Here’s a short video about the real English garden that inspired the garden of portals in The Secret of the Tirthas
Before I began writing novels I wrote a few short stories. Mimi, based on a true story of witchcraft in Zambia, can be found here.
And here is The Lesson, a short, apocryphal tale of a boy returning to his old school, surprised to find that he is not the only one still alive. I’ve made only one or two minor edits, so this is pretty much as I wrote it in my early twenties.
On the seventeenth day I came across my old school on the hill.
For seven hundred years its granite towers had nurtured the misery of countless stoic children, sending them out into the world with a lifetime’s supply of gall and bitterness. But no longer. Now its high, vaulted classrooms and corridors were empty, drained of life, of youth’s tenacious concentration and capacity for knowledge.
Or so I assumed.
I only went in because there was nothing else for me to do. Nowhere else for me to go, and no one to see. I was alone, alone in the deepest sense, without any possibility of home. Like the butterfly in the story that moves casually on the currents and scents of the air, only to find itself far out at sea. It was without any sense of hope or sentiment that I went back into my school.
The wind blew cold as I went up past the bleak, gabled houses of Marriott Street. I glanced back at the city once or twice, black and grey like a machine broken on the earth below me, but found it easier to look at my feet, and the rain-polished cobbles of the road.
At the gates of the school I stopped, looking up at the emblem that hung crucified on their skeletal black iron. Altiora Peto, said the small capitalised white letters beneath the knight’s helmet. I should think, I thought.
The gates were halfway open and I went in, feeling once again the leaden reluctance that had accompanied those steps every time I’d made them. I came into the main courtyard, the place where we’d assembled for fire drills, or on long benches for the school photographs. I turned about, looking up at the gaunt buildings that crowded the square, like spectators at a classical games. They stared at me impassively, indifferent as to whether I excelled or bled. Even outside, a faint sour-milk reek still lingered on the air.
Then something happened, like a lash caught in the side of my eye – a movement, off to the right.
My heart leapt – someone was alive! But whoever it was had disappeared around the corner, so I shouted and gave chase. You must remember, I hadn’t seen a living thing for days.
I came round the side of the Humanities block and caught sight of a young boy, standing with his hand against a door, catching his breath. He looked about eleven or twelve, and he was wearing school uniform – navy blazer, grey shorts, and long grey socks with two maroon-coloured bands at the top. As soon as he saw me he sprang off into the building.
‘Come back!’ I shouted, then realised he probably wouldn’t be able to hear me anyway.
I followed him into the building and ran down several long corridors, hearing his patent shoes slipping on the red-tiled floor as he skidded around corners. After a minute or so I thought I’d lost him, but then heard the loud muffled boom of a bell. It was the first real noise I’d heard for weeks.
Knowing where the sound had come from, I headed for the main hall, where the bell-rope hung and worn stone steps rose around the walls to the second and third floors. When I reached the rope it was still snaking, and giving off the odd kick. I looked up and saw the boy’s head above me, leaning out from the second floor banister with his scruffy blond hair splaying out like a halo.
‘Wait!’ I cried, but he didn’t.
I went up the stairs slowly, breathing heavily. I remembered this floor because one of my classrooms had been up here. At the landing I was about to carry on up, when suddenly I felt the urge to see that old classroom. I headed down the corridor, and soon came to the nut-brown panelled door of H5. I turned the bronze handle, and went in.
Those thirty-odd desks, each with its own small, plastic chair – I was instantly taken back, and felt a pang of nostalgia. For a moment I remembered the sense of calm that came on the odd time you were first in, when the space was your own.
Except now it wasn’t.
The Master stepped out from behind one of the pillars, dressed in his beige check suit and shabby black cloak. His face was swollen and pink, streaked with capillaries, and what remained of his dark hair frizzed around the flaking dome of his head. From behind black-rimmed spectacles his beady eyes fixed on me, sharp and alive like some weather-beaten seabird.
‘You – Burns, isn’t it? – you’re late,’ he said.
I wanted to grasp him, to shake him and tell him how pleased I was to see him – but didn’t.
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ I said. ‘It won’t happen again.’
‘It better not. Sit down.’
I cleared one of the chairs, and sat down looking at the blackboard.
