Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Writer/Blogger meet-up, Birmingham, 30th April 2016

After the entertaining writers/bloggers meet-up I attended in London in April (which I wrote about here), I was looking forward to the next, once again organised by Kim Nash and held at the Bacchus bar at the Burlington Arcade in Birmingham (the venue of the first I went to).  Even better news, my good friend Sue Moorcroft would be coming along this time too.
Me and Sue outside New Street Station.  She's not wearing a top hat, that's part of  the Rotunda building behind her...
We got the 10.23 train and chatted all the way to Leicester.  Grabbing a cup of tea, we got settled on the shuttle train (a woman sitting further down the carriage answered our “which way does it go?” question without us asking) and chatted all the way to Birmingham, covering the art of writing, some family matters, FantasyCon and the schedule for her book A Christmas Promise (apparently, I’m the only person who’s heard that title and seen any kind of innuendo in it - that surely can't be right, can it?).  By the time we got to New Street station the sun had disappeared and it started to hail, so we ducked into Waterstones and she showed me some books that had similar designs to what she thought Avon would do with hers (interestingly, most of them seemed to feature a single character, in red, walking away from the viewer).  Then, braving the weather, we walked along to Bacchus which was already packed and noisy.

After getting drinks we entered the throng - Kim saw us, we said our hellos, I got my name-tag (Sue always takes her own) and we were off.  I saw Barbara Copperthwaite by the door, said hello and that I’d catch up with her later and then only saw her briefly just before we left, more’s the pity.  I also saw Rachel Gilbey to say the briefest of “hello”’s to and then didn’t see her again either.  Sue was on the far side of the room and introduced me to Lindsay Hill, who blogs as Book Boodle and we had a nice chat about writing and reviewing.  Shelley Wilson then appeared and it was lovely to see her again - we met at the first Brum gathering in January but got on so well it feels like we’ve known one another ages and today was no exception.  As time was getting on, I went to order food then chatted with Shelley and Elaina James, a writer and lyricist who has a western romance (an honest-to-goodness Western!) which is with agents at the moment.  It was nice to meet her and compare genres and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s written a western before.
Linda Hill, me, Shelley Wilson, Elaina James
The food arrived (very promptly, bearing in mind how many people were about) and I sat with Sue and Kat Black to eat (and if you like that kind of thing, I can vouch for the club sandwich).  Kat was good company and it turned out we shared a mutual friend in Adam Nevill, as he was her editor for a while.  I grabbed a quick hello with Jane Isaac and then, back in conversation, our little group was joined by Holly, who runs the Bookaholic blog and Linda Hill, of Linda’s Bookbag.

We talked about current projects - neither Holly or Linda were fans of horror (to be fair, not many of the bloggers present were) but they were intrigued by Polly, especially when Shelley talked it up too (she’s already read it and enjoyed it).  It was also interesting to hear from the other side of the book fence - Linda told us she received 19 books to review this week, a figure I thought was astonishing.  She reads upwards of 160 books a year (more than double my tally) and still has a huge backlog, an issue Holly also shares.  We talked about blog activity and planning (my aim this year is one post a week, reviewers might be looking for four or five a week, which is a lot of material) and I quickly realised that to get a slot on a bookblog (as I was lucky enough to have at The Haphazardous Hippo when Neats Wilson reviewed three of my books at once) is not to be sniffed at - book-blogging is an under-appreciated art.
Me and Shelley Wilson
Shelley told me about her new project - a standalone YA fantasy - and I ran through the basic plot of the novella I’m currently working on, an old-school horror for Peter Mark May.  She liked the sound of it, which is always good to hear - I find that gatherings with writers always boost my creative drive and today was thankfully no exception.

The event was very well attended and there were a lot of people I didn’t get a chance to speak too - I stood near to one Twitter friend for a big chunk of time, but only managed to say cheerio to her - and all too soon it was time to head off.  Reluctantly we said our goodbyes and made our way back to the train station (got rained on again) and the shuttle was already at the platform.  We sat down and started talking before realising Shona Lawrence (who runs the Booky Ramblings of a Neurotic Mom blog and lives in nearby Corby) was sitting just up the carriage.  Since Sue had met her at the gathering, she joined us for the journey home.

Another excellent, well-organised get-together and - as before - I met some great people, both writers and reviewers.  Roll on the next one!

Monday, 25 April 2016

Maestra, by L S Hilton (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and really enjoyed.  This summer, I'm planning to write a dark psychological thriller and I'm reading more and more in that genre at the moment.
By day, Judith Rashleigh is a put-upon assistant at a London auction house - British Pictures

By night she's a hostess in one of the capital's unsavoury bars.

Desperate to make something of herself, Judith knows she has to play the game. She's learned to dress, speak and act in the interests of men. She's learned to be a good girl. But after uncovering a dark secret at the heart of the art world, Judith is fired and her dreams of a better life are torn apart. 

So she turns to a long-neglected friend. 

A friend that kept her chin up and back straight through every past slight. 

A friend that a good girl like her shouldn't have: Rage.

Where do you go when you've gone too far?

Judith Rashleigh, through hard work and natural intelligence rather than family connections, works at British Pictures, one of London’s most prestigious auction houses.  Unfortunately, it’s not the big break she’d hoped for, as she spends her time taking her boss’ dirty laundry to the dry cleaners and fending off advances from ageing sellers.  Heavily in debt, a chance encounter with an old school friend introduces her to work as a hostess at a club in Mayfair where she excels in the role.  Very soon, she’s off with a client to the South of France and then things start to spiral out of control.

The novel is broken into four parts (plus an epilogue) and Judith (or Lauren, as she becomes known) certainly gets about.  Set in London (part one), France and Italy (parts two and three), Paris (part four) and Venice (the epilogue), this makes excellent use of the locations and they’re well described, Paris especially (it perhaps helps that I know the area the book is set in).  For me, only the second part doesn’t work, a self-indulgent section where Judith meets an almost-autistic multi-millionaire and spends a month on his private yacht, forty one pages that could have been encapsulated in one line - “worked our way down the coast, didn’t talk much, shagged the captain and stole something that was never explained”.

