Monday, 30 September 2013

The following post first appeared in the 25th Anniversary special edition of Newcastle United fanzine 'The Mag'. I started out writing for The Mag and was honoured to be invited back for a guest writer slot and an interview below:

                                'Abandon All Hope Ye who Enter Here'

                                                                By Howard Linskey

It’s been twenty years since my last article for The Mag, which is, admittedly, a bit of a gap and it got me thinking about how things have changed since the days when I wrote my first piece for the fanzine. Back then, in the Gordon McKeag era, I used to rant that we were being run by idiots who cared very little for the fans, failed to maximise our commercial potential, sold our best players to clubs with more ambition but often fewer fans and chronically under invested in our own side. Sound familiar?

I’ve written a hell of a lot of words since those days; for newspapers, magazines and web sites and, more recently, books but it was ‘The Mag’ that got me started and the first time I saw my name on anything I’d written was in these hallowed pages. We were in the old second division back then, having failed to capitalise on Kevin Keegan’s playing days.

Things are so bad these days that I almost feel nostalgic for a time when our chairman was merely out of his depth and not seemingly intent on crushing all of our hopes for the hell of it. In six years under Mike Ashley we have been relegated once and almost went down a second time last season. For a club our size that is some achievement. Even a Mackem double agent would struggle to match Ashley’s record for sheer ineptitude.


Neutrals occasionally express surprise when I say that I despise Mike Ashley. I admit it is a bit strange for a middle aged man to feel quite this strongly about somebody he has never actually met but I can honestly state that my hatred for him is real. It grows with each year and every fresh humiliation he bestows upon us. The latest of course is the appointment of a complete clown with amnesia/dementia/tourettes/all three (delete where applicable) as Director of Football. Not the first time I have found myself thinking, ‘does Ashley really believe this will help or does he just do it because he enjoys winding us up?’

Even the idiotic Llambias (“Lambeezey”) couldn’t bring himself to work with Kinocchio, a man who cannot even pronounce player’s names correctly and routinely lies or forgets facts from his own CV; small things admittedly, like being relegated, fired or how long he actually spent managing the Toon.


It is probably no surprise to any of us these days that our long term transfer targets are being snapped up by more ambitious clubs, like Norwich City, or that we are reportedly reluctant to enter into ‘bidding wars’ with Everton or the mighty Swansea, even though the former are basically broke and the latter have been in the premier league for just one season. Because we will never pay the going rate for players, we will only ever get them if they are out of contract or nearly out of contract.

When I look back on all of the ludicrous, misplaced, foolish, ill-judged and vulgar decisions the fat man has made in his time, I can only assume it is all part of some evil plan. Was he beaten up by a Geordie when he was a teenager and vowed vengeance upon the entire city of Newcastle? Surely that can be the only explanation for Joe Kinnear. I imagine him sitting in his hollowed-out volcano, stroking a white cat and going, ‘Right, I have already offended the two finest players ever to pull on a Newcastle shirt, sold Shay Given, Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll, renamed the stadium after my tacky cash and carry, stuck a legal loan shark on the shirt, ensuring thousands of fans who would normally purchase a top as a matter of routine will refuse to buy a new one, so….what can I do next that will really piss them off. Got it! Get me Joe’s number!’


Which brings me to the Ashley apologists, a dwindling band it has to be said, who still cling to the view that without the fat man we’d be bankrupt and the club would no longer exist. They nearly always mention the £100m of interest free loans he has graciously lent the club. The club that he owns. So, let’s consider that shall we? The man is apparently worth £2.3 billion, he bought Newcastle United outright, so he could have a bit of fun with it, didn’t do due diligence, was surprised to learn there was £100m of debts and now lends himself the money (he is sole owner after all, there are no other shareholders), without charging himself any interest (very good of him that) and we are supposed to be grateful. In the meantime he will make ‘no capital outlay’ on the club, so where does all of the TV money, the shirt money and the ticket money go? Into the black hole of the accounts that’s where. Meanwhile he is stuck with us, so he uses the club in the only way he knows how, by turning St James Park and Newcastle united into one huge advertising hoarding for Sports Direct, which makes us nothing more in his eyes than a giant billboard.


