Back when I was an editor of the fanzine Gothique (which you can learn more about here) in issue 9 we ran a piece by illustrator and editor Russ Jones on the legendary EC comics. Any such article invariably makes reference to Fredric Wertham, one of the most significant figures in the history of comics - although not in a good way, many would argue.
Wertham was the New York psychiatrist whose book Seduction of the Innocent spearheaded a campaign that led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, the sanitisation of the industry and, in effect, banned horror comics. To comicbook fans, and many in the industry, Wertham became “The Bogeyman of Comics”.
Wertham took offence at the article and sent me this letter:
We subsequently got into an exchange, lively and almost entirely civil, with the upshot that he suggested writing a piece for the magazine giving his side of the story. Of course I said yes. Alas, Gothique folded before it could be published and it became another Could Have Been. At some point I might publish that article somewhere..
Something else that recently surfaced, like the Wertham missive above, was this letter I received from Robert Sheckley, one of the science fiction field's greatest humorous/satirical authors:
I wish I could remember what the reference to Bob Shaw meant!
I got to meet up with Sheckley several times in subsequent years. When in London he would usually drop in, and he stayed over at my place once or twice. I interviewed him on one occasion. I can't claim to have been a big buddy or anything, more a friendly acquaintance, but his visits were always welcome. He was a witty, intelligent guy with, I thought, just a hint of insecurity.
I kind of lost track of Sheckley at some point in the '90's and didn't see him again for something like a decade. We last met a couple of years before he died (in 2005) when I was the British Guest of Honour at a French science fiction convention and Sheckley was the American GoH. He was suffering from several health issues by that time, looked quite ill and had been ravaged by age. His career and profile had declined quite a bit in the States, but French fans adored him, as witnessed by the number that showed up to meet him. Many brought copies of his books and magazines he'd appeared in to be signed. Someone remarked that he must have his own copies of them, but he said no, he had to sell them all. Later, I asked Sheckley why he spent so much time on the European convention circuit. “It's a way of getting my bed and board paid for,” he said. I thought that was terribly sad. There's something of a consensus that Sheckley's strength lay in short stories and novellas.
When the magazine market started to take a dive in the 80's/90's he turned almost exclusively to novels, riding the then current boom in good advances for sf works, but none of his really took off. In his prime his stories were sublime, and very influential. It's a shame he ended up largely unregarded in the land of his birth. He deserved better.
Two handbills and a programme for a couple of theatrical productions I recently came across in the current rummage through storage. Psychosis Unclassified (staged in 1986) was an adaptation of Theodore Sturgeon's Some of Your Blood; The Invisible Man ran in 1991. Both were enjoyable but wandered far from the source material, particularly the Sturgeon, which was very … Ken Campbell. The Invisible Man was largely played for laughs, and barely credited HG Wells. Intended for younger audiences, Vampirella (1986) worked somewhat better, probably because Angela Carter was on hand to guide it.
I was very pleased to be part of BOTH Press' first batch of dyslexia friendly titles last year with my contribution, Anchor Point.
Now the second batch has been announced, as above, and some big names are on board. A Kickstarter has been launched for this very worthwhile project and details are here. Dig deep!
I'm not a big fan of animals in captivity, but I couldn't resist a shot of these beautiful felines. And I'll resist the temptation to pun about lynx on the Internet …
FBI Special Agent Joseph D. Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco.
Photo credit: Pan Books.
Something a little different this month. Back in 1989 I was given the opportunity to interview ex-FBI agent Joseph Pistone when he was in London to promote the UK publication of his book about spending 1976-1981 infiltrating New York's Mafia under the alias Donnie Brasco. Pistone was supposedly living a clandestine life at the time and I wasn't told where to meet with him until the day of the interview, and had to agree to keep it to myself. That could have been a bit of PR on the publisher's part to big up the story. Then again, he had made a lot of enemies in the underworld, and the Mafia had put out an open-ended $500,000 contract on him.
Joe Pistone was little known outside of law enforcement and publishing circles at the time I interviewed him. But his story gained a wide audience in 1997 with the release of the Mike Newell directed movie Donnie Brasco, starring Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. 82 years old now, Pistone's still going strong. He became a private security consultant, and in 2020 he instigated a podcast called Deep Cover: The Real Donnie Brasco.
When we met I found him articulate and personable. He was evidently tough and undeniably brave, but also displayed a gritty sense of humour characteristic of New York. As I was leaving he made a “gun” out of his forefingers and thumb, pointed at me and said, “Keep dodging the bullets.”
For reasons beyond my control the interview I conducted with him was never published. The magazine that commissioned it folded, and the other mags and newspapers I approached either already had their own versions of his story (I wasn't the only one to interview him) or their deadlines meant it would be “too cold” by the time they got round to publishing it. Topicality is everything in journalism. Reluctantly I shelved it, and always regretted the loss. Having just came across the half-forgotten manuscript I thought I'd share it at last. I think it still stands up.
An Interview with Joe Pistone
The Mafia have put out a contract on the life of ex-FBI Special Agent Joseph D Pistone worth half a million dollars – with no expiration date.
Pistone, posing as jewel thief Donnie Brasco, spent five years infiltrating New York's Bonanno and Colombo families. So secret were his undercover activities that he frequently found himself under surveillance from other FBI agents. As Brasco, he penetrated further into the Mob hierarchy than any previous operative, and was set to become a full member at the time his true identity was revealed. He is the only law enforcement officer ever to be put on the Mafia's hit list.
In subsequent court cases his testimony in the largest series of criminal prosecutions brought against organised crime in America resulted in over a hundred convictions. But for Joe Pistone the case is far from closed: eight years later he is still on the run. His present whereabouts and identity are a closely guarded secret.
Nicholls: You grew up with people who went into organised crime. Was that never an option for you?
Pistone: It could have been, but it was never a temptation.
The Mafia has given Italian Americans a bad name. Was resentment about that a motivation in your undercover work against them?
No, not really. I had no thoughts about it one way or the other at that time. I didn't have any kind of big vendetta against the Mafia. If I had a case that involved the Mafia I worked it the same as I did any other case. It wasn't that I would volunteer for every case that involved the Mafia because I wanted to stamp them out or get rid of them. To me it was just another organised crime group that had to be dealt with. I wasn't overly thrilled by the bad publicity that the Mafia gave the Italians as a whole. But when you grow up in a neighbourhood where there's mafia influence you just don't think about it. It's just part of being Italian. To me it was no different from an Irish group in New York city - organised criminal groups - that gave the Irish a bad name. It was just another group to be dealt with. Being Italian you always get the snickers - you must have something to do with the Mob, you know? But it wasn't a motivating factor.
What is it about the Italian and Sicilian mentality that makes them so partial to secret societies like the Mafia?
That goes back to when they were in Sicily and Italy. In the beginning it was basically an organisation where people banded together for self-protection against the government or foreign invaders. But as it gained a foothold and grew, and they became more powerful, then the concept changed. It turned to what it is presently; greed and profit became the motivation to stay together. It's traditional for the Italians and the Sicilians to be secretive by nature anyway. Like anything else, when you gain some kind of cohesion and power then the corruption starts to influence your thinking.