Smart and assured, Judith is an observant character with a good eye for the finer things in life (art and fashion) who enjoys indulging in sensual pleasures (with men and women) and describes her clothing and accessories in detail (a trait I thought worked well).  She’s also a somewhat unreliable narrator who appears to start the book as Lauren Slaughter from Paul Theroux’s Dr Slaughter and morphs into Matty Walker from Body Heat part way through (with touches of Catherine Tramell from Basic Instinct) but always works the angle and tries to keep the upper hand.  In fact, I found I was rooting for her even when she was at her worst (and that happens on a couple of occasions) - apparently this is the first in a planned trilogy and it’ll be interesting to see where she goes next.

Sold as “the most shocking thriller you’ll read all year” I didn’t find it that bad at all - though I’m obviously coming at it from a horror reader viewpoint.  The sex is explicit certainly but generally good fun and the violence is brutal and unflinching but never played for gore’s sake - I can see that people might find it offensive but if they do, they shouldn’t really have picked this up in the first place.

Tightly constructed, with everything layering in nicely as the novel progresses, this has a decent pace (the second section aside).  With a sure sense of the art world, peopled with believable (if occasionally grotesque) characters and built around a strong femme fatale lead, I enjoyed this and would recommend it.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Gregory's Girl, at 35

In April 1982 I went to see Chariots Of Fire at Kettering Ohio cinema with my friend Steve and his older sister Sharon.  It must have been her choice - the film didn’t interest me then and I haven’t seen it since - but that re-issue (launched in the wake of the films success at the March Oscars) was a double-bill with a little Scottish film I’d never heard of called Gregory’s Girl.  It might have been that I was thirteen, it might have been (according to my diary at the time) that I was in love with a French girl called Murial (Montsaye Comprehensive was in the middle of a French exchange and several of my school-mates were hosting students) but I loved it - everything from Gregory’s struggles to Clare Grogan in a beret to the penguin wandering the corridors.  I’ve seen it a lot since and a few weeks back picked up the Second Sight widescreen edition and fell in love with it all over again.  Incredibly, the film was originally released in 1981, making this year it’s 35th anniversary!  And I never need an excuse to write a retrospective!
After working for small production companies - making public information and training films - for thirteen years, Bill Forsyth decided to make a feature film and wrote an outline about a shy Scots lad who falls for the female striker in his school football team.  To find his cast, he began - in 1977 - to sit in on workshops at the Glasgow Youth Theatre, which was run by a friend.  The children were suspicious at first of “the quiet bloke at the back who never said anything” but he overcame his natural shyness and began to work with them on the script.  He later said, “they didn’t know anything, I didn’t know anything. But I discussed their parts with them in the same way as I came to discussing adult parts with adults and they demanded exactly the same as adult actors. It was a big lesson”

Unfortunately, the British Film Institute felt Gregory’s Girl was too commercial and declined to fund it.  Instead, Forsyth and the young actors made the (much) cheaper That Sinking Feeling (1979), about a group of unemployed teenagers who steal a lorry-load of kitchen sinks.  It cost a few thousand pounds and Forsyth felt it was his last shot - “if we hadn’t made a go of it, my plan was just to disappear.”  That Sinking Feeling turned out to be the surprise hit of the 1979 Edinburgh Film Festival and allowed him to raise the funds for Gregory’s Girl, using many of the same actors.

Gregory’s Girl “wrote itself,” he later said as he knew which buttons to press: “young love and football”.  Designed as a calling card, a ticket to bigger films and bigger budgets, he originally planned to make it on 16mm for £29,000 but ended up shooting on 35mm for £200,000.

Although Forsyth used many of the Glasgow Youth Theatre actors, he spotted Dee Hepburn (Dorothy) dancing in a TV advert for a department store, whilst Clare Grogan (Susan) was working as a waitress at the Spaghetti Factory restaurant in Glasgow.  “[Bill] asked me for my phone number,” she said in interview, “but my mum had warned me about strange men, so I just said: “You know where to find me.”  I was 17, very naive, yet had incredible delusions of grandeur and glamour. I realise now how lucky I was: Bill had faith in me and was brilliant at making us all feel relaxed on set, spoonfeeding us ideas.”

John Gordon Sinclair (Gregory) was an apprentice electrician at the time and although he’d appeared in That Sinking Feeling, was surprised to get the lead.  “”Everyone was a bit in awe of Dee Hepburn,” he said in interview, “she was already a professional actor.”  After being cast, Hepburn was given six weeks of intensive football training at Partick Thistle FC.

Susan (Clare Grogan) and Gordon (John Gordon Sinclair)
“The chemistry between myself and Clare Grogan was real,” said John, “and we’ve been friends ever since.  [She] was into bands and incredibly cool, whereas I was in a combat jacket with long hair, listening to Rush.”

“When I first met Gordon,” said Clare, “I was staggered to see he was still in flares.  But Gordy, as he’ll always be to me, is the funniest person to be around.”

Forsyth took notice of how his young cast talked and acted with one another.  “Bill always had a wee notebook in his hands, watching us, writing down things we said,” said John.  “Then later, things wound up in the script and we'd think, 'Ah, that's one of our stories.'”

The setting of the film was deliberate.  “I wanted a backdrop where nothing was touched or old,” Forsyth said and the film was shot in the new town of Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire, created in 1956 as a population overspill for Glasgow.  A reaction against the gritty locations of That Sinking Feeling, this was “a deliberate attempt to show a different face to Scotland.”  Gregory waits by the big clock at New Town Plaza, the Fish & Chip shop is in a small shopping arcade next to the Abronhill High School used as the school in the film and the restaurant was called Capaldi’s and owned by a member of the actor Peter Capaldi’s family.  The nurses home, from the opening scene, was the Electricity Board training centre in Seafar, which is now a Christian centre.  Abronhill High School was opened in 1978, earmarked for closure in 2012 and demolished in 2014.  Apparently, a small crowd gathered to say goodbye.
from left - Andy (Robert Buchanan), Charlie (Graham Thompson) and Gregory watch Dorothy
After the guerrilla-style filming of That Sinking FeelingGregory’s Girl was a different experience, with rigorous schedules and a bigger budget.  It didn’t affect Forsyth or his young cast too badly though, as he said in interview, “we were living the dream.  I think it worked because it didn’t patronise anyone; there was a level of honesty that you don’t normally get in teen films. It was hangdog, but very friendly.  [The cast’s] energy and enthusiasm was what carried it.”

A smitten Gregory examines Dorothy's injured knee
With the bigger canvas to work on, there were more compromises.  Forsyth found directing difficult and he “couldn’t deal with more than three people in a scene at any one time.”  It rained a lot, which changed the colour of the football pitch as they were filming and he felt like he “was killing the script, never bringing it to life” which I find odd, since it seems to buzz with life.

