December 12, 2014

THE TALE OF TAM LINN

(Picture Kelpies: Traditional Scottish Tales)
by Lari Don, illustrated by Philip Longson
30 pages, Floris Books

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

There are some stories that deserve to be retold over and over again. Dating from the sixteenth century (and quite possibly even earlier than that), the legendary Scottish ballad of Tam Linn is undoubtedly one of the strangest and most magical British folk tales. I first came across it in my well-thumbed copy of Francis James Child’s “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads” but it has been adapted countless times both in song and book form.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, the ballad tells the story of the fair maiden Janet who goes wandering in the Carterhaugh woods against the advice of her peers. In the woods, she plucks a rose and is confronted by the fairy knight Tam Linn. She loses her virginity to him (some versions of the story portray this as consensual, whilst others are peculiarly ambiguous, even hinting at rape) before returning to her father’s house. When the old Laird spots that Janet is pregnant, he questions her as to who the father of her child might be. She flees the house and returns to the woods where she tries to abort the pregnancy by the aid of a poisonous flower. Tam Linn appears to her once more and Janet states that she would keep the child if he was a human. Tam Linn reveals that he used to be a human but was magically enslaved by the Queen of the Fairies. Together, Janet and Tam Linn make a plan to free him from the Queen’s spell. On All-Hallows-Eve, Janet interrupts the fairy procession through the woods and snatches Tam Linn into her arms. The wicked Queen turns Tam Linn into all manner of dangerous creatures but Janet holds him tightly until the Queen’s magic has been exhausted, and Tam Linn takes human form once more.

It is safe to say that, in its traditional form, Tam Linn is not a children’s story.
Lari Don’s latest book, “The Tale of Tam Linn”, is a splendid retelling of the old ballad. By maintaining the core elements of the story (the strong female lead, the fairy-haunted woods, the enslaved Tam Linn and the magical shape-shifting) and discarding the rape / unwanted pregnancy / abortion aspects of the tale, Don has managed to reshape the story to be both suitable for and accessible to young children. What makes it impressive is that “The Tale of Tam Linn” doesn’t feel like a bowlderised version of the story, but rather a very fun feminist take on the story. Don takes the character of Janet and removes the aspects of the story which make her a victim. The text mentions that “Janet didn’t like being told what to do” and young readers might well find themselves reminded of Princess Merida from Disney’s “Brave” more than the weak or passive female characters seen in traditional fairy tales. The real victim of this version of the story is Tam Linn, he is the one needing rescuing, not the wilting damsel-in-distress.

Don’s clear and straightforward prose means that many little’uns will be able to read this story on their own. Despite the changes to the story, Don’s retelling maintains the pace and rhythm of the original ballad. Purists might bewail Don’s excising of the grittier elements of the original ballad, but Don’s retelling serves as a perfect introduction for younger readers. At under thirty pages, it is the ideal length for a bedtime story and, with its balance of thrills and romance, will appeal to boys and girls alike.

Being a picture book, it would be remiss to ignore Philip Longson’s wonderful artwork in this review. The rich greens and browns of the early pages of the book give way to gloomier shades later on when the story takes a darker turn. The tangled branches of Carterhaugh forest reach across the two-page spreads, hinting at their potentially dangerous magical nature. Red-haired Janet is beautiful, but determined. The earthy simplicity of her dress, elegant yet practical, sets her apart from your normal fairy tale princess. Tam Linn is suitably dashing, a bold red scarf draped over the fairy armour which bears a strong resemblance to that of the elves in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies. Most impressive is the sequence where Janet has to hold onto Tam Linn whilst he transforms into an assortment of dangerous animals. The raw, animalistic power of the beasts contrasts with Janet’s tender determination as she embraces Tam Linn in his various forms.

“The Tale of Tam Linn” is a wonderful picture book and is sure to delight readers both young and old. I sincerely hope that we see more classic folk tales given a new lease on life through the Picture Kelpies imprint.


Hereward L.M. Proops

November 25, 2014

GONE GIRL

by Gillian Flynn
496 pages, Phoenix

Review by Pat Black

There’s this film out now, directed by David Fincher, and it’s based on this book… What’s that? You know all about it?

Och, let’s have a review anyway.

I liked many things about Gone Girl. It’s about Amy and Nick, a married couple in their 30s who work in the media. She’s got lots of money, he doesn’t. After they both lose their Manhattan-based jobs as the economy takes a tumble, they have to bin the skinny lattes and cancel the cocktail lunches and head to Missouri, partly to look after Nick’s sick mother, partly to forge a new life running a bar.

Amy, New York to the core and the Ivy League daughter of two successful children’s authors, isn’t very happy about this. But she plays along, being the good wife.

We know Amy has gone missing from the earliest parts of the book. It’s split into two separate first-person narratives, one following Nick from the immediate aftermath of Amy’s sudden disappearance, and the other composed of fragments of Amy’s diary, seeded from the earliest parts of their relationship in the mid-noughties.

It doesn’t take long to spot that they’re a pair of fibbers. A key discussion topic for a million book groups examining this novel would almost certainly be “unreliable narrators”.

The central premise for Gone Girl quickly becomes: Has Nick murdered Amy? And if he didn’t, what happened to her?

Flynn’s narrative is a slinking cheetah in the long grass, biding its time and drawing blood with each swipe. With the sure-footedness of Agatha Christie, she lays out a series of characters, every one of whom could have a part to play in whatever grand deception is being concealed. Nick’s twin sister; his ailing father; Amy’s creepy ex-boyfriend; her same-sex high school stalker; and many more. Each suspense beat is perfectly timed. It’s the sort of book you close over at night halfway through the chapters, because you’re too tired to go on – never at the natural chapter endings.

I felt a bizarre sense of regret that I was reading this at home, instead of at the beach – it’s a perfect holiday book, even if it does cause you to narrow your eyes at your other half from beneath your sunnies.

How well do you really know your partner? That’s what I’d probably put on the cover, if I was the blurbs guy for Gone Girl. Gads, what a truly ugly, despicable question.

Aside from the twisty turny plotty pits and traps, it is a “he said/she said” story, the kind which will endure so long as women and men are interested in each other. It didn’t even have to be about a disappearance; the central relationship in the novel, and all the ways in which it becomes brittle and finally fractures, was absorbing enough on its own. If you’ve ever experienced a relationship that died horribly – and who hasn’t these days? – Gone Girl will serve as a reminder of all those little accident blackspots you thought you’d forgotten.

When I first considered this review a few weeks ago, I took a rather sour view of some people’s reactions to the story, as realised on the big screen. I noticed on Facebook that some women took an extreme dislike to Amy, with her hard-wired upper-middle class manners and her attitude towards her husband. I wondered if there was an element of defensiveness in this.

But I held back on this observation when I realised that I recognised plenty of myself in Nick – or at least, the person I used to be roughly a decade ago. Stumbling home at all hours in the morning; drinking; adolescent in behaviour and outlook; still playing video games; becoming fatally detached from his relationship (and with good reason).

Perhaps it’s the horror of broken partnerships that really fuels our fascination with this novel. No-one is who they seem; no-one is who they really want to be.

The recession/credit crunch/whatever you want to call it is another big component of Gone Girl. An empty shopping mall in the Missouri town where Amy vanishes haunts the early part of the proceedings, grim and malevolent as any gothic castle, a wind-whistling tomb of modern capitalism patrolled by shuffling zombies. Nick and Amy were employed to write nonsense lifestyle/leisure clag for the newspapers and magazines market, only to find that there was no magazines market left as the noughties wore on and people began to get their information, top-ten lists and indeed book reviews off the internet.

Bewildered and broke, Nick and Amy confront the awful realisation that they have no skills or special talent, save typing; that their Manhattan lifestyle has not equipped them to survive out in the big bad world; that they don’t really matter.


