Why Self-Publish?


Getting your book published has always been a hard slog. It is frequently frustrating, sometimes humiliating and often a very depressing process. At least, through the conventional route, where rejection is the default position and publishing houses are able to dismiss manuscripts out of hand, it has often been so. Innumerable celebrated and best selling authors have had to suffer dozens of rejections before getting their work into print. Many publishers and literary agents don’t even respond, and paper manuscript submissions often simply disappear without trace.

The thing is, in the old days, publishing a 300 page book was an expensive and risky business. Publishers had to lay out substantial production costs, with no guarantee that many, if any, would be sold. The fate of the work of many aspiring authors was to be recycled as egg boxes or toilet roll tubes. Worse, bookshops like Borders have disappeared from our shopping centres. In Manchester over the years I have seen the demise of Wilshaws, Sherratt & Hughes as well as several other small bookshops. W H Smith hangs on, of course, largely through its extensive railway concessions. And, provided you want pulp fiction, paperback best sellers, cookery or gardening coffee table editions or magazines, it’s a good place to begin. But sadly, in Britain’s third largest city, there survives one single dedicated bookshop!

Amazon and the electronic book have changed all that. Nowadays, virtually half of all books purchased are in Kindle or iPad formats. And the number is growing. Whatever you may think of Amazon, we all use it – that’s why it’s so successful. Their Print On Demand system (POD) means that books are not actually printed ahead of time, only after the customer had ordered the copy (and paid for it in advance) is it actually printed – on demand.

Using the Amazon/CreateSpace and Kindle Direct systems, texts, cover images, as well as front and back material, can be all uploaded online. Within days the book can be available in paperback or Kindle formats. The system also allows the author to go back and edit out typos or errors, to change the jacket design, pricing, to add or delete words, sentences, or even whole chapters, before re-uploading the edited version. However, there is a downside. Amazon do not edit of make value judgements on the quality of the writing – they merely publish it. This does mean that any old rubbish can be published nowadays, whereas under the old system, editors would have weeded out the trash and only go forward with books they thought had quality or that might earn them a buck or two. Like much of the material on the internet, there are a lot of awful self-published books out there. I don’t mean the quality of production. Amazon POD books hold up very well with those printed conventionally by main publishing houses. Book quality is excellent, and they even designate an ISBN number in the package – in fact, you’d be hard pushed to see the difference, other than the ‘Published by Amazon’ credit hidden way down on the last page. Oh, did I mention that the process is all free? It’s just that even you, the author, have to pay for a copy of your own book – there are no free author’s copies!

Take a look at my Self-Published novel “Twelve – Time Interventions’ exclusively on Amazon at http://www.amazon.co.uk/Twelve-Time-Interventions-James-Sherwood/dp/1505886899.


Second Child Syndrome

Book One and Book Two of the
Book One and Book Two of the “Time Interventions” Trilogy

They say the problem for a second child born into a family is that it can feel a little short-changed when compared to the lavish attention normally paid to a firstborn. As an only child, I have no direct experience of that, but I’m told by others that it tends to be true.

Second creations are often felt to be second best.

This is true of second books, second music albums and films. Take the film Rambo, for example. It was met with universal acclaim by cinemagoers when it was released way back in the 1980s. Rambo II, however, was considered to be a disappointing sequel that failed to live up to the promise of the first, and Rambo III was generally thought to be quite a bad film. Many people thought that it would have been better to have stopped at the one film, rather than continue trotting out weaker and weaker plots and storylines to keep the box office in liquidity.

Consider all the newly discovered talents on television programmes like X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. How many disappear without trace after that one initial chart-busting song? We all know Leona Lewis, but where are all the others now?

It is said that everybody has at least one book in them. If that’s true, then few of us ever get round to writing it, let alone publish it. where it might be exposed to public scrutiny. This was a considerable inhibiting factor when I set out to write a trilogy. Three books? Did I have three in me? That was a daunting prospect, but, the concept I had in my head was too broad to be covered in one volume. Even so, setting myself three to write was risky. I knew how the first would play out – I’d got that well planned and the idea fired my imagination; the second was a sketchy notion, hardly thought through at all. But the third? I hadn’t a clue how that would go.