John later said in interview.  “Shooting was fun, it never felt like work. You knew you were getting it right because you’d see Bill’s shoulders shaking with laughter behind the camera. I had to ask him to move out of my eyeline, because it would get quite distracting.”

Three months before filming began, Clare Grogan was an innocent bystander at a fight at the Glasgow Technical college.  A broken bottle hit her and she was severely injured, suffering a prominent scar on the left side of her face.  The film producers wanted to change actress but Forsyth refused to recast and she was filmed mostly in profile.  When close-ups were required, such as at the park, make-up artists covered her scar with morticians wax.
Bill Forsyth (right) chats through a scene with Mr Menzies (Jake D'Arcy) and Dorothy (Dee Hepburn)
Gregory’s Girl is wonderfully observational - as Forsyth said in 1985, “my style is to be as unobtrusive as possible.”  As the actors play out their scenes, the camera catches little nuances and mannerisms as well as embracing the life around them.  “I was just recording their acting,” he said.  “I didn’t have any cinematic ambition. It was an attempt to make a film I thought people might want to see, and quite divorced from the films I imagined myself making.”  Forsyth heard Chic Murray, a veteran of vaudeville who plays the headmaster, playing a piano in the school gym to entertain the cast between filming his scenes.  Delighted with this, Forsyth included the scene where two pupils watch him as he plays during lunch and shoos them away with “Off you go, you small boys!”

My favourite example of this humour is the penguin, never referred to but often seen wandering the corridors.  This came from Forsyth seeing someone at Abronhill High school carrying a papier-mâché head down a corridor.  “None batted an eyelid,” he said, “a school is a place where anything can happen.”  The person in the penguin suit was Christopher Higson, son of production supervisor Paddy Higson and is his only credited role.

The film is filled with affection for its characters and quickly establishes the idea that the younger you are, the sharper you are.  From the kids at the beginning, who witness the teenagers watch the nurse undress and brush it off with “a lot of fuss about a bit of tit” to Madeline (Allison Forster) being Gregory’s mentor and the teachers in the staff room, more like giggling kids than their pupils.  Gregory’s friends are never mocked, from his best friend Steve (William Greenless), a budding pastry chef who runs a black market business selling cakes from the boys toilet whilst taking orders from the teachers to Eric (Alan Love) the photographer who sells photo’s of Dorothy from the stall next to the cakes, conducting his conversation in terms of f-stops and lenses.  And Andy (Robert Buchanan) trotting out dubious trivia (often beginning with “It’s a well known fact…”) as attempted pick-up lines, never deterred by his lack of success.

Madeline (Allison Forster) fills Gregory in on love
“I love all the role reversal,” said Clare Grogan.  Generally naïve, the boys are fascinated and mystified by the girls who appear knowing and sophisticated - from Madeline to the well-meaning group who play matchmaker as he moves from one-to-another in a sense of confusion before ending up with Gregory’s Girl.

There’s also a wonderful use of the summer evening.  Forsyth wanted “something that was slightly magic but isn’t corny magic, it was just human magic. It could be something like this sudden midsummer’s atmosphere that overtakes people and even the two boys that are wandering around catch it. They say, ‘There’s something in the atmosphere.’  It was just allowing every individual their eccentricity without taking it to a point where it’s just pure comedy.”
Susan and Gregory in the park
For me, the perfect highlight of this is in the park, as the summer evening winds down when Gregory and Susan talk numbers and arm dance so as not to fall off the earth.  Their characters connect and it’s a cheering moment, the camera magically tilting with them (an effect created by tying it to a piece of rope).  Later, on his doorstep, Susan says “a million and nine”.  “How come you know all the good numbers?” he asks, a quizzical tone in his voice.  Superb.

“I especially remember the scene after our date in the park,” said John later, “where there’s a shot of us walking off into the sunset. We were both in tears. It was the last day of filming. It was all over. This magical bubble we’d been in was about to burst.”

“To this day, I’ve never seen Gregory’s Girl in its entirety,” said Clare at a 30th anniversary showing of the film.  “I always have to leave at some point because I find it too much.”

Gregory’s Girl was written and directed by Bill Forsyth and produced by Clive Parsons.  The music was written by Colin Tully, Michael Coulter was the cinematographer and John Gow was editor.

The film was released in the UK on 23rd April 1981 and distributed by ITC Entertainment.  Watching it at the 1981 London Film Festival, John was “mortified, I looked terrible and gangly” and suddenly understood why Forsyth had “made me exaggerate all those stretches and lunges when he was filming me exercising”, worried his performance “ruined the film”.  Clare, whose band Altered Images had signed with CBS during production, was a bit more used to showbusiness and recognised the charm of the film and its “smart, progressive view of a girl's world”.  Even though the film got a great reception, all involved thought the fuss would soon die down.

It never did, really.  The film Forsyth called “an act of desperation - I was in my early thirties, it was a last roll of the dice” was ranked number 30 in the British Film Institute's list of the top 100 British films and  number 29 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 best high school movies.  It was nominated for three BAFTA’s - Best Newcomer (John Gordon Sinclair), Best Direction and Best Film - and won the BAFTA Best Original Screenplay, the London Critics Circle Film Award: Special Achievement and the Variety Club Actress Of The Year Award (Dee Hepburn).
Dee Hepburn, John Gordon Sinclair, Clare Grogan - at the 30th anniversary screening at the Glasgow Film Festival, 2011
At a special 30th anniversary screening at the Glasgow Film Theatre, John said “it was such a big part of my life, like watching my old diary.”  Clare said “It was just so pivotal in my life. Everywhere I go, all round the world, I always find myself in the company of somebody who loves it, and that is an amazing thing.”

The film was first shown on Channel 4 on 8th January 1985 and attracted 10.75 million viewers, Channel 4's third biggest audience of that year.  ITV repeated the film the following Christmas Day.

