurai Commander Keiko Panda in her first solo adventures since her epic in The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga volume 2, Hugo the Zombie and a host of other strips. Keiko Panda is also the cover star of the first Mammoth Book of Best New Manga, where the epic Bulldog: Empire series (see below) is presented in its 63 page entirety!

Perhaps the most enduring character I ever came up with was Captain Winston Bulldog, aerial adventurer in a world of warring nations of Humans, Mammalians and Arboreans. Winston was the only Mammalian airship captain in the Aerial Defence Force of Union Britain. His adventures lasted many years, totalling 28 issues of his own magazine, then a 2 issue US format mini series. I wrote the stories, and the artist roster is a veritable who's who of the UK comics scene at the time. A couple of years ago, I collated a wide selection of Bulldog stories into 2 paperbacks. Now, until the end of September, I'm making them both available as ebooks completely for FREE. Go here to download your copies and delve into the world of Captain Winston Bulldog. I had high hopes at one time that the character would make the breakthrough into the big time, and made several attempts to relaunch as a series for children, but could never get publisher interest. I'd love Winston to make a comeback at some point, but in the meantime, here's some free comics - appropriate for all-ages!


Sunday, 25 August 2013

A Reader and A Writer - Ending and Beginning

In my day job, parents often ask me how to help their children improve their writing. My answer is simple: read. Read with them. Read to them. Encourage them to read. Anything. Read yourself. The last one often gets me funny looks, as if that's the last thing a busy adult should be doing. For me, it's the first, last and always (to semi-quote The Sisters Of Mercy - that ages me). And so it is that my summer began in earnest with plans to read at least two books a week. At the same time, my 8 year old daughter enrolled in the Summer Reading Challenge at the local library - read 6 books, get prizes; keep going get a medal (there's a ceremony and everything!); read 20 have your name on the wall as a Super Achiever. I think she's up to 12 books now, sometimes reading one in a night (having trouble sleeping in this weather anyway). As for me: well, I've managed one a week since she started the challenge. The plans are there: my pile of unread books is probably the height of the average 8 year old. Still, anyway, here are my thumbnail reviews of my summer reads:

Product DetailsThis doesn't really need much of an introduction from me. Banks's passing was very sad - I'll miss the leftie, compassionately angry voice that we had from him. The Crow Road and Espedair Street are amongst my favourite novels, the latter a wee bit of an influence on what I'm writing at the moment (just a bit as it has a fading rock star in it). So it was then that I came to The Quarry with as high expectations as anyone. In the end, this tale of a meeting of a man and his old friends as he nears the end of his life, narrated by his possibly-on-the-autistic-spectrum son, is slight but affecting. Banks's voice shines through. There's not much plot but this is a book about people and, although not one of his greatest works, is a fitting note for Iain Banks to go out on. I'll miss his words, and miss his presence in our culture. Interestingly, a friend of mine, Lucy Carter, is the lighting designer for the operatic stage version of Banks's The Wasp Factory which is coming to the Royal Opera House soon. It's a pity that Banks didn't live to see it.

Product Details

My wife gave me this as a birthday present, and it couldn't have been better chosen. On the face of it, it's science fiction but is much more about... well, that would spoil it. We have a very flawed narrator who only gradually discovers what's really happening to him. He is a journalist aboard a privately-funded spaceship sent out with a varied crew to, well, explore and see how far they can reach into space. They are set to turn back at a specific point, so it is as much a PR exercise as anything else. But of course, not everything quite goes according to plan. What Smythe does brilliantly is rattle you through a rapid sequence of events quite early on, and you begin to wonder whether he's wasted opportunities to tell a more engaging story. But then. We get to look at those events from a different perspective and everything changes. It's the best novel I've read yet this year. It's just out in paperback, so treat yourself!

Product Details
Like the rest of the universe, judging by the queues at the Ely event (see below blog entry), I read Gaiman's latest novel this summer. I'd read all the publicity, and was a little wary of over-hype. Like a lot of people, I followed Gaiman's Sandman series, and I really liked his abruptly arrested run on Miracleman, so that was my way in to his work. The Graveyard Book remains a classic of children's literature - my daughter's not quite ready for it yet, but she will be. 'Ocean...' seems more slight than it is. I'm a big fan of shorter novels, and this tells as much story as it needs to - it's about growing up, and the notion of how we remember our childhood.There's fantasy in there, and some potentially nasty stuff, but some glorious stuff too. It's sad and joyous, and worth the hype.

Product Details
I don't often plug books by people I know, but I can't resist. Dave deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon him. I described this as 'Magnus Mills for kids' on Twitter, and I still can't think of a better way of describing it. A young boy books passage on a small boat captained by a bear. Pretty soon, they get lost. Arguments, adventures and bonding ensue. It's funny, it's fast-paced, it's accompanied by Dave's brilliant illustrations, and it's actually pretty moving. There are questions left at the end, and it doesn't end in the way I expected. But it does end in the way it should. So much more than a children's book. In fact, I don't think there's any such thing. There's just books for people. And this will touch you, whether you're 8 or 48.

Now, I guess I'd better get back to that pile of unread books! 

One quick plug for myself before I go:

Product DetailsVolume 3 of The Graphic Canon is out now, which features my comic strip adaptation of Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est, which I did for Classical Comics a few years ago. Find out more here.

And, of course, you can still get copies of my books! If you'd like a personalised signed copy of The Legend of Tom Hickathrift, look me up on the 'Contact' tab above and drop me an email.
Reviews, comments, feedback from readers always welcome!

Product DetailsProduct DetailsProduct DetailsProduct DetailsSo, summer comes to an end. Back to the day job, but writing continues. Endings and beginnings. More on my next book when I have it...