I was surprised it was as late as 1976 before the FBI launched extended undercover operations. Was this a legacy of J Edgar Hoover's desire not to have his agents get “tainted”?
Well, yes. He really wasn't too thrilled about getting into undercover operations that would be extended for any length of time. Plus there were no provisions in the budget for these type of operations at that time. But the main reason was because Mr Hoover didn't want to get involved in any investigation that would be long-term and where an agent would be subject to ridicule later on. There's more chance of getting into trouble, or having a problem, working undercover than there is in working a straight investigation.
When you first went undercover, in Florida, and first used the alias Donnie Brasco, you were involved with guys who stole cars, trucks, tractors and even aircraft. Tell me something about them.
That was a different investigation to my subsequent work on the Mafia. This was a group that was organised all throughout the East coast, and what they did basically was they took orders. If you wanted a brand new Cadillac you would give the make, the model, colour, what you wanted in it, then we would go out and check all the car lots and steal that one. Similarly if you wanted a truck you'd tell us what you wanted; same thing with an airplane, and we'd go out and steal it.
Wasn't it during this period that a guy called Becker told you he could smell a cop?
Yes. We were going to steal some cars one night. We were waiting for the dealership to close and we were across the street in a restaurant. A police car pulled up and I asked if he thought they were on to something, if they knew what was going on. He said “If they were I can smell a cop a mile away.” I put my arm around him and said, “How far does an FBI agent have to be before you can smell him?” And he said, “They're the easiest to spot.”
Joe Pistone, aka Donnie Brasco,working undercover in New York'sLittle Venice, 1977.
FBI surveillance photograph. Photo credit: Pan Books.
When establishing your credibility with the Mafia you had to involve yourself in crimes. Was that a moral dilemma for you?
Yes it was, but as long as there wasn't any violence, and I knew we could control the situation, it was better that I be there because I could keep tabs on who was involved. With drugs for instance I knew where they were going and where they were coming from. If I didn't get involved that would never have happened and we would have had more drugs on the street that we didn't know about. So in my mind it was better that I was able to gather intelligence for a later prosecution. They were going to commit these crimes if I was there or not; so it was better that I was there, and we could divert the drugs or keep an eye on where they were going and confiscate them later.
Contrary to the popular image, it seems a lot of the crime these people are involved in is almost petty.
That's exactly right, and it's where the media play their romantic role. They can't make a movie about the Mafia where all they are involved in are crimes that aren't of an exotic nature. But the thing about the Mafia is that today they may be into something that makes a hundred dollars, and tomorrow they will be in some stock fraud that's going to make them a hundred million. What I'm saying is that it doesn't matter how much you're making, it's just the idea that you're making it. To them the nine to five job is a sucker's world.
What do they think about movies and books glamorising the Mafia?
They loved The Godfather. There was a television series called The Gangster Chronicles, which was about different Mafia gangsters from the old days - like Al Capone or Frank Nitti - and they loved that too. Because it showed these guys, even though they were portrayed as killers and thieves, as romantic individuals dealing in high level criminal enterprises. You always saw them wearing sharp suits. They had spacious offices and lavish houses. Which is quite contrary to the reality. Most Mafioso don't walk around every day with suits and ties on, they don't have fancy offices; they hang out all day in a clubhouse or bar. They don't all have big businesses they run, they are not eloquent speakers like you see in the movies. That's Hollywood.
Another myth you explode is the idea of honour among thieves.
There is no honour among thieves. How it works is that any monies you make you're supposed to give a percentage to your superior in the organisation. But their mentality is, “If I'm the one stealing it, why should I give the guy above me half?” If I steal a hundred thousand dollars, and tell you I stole a hundred thousand dollars, and you're my boss, you're going to tell me to give you a cut. So I'll tell you I only stole eighty thousand. Even though they belong to this society, and have all these rules, they don't want to give away anything.
But aren't the penalties for breaking those rules very harsh?
Oh yes. It's run strictly on fear and intimidation, and remember, the ultimate punishment is death. A boss of a family has supreme power in that family. If he says somebody's going to die, somebody's going to die. It's an organisation based on whoever has the most power, and money brings power, so that's how they operate. If you're a member of the Mafia, or an individual associated with them, you abide by their rules. If you break them you're going to die. It's a business thing. It's nothing personal. That's their feeling: it's nothing personal, it's just business.
So ultimately the only thing holding them together is terror?
And this thing they have about the respect they feel they gain by being a Mafia member. And of course making money off illegal activities, and not having to do physical labour. That's what keeps them together.
If the Mafia ceased to exist, what affect would that have on the drugs trade?
It wouldn't make that much difference. In the United States the Mafia is not the most powerful criminal group in drug trafficking. The Jamaicans, Colombians and Asians have more power, and a bigger control over the drug trade, because it's their basic activity. Whereas the Mafia's illegal activities are very widely spread. They have to go through these other groups to make the contacts in the countries where they grow the drugs. So, although heavily into drugs, they are not the number one criminal group controlling them.
And by all accounts not the most vicious.
They are not. The difference is that the Mafia will not go in and kill an entire family. Whereas the Jamaicans, Colombians or Asians will kill a whole family from a week old baby to a ninety year old grandmother, just to get to one guy. If the Mob's looking for one person, that's who they'll kill; they won't murder ten people to get him. Anybody that gets killed by the Mafia is either a member, or someone involved with them, who has broken one of their laws. Very rarely is there a Mafia-sanctioned hit of a citizen, somebody completely devoid of any Mafia connection.
Isn't there some evidence that this is changing?
You must make a distinction between the American and the Sicilian Mafias. We had two distinct groups, two separate entities, but due to the emergence of drugs and the great profits to be made they formed an alliance. The Sicilians have no qualms about who they kill, and they may be trying to influence the American Mafia this way. During our case we had information that the Sicilians were really upset with the Italians because they would not kill judges, prosecutors, agents and journalists. In fact they sent a hit team from Sicily and they had ten or fifteen people on a list, of which I was one, that they were to eliminate. Fortunately these individuals were caught coming into the country. But it shows that the American Mafia went along with this, which they hadn't before.
"Donnie Brasco”, Florida 1980. On right:Dominick “Sonny Black” Napolitano, whowas later executed by the Mafia for being taken in by Donnie.
Photo credit: Pan Books
You say that people you were close to in the Mafia, supposedly your friends, wouldn't hesitate to kill you if ordered to do so.
Sure. In the Mafia that's one of the things you're expected to do. If you're given a contract you just do it. The person you're given a contract on might be somebody you grew up with, somebody you hang around with every day. In fact you're more likely to be told to kill someone you're close to because the guy's not going to suspect it. It's also a test of your loyalty. The number one thing in your life is loyalty to your particular family.
These guys seem very conservative.They never swear in front of women and are hardline about things like rape. Isn't that a bit paradoxical?