The film was released in America on 26th May 1982 by The Samuel Goldwyn Company, opening small and relying on word of mouth praise which was consistently good.  It performed well in New York and other US cities and whilst it wasn’t a blockbuster, at one point it was number 7 in the US Top Fifty.  Learning their lesson from Ken Loach’s Kes, which was withdrawn after two days because Americans couldn’t understand it, the film was re-dubbed with milder Scottish accents (with some of the original actors, thankfully - both versions are available on the US DVD).  Subtitles were originally suggested but Goldwyn’s Larry Jackson was quoted as saying “we thought it was a wholesome entertaining story with a general appeal, and we didn't want it to end up with an art house audience only.”  It’s said he loved the film the first time he saw it, though he did have a script to follow the dialogue.  Critic Richard Skorman wrote, “Unlike the film's American counterparts, Gregory’s Girl is refreshingly free of mean-spirited characters and horny young studs bemoaning their virginity.”

The success of Gregory’s Girl led to the development of the Scottish Film Production Fund, Glasgow Film Fund and other financing organisations which allowed for talents like Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, 1994) and Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, 1999) to get their first features made.  It was been cited as an influence on Wes Anderson and Shane Meadows and, according to Clare Grogan, is one of Martin Scorsese’s favourite films.

On its budget of £200,000, Gregory’s Girl went on to make £25.8m around the world and played in some London cinemas for an astonishing 75 weeks.

Watching it now in widescreen, I was delighted to find the film hadn’t really dated at all.  I was watching it as a different person, certainly, but it still spoke to me and even though some of that might have been nostalgia - from my first viewings, perhaps from my teenaged years - it was also because the film stands up well.  There is an air of youthful naivety, of course, but it’s warm and smart and the humour makes you smile.

Gregory’s Girl is a wonderful film.  If you’ve seen it before, watch it again and if you’ve never seen it, I envy you that first viewing experience.

Happy birthday Gregory, bella bella!

John Gordon Sinclair (born Gordon John Sinclair - Equity already had someone of that name registered - in Glasgow in 1962) also appeared in Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero (1983) and reprised his title role in Gregory’s Two Girls (1999).  He has continued to act on TV, stage and screen, appeared on the 1982 Scottish squad's World Cup song We Have a Dream and won the Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 1995 for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance in She Loves Me.  His first novel, Seventy Times Seven was published in 2012 and he lives in Surrey with his wife and two daughters.

Clare Grogan (born Claire Patricia Grogan in Glasgow in 1962) went on to play Charlotte in Bill Forsyth’s Comfort & Joy (1984) and was Kristine Kochanski in the 1st, 2nd and 6th series of Red Dwarf.  She is perhaps better known the lead singer of 80s new wave group Altered Images, whose debut album Happy Birthday was released in 1981.  Grogan continues to act and sing, presents on BBC 6 Music and her first book, a children’s novel called Tallulah And The Teenstars was published in October 2008.  She lives in Haringay with her husband Stephen Lironi (her former bandmate) and their adopted daughter.

Dee Hepburn (born in Airdrie in 1961) won the Variety Club Actress Of The Year Award for her performance as Dorothy.  After working in TV, she appeared in The Bruce (1996) with Oliver Reed but has now left showbusiness.  She lives in East Kilbride with her second husband and two children, working in business development.
Bill Forsyth, Clare Grogan, John Gordon Sinclair
Bill Forsyth (born William David Forsyth in Glasgow in 1946) started his career making short documentary films.  After the success of Gregory’s Girl (1981) he made Local Hero (1983), produced by David Puttnam and featuring Burt Lancaster and followed it up with Comfort & Joy (1984).  When Puttnam served as Columbia Studios chairman from 1986 to 1987, he picked up Housekeeping (1987) which was Forsyth’s first American film.  Following a poor critical reception to Being Human (1994), Forysth didn’t direct again until Gregory’s Two Girls (1999), which also received mixed reviews.  He hasn’t directed a film since.  Nominated for five BAFTAs, he won two (including Best Direction for Local Hero ), received the Special Achievement Award from the London Critics Circle in 1982 and Local Hero  won the 1983 New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Screenplay.  He lives in Western Scotland with his partner and has two children from his first marriage.

Astonishingly, there isn't a trailer for the film on YouTube (apart from the Samuel Goldwyn version, which is mostly review quotes) so instead I'll leave you with one of my favourite moments...

The UK quad poster of the double-bill I went to see
The US release poster
Susan and Dorothy talk about Gregory in Chemistry
Susan, Gregory and Steve (William Greenlees) in cookery class
Dorothy on the pitch
The boys at the nurses home
I hope you've enjoyed this as much as I did researching and writing it.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Star Wars The Force Awakens (book reviews)

Not that I need much of an excuse to talk about Star Wars on the blog (see here if you don't believe me), but to tie in with the DVD release of The Force Awakens, I thought I'd post a couple of reviews relating to the film.
Dude and me at Kettering Odeon, 18th December 2015
The three of us - Alison, Dude & me - went to see it on the 18th of December (I booked the tickets as soon as I was able, having been looking forward to the film since it was announced).

Alison is a Star Wars fan almost by osmosis (when the special editions were re-released in 1997, she came to see Star Wars and Jedi with me) and Dude likes the original trilogy (since he's seen it so often) and the prequels (it's his age, not me forcing him to, I'm not that awful a parent).

Dude & I loved the film (there were parts where I wanted to cheer) so he & I went back to see it again on the 9th of January.

And now it's on DVD...

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
by Alan Dean Foster
Set years after Return of the Jedi, this stunning new action-packed adventure rockets us back into the world of Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Luke Skywalker, while introducing a host of exciting new characters. Darth Vader may have been redeemed and the Emperor vanquished, but peace can be fleeting, and evil does not easily relent. Yet the simple belief in good can still empower ordinary individuals to rise and meet the greatest challenges.

So return to that galaxy far, far away, and prepare yourself for what happens when the Force awakens. . . .

Set 30 years after the events of “Return Of The Jedi”, Luke Skywalker has vanished after a pupil of his turned to the Dark Side.  In his absence, the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire and is intent on finding him.  General Leia Organa, leader of the Resistance, has learned from an old ally that there might be a clue to Luke’s whereabouts and she sends her best pilot, Poe Dameron, to retrieve it.

To set my stall from the off, I am a huge “Star Wars” fan and my first introduction to the work of Alan Dean Foster was his novelisation for the original film in 1977 though I haven’t read that for a while (but I’m tempted to go back now).  Sticking fairly close to the script (with some nice additions), Foster does a good job of dealing with all of the various locales, easing older characters back into the action (and it’s nice to see Han & Leia interact again) but also doing well with the new characters and his work with Rey on Jakku is particularly good, capturing her sense of loneliness well.  Kylo Ren also comes across more clearly here, his inner struggle well realised - and the professional jealousy he & Hux share - and Leader Snoke casts a more chilling presence too.

