Monthly Archives: August 2014

Apocalypse

This piece first appeared on the Solaris website in 2009.

This article came about when editor Jennifer-Anne Hill suggested that four Solaris authors get together to write about the end of the world, and James Lovegrove, being the optimistic soul he is, came up with a title: The four horsemen of the apocalypse. Or should that be the four ‘writers’ of the apocalypse?

For one of such a normally cheery disposition, I might find this role hard to fulfil. I’m an optimist, and I take the view that whatever mess we make of things, life on Earth in some form will survive, and prosper. A critic once said my fiction was imbued with logical positivism, and I wouldn’t disagree.

By a stroke of coincidental luck, my next-but-one novel from Solaris will be a post-catastrophe tale set sixty years after the fall of civilisation on Earth. Guardians of the Phoenix came about when Mike Ashley invited me to submit a story to his forthcoming Apocalyptic SF anthology, and I wrote a long tale with the above title. During the writing I realised that there was far more story than I was telling; it extended both ways, before the story opened, and after it closed.

The story begins:

It was dawn when we set off from beneath the twisted skeleton of the Eiffel Tower and crossed the desert to Tangiers.

We travelled by day through a blasted landscape devoid of life, and at night we stopped and tried to sleep. I’d lie in my berth and stare through the canopy at the magnetic storms lacerating the troposphere. The heat was insufferable, even in the marginally cooler early hours…

The band of survivors trek across the desert that was France, towards the dried-up Mediterranean, in search of water. They travel in a truck encrusted with solar panels, drilling for water wherever they can, and scavenging – along with competing survivors, some more feral than others – for dwindling supplies of food. On the way they meet another troupe of desperadoes, this one from what was Egypt, led by a woman called Samara. She is in possession of a secret that might mean the survival of human race. Times might be desperate, resources almost exhausted, plant and animal life very nearly extinct, and the ozone layer shot to pieces – but there is always hope. The novel follows these self-appointed guardians of the phoenix towards what they hope will be eventual redemption.

I take the long view, which I think for the sake of my sanity is a wise way of looking at things. Perhaps it’s a result of being a science fiction writer – or perhaps I became a SF writer because I tried to look past the here and now, the mess we’re in, and envisage a more rosy future. Perhaps I’m just a head-in-the-sands, rose-tinted spectacled optimist writing fantasies of wish-fulfilment because the alternative would be despair.

Anyway, the way I look at it is even in a worse case scenario, where the human race fouls up and destroys itself, then something will survive – be it bands of stone-age people who scratch a living in the wreckage, evolving over the millennia into something unrecognisable to us today; or other forms of life, animal or insect, who over the course of time might evolve intelligence… and perhaps use it more wisely than poor, hapless, self-destructive Homo saps.

But it would be nice to look into the far future and learn that humankind has overcome its difficulties, its differences, and evolved into a peace-loving, tolerant species which celebrates difference and diversity and has learned to treat the Earth with the respect it needs… and perhaps even, equipped with these qualities, headed for the stars and the many adventures awaiting us out there.

But that’s another story.

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Salvage

Is Salvage a novel or a collection of short stories?

It can only be one or the other, surely – or, like Schrödinger’s Cat, can it exist in both states at once? Well, I like to think it can. Or, put another way, I’d like to have my cake and eat it. Salvage is a novel, and it’s also a collection.

I wrote the first section of Salvage – oh, okay then, the first short story – way back in around ’07. It was called “Salvage Rites” and concerned a salvage ship captain, his AI co-pilot, and engineer, and their search for a vast monastery starship. It’s a fast, slick action-adventure about thwarted love, lust, and the religious impulse. It sat in my PC for a year while I dickered with it, and then sent it to Pete Crowther who was editing an anthology for DAW books about robots and AIs, We Think, Therefore We Are.