So is this any different from the McKeag era I used to write about? I’m afraid it is, in one very big respect. Back then we longed for a multi-millionaire to wrestle control of the club and invest in it properly. Nowadays it would require a billionaire and there aren’t many of those around, particularly British ones. The irony is we have already got one and he is as tight as a gnat’s chuff.


What strikes me the most about supporting Newcastle United today is the complete absence of any hope, which is a sentence that is as depressing for me to write as it is for you to read. Aside from those few Ashley apologists, who would find a reason to forgive the fat man no matter what he did, I think the vast majority of Newcastle fans think we are going absolutely nowhere with him as the owner, except down.

I am so sorry that after twenty years absence from the Mag my guest spot is such profoundly depressing reading but I suspect that most of you will agree with at least some of the points I’ve made. Like me, you probably see very little hope that the club will ever move forward or realise its undoubted potential until Ashley sells up, with the list of potential suitors, at a quoted price of £267m, pretty small in this day and age.

What a shame that neither Mike Ashley nor the departed Lambeezy ever had the imagination to work out how amazing this club could be if it was run even half properly. If the manager was given resources commensurate with Newcastle’s position as one of the best supported teams in the Premiership for example; I’m not asking for anything outlandish here, just the ability to perhaps bid £10m or £12m for a striker every few years. Ashley wasn’t around when the place was absolutely buzzing and we stuffed Man Utd and beat Barca and money is clearly the only thing that excites him. Trouble is most Newcastle fans aren’t energised by a healthy balance sheet. We’re a bit old fashioned like that.

Maybe in twenty-five years, if I’m still around, I’ll be able to write a more optimistic anniversary posting about how things improved with the departure of the fat man when he sold up to someone with a more positive view of our football club; such as a creepy Russian Oligarch, a despotic  Arab oil magnet or Kim Jong Un perhaps. In the meantime, like you, I’ll keep watching and caring, reading the posts in the local papers and wincing every time Kinnear makes us a laughing stock. I’ll keep counting the hours and crossing off the days, months and years until, like the Berlin Wall, Mike Ashley’s awful bloody regime finally crumbles and comes crashing to the ground. Then we might have something to smile about again. Till that moment, we can always console ourselves by remembering the good times. Now where did I put the DVD of that 5-0 stuffing of ManUre?

Howard Linskey is now a bestselling author, one time writer for The Mag and of course a Newcastle United fan. We caught up with Howard to ask him about Siberian gangsters, lap dancing clubs & brothels and Newcastle United.


If people haven’t read them, how would you describe your books?

 ‘The Drop’, ‘The Damage’ and ‘The Dead’ are crime thrillers set in Newcastle. They all feature David Blake, a reluctant white-collar gangster who always ends up in a lot of trouble. He mixes with drug dealers, enforcers, corrupt politicians, bent coppers and one dodgy footballer. The Drop was voted one of the top five thrillers of the year by The Times and the books have been optioned for TV by, David Barron, the producer of the Harry Potter films, so hopefully you will see David Blake in Newcastle on the telly one day.

Was using the city of Newcastle a no-brainer when it came to choosing a setting for your books?

 As soon as I got the idea for the story of ‘The Drop’ I wanted to set it in Newcastle and nowhere else. I can’t think of a more atmospheric place and I’m always surprised there aren’t more books, films or TV series set in the city.

Has Newcastle United inspired any of your storylines, or would that be just too far-fetched....?

 You couldn’t actually make up the situation at Newcastle. Ashley’s time as owner is way stranger than fiction. I do have a character who’s a premier league footballer and he is so appalling I am often asked if he is modelled on Joey Barton. The truth is he is a fictitious creation, partly influenced by the bad behaviour of the aforementioned mister Barton, along with the ‘escapades’ of the likes of Bowyer, Bellamy, Dyer and a dozen others I could name. Just when I think I may have gone a bit over the top with him, I pick up a newspaper and realise there are real footballers out there behaving far worse than he does. They never let me down.  In short, the character I created is vermin but he is probably still a lot nicer than Nile Ranger.