The novel makes good use of location, especially Starkiller Base and Foster’s a sure hand at dealing with technology, giving the reader just enough to picture the item and then treating it as though it’s been around forever.  He also does a good job with the dialogue - one of my highlights from the film was the verbal interplay between the characters and it’s captured well here, reading as funny as it did on screen.  It also has that wonderful sense, of time having passed and adventures moving into history - “Luke Skywalker?” asks Rey, “I thought he was just a myth.”  On the Falcon, Finn knows Solo as a Rebellion General but Rey knows him as a smuggler and when she mistakes the time the ship made the Kessel Run (she says fourteen), he sharply corrects her to twelve.

Foster also includes a few sequences that, although they were probably deleted from the film for timing reasons, work well.  Beyond the opening sequence with Leia, the first new part is Poe’s escape from Jakku, an adventure with Naka Iit which is good fun.  There’s a sequence with Korr Sella (an aide of Leia) who’s sent on a mission to the Hosnian system just before it’s wiped out by Starkiller (she’s in the film but we don’t find out her name) and, wonderfully, Chewie finally gets to rip someone’s arm off at Maz Katana’s place.  The last key sequence is on Starkiller, which features a speeder chase between Rey & Finn and a load of troopers which is exciting and explains why they’re so far above Han and Chewie for the final showdown with Kylo Ren.

Well written (though I got the curious sense that Foster was under-writing and certainly not creating something as lush and deep as the original novelisation), well realised and full of pace, this does the film proud and I would highly recommend it.

The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens
by Phil Szostak
Lucasfilm have long known how to produce good art books and, thankfully, this is absolutely no different.  Taking the story from the very start of the process in 2012, Szostak follows the team of Visualists working under Rick Carter - and, later, Darren Gilford, though it’s not made clear why it was necessary to bring him in - as they come up with concepts for sequences, even before the scriptwriter and director are on board.  Seeing the story - and images - evolve organically is fascinating and the artwork is exemplary.  Helping the book, for me, is a production diary that starts around the time of pre-production, a few paragraphs for every month, following the process up to post and giving out little details that help build a bigger picture.

But the art is the real star here and the beautifully reproduced images - from a varied team including Doug Chiang, Ryan Church and Eric Tiemens (who all worked on the prequels), Christian Alzmann, Chris Bonura, Andree Wallin and more - are gorgeous.  Of the hundreds of pieces on display, my favourites include “The Sunset”, Chiang’s wonderful riff on “Apocalypse Now”, Andree Wallin’s “AT-AT Idea”, Kevin Jenkins’ “Rally Site Troops View”, “Spotlight” by Kevin Jenkins (which presents the reasoning why concept art is so important as this immediately shows you the moment when Han and Ren confront one another which might not work so well with words) and “Rey Emerges” by Yanick Dusseault, which shows the scale superbly.

I read a little while back that George Lucas was disappointed at how retro some of the film looked and whilst I enjoyed seeing little things in the film - the heads-up display in the Falcon, the Brutalist aspects of the Empire - I do understand what he means and the book confirms it.  Ralph McQuarrie’s work, both used and unused, was re-examined by the Visualists and pieces were cherry-picked for the new film.  Admittedly, when I read this, all I could think was “the lucky devils!” for gaining access to the fabled Lucasfilm archives.

My one gripe would be the way that Szostak and (especially) Carter see themselves - the writer mentions Kathleen Kennedy (the producer) “reaching out” to him, rather than calling him and asking for a meeting.  Carter goes further in the pretension stakes (I’d like to believe he’s being ironic about his own abilities but I really don’t think he is) and contrasts badly with the way Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston have talked about themselves over the years plus you wouldn’t need to argue very hard that their contribution to the Star Wars universe - and, by extension, pop culture - is far greater than Carter will ever manage.

That niggle aside (easily done, just skip the Foreword), this is an excellent companion to a superb film and one I would highly recommend.

Some examples of the superb concept art
Artwork by Andree Wallin
Artwork by Doug Chiang
Artwork by Doug Chiang, which he acknowledges is a riff on "Apocalypse Now"

And just because this clip, first shown at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2015, gets better after you see the film, here it is...

Monday, 11 April 2016

Polly, a new novella...

Coming soon from Stormblade Productions, available in print, digital and audio editions.

Polly Harper had always wanted to visit the City of Love

She just didn't expect to be doing it on her own...
More similar in tone to Drive than my horror output, Polly is a thriller featuring a woman who discovers, on the eve of her twentieth anniversary, that her marriage isn’t all that she thought it was.  Fleeing to Paris for the weekend, she befriends an American tourist and then meets a man in a bar...

Neil Buchanan, at Stormblade Productions, asked if I’d like to write something for him and I readily agreed (I thoroughly enjoyed their Everett Smiles audio book).  Knowing that Carrie Buchanan would be narrating, hearing the INXS song New Sensation and memories of an afternoon in Paris combined to give me the seeds of the novella, which I pitched at FantasyCon in Nottingham.  Thankfully they liked it and I had great fun working on it.

Polly will be released later in the summer, supported by an online launch and the print and digital editions will include an afterword.

More details to come...

Monday, 4 April 2016

North By Northwest (Hitchcock at the cinema)

My friend Jon & I are Alfred Hitchcock fans of long-standing (I won’t go into detail again about when my interest started) so when he discovered that the Errol Flynn cinema (attached to the Derngate theatre) in Northampton was showing a season of the Master’s films, we leapt at the chance to go and went to see North By Northwest.
Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) suffers a bad case of mistaken identity when two spies confuse him for fictional FBI agent George Kaplan.  Kidnapped by a gang led by the suave Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and framed for the murder of a UN diplomat, Thornhill is forced to go on the run.  Encountering Vandamm’s mistress Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) and his sinister right-hand-man Leonard (Martin Landau) along the way, he races to clear his name before he’s caught, taking in a close encounter with a crop-duster plane, an exploding petrol tanker and being shot, before the famous climax atop the Mount Rushmore monument.