As is the way of things when I write a new tale in a new setting, I invariably get ideas for further stories in the same setting, using the same characters. This is more than just a mercenary impulse. Of course one hopes that one day the stories might be collected. But the lot of the SF writer is to invent a new setting with every new tale – and it becomes a trifle tiring; far better to re-use one’s hard-thought futures, surely?

Over the course of the next few years, from ’07 to ’11, I wrote two or three Salvageman Ed stories a year, in between novels. Some were light-hearted space opera adventures, others were planetary romances, and two or three explored the differences between artificial intelligence and human intelligence. Two stories, “Cold Testing” and “Laying the Ghost” sold to Asimov’s and Clarkesworld respectively, while others appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, The Hub, and two NewCon Press anthologies edited by Ian Whates. The French magazine Bifrost translated a couple of the stories and expressed an interest in doing more.

After writing about four Salvageman Ed tales, it came to me (I’m slow) that the stories were following an arc known only, until then, to my subconscious. Ella, the AI, was being chased by spider-drones working for the company that owned her, and hapless Ed – who was besotted by Ella – was doing his utmost to keep them from catching her. So I had an overarching conflict set up for the series, which I returned to roughly every other story – taking time out to write about Ed’s engineer, Karrie, and to examine the loss of Ed’s sister when he was a kid and the effect this had on him. After a few years I had twelve tales about Ed, and they formed a cohesive whole, with a beginning, middle, and end, with conflict, a primary plot and sub-plot, and a neat dénouement.

All I had to do then was to assemble the tales, read them through in a sitting and cut out all the repetitions – which were many – and rewrite a couple of tales to maintain internal consistency. One story I ditched – it didn’t work – and the finished ms stood at twelve stories… sorry, chapters… and around 65,000 words.

Then came the problem of selling the book.

The received wisdom of the big publishers is that story collections don’t sell in sufficient numbers for them to be worthwhile investing in. A couple of the bigger houses turned Salvage down, and I was considering the small press market when Keith Brooke expressed an interest. His line of e-books was doing well, and he was thinking of branching out into paperback originals to accompany the e-books publications. As it happens, I put out a few e-books from his imprint, and then two paperback collections (Ghostwriting and The Angels of Life and Death), before Salvage was ready to see print.

And here it is, assembled for the first time between covers, graced by a wonderful illustration depicting a vast piece of scrap salvage in a planetary setting – the story of lovelorn Ed, the beautiful and brilliant AI Ella, and Ed’s despairing and frustrated engineer Karrie.

You can read it as a novel, or you can read it as a collection of stories – whichever form you prefer.

This piece first appeared on the Upcoming4me website.

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The Children of Winter

This piece appeared as an afterward to my story “The Children of Winter” on its publication in the Czechoslovakian SF magazine Ikarie.

I wrote the first draft of the “Children of Winter” in two days way back in February 1997. It was one of those stories which, once the writing was under way, slipped out painlessly. But its gestation period was far from painless.

All my stories begin as vague notions, and often as more than one vague notion. I often come up with a setting for a story, or an idea, or a character, and think about them individually for a period of time. Sometimes a setting suggests characters, or the other way around. Often ideas – scientific extrapolations – suggest characters or settings. After that it’s a question of wrestling with the plot, working out the character’s motivations – the things they want, and why they want them – and coming up with a form that will satisfy the reader in terms of excitement, intrigue, plot twists, ideas and resolution. This can take weeks or months.

For a long time I’d had a vague idea to write a story set on a planet with an exaggeratedly elliptical orbit. I also wanted to write a story about an ice-bound city, and one of my favourite types of SF tale is the crashlanded starship story. These three elements came together, in the winter of 1996, to suggest the background for what would become “The Children of Winter”. I then tried to work out what type of society might function on a planet which was subjected to extreme conditions of summer and winter – especially as that society was not native but was formed from the descendants of a crashed starship. At some point while considering the planet’s society, it came to me that some people – the children – might live until adolescence without experiencing summer, without seeing their sun as anything but a distant star in the night sky. By now the story was coming together. I had a setting, a society, and I knew that I wanted to write about a group of children – The Children of Winter of the title. All I needed to do then was to develop the characters and construct a compelling plot which would act as the frame for the story.