However, as I began to flesh out my ideas with words on the page, the narrative began to flow… freely. I was surprised. I had probably expected what’s commonly called “writer’s block”. Happily, so far, that hasn’t raised it’s ugly head, and the writing is still flowing like a stream. Lucky me. I am now more than 30,000 words into the third and final book in the trilogy, which I expect to be published early next year.

On the plus side, writing a trilogy solves many literary problems for a would-be author. First, the characters, settings and the concept is already set out in the first, so that any subsequent books in a series already have a prescribed path to follow. All this assumes that there’s enough actual or substantial material in the subject to stretch to three books in the first place.

Of course, whether it’s all worth reading, is another matter. Whether what I have embarked upon is a worthwhile enterprise or a complete waste of time, is for you, the reader, to judge.

Book Two of the Trilogy: “MARE NOSTRUM”, is now available, exclusively through Amazon in paperback, Kindle and other eBook formats. To take a look inside and perhaps read a few pages.

Why not CLICK HERE or else, go to Amazon UK and search “James Sherwood Time Interventions”.

Déjà Vu Again



While watching Comic Relief on BBC Television on Friday night, I realised I’d seen the same old thing before – many times. Not that television is particularly averse to repeats, but this was of a different order of things. This wasn’t just another re-run of Dad’s Army, or Only Fools and Horses.  This was serious stuff.

Appeals to save starving children in Africa, or to provide medication, mosquito nets, tents and clean water pumps for what used to be called The Third World. Haven’t we been here before? The presenters proudly hailed it as thirty years of Comic Relief. So why is it all still necessary?

On January 5th, I published Book One of my first novel “Twelve“. Several chapters deal with an imaginary refugee camp in Somalia in the 1990s, and the relief aid which the main character, Patrick Cameron, drove in for Médecins Sans Frontières. It was fiction, but it need not have been. There’s enough of it around factually to have made it a non-fictional account. Try typing ‘starving children in Africa’ into Google images and see what you get: screen after screen after screen of  big wide eyes, pot bellies and the skeletally emaciated faces of small children, crying listlessly as blow flies cover their eyes, noses and mouths. I coughed up my £10. Who wouldn’t? I probably bought just 2 mosquito nets to save two kids getting malaria somewhere. Not much charity there.

The scenes and stories I watched on Comic Relief made me want to cry. But would I be crying for those poor little innocents, or because nothing seems to be getting done to beat the ever- recurring scourge?

It would have been bad enough were it a new phenomenon. But I well remember Michael Buerk staggering TV audiences with his on the ground report of the famine he described as of “biblical proportions” in Ethiopia in 1984. That was thirty years ago. The catastrophe so moved the world that it prompted Bob Geldorf to set up the Band Aid Appeal. Others charity appeals followed – like Sports Aid and Children in Need.

But how much is actually needed to sort this problem, and how much are we giving… really? Currently the UK international aid budget is £10.3bn – that’s just 1.4% of total Government spending. Sounds a lot, doesn’t it? But it’s slightly less than £7 for every person living in the UK. And, given that Britain is so small an island, that if you didn’t know where it was on the map you’d be hard pushed to find it, it has the fourth largest defence budget in the world, currently around £40.42billion (that’s £40,42,000,000). America devotes £461billion. So, our international aid budgets are plain chicken feed!

If such sums were spent on health, education and social services we’d probably have cured cancer and the common cold by now, there would be no recession and we’d know for real that we are the sixth most wealthy country in the world. If the big five nations donated their defence budgets we could have sorted Africa long ago, instead of which, it is a bleeding sore, where mutilation, child prostitution, wholesale slaughter, unbelievable poverty and malnutrition are commonplace. Of course, none would give up their defence in its entirety – that would be plain stupid. But what about a quarter of it? Think of the difference that would make.

Still, privileged western kids moan if mum won’t buy them the latest generation of iPhone, or pay the £35.00 monthly tariff to have one on contract. Or they want the right brand of trainers at £80 a go and sulk if they can’t have them, or worse, get bullied at school for having a cheap no-name pair.

So next time you complain that you haven’t been able to change your car for three years, or are down to your last fifty pairs of shoes, think of those poor kids having spend all day scavenging on rubbish dumps to find food scraps or stuff to recycle. Remember the eight year old orphan child who was being brought up by her grandmother in Eldoret in Kenya, looking for plastics that they could trade in for cash? She was asked? “What was the most valuable thing you’ve ever found on the rubbish dump?” asked the interviewer. “Rice” was the girl’s reply. That was when I cried.

