On this day in 1914, my grandfather George Welch and his younger brother Fred went to their local recruitment station in Chichester and joined the army. Both were under age. The story goes that they had tried the day before, but when the recruiting officer asked them their dates of birth, George – always a scrupulously honest man – told the truth. The officer sighed and told them to try again tomorrow. Both took the hint and returned next day much the wiser and a couple of years older.

Both were in the Southdown Battalions of the Royal Sussex regiment. Back then, it was still usual practice to place men from the same towns and villages together in the same battalions, so they would serve alongside their family, friends and neighbours. It seemed to make sense; it meant the new recruits already had a bond and a familiarity with each other, so could cohere more rapidly as a unit. The First World War changed that policy. Whole battalions were wiped out, robbing entire communities of their men.

Fred had this photo taken before he went to war. It shows him in his smart new uniform, but with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and his cap pushed back, displaying all the cockiness of a man – or, rather, a boy – who as yet had no fear of war,

Little is known of their experiences during the next few years, but in 1917 – exactly a century ago – a window opens. During July and August George and Fred are at Ypres. Their superior officers have all been killed or incapacitated, and George – by now a corporal – finds himself in charge of both the men and the trench map, a copy of which I still have.

The fighting is bitter, and over the next 70 hours actions occur that result in George being awarded the DCM. The citation speaks of ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in establishing and holding advance posts in a village [St Julien] and afterwards in rendering assistance under fire to a number of badly wounded men.’ It is also recorded that he carried his battalion Colonel back to safety after he had collapsed from exhaustion.

On 26 September 1917, however, their luck ran out. During fierce fighting in an area of the front codenamed ‘Tower Hamlets’ George was wounded and Fred killed. George was sent to England to recover, and while there had his DCM pinned to his chest, ultimately surviving the war. But Fred never saw home again.

I am thinking of them today – both the grandfather I knew, who never spoke about those days, and the great uncle I never got to meet, preserved only in this picture.


Whenever Dolby felt angry or afraid he would take the gun out of the bottom drawer. The weight of it, its compactness, the power it implied – this was his salvation. At these times, he would look out onto the street from his window and imagine how he might change things. Just a slight pressure of the index finger – this dream of power made him stronger. As he watched those passing by, he knew they knew he was up there, that they were walking into his sights, his territory.

Tirzah had urged him many times to get rid of it, knowing it attracted danger to their household. But Dolby was adamant. He saw the danger that swam around them, but took this as the very justification for keeping the gun.

“Just throw it in the canal,” she would say. “You know half our worries will go with it. And maybe you’ll sleep again.”

He always gave the same reply. “It’s our security. Suppose some maniac came our way?” His eyes were wide as he said this. She often lay awake at night listening as he sat at the window.

Dolby’s thoughts were most often of their neighbour, whose name was Suleyman. Dolby hated Suleyman. Because he too had a gun. He would watch for him at his window, accompanied only by his suspicions, eager to learn of the other’s movements. Often he could see Suleyman watching from his own window opposite. Dolby did not know Suleyman as one knows a person one meets and talks to. There was a time when he had spoken to him, but that was long ago. The time for speaking was over.

“I do not need to know my enemy,” he would say, “only that he is my enemy.” And his possession of the gun was enough. Enough for Dolby to hate him. For this reason, Dolby knew that words could not pass between them. These days argument meant the gun. So it was necessary to keep the distance, and it was this the gun helped to maintain.

There was no reasoning that did not lead to the gun. It was good. It was necessary. It kept things the way they were. He could count on it – it was there when he needed it, and sometimes his need was great. Often only its weight could calm him. Some days life seemed good, Dolby’s usual fears gave way to confidence and he felt he might find Suleyman and kill him.

At other times he felt sure Suleyman had similar plans, and then he kept a close eye on his neighbour and a tight fist on the gun, the resentment growing, the hatred filling the empty corners of the room. Occasionally, when the night was quietest, he would stare down the barrel of his own gun and imagine.

One day, Tirzah left. She said there was no future. Not simply no future in their life together, but no future at all. She said she couldn’t live with death any longer.

Dolby protested, saying that death was precisely what the gun protected them from.