(A digression: I am not a Hard Science Fiction writer. I don’t particularly like reading Hard SF, and I’ve never been a fan of the so-called Greats – Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke etc. I find their work lacking not only literary merit but any understanding of what it is to be human. In so many Hard SF novels, the characterisation is neglected, pushed to the background so that science and scientific extrapolation takes centre stage. This to me defeats the purpose of literature – to write about the human condition – and terribly dates a piece of writing. If you’re going to write a Hard SF novel, then put credible human beings in it, so that in twenty or thirty year’s time, or whenever, when the science is seen as absurd, the novel can be read for its characterisation. Give me Simak and Dick over Heinlein and Clarke any day.)

If I were to think, before sitting down to begin the story, about the complexities of actually doing so, I might never write anything at all. Fortunately, once the groundwork is done, I trust in my subconscious to write the story for me.

My writing methods are simple. Once the ideas for the story have built up to such a point where they demand to be written, I sit down in the morning with a first line in my head, start typing, and a couple of hours later resurface and find, much to my surprise and delight, that my trusted subconscious has written a couple of thousand words of serviceable prose that contains much that I did not know I would write. I do the same in the afternoon, and again in the evening. After a couple of days I have a long short story in the bag.

I recall being happy with the first draft of “The Children of Winter”, which was not an unusual state of affairs, as I’m happy with most of the first drafts of my stories. The dissatisfaction comes much later, when the first flush of creation is replaced with the ability to view the work with objectivity. My usual method of rewriting a story is to leave it as long as possible, hopefully a month or two, and then to come back to it and cut and chop and condense ruthlessly. Then I send it to fellow SF writer Keith Brooke for his expert advice, after which I rewrite the story again and start looking for a suitable market.

“The Children of Winter” was rejected by the first magazine I submitted it to (an American magazine) as the editor was not convinced by the science of the story. (Which criticism I can take: I’d rather my work be criticised on scientific grounds than for any objections about characterisation, readability or prose, etc). David Pringle, the editor of Interzone, accepted the story and it was published in issue 163, January 2001. The following year it won the BSFA award for the best short story of the year. Since then it has been translated into Finish, Spanish, and now Czech. (In 2006 it appeared as the lead story in my collection Threshold Shift, published by Golden Gryphon in the US, nine years after the story was first rejected in that country).

Recently, unable to leave the story alone, I expanded and rewrote it as a short novel for teenagers. The novel followed the story pretty faithfully, though played down the love between Jen and Ki, and concentrated more on the adventure aspect inherent in the plot. It has yet to find a publisher.

One of the many delights of writing is being republished and translated, and I’m especially pleased to think that “The Children of Winter” will be published in the language of Karel Čapek and Josef Nesvadba, the former whose The Absolute at Large and War with the Newts I read and enjoyed in my twenties, while the latter’s In the Footsteps of the Abominable Snowman, introduced by Brian Aldiss, is one of the finest translated SF story collections to be published in Britain.

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Rites of Passage

I’ve always enjoyed writing long short stories – that is, tales longer than around eight thousand words and shorter than novella length, around sixteen thousand words. There’s more scope the develop characters, ideas and often setting in longer stories, more space and time to allow myself to get into the story. I’ve often started what I thought was going to be a short story only to find, in the writing, that it demands greater length, that either the characters tale off and want more space to grow, or the initial idea flourishes and spawns further ideas.

The odd thing is, when I get the idea for a novella over sixteen thousand words, I somehow know that it will be that length or longer before I start. The mysteries of writing…

So when Keith Brooke asked if I had four or five long stories that I might gather into a collection for his Infinity Plus paperback and e-book imprint, I looked through my ‘uncollected’ file and selected three stories; he suggested that it might be nice to include a never before published tale – so I decided to write one specially for the collection. I wanted to tackle something I’d never done before, and as I like reading about the far future, but have written little in that milieu, I decided to try my hand at something set in the far, far future when the seas have dried up and the remnants of humanity scrabble for existence in deep valleys in what was once the bottom of the sea.