There are certain things they generally won't get involved in, and most of them are patriotic. Not that they'll go and join the army, but I mean their views are conservative, they're not leftists or anything. They won't, for all practical purposes, be purse snatchers or muggers or commit crimes of this type. Mafia areas have very low crime rates, because nobody will go into their neighbourhoods to commit crimes. If they do, they're dealt with by the local Mafia, and invariably you'll never see them again. It's very rare in other parts of New York city to see old ladies walking down the street at eleven o'clock at night, or sitting out on their stoops and not be bothered, except in a Mafia neighbourhood.
Did spending six years with these people, some of whom you say you got to like, change your attitude in any way?
It's hard to answer a question like that. I think I was on an even keel because of knowing no matter how close you got to one of these individuals they still could kill you at any time. That's the one thing I thought about a lot. I wondered how you could kill somebody that you knew for fifteen, twenty years and spent every day with. Then after you killed him it was like the guy never existed, you never talked about him again. You might have gone to his funeral, assuming the body could be found, and sympathised with his family. I couldn't understand how they could do that.
You almost got to the point of being “made” [a full member of the Mafia] yourself. Would you have liked to have gone that far in penetrating the Mob?
Well of course, sure. If I had I could have achieved a lot. Number one, the devastation and embarrassment it would have caused the Mafia. Number two, as a made individual you have more ability to move around without always needing to report back or getting permission from someone. You're also able to sit in on more conversations regarding Mafia business that as a non-member you can't sit in on. It would have been an avenue to gaining more intelligence quicker than I was able to. It would also give me the ability to become engaged in more conversations to do with other families, because you don't cross lines without getting permission.
How big is the Mafia?
In the US there's twenty-seven families throughout the country, and the membership as far as we can determine is between five and seven thousand. If you figure every member has five non-members he's doing illegal business with, that makes a good number.
To what extent have they infiltrated legitimate business?
To a great extent. They've infiltrated labour unions, they're into the garbage business. Probably every cigarette that's sold they get a kick-back on because of the vending machines. They're in restaurants, the linen services, hotels. The majority of these businesses are run legitimately but they're paying a tax, so to speak, to be able to operate.
People you associated with in the Mafia - including Sonny Black, a man you liked - got killed when you were revealed as an agent. How do you feel about that?
I wasn't out there conducting this investigation to get anybody killed. Sonny Black was killed directly over his involvement with me, but he killed a lot of people himself, and knew that at some point he could be killed. He was given a chance to escape getting whacked, but he chose to take it like a man; he could have avoided going to the meeting were they murdered him. There's no doubt he knew before he went to that meeting the chances were he wasn't coming back. But he went anyway. They were going to do what they were going to do whether I was there or not. They had killed people before I got there, they killed people while I was there, and they killed people after I got out.
Do you think the Mafia will ever be eradicated?
No. You'll never completely eradicate it as long as there are great amounts of money to be made illegally. As long as the public wants to gamble, buy stolen commodities or use drugs the Mafia will provide a service to them. But I think what we'll do in America is reduce them to just another criminal group and strip them of the stranglehold they've had on a lot of industries.
Thinking of everything you went through during those years undercover, was it all worth it?
Personally, no. Professionally, yes. That's the only way I can answer the question.
I've interviewed a lot of people over the years from many walks of life, though the majority of them have been authors, editors, artists, actors and film-makers associated with the science fiction, fantasy and horror fields - my area of interest as both enthusiast and writer. The same search that unearthed the Joe Pistone interview above also brought to light a number of issues of the much lamented Americanmagazine Starlog, which I contributed quite a few profiles and articles to. I thought I'd share a small selection here, but just first pages. You can view all issues of Starlog, for free, online at the Internet Archive.
Here are the openers for Sylvia Anderson, Robert Asprin, Arthur C Clarke, David Eddings, Frank Kelly Freas, Robert Sheckley, and a Michael Moorcock/Tad Williams double-header.
Contrary to how it might appear if you keep up with this section, I do photograph other than landscapes. People, even. As in this case, taken in Spain a couple of years ago during one of the many so called “Moors and Christians” parades. This looks like a scary bunch, and seemed to me to be just a little … orcish.
As I mentioned in the March update I'm putting together a couple of additional sections for this site's Photo Gallery. (Don't expect them too soon; sorting and scanning umpteen photos takes ages.) One will be devoted to my time in bookselling, and in that respect I unearthed this photo, taken in Denmark Street on 5th September 1979, when I was managing Forbidden Planet. The occasion was a signing by artist HR Giger, of Alien fame.
I still have that Nostromo cap. The hair, not so much.
Here's a flyer for the signing:
Here's something else that recently came to light.
Novacon is the UK's longest-running regional science fiction convention, celebrating its fifty-first year in 2022. David Gemmell was guest of honour at Novacon 26, held in Birmingham in 1996, and I was beyond pleased when the organisers asked me to write a piece about him for the programme book.
(It's probably best to download and zoom in to read properly.)
I thought it worth mentioning that the Kindle editions of the splendid Alchemy Press Book of Horrors series are currently being offered at knockdown prices, though probably for a limited period - £2.99 for book 1, £1.99 each for books 2 and 3. (I should claim an interest: my story Deadline appears in book 1.) The nice thing about the series, apart from the calibre of the contributors, is the many and diverse ways the horror/supernatural/weird genre is interpreted.
They can be found on Amazon UK:
One thing I occasionally do as a (very) amateur photographer is to shoot the same location in Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, to record how the scene changes in each season. As in these photos:
Sadly, the tree that features fell prey to disease and had to be all but felled:
But then a local artist went in and …
Given that the tree had to go I really like the way its remains were refashioned. I don't know who the artist is, I wish I did, especially as not far away they also converted another:
How to train your tree, you might say.
Anyway, here's May's …
I took this in Yorkshire.
Sad news that came in too late to include in last month's update: author and indie film maker Andy Remic passed away from cancer on 26th February. He was only 50. Andy wrote more than twenty novels in the fantasy, dark fantasy and thriller genres. Many were in series such as the Spiral, Combat K, Clockwork Vampire, Rage of Kings, A Song of No Man's Land, and Blood Dragon Empire sequences, as well as several standalones. He also produced four films devoted to the Spectrum gaming console.
Andy was a big David Gemmell fan and cited him as an influence on his own fantasy novels. We had Andy as the presenter of the Ravenheart Award at 2016's David Gemmell Awards For Fantasy presentation, and he returned as a guest speaker at the 2018 ceremony, reading from letters he exchanged with Gemmell. Both occasions displayed Andy's dry, impish sense of humour and went down really well with the respective audiences.
Andy at the 2016 Gemmell Awards
Andy Remic was both larger than life and down to earth, and a talented creative. He was taken too soon. RIP.
I'm quoted in this piece, which ran on 2nd March on the BBC website, that looks at the works of Philip K Dick on the 40th anniversary of his death, concentrating on the supposed prophetic elements in his fiction. They've resisted using all my pontifications on the subject so you're spared that.
