New book out today!

New Zealand native bushHardwicke is the story of two orphaned brothers, Ethan & Thomas, sent to work at the Enderby Hemp & Rope Works in Victorian London. When Ethan takes the blame for a fire at the factory, he is transported to Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony on the other side of the world. Determined to survive, Ethan will do whatever it takes to find his brother again. Then he discovers that Thomas has been sent to Hardwicke, a remote colonial outpost on the Auckland Islands…

I hope you like it! Available as ebook or print on demand. If you have any questions I’d be happy to answer them. It’d be great to hear from you!

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day of the thal

You see them on kitchen shelves and fancy units everywhere. A regular, sideways spread of broad, fleshy green leaves, the obvious but slightly unbelievable kind of leaf a robot would synthesise if it wanted to look like a plant: two by two by two, this then this then this. And then, veering up and around the leaves, looking more like something that carries fibre optics than sap, secured by a sequence of round metal ties to functional green canes, the flower stalks, rising and eventually splitting into smaller stalks, that split again in a regular pattern, and culminate in racks of identical flowers, three petals in a triangle in the back, two either side, and something like a screaming mouth in the middle, two prongs for teeth, a spotted uvula at the back. In white, puce and pink.

This is Phalaenopsis, the moth orchid. Phal, to the trade. And it’s been the UK’s most popular houseplant since Monstera Deliciosa.

You can buy them at the supermarket, in a variety of containers, from mini metal buckets in various pastel shades to oddly-shaped vases in smoky green glass. Or not buy them – they’ll appear on your shelves anyway. You can water them, or not, they don’t care. They manage pretty well. All they really need to thrive is any place in the house with a good view of the action.

I saw another one today and suddenly the truth struck me.

Phalaenopsis, the most advanced biotech monitoring system the world has ever seen, quietly and efficiently monitoring earthly business, and transmitting it back to the mother plant on Mars. That one’s a truly gigantic specimen, exploding out of a chintzy red volcano (where – it’s true – there’s very little water, but Phal has adapted to this over the millennia, and it manages pretty well).

The data is stacking up, sheeple. Phal is content. It knows that soon we’ll have Mars on Earth. And then truly will Phal will have dominion.

Long live Phal.

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nevers of steel

There’s an extemporary, Mad Max feel to the front of the house, holes in the concrete forecourt filled in with rubble and crap, a derelict caravan green with mould dumped arse-first, blocking the sitting room windows, missing tiles in the path bridged with scraps of plasterboard, chipboard, whatever. It’s like the occupants started scavenging a skip, then gave up, and went back inside.

I knock on the door.
Immediate, furious barking, shouting.

Eventually, from behind the glass: You alright with dogs, yeah?
‘Yep. Fine. It’s okay.’
The door opens and someone throws an old, brindle-coloured footstool at me – that’s what it feels like, at least – a footstool magically and riotously animated, with a tail and teeth.
‘That’s enough, Nipper! Let him alone, now!’
Nipper springs up and down so enthusiastically you’d think he was on a trampoline.
‘Jes’ ignore ‘im’ says Thomas, waving me inside. ‘He’ll wear himself down eventually.’
Thomas takes his seat on a ruined sofa, in front of a TV showing the Formula One. I put my bag down, and Nipper is all over it. If I’m not careful he’ll be running off down the road with my stethoscope trailing behind him, like a cartoon dog with a string of sausages.
‘I can put him outside if you like.’
‘Nah. He’s alright. It’s nice to have an assistant.’
‘Right’ya then’

Thomas turns out to be an easy patient, if by easy you mean someone who doesn’t want any help, and just wants to sit in all day, drinking and smoking himself into oblivion.
‘What’s the use, fella? I appreciate you coming round n’all, but honestly – there are worse people out there. I don’ wanna waste yer time.’
I ask him if he’d like me to make referrals to various people, for equipment and physiotherapy and so on, especially given his recent hospital admission and diagnosis. It all seems a bit pointless, though.
‘Fair enough,’ he says. ‘It might be worth a punt.’