Even the security of Amy’s parents is taken away, as they too fall on hard times, with trust funds and savings evaporated in the space of an afternoon. This scenario, this distinctly un-American sense of economic hopelessness, was another frightening facet of a cynical, but brilliant popular novel.

November 19, 2014

THE SECOND COMING

by John Niven
384 pages, Windmill

Review by Bill Kirton

If you don’t like people swearing in books, don’t read this because the guilty parties are not only the people but Jesus, the saints and even God. But it’s the sort of swearing that peppers everyday speech, the harmless (though still offensive to many) vernacular of relaxed bar-room banter. The fact that life in Heaven is enhanced by some of the best cannabis around may also make pious souls tremble but all this gives a fluidity, pace and legitimacy to the many exchanges and adds to the spice of a beautifully judged, very funny satire on several aspects of the present state of society (and human development for that matter).

Basically, during the Renaissance, God thought His creation was progressing quite nicely and that it was OK to take a break and go fishing. Some 400 years later (a ‘break’ is a relative term for temporality in Heaven), he comes back to reports of centuries of religious conflicts, slavery, economic and social disasters, global warming and irrefutable evidence that Earth has become a complete cock-up. His staff in the main office know he’s going to go apeshit and they’re not looking forward to the fallout.

His single original ‘commandment’ – ‘Be nice’ – has been fragmented, multiplied, divided and spawned countless religious sects (which are enumerated hilariously and at astonishing length), none of which shows any respect for or understanding of His will. He phones Muhammad, who’s also having trouble with the Taliban and others. ‘They read something,’ says the prophet, ‘they have their own ideas… Next thing you know, is all very bad’, to which God’s response is that He’s only been back half a day and he's already ‘heartily sick of textual interpretation’.

In the end, the only answer seems to be to send His son back down again to have a second shot at getting people to see how things could and should be. And, from that premise, the author develops many delicious conceits revolving around aspects of our current popular culture, artistic preferences and the enormous distance between faith and the way people abuse it.

Jesus, reluctantly, is relocated to modern day America where his laid-back, hipster message of ‘Be nice’ is clearly at odds with all the prescriptive teachings of the various churches and his attitude to money scandalises all but the few friends who gather round him. The targets of the ensuing satire are principally the celebrity culture, the falseness and unreality of the way we now seem to live and an approach to religiosity which is diametrically opposed to everything a loving divinity would wish for His flock.

But that summary sounds so dull, so pious, that it does the book a huge disservice because it’s hilarious. Its irreverence is reverent, its targets deserving of our scorn. Jesus and his friends are great characters, their road-trip style journey is adventurous, fascinating and full of surprises. ‘Disciples’ are gathered in a very modern way; Jesus’s notoriety grows thanks to his prowess on guitar and his beautiful voice; and his eventual death at the hands of his persecutors fits perfectly in the context of a society run by people whose values are those of TV talent shows and for whom the acquisition of fame and fortune is the supreme goal. In fact, Jesus's encouragement of people to follow his ‘Be nice’ ways ends with him being seen as a guy who ‘made it a point of honour to insult and defame just about everything America stood for’.

The author’s familiarity with religious factions but also with obscure pop groups is very impressive but he wields his knowledge with care and everything’s designed to complement the social mores he’s exploring. His attention to detail is extraordinary, to the extent that he can scatter smaller satirical throwaways en passant as he moves through the larger narrative ironies. It’s a wonderful deconstruction of who and what we’ve become.


And yet, as I need to keep on insisting, the overall impact of The Second Coming is a feelgood one. Look at how he ends it (and since we know what happened to Jesus the first time round, this isn’t a spoiler). Jesus is back in Heaven and God, with drink and cigar in hand, is looking out over his ‘emerald orchard where the souls of toddlers and tiny babies play’. He reflects on how lucky they are and asks ‘Why do babies on earth cry?’, which reminds him of a line from John Updike who, he thinks, is a ‘Nice guy. Decent, honest golfer too. The kind of fellow who won't take a gimme if he thinks there's a chance he'd miss it’. The line is ‘as souls must cry when they awaken in tiny babies and find themselves far from Heaven’, which prompts him the reflection: ‘Literature. Now that was some good shit. He was glad they'd come up with that.’

November 11, 2014

HERE'S LOOKING AT YOU KID

by Helen Burke
64 pages, Valley Press

Review by Bill Kirton

Helen Burke’s poems are full of ambushes. You read along, sharing reminiscences, savouring the comfortable rhythms, admiring the visual and aural images and suddenly, unawares, you’re presented with an absurdity or a marriage of things which don’t belong together or a formulation so perfectly pitched that you want to stop, read it again and reassess it and the context in which it sits. And each time it’s a pleasure, reinforcing the impact of what preceded it or taking it to another level.

It’s no surprise to read that this collection brings together some of the poems most frequently requested by audiences around the world. They’re celebrations of love, of continuity; distillations of the effect of memory as it evokes distances in time and space and yet, simultaneously, cancels them. Some are autobiographical and yet they express feelings we can share, feelings with which we can identify and which stir echoes of moments through which we also have lived. In fact, the poet hopes, in her introduction, that ‘these poems can connect with you at a heart level’. In one of them she writes ‘we are the stories that we tell not with our mouths but with our hearts’ and the notes to another say ‘the stories we write with our hearts are what matter’.

She captures perfect moments, fragments of times spent with her father and mother made of the simplest elements:

‘And we walked home, like two happy dogs
and the sky was duck-egg blue and the grass
was full of four-leaved clovers’

Meanings shift constantly, life is change and yet its essence can be caught and concentrated into a memory. Like her Dad’s Lingo, it refuses to settle into non-negotiable meanings.

Burke’s imagination is riotous. In a poem like Hospital Lingo, the ‘procedures’ the patients have to undergo are distorted, become a parade of hilarious absurdities as she piles gag on gag with meticulous timing. Yes, even though these are lines lying on a page, their timings are as immaculate as any delivered by stand-ups. Read The Christmas Letter (the poem which won the Waterstones Poetry Prize) and see how, line after line, you’re ambushed by gags (aka truths).

‘All the kids have had nose jobs
and the cat’s booked in for a boob job,
but the gardener’s making do with reiki and several flu jabs.
My cocaine habit’s coming on nicely
and the twins have made a blue movie – so hip.
Daddie's married our nanny – again – and
he'll be off to the Philippines
(once his heart can face the trip).
The dog has got his own Rolex’

And so on, and so on. It never lets up.

As well as teeming with punchlines, the poem My Wild Mother presents us with a vibrant personality we’d love to know. And we do know her. The poet’s mum and dad live in her verse, they’re so real in her memory and thinking. It’s a great proof of the persistence of love and for her it’s a constant currency.

Her dog, Baxter, is a happy Sisyphus, exuberant about life despite the restraints which mark it.

There is no cure for being free of mind and will.
Baxter, my friend, my alter ego.
Baxter – I love you.
Go on being. Baxter.

The seeming artlessness, the wit, the humour belie the fact that Burke is dealing in profound, existential truths. The instant has multiplicity and multi-valence, life is a ‘shadow dance’. She conveys the passage of time, the distance between various ‘thens’ and ‘nows’ and yet manages to experience them simultaneously. She writes, in The Serving Girl, of:

‘Your presence in your own absence.
Nothing to be done but bear it.’

In short, Here's Looking at You Kid is packed full of experiences, conveyed in terms which help us unlock our own. It’s funny, loving, deep, witty, compassionate, fundamentally human. It’s a poetry of happy, energetic protest – not of the angry, proscriptive or restricted political kind but a celebration of living and the refusal to submit to conventions and restraints.



November 4, 2014

FRENCH CHILDREN DON'T THROW FOOD

by Pamela Druckerman
368 pages, Doubleday Books

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

Published Stateside under the title “Bringing Up Bébé”, Pamela Druckerman’s bestselling account of her experiences raising her three children in Paris has received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic and it isn’t hard to see why. Witty and heartfelt, intelligent and informative, Druckerman’s book manages to be both an autobiographical account of her experiences of parenthood as well as being an insightful how-to guide for those wanting to raise les enfants in a more Continental manner.