‘Today we have maths,’ he said. ‘Open your text book at page seventy-five.’ I noticed his voice was thick and slurred as if he’d been at the drink again. But I suspected it might be something else.
‘I’ve forgotten my book, sir,’ I said.
‘Put your hand up when you want to talk to me,’ snapped the Master.
I raised my hand.
‘Sir – I’ve forgotten my book.’
He took a deep breath and looked down at the parquet flooring. He pushed a palm across his sweaty brow. ‘You’ll just have to share with someone else,’ he said, turning his back on me and shuffling towards the blackboard. I noticed several white rectangles of chalk imprinted on the back of his cloak, and remembered how we boys used to bash each others’ blazers with the board rubber.
As the Master straightened himself in front of the board, I looked across the classroom to the broad bay windows. Their panes of glass, swollen at the bottom, distorted the view of the fields and ox-bow lake in the carse below.
‘Right,’ said the Master. ‘I’d like you, Burns, to remind me of what we went through yesterday. You know, the algebra.’
I looked back from the window at the Master. ‘I don’t remember, sir.’
‘No, no, never mind. Let me see now…’ Hand shaking, he picked up a stick of chalk and turned to the board. ‘What was the question… oh yes. Burns, see if you can tell me the answer to this one: what does thirty plus one equal? Got that? Thirty, plus one.’
I thought for a moment, trying to ignore the old-milk odour that was particularly strong in the classroom. ‘It depends, sir, which one you mean.’
‘Don’t be stupid, boy. You know very well what I mean. Thirty plus one – what is it?’
‘I think thirty plus one equals a class, sir. Thirty pupils and one Master.’
‘Yes, yes, v. good!’
‘But thirty plus one…’ and here I gently pushed with my toe the corpse of the boy that I had removed from my chair, ‘can also equal nought, sir.’
‘How so? How so?’
‘Thirty boys, plus one sound bomb, sir.’
His face dropped, and the arm that had been looping across the blackboard with my every word suddenly fell limp at his side. ‘Oh… of course.’
For a moment he stood, staring across at the body of another boy slumped forward across a desk. A trail of congealed blood had seeped from the boy’s ears and now linked him for eternity to his open exercise book.
Then the Master shook himself and said: ‘You’ve done well, Burns. As with most things, the way you tackle the question will influence your answer.’
‘How come you survived, sir?’
‘I – I don’t know. Maybe I was down in the archive vaults… I’m not sure…’
I remembered my own experience, pot-holing in the Highlands. Even deep in the earth the noise had managed to seek me out, making my ears burn and bleed as if they’d been stung in the most tender cavities by a thousand angry wasps. I was left coughing and gagging for hours, half senseless with agony. But I had got better.
‘Were there any others…?’ I began to ask, but then he pulled his back straight, revitalised by a new wave of memory.
‘That’s all for today, Burns. Class dismissed.’
I stood up and headed slowly towards the door. Suddenly he spoke again.
‘By the way, Burns… if you see Evans, tell him I want to see him…’
I decided that I would stay the night in one of the dorms. I headed up to the third floor, hardly noticing as I stepped over the bodies of two teachers who had fallen across the stairway – just part of the huge necromass I had grown used to, which not only included people but also pets, birds, and fishes of every kind. Even the vast majority of insects had perished.
At the top of the stairs I came to the dormitories, crammed up in the slate roof of the ancient building. The windows of these rooms were small squares, and many hung open, letting in the cold autumnal air. I closed a few and headed for one of the washrooms at the end of the corridor. Then saw Evans again.
He came out of one of the toilets, but as soon as he saw me he was off, through into another dorm. I shouted at him to come back, but was now certain he was deaf. Wearied by my encounter with the Master and the unsettling atmosphere of the school, I couldn’t be bothered to give chase. I was going to wash, but then heard a crashing noise in the next room, and went over to the door. I turned the handle and pushed but something heavy had been brought down behind it. Jamming my shoulder against it I eventually managed to push my way in.
And found myself confronted by the strangest sight of all.
The room was in chaos. Beds and furniture had been overturned and the walls had been covered in pictures and spray paint. Washing lines and string had been taped to the ceiling, and pages from magazines hung from them like something to scare off birds. But worst of all was the smell, a mixture of long-moulded, sour cheese, and urine.