It wasn’t long after my first hazy idea that I began writing, with little notion of where the tale would take me. (Usually I have a pretty good idea where a story is going, and a very good idea of how it will end.) The characters took off in this one and dictated their arduous trek beneath the ancient, swollen sun. “Beneath the Ancient Sun” (16,000 words) is a rites of passage tale and a story of conceptual breakthrough, as Par and Nohma embark on an initiation quest and along the way learn a lot about the past greatness of their race and their place in the world. On finishing the story, I realised that I’d like to write more about Par, Nohma, and the brave troupe of cavern dwellers battling inimical conditions beneath a vastly swollen sun.

The lead tale in the collection is “Bartholomew Burns and the Brain Invaders” (10,000 words) – my very first attempt at steampunk (in the very loosest sense of the word). It’s the only story in the collection in which the setting did not become a character in its own right. It features the enigmatic Bartholomew Burns – saviour of the Earth on many previous occasions – and his young sidekick Tommy Newton, who together thwart an evil alien invasion. While in all the other stories collected here it is the central characters that undergo the titular ‘rite of passage’, in this story it’s Tommy Newton who learns much from his travails. The story saw light of day in the online serial magazine, Aethernet, edited by Tony and Barbara Ballantyne.

“The Guardians of the Phoenix” (13,000 words) began as a short story – I thought it would come in at around six thousand words – but expanded in the telling. I rarely write post-apocalyptic tales, but I was gripped by the idea of a bunch of good people travelling across an inimical desert in search of water. Even after I finished the story, it kept on growing in my imagination, and a year later I expanded the story by some eighty-seven thousand words and it became the novel of the same title, published by Solaris in 2010. The story appeared in Mike Ashley’s anthology Apocalyptic SF (End of the World in the US).

“Sunworld” (11,000 words) is not only a rites of passage tale but one of conceptual breakthrough, to which the genre of science fiction is admirably suited. I enjoy writing stories in which the central character undergoes a journey the events of which, by the end, will subvert everything he or she thinks they know about themselves and their world. This tale is another which begs to be expanded, and some day I would like to write Sunworld, the novel. The story was first published in George Mann’s anthology The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction 2.

I enjoyed the process of writing “Beneath the Ancient Sun” so much that, a few weeks later, I thought I’d try my hand at another topic I don’t write much about: time travel. Last week I finished the second draft of a tale influenced by Oscar Wilde’s epithet, “No man is rich enough to buy back his past…”

“Buying Time” is a little over eleven thousand words long and, once I’ve attempted to sell it somewhere, might find its way into another collection.

Rites of Passage is out now from Infinity Plus Books.

This piece originally appeared on Upcoming4me.

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Interview

This interview first appeared on My Bookish Ways.

Jani and the Greater Game sounds amazing! Will you tell us a little more about it and what inspired you to write it?

Jani is set in 1925 – but a 1925 very different from the one in our own history. The reason for this is that the British in India discovered, some fifty years earlier, a fantastical power source in the foothills of the Himalayas (in Nepal, to be precise), which resulted in the British being the major power in the world. (The exact nature of this power source is kept under wraps for most of the book, to be revealed at the denouement: it’s known throughout the story as Annapurnite.) The book is set in India and Nepal, and is an action-adventure-chase novel with characterisation.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Always. That is, ever since reading Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table when I was fifteen. I’d managed never to read a book until then, and the novel was a revelation. I went out and bought all her titles and devoured them one by one. A few months later I discovered SF – Robert Silverberg and H.G. Wells. Not long after that, I decided that I wanted to write science fiction, and began churning out short stories (hundreds before my first acceptance) and short novels (some twenty-odd before I sold my first one, Meridian Days, in 1992). So yes, since the age of fifteen I’ve wanted only one thing: to be a fulltime professional writer.