I loved it.  It had been long enough since I last saw it that I didn’t recall everything, which made for a more entertaining viewing but seeing it on the big screen with great sound was a revelation after TV and DVD showings.  Cary Grant was effortlessly stylish and cool whilst Eva Marie Saint (her Eve Kendall is a ‘very’ modern woman) was luminous - if anything, I wanted to see more of her.  James Mason, Martin Landau and Adam Williams made convincing villains (and hearing Grant and Mason together, talking over each other with their gloriously rich accents, was wonderful), the plot is airtight (and based on the most simple of premises) and, of course, the direction is peerless.  From the mundane - Thornill and his mother (Jesse Royce Landis) in the hotel room - to the exciting - the crop duster scene or the Mount Rushmore climax - Hitchcock writes the grammar of modern cinema and in doing so sets up the template that spy thrillers still follow.

Cary Crant & Alfred Hitchcock at Mount Rushmore
Following Vertigo (1958), Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman put aside their planned project, The Wreck Of The Mary Deare and began work on creating an original screenplay.  “The Man On Lincoln’s Nose”, as Hitchcock called it, was inspired by a story the journalist Otis Guernsey had told him, about an innocent man who is mistaken for a master spy.  Purchasing the story rights for $10,000, Hitchcock’s plans for the film included an assassination at the United Nations, a chase across America and a climax at Mount Rushmore.  This appealed to Lehman, who started work in August 1957 and completed his first draft, which Hitchcock liked, in early 1958.  The title, suggested by MGM story editor Kenneth MacKenna, didn’t satisfy Hitchcock and other titles were suggested, including “Breathless” and “The CIA Story”, though favourable pre-publicity persuaded him to stick to the original.

James Stewart was originally earmarked for Thornhill but delays to the completion of Vertigo (plus the cool reception that film received) edged him out in favour of Cary Grant.  Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor were considered for Eve Kendall before Hitchcock chose Eva Marie Saint and James Mason was cast as Vandamm when original choice (at which point the character was called Mendoza) Yul Brynner was unavailable.  Hitchcock makes his signature cameo appearance at the start, having a bus door slam shut in his face.
Principal photography began in New York on 27th August 1958, though it didn’t start well as the UN refused a filming permit to the production.  Instead, Grant was filmed walking towards the building and still shots and matte paintings were used at all other times (including the famous overhead shot).  Other locations included Madison Avenue, Grand Central Station, the Plaza Hotel on 5th Avenue, and Westbury House and gardens on Long Island.  Moving to Chicago by train, the production filmed at LaSalle Street Station, the Omni Ambassador Hotel and Midway Airport.  In South Dakota, location shooting was limited to the Mount Rushmore car park, the café and its adjoining terrace and was completed in two days.

Although permission was initially granted by the National Park Service at Mount Rushmore, it was on the strict instruction that no violent scenes be filmed “near the sculpture, on the talus slopes below the structure” or on “any simulation or mock-up of the sculpture or talus slope.”  After a local journalist published an article describing a violent chase Hitchcock had planned, permission was withdrawn though after further negotations, officials allowed for the action to take place on a studio set “on the condition that the presidents' faces be shown below the chin line in scenes involving live actors.”

The crop duster scene was filmed on Garces Highway, between Wasco and Delano at the San Joaquin Valley in California.  A suitable location had been hard to find as Hitchcock wanted “a scene where our hero is standing all alone in a wide open space and there's nobody and nothing else in sight for 360 degrees around, as far as the eye can see.”  The plane was flown by local pilot Bob Coe.
Starting in September, all the interiors - as well as elements of Mount Rushmore to complement matte paintings - were filmed at MGM Studios in Culver City on sets by production designer Robert Boyle.  Vandamm’s house was designed to look like it had been built by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright but apart from a few portions of the structure built on the set, it was mainly a series of superb Matthew Yurichich matte paintings.
Top - Matthew Yurichich's matte painting of the Vandamm House
bottom - film still
Since the film went over budget, Hitchcock had to abandon his original opening sequence, which was to have shown Thornhill in his office alongside various advert layouts.  Instead, graphic designer Saul Bass created his second credit sequence for Hitchcock, which was the first to use kinetic typography where the credits fly into the frame from off-screen (and mirrors the use of straight lines and intersections - note the crop duster sequence - throughout the film).
Filming finished in mid-December and the post-production period lasted until early April 1959.  Hitchcock argued with the Production Code Administration officials over the final sequence (where Thornhill pulls Eve into the train compartment bed) and also her line “I never make love on an empty stomach”.  He agreed to re-dub the line to “I never discuss love…” and changed the dialogue in the end sequence to imply the couple were married, but then inserted the famous final shot, where a train is seen entering a tunnel (which wasn’t in the script and wasn’t submitted for approval by the Code).

After the initial screening, the MGM board raised concerns over the films length, wanting it under two hours.  Hitchcock, who had final cut, refused to take anything out.  As publicity began, the mischievous Hitchcock led journalists to believe the Mount Rushmore climax was filmed on location.  Elmer F. Bennett of the Department of the Interior complained to the MGM present Joseph R. Vogel about it, which led to the removal of a screen credit acknowledging the Department’s co-operation with the film.

North by Northwest premiered in Chicago on July 1st 1959, attended by Hitchcock, Eva Marie Saint and Leo G. Carroll.  It became the sixth highest-grossing film of 1959 and was nominated for three Oscars - for art direction (Robert Boyle), film editing (George Tomasini), and screenplay (Ernest Lehman) - but didn’t win any, though Lehman received the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1960 for his screenplay.

In 1995, it became the fourth Hitchcock film to be selected for preservation by the United States National Film Preservation Board.  The Writers Guild Of America ranked the screenplay No. 21 on its list of 101 Greatest Screenplays ever written while the American Film Institute ranks it as the 40th greatest American film (as well as 7th on its ‘Top Ten Mysteries’ list).  Ian Fleming was also a fan - he sent a telegram outlining a plot for a novel, asking if Hitchcock would “be interested in directing this Bond film...?”

Produced on a budget of $3.1m, the film has so far grossed £44.4m.

Hitchcock's original trailer for the film

If you get a chance to see this at the cinema then take it, it's a superb experience!

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Deb Loves Robbie

I'm pleased to say that "Easter Eggs & Bunny Boilers", the anthology edited by Matt Shaw, was published as an ebook exclusive on Easter Sunday.  It's my first time working with Matt, I'm part of a terrific ToC and the book features my story "Deb Loves Robbie", a tale of bad families, love and resurrection.
Matt Shaw invites you to learn the true meaning of Easter. Yes. That's right. Easter. Learn the true meaning of Easter in this anthology featuring some of the biggest names in horror right now with authors from across the globe. 