He stares down at his hands, listlessly prods the heel of his right hand with the thumb of his left.
Nipper – who had retreated exhausted to his basket, suddenly leaps up and starts barking again, trampling straight over me in his eagerness to get to the front door. A second later the door opens, and a guy so huge steps into the room the whole house seems to tilt in his direction.
‘I’m Shaun, Thomas’ son,’ rumbles the guy, leaning down to shake my my hand, making a real effort not to pick me up and shake the whole person by mistake. ‘Everything alright with the ol’ fella?’
‘Yep. All good, considering. There are some things we could do to help – if he’ll let us.’
‘Hear that, da? Don’t keep saying no to everything, would ya now?’
Thomas sneers and bats a hand in the air.
‘Yah!’ he says.

Shaun hesitates in the doorway, like he feels he should do more but can’t think what. It’s astonishing to think that Thomas is his father – not just the difference in size, but in vitality and sheer physical presence. I picture one of Thomas’ sperm, scrub-chinned, spitty roll-up in the corner of its mouth, Stan Laurel twist of hair, idly corkscrewing its tail through the vulval gloom, by sheer blind accident driving its head before the thousands of others through the softly yielding wall of a certain egg.

‘If you want me I’ll be in the van,’ says Shaun.

I can’t believe he means the ruin out front, but it’s true. I see the shadow of it rock alarmingly as he goes inside. How it bears his weight I have no idea. Maybe when they go on holiday, he forces his legs through the floor, his arms through the window, and runs them all there.

‘Do you like the ol’ Formula One then?’ says Thomas, nodding at the screen whilst he fishes his tobacco tin out from behind a cushion.
‘I don’t really follow it,’ I tell him. ‘I’d love to have a go, though.’
‘What – driving one of dem things?’ He grimaces, then attends to the business of rolling himself a fag, holding a paper between a thumb and two fingers, and then shakily losing half the tin of tobacco trying to fill it. ‘Nah!’ he says, giving up, rolling the fag ineffectually, running his tongue along the gummy strip. ‘You gotta have nevers of steel for dem things.’

grand designs

there was none of this: where are you mate?
you’re already a day late with them bluestones
I can’t afford to have everyone
standing around scratching their arses with antler picks
there weren’t no portakabins, no snobby accountants
sipping their earl greys, shaking their heads
over a scale model so hokey my sheila’s dwayne
coulda done better with his tub of lego
they didn’t have no kangol cases
no telescopic cranes, no geezers in yellow jackets
hard hats, unlaced Caterpillars,
lolling about, laughing
raising their mugs, shouting oy-oy saveloy
when the gaffer leans out of his landrover
red faced, tapping his watch

there was none of that

it’s like that kevin mcloud off the telly
I can imagine what he’d say

‘when they told me
they wanted to build
a temple to the sun
a vast stone wagon wheel, if you will
slap-dab in the middle of Salisbury plain
using monstrous, nine ton blocks
hewn from the earth
with the simplest of tools
floated down from Wales
hammered into shape with rocks
hauled into position with a bunch of mates
and a few hundred feet of homemade rope
I would’ve said to them
with the greatest of respect
Are you completely insane?
But here we are
five thousand years of Grand Designs later
the old stone wheel’s still standing
the rays of the solstice sun still
tip over the horizon
to illuminate the hub of this mad,
magical, monumental construction
really, you’d have to say
in anyone’s book
what, in fact, you’re presented with,
is nothing short of a triumph’

ghosts : a walk-through

ghosts spook easy
so wear socks
& cough before you enter

ghosts feel the cold
heavy curtains are good
they help maintain an even temperature

ghosts thrive on repetition
spend time planning your routine
then stick to it

ghosts mean static
especially in older houses
review all wiring annually

ghosts die in carved mirrors
be responsible
cover up before you turn in

ghosts do not haunt, they
inhabit crystalline lattices of fractured time
(stairs, mostly; corridors)

ghosts are preternaturally attracted to marzipan
enraged by liquorice
(scientists divided on this one)

tell tails

A drive out to see Alistair for another dog walk. It’s been a while since I was here – August, in fact – and even though it’s still something of a building site, they’ve accomplished a lot. He shows me the brick reservoir they’ve renovated in the middle of the land, how they’ve organised things so that everything drains into it. He shows me the pipes they’ve run from the tank to the raised vegetable beds off to the side, and the solar pump that’ll keep a trickle supply running. It’s all very organised and admirable. He’s even using rocks they’ve scavenged from all the clearance to landscape the area around the tank and make it good.