Philip K. Dick
If you scroll down to the June 2021 update you'll see an item about Dennis Wheatley's Library of the Occult, a series on which, back in the day, I acted as Wheatley's Research Assistant. I've now come across this YouTube video, from August 2020, that surveys and reviews the series, quite fairly, I think. It does contain one error in suggesting that I compiled the list of titles to be considered for publication. I didn't; Wheatley supplied the list. My duties involved sourcing copies, clearing copyright, supplying notes for Wheatley's introductions etc. I've asked for a correction.
Suddenly, and at last, it's Spring.
me, Juliet E. McKenna, Chaz Brenchley, Kari Sperring
I'm in the process of putting together an Events (working title) section for this site's Photo Gallery, to join the Conventions, David Gemmell Awards For Fantasyand Photograph of the Monthgalleries already there. (I'll make an announcement when the Events section eventually goes up.) Part of Events will focus on The Write Fantastic, and I've just unearthed this photo, taken at the Bristol branch of Forbidden Planet on 24th October 2009.
What was The Write Fantastic? Founded in 2005, in the words of our launch statement “The Write Fantastic is an initiative by professional authors aiming to introduce fantasy fiction to readers who have yet to experience the genre. Its mission is also to ensure existing readers know the full breadth and depth of current fantasy writing.”
During its existence the membership of TWF included Sarah Ash, James Barclay, Chaz Brenchley, Mark Chadbourn, Juliet E McKenna (main founder), Deborah J Miller, Jessica Rydill (Jessica Saunders), Kari Sperring, Freda Warrington, Ian Whates, Liz Williams and myself. In various member combinations we staged bookshop and library events, taught creative workshops, appeared at literary festivals and addressed writers' groups. To celebrate our fifth anniversary in May 2010 we joined a number of other fantasy/sf authors for a one day event at St Hilda's College, Oxford.
Here's a flyer for the 2009 Bristol Forbidden Planet signing:
In 2006 and 2007 we published and distributed booklets containing sample chapters from our then current or forthcoming novels:
That day at St Hilda's also saw the launch of Anniversaries: The Write Fantastic, an anthology of original stories published by NewCon Press (and for which I wrote the introduction):
Back in July of last year I mentioned that there would be a signed, limited (50 copies) hardback edition of my dyslexia-friendly title Anchor Point. I'm pleased to say that it's now available from BOTH Press, along with the other titles in the first batch of releases from this imprint. The regular paperback edition of Anchor Point is available from Amazon here.
For the record, on 1st February it was announced that Hachette Livre, the leading French publishing group, had become the majority shareholder in my French publisher, Bragelonne, effectively ending Bragelonne's independent status. Conglomerates absorbing smaller independents is increasingly common practice in the publishing world. We'll have to see whether/how this alters the character of France's premier sf/fantasy/horror publisher. Some coverage of the takeover, and other events concerning Bragelonne, is here.
Bragelonne has published a number of my books over the years in multiple editions (one of my titles was among their first batch of titles when they launched some 22 years ago), principally my Orcs, Quicksilver and Nightshade series:
Still Winter, but maybe with a hint of Spring.
Photo by Moira Read
I lost one of my oldest friends, Dave Baldock-Ling, shortly before Christmas. A variety of ailments, and finally cancer, took him on 13th December 2021 We first met a lifetime ago, when we were 15 or 16, and remained firm friends until the end, albeit infirmity meant I saw little of him in recent years. We were both part of a group of friends that came together at about the same time; the sort that stays together, in spirit if not always in person, throughout life. Not all are still here. Grief unites those who are.
Like the rest of us, Dave had an abiding affection for fantastic literature and films, and in earlier times was a convention-goer. For some years he worked in the book departments of both Dark They Were and Golden Eyed and Forbidden Planet. He was a gifted, self-taught artist, working in a number of mediums; something we all felt he could have made a career of, had he chosen to. Here's just one example of his work - a collage of Frank Zappa he created in his twenties, which was published in Stardock, the fanzine I edited along with mutual friend David Griffiths:
I've been a writer for a long time, but this is one occasion when words don't come easily. It's a bit too raw at the moment. So for now I'm contenting myself with displaying photographs of Dave in this piece from various stages of his life.
Novacon 51, which runs between 11th and 13th November, has announced that author Gareth L Powell will be Guest of Honour. The venue's to be confirmed, but it's likely to again be the Palace Hotel, Buxton, as it was in 2021. We hope to be there. I'll post more details as known. Meanwhile, Novacon 51's website ia is here.
The bid to bring the 82nd World Science Fiction Convention to Glasgow again in 2024 continues apace, and the organising committee have created a new logo:
Found in the vaults: The people who make conventions work.
With the ever-helpful red shirts at Pandino Fantasy Books festival, Milan, 2014, where we were honoured to be … well, guests of honour.
… often delight me. Like this image sent to me by reader and friend Mark Mendham.
Here's the original for comparison:
And no, I'm not a very good archer. I should definitely find more time to practice.
Like me wife, Anne, my sister-in-law Jan Calderwood is an artist. I was particularly taken with this recent magnificent painting of an eagle by Jan and thought I'd share it.
I was pleased to note, as we moved into a new year, that this site had clocked up 125,000 visitors.
It's taken a while but is no less gratifying for that.
(The counter is right down at the bottom of this news section.)
Sometimes everyday domestic scenes can be as aesthetically pleasing as any number of landscapes or portraits. I think that's the case here. A winter morning:
A Russian science fiction take on New Year celebrations
A disgracefully brief update this month, I'm afraid. Personal and professional commitments, and life in general, have conspired to eat my time, so this is just a little wave to let you know I'm still here. I'll make up for the lack next month.
Meanwhile, a reminder about …
We're in perhaps a bleaker part of the year, but like all seasons it has its beauty.
That's it for this month. If you're a writer, keep writing. And whatever you do, keep reading.
This might seem a little confusing but bear with me. In 2018 my French publisher decided to re-package the mass-market paperback editions of my first Orcs trilogy (there having been a number of previous incarnations in trade paperback, mmpb, omnibus and e-book editions with a variety of covers prior to that).
Artist Paul Mafayon was commissioned to create the new covers. It's not uncommon in publishing for different covers to be considered before a final choice is made, but I only recently discovered what some of those early variants looked like.
The three illustrations above were in the running to be the cover of volume three, Warriors of the Tempest (Les Guerriers De La Tempete) despite the lettering on the right-hand version saying it's volume one. I assume that the left-hand version depicts the character Coilla, a female orc. In the event the finished cover turned out like this:
The final cover of volume two, Legion of Thunder (La Legion Du Tonnerre) differed only in details, principally background:
I have to admit that these interpretations don't match the way I see the characters, and more closely resemble orcs as portrayed in gaming. I had no say or input with these covers and they don't represent the way my orcs are supposed to look. But I acknowledge that in carrying out his brief Paul Mafayon produced a set of striking, finely rendered covers. It was a marketing decision, and I was content to go along with it.