But it was too late. Tirzah was gone.

All week Dolby sat armed by the window, cursing Tirzah, cursing Suleyman, cursing his neighbour’s possession of the gun.

And, most of all, cursing the day he had sold it to him.

Werewolf? There wolf.

So, I prepared a little surprise for any potential trick-or-treaters (well, there’s no point making it easy, is there?).

Meet Wilf – a six-foot, free-standing werewolf with glowing red eyes. Should sort out the sheep from the goats.

The head is a relic from Halloweens past, actually made for a hoax story in a magazine many years ago. More on that later. For the ‘body’ I used Sir Pell (see previous post) and added some poseable arms. Just because.

Here’s the work in progress pic.

As you see, Wilf actually appears pretty friendly in daylight. At night, however, emerging from the bushes with an uplighter and his eyes lit… Well, we’ll see who makes it to the door.


Sir Pell

Sometimes, you need to hit something with a sword. And occasionally, you want to do so without maiming or killing it. That’s where a pell comes in.

A mainstay of a knight’s training, the pell was essentially a post of approximately human height upon which an individual could practise sword strokes without restraint, building strength and accuracy in a manner that was – in terms of physical commitment, at least – as close to real combat as possible. Often the pell would simply be a rough pole, but later in the medieval period might be fashioned to resemble the enemy of the day.

I wanted a pell I could seriously twat with a variety of weapons. So I made one.

Anyone who has read Hood will recall that Gisburne has an elaborate training device which he calls ‘Sir Pell’, featuring free swinging arms with gimbals and counterweights so it actually responds to attacks with its own counterblows. On one occasion, it knocks Gisburne senseless. I decided to start more simply.

The post is plain timber with a crosspiece at the top, the whole length tightly padded and tied around with hessian sacking. Dimensions are about those of an average man, so mail or other armour can be hung on it if desired. The head is not really designed to withstand heavy blows unprotected (what head is?) but is properly proportioned so a helm will fit it, and is made it so it can take strikes from arrows. An archery target can also be hung over the chest.

I have now given it a good few whacks and can confirm it works well (though the base needs some widening to make it more stable). It’s also immensely therapeutic. You think a punch bag is satisfying? Well, this is the next level.

Even better, though, will be when I dress it up over Halloween to scare the crap out of trick-or-treaters. Time to dig out the old fake wolf’s head, I reckon…

FantasyCon 2017

After skipping last year – and missing out on the incredibly strange Scarborough experience – it was great to get back to FCon on the home turf of Peterborough, see some familiar faces, encounter totally new ones and, perhaps most importantly, to get to talk properly with people I had only seen fleetingly in previous years.

This year, I was fancy free, too. No panels. No readings. Just wafting from fascinating conversation to fascinating conversation. Obviously there were the usual endless, crazy meanderings with John Garland and Eric Steele – I wouldn’t know I was there without those – but also some excellently random new encounters with Anna Smith-Spark, Irene Soldatos, R B Watkinson, Harriet Goodchild and many more.

As ever, there was plenty going on if you could tear yourself away from the bar. Two panels stood out for me. One was ‘Historical Fiction, Historical Fantasy’ on Friday, deftly moderated by Sandra Unerman and featuring Daniel Godfrey, Peter McLean, Irene Soldatos, Andrew Knighton and David Stokes. Together, these authors (and one editor) represented a huge range of historical periods, either making direct use of them as backdrops for their fiction or plundering threads to weave their own secondary worlds. Obviously this is a topic close to my heart and it was great to get different perspectives on it – but also it led to great discussions afterwards, during which I got to meet the author of Bad Bishop Irene Soldatos (who, it turns out, is also a fellow archer) and to chat in depth with Andrew Knighton, who has written in, about and around a frankly ridiculous range historical periods, subgenres and subsubgenres.

Inspiration is what you come to these things for. I was not left wanting.