Live Long and Prosper



If you want a long life, move to Okinawa in Japan, where they have the highest prevalence of people over 100 years of age. Failing that, and a bit nearer, is Sardinia, where the healthiest of Mediterranean diets is to be found. But seriously, their good fortune probably owes more to genetics and a simple positive outlook to life. Not altogether uncoincidental is the fact that both are essentially farming communities where life is slow, uncluttered and free from traffic polution.

There are alternative views of course. The old comedian George Burns, for example, (well into his eighties), was asked during a television interview, what his doctor had to say about a lifetime spent in heavy drinking, smoking cigars and inveterate womanising.

“Oh, he died years ago,” was his reply.

The announcement of the death of actor Leonard Nimoy this week started me thinking. “Live long and prosper” was his classic Vulcan salutation in the original Star Trek series, way back when. You don’t have to be a Trekkie, or into Sci-Fi to appreciate what a great greeting it was. It’s the kind of generous sentiment we often use to greet others. We wish them “Good Day”, and we ask them “How are you?” – that sort of thing.

The ninth amendment to the US Constitution granted its citizens “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, in acceptance of the fact that we all want a long, prosperous and happy life. It’s natural, and it’s universal.

How to achieve it, however, is another matter. For some it comes down to acquiring great wealth. For some it’s the love of a partner, fame, or celebrity. For others it’s pease of mind. Or a warm fireside and a cheering cup of cocoa. But all people aspire to some level of prosperity, no matter how they define it.

I well remember waking up early one Christmas morning in 1952. I was just two months short of eleven years old. It was still dark. We were a poor working class family of the Black Country. My father, a D-Day veteran had returned from France, not to a heroic welcome, but to a never-ending slog to find work. So, Christmas presents would never be many, nor big, nor expensive. There was the mandatory woollen sock, filled with nuts and a single tangerine. But at the foot of the bed, lying on the quilted eiderdown, a wrapping paper twinkled with stardust and a neat string bow held together a real present. It untied with just one single pull. I unwrapped it gingerly. It was a book.

I was regarded as a bright lad, and in the days before television, books were what you bought for promising boys. The hardbound cover opened to reveal the frontispiece. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson. I was overjoyed. Not because of its great value, but because it was mine.

I read that book over and over, and learned to love words, and reading. Within the year, that copy had innumerable hand-written margin notes. Whenever I came across a word that I didn’t know, I’d look it up in the dictionary and write its meaning in the margin.

I also wrote my name on the font page and followed that with my home address, (street, town, county – there were no postcodes in those days). Then I added as an afterthought: …“Europe, The World, The Galaxy, The Universe”.  So that, if it ever got lost or misplaced, the finder would have no doubt where to locate the rightful owner. A kid’s notion.

I still have my prized copy of Treasure Island. I’m a grown man, but even now, when I get a book, the first thing I do is write my name in it. Now that really is strange.

That small book was a priceless gift. The pursuit of my personal happiness was never to do with getting rich – but it was always about enrichment. And I suppose I have prospered. I have my warm fireside, children who make me proud, grandchildren I love and a wife that I adore. I was never wealthy – teachers have never made money, but I can pay my bills, don’t owe anybody a penny and have sufficient for my needs.

So that’s the prospering part dealt with. Now for the living long bit.

Charlie Chaplin, having reached the grand old age of eighty, was asked what were the benefits of advanced age. “At last,’ he replied. “I begin to feel at ease in the company of adults.” I knew exactly what he meant, for there is still a child inside all of us, no matter how old we are.

But I warn you, dear reader, that I intend to live to be a very old man. So watch this space.

Is There Anybody Out There?



Fifty years ago, that great American astronomer, cosmologist and astrobiologist, Carl Sagan, pioneered and promoted the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project.

Sadly, Sagan died in December 1996 and never saw any success in his quest.

It seemed like an impossible task, to find another Earth-like planet out there, one that might be able to support life among the billions of stars. But on the 21st of April 2009, Swiss scientists did find one. It was chance in several billion, but there it was. Orbiting the red dwarf star identified at Gliese, located north of the brightest star in the constellation of Libra, about 20 light years distant, within what they call “the habitable zone”, was a planet of Earth size which they designated Gliese 581C. It was a first, and they were very excited. But they found others, including Gliese 581D.