I've been fortunate in having had the covers of the Orcs series created by many very talented artists in numerous domestic and foreign editions, and I'm happy to include Paul in my admiration of their work. But if I was forced to choose the covers that most closely showed the orcs of my imagination it would be those on the American editions from Orbit. As on the omnibus edition of the first trilogy:
Though ironically this isn't artwork – it's a modelled bust.
On the subject of the Orcs series, for some time I've been meaning to mention that the unabridged audiobook of the first trilogy, running to over 24 hours, is available as a download on Audible:
It's hard to believe we've reached the end of the third year of these photos. Time flies. Being December it's tempting to offer a snowy scene, but that seems a rare phenomenon at this time of year now and more appropriate for January or February, much as we might like a white Christmas. This photo, taken in rural Oxfordshire, better represents the season.
To all who celebrate it, a very merry Christmas.
And to everyone – a happy and peaceful New Year. I think we've all earned one.
As promised in the last update, we've added a new section to the Photo Gallery this month covering the ten years of The David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy, which I had the honour to chair. It's fairly comprehensive, with photos and various bits of ephemera for each year. If and when further images turn up I'll add them. The Gemmell Awards joins sections on Conventions and Photos of the Month in the galleries here.
This anthology, which includes a rare story by Iain M Banks which had only previously appeared in a Novacon souvenir booklet, celebrates fifty years of the UK's longest-running regional science fiction convention. I'm very pleased that it also has a story by Anne Nicholls.
From the presentation by the publisher, NewConPress:
“Burning Brightly: 50 Years of Novacon is an anthology of rare reprints and original fiction from some of the biggest names in British science fiction.
“One of the longest-running science fiction conventions in the world, Novacon is an established feature in the UK genre scene, with an illustrious list of guests stretching back over 50 years. To commemorate the event's 50th anniversary, members of the convention committee have selected their favourite stories from those that have kindly been written by guests for the convention over the years.
“These stories are presented here along with five new stories written for the book by other former guests and attendees.”
The cover art is by David A Hardy:
The table of contents:
Introduction by Rog Peyton
Chiron – Stephen Baxter
The Spheres – Iain M. Banks
Acts of Defiance – Eric Brown
Heatwave – Anne Nicholls
Alien TV – Paul McAuley
Canary Girls – Kari Sperring
Softlight Sins – Peter F. Hamilton
Erie Lackawana Song – Justina Robson
Through the Veil – Juliet E. McKenna
The Coming of Enkidu – Geoff Ryman
Red Sky in the Morning – Adrian Tchaikovsky
The God of Nothing – Ian R. MacLeod
The Ships of Aleph – Jaine Fenn
Bloodbirds – Martin Sketchley
12th-14th November, Palace Hotel, Buxton. But if you're thinking of coming don't linger as there's going to be a cap on numbers this year (though I understand some places are still available).
At time of writing it's just been announced that for personal reasons guest of honour Emma Newman is unable to attend. Fellow GoHs Christopher Priest, Claire North and Chris Baker will be there however. Website here.
Anne will be exhibiting some of her art again at Novacon this year, along with a number of other sf/fantasy artists. Here are a couple of her pieces she'll probably be displaying:
Autumn's really starting to take a hold.
I'm told that future titles are planned, and I'll post news about that here when known.
As mentioned last month, Anne Nicholls and myself were the guest speakers at September's Birmingham Science Fiction Group meeting, albeit virtually. We think it went pretty well. We were particularly pleased to be featured in the 600th edition of the group's newsletter (and in its fiftieth anniversary year):
This splendid piece of art by David A. Hardy is just back from the framers.
When Anne and I were GoH's at Novacon 45, in 2015, the cover of the chapbook containing stories we wrote for the occasion was by David. I was very pleased when he subsequently presented me with the artwork relevant to my story, 'Events'. This is something we'll treasure. The only question is where we'll hang it …
Here's the finished cover:
A reminder that, all being well, we'll be at this year's Novacon, the fiftieth, which is held at the Palace Hotel, Buxton, between 12th and 14th November. Guests of honour are Chris (Fangorn) Baker, Emma Norman, Claire North and Christopher Priest.
A LITTLE BIT OF GOTHIQUE
I'm obliged to my friend Peter Coleborn for reminding me about this ephemera – a set of badges produced as part of the celebration to mark the twentieth anniversary of Gothique, the fanzine I was involved in publishing. Thanks to the good offices of Stephen Jones and the British Fantasy Society, we produced a special anniversary issue in 1985 with this cover by David Griffiths:
… and a bit curly, I'm afraid. I undertook a signing tour of France in 2007, and this poster was displayed in a bookshop in Aix-en-Provence. I shouldn't have had all those wonderful cheeses – they played havoc with my complexion …
Autumn colours, and the quality of light at this time of year, makes for some beguiling scenes. I took this photo locally, last year.
Anne Nicholls and myself are pleased to be the Birmingham Science Fiction Group's guest speakers at its monthly meeting on 10th September.
Because of Covid, the Brum Group's meeting are currently held virtually, via Zoom. Non-members can attend, however. Details here.
Here's the group's official announcement:
Anne and Stan Nicholls are BSFG members and both known for their work in speculative genres.
Anne Nicholls began writing as Anne Gay. She changed the name after marrying author Stan Nicholls. Her first published SF work was the story Wishbone, which appeared in the Gollancz/Sunday Times Anthology of SF Competition Stories.
As a psychotherapist Anne has well over 150 radio and TV appearances and dozens of features in the British and American press, Anne has also found time to write two self-help books. She has had two exhibitions of her paintings and poetry on the subject of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and continues to enjoy writing.
Stan Nicholls is the author of more than thirty books, most of them in the fantasy and science fiction genres, for both adult and young readers. Titles include Strange Invaders, Fade to Black, The Nightshade Chronicles trilogy and Wordsmiths of Wonder: Fifty Interviews With Writers of the Fantastic. He adapted David Gemmell’s Legend and Wolf in Shadow into graphic novel form, novelised TV series Dark Skies, and wrote authorised biographies of, among others, Gerry Anderson of Thunderbirds fame and Coronation Street’s Willam Roache.
He is best known for the internationally acclaimed Orcs: First Blood series. Stan was awarded the Le'Fantastique Lifetime Achievement Award for Contributions to Literature at the Trolls & Legendes Festival in Mons, Belgium.
Zoom Meeting 10th September at 7.45 pm for an 8pm meeting commencement.
The Brum Group is the oldest science fiction group in the UK, and Novacon, which grew from it, is the oldest regional convention; both celebrate their fiftieth anniversary this year. The guests of honour at Novacon 50 are artist Chris (Fangorn) Baker, and authors Emma Newman, Claire North and Christopher Priest. Everything you need to know about the convention is here.