‘You have to use your imagination’ he says, but really, it’s not such an effort.

We head down to a gap in the fence at the bottom, and out onto the neighbouring field where a dozen horses in quilted jackets stand and stare at us, their breath steaming around them in the brisk morning air. Ailsa lies down and stares back, obviously wanting to round them up, but Alistair whistles for her to come, which she does, so quickly it’s as if she materialises from one spot to another.
‘Good girl’ says Alistair.

Meanwhile, Lola has chased after Dexter, heading for the woods. Lola would’ve caught him a few years ago, but these days she’s slowing up. Dexter leaves her behind, galumphing into the undergrowth and disappearing.
‘Dexter’s staying for a while,’ says Alistair discreetly, like he’s describing a guest at a rehab facility. ‘There’s something going on at home,’ he adds, darkly.
Ailsa has already overtaken Lola as they both chase after Dexter into the woods. Lola’s in love with Dexter. It wouldn’t surprise me if a little later we found their names carved by claw into a tree. A heart with an arrow, initials, kisses.

‘I’ve been getting into coding’ says Alistair, ducking under a wire fence. ‘It’s amazing how everything’s come on. It wasn’t so long ago you’d be struggling with a big old text book that was out of date as soon as you opened it. Now you can log onto forums and watch people explain it all on YouTube. It’s so much easier.’
‘I know! When I think how hard origami used to be, trying to figure out those drawings – dotted lines for a valley fold, a kinked arrow for a squash fold. Half the time I’d give up. Now you just watch a clip on YouTube. We had a whole series of origami books written by Robert Harbin. Is that how you say it? Harbin? It’s funny – I’ve never said it out loud before. It sounds made up.’
‘No, no. I think Harbin’s right.’
‘I bet no-one’s publishing origami books anymore.’
‘Or code books.’
‘Or any books!’

It suddenly strikes me. We are almost certainly the biggest nerds ever to walk through these woods. It’s probably a good thing duck season hasn’t started.

Alistair yawns whilst I stop to take some pictures of a derelict railway bridge, the tracks IMG_6633gone, the brick parapet breached by thick stems of ivy.
‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘I got up so early this morning.’
‘Why? Couldn’t you sleep?’
‘No – it was just that when I went to bed I was trying to figure out a tricky bit of code, and then about four o’clock, I sat up straight from a dream, and I was convinced it was telling me the answer. So I went downstairs and tried it out.’
‘Did it work?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘Complete garbage. I’ve been yawning ever since.’
‘I remember reading about this chemist who was trying to figure out the molecular structure of benzene, and he had a dream about a snake with its tail in its mouth, and that’s how he figured it out.’
‘I read that, too’ says Alistair. ‘Bastard.’

The dogs appear again, Dexter first, closely followed by Lola and Ailsa. We come to another stile. There’s an elderly woman the other side, rattling a bag of treats and shouting Arthur! All three dogs leap through the gap and sit around her.
‘You’re not Arthur,’ she says, but they carry on sitting anyway.
‘Lost your dog?’ says Alistair, climbing over.
‘I’ve only had him two weeks,’ she says.
The woman is strangely dressed for the muddy conditions. She’s wearing a red two piece suit with a fur trim, soft leather boots, and a pointy, green velvet hat. In fact, it’d be easier to think she she was on her way to an audition for Robin Hood than taking a dog called Arthur for a walk. But who knows? Maybe this is all a last minute decision.
‘Are your dogs okay with other dogs?’ she says.
‘Fine’ says Alistair. The worst Ailsa will do is round him up.’
‘And Lola’s too busy with Dexter to notice anyone else.’
The old woman cuts across us.
‘There!’ she says, pointing with the treat bag. ‘Arthur!’
We all turn to look (including the dogs).
Arthur turns out to be a heavy Alsatian, warily hanging back on the brow of the hill. I must admit I’m shocked. I was expecting something smaller. I can’t imagine the woman being able to hold onto a hound as substantial as Arthur. She’d be safer throwing a saddle on his back and riding him home.
‘Arthur!’ cries the old woman again, shaking the bag of treats in the air again. The dogs – giving up on the treats as any kind of prospect – jump to their feet and race up the hill to intercept him, Dexter and Ailsa making the running, Lola tagging on behind.
‘Are you sure they’ll be alright?’ says the woman.
‘Of course!’ says Alistair. ‘Just look at those tails!’