So-called habitable zones are at a distance from a star where the climate might be relatively temperate and there would be a possibility of water. Take our own solar system as an example. Venus is too close to our star, the Sun, and is unbearably hot under a thick noxious greenhouse atmosphere; Mars is too far out and temperatures are too cold. But in the space between these two lies the Earth, in the midst of a zone where the sun is not too hot to kill us or to evaporate off all of our water, and where life can grow. All kinds of life: animal, vegetable, microbial – everywhere you look on Earth, in every possible niche, some living thing finds an existence. That’s the point. Wherever life can find a place to live, it does. Life thrives. So why just here on Earth? Given the millions of potential places it could exist in some form, why would we think it could only happen here?

The question is this. Is our blue planet unique in the whole universe? Are there other Earths out there? Scientists, following Sagan’s hypothesis think there are – they reckon there to be at least 10,000 Earth-like planets out there. The problem is finding them.

It has been calculated that our own Milky Way and the neighbouring Andromeda galaxies have about 100 billion stars between them, and the known universe may have in excess of 100 billion galaxies. Multiply 100 billion by 100 billion, and you get some idea of the magnitude of the problem! Truly astronomical! The chances of finding a suitable planet are billions to one against, yet we seem to have discovered plenty in the last few years. It’s taken over 50 years, but hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day. And, the slim chance of winning our National Lottery is  about 14 million to one, but I still buy my ticket every Saturday. As they say: “You have to be in it, to win it”.

NASA realised that rather than look around the night sky haphazardly, better to focus in on a small sample area. Latest technology is far better than that which Sagan had at his disposal. Hence, the new Kepler Telescope. Like it’s Hubble predecessor, The Kepler Discovery Mission 10, works from space, where it’s not hampered by air pollution. It was specifically designed to survey our region of the Milky Way galaxy to discover hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone. To date it has discovered over one thousand.

The chances of any of these having intelligent life are still remote. If any do have water, the must have ingredient for life, most would probably be simple microbes, algaes and other single-celled organisms. A bit like the Earth would have been 3 and a half billion years ago. Anybody discovering the Earth that far back would have concluded that this planet did not have any intelligent life forms. Other suitable planets could exist where intelligent life forms may once have existed, but became extinct eons earlier.

We may find the right planets, and the signs are promising, but are we at the right time? As Mister Spock might have put it: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it”.


Squashed Tomatoes & Stew



It was my birthday this week, and apart from a few “Squashed tomatoes and stew” messages left on my answer phone, by and large, greetings were suitably respectful of my great age. “You’re 73 years old today” messages were common.  Funny thing, the passage of time. I remember that when my granddaughter discovered that I was sixty, a few years ago, she said to her brother in astonishment: “Sixty, Barney – that’s almost a hundred!”. They both gasped. Age is another funny thing. The fact is, on the day of my birthday, I was only a day older than I had been the day before. We have so many appropriate clichés for the phenomenon. “Age is only a number” is one. “You are only as old as you feel” is another.

So how old is old, really?  Well, the Parthenon is certainly quite old, dating from the mid-fifth century BC. Stonehenge, on the other hand, is ancient; it’s reckoned to be around 5000 years old. But even they are relatively young in the grand scheme of things. Lucy, the mysterious early hominid skeleton “Australopithecus Afarensis“, unearthed 40 years ago, has been classified as a 3.2 million-year-old – that’s prehistoric – very, very old. So I can assert that I definitely don’t rank as very old – certainly not among that order of ageing. Yet, despite having an 18-year-old boy inside my head, I have to accept that to other youngsters, I may be regarded, unequivocally, as old. It all depends who you are and what your viewpoint is. My own grandchildren see me as an old man. Of course they do – grandparents are old by definition. I well remember my own beloved grandmother Lily; (I was the apple of her eye). She died at the age of 65. To me she was an old woman. Nowadays, we are more likely to regard 85 as old. Perceptions change.

However, some things really are old. It is calculated that he universe came into being 13.8 billion years ago, and the Earth, a relative newcomer, is a mere 4.54 billion years old. Astronomers, palaeontologists and archaeologists are forever trying to uncover the past, to look back in time in an attempt to discover where we came from.

Yet, all of us do that every day. That thunder-clap you just heard, actually happened a while ago. Sound travels at 331 metres a second, which means that the sound of a bolt of lightning that struck two miles away actually happened 10 seconds ago, it just took that long to reach us. By the time we hear it, it’s already in the past. Observers two miles further away won’t hear it for another 10 seconds.