As it turned out, Andrew was also moderating the ‘Steampunk’ panel on Saturday, which – though he probably did not realise it – provided this in Brunel patent steamshovels. Despite there being only two other authors on the panel – Anthony Laken and Adam Millard – and a relatively small crowd, it really dug deep into what steampunk is, what it’s not, what makes it tick and what it ought to be doing – but too often isn’t. Anthony Laken in particular – occupying the newbie author slot I found myself just four years ago – provided some wonderfully perceptive and passionate insights into the genre, offering up a plea for steampunk to properly tackle the difficulties, contradictions and social injustices of the Victorian age rather than just allowing our polished wood and brass nostalgia for the period to obscure them. Sure, it can be a fun playground in which to run around (I mean, goggles and corsets – what’s not to like?) but it can be so much more than that. This is fantasy, folks. You can do anything. Build anything. Destroy anything. So, what kind of world are you going to make? And why?

It had been my fermenting next novel that took me to this panel, and thoughts such as those above – inspired not only by the panel itself, but by conversations afterwards with Anna Smith-Spark and Stewart Hotston – really brought it into focus for me in ways that were as welcome as they were unexpected. For some time, I had been aware, in a vague sort of way, that what this new novel was going to to do was ‘steampunkish’. But I had never been quite comfortable simply calling it ‘steampunk’. And now, I understood why. What I was doing here was anti-steampunk. I wasn’t taking an existing Victorian reality as a foundation and building an even more outlandish empire on top. I was taking an existing Victorian reality and then utterly destroying it. Suddenly, the path ahead is an awful lot clearer.

More on that later. But in the meantime, thanks FantasyCon.

It ends here.

cybsfcfwiaak5qjWhere have I been…? Well, writing another bloody book, as it turns out.

The Hunter of Sherwood trilogy – AKA the Guy of Gisburne trilogy – comes to an end in February, when the final book, Hood, is published by Abaddon (9 Feb for Kindle, 28 Feb for the paperback). Publicity for this is now in full swing, so expect some interviews and guest blogs over the coming weeks.

You can pre-order the Kindle version on Amazon here, or the paperback version here.

It’s grim. It’s bloody. And Gisburne’s pyromaniac tendencies are once again to the fore.

Here’s the blurb:

The vendetta with Robin Hood has cost too much: blood shed, lives lost, friendships severed. Guy of Gisburne, knight and agent of Prince John, has had enough, and wishes to enjoy a little quiet on his own land. But Hood grows ever more troublesome, and if the barons of the North will not convince Guy to resume the hunt – nor even the rightful King, Richard the Lionheart, returned from long imprisonment – then perhaps the simple plea of a missing daughter’s father, and a promise to restore a good man’s name, will.

Hood has gathered an army – among them the insidious Took, the giant John Lyttel, the cutthroat Will the Scarlet, the brilliant but bitter Alan O’Doyle. Guy must now recruit an army of his own, calling upon some familiar old friends – and one all-too-familiar old enemy…

The stage is set: Sherwood, long a home to both men. The final confrontation begins…

The Lowdown with… Me

Here’s a thing I did for Simon Bestwick’s blog – one of a series of author interviews he does called ‘The Lowdown’. What a lovely chap he is…

His most recent novel is Hell’s Ditch, and Ramsey Campbell called him ‘Among the most important writers of contemporary British horror.’ So buy it!

Hell's Ditch

My guest post on Jacey Bedford’s blog

So, the post-FCon blog swap finally happened (it would have happened much sooner if I was as organised as Jacey) and you can see my answers to five illuminating questions on Jacey’s site here.

I love this whole blog swap idea (it was Jacey’s, so all credit to her) – such a great way for readers to discover someone or something new and for authors to show appreciation and help each other out in the process. I’ll be looking to do some more of these soon.

Jacey Bedford: Five Questions – Guest Post

Jacey Novacon 2012-300pxsquThe best thing about FantasyCon is the people, and whilst on the panel ‘Stealing From the Past: Fantasy in History’ one of the fellow authors I had the great good fortune to meet was Jacey Bedford. Jacey writes both SF (the Psi-Tech series: Empire of Dust and Crossways) and historical fantasy (The Rowankind series – first novel: the piratical Winterwood). She subsequently invited me to do a blog swap – me writing on hers and her writing on mine – which struck me as a great idea. So, here are Jacey’s answers to five key questions on her writing and her career…

Q: Tell us your biography and background in three sentences or fewer.