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clubbed

Groucho had it about right: I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.

Except – the arguments were stacking up:
– I fuelled up at pretty much the same petrol station every other day
– I already used a reward card at the supermarket – and look at how much that saved every Christmas!
– It was one more card to carry, but hey? my wallet could stand it.

So I finally caved and said yes, okay, fine, I’ll be a member of the Shell’s Drivers’ Club, even though it made me scratchy to think of myself as part of a drivers’ club. What next? Lambskin gloves? A pine tree car deodorant? A SHOVEL IN THE BOOT?

I took the card.

But one thing I hadn’t reckoned with was That Woman Who Works There.

I’m sure she’s perfectly lovely, given the right kind of people. Except, TWWWT has made it perfectly clear, over the three or four years I’ve been stopping by her station, that access to The Right Kind of People would be a little more problematic for someone like me than simply saying Yes, I’ll be a member of the Shell Drivers’ Club and holding out my hand for a card.

Maybe I’m reading too much into a face. But it’s difficult when that face has the kind of brutally fixed expression that wouldn’t look out of place on a camp governor in Colditz. I can only be grateful she doesn’t have access to a uniform, because I’d probably faint clean away if she came stomping over from the bread aisle wearing shiny leather boots and a monocle. I’m a nervous wreck as it is, and I have to say, the bloody Shell Drivers’ club card was only making things worse.

I mean – it never, ever works. Not for me, anyway.

‘Don’t swipe it so hard’
or
‘You’re swiping it too quickly’
or
‘The other way! The other way!’

And then – inevitably: *The Sigh*

It’s *The Sigh* I find most distressing. And the fact that no matter how hard I try I still end up getting it only makes the experience worse. Because I know it’s coming. And though it’s probably true that a coward dies a thousand deaths and a brave man only one, it’s also probably true that the person who first said that never had to use their Shell Drivers’ card with TWWWT watching, and the thing not working, and then *The Sigh*

Because *The Sigh* means that the next terrible thing is about to happen.

You see, TWWWT is only about five five. It doesn’t bother me. I’m five seven. I know what it means to be compromised in the leg department. But crucially, for TWWWT it means that if the swipe card doesn’t work she’s not tall enough to reach over and do it from behind the counter. She’s forced to walk all the way round and come and do it herself. Which admittedly must be annoying for her. Hence *The Sigh*

And it is such a sigh, such an explosively expressive communication of her utter and abiding contempt, that I can’t help thinking I’m the only one this happens to. Certainly that’s the feeling I get from the look she gives me – how I imagine it feels to dunk your head in a vat of nitrogen.

*The Sigh*
‘Give it here…’

And then I make it worse by trying to say something to ease the pain.

For instance, yesterday I said: ‘It’s all in the wrist action!’ – which was meant to be a quote from an advert for a kid’s toy in the 70s. Battling Tops I think. Anyway, it sounded crude when I said it to TWWWT, which is why she frowned at me with such severity I think I actually whimpered.
‘Thanks!’ I managed, waving the card in the air and backing away, straight into a builder with a coffee and armful of doughnuts.

That night I checked my points online to see how I was doing. In all that time I’d accrued five pounds worth of credit. Five pounds! Exposing myself to the wrath of TWWWT for three years, for five pounds?.Hell – I’d pay twice that to avoid it! So I decided to toss the card and take the hit.

Today I filled up as usual and presented myself at the counter.
‘Pump number four’ I said, as breezily as I could, putting my debit card in the machine.
‘Take it out,’ she said. ‘I’m not ready.’
‘Oh. Sorry.’
She stabbed a few buttons – then paused, looked up and narrowed her eyes.
‘Where’s your Shell Drivers’ card?’
‘I … erm… I don’t want to use it,’ I said.
*The Sigh*
‘Pump Four…’ she said, heavily, as if it was typical of me to choose that one, and then stared out of the window as I tapped in my pin, like she was hoping to see someone else, someone better – anyone – a real driver, to come fill up at her pumps.

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