A fire escape door banged suddenly in the wind, alerting me to the way the boy had fled. I moved carefully through the room, picking my way amongst piles of sheets and blankets and broken chairs. I looked at the pictures, saw Batman and Spiderman comics, women in lingerie. On one wall, the Anarchy symbol had been drawn in red, that I hoped wasn’t blood.
Halfway down the room I came across an upright bed with a dead boy in it. Like the others, his skin was loose and mottled, and his eyes sagged back into his head. Life had left him through the ears and down the sides of his cheeks, leaving two dark slug trails of blood that bloomed on the white pillow. The whiff of rotten gas still hung around him. I guessed the boy must have been off sick when the bomb struck.
At the far end of the room a small tent-shaped enclave had been created by propping several beds up against each other and covering them with blankets. I looked in and saw a mattress with some scrawled-up sheets and a pillow, evidently where Evans now slept. The bed was covered in a litter of cuttings from comics and other magazines. A small torch nestled on the indented pillow.
Looking closer I noticed a black-and-white picture of the Master holding the hand of the boy. The Master had a tight smile on his face and his small dark eyes fixed the camera . The picture appeared to have been cut from the school magazine. The caption read:
Miles Evans (Year 4, H5) being presented with the Kingston Award for Mathematics by Head of Dept, Mr Bennett.
At that moment I heard a muffled cry, coming from the centre of the building. I ran back through the dormitories, towards the main staircase and bell tower. As I came into the red-tiled hall, I heard the shout again. It was the cry of a man, followed by a thwack, and the screech of a child:
‘You did this! You did this to us!’
I leaned up against the banister and looked over the stairwell. On the second floor below, I could see the cowering, cloaked form of the Master, lunging about with his arms in front of his face. The boy Evans was a few feet away from him, pulling board rubbers from a satchel and hurling them point blank at the helpless man.
‘It’s all your fault! You did it!’ His words were shrill yet distorted, as if coming up through water.
The Master wailed ‘No!’, stumbling away from the boy. A board rubber struck him on the top of the head with a loud crack, producing a network of bloody trails like forked lightning.
‘You’ve let us down. You’ve let us all down!’
I was just about to intervene when the Master, clearly terrified and confused, staggered back and hit the low balustrade.
I watched as he pivoted swiftly over, and quickly struck the floor below. He lay there motionless, sprawled like some ghastly black bird that had died in flight and fallen from the sky.
Evans looked over the railing at the body of the Master. After a few moments, and without uttering a sound, he headed off down the corridor.
I stood there for a while, then made my way back down through the building and out into the courtyard, past the corpse of the photographer and the lines of children collapsed on the benches. I had decided not to spend the night in my old school.
Let me start by saying it’s not for the sales – although of course they are welcome! I write simply because I enjoy it. I’ve always written, starting with my own New Avengers and James Bond stories when I was eight, and later on casting my school friends as the heroes and villains of action stories and westerns. It was fun – and gratifying – to see them being passed round class.
After focusing on poetry in my twenties and thirties, I am back to writing adventure stories with The Secret of the Tirthas. I enjoy creating stories full of suspense, mystery and intrigue – and it’s always fantastic to get feedback from readers. Obviously, sales are a good, hard measure of how appealing your book is. But reviews, particularly on Amazon and Goodreads, and increasingly direct, face-to-face feedback from readers are both huge reward and encouragement. I was over the moon when The Guardian newspaper published a positive review of The City of Light by a 14 year-old-reader. And I have been similarly bowled over reading reviews by book bloggers such as Handsfull Mama in America and The Whimsy Bookworm in India.
But of all the direct feedback I’ve had, perhaps the most rewarding to date came yesterday, when an 80 year old lady came with her husband into Barton’s Bookshop, where I was doing a book signing event. This lovely lady had been given my first two books as gifts by her daughter, whom I met two years running at Pippfest in Dorking. I was delighted when she introduced herself with the words ‘I’m a fan of yours’ and we proceeded to have a long conversation about the inspiration for the books, including the real garden of rooms, my trips to India, and the Herefordshire countryside, which she and her husband knew well.