Light, on the other hand, travels around 125,000 miles a second. So, you switch on a room light and it apparently illuminates instantly. Well, almost – but not quite. It all depends how far away from the source you are. For example, the sunlight that is falling upon the earth now actually set out from the sun 8 minutes and 19 seconds ago. By the time we see it, it’s already in the past. Starlight takes years to be seen by an observer on earth. Any one particular star you might see out there could have disappeared years ago, ending its life in some cataclysmic event and finally disappearing from view as a black dwarf, and what you are seeing actually IS the past.

These are the things that fascinate me. It’s not so much Star Trek aliens, or the magical world of Tolkein’s Middle Earth, so much as the real paradoxes of time and space and the mysteries that one day may be unravelled.

Read my novel “Twelve – Time Interventions” Book One. Book Two will be out later this year.

The Equation of Time



Since my birth in 1942, I have travelled through a lot of time. To be exact, 26,665 days. That’s around 640,000 hours. (From here on figures get pretty big). That’s almost 39 and a half million minutes, or 2 and a quarter billion seconds. (Well, you get the idea). So, seventy-three years have rushed by since then, and, to be honest, it all seems to have gone in a proverbial twinkling of an eye.

The problem is that time has no real measure.

An American friend, a retired astrophysicist, pointed this out to me when we were discussing a sundial project on which we were collaborating. “Clock time,” he said, “is an invention we’ve made for practical purposes”. Clock time is exact – isn’t it? It ticks away at a regular rate, doesn’t it?

Be that as it may, it’s still necessary to remind ourselves by constant reference to timepieces. We look at a watch or the screen of our mobile phone many times every day, because its interminable passing is not experienced – not perceived – in any real sense. “Is that the time?” you may ask, surprised at how it has passed without your realising it.

Confident though we may be in its regularity, our measurement of it has not always been so. I well remember my grandmother opening the clock case and switching on the BBC Home Service on the radio to hear Big Ben strike 10 o’clock every night. Her clock, like all others before digital and atomic timekeeping, was several minutes slow (or fast – I forget which), and had to be corrected daily, by reference to a more reliable timepiece. Yet, the plain fact is that even Big Ben runs less accurately with the changing temperatures of seasons, and even today its pendulum requires weights to be added or removed (with old pre-decimal pennies!) in order to regulate it.

Who said clock time was exact?

On the 24 February 1582, history records that Pope Gregory XIII ordered by Papal Bull that the old Julian Calendar be abandoned in favour of the revised so-called Gregorian Calendar, a refinement that was a 0.002% correction in the length of the year based on the old system. In broad terms, it resulted in the introduction of the leap year – without that adjustment, the old system of marking the passage of time would, by today, have been 14 days adrift.

This week, my first ever girl friend contacted me through social media. She was the first girl I ever kissed, so how could I forget her? We were reminded that I was just 16 and it had been 57 years since we’d billed and cooed outside her front door. Time flies – time marches on – tempus fugit, and all that. In a week’s time, my eldest granddaughter will be 18 years of age; she’s a grown woman. Where have the years gone since I held her cupped as a new-born in the palm of one hand? I look in the shaving mirror and my grandfather looks back at me, or would, were it not for the fact that he died at 49 years of age, and I would be his senior by 24 years!

Time is crazy.

There once was an age when people made their appointments at dawn, or sunset and when gunfights were fought out at high noon. These times were judged by the position of the sun, and this was often reflected in the wide-spread of sundials throughout the western world. The passage of seasons would be marked by simple observable events, like the appearance of daffodils, or the falling of leaves. People woke up to the crowing of a cock or the song of a blackbird – these were sufficiently accurate measures for all practical purposes.

Now we have digital time. It may be accurate to the nearest millisecond. But human perception is as it always was. Fugitive, subjective and idiosyncratic.

Personally, I assert that time has passed far more quickly for me than it should have done. I still have an 18 year old boy, alive and well inside my head. (He has a full head of hair and a six-pack). No … it is only the inevitable recurrence of birthdays, which my friends and family insist on my celebrating, and the face of an old man peering back through the shaving mirror, that tell me that I really have travelled through time. In that sense, I suppose we are all time travellers.

See my novel on Time Interventions.