Another reminder. As announced in last month's update, we've added a Conventions section to this site's Photo Gallery, where all the Photographs of the Month, going back to January 2019, can also be viewed. In coming months I hope to build on the Conventions department, as well as creating sections on Specialist SF Booksellers, The David Gemmell Awards For Fantasy and possibly Fan Art, for artwork readers have based on my books. There will also be a miscellaneous section, tentatively entitled Festivals, a sort of catch-all covering literary and fantasy festivals, workshops and other events.
As a taster for the latter here's a photo of a signing session I undertook at theTrolls & Légendes festival in Mons, Belgium, in April 2007:
This is the time of year when many of us would normally be hoping to travel a little further than our living rooms. Alas, Covid and lockdowns have made that just a dream for the time being. So here's something a bit more far-flung than the local supermarket – a street scene from Macau, taken during our visit there in September 2017.
As enthusiast, archivist and all-round comics expert David Hathaway-Price reminds me, People In Glass Houses was the title of a review column I wrote for legendary UK fanzine Fantasy Advertiser. The column, which I blush to remember was pretentiously sub-titled A Review Of Some Diverse Curios (well, I was very young and full of myself) first appeared in issue 32, published in the far-off days of July 1970. Fantasy Advertiser was begun by comics dealer Frank Dobson, a pivotal figure in British comics fandom, but by the time I wrote the column it was co-edited by the equally influential Paul McCartney & Dez Skinn.
I have to confess that People In Glass Houses, like so much else I've written over the years, had rather slipped to the back of my mind. So my memory got a jolt when David produced repros of some of the columns (my copies of Fantasy Advertiser have been in storage and basically inaccessible for decades). Here are a couple. The artwork for the heading on the column, incidentally, was by my old friend David Griffiths.
David Hathaway-Price edits and publishes the splendid journal Fanscene, which chronicles the history of UK comics fandom. The forthcoming eighth issue - sadly, the last - will be devoted to Fantasy Advertiser, andI've been invited to contribute a piece about my involvement with the magazine.
I'll post about this again nearer publication. No cover of issue 8 of Fanscene is available yet, so here's how number 1 looked, which contained my article on the history of London's specialist sf and comics shops:
Novacon, the UK's longest running regional science fiction convention, which should have mounted its fiftieth event in 2020 but for the pandemic, has announced a change of venue. Barring a resurgence of Covid, we'll be there on 12th-14th November. Here, in the committee's own words, is the announcement about the new venue:
“Over the last few months, the Mercure hotel in Nottingham has been hosting a Nightingale Court as a way to generate income. The contract with the Justice Department was to run until June, but now it has been extended until the end of the year and the hotel is not in a position to refuse. So, regrettably, we will not be able to hold Novacon 50 here for what would have been our 12th year!
“The good news is that we have found a new venue, which is the Palace Hotel in Buxton, Derbyshire on the edge of the Peak District. Located opposite the train station, it is an imposing Victorian listed building which has been nicely refurbished. All the function rooms, the bars and toilets are on the ground floor and there is plenty of lounge area. The whole thing is light and airy with high ceilings and some impressive decor. And a conservatory. And the longest continuous wrought-iron bannister in Britain, or was it Europe? And possibly a ghost.”
I was sad to hear that Welsh author and poet Bryn Fortey passed away on 21st July at the age of 83. Bryn's short stories, mainly in the horror/supernatural genre, gained many accolades when he began appearing in a number of prestigious anthologies in the 1960s.
He suffered a terrible tragedy in 2007 when his son, Jim, was murdered by a mentally ill individual. Not long after, his wife, Maddalena, also passed away. After a prolonged period in which his literary output was low and fairly sporadic, he re-entered the field with the publication of two collections – Merry-Go-Round and Other Words (2014) and Compromising The Truth (2018), both from Alchemy Press.
Bryn was an accomplished wordsmith and a funny, thoroughly decent man. He'll be missed.
With Bryn at the second March Haresliterary gathering, Birmingham, 2019.
Photograph by Peter Coleborn
American author, journalist, pagan and Mensa member Patricia Kennealy-Morrison died on 23rd July following several years of illness. She wrote a series of sf/fantasy crossover novels under the overall titles The Keltiad, Tales of Aeron and Tales of Arthur, as well as crime series The Rennie Stride Mysteries. As one of the first female rock journalists, and editor of Jazz & Pop magazine, she was a pioneer feminist. But she was most famous as the bride of late rock star Jim Morrison, following a Celtic handfasting ceremony in 1970. The exact nature of her relationship with Morrison remained a controversial topic for the remainder of her days. She appeared in Oliver Stone's biopic of Morrison, The Doors, but heavily criticised the film on its release and fell out with the director. She wrote Strange Days: My Life With and Without Jim Morrison as a response to the movie.
I interviewed Patricia in the early 90s, and subsequently met her again at a launch event. During the interview I wanted to concentrate on her fantasy novels, but many of her answers somehow ended up referencing Morrison, a testament to his continuing importance in her life. I think that was the only interview I conducted that ended with being hugged by the interviewee! She struck me as vulnerable, underneath it all, and it was difficult not to like her.
An extended version of that interview appeared in Wordsmiths of Wonder, and it's sobering to realise that eighteen of the exceptional writers therein are no longer with us.
My wife, Anne Nicholls, had intended to exhibit some of her art at several conventions during the last 18 months or so, but of course Covid put paid to that. Hopefully things will improve in coming months and she can show her art at November's Novacon. Fingers crossed. Here's one piece by way of a taster. David Ajala as Cleveland “Book” Booker from TV series Star Trek: Discovery.
Sunsets are always a good opportunity for a powerful photograph, and this one fits the bill. I should stress that this picture hasn't been enhanced in any way - I never doctor photos except to occasionally crop them. What you see here, which was probably the result of unusual climatic conditions, not least excessive heat, was how it was.
The first tranche of dyslexic-friendly titles from BOTH Publishing, including my fantasy Anchor Point, were published on 12th June, with a launch event at the Clevedon Literature Festival. Here's BOTH Publishing founder Alistair Sims, of Books on the Hill, taking delivery of the titles:
There's more about the BOTH project in this BBC news item.
The titles are perfectly accessible to general readers; it's the format and production of these editions that makes them suitable for readers with dyslexia - greater spacing between sentences and paragraphs, cream paper and a friendly font.
Anchor Point is available in paperback and e-book formats, as well as a signed hardback edition limited to fifty copies.
I recently came across this sweatshirt, produced at the time the Legend graphic novel was published. It wasn't from the publisher - Dave Gemmell had a few made himself, by way of an experiment. (There were a couple of t-shirt versions too.) I recall us trying these on, looking at each other and saying “No, I don't think so”. Mine's been boxed for decades.
I was genuinely astonished to find myself in this list of the top ten speakers at the Brum Group in the last fifty years. That's “top” in the sense of the number of appearances, you understand. I obviously rate highly in the rent-a-gob stakes.
Encountering the ruins of a manor house.