So, if you’ve read one of my books please write a review. And, if you meet me face to face, tell me what you liked (or didn’t) about the story. It means a lot to me.
I wrote this poem several years ago on a walking holiday in the Cotswolds. I’ve written more poems about birds than any other subject. I love their fleet nature, their ability to soar the skies, then disappear in a tangle of thorns.
The Touch of Birds
At the crest of the hill,
a wall-stitched woodland fringe;
beneath, the white heads of two dozen gulls,
iconic on the broken soil.
Waiting for the tractor,
groaning up the hill.
It comes, with its blunt, hefty blades
turning up the clay, revealing
a juicy crop of worms.
The birds feast, then lift
across the buzzing forest green –
drift apart, and join –
go with them
because you can –
Something I never expected in my wildest dreams when I began writing The City of Light was that one day it would be published in China.
But, thanks to the fantastic team at Fiberead, it soon will be, along with all the other books in The Secret of the Tirthas series, which are currently at various stages of translation / proofreading.
Here is the amazing Mandarin cover for The City of Light:
My last post was a collection of my Goodreads reviews of the best Young Adult and Children’s books that I’ve read over the past couple of years. In the same vein, here’s some of the books for grown-ups that I’ve reviewed in the same time period:
Jack, by A.M. Homes
One of the best coming of age novels. Jack’s initial mortification at his dad’s coming out is soon compounded by everyone at school finding out, and not helped by the anodyne wisdom of the adults around him. But his parents’ separation is just a springboard to greater worries about joining the ‘complicated, boring’ world of society. Jack is sure there’s an alternative, but he’s shooting in the dark. Will he make it? 5 stars
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
A profound portrait of an individual and a community. The vignette-style chapters of characters who are emotionally damaged, close to illness and death, combines with the rough beauty of the Maine landscape to create an oddly affirming account of what it can mean to be alive. Olive Kitteridge is scathing, no-nonsense, pragmatic; and completely invested in her garden, the blooming of her tulips. 5 stars
The Crossing, by Andrew Miller
This book isn’t exactly long, but it takes you on an amazing journey. In the character of Maud, the author has created someone both mysterious and scientific, rooted in the world. When she’s met by tragedy her journey alone across the Atlantic, one moment calm and the next terrifyingly wild, is gripping. I wasn’t so sure about the ending, but this seems to me a resonant book for our times. 5 stars
The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry
Beautifully written, strong on character and historical detail, but overall lacking in drama and suspense. The book didn’t live up to its fabulous title, with the serpent and related gothic trappings never really coming to life. The relationships were interesting, and I liked the ending, but again they felt devoid of sufficient tension to merit the long story. 3 stars
And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie
My only criticism of this fantastic book, the first Agatha Christie that I’ve read, is that I would have liked more of it. More detail about the characters, more description of the setting. It almost defines ‘pared down’. But it’s brilliant nevertheless. 5 stars
In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware
Nora, or Lee as she was formerly known, has partially resolved a past trauma through her work and the isolated life of a writer. But it all comes back again when she is invited to a hen party, only to find that the her former best friend is marrying the man who broke her heart. The setting, in a remote, glass-walled house in a Northumbrian pine wood, adds to the tension. We know from the start it will end in blood – but is it going to be at the hands of angry locals, or someone in the party? A masterful suspense story. 4 stars
The Wine-Dark Sea, by Robert Aickman
The attention to detail in these stories and the deeply-knit tensions make you think you are heading for a full length novel, something that is going to take you to fantastic, dark places and give you all kinds of revelations. And you get some of that, but Aickman uses the short story to cut you off in mid-flow, to leave early, to depart in a manner that leaves you wanting more. There hangs the doom of foreclosure across all his tales, which I think is exactly what he wants. His glimpses, of the afterlife, of archetypes, of the dark and strange potential behind reality, are perfectly suited to the form. I haven’t read a book as compulsive, as strange, as brilliant as this in a long time. Read it! 5 stars
City of Light, by Lauren Belfer
A complex historical thriller set at the turn of the twentieth century, when the first power stations were being established at Niagara Falls. It was a time of great hope (with promises to roll back the darkness and let poor children read by electric light) and great conflict, between unionists, black people, and nature ‘preservationists’ against the powerful new industrialists. It’s all told from the perspective of the spinster head teacher of the local girl’s school, who bears a major secret of her own that commits her to engaging with the dark and dramatic events. Recommended. 4 stars
You can check out the books I’ve read, see what people say about The Secret of the Tirthas, send me a friend request, and more over on my Goodreads profile page.