What inspired you to write for The Mag in the early days?

 I’m not just saying this as it’s you asking but I thought it was very cool to be involved in The Mag. Back then fanzines were just starting out. They were pretty subversive and the only alternative we had to the match programme, which wasn’t reflecting the real views of the fans. I bought a copy of ‘The Mag’ and thought it was amazing because I’d never seen anything like it before. I sent in a letter to begin with, describing a trip to see the Leeds game where Micky Quinn scored four on his debut. When it was printed I thought I’d chance my arm with an article. When you printed that as well I was chuffed to bits, as I had never had anything published before, so I can honestly say it was The Mag that started me off. Those articles gradually gave me the confidence to go on and do other things. I’ve mentioned The Mag in every bit of press I‘ve done with my books because it really did set me on my way.  

Why did you stop?!!!

In the end, life got in the way. I wrote an article in every issue for four years (and yes, I’ve still got them) but then I became a journalist and found it too hard to write in the evenings when I was already writing all day. I also lost my anger about our perennial lack of achievement. By the time I stopped writing for The Mag, the club was back in the Premier League, they were transforming the ground and the team were going places, we were signing top players and were led by a manager who believed anything was possible. What was left to moan about? We’d almost reached the promised land. It makes our current pathetic plight all the more depressing.


What are the high and low points in these 25 years of following Newcastle United?

 I think my personal high spot was the 5-1 demolition of the Mackems – Bramble being sent off towards the end made it feel as if I had written the script myself - closely followed by the 5-0 dismantling of the evil empire of Man united. Then there was Tino burying Barca and thumping Leicester 7-1 at the end of the promotion season. The two FA Cup semi-finals vs Sheffield United and Spurs were great too. Shame about the finals.

Low points? Have you got all day? Obviously losing the championship to Man Utd, a team I absolutely despise, along with their awful former manager, was just terrible but Mike Ashley’s tenure just keeps on delivering new lows. His treatment of Keegan, his treatment of Shearer, selling Shay Given, relegation, renaming our hallowed ground, putting Wonga on our shirts and finally appointing Kinocchio not once but twice, all of it beggars belief. He must hate us. It’s the only explanation.

Living in the south now, what reaction do you get off people when they find out you are a Newcastle fan?

 Pity. Honestly they get a kind of rueful look about them and usually say something like ‘Oh dear, what’s going on at your place then?’ after the latest fiasco.

How optimistic/pessimistic are you at this point (mid-July)?

 I think I am at rock bottom where optimism is concerned. It’s not that I think we will be relegated again necessarily, although a couple of injuries will see us right back down at the bottom of the league for sure, it’s more my awareness of Mike Ashley’s complete indifference to strengthening the team that has got to me. How many transfer windows have we sat through while he asset strips the side only to just fail to bring a new player ‘over the line’. It happens time and time again and it’s clearly deliberate. He will never spend sufficient funds for us to have a half decent squad. It’s profoundly depressing. I expect us to finish in the bottom half this time.

How many signings do you think Newcastle will get ‘over the line’ and how many do you think we need in reality?

 It could be none (we haven’t signed anybody at time of writing, even Mick Harford turned us down) but I suspect it might be one or two and I don’t think they will be particularly great signings either. As I write, we are linked with Darren Bent but still won’t pay a fee of £6m for him and none of us are too excited about him coming either. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cabaye is sold for £20m towards the end of the window, leaving us no time to get a replacement, which Ashley will be absolutely thrilled about. I suspect we might get Bent and somebody we have never heard of or ‘one for the future’ for about £1m but that will be it. I really hope I’m wrong but I doubt it.

What do fans of other clubs say to you about how Mike Ashley is running Newcastle United?