Back in the September 2020 update (which you'll find in the News Archive) I reproduced an article I wrote outlining my experiences working as Dennis Wheatley's research assistant on ambitious 70s book series The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult. I've just dug up several pieces of promotional material related to the series and thought this one - aimed at the book trade - might be of particular interest. Printed on vellum (or something like it) Wheatley's “letter” was made to look like a scroll, tied with a red ribbon. It also bears a faux wax seal. As it's been rolled up for decades, I had a job flattening it out without causing damage. Consequently, it's a bit springy, and doesn't make for the clearest photo.
I also unearthed these thumbnails of the covers of the 45 titles in the series:
This ancient oak stands at the heart of Moseley Bog in the West Midlands.
JRR Tolkien lived nearby as a child, and the bog is said to have inspired both the Shire, home of the hobbits, and the Old Forest featured in The Lord of the Rings. Sarehole Mill, a short distance away, also appears in the saga. There are timber walkways in the bog these days and it's wise to keep to them!
By the time you read this it's probably too late to donate, if you haven't already, to this crowd-funded new line of original speculative fiction titles designed to be equally accessible to dyslexic and general readers. (Thanks to all who did.) The good news is that the response has been outstanding, with double the target amount raised, which means that not only the six titles above will be published, in June, (including my contribution, Anchor Point) but additional works are now being commissioned from leading fantasy, sf and horror authors, along with titles from other genres.
Full details of the project, with info about all the titles and authors, can be found here.
There's been a lot of media interest in this initiative, including, among others, BBC News, BBC Radio Bristol(at around 11.20am in this recording), leading trade magazine The Bookseller, Book Social, FACES of Clevedon, and in this piece on Just Giving featuring an enterprising 9 year-old girl called Belle who joined the campaign in honour of her dyslexic parents. There's also a good interview with BOTH Publishing founder Alistair Sims here.
Some maintain that Spring holds more attractions than Summer. It's certainly an uplifting season, with the demise of greyness and the arrival of colour, which is more welcome than ever as we emerge blinking from our prolonged lockdown. I took this photo in the grounds of Winterbourne House, an Edwardian manor bequeathed to the University of Birmingham, and now used as a learning centre for horticultural students.
For months now I've been posting updates about a project I'm proud to be associated with – a new line of speculative fiction titles, from BOTH Press, designed to be accessible to people with dyslexia as well as general readers. Due to the pandemic lockdown the launch of the first six titles has had to be postponed several times, but publication is now set for this June, and BOTH Press is preparing a crowd-funding programme.
You can follow the progress of the kickstarter here.
Alistair Sims, creator and editor of the series, and himself dyslexic, explains what motivated the project:
“The idea that when you become an adult there are no dyslexic accessible printed books to read is frankly ridiculous. BOTH Press, which aims to fill this gap, is a project from Book on the Hill, which is a dyslexic friendly independent bookshop set in Clevedon, North Somerset. We are passionate about helping people who have dyslexia, or have any difficulty with reading, to access the joy of good fiction. We aim to make exciting, quality fiction accessible to those not currently provided for by today’s traditional mass book market. We are working with talented and award winning authors to achieve this. With your help through the Kickstarter, we aim to publish and print 8 titles of dyslexic friendly books for adults. Our long term goal is to continue publishing good quality adult fiction to produce a wide range of books for people who have challenges when reading. Our initial target is 6 titles, with another two following immediately with your help via the stretch goals.”
You can watch a video that outlines the aims of the project, and shows how dyslexic-friendly books are formatted, here.
Here's the publisher's blurb for Anchor Point:
“The village of Catterby is beholden to no lord or lady. No one believes Lord Salex Nacandro, a warlord and sorcerer, who’s homeland was far to the north, would be a threat. They are wrong. Young Kye Beven, a reluctant member of the elite band that protects the village, lacks confidence. Everyone except Dyan Varike, the best archer in the band, believes he should never have been selected. When Catterby is menaced by Eskail Gudreen, the Emissary of Nacandro, Kye reaches for his bow and steps up to the mark.”
There are rewards for contributing to the kickstarter. In my case, for those who pledge £250 or more:
I'll read your short story, or three chapters/up to 5000 words of your novel, and give detailed feedback.
You will receive a signed, numbered, limited edition of Anchor Point, of which there will be just 50 copies printed.
You'll have an acknowledgement/credit in all 6 titles.
You'll be awarded copies of all 6 titles in epub/PDF/mobi formats.
You'll receive a handsome personalised thank you from the BOTH Press team.
Spring is here, light takes on a special quality, and hopefully - just hopefully - we're starting to see an end to our enforced captivity.
You might like to know that for the time being the Kindle editions of three of my books are being offered for just £3.99 each:
Shake Me To Wake Me: The Best of Stan Nicholls. (224 pages.) Includes a story specially written for this collection. View here.
Orcs. Omnibus edition of the first trilogy, Orcs: Bad Blood, along with a short story. Running to 700+ pages! View here.
Hopefully. Like everything else at the moment publication is dependent on how the pandemic's going.
Anchor Point is one of a batch of fantasy stories to be produced in a format that’s particularly accessible for people with dyslexia - with specially chosen fonts, etc - while being equally comprehensible to general readers. The other six titles in what’s hoped will be a continuing series are -
The Breath by Joel Cornah
Ultrasound Shadowby Thana Niveau
The Clockwork Eyeball by Steven Poore
At Midnight I Will Steal Your Soul by John Llewellyn Probert
Sherlock Homes and the Four Kings of Sweden by Steven Savile
The House on the Old Cliffs by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Learn more about these titles, from BOTH Publishing, here.
I make no apology for again drawing attention to this anthology, in which both my wife Anne Nicholls and myself are proud to have stories.
All proceeds from the sale of Stories of Hope and Wonder are donated to support National Health Service staff and other healthcare workers, and over three thousand pounds has already been raised.
53 stories, 253,000 words of fiction, featuring some of the finest writers of science fiction, fantasy, horror, literary fiction and more.
Available for £5.99 as an e-book here.
Well, London's Docklands in 2014 actually, where this recently surfaced photo was taken. Me and the TARDIS at Loncon 2, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention:
We're starting to see longer days, bluer skies and a light that's more benign. This was taken locally.
A reminder that we now have a Photo Gallery here on the website where you can view all previous Photographs of the Month. And soon, much more.
In the site creators’ own words:
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“Start a series, cosy up to a classic, or try out new titles until you find one that fits. If you're new to audiobooks, Cloudaloud is the perfect place to get stuck in. If you're already an audiobook lover, enjoy unlimited streaming.
“Audiobooks are an incredible resource for kids - perfect for the school run, great for reluctant readers, ideal for auditory learners. They're fun for the family to enjoy together or for kids to listen to independently.
“We're adding new audiobooks and categories all the time, from some of the UK's best large and independent publishers. We also have exclusive content you can't find anywhere else!
“Cloudaloud started as a children's audiobook streaming app. Its creators wanted children to have access to stories at the touch of a button, and for them to be able to find new audiobooks easily and independently. Our app invites children of all ages to discover new stories and listen to personal favourites.