I’ve become quite a fan of the readers’ social media platform, Goodreads. I like it for three reasons:
- It’s a great way to get to know readers and writers, and to make friends. You can even compare all the books you’ve ever read with them, and see how similar (or wildly opposed) your tastes are.
- As a writer, it’s a great way of seeing what readers think about your books. Most users rate their books as soon as they finish them, and some do written reviews. Because it’s a social media platform, you get more reviews than on Amazon or other retail sites.
- It’s a great place to find out about books, as well as to log all the books that you’ve read and want to read. A friend once said that she wished she could write just a few sentences of each book she’d read as she finished it, because it’s so easy to forget books after a while. And it’s the perfect platform for that.
You can check out what people think about The Secret of the Tirthas, compare your books with mine, and send me a friend request all on my profile page.
Anyhow, I thought I’d share some of the best books I’ve read over the last couple of years, which I’ve reviewed on Goodreads. In this first post: Young Adult & Children’s Books.
A Library of Lemons, by Jo Cotterill
A beautiful book about the mistaken routes we take to cope with grief and the long-term harm they do. Lovely, lucid writing – I particularly liked the image of the reclusive father receiving an invitation and looking like a hamster about to be plucked from its cage. Recommended for readers aged 10+, including grown-ups. 5 stars
Charlotte’s Web, by EB White
One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I didn’t come across it as a child, but thankfully have had the chance to read it to my own children. The writing is wonderful, rendering the beauty and sadness of nature with almost perfect precision. The ending is, of course, heart breaking, and my wife and I had to take it in turns consoling our six-year-old. But he understood bravely the message that (paraphrasing Dylan Thomas) whilst friends may die, friendship will not. 5 stars
The Last Wild, by Piers Torday
Gripping, harrowing, comical, exciting… and with a very strong message about how much damage we do intentionally and unintentionally if we don’t remain vigilant about our connection to the natural world. This is a fantastic roller coaster of a book, with heroic children and animals, and the animal world’s version of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the form of Captain Skuldiss. 5 stars
Doctor Who: Ghosts of India, by Mark Morris
I really enjoyed this book. India just after the second world war is masterfully depicted, with the hope, mystery and exuberance nicely balanced against the ominous clouds of coming strife with partition. The adventure has a good blend of villains and monsters, from the ghastly white ‘half-dead men’ to crazed Army Majors, giant crocodiles and cobras. The meeting of Gandhi with the Doctor is wonderful, and it’s left to Donna to draw parallels – and the Doctor to highlight the one key difference between them. A fun ride, with a pointed note of sadness at the end. 4 stars
The Chicken Dance, by Jacques Couvillon
I love this book, it’s a fantastic take on the huge capacity for patience and acceptance that children have, and the things they’ll do to ensure that no matter what they’ll find a way to have fun and give their lives meaning. Don is a winning example of one of those kids who end up parenting their parents. His final act of kindness breaks your heart. My only criticism is that the book feels a little drawn out towards the end – but that’s not enough to knock it off the top spot. Surely the best book you’ll ever read about chickens, too. 5 stars
The Misadventure of Bolingbroke Manor: An interactive ghost hunting adventure, by Ellie Firestone
A great, well written interactive book, perfect for the creepy season! I’ve just read this with my son (age 7) and we really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, he came to a sticky end, but we will be playing it again soon. Recommended. 5 stars
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs
I loved the concept of this novel, in which the author draws on the fascinating power of old photographs to weave his fantastical story set between Florida and a wet and windy Welsh island. In the back notes Ransom Riggs explains how the creative process worked, with sometimes him hunting through thousands of archives to find the right picture and sometimes the story being pulled in a new direction by a chance find. With a big idea like this I’m sure there was a danger of things not working out. No fear. This is a masterful story full of strong characters, inspirational settings and a plot that keeps you gripped right to the end. 4 stars