 I don’t think they fully appreciate how bad he is, because they don’t live with it every day like we do, so I go off on a rant whenever they say ‘he signed a few players in January with the Andy Carroll money’. I then forcefully educate those Arsenal or Spurs fans that the Carroll money was spent on the club not the team, paying for a few tiny transfer fees, agent’s fees, player’s salaries for the next five years and a bore hole at the training ground, while the rest covered the cost of toilet rolls, footballs, nets and the cleaner’s wages for the next decade or two. I try to explain that no other club in the country claims to have ‘invested’ transfer fees in the way we do.

Out of the current squad who would you be happy to see line up (players who realistically you don’t think we can bring in anybody better than) on the first day of the season against Manchester City?

We have a decent first eleven until the inevitable injuries hit. I rate Krul, Mbiwa, Taylor, Collocini, Haidara, Sissoko, Cabaye (if he sorts his head out, as he went seriously off the boil last year), Tiote (if he recovers his form), Ben Arfa and Cisse if they don’t sell him because of the Wonga issue.

I don’t think Guttierez has been anything like good enough for a while. His crossing and shooting is ineffective. We should be doing better than Williamson and I was very disappointed with Santon last year, as he kept costing us goals. I’m not convinced he is even a defender and I’d be tempted to try him at left midfield instead of Guttierez. At least he can pass, cross and shoot and would be less of a liability in that position. I actually would have kept Simpson, Perch and even Steve Harper for another year as they were all reasonable cover for the first team and we won’t be replacing them with anything decent.

Wonga or Wronga?

I am disgusted and embarrassed that my beloved Newcastle United has the name of a legal-loan-shark plastered on the shirt. I bought shirts when they had NTL, Northern Rock and Virgin on them but I won’t buy one with Wonga on it and I know I am not the only one. It’s symptomatic of Ashley’s lack of style and class and his complete disregard for the wishes of the fans. Pay day lenders should be outlawed not plastered on the shirts of long standing footballing institutions like Newcastle United. It has brought shame on us and the city.


Are you a Shola fan and is it time for him finally to vacate the premises?

 I don’t hate the guy. He has scored some vital goals, earning him the ‘Mackem Slayer’ nickname but he has underachieved for many a year. His other nickname of ‘Stroller Ameobi’ is more fitting and his continual presence in our squad underlines our total lack of ambition. He should definitely be off, with our guarded good wishes. He is a local lad who enjoyed some good moments and was bloody well rewarded for them but his career has been one of what-might-have-been in my view.

Does living away from Newcastle make it easier or harder when times turn bad at the club?

 I’m not sure. I’ve been an exile from the north east for years and I ended up working all over the country but Geordies are like the Irish, they turn up everywhere, so wherever I go I bump into them. I live in Hertfordshire these days and often watch Newcastle on Sky TV in my local pub. There are always fellow Toon fans at the bar there and their pain is just as real as yours I imagine. With social media being what it is, I’m always aware of what is going on. I have a Google-alert rigged up for Newcastle United, I read the Mag, the site and the, plus the Journal and Chronicle on line, so I feel like it’s all on my doorstep. I don’t even bother to read my local newspaper so I am far more in tune with Newcastle news than I am with what’s going on in Welwyn.

Is writing a form of release from your everyday life and Newcastle United, or more a way to unleash the demons and work yourself into a frenzy?

It’s nice to escape from reality and my books always have Toon references in them, so I suppose that is a form of release. I always smuggle in character names that mean nothing to my publisher but get spotted by die-hard Newcastle fans of a certain age. Not the Shearers and Keegans, which would be a bit obvious, but I have characters called Wharton, Anderson, Cartwright and Jinky Smith. The top crime boss in Newcastle in ‘The Drop’ also goes by the name of Mahoney. I get a lot of Tweets and Facebook messages from Newcastle fans who read the books and enjoyed the Toon references.


If properly run, where would you see Newcastle United’s natural place in the pecking order?

Top six or at least top eight. Why not? We’ve done it before. I know there is this stupid media misconception that Newcastle fans have unrealistic expectations but I haven’t met anybody who actually thinks we are going to win anything and, let’s be honest, we never do. However, with the massive fan base and the revenue it generates when the team is doing well, there is no reason why we can’t slowly make our team better every year.