What made you decide to write a book with a steampunk flavor?

I’ve wanted to do a steampunk novel for a long time, since reading Powers, Blaylock, etc, back in the 80s. I’d sent a couple of steampunky outlines to my editor at Solaris, none of which he jumped at. Then he suggested I think up an idea for a steampunk novel set in India, and a few weeks later Jani was born.

The book takes place in India in 1925. What kind of research did you do for the book? What was one of the most interesting things you learned?

I rarely do research for a book until it’s finished, and then I check to make sure I’ve got the facts and details right. That said, I’ve been reading about India, and the Raj, for decades, after spending a year there in 1984. And all that reading fed into Jani. (One of the most interesting things I found out about the British in India wasn’t actually from a book, but from talking to Indians on the street in 1984. What surprised me, as a left-of-centre liberal with a wariness of all things Imperial, was how many Indians I met who not only praised the British for bringing so many innovations to the subcontinent – the railways and bureaucracy, to name but two – but how many people thought the Raj a good thing and wished it had stayed on. I don’t agree, and I think this is obvious in Jani. The British, with a few exceptions, don’t come over in the novel as that enlightened.)

Tell us more about Janisha Chatterjee and what you enjoyed most about writing her. Why do you think readers will root for her?

Jani is 18, of mixed Indian-British parentage, brought up by her father in India until she was eight, and then packed off to Blighty to be educated. As the novel opens she’s returning to Delhi aboard an airship to be with her dying father. Jani is conflicted, torn between her love of India and her British education, torn between Nationalist leanings and the inculcation of her father who, as a security minister in the Indian government, is pro-British. Early in the novel she is confronted by someone – not of this planet – who throws all her thoughts into chaos. We follow her as she flees to the Himalayas on a mission to save the world, pursued by the British and Russians who will stop at nothing to prevent her progress. I think readers will root for Jani because she’s human and humane, a young woman beset by doubt, but eager always to do the right thing. She’s very moral, but conflicted; not your usual ‘strongman’ hero, but nevertheless brave and resourceful.

You are an author that wears many, many hats! Is it a challenge to write in so many different genres?

Not really. I read widely, in many different genres, and have always written different things. As I mentioned earlier, Agatha Christie kick-started my writing career, and I’ve always had a hankering to write detective novels. A couple of years ago I wrote my first, Murder by the Book, which came out last year; my second – following the same two central characters – Murder at the Chase, is due out this month. I hope to do more, but sales figures will determine this. Within the SF genre, I like to think I write different kinds of novels – space opera, planetary romance, near future SF, something I term Quiet SF, character-based and often romantic. I’ve also written books for children, both SF and mainstream. I like the variety and change of pace offered by writing so many different things. It was great to write the detective novels set in 1955, as I didn’t have to build SF-nal worlds from the ground up – readers knew what London was! Also, I could use simile and metaphor in the novels, which for various reasons are difficult to employ in SF.

What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?

I can recall the very first short story I finished, a bucolic story with a sting in the tail, very much influenced by Roald Dahl. I recall the sense of accomplishment at actually finishing the thing. I still have the tatty ms (written on my old Kovak manual typewriter, all in upper case letters, for some reason.) Needless to say, it never sold – in fact, I never sent it out.

What are a few of your biggest literary influences?

Agatha Christie, for obvious reasons. Roald Dahl, as I read him early on and loved his short stories – with H.G. Wells and Robert Silverberg as other early influences. Moving on, I discovered the novels and stories of a very underrated British SF writer, Michael Coney, whose quiet tone and concern for character I tried to emulate. My Starship Season series of novellas is a tribute to Coney. I also love the work of Rupert Croft-Cooke – I run a website devoted to his work: http://www.croft-cooke.co.uk. He wrote over a hundred and twenty books from 1930 to around 1979, of many kinds, straight novels, crime novels, books on food and wine, gypsies and the circus, Victorian writers, Oscar Wilde and Bosie – as well as a series of twenty-seven wonderful autobiographical books about his life and times and the people he met on his extensive travels.