Come, take his hand, and experience demented rabbits, chocolate obsessed children drowning in their own greed, serial killers, resurrection and more in this collection guaranteed to kill the cravings of your sweet tooth. 

Introduction from Jim Mcleod

Desserts, by Matt Shaw

Bastard Bunny, by David Owain Hughes

He Is Risen, by Duncan Ralston

The Chickens And The Three Gods, by Kit Power

Wicker Baskets, by Kindra Sowder

My Last Easter, by Jack Rollins

Lepus, by Stuart Keane

Little Bunny, by Glenn Rolfe

Run Rabbit, Run, by Michael Bray

When A Bunny Snaps, by Jim Goforth

Help Me, by Neil Buchanan

Educating Horace, by Matt Hickman

Deb Loves Robbie, by Mark West

Tradition, by Kyle M. Scott

Hey-Zeus, by Duncan P. Bradshaw

Feldman’s Rabbit, by Rich Hawkins

On The Third Day, by Graeme Reynolds

Easter Eggs, by Chantal Noordeloos

Easter Hunt, by J R Park

The Jesus Loophole, by Luke Smitherd

The ebook is available from 

Having 'almost' met Matt at FantasyCon in Nottingham last year (we saw each other but didn't get a chance to speak), I friended him on Facebook and he wrote back that same day, inviting me me into this anthology.  I liked the concept, I liked the style (Matt works towards the more extreme end of the horror spectrum and whilst I don't so much these days, it was interesting to head back over there briefly) and so I signed up immediately.

The story had to be about Easter and I got the opening line 'The Easter Bunny killed Deb Swales' straight away, with the opening of the story coming out during that evenings walk.  More ideas slotted into place as the week (and evening walk miles) went by and watching "Psycho" on TV added the finishing touch.  I enjoyed writing this - though some of the research was a bit unpleasant - and I'm pleased to have written a tale that's honest, loving and very grim.

This time he hit my ear and the thud deafened me.  I went down, my right temple hitting the slick concrete.  I watched three pairs of trainers come towards me, felt someone grab the collar of my jacket and pull me up.  A kick landed in my ribs and I felt something crack.  Another kick caught my right shoulder, jarring my arm in the socket.  Gary punched my forehead and I closed my eyes, tried to bring my hands up to protect my face.  More blows rained on my arms and chest, more kicks hit my thighs and shins.  Someone kicked me in the groin and blackened lightbulbs flashed across my field of vision, slowly turning red.  Something ran into my eyes, blinding me.  Another punch, another kick, another horrible cracking sound.

More black lightbulbs and then nothing.

I woke up in hospital.  The first thing Deb said, after telling me she loved me, was that she’d lied to the doctors and said I’d been mugged.  Her brothers beat me until I looked like a rag doll, then threatened her that if she told or was seen with me again, they’d fix her.  She rang an ambulance from the pub and said everyone in there knew who she was but none of them offered to help.

The sovereign rings had done some damage but the pretty nurse who stitched me up did a good job and my broken ribs were taped.  What nobody could fix was the damage done inside my head.

The doctors said I’d suffered a TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injury.  I wanted to crack that old joke, the “what brain?” one, but I couldn’t find all the right words and they said that was to be expected.  TBI damage can be wide-ranging, they said and vary a lot.  They told me I could have physical effects, like balance problems and headaches and dizziness, or my thinking and behaviour could be badly affected.

Was I sure, they asked, that I didn’t know who’d done it?  I took one look at Deb and the panic on her face - for me, for her, for us - and said no.

When I was released, Deb and I moved into the flat and neither of us spoke to our families.  We laid low, to avoid the world for a while and lived our lives as I slowly built my strength back up - though I found it harder and harder to remember how to fix even the most simple of things at work.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Writer/Blogger meet-up, London, 19th March 2016

Although I’ve had this blog since 2009, it’s only within the last couple of years that I’ve thought of myself as a blogger (and a somewhat eclectic one at that, it has to be said) and it’s been interesting to discover that community.  In January, my friend Sue Moorcroft took me along to a writers-bloggers meet-up in Birmingham, organised by Kim Nash.  I didn’t know what to expect, didn’t know anybody else there but I had a great time.  Meeting in the Bacchus bar, it was in a side-room crammed with people who were all chatting at the same time, sharing a love of reading, of books and of communication.  I met Shelley Wilson (we later reviewed each others work), thriller writer Barbara Copperthwaite and reviewer Rachel Gilbey and enjoyed it so much that when another meet-up was announced for London in March, I signed up for it straight away.  As the day came, however, with Sue unfortunately unable to go, my nerves kicked in (shyness really) as I made my way down to London but there was a silver lining - I picked up a hardback edition of Dennis Etchison’s Cutting Edge anthology (the book that changed the way I looked at horror) for £1 in the train station book sale!
Always a tourist - Trafalger Square at lunchtime
"People with heart conditions - use the lift!" Whoops...
The event was scheduled to begin at noon and since my train arrived at 11.26 and I can't go to London and not see some of the sights, I caught the tube to Covent Garden.  As I was heading up, the lift had just gone and people in front of me were talking about taking the stairs.  As hard as it might be to believe, I didn’t know about the Covent Garden steps and even the signs (which almost say 'there’s too many, you idiot, wait for the next lift!') didn’t phase me.  We set off up the spiral staircase, with people flagging in front of me (it’s very difficult to overtake when the inner part of the tread is only an inch or so across), passing the occasional sign telling us how many were left.  I kept going, my legs beginning to hum with a faint ache and passed knots of people, stopped and worrying because they were halfway up and didn’t know what to do.  I eventually got to the top (all 193 steps) without stopping and felt great, though whilst my breathing might have been steady the muscles above my knees were singing!

I had a wander around Covent Garden (I love it there), nipped into Erics Nook to buy a gift for Alison & Dude then walked to Shaftesbury Avenue.  Phil Sloman had told me the Cinema Store was closing but I didn't expect it to be so sudden and was disappointed to find the space empty (with a 'Trust No-One!' poster on the door).  I walked around the corner and discovered Orbital Comics (which I’d never seen before), went in and managed to pick up a vintage Stormtrooper for £12!  I got my lunch from the Fiori Corner deli at Leicester Square (chicken salad sandwich in a ciabatta, made as I stood there and still cheaper - and far tastier - than anything Subway could conjure) and walked up Charing Cross road, nipping into Any Amount Of Books (which Phil showed us on our first Crusty Exterior meet-up) and picking up a cosy mystery I’d been looking for.  With that, I caught the tube back to Kings Cross, walked out of the station and around the corner and The Waiting Room was just along the road.