As an American married to an Englishman, Druckerman’s account of Parisian life is very much from the perspective of the outsider looking in. With a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour, she describes her own initial stumbling attempts at motherhood, then looking at how French parents tackle similar situations with their own children. The contrast between how Anglophone and French families interact is striking. According to Druckerman, British and American parents selflessly devote their every waking moment to their children, leading to the development of what the French call “Enfant roi” - the child king. In other words, by indulging the whims of children from an early age, Anglophone parents are creating a rod for their own back. In time, the little monsters will grow to believe that the world does indeed revolve around them. The childhood tantrums result from the confusion and anxiety these micro-royals feel when they find themselves challenged.

The French, it seems, have a very different attitude to children than the English speaking world. From an early age, children are taught that they are a member of a society - that their behaviour has an impact on those around them. They are taught patience - when they ask for things, they quickly learn that they might not get what they want straight away. Unlike Anglophone children, French kids do not expect immediate gratification and are therefore less prone to whining, pouting and throwing almighty great screaming fits in the middle of the supermarket. The French don’t put their children on pedestals just because they hit a few correct notes when singing a cute song. Indeed, one could say that they are wary of over-praising their children lest the little ones develop an over-inflated sense of self-worth. Most of all, French parents instill a sense of independence in their offspring from an early age. They encourage their child to play independently, residential school trips are offered to children as young as four, and once children have acquired language, they are expected to be able to hold meaningful conversations with adults. All this might seem somewhat cold and distant to English-speakers but it serves to emphasise the child’s autonomy and accountability. In the English-speaking world, Druckerman believes we see children as lesser beings, only able to participate in certain aspects of civilised life. In France, children are viewed as small people; being young is not an excuse for being uncivilised and selfish.

There is too much useful information within the pages of Druckerman’s book to label it an autobiography. Similarly, the manner in which the French parenting style is presented through self-narrative makes it equally difficult to call the book a traditional parenting guide. What makes “French Children Don’t Throw Food” all the more impressive is that one never feels Druckerman struggles when transitioning from one genre to the other. Her wry, self-critical humour means that one never feels the autobiographical sections to be self-indulgent whilst the informative aspects of the book are presented as choices parents might like to make, not instructions that must be followed to the letter. In my experience as a father, parenting guides have the uncanny ability to make the reader feel bad about whatever approach they choose to manage their own children. Druckerman’s book highlights aspects of Anglophone parenting that are familiar to all of us with a young child, but we aren’t made to feel guilty or embarrassed. Throughout the book, Druckerman subtly pushes the point that there is no such thing as a perfect parent, even in France. It is not just permissible to make mistakes when raising your child, it should be expected.

However much Druckerman admires the French way of parenting, she doesn’t subscribe to it 100% and is in no way endorsing that readers should do so. There are aspects of the French way of parenting that do not sit comfortably with her and she is quite open about this. She expresses that whilst many four year-old children might be comfortable going away for a week-long residential holiday without their parents, the parents might not be ready to bid adieu to their little ones. By the end of her account, Druckerman and her husband have found a happy medium; making use of aspects of French and Anglophone parenting which suit them and discarding the ones that do not. Readers, too, will glean many useful tips and tricks from the book. Although it is unlikely that everyone will finish the book and totally change their ways of parenting, many readers will start looking at ways in which they can build a cadre or framework for their children that sets firm limits for behaviour whilst giving them substantial freedom to grow and play. 

Parenthood is both challenging and blissful, demanding and rewarding, terrifying and hilarious. French Children Don't Throw Food manages to encapsulate this huge spectrum of experience and is consistently charming and witty. I cannot think of a more accessible and readable book about modern parenthood. Highly recommended.


Hereward L.M. Proops

October 31, 2014

AUTHOR INTERVIEW


Booksquawk interviews British pulp horror legend Guy N Smith, author of Night of the Crabs, The Slime Beast, The Sucking Pit and many more.



Interview by Pat Black and Hereward L.M. Proops

Guy’s entire back catalogue is available for download to e-reader here.

His latest work, the short story collection Hangman’s Hotel, is reviewed here.

Booksquawk: Many people will remember seeing your novels in the horror section shelves of bookshops up and down the UK.  However, since the “horror boom” period from the mid-70s to early -90s, the publishing industry has changed. As someone who first found fame through traditional outlets, and who now embraces the digital revolution, how do you feel about the future of publishing?

Guy N Smith: I think that traditional publishing as we once knew it has gone forever.  Frankly, I find bookshops boring; no category sections, just hyped books on subjects such as cookery, health etc, and autobiographies of personalities which are mostly ghost-written.

I believe the future of publishing is in e-books and, to a lesser extent, print-on-demand.  I will go along with it simply because there isn’t an alternative.

Booksquawk: I noticed that you seem to kill off certain types of people (e.g. women who cheat on their partners, animal rights activists etc).  Is this intentional? Are there any groups of people you are planning on killing off in future novels?

Guy N Smith: I have intentionally killed off a few people in my books, bullies who made life miserable for me in my schooldays and early teens when I couldn’t fight back. I have no plans to kill off any more – they are all dead now within my pages! However, I have a particular dislike of extremism. Everybody is entitled to their own opinion, right or wrong. When anybody tries to shove their opinion down my throat as though their beliefs are gospel, it makes me angry.

Booksquawk: The Slime Beast sequel news has us in a state of some excitement at Booksquawk towers.  Some questions about your most famous creation which doesn’t walk sideways:

(a)  I heard that there is a movie adaptation of The Slime Beast in the works. What can you tell us about it?

Guy N Smith:  It is in its very early stages. I believe they are shooting a pilot and I am promised “something to look at”.

(b)  There’s a real ambiguity about whether the creature is extraterrestrial or a monster of this earth.  Please settle this once and for all… is it an alien or a regular monster?

Guy N Smith: You will have to read the sequel to find out!
           
(c)    Is it set in the present day, or a direct sequel to the original events?

Guy N Smith:            It is set in the present day but the lead characters are the same – obviously much older, with grown-up children.

Booksquawk: It is clear to see from your work (and it’s especially apparent in Hangman’s Hotel) that you take a lot of pleasure in the natural world. I felt there were occasions that your prose really caught fire when talking about the simple pleasures of your characters making their way through the countryside, and I’d like to read more. Aside from the books you’ve already written about gamekeeping and shooting, could we ever expect to read something non-fictional about the natural world, in the style of Robert Macfarlane and other nature writers?

Guy N Smith: It’s a possibility. However, I go from book to book. Something always seems to crop up, events that lead to inspiration.

Booksquawk: It may not be well-known, but you won the British Pipe Smoking Championship in 2003. What efforts have you made to try to reinstate this contest, in the wake of the smoking ban?

Guy N Smith: The contest has been reinstated over the last couple of years but I have been unable to attend. Whether or not it will continue remains to be seen.

Booksquawk: Bloodsports are not to everyone’s tastes.  How would you respond to critics of hunting?

Guy N Smith: Fieldsports, please, not bloodsports. As I said (above), everybody is entitled to their own views.  Supposedly we live in a democracy, but sometimes I wonder.

As for the critics of hunting, they simply do not understand it. The fox is not torn to pieces whilst still alive. Hounds kill it quickly by a bite at the base of the neck prior to savaging the corpse.

I do not hunt but, as already stated, we are a democratic nation, so each to his, or her, views.

Booksquawk: Related to the above:  Do you shoot for pleasure, or shoot for the pot?

Guy N Smith:            I shoot for two reasons:  1) For the pot, and 2) to control vermin species.  That said, game or vermin, I like the challenge. Man has been a hunter since he first walked the earth. My policy is a sporting and humane shot.

Booksquawk: What is the finest hunting weapon you’ve ever used?