Is there any difference in your love for Newcastle United and the City of Newcastle, or are they one and the same?

I think over time they became inextricably linked. I started with a love for the club, because my Uncle Neil went to games in the seventies and brought me back the programmes and rosettes from the two Wembley finals. I was hooked on the black and whites from that point really. The city was always a place I gravitated too as well, because it had the big shops when I was a kid. Later it was the atmosphere of the match that attracted me and, later still, the night life that drew me back to the city.  I can honestly say that some of the best nights out in my life have happened in Newcastle. You just can’t beat the atmosphere of either the city or the ground.


In your ‘literary’ world, what have been the most extreme/amusing reactions when people have discovered you are a football fan?

I was at ‘Crimefest’ in Bristol in May. After my panel, I had a drink with a crime critic, Mike Stafford, who likes my books and is a Sheffield Wednesday fan. We were with a PR Manager who heard I was from Ferryhil and she said ‘That’s south of the Tyne, which means you are really a Mackem.’ I obviously disputed this but she continued with it so, without thinking, I said ‘why don’t you just accuse me of being a paedophile while you are at it?’.  A few days later Mike wrote this in his piece about Crimefest, which made me laugh……

“I was fortunate enough to be bought a pint by none other than Howard Linskey, writer of the David Blake series. True to the crime writing mould, he’s a warm and friendly bloke – although when Head of Zeus’s Publicity Manager Becci Sharpe suggested that geographically he should be a Mackem, he did express a certain horror. For a die-hard Newcastle man, it turns out even the sex offenders’ register would be a less shameful place to find yourself than the home end at the Stadium of Light.

Growing up in Ferryhill (Co.Durham) there must have been a fair few Sunderland fans around, have they inspired any of the ‘baddies’ in your stories?

In my school year we had Newcastle, Sunderland and Middlesbrough fans, so there was lots of banter but basically people got on. It’s not quite the same as attending derby matches and hurling abuse at each other from either end of the ground. I did include a scene in The Drop, which had a bit of playful Mackem bashing in it but my agent was a bit perplexed by it and I realised that outside of the two cities nobody else would understand it, so I took it out. When I launched the book, the sales manager from the distribution company turned out to be a Sunderland fan and he arranged for me to sign books at Waterstones in Sunderland after I’d done a signing in Emerson Chambers Newcastle but there was a big fun run that day and the city was roped off, so I called them up and said maybe I should stay here in Newcastle for the day as we’d sell more and they agreed. The lasses in the Emerson Chambers shop were chuckling away at that and I had a top day signing books there.

If you were asked to write a screenplay on Newcastle United, what would you call it and which actors would you have taking the leading parts?

 I’d base it on ‘Get Carter’ and call it ‘Get Ashley’ or maybe we could remake that eighties Schwarzeneger movie ‘The Runing Man’ and put Lambeezy, Kinnear and Ashley in the arena, so they could be hunted down. We wouldn’t need actors, they could play themselves. It would be cheaper, which ironically Ashley would appreciate whilehe was  running for his life. Maybe we could borrow that other good film title, ‘Run Fatboy Run.’

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Carry On Up The Amazon

I just had one of those days writers dream about. It started with an e-mail from my publisher that morning, telling me my second book ‘The Damage’ had been selected as a Kindle Daily Deal.

Obviously this was good news. I regularly get promotional e-mails telling me a certain book is available for a lower than normal price and I figured a number of people might see an advert like that for ‘The Damage’ and be tempted to give it a try. Hopefully I’d sell a few more than average but I didn’t have very many expectations beyond that.