Jacey and Daisy

Jacey and Daisy

A: As an only child living in a small Yorkshire village with no kids my own age I was a voracious reader of (firstly) pony stories then fantasy and science fiction courtesy of all the Gollancz yellow jackets in the local travelling library. I went to college in Leeds and started out my working life as a librarian, though I’ve also been a postmistress, a rag-doll maker and a full-time folksinger with the trio, Artisan, touring internationally. I still live in Yorkshire – in a different small village – with my songwriter husband, a bonkers German Shepherd dog and too many books – no scrub that last bit – there’s no such thing as too many books.

Q: How and when did you begin writing, and what was your first published piece?

A: I’ve always written. When I was five, in primary school I could read fluently, but my writing was a bit slow, so I used to practise writing little stories for my mum during lunch hour. I got into the habit and never stopped. I began my first novel when I was fifteen, a future dystopia featuring characters from my favourite pop groups. (Be very glad that I stopped at chapter six!) At first I wouldn’t let anyone read what I wrote, and only started seriously considering publication in the mid 90s, about the time home computer technology eliminated the need for being an accurate touch-typist. (I’m a fast, but not very accurate, hunt-and-peck typist.) I wrote two novels before trying my hand at short stories. My first short story sale was: The Jewel of Locaria to a mass-market paperback anthology called Warrior Princesses, edited by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough and published by DAW in the USA around 1997. It’s pure coincidence (but a very happy one) that my novels are now published by DAW.

Day of the TriffidsWhat’s so special about writing speculative fiction?

I became hooked on science fiction when I was twelve and bought a copy of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids from the school book club, and followed that up with Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. Until then I’d mostly read pony stories. My gateway to fantasy was discovering C.S.Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy which combined the two.

Speculative fiction is boundless. I read and write to escape, so mundane settings don’t interest me nearly as much as the distant past or the far future. I like stories that ask: What if? I write both historical fantasy and science fiction, in worlds that are our own with a few basic differences, and some that are most definitely not. I’ve never had much interest in reading or writing about the present day unless there’s a fantasy or science-fictional twist. Basically I like making stuff up, inventing new worlds or restructuring old ones, birthing new characters, discovering new situations. It’s all about the What if?

Crossways: Book Two in the Psi-Tech series.

Crossways: Book Two in the Psi-Tech series.

Tell us about your most recent publication or current writing project

My first novel (2014) is Empire of Dust. It’s the first in my Psi-Tech sequence. The sequel is Crossways, (2015). They are science fiction set in the far future and feature characters with psionic implants, colony expansion, a star-spanning manhunt, evil megacorporations, a space-station full of misfits and outcasts, and something strange lurking in the depths of foldspace.

My third book to be published is a historical fantasy called Winterwood, due in February 2016, and I can now reveal the cover! It’s got a cross-dressing female privateer captain (and witch), the jealous ghost of her late husband, a motley crew of barely reformed pirates, a deadly villain who fights magic with darker magic, and a wolf shapechanger who gets very upset if you call him a werewolf. (He’s NOT moon-called, he insists.) There’s a puzzle to be solved and an ancient wrong to be set right. Ross has choices to make between the sea and the land, and between the ghost from her past or the man who may become the love of her future.

Winterwood, the first novel of The Rowankind.

Winterwood, the first novel of The Rowankind.

I’m published by DAW in the USA, which means you can only buy them as imports in the UK, from specialist bookstores or Amazon. It’s pure coincidence that I ended up being published by the same publisher which bought my first short story, but I’m absolutely delighted to be a DAWthor. I started out with a three book deal and have just signed a second deal for two more books.

What’s next?

My next contract with DAW covers the third Psi-Tech book, Nimbus, and a sequel to Winterwood, called Silverwolf. I’m writing Silverwolf right now, and really enjoying taking the adventures of Ross and Corwen to new places. Winterwood was Ross’s book, but Silverwolf explores Corwen’s origins and, in addition to a very personal story, carries the changes that happen in Winterwood to their logical conclusion, What happens when magic comes back into a world that’s only part way through its industrial revolution?

Web page: http://www.jaceybedford.co.uk

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