Guy N Smith: In my late teens when I worked in a bank in Birmingham, I spent a lot of my spare time, lunch hours and after work at the famous Midland Gun Company, one of the largest. I built up an excellent relationship and assisted, in a small way, in the making of a 12-bore shotgun. My name was engraved on the barrels. They offered me an apprenticeship, a trial whereby we could both see if we were suited to the job.

However, I come from a banking family and my father would not hear of it. In those days he would have had to sign the forms allowing me to become an apprentice. He flatly refused. So that was that. The Midland suffered the fate of hundreds of other gunmakers when Birmingham’s legendary Gun Quarter was demolished to make way for a ring road. It was twice bought by other firms who had the Midland guns made in Italy and Turkey respectively. This proved to be economically unsuccessful and two years ago I bought the name and have the company registered to myself. The registration certificate is proudly displayed on my wall.  Likewise, I have my lovely gun, designed by myself, and my memories of what might have been.

Booksquawk: The most memorable story in Hangman’s Hotel, for me, is “Savage Safari”.  I shan’t spoil the treat in store for readers, but I would ask you: which creature throughout history, living today or extinct, would you most like to have hunted?

Guy N Smith: I would like to have hunted buffalo and leopard in Africa but I guess it’s too late in life now for me.  However, there are Big Cats at large in the UK and I have personally seen a black leopard. There have been other reliable sightings on my own land.

I am still hoping to bag a wild boar, on even terms, not shot from ambush. My dream is to be charged by an angry wild boar. It will be against me, truly a fair encounter.

Booksquawk: When did you come up with the idea of giant killer crabs? Was it your way of tapping into the “eco-horror” stories of the 1970s, spearheaded by Jaws, or did you have a lifelong fear of crustaceans which inspired your stories?

Guy N Smth: I do not have a fear of crustaceans. Certainly my Crabs were not inspired by Jaws.  Just an idea that came to me when I sent a synopsis to NEL, I really wondered if it was too far-fetched. Maybe… but a bestseller, a movie and six sequels must mean that it appealed to a lot of readers!

Booksquawk: Killer Crabs: The Return felt like a bit of a return to form for the Crabs novels after Crabs: The Human Sacrifice… Have you got any more plans for the monstrous crustaceans in the near future?

Guy N Smith: I have, but I’m not going to tell you!  Wait and see…

Booksquawk: You, the late, great James Herbert, Shaun Hutson, Graham Masterton and others were instrumental in bringing more extreme horror experiences and graphic scenes to British readers. It was extremely influential – and popular. Now that time has passed, do you ever regret “going too far” in any scenes of sex or violence?

Guy N Smith: Not at all. In fact most of the sex scenes were mild compared with much of today’s explicit descriptions. As for violence, what do you expect from the Crabs? As for my other books, you have only got to read the papers or watch TV news; far more dreadful things are happening in today’s real world than ever appeared in my writing.

Booksquawk: There’s much more to your work than horror. What genre did you enjoy working in outside of horror, and why?

Guy N Smith: Westerns are a favourite genre of mine. Which was why I wrote Pony Riders (Pinnacle, USA).  From a very early age I had a cowboy outfit and fired cap guns. I guess I never grew out of that pleasure so I turned to reading and writing about it.

Booksquawk: Are you aware of Garth Marenghi, the spoof horror author character (played by Matthew Holness) who featured in the TV show Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace? Do you feel that your works might have influenced this character?

Guy N Smith: I don’t watch much TV, certainly not horror. However, if my work has influenced a character, then good luck to him.

Booksquawk: You hold the record for being Booksquawk’s most reviewed author.  Not all of the reviews have been kind to your work – but we keep coming back. We love it. We are, in fact, fans. What do you think is the continuing appeal of your stories – and what is it about the horror field that appeals to you?

Guy N Smith: My early books are short tales full of action, a large variety of plots. I have been criticised many times, but nobody can knock my record regarding sales. And the books are making a return. The Slime Beast will be published as a signed hardcover, Limited Edition, in March. A couple of years ago, The Sucking Pit was resurrected by Mansion House and, in addition to a run of signed limited copies, there was a sleeved A-Z run. Then publishers have also shown an interest in resurrecting my three Werewolf novels as a limited edition trilogy. Not to mention the extremely buoyant sales of my e-books.

Kind regards and many thanks to Guy N Smith for his time.

HANGMAN'S HOTEL AND OTHER STORIES

by Guy N Smith
166 pages, Black Hill Books

Review by Pat Black

In five years of Booksquawk, Guy N Smith has become our most-reviewed author.

If you asked us why this is, I’m not sure we’d be able to give a satisfactory answer. As prolific as Georges Simeon or Agatha Christie, Smith has pumped out dozens of novels over forty years. Smith won’t be troubling the Nobel committee at any time, but his stories do scratch an itch we might not otherwise admit to in polite society. And we keep going back to them.

Smith made his name as a pulp horror writer in the mid-1970s, first finding fame with the bestselling Night of the Crabs when the world was crazy for creatures-hate-you stories. His name will be familiar to 80s kids like me who derived a curious thrill in their younger years from glancing at the horror section in WH Smith and elsewhere – oh so cheap, oh so nasty, and oh so satisfying.

The “horror boom” is long gone – depressingly, so is one of its best-known black magicians, James Herbert - and Smith’s short n’ sharp works with their unforgettably grim covers are little more than a fond memory on whatever high street bookshelves remain.

Happily, though, Smith has embraced digital platforms with an enthusiasm lacking in many of his contemporaries, and his entire back catalogue, from Werewolf By Night onwards, is now available to download to your e-reader of choice.

As he approaches his 75th birthday, the evergreen Smith is back with a short fiction collection, Hangman’s Hotel and Other Stories.

We get things rolling with the title story, which sees a retired hanging judge enjoying an overnight stay in a fancy new hotel – a converted prison. The bones of many of the men he sentenced to death still moulder under the flagstones, and he looks forward to a night in the room which was once the execution chamber, where many a neck was stretched (and many a head popped off, too, whenever the hangman got his sums wrong). Anyone would think the judge had some sort of death wish…  So no-one should be massively surprised as to how things turn out.

Next up is “The Black Druid”, a tale of malevolent magic and naughty nudeness following a girl on a night out with her female work colleagues. The girls get a bit carried away during some moonlight shenanigans at an ancient druidic site. Clothes and inhibitions are cast aside, even though the girl is a tad nervous about the local legend of the black druid. She might have been better off had she been a little more cautious about her jealous boyfriend...

Smith’s giant flesh-eating crustaceans are a staple dish in both his short and long-form fiction, and there’s a brilliant addition to his sideways-walking canon in “Crabs: The Survivor”. Following in the wake of events at the end of the previous Crabs novel, a husband and wife find themselves in a life, death or crabsticks situation when one of the surviving seafood specimens seeks to make a meal of them in their own home.

Now we come to the main business of Hangman’s Hotel, and an insight into one of Smith’s main inspirations as a writer and as a person: huntin’ and shootin’. Smith is mad keen on outdoor pursuits, particularly if he’s pursuing game from behind the trigger of some well-kept firearms, and just about every other story in the book reflects this.

“Savage Safari” was my favourite. It sees a big game hunter and a scientist head way down deep in the middle of the Congo to find two creatures of note. One is a notorious bull elephant which the hunter is keen to see decorating his mantelpiece. The other is mokele mbembe, Africa’s version of the Loch Ness monster, which the scientist believes to be a diplodocus. A competitive game warden is added to the mix for conflict’s sake.

Diplodocus. That’s probably my favourite word. I loved those syllables from the moment I first had them sounded-out to me by my sister from a Ladybird picture book, and I always will.

Anyway, the mystery creature in “Savage Safari” is not the docile, elongated, easily-sculpted-in-Plasticene di-plo-do-cus. Let’s just say that the hunters are made to work hard for their dinner, lest they become it.