Advancing Genetics



This very question was my starting point when I began the “Time Interventions” series. I intended to look far into the future and began to wonder where science would have led us by the twenty-third century. However, even the most informed predictions are inevitably highly speculative. When I was a schoolboy, for example, my teacher predicted that we’d all be flying around in spaceships and living on Mars by 2000. (That was a tad optimistic). But the space between fact and prediction gave me a niche to write in. I could speculate. There was sufficient evidential fact to show trends in scientific discovery over the past 50 years and that would be a guide for how things might go in the future.

I was about to write a fiction, after all, so I could allow my imagination to roam unfettered. But it would be within a science-fiction genre, so I was conscious of the need for some acknowledgement to real science. I discovered that real science is more fantastic than science fantasy could ever be. Let me cite a few examples of modern miracles.

Twenty-five years ago, my father had a hip and knee replacement – we used to call him bionic, even then, though he was no Steve Austin. Two of my wife’s nieces have required kidney transplants within the past two years, and at least two more of their siblings, (and perhaps several of their children) will need similar replacements in due course, because of inherited polycystic kidney disease. I was personally diagnosed with acute angina about sixteen years ago – that condition is controlled by medication and I live a normal, fulfilled and healthy life as a result. With medical interventions of the surgical, bionic and medication kinds, more of us are living longer.

In this connection, three major scientific ‘breakthroughs’ in the past year have particularly fascinated me.

The first, announced in February 2014, was legislation by the British Government permitting the creation of babies using sperm and eggs from three people. Cytoplasmic transfer of cells is not new, of course. It was pioneered in the late 1990s by Doctor Jacques Cohen, clinical embryologist at the St Barnabas Institute in New Jersey in the USA. The procedure prevents serious diseases caused by genetic faults in the mitochondria, which are found in human cells. The nucleus of the fertilised egg is removed from the cell of one woman and put into an egg cell from another woman, which has healthy mitochondria. Her healthy egg cell is then put back into the original mother, who will go on to give birth naturally, without any risk of her baby inheriting nasty genetic disorders – they will have been effectively screened out.

Second, in October 2014, a 40-year-old paralysed Polish man was able to walk again after breakthrough surgery transplanted cells from his nose into his spinal cord, which had been severed in a knife attack. The broken nerve pathway regenerated and the break was ‘bridged’.

Third, in June 2014, the University of Sydney in Australia announced it had successfully ‘manufactured’ replacement human organ tissue by 3D printing. They had already used the process to create several types of human tissue, most notably liver tissue which is currently being used in drug toxicity testing.

“While recreating little parts of tissues in the lab is something that we have already been able to do, the possibility of printing three-dimensional tissues with functional blood capillaries in the blink of an eye is a game changer. Of course, simplified regenerative materials have long been available, but true regeneration of complex and functional organs is what doctors really want and patients really need, and this is the objective of our work,” said study lead author and University of Sydney researcher, Doctor Luiz Bertassoni.

Important medical interventions are being made every day, in ways that would have been thought impossible even a few decades ago.

So whatever next, I thought. Imagine what will be accomplished in the next 300 years.

Well, I imagined, and I wrote.

Once Upon a Time….



“A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…”. So went the original opening crawl to the Star Wars film way back in 1974. Most children’s’ stories begin with something similar: “Once upon a time..” or “In a land far away”. The thing is, it’s a way of asking a listener, be it a small child at bedtime or a cinema audience, to follow you into a make-believe world. You follow through a wardrobe, and you’re in Narnia. Fly along with Peter Pan and you’re in Never Never Land, and a white rabbit with a pocket watch can lead you into Wonderland. You get the idea. You are being asked to believe whatever follows, even though you know it’s only a story; to suspend your disbelief for the time being.

For it to work at all, therefore, the story has to be believable. Even if it is a totally fantastic tale based on an incredible premise, you must believe it. So, in order to sit through a Dracula film you have to believe there are such things as vampires; watch Harry Potter and you have to believe there is a place called Hogwarts; watch the Lord of the Rings and you have to believe in Hobbits. But only for the time being. When the final curtain falls, you know you will walk back into the real world. It’s called fiction.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word fiction this way: fi’ction n. Invention; invented statement or narrative; literature concerning imaginary events and characters; accepted falsehood.