What are you currently reading?

I’ve just started The Time Dissolvers by Jerry Sohl – I like reading forgotten SF writers! – (it’s about a man who wakes up to find that he’s missing eleven years from his life.) Before that I had a binge of reading novels by the contemporary British writer Jonathan Coe. I recently returned from holiday where I read an old Penguin crime novel A Nest of Vipers by Tod Claymore, and the memoir by the amazing Naomi Mitchison, You May Well Ask – quite an eclectic bunch.

What’s next for you?

Later in August, or maybe at the start of September when my daughter goes back to school, I’ll be starting on the next novel, the second volume of the Jani series, Jani and the Great Pursuit. I hope to get a second draft finished before Xmas, when I’ll start on the fourth and final Telemass novella for PS Publishing, which is as yet untitled. (In the next couple of weeks I’ll be rewriting the third Telemass novella, and a long short story about time travel). So I’ve plenty to keep my busy.

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First Novels

This piece first appeared on the infinity plus website.

First novels are curious creatures because they are rarely, of course, first novels.

It’s very rare for a writer to sit down, write a first novel, and a little way down the line have it published. More often than not, a ‘first’ novel is the result of years of laborious apprenticeship, writing numerous novels in order to learn the craft, and abandoning them to the bottom drawer or, more drastically, to the flaming hearth.

There are exceptions, of course. J.K. Rowling’s first effort found a publisher – after numerous rejections – and I seem to recall it did rather well. And the host of this website, Keith Brooke, sold the very first novel he wrote, Keepers of the Peace, damn him.

But for the rest of us, the hill is steeper.

Looking back on my career, the hill seems to have been a mountain of my own making.

You see, I was labouring under a misapprehension from the very start.

In my late teens I read somewhere, in an interview with the SF great Alfred Bester, that all writers must write a million words of rubbish before they finally become published. Now, had I read that the prescribed total should be a hundred thousand words, I might have been published a lot earlier… But that magical million words lodged in my brain and wouldn’t be shifted – affecting me, I’m sure, subconsciously, and ensuring that Meridian Days came out when it did.

Meridian Days, my first published novel, was in fact around my twentieth written novel.

The very first novel I wrote, I recall, was a terrible pastiche of two of my favourite writers at the time, Leslie Thomas and Tom Sharpe. It was horribly written, cliché-ridden, badly plotted, and unfunny… which for a comedy novel was the ultimate crime. But at least I finished it, eighty thousand words written longhand over a period of eighteen months. I even typed up the first two chapters, before realising how bad it was and abandoning the thing.

Then came a slew of very short science fiction novels using the usual tropes: time-travel, alien invasions, future dystopias. These were short because while living in Australia for four years until the age of eighteen I’d come across the Ace Double range of SF novels (they also published westerns, romances and thrillers in the same format); each one was between around 25k and 55k – giving me the false impression that this was the length of SF novels. So I churned out loads of the things, and even submitted one or two of them to paperback houses in the UK, Hamlyn and Sphere, and in the States, Major Books. (That ms was returned with the note on the package that the company was no longer in business). I have a vague recollection of receiving a rejection letter from my now agent John Jarrold, when he was a commissioning editor at some London house.

All the while I was writing short stories in various genres: SF, crime, mainstream, and getting nowhere.

In ’84 I spent a year in India, and that seemed to spark something – that, and the fact that I’d written a million words of rubbish, and a few years after I got back I began writing the short stories which would be published in Interzone, beginning in ’87.

A year later, on the strength of these tales, I was approached by an agent: did I have a novel I would like him to look at? Well, I had twenty of the things under my bed, but none of which I thought up to scratch. I bundled together a collection of short stories instead, and miracle of miracles Pan Books bought them. The volume appeared as The Time-Lapsed Man and other stories in 1990.