This is the sort of story I would read, and enjoy, at any age. A bunch of guys, hunting a monster, somewhere exotic. Perfect escapist reading.

“Zombie Gunfighter” does what it says on the tin. There’s no big game hunting in this story, but there is plenty of gunfire as the living dead return to a town in the old west to claim revenge on behalf of a native American bad-medicine man. Rootin, tootin’ and shootin’ ensues, with the added spice of a lynched gunfighter shamble-moseying into town alongside his fellow zombies. Smith is a big fan of westerns, so this cowboys n’ carrion mash-up must have been a busman’s holiday to write.

Smith brings back another character from his back catalogue – Mark Sabat, ex-SAS soldier and catholic priest turned full-time battler of paranormal evils. I’d never encountered Sabat before, though I had heard of him. I pictured a mixture of Doctor Strange and Uri Geller, a man with a seventies playboy moustache with a white streak in his hair; a wearer of amulets, black shirts open at the six-foot-wide collars and, probably, Hai Karate. Looking at the covers of the Sabat books, I was bang on the money – and it seems that Sabat bears a close resemblance to early photos of his creator… 

This story astonished me. Partway through it I wondered whether the author had lost his mind, or if I had. It sees Sabat track down a witch to her woodland home in Poland, in a bid to thwart a Satanic plot.

Sabat, for a tough customer who knows every trick in the book, almost comes a cropper when the witch takes the unusual though highly predictable step of taking her clothes off for him when he walks through her door. Sabat’s ghost-hunting pantaloons are dropped. Vigorous booksex is applied.

Sabat’s laugh-out-loud trouser-based folly reminded me of something Sir Roger Moore said about the scene in The Spy Who Loved Me where James Bond drives up a beach in his amphibious Lotus Esprit, rolls down the window and hands a fish to an astonished sunbather.

Producer Cubby Broccoli saw this in the script and exploded: “How would Bond manage to get hold of a fish without rolling down the damn window under the sea?”

Sir Rog replied (suavely, of course): “It’s movies, Cubby.”

Sabat’s footsteps are dogged in this journey by the sneering voice of his evil brother, who I presume made life difficult in a previous adventure. I was never quite sure what was going on with this character – he intrudes on the narrative, interjecting into Sabat’s thought processes as a deranged interior monologue. Does he live in Sabat’s head? Was he present as a supernatural entity? Did Sabat imagine the whole lot? I could never quite tell.

I began to envisage an alternative storyline where it is revealed that Mark Sabat isn’t a paranormal investigator and battler of demons, but is in fact a lunatic, breaking into people’s houses and brutally murdering them while acting out his worryingly detailed delusions.

There can be no doubt that I’ll experience Mark Sabat’s previous adventures in a Squawking yet-to-be.

The rest of the book sees hunters encountering a paranormal menace of some sort, usually in thick woodland or remote glens. I didn’t mind the repetition. I happen to like spooky stories set on blasted planes and lonely countryside. And if there’s one thing you can credit Smith for, it’s a sense of location, and the eeriness that can descend upon the lonely British wilderness at any time of day or night.

“Dead on Cue” sees a young boy taken out on a spooky hunt on Boxing Day with landed gentry who may have a secret to keep.

“Devil of the Dark Forest” sees a near-mythical wild boar stalked in Germany, while “Death in the Snow” has similar business on its mind as deer are shot at in a forest.

“The Beast in the Mist” sees another hunter heading to Scotland to bag a semi-mythical stag, with grim, though entirely foreseeable consequences. “The House in the Wood” has even more shooting on its mind, though this was more of a straightforward haunted house potboiler.

“Winged Evil” features ghost eagles, luring gamekeepers and poachers alike to their doom in a squidgy bog (shades of The Sucking Pit?), while “Poacher’s Curse” shared remarkably similar DNA. The final story, “Dwellers in the Dark”, was more of a piece with “The House in the Wood”, although there is some huntin’ and shootin’ involved.

They say you should write what you know, and you can’t fault Smith here. He likes his huntin’ and shootin’, and many of these tales first appeared in The Countryman’s Weekly, where Smith has an editorial position in the huntin’ and shootin’ section. A far better title for this book would have been Scary Huntin’ and Shootin’ Stories. As well as huntin’ and shootin’ (with the odd segue into fishin’ if we count the Crabs, though of course they aren’t fish), our author does evoke a sense of location extremely well. It’s all too easy to imagine Smith out in the countryside, resplendent in tweed and wellies, a gleaming shotgun in the crook of his elbow, dreaming up ancient horrors and spooky events even as his eyes rove the treeline for grouse.

For the rest of us, Smith’s stories are a treat, a naughty bedtime snack just before you turn in. He continues to write and publish, and he has confirmed that a sequel to The Slime Beast is on the way. This has caused great excitement at Booksquawk Towers.

Our interview with the great man himself can be found here.

October 29, 2014

JUGGERNAUT

by Adam Baker
320 pages, Thomas Dunne Books

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

Did you miss me? Keen-eyed Booksquawkers might have noticed that I’ve been off-site for about a year now. Studying for a Masters degree has meant that I’ve spent the past 12 months buried in all manner of weighty tomes and academic journals. Now that’s finished, I can get back to the far more enjoyable business of reading trashy novels, writing daft stories and sitting around the house scratching myself.

Adam Baker’s “Juggernaut” is the perfect antidote to all the academic quagmire that I’ve been hauling myself through. Ostensibly a prequel to his first novel “Outpost” (which I haven’t read), “Juggernaut” works just fine as a stand-alone read and is possibly the most testosterone-fueled, balls-to-the-wall thrill-ride that I’ve ever encountered between the pages of a paperback book. The premise is achingly simple…Iraq, 2005, a group of mercenaries are duped by a shady government agency to travelling deep into the desert in search of buried treasure. The treasure actually turns out to be a freaky bio-weapon of unknown, possibly extraterrestrial, origin that turns anyone who comes into contact with it into a crazed, flesh-hungry, biomechanical über-zombie. The mercs have to blast their way out of the desert in a hail of bullets, explosions and bits of flesh. There’s nothing unpredictable in the plot. Everything happens much as it should… The crack team are picked off one-by-one, there’s a spot of double-crossing, the team gets stranded in the desert outpost and are outnumbered by the zombies, they learn more about the enemy and start to fight back, there’s a last-ditch battle, a noble sacrifice and a close escape for the surviving protagonists.

From a distance, “Juggernaut” seems like just another ultra-violent zombie novel that mainstream publishers are churning out in an attempt to keep surfing the cultural zeitgeist which reached its apex eight years ago with Max Brooks’ “World War Z”. The dialogue is a bit clunky and Baker often relies on his characters telling us what is going on in order to keep the plot moving. The characters are fairly two-dimensional: there’s a big-tough black guy, a big-tough Asian medic, a big-tough helicopter pilot with a chip on his shoulder. Most amusing was the big-tough South African mercenary called Voss who blows things up, chews tobacco and swears almost incessantly with an Afrikaans accent: “Fok jou.” Leading the team are Amanda and Lucy - a pair of smoking-hot gun-toting ladies whose lesbian relationship is so utterly unnecessary to the main storyline that it seems less like a gesture of political correctness and more like an act of perverted wish-fulfilment by a 14-year old boy… “What’s hotter than a chick with a gun? Two chicks with guns making out with one another!

With a clichéd plot, cardboard cut-out characters and unconvincing dialogue, what was it about “Juggernaut” that kept me reading? I’ll tell you - Baker’s novel was so damn fun that I didn’t care about the flaws. The novel is brilliantly paced and moves like the titular unstoppable vehicle of mayhem and destruction. It’s a bit like getting on a roller-coaster - you’ve seen the twists and turns whilst standing in the queue - you know what is going to happen when you strap yourself in. The fun doesn’t transpire from discovering anything new, it comes from the simple enjoyment of being on the ride. Once you are strapped in and the ride has started, there’s no getting off. You don’t say: “Hold on, I’ve been on another roller-coaster very similar to this one.” No, you hold on tight and enjoy it for what it is.