When I began to write my Time Interventions series, it was to be on the premise that time travel was indeed perfectly possible. It may be an untruth in fact, but it’s a popular and accepted genre in fiction and film-making, so I was happy that I could proceed with it. But for it to work at all it needed to be grounded in some solid factual world. For that I chose four possible scenarios: a refugee camp in Somalia, the Siege of Toledo in the Spanish Civil War, the Bosnian conflict and a terrorist bombing in the Punjab. For these settings to work I needed information and that meant doing some research. When I say some research, I should have said a great deal of research, for it took best part of a year to be able to create the settings I had chosen as the stages on which my story would be acted out.

The factual elements needed to be accurate. I had already been to Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Oviedo and Toledo, places that feature large in my story, and I had clear memories and had made extensive notations about them – names, places, atmosphere, people, sights and sounds – all the details I would need to create convincing settings.

But Somalia and the Punjab were completely unknown to me and too distant for personal fact-finding missions. For them I needed research.

Like others, Wikipedia was my first port of call, though I am always dubious as to its veracity, and information gleaned from its pages had to be verified from at least two other sources before I felt confident enough to include it. What I didn’t want was a geographical or historical treatise. It was to be fiction that could be read easily, whose narrative flowed, and where facts were not simply padding that would impede progress. It’s all too easy to get bogged down in the minutia of detail at the expense of narrative. The novel had to be entertaining and enjoyable to read, not a hard slog through an educational text book.

Though I had accumulated a great deal of hand-written factual information, I realised it was far more than could ever be used. It was a means, not an end in itself. What was to be included was added sparingly – only those facts that were strictly pertinent to the story, and none just for their own sake. It needed a rigorous and ruthless editing. By the time I had finished, the original 105,000 words had come down to 82,000. But, at least I felt I had made an elegant combination of fact and fiction, so that my reader would be able to believe the story, to suspend disbelief … for the time being.

Time Travel…. Really?


Paradox and Fantasy

When I first set out to write “TWELVE“, the first of my “Time Interventions” series, time travel wasn’t foremost in my mind. What I was really fascinated by was the way modern science (genetics and medicine) had extended life expectancy and the quality of life. It began when I was researching my “Manchester UK” website way back in 1994. I sat day after day in the Central Reference Library in Manchester writing copious notes for the history section I had planned about the city.

There was no effective Internet in those days. What existed was a pale shadow of what we have at our beck and call today. There was no such thing as broadband, Wikipedia hadn’t been invented, and I was on all that was available – a dial-up connection to CompuServe (where are they now?). It was slow, sparse on material and expensive – ten pence a minute during the working day, and one penny a minute on Sunday evenings. So paper and pencil was the way it had to be done – the old way.

Staggeringly, I learned that life expectancy of a working man in Salford in the 1870s could be as little as 17 years. (Salford Public Health Annual Report 2013/2014). Of course, many lived a good deal longer – it was high infant mortality that accounted for the alarmingly low statistic. In fact 80% of children in Salford at that time died before they were five, (“Salford – A City and its Past”: edited by Tom Bergin for Salford Cultural Services Department, 1989). Government enquiries into infant deaths brought about the appointment of John Simon, Manchester’s first Medical Officer of Health in 1868. With clean water brought directly by pipeline to the city from the Lake District and the building of Manchester’s sewers, the city saw immediate improvements.

What would those Victorian working people have made of modern-day life, I wondered? They would hardly be able to credit how far we have come in quality of life, longevity, health and material comfort  since those far off days.

The trend got me thinking. My maternal grandfather died of a heart attack at the age of 47. That was not an altogether common occurence back then, when tuberculosis, pneumonia, polio and scarlet fever were deadly killers. But he was still a young man by modern standards. My father died at the age of 83, having endured four heart attacks and subsequently lived for 25 years thereafter with a medically controlled condition.

In its 15th of January 2015 edition, The Telegraph published the Office for National Statistics prediction that  average life expectancy for new-born girls in the UK is on course to reach just over 97 years and boys over 94 years by the year 2037, with many living much longer. It is also predicted that average life female expectancy will reach the once unimaginable milestone of 100 by the middle of the century.

On the 26th of March 2012, The Guardian newspaper reported on a scientific study that predicted that a baby girl born in that year had an almost 40 percent chance of reaching one hundred years of age. On the 6th July 2011, The Daily Mail picked up the story that had appeared in Forbes magazine, CBS News, The Guardian, and many other sources, that according to leading scientist, Doctor Aubrey de Grey, a person has already been born who will live to see their 150th birthday. De Grey went even further – he claims that the first person to live for 1000 years will be born in the next two decades!