Of course, Pan then wanted to see a novel, so over a period of nine months I wrote Meridian Days, a short novel of doomed love, extraterrestrial colonies, matter transmission, and much more, which was published by Pan in 1992.
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Issues #3 and #4 of Peter Young’s excellent fanzine Big Sky, exclusively about the first and second series of the Gollancz SF Masterworks list, are now available for free download as PDFs from http://efanzines.com/bigsky/index.htm. Both fanzines are big: #3 is 240 pages (9Mb) and #4 is 191 pages (6Mb), and are ideally read on a e-reader such as an iPad. Included in issue three is my review of The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. The whole project contains around 250 reviews and commentaries on every title in the series, in order of appearance in the Masterworks series.

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Lalophobia

I fear public speaking, to the point where I’ve actively avoided doing much of it in the past. A few years ago, however, I rashly agreed to give a talk at a prison – H.M.P. Bullwood in Essex – as part of World Book Day. My short novel for adult reluctant readers, Revenge, had gone down well in prisons around the country, and my publisher Barrington Stoke asked if I’d care to talk about it to a group of prisoners. Well, the thought filled me with dread, but the publisher had been great to work with over the years, so I bit the bullet.

On the day itself I had lunch with a regional organiser of the library service in Essex, who then drove me down to Southend. I must admit the journey was fraught with nerves as I read through my notes and feared the worst – drying up, fainting in front of the inmates, verbal abuse…

The jail was approached through a tiny hamlet of thatched cottages like something from a fairytale, and then, at the end of the lane, there appeared a concrete monstrosity surrounded by tall barbed-wire-topped plate metal fences. That was the first line of security. We were shown through a locked door in the fence – we had to display our passports to get through – and then led by a guard across a yard to the main building. We passed though another set of locked doors which led into a large chamber, the far end of which was barred and gave onto a courtyard. Here they checked our passports again and searched our bags. We could not take the following into the prison: mobile phones, soap, yeast, chewing gum, knives, and explosives. After the guards assured themselves that we were carrying none of the above, we were let through into the courtyard where we were met by the librarian, and taken across the yard to another wing. We climbed a flight of stairs into another locked area and arrived at last at the library, a pleasant area of books, videos, posters, and a big map-of-the-world rug.

I had about ten minutes to compose myself and set up the books I’d brought as visual aids, then take a final look through my notes. I must admit that at this point, before the inmates were led in, I wondered how I was going to get through the next two hours. My heart was thumping, my mouth dry, and palms sweaty. I took deep breaths, paced up and down and drank plenty of water.

I had been told that my audience would be young offenders – and the notion filled me with dread. I found out, just before I was due to speak, that this was not the case at all: the offenders were all illegal immigrants, and most of them from Africa.

Then the inmates were led in in threes and fours, and I chatted to them as they took their seats, and the fear evaporated.

I began the talk with a humorous story, and got a laugh, and the rest was relatively plain sailing. I could see that more than half of the audience of twenty were really interested (the other half sat at the back and snoozed), and my fear that I’d run out of material was unfounded. I actually had more to talk about that the allotted time allowed.

The first hour went well, and then the second lot came in and I had to repeat the entire performance, adapting it where I thought it could be improved. By this time I was confident, and the fear had gone, which was just as well as the second lot were pretty unresponsive; didn’t laugh at the opening joke, looked bored, and didn’t have many questions – in fact one guy, a surly-looking bruiser in his fifties, got up and walked out towards the end. But I battled on to the bitter end, and the librarian was pleased with the whole talk.

But the relief of walking out of jail after my sentence!

Three hours later I arrived home, glad to have got it over with. All in all, a fascinating experience, though one I wouldn’t want to do again in a hurry.

It did have the desired effect, though, of lessening my fear of public speaking. I’ll never enjoy it, but in future it might just be a little less nerve-wracking.

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