Baker’s book is so breathlessly paced that I am hard-pushed to think of any moments when I felt the story was dragging. We are whipped from one explosive set-piece to another, not given the time to consider where we might have seen something like that before. The relentless action is exhilarating, but never exhausting. Baker’s clipped, direct prose vividly captures every whizzing bullet, every spent shell that drops to the ground, and every earth-shuddering explosion. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, writing convincing action is a skill that many highly-regarded mainstream authors lack. Adam Baker appears to possess this skill in abundance and his ability to write thrilling action sequences that extend not just over a number of pages but over a series of chapters is to be commended. 

With a keen eye for detail, Baker is able to paint a believable picture of mercenary life in Iraq. It’s dirty, dangerous work carried out by dirty, dangerous people. Real-world technology is name-dropped throughout and serves to ground the novel in reality. When the more fantastic elements of the plot start to kick in, there’s no jarring halt as we move from military fiction to a science-fiction-horror. It’s all part of the ride and it works very well.

“Juggernaut” isn’t going to win any prizes for originality but readers looking for a fast-paced, bombastic action-adventure will find much to enjoy within its pages. It is loud, brash and about as subtle as a housebrick through your front window. However, this doesn’t stop it being a highly entertaining read. We often overlook the fun-factor when critiquing novels and “Juggernaut” is a hell of a lot of fun.


Hereward L.M. Proops

October 21, 2014

COMMANDO DAD:

How to be an Elite Dad or Carer, from Birth to Three Years (Basic Training) 
by Neil Sinclair

Review by Pat Black

Note: this book doesn’t give you advice on the creative initial stage of being a dad. You’ll find that in a whole other self-help section.

Commando Dad was recommended to me by a fellow father-in-waiting on an NCT course, and I’m happy to pass that advice on here. Neil Sinclair, a former commando, has put together a tongue-in-cheek guide to parenting in the same style as a British Army training manual.

It may sound daft, but there’s a lot of advice out there on how you might feel when you become a parent. Off the top of your head, you could probably make a stab at a few of these: anxious, nervous, excited, happy, apprehensive, delighted, joyous, fearful… As Sinclair says in the introduction to the book, this holistic approach to emotion isn’t useful to a lot of men; it isn’t the knowledge they seek. This book doesn’t tell you how you are going to feel: it tells you what you have to do.

It’s divided up into helpful sections, and is concise and clear. There are lots of illustrations of Commando Dad in his beret along with his BT (Baby Trooper). It does tickle me to think of some doofus following the instructions to the letter and appearing in army fatigues to help with night feeds etc, but I don’t think this is a prerequisite.

Using army terminology, it takes you through the absolute basics: nappy changing and “bomb disposal”, preparing the base, or family home, soothing the baby when it cries, feeding, sleeping (and your own lack of it), basic routines, all the kit you’ll need to keep in good order and close to hand - in effect, everything you’ll need to know.

That’s not to say it treats fatherhood as the work of technocratic automatons. It does address keeping things on an even keel at home and on away trips, but calls it “maintaining morale among the troops”. Neat touch.

Whether you see yourself as Darth Vader in the Death Star or Lorne Green in the Ponderosa, Commando Dad is worth checking out if you’ve got a nipper on the way. Lots of it might seem like common sense, but the clear, concise dos and don’ts were very reassuring to me – the concrete world of activity, rather than the nebulous world of reflection.

Having had my own little wonder recently, the only advice I’d pass on to any prospective Commando Dads out there is: buy lots and lots of wipes.

October 14, 2014

HACK ATTACK:

The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught up with Rupert Murdoch

by Nick Davies

448 pages, Chatto & Windus

Review by Pat Black

Hack Attack, Nick Davies’ investigation of the News Corp hacking scandal, is a compelling true-life political drama exposing crime, corruption and fear at the very highest levels of British public life.

The story begins in 2006, with the exposure of mobile phone hacking by The News of the World’s royal correspondent Clive Goodman, carried out by a private investigator named Glenn Mulcaire. A police inquiry was launched after suspicions were raised about hacking among the royal household, and the pair were eventually jailed after a trial.

Goodman’s editors and employers at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp claimed that the News of the World’s royal correspondent was a rogue reporter, having gone off-script in order to get stories and bolster his fragile standing among the tabloid’s staff. This was broadly accepted. Hands were washed. The Metropolitan Police carried out no further inquiries. News Corp’s close relationship with the most powerful people in the land continued.

Except… Not everyone believed it. Journalist Nick Davies and others exposed the truth: that far from one man acting alone, the criminal interception of mobile phone answerphone messages was a well-known tactic within the News of the World newsroom, long seen as a legitimate way of gathering stories in the ultra-competitive tabloid market.

Davies’ uncovering of the true picture eventually led to the closure of The News of the World, with former editor-turned-Downing Street spin doctor Andy Coulson and several others being jailed for conspiracy to intercept voicemails at the Old Bailey this year.

Hack Attack is not just the story of how criminality flourished in a newsroom. It goes into very uncomfortable territory, looking at how senior personnel at The News of the World and elsewhere in Murdoch’s global media giant engaged in very close relationships with people at the highest levels of public office - ties formed, as I see it, mainly through fear on the part of public servants that the organisation might come after them some dark day.

Dissidents including past and present Labour MPs Tom Watson, Clare Short and Chris Bryant were targeted for daring to speak out against the Murdoch papers, or indirectly challenging their commercial and political interests. Bryant’s homosexuality was seen as an open goal to the tabloids; finally, humiliating pictures of him in his underwear were published. There was also a bit of a scrum to find pictures of outspoken anti-Iraq war MP Clare Short in a nightdress, taken when she was 20, although they never appeared.

Key lesson; if you want to take on the tabloids, and there’s a picture of you in your pants existing anywhere in the world, then rest assured it will appear in a newspaper. Ditto if you’ve ever done anything wrong, or simply pissed anyone off, whether that’s family, friends, work colleagues or former partners. If they’re after you, they will get you.

But News Corp’s tentacles don’t just extend to political figures. There is also evidence of strong links with senior police officers, somewhat cosy relationships which the public were unaware of until recently.

Even more worryingly, it seems that, for reasons which have never been made clear, the Metropolitan Police sat on evidence of widespread criminal activity, in spite of repeated denials from the men at the top. The Met had the names of hundreds of victims of phone hacking, from MPs to celebrities to ordinary men and women – and in one infamous case, a child, Millie Dowler, who had been abducted and murdered. But they took no action, and in many cases they failed to warn people who had been targeted.

All the while, senior figures at Scotland Yard including former assistant commissioner John Yates deflected and denied, repeatedly claiming that no further criminality had been exposed, despite a mountain of evidence suggesting otherwise. At this time, some senior policemen were dining and drinking with News International executives.

It’s well-known that coppers never rat each other out; the same is true with journalists. We should not be totally surprised that there is some cross-pollination involved.

As well as the criminal proceedings which culminated earlier this year in Prime Minister David Cameron’s former press secretary Andy Coulson being jailed, the Leveson Inquiry was set up to examine the phone hacking scandal. It called the prime minister, senior government figures, former premiers and cabinet ministers, a hundredweight of celebrities, Britain’s top policemen and Rupert Murdoch himself to find the truth of what was going on.

At time of writing, others are awaiting trial on criminal charges, and just in the past fortnight the nominally left-wing Trinity Mirror group has admitted using phone hacking to find stories.

It’s one thing to hear about celebrity Dick having gotten down with celebrity Jane, but targeting ordinary people – and those whose loved ones were victims of appalling crimes, at that – is another matter entirely.

Public opinion in this country hardened when it turned out that News of the World reporters had hacked Millie Dowler’s voicemail. The reasons for this are unclear, but Nick Davies suggests that it was based on a false hunch that Millie was still alive and had got in touch with an employment agency about work – the end goal being for courageous and clever reporters being seen to have “found” the missing girl.