“And we're committed to giving children who've grown up listening to audiobooks something to grow into! Teen and YA audio (13+) has a new interface designed to appeal to young adults, and to use relevant Teen/YA categories. We'll continue working to build this catalogue so that families have a place for all their kids to access great stories with one account.”
Why am I telling you about this? Well, apart from thinking it’s a good idea, I’m pleased to announce that several of my YA stories will be on offer. I’m a little premature with the news as the stories are currently being prepared, but they should be on the site in coming weeks. I’ll keep you up to speed on this. For more details, the Cloudaloud website is here.
One of them was from the 21st June 1980 signing by legendary comicbook artist Will Eisner. Now another photo from that day has emerged:
The photo appeared in this August 1980 issue of The Spirit magazine in a feature about Eisner’s trip to England:
Two recent pieces of genre art by my wife, Anne Nicholls, that I thought might be of interest. “Dragon with a particularly interesting book” and Wesley Snipes as Blade:
2020 was bad enough in terms of writers we lost. 2021 hasn’t started well either. I’m very sad to note the passing of another outstanding author and exceptional human being - Storm Constantine, who died on 14th January following a prolonged illness.
I knew Storm for a long time. My wife, Anne, knew her even longer, and they were members of the same writing group back in the eighties. I interviewed Storm several times in the nineties, and was a guest-of-honour with her at Fantasycon in 2000. She handled the text layout for my short story collection Shake Me To Wake Me. Storm will be sorely missed, both by the genre writing community and all who knew her. The Guardian ran an obituary here.
A sad thought. I realised, with Storm’s departure, that no fewer than seventeen of the exceptional authors interviewed herein are no longer with us -
The moon’s notoriously hard to photograph well, or at least it has been for me. But I was quite pleased with this recently taken shot.
On the subject of photographs, I’m very pleased to announce that a Photo Gallery has now been added to this site’s menu.
I hope in time to have several different categories within that section, and I’ve made a start by archiving all my Photographs of the Month to date.
The above quote, attributed to one Jonathan Estrin, seems appropriate because of a personal landmark at this time, although I almost overlooked it. I just recalled that as 1980 slipped into 1981 I’d decided to take the plunge and try to be a full-time writer. Prior to that I’d already made a living in the world of books, first in a book exporting company that incorporated the London office of Washington’s Library of Congress, then as co-owner/manager of a bookshop (Bookends) and subsequently as manager of specialist retailers Dark They Were and Golden Eyed and Forbidden Planet. I was writing in whatever spare time I could find while holding down those jobs, and occasionally selling what I wrote, but I’d reached a crossroads. Bookselling had taught me a lot about the trade and how publishing worked, and I had the privilege of meeting and learning from the experiences of a number of authors. If I was serious about my ambition to be a “proper” writer, however, I needed to single-mindedly devote myself to achieving it.
One thing I had learned was that making a career as a writer wasn’t easy. I wanted to write books but knew that breaking in didn’t happen overnight, so I determined to take whatever work I could get that involved writing. I became a freelance journalist, writing not only for specialist genre publications but any outlet I could get into - newspapers, women’s magazines, music magazines, general interest titles. I wrote book and film reviews. I wrote for the house journals of multinational companies and charities’ newsletters. I wrote advertising copy and marketing flyers, and contributed to an internal magazine for London’s bus drivers. I scripted and conducted interviews for promotional videos. I even wrote text for the back of corn flakes and washing powder boxes (somebody has to write that stuff). Anything that involved working with words, in fact, and that paid, however modestly. The contacts I made while a bookseller, and as a journalist, led to supplementing my writing income with work as a slush pile reader (first reader) for various publishers and agents, and as a proof reader and sometime line editor. Eventually I was fortunate enough to be taken on by agents and cracked authorship, with well over thirty books published.
I was lucky also in starting out just before the advent of the Internet, when there were many more opportunities to find work in paying print markets. I’m very aware of how much harder that is for anyone looking for opportunities now, with ample exposure available online but little in the way of remuneration. Apart from the exceptionally talented and well-starred, life for the majority of professional writers is always famine or feast, and I’m no exception. I would have found it much more difficult getting through the lean times without the support of my family and close friends.
Do I have any regrets? Only that I didn’t go for a writing career earlier than I did. As to the future ... who knows? I’ll keep writing, because that’s what I do. I’ve several projects on the go (more about those in future updates) and like all writers I’ll carry on as long as people want to publish and read my work. So I guess the way I’ve spent the last four decades - and boy, have they shot past - really does define me.
I recently came across this, the first page of a 1970s article about Forbidden Planet’s original shop in Denmark Street when I was the manager there. I’m pretty sure that the figure putting up a display in the background is my Assistant Manager and head of the comics department Paul Hudson. Frustratingly, I have no record of where the article appeared. Nice photo of the shop though.
The text wrongly states that it was my first graphic novel. It was actually my third.
As I was putting this update together the sad news came in, via Michael Moorcock, that artist, author, bookseller and publisher David Britton passed away on 29th December. I knew Dave Britton from the late 1960s, although I hadn’t seen him for the last couple of decades as he sank into an increasingly reclusive life. He was always a controversialist, and his notorious series of novels/comics beginning with Lord Horror earned him a prison sentence under the Obscene Publications Act.
In partnership with author Michael Butterworth he created Savoy Books, and Savoy’s projects included releasing several albums by singer PJ Proby - he of split trousers infamy - bringing him back into the recording studio after many years in abeyance.
Here’s what Dave had to say about his jail experience:
“[Lord Horror] was so unique and radical, I expected to go to prison for it. I always thought that if you wrote a truly dangerous book something dangerous would happen to you. Which is one reason there are so few really dangerous books around. Publishers play at promoting dangerous books, whether they're Serpent's Tail or Penguin. All you get is a book vetted by committee, never anything radically imaginative or offensive that will take your fucking head off. Ironically, I think it would do other authors a power of good if they had to account for their books by going to prison - there are far too many bad books being published!”
Details of David Britton’s unique, eccentric and adventurous life and work are here.
I would have liked to publish a photo of him, but he was famously camera shy and would only allow this one of him as a child to be used:
At least, I assume it’s him. You never knew with Dave.
But I can reproduce a couple of pieces of artwork he produced for the fanzines I edited/co-edited, Gothique and Stardock:
In last month’s update I mentioned that the UK’s longest-running regional convention, Novacon, which had to postpone its fiftieth anniversary in 2020 until 2021, was revamping its website and adding specially written pieces by past Guests of Honour.
More are due to be added.
Putting together our long-wanted library took the whole of 2020 (plus the tail-end of 2019) and has been one of the sanity preservers during the interminable Covid lockdown. We’ve now got to the point where we’re hanging artwork:
The two latest pieces are over on the right. The angel, an original, is by Chris (Fangorn) Baker. The illustration below, the cover artwork for my book The Diamond Isle (the US edition of my UK title Quicksilver Twilight) is a limited, signed print by Jon Sullivan. We still have a little wall space left, and I’ll let you know what we fill it with.
Winter has arrived. I took this one not far from home.
© Stan Nicholls
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