Rooftoppers , by Katherine Rundell
Structurally, the book felt a little unbalanced, some bits were overly long – but somehow this added to its sense of originality and poetry. I loved the tangential metaphors, particularly as they illuminate Sophie’s inner life. And the ending leaves you in a perfect spin. 5 stars
We Were Liars, by E Lockhart
A stylish novel that messes around with your expectations. Set on an idyllic island, four privileged teenagers find their lives shadowed by an accident involving the narrator, which she is unable to remember. The story is pervaded by a sense of disturbance – brilliantly reflected by occasional, explosive images – and reproach throughout. Who’s the subject of this reproach – the wealthy patriarch, his money-grabbing daughters, the idealistic, enigmatic Gat? Given the unreliability of her memory, does the narrator even know herself? Well worth a second read, loved it. 4 stars
All Aboard the London Bus, by Patty Toht
Can’t fault this lovely book. Excellent illustrations and poems, and a great introduction to London. 5 stars
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! , by Mo Willems
This has got to be one of the best picture books ever. The only time you will love hearing your children shouting ‘NO!’ 5 stars
The Dog in the Diamond Collar, by Rebecca Lisle
Read this with my boys aged 6 and 8 at bedtime. It’s a great story, full of laughs, with wonderful illustrations. The youngest couldn’t get over the name the three boys called the dog, Clinky Monkey (‘he’s not a monkey!’). I particularly liked the scene where they put the dog in a babygro and then wheel him around in a pram to get him into the zoo. When we finished, I asked the boys to mark it out of 10. 10 and, to quote, ‘Googol’ (10 to the 100th power) were the answers. 5 stars
Locked in Time, by Lois Duncan
I was drawn to this book by I Know What You Did Last Summer and the atmospheric Louisianan plantation setting. The story is enjoyable, with an engaging heroine who has to deal with the challenge of her father remarrying into an enigmatic southern family. The suspense is there, although perhaps not taut enough by today’s standards. 3 stars
When I was a boy, I remember having moments of flooded awareness, a sense that, whilst I was an innocent before, now I was fully sentient, someone properly aware of who I was and where I was going. I remember it occurring every year or two.
A while ago I tried to capture that sense of lucidity – long since lost – in a poem.
The school’s tapering windows turned golden
and I remember, after lessons one day,
when I was eight, or maybe nine,
and then again nine-and-a-half,
and probably ten –
a sense of arrival,
of no longer becoming,
of finally cutting loose
from that fine-but-somewhat-lacking
changeling of seven, eight, eight-and-a –
Now I was grown,
grounded in sentience,
one of those I’d always wanted to be –
finally, gazing through glorious Victorian windows
I was me.
I was almost right.
There was plenty more to come –
the simple discord of things devouring things,
of lust, love, faith, and Earth’s indescribable place –
but I’d had the thread,
realised that only with an attack of thought
could I pierce the realm of being
and get me nearer to me.
And now I’m closer still,
so close I swear
I’m almost there.
I’ve just delivered a few copies of The City of Light to Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead. This independent bookshop has been fantastic for me as a local writer. The owner, Peter Snell, and his staff (especially Cameron) have been incredibly helpful and supportive. I’ve done two signing sessions there and we’ve now got a third scheduled for Saturday 2nd December. They’ve sold over 60 books, with all four ‘Secret of the Tirthas’ novels on permanent display. And they’ve also put me in contact with the excellent Jane Dixon-Smith who designs my book covers. So if you’re anywhere nearby – go in and buy some books, and keep your local independent bookshop thriving!
Jack in the dark, fishing the Wandle with Dad.
Some numbers of Jack:
2 (haircut), 11 (age), 7 (fags per day);
3 (Mums, if Edyta has her way).
Jack’s dad rolls a smoke,
pulls up his tracksuit neck,
but there’s no keeping out that damp.
Fetch us that box of bait, Jack…
In the moonlight Jack watches
dimples on the river’s surface –
how far they go, spinning,
till something below changes.
Jack might be young,
with a life nobody’s after,
but he knows something most
take a long time to discover –
impatience is pointless.
Jack waits in the dark,
time unregistered, and ready,
for what might,
or might not, happen next.