In actual fact, 13-year-old Millie had been abducted and murdered by a maniac called Levi Bellfield in the summer of 2002. Her body would not be discovered until months later. The “job hunting” line was down to a data processing error.

Davies, writing for the Guardian, alleged that reporters had been responsible for deleting voicemails on Milly’s phone, which had raised hopes among Millie’s family that the girl was still alive. Some doubt was cast on this claim later – there is a contention that Millie’s phone was programmed to delete voicemails automatically - but the fact of the matter, as nailed down by Leveson, was that the girl’s phone had been hacked.

Once advertisers joined the clamour of disgust at this revelation, The News of the World’s fate was sealed.

No-one should be surprised that a tabloid newspaper might resort to less-than-honourable tactics to get to a story. As they’ll readily tell you, a free press is a cornerstone of a free society. This is consistent with Orwell’s dictum about journalism being the publication of material which someone else does not want you to read. Like it or not, newspapers should have the right to pursue any story they wish without fear or favour, if it’s in the public interest.

However, the “without fear or favour” and “public interest” parts of that statement are the keys to the whole matter.

Even in recent years, the tabloids have wreaked havoc in ordinary people’s lives on a false perception of public interest. Chris Jefferies, a former teacher turned landlord, found himself on the front pages of several British newspapers over Christmas 2010 when one of his tenants, a young woman called Joanna Yates, was found murdered after vanishing from her flat. The man’s life was torn apart in the press, with his supposed “weirdness” being highlighted again and again for the judgment of the British public.

In actual fact, Chris Jefferies had nothing to do with Joanna Yates’ death; she was murdered by a neighbour, Vincent Tabak, who was subsequently jailed for life. A sober analysis of the facts of the case at the time would have pointed roving reporters towards the truth of the matter. Tabak fled his own flat next door to Joanna’s just after she disappeared, heading home to the Netherlands; Chris Jefferies did not fit the template of a sexually-motived killer targeting a young woman. Not that you read any of this kind of speculation as the case progressed over that frigid Christmas period.

Jefferies won substantial libel damages for the level of intrusion and innuendo he suffered. Can you imagine how that poor man felt? Not only having to deal with the horror of someone he knew having been killed, but also that he was being treated as a suspect and subject to the vilest suspicion from the general public, with his private life burst open like a suitcase on a baggage carousel… Yet he had nothing to do with it.  

The Dowlers’ case is well known, as is that of the parents of Soham murder victims Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, who were also hacked. And then of course, there’s the still-unsolved tragedy of the McCanns, an ongoing media circus thanks to the abduction of their daughter, Madeleine, from holiday apartments in Portugal in 2007.

The tabloids continue to feast on this dreadful case, but they were not always gentle in their treatment of Kate and Gerry McCann. Among the many hellish innuendos and heinous intrusions this couple suffered in their time of trial, Kate’s private diary – something she kept hidden even from her husband - was found and published by The News of the World, an act Kate described as “mental rape”.

To undertake some devil’s advocacy, the press would trot out the old excuse that if you’ve done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide. If public servants, politicians, police or anyone else is involved in corruption or criminality, then this deserves to be exposed to the taxpayer and the electorate. But this surely should not excuse criminality on the part of our guardians, except in the most pressing case of public interest. Again, “public interest” is key. Like the police, it all depends on who’s making the judgments. What the public should ask in turn is: who on earth are tabloid editors and journalists to be making these calls?

Perhaps we need to examine how we would define “public interest”.

“Something you should know about as a citizen, a taxpayer and a voter in a healthy democracy” might do, off the top of my head. However, “things the public wants to know”, could easily fit the description. And that covers the tabloid shite: the gutter stings, the exposure of drug-taking, telephoto-lens harvested images of breasts and always, always, the sex; in other words, the things we all gawp at in some form or other every single day.

The issue came up this very weekend, when Brooks Newmark, a Tory MP with a government role as, wait for it, minister for civil society, was exposed after having sent an explicit picture of himself to a woman he’d met online. In actual fact, he’d sent his picture to someone pretending to be a woman, a freelance reporter who had gathered half-naked pictures of people he didn’t know from the internet without permission in order to set up a sting.

Is the sting a legitimate tactic? No-one would deny Newmark, a married father-of-five, was foolish. But was this the first time he’d ever indulged in such behaviour? It’s like the old honey trap scenario; a man might well agree to go to bed with a woman who flattered him at a pub one night. But if the sting hadn’t been set up in the first place, and an alien, titillating scenario had never been placed in his very lap, would the man ever have misbehaved in the first place? Deliberately placing temptation in someone’s path never bodes well. The morality is murky, at best.

Indeed, is “private life” between consenting adults ever a matter of public interest? Is someone’s lawful recreational sexual activity ever going to impinge on how they carry out their jobs? You may say no, but still you read the gossip pages and scandal sheets; still it becomes common currency, the lingua franca of office chat and playground sniggering which we all indulge in. True morality, true probity in the work of newspapers and media outlets becomes cloudier the more we look into our own hearts and our own motivations.

Perhaps the start and end point to these considerations should be the law of the land. Adultery is not illegal. Phone hacking, however, is.

Nick Davies takes aim at the hypocrisy of many at News Corp for daring to expose so many affairs and drug-taking, despite their own dubious records on both scores. There are unsubstantiated rumours of seriously debauched behaviour, with lots of drug-taking going on even as The News of the World was denouncing the exact same behaviour on its front pages. The supreme irony for that champion muck-raker and kiss-and-tell clarion is that ex-editor Andy Coulson had been having an affair with Rebekah Brooks, a senior News Corp executive (herself a former Sun and News of the World editor), an entanglement that was unpicked in brutal fashion at the Old Bailey during their trial.

Rebekah Brooks, I should stress, was cleared of involvement in any criminal activity during her time at the News of the World, and her professional reputation remains completely intact.

Brooks continues to be a fascinating character. When the heat was on, Murdoch went on record as saying that protecting her was his top priority. It’s easy to see why men would be smitten by her. With her wild red curls and a certain icy self-assurance, Rebekah Brooks would have represented Christmas and birthday come at once for middle aged men in positions of authority. A former editor of The Sun and The News of the World, moving on to a senior executive role near the very summit of News Corp before she stepped down with the hacking furore at its height, Brooks was keen to get close to people in power. Former prime minister Tony Blair was known to have counselled her during the height of her travails, and she made a friend of Sarah Brown, wife of Blair’s successor at Number 10, Gordon Brown. This did not stop News Corp’s papers from delivering an immense kicking to Brown as he staggered towards defeat in the 2010 general election, nor did it prevent them from revealing that the Browns’ son was suffering from cystic fibrosis.

And yet, Brown cosied up with them, going to Brooks’ wedding in 2009, allowing Brooks to host a “pyjama party” at Chequers. You could say that Brooks demonstrates “emotional intelligence”, a strange quality which has come into vogue in the past decade. A seemingly altruistic characteristic prized and valued, but also something that can be a valuable tool for sociopaths trying to influence or upset people.

When it comes to the crunch, these people wield power. They know they can topple you – and perhaps they already have some dirt they might like to publish at a later date. So you’ll play ball, won’t you? Davies terms this latter scenario “whitemail”.

One area Davies misses out in his coverage of the story is the nature of information and how it has changed beyond all recognition in the past 15 years or so. Even as recently as the mid-to-late 1990s – it feels like an instant of time ago – gathering information was still a matter of committing something to paper or tape, or latterly, a computer disk. This is the analogue world of physical documents, recorded conversations, printed photos and voices on a telephone line. It seems quaint already. The Dark Arts of journalism were of course alive and well back then (the late Princess of Wales and her ex-husband knew all about that), but the information technology revolution changed the game forever.