With Barbara
Underneath a Premier Inn, I went to what I assumed were the main doors and fruitlessly pushed and pulled on them.  Hiding my eyes, I slunk back around the building trying to find the correct entrance (I did, it wasn’t where you expected it to be) before discovering everyone else had done the same thing.  The meet-up had taken over the bar area and there were a lot of people, with me taking the tally of blokes up to the three.  I found Kim and we had a chat, then she gave me my name-badge, steered me towards Barbara and headed off to find more newcomers.  It was good to see her again and after we caught up, she introduced me to blogger Neats Wilson, before Lisa Cutts joined the conversation.
Jan Ellis, Christina Courtney and me
Jan Ellis who I just connected with on Twitter came over, following by Sue’s friend Christina Courtney and we had a long and wide ranging discussion on everything from writing for ebooks, putting passion on the page and the public reaction to 50 Shades Of Grey.  Trevor Williams came over to introduce himself, a few more joined our conversation and it was great - we all wrote different things, we all had a slightly different approach and it was interesting to hear varying viewpoints.  Later, as I stood at the bar, two of my Romaniac chums, Sue Fortin and Jan Bridgen, came over to say hello.  Although we’ve known each other online for a few years (and I read Sue’s book last year) it was the first time we’d met up and happily, our sense of humour seemed to click in right away and we spent a lot of time laughing.  Sue got Talli Roland to take a picture then introduced me to her and that led to another interesting discussion about sub-genre.  Talli headed off to do some shopping, Sue & Jan went to catch their train, I chatted with Barbara and her friend before Rachel Gilbey came over for a natter and then it was time for me to head off.
With the Romaniacs - Jan Brigden (left) and Sue Fortin
As far as I was concerned, the afternoon was great fun and my nerves were pointless - I met some great people, had some excellent writing and book related conversations and made new friends.

Roll on the Brum meet-up next month!

Monday, 14 March 2016

Photograph Of You

I'm pleased to report that "Tales From The Lake vol. 2", from Crystal Lake Publishing, edited by Joe Mynhardt, Emma Audsley & R.J. Cavender, has just been published.  It features my story "Photograph Of You" and I'm chuffed to be in an anthology alongside so many great names (I mean, seriously, look at that line-up!).

The second installment in the annual Tales from the Lake anthologies. 
This non-themed Dark Fiction anthology plunges the reader into worlds filled with serial killers, ancient gods, vengeful rednecks, cowboys, elevators, forests, lakes, frozen ponds, hell-bound elevators, and much, much more. 

Foreword, by Joe Mynhardt

Lago de los Perdidos, by Jim Goforth

Out of the Woods, by Ramsey Campbell

Winter’s Dollhouse, by Rena Mason

The God of Rain, by Tim Lebbon

A Grand Perversion, by Ben Eads

Bone Wary, by Jan Edwards

Photograph of You, by Mark West

St. Thomas of El Paso, by Lisa Morton

Forever Dark, by Jonathan Winn

Ripperscape, by Vincenzo Bilof

Descending, by John Whalen

Virtuoso, by Hal Bodner

Chalk Face, by Raven Dane

Like Disneyland, by Rocky Alexander

Prime Cuts, by Glen Johnson

The Lake is Life, by Richard Chizmar

Damned if You Do, by Jack Ketchum

The First Header, by Edward Lee

Love Amongst the Redback Spiders, by Aaron Dries

The book is available as an ebook only at the moment (print to follow) from Amazon

Amazon US

When Joe Mynhardt got in touch with me during summer 2014, inviting me to contribute to this anthology, I was excited to be part of such a cracking line up.  My heart attack meant I missed the original deadline but he was kind enough to hold my place and give me some extra time.  When I came to start writing I initially drew a complete blank, which panicked me somewhat and I spoke to Steve Bacon about it (hence the story is dedicated to him).  We brainstormed some ideas and one of them - "A woman finds a series of weird photographs that get progressively more frightening" - really sparked with me and I was finally off.  As it was, the writing was quite a painful process (the first half took a fortnight, the second half a matter of days), stemming from my fear I couldn't do it and the fact that I was holding Joe up (though he was a delight all the way through).

The story features Cindy, heavily pregnant with her partner Steve's baby, who is fretting that he might be playing away.  Looking through some photographs she'd taken of him in the park, she is surprised to see that in one of them he's talking to a woman Cindy hadn't seen on the day

Her mobile buzzed as Cindy was waiting for the kettle to boil.  She put her travel-mug on the kitchen counter, delved into her bag for her phone and looked at the display.

"Morning Angie,” she said.

“Hey, how’re you?”

“I’m fine, just waiting to make my coffee then I’ll be off.  Why, what’s up?”

There was a pause.  “Nothing, just checking.”

Cindy took a deep breath, making it loud enough that Angie could hear.  “I’m fine, honestly.  I look like the side of a house, but I’m fine.”

There was another pause and Cindy thought she heard Angie draw breath, as if she was going to say something.  “Is everything okay Angie?”

“Yep, no problem, I’ll see you at work.”


Frowning, Cindy closed the call.  Her phone wallpaper was a selfie she’d taken on a beach in Devon, with her too close to the lens and Steve behind her, his eyes wide and his big grin partially hidden.  It always made her smile - photographing him made her smile.

She pressed the gallery button.  They’d been to the common at the weekend and she’d left her camera at home but had taken several with the phone - a good substitute but not in the same class as her Nikon.  The first picture was Steve standing at the pond, throwing lumps of bread at ducks and swans that weren’t interested at all.  The next photo was another selfie, but it was unfocussed and she seemed to have at least three chins.

"Not the most flattering,” she said.

The third picture was Steve walking towards her, a big smile on his face.  He’d taken a call, standing well away from the trees to get a better signal and she’d walked on a little way.  The last picture was him in the distance, his back mostly towards her, the phone pressed to his ear.

Cindy looked at the photo, looked up at the kettle as it clicked off, then back at the picture.  The woman was standing right in front of him and they were clearly talking to each other.  She was blonde, her curly hair blown by the wind, her eyes wide, her mouth a thin line.  She was wearing black boots, a knee-length skirt and a black jacket she was hugging to herself.

Cindy didn’t remember seeing a woman standing with Steve when she took the photo.

Who was she?