Be all that as it may, it did make me think. It was these latest reports that prompted me to write “Time Interventions”. How would a working man from the 1870s possibly understand where we’ve come to, I wondered? How could he possibly comprehend, or even believe, how far civilisation has moved on, how long we are living and what a high quality of life we enjoy?

And, how, I wondered, could we in the 21st century believe, or even understand, a man from 300 years into the future? How long would he live? What illness would have been cured? Would Cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes and all those other deadly diseases have been conquered by then? If only he could come back and tell us, I thought. How improbable would that be?

So I began to imagine … and to write.

Remember Babel?



When I was a very young ‘Assistant Drawing Master’ (yes, that was the actual job title), at the Manchester Grammar School, way back in the late 1960s, there was a writer’s workshop with Old Mancunian, Alan Garner, the celebrated author of childrens’ books like “The Owl Service”, “The Stone Quartet” and “Boneland”. He argued that there were two Alan Garners; one he called ‘the artist’ and the other, ‘the mechanic’. When he began to write, he said, he kept the mechanic securely locked in a cupboard, out of sight and mind, so that the artist could write without interruption. When he had finished, the artist swapped places and out came the mechanic to clean up the mess left by the artist. Things like spelling, bad grammar, typos – that sort of thing. Never, he maintained, could he let both Alan Garners work together, because the one impeded the flow and the other got frustrated with the sloppy writing.

I suppose his point was that the creative process needs to run free and be unencumbered by the regulation of correct English usage. That wasn’t what they taught me at school. Teachers tended to come down like a ton of bricks on bad spelling and split infinitives. Clause analysis and good grammar were paramount, and you were very lucky if your masterpiece ever received more than “V. Good” comment followed by a tick at the end of it. I always suspected that faced with 36 essays to mark, most teachers probably speed read, or perhaps didn’t really read it at all.

But I never really thought language should be prescriptive. Okay, you need some basic framework of rules, so that we can all understand each other, otherwise we descend into another Tower of Babel situation (Genesis chapter 11, verses 4–9). But the joy of English for me has always been its flexibility and its dynamism. It never stood still – it has always been changing. At school, we read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in old English, Shakespeare’s King Lear and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Later, William Hazlitt and Wordsworth, before Edward Lear with its “slithy toads” and Lewis Carroll with Jabbawocky. In his Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found, Carroll needed a word that didn’t exist and invented the word ‘chortled’ (“… to my  arms, my beamish boy! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ He chortled in his joy”).

Shakespeare often found it necessary to invent words and phrases to make his point. Many are still in use today. Expressions like ‘fool’s paradise’, ‘all of a sudden’, ‘one fell swoop’, ‘be all and end all’, ‘foul play’ and ‘good riddance’ are all his. Language moves on, ever adapting to serve the needs of its time.

In March 2014, the OED added many new words and phrases. Words that were in popular usage and needed somehow to be legitimised. (Appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary is about as legitimate as it gets). These included: beatboxer, do-over, honking, demoware, empowerer, twerk, noob, nerdle, jeggings, mankini and honeyfuggling, as well as expressions like bathroom break, dead ringer, honey bunny, honked off, sci-fier, toilet mouth and empty-netter. The OED dropped words and expressions like cassette player, video jockey and millennium bug, because they had fallen into disuse. Expressions like zeppelin repairer and saggermaker’s bottom knocker aren’t heard much these days either.

So English changes as it always has. That, in many ways, is its strength and delight, and why most of the world either speaks it, or wants to. The language of my children and my grandchildren is not the language I grew up with. When I was a kid there were no selfies , nobody ever did a 24/7, an LOL or an OMG, either in texts or in speech, but all of these can be found in the OED. I once had to shortlist for a post in my department some years ago, and immediately felt I had to reject an application written entirely in text speak. Not because I object to text speak – I use it myself – only when texting.

But there are occasions when language needs to be standardised so that it is unequivocal and unmistakable. For instance, I don’t want my Self Assessment Tax Return to be written in anything but plain English, and neither do I want the 9 o’clock news read out in street slang. No, I want the formal use of English to be there for those times I  need it, syntactically correct and grammatically intelligible with standardised English spellings.

The paradox is that language must change, but in many ways we need it to stay the same.