Having a mobile phone or a computer – doing what I am doing this very second, typing something out while I am directly connected to vast data networks – makes it so much easier for people to pinpoint me. Who I am; exactly where I’ve been; what I’m interested in; who I know; what I’ve been doing with them; what I’ve been buying; what I’ve been looking at on the internet; private communications between friends, family, my partner; what I like and dislike; my bank details; the car I drive; where I work; what I think about all of the above. Basically, all that I am.

While most of us understand that we don’t amount to the merest scrotal pixel on the information superhighway, all of this information can nonetheless be accessed by someone with a little bit of money to spend, and perhaps an axe to grind. We would be appalled at the amount of information held on us by Google and Amazon alone, and yet we enter it so readily on our computer screens and smart phones. And that’s before we address the phenomenon of social media, which is still in its infancy. Facebook feels like it’s been here forever, but it’s only really been a fixture in most people’s lives from 2007 onwards. And yet, if the wrong kind of person was minded to look, it can detail your life even down to what you were eating for lunch that day – and all that information is provided by you, willingly, gratis.  

The nature of information and how it is stored and used by corporations is an unstoppable juggernaut as technology becomes more sophisticated, its integration with our flesh and blood lives ever more seamless. Computer hacking is a constant threat in cyberspace, and I believe that there is a crisis to come. At some point, encryption at banks or some kind of public institution will be sprung, and for a brief period of time anyone who wishes to will be able to check out your bank account details, or the data police hold about you, or your medical records. It seems inevitable that it will happen. We might look back with some nostalgia on the good old days of intrusion characterised by paparazzi photos of someone with their top off on a beach.

“Sharing” is becoming a bit of a dirty word. Too much of it is automatic; it should be something you decide to opt into, not out of. A little less sharing might do you some good. On the other hand, if you wish to remain truly private, then there is little room for you in the digital world. Phone hacking is the inevitable conclusion of our lives being committed to digital records, minute by minute. Someone, somewhere, is interested in you, and not for any ostensibly positive human reason. Most likely they want your money. They might also want your time and attention. They might want to learn your dirtiest secret, and they might take pleasure in sharing it with the world, to put you in a state of fear and alarm. Or to ruin you.

The good thing about this sudden sea of information is that platforms exist for us to get to the truth of some matters rather more quickly than a tabloid newspaper might. There are two fantastic recent examples of news events and grassroots uprisings which took place entirely outside of the traditional media enclaves: the civil rights protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following a police shooting which might otherwise have gone quietly from the headlines, and the drive for Scottish independence, which almost triumphed from a standing start and a 20-point opinion poll deficit, despite almost zero support from the mainstream media (the Sunday Herald being the one honourable exception).

The game has changed. We are all journalists now, at the touch of a button. We are all photographers, broadcasters and publishers. 

Newspapers, especially in Britain, still set the agenda. People in power still dance to their tune. But their days are coming to an end. Circulation is plummeting among most titles. In the past decade alone, their sales have seen stomach-churning drops, even among the big beasts of the jungle. They’re feeling the strain. Some newsrooms which teemed with activity a decade ago are now ghost towns; staff levels at many titles have been decimated. At a local level, the effect is quite simply catastrophic. Most regional papers are struggling.

Online, churnalism abounds. At best this is a harmless distraction, but at worst, it hand-feeds corporate interests by playing on public apathy. Today, you probably clicked on a link to some top 10 or other, or a regurgitated showbiz gossip piece. You possibly had a look at the first few seconds of a viral video of someone’s 15 minutes of public humiliation. But you probably didn’t check what’s happening in your own town, in your own community – or if you did, it wasn’t a priority. This apathy is bad for democracy and bad for society. It breeds ignorance, which plays into the hands of corporations which would much rather you didn’t take any interest in them at all.

Newspapers and media groups were painfully slow to embrace online platforms. One national newspaper which could count on colossal daily sales as recently as 12 years ago has still to fully grasp basic concepts of interactivity, message board commenting, playable videos and live pictures. For much of the Noughties they jealously guarded their content in the hope that people would “always buy a paper”, and that the internet was some kind of fad. That newspaper’s circulation is now about a third of what it once was.

There’s no chance of the genie going back in its bottle. The future is digital. Some big names in our media world will be gone in 10 years’ time unless they adapt, and adapt radically.

As Davies stresses, not everyone who works on tabloid newspapers is a bad person. I could point out plenty of lovely, brilliant, talented people who earn a living with them. As in any other workplace, they’re not the ones you need to worry about. They’re not the ones Davies is taking aim at. In a confessional opening to the book, he reveals that he was bullied when he was younger, and those experiences have led him to seek out and confront bullies. This is honourable. Where do you find true honour in public life?

There is a common perception of journalists as being “street fighters” – tough, seasoned, Chandleresque individuals, fond of a drink, not averse to a ruck, and happy to administer a knee in the balls or a stab in the back as the occasion dictates. This doesn’t apply in the vast majority of cases. Many are decent, hard-working people with a genuine interest in the truth and keeping the public informed. I guess you’ll find one or two street fighters in the mix, somewhere, and not a few drinkers. But the worst specimens I’ve encountered from that world aren’t street fighters at all – they’re the shitbags who might hover around the edges of a fight, before darting in to plant a kick in the teeth of someone lying on the deck. Often, standing up for what is morally right or decent is nothing like as important as delivering this kick, or parading around with the stained underwear they stole off the line the night before.

Hack Attack is an exciting read, taking on the tones of a thriller as the author tackles the dark figures ranged against him. Nick Davies’ peroration in this book’s epilogue is a wonderful thing – a rebel yell against the corporatist forces which seek to dictate public policy, remove regulations, safeguards and scrutiny and ultimately harm democracy and our free society. Like Orwell’s work, I will return to that piece of writing whenever the world – perversely, never so bright, never so closely connected – grows a little too dark for my liking.

And yet, as Davies concedes, Hack Attack does not mark a victory. The exposure of the hacking scandal is not a Death Star moment; in fact it barely qualifies as an Endor shield generator moment. The Emperor remains in his throne room. These events did not cast the Murdoch clan out of the public sphere. It did not lessen their influence. It did not even cost them money; during the hacking scandal, News Corp’s shares rose sharply in value.

It has not completely removed the possibility of News Corp increasing its control over BSkyB, which would make it the biggest, most powerful media company the world has ever seen. Going by the front page reactions to David Cameron’s speech in Birmingham in recent days, it has not lessened the company’s influence in political life.

The News of the World was staked through the heart, but, like Christopher Lee’s Dracula, it soon emerged from the smouldering ashes in a predictable sequel as The Sun on Sunday – same paper, effectively, but with a different name.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, allowed a criminal into the heart of Downing Street, despite concerns being raised about the hiring of Andy Coulson as his press secretary. Cameron insists all background checks and protocols had been followed to the letter, but the fact remains. Incredibly, he has escaped serious censure for this oversight. In parliament, Ed Miliband was scathing in his criticism of the Prime Minister, but the Labour leader failed to ask Cameron for his resignation, as he should have done.

Cameron and the Tories will most likely win the 2015 general election. Lurking behind that outcome, the grinning spectre of Boris Johnson looms large.

Andy Coulson’s head was duly served on a plate, but anyone smacking their lips over such a spectacle might reflect that he was one of the few working class boys involved in the bigger picture.

The hacking scandal and the subsequent inquiry failed to provide any statutory underpinning to tackle unacceptable behaviour by the press – in the wake of, we must be fair, legitimate concerns about state regulation of the media.

Under the new Independent Press Standards Organisation, the media industry in the UK will effectively continue to regulate itself, meaning we have learned nothing from the failures of the defunct and now almost completely discredited Press Complaints Commission.


The Dark Arts, you suspect, will continue to be practised by their adepts. Ordinary, blameless people and those who wish to conduct their own private lives, privately, will continue to be eaten alive by the beast in the same mouthful as the corrupt, the criminal and the craven. Who will stand up for them?