Scaling the Literary Heights

Just how much more literary is it possible to get? I’ve written a feature for the Granta website. About the only things I can think of with more literary kudos would be writing something for the Granta magazine or winning the Booker Prize! The artice is called ‘Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones’ and you can read it here.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Don’t Give Up


What’s the difference between an amateur writer and a professional writer?

The professional didn’t give up.

To emphasise the point here’s my publication history by decade:
1980s – one short story published
1990s – one short story published
2000s – two stories published (and a few articles in magazines)
2010s – about 40 short stories published, 11 books and I’ve lost count of the number of magazine features
So don’t give up and keep getting better.


In Book With Bradbury

How cool is this – I’m in a book with Ray Bradbury! The book is Ex Libris: Stories of Librarians, Libraries & Lore, and my contribution is called ‘The Last Librarian: Or A Short Account of the End of the World. Ray – we’re on first-name terms now we’ve shared a book – Ray’s contribution is called ‘Exchange’ and there, he’s already shown why he’s a better writer than me: economy. A one-word title as opposed to 12 words. If you want to read the stories, the book is available on Amazon and through all good book sellers.

Unintended Meanings

One of the unexpected perks of my occasional editing work is finding unintended explosions of double meaning in a piece of work. The one I found this afternoon is, however, probably the finest example of an unintentional double entendre I’ve ever read (and I know it was unintentional as this is meant to be a book for children). Enjoy!

He stretched his hand down toward that terrifying snake! The moment he touched it, his staff was in his hand, straight, and hard, and long.

Big Announcement Number 2

Second, sustained drum roll….

Here it is, big announcement number 2: my next non-fiction book will be called Warrior: the Biography of a Man with No Name, and it will be published by Granta.

Now this really is pretty big: Granta is about the most prestigious publisher in Britain and having them publish my next book will ensure it gets noticed in all sorts of places that have previously ignored my work, including the national press (although that also opens the possibility of scathing reviews from reviewers working on the principle that a good kicking is always more fun to write and read in review than any amount of glowing praise).

As to the book itself, it is the story of one of the people excavated at the Bowl Hole Cemetery near Bamburgh Castle. While human remains provide all sort of useful archaeological evidence, their great drawback is that skeletons are mute: they tell no story. But for a variety of reasons, we can say much more about one particular man, buried within sight of castle and sea, than is normally the case, and it is his story that we will tell in this book. When I say we, it really will be a book written in the first person plural, as I will be collaborating on it with Paul Gething, one of the directors of the Bamburgh Research Project and the man who excavated the body of this Dark-Age warrior.

Warrior will be published in 2019.

Photos from Prinknash Abbey

I had a wonderful stay at Prinknash Abbey with the Benedictine monks there before giving a talk on the Northumbrian kings on Tuesday 25 April at the abbey shop. The community made me most welcome, but I must give particular thanks to Fr Mark and Fr Martin, and Brother Chris for their warmth (and for coming to my talk!). This short experience of the monastic life was enough to tell me that only the most extraordinary of people have the discipline and dedication to lead such a life. At the shop, Caroline Turley made sure everything ran as smoothly as the coffee they serve in the shop (and it turns out she has three sons too). And the people who came to the talk made for the most wonderfully attentive and inquisitive audience – thank you all.

Here are some selected photos from my stay (there’s many more – ask if you want the rest).

My room in the guest wing (no radio, no TV, no WiFi – just silence and the view).

And this was the view from my window.

Looking over the Vale of Gloucester

While this is what the abbey looks like.

Prinknash Abbey from the front

And this view is from the monastic enclosure which is not open to the public.

Looking up to the abbey from the monastic enclosure

The abbey in bright morning sun.

The morning sun casts the shadow of the bell tower on the wall behind

Some views of the monastery garden which is being renovated.

The wonderful display of my books that Caroline had created in the monastery shop.

And this is me with Caroline Turley, the woman who organised everything so well.

Some of the lovely people who came to hear me speak about the Northumbrian kings.

And me thanking Fr Mark Hargreaves for asking me along in the first place.

Adventures in Bookland: Ghostmaker by Dan Abnett


This, the second book in the Gaunt’s Ghosts series, is where Dan Abnett thinks himself completely into the world of Warhammer 40k. It’s almost like a series of Impressionist paintings, or like flicking through the sketchbook of a master draftsman, as he approaches characters, places and situations within the context of the 40k universe, learning its language and creating its stories. As such, it doesn’t have the narrative coherence, the sheer I can’t-stop-turning-the-pages drive of something like the Eisenhorn books, or other Ghosts novels, but it’s richer, in particular for the way it shows an imagination as special as Abnett’s firing into overdrive.

Adventures in Bookland: Blood and Blade by Matthew Harffy


In Blood and Blade, Matthew Harffy’s recreation of the violent and crucial decades of 7th-century Britain reaches a new depth and resonance. His hero, Beobrand, is a man whose soul has been as much branded by the events of the previous two books as his body has been battered by them – and how good it is to have an action hero not shake off wounds as lightly as a shower of rain. In this book, Beobrand has to travel the path his wyrd has placed him on, between competing kingdoms and the collision of religions. Harffy handles the many action scenes with his customary skill and realism – this is not a book for the faint hearted – but it is in the portrayal of the relationship between Beobrand and a lowly thrall that the author reveals a deepening appreciation of the human condition and how, even in the midst of the most violent of times, people will strive for love and human contact.

Adventures in Bookland: Xenos by Dan Abnett


There are so many wonderful books out there, I seldom go back and reread a book I’ve read before. Why bother, when new worlds and new ideas are waiting to be explored? But, with Xenos, I’ve done just that: gone back and reread a book I first read six or seven years ago.

And it was great.

Xenos was the very first novel I read set in the Warhammer 40k universe. If you don’t know it, it’s a universe set up explicitly so that wargamers moving little plastic figures, often exquisitely painted, can play war games set in the far future. Given that the people playing the games are wargamers, you might surmise that the universe 38,000 years from now is not a particularly peaceful place. You’d be right. It is, however, a universe stuffed full of wonders. It turns out that all those goblins and elves and monsters that filled our fairy tales and folk stories were real – it’s just that we got the location wrong. They weren’t on earth, they were waiting for us out among the stars. In fact, that’s my only real criticism of the intricate universe that Games Workshop (the company behind Warhammer 40K) has created: with such a cast of creatures, there should be a bit of room for wonder in among the blasters and exploding alien heads.

But, no matter, for Dan Abnett manages to instil some of this wonder while remaining true to the dystopian roots of 40k and, at the same time, writing an amazingly involving adventure story. Indeed, so taken with the whole universe was I when I first read this that I immediately dived in, reading reams of the stuff, until I came to the same sort of realisation about Warhammer 40k books that I came to with fantasy and Tolkien. Back when I first read The Lord of the Rings it was actually the first fantasy novel I’d ever read. And I was completely blown away. So, I dived in, only to all but drown in Shannaras and Covenants and Belgeriads. I emerged, somewhat the worse for wear, to claim the hard-won knowledge that, with fantasy, I’d started at the summit and was busy working my way down. It turns out that, with Warhammer 40k and Dan Abnett, I’d done the same thing: I’d started at the top with Abnett and had been working my way downhill after him.

But, to return to the summit, it was a relief to reclimb the mountain to find the view from the top as exotic and brutal and breathtaking as the first time I’d found myself there. Thank you, Dan Abnett, and thank you, Gregor Eisenhorn. The Imperium is well served with both of you in its service!