I’m not arrogant about my writing, far from it in fact. Most writers I know are riddled with insecurities about their own work. It tends to come with the territory and the divas that think they are God’s gift to the writing world are, thankfully, pretty few and far between. However I have had enough positive feedback in reviews, Twitter messages and Facebook postings from readers to know that most people really like my David Blake books once they’ve read them. I reasoned that by the end of the Kindle Daily deal, I might have gone up a few notches on the much vaunted Amazon listings and perhaps picked up a few more readers along the way, who might enjoy ‘The Damage’ and maybe even tell their mates about. If I was fortunate, some of them might even buy the other books, ‘The Drop’ and ‘The Dead’ as well

I then got on with some work. Around noon I received the first bit of positive news. My agent had checked the Amazon rankings and discovered ‘The Damage’ was number 482 in the Kindle charts. That might not sound too great to anybody but an author but there are many thousands of books in the world and I had started that day with my second David Blake book residing at 33,889 (I know that because we eventually found out how many places up the charts it had soared in just one day). Agent, publisher and I were all very happy with 482.

I carried on with some editing for a while and genuinely forgot about it, figuring it might have peaked already. An hour later, my diligent Literary Agent checked again and told me we were at 138. Things were starting to look quite exciting all of a sudden. I was up there rubbing shoulders with the big boys; writers who’ve written a stack of best-selling novels and become household names in the process, with major publishers and huge advertising budgets to promote their latest work.

More writing followed but, by this stage, I was a bit distracted and beginning to wonder just how far I could climb this pesky Amazon chart and, subsequently, how visible my books might become to the wider world. I can put it into perspective by saying that they have done pretty well already; having been optioned for TV by Harry Potter producer, David Barron, who is adapting them with Layer Cake writer, JJ Connolly. My first book ‘The Drop’ was voted one of the top five Thrillers of the Year by The Times and ‘The Damage’ was nominated as one of the ‘Top 12 Best Summer Reads’, again by The Times but none of that helped me mount a major assault on the monolith that is the Amazon charts. It’s amazing the difference a bit of advertising and the power of social media can make.

By 2.00pm The Damage was at number 24 and we still had ten hours of the promotion to go. Figuring we’d make the most of it, the agent, publisher and I all tweeted about it and posted on FB. Then a lovely thing happened; people started to spread the word for me; lots of people. Twitter re-tweets were so numerous I couldn’t thank everybody for them individually and there were lots of shares on Facebook, saying that my book was on offer and worth a read. Many took the trouble to inform their friends and Twitter followers that the book was storming the kindle charts. It was lovely, life affirming stuff and I was touched by the level of kindness shown.

By 4.00pm we were, unbelievably, in the top ten of the Amazon chart. ‘The Damage’ was seventh in the Kindle book list, ahead of massive names like John Grisham and Dan Brown’s latest.  It was even higher than ‘Gone Girl’. That was a champagne moment, or it would have been if I’d had time to pause for a second to open a bottle, as messages were coming into me now at an amazing rate. Other authors I knew were cheering from the wings on Twitter, which was lovely but not wholly surprising, as the crime writing fraternity is, on the whole, an incredibly warm and supportive place. We’ve all struggled at one point or another, so we all genuinely like to see one of our own having a good day. This time it was my turn.

There were more tweets and more shares, more good wishes, congratulations and ‘wow’s from publisher and agent. The next time we checked, I half expected ‘The Damage’ to have peaked or gone back down again, authors are like that, by the time we’ve even been published we’ve had so many disappointments and knockbacks we basically prepare ourselves for them in advance, but it hadn’t peaked. When the chart was updated, I was at number three and somebody called JK Rowling was at number four. I instantly took a screen grab of that one for posterity. I figured it would be nice to show the grandchildren one day.

At half past eight, the book eventually peaked at number 2 in the Amazon Kindle chart having gone up a staggering 33,887 places in a day, and was only kept off the top spot by a book that had been in the top 100 for 75 days; ‘The Detective’s Daughter’ by Lesley Thomson. My other two David Blake books, ‘The Dead’ and ‘The Drop’, hung onto the coat tails of ‘The Damage’ and were dragged up with it until they were residing at numbers 40 and 149 respectively. I can only assume a number of people bought two of the books or all three together, once they’d had the chance to read the synopses and reviews.

I didn’t go daft. There was no Krug or caviar. Instead I had a couple of bottles of beer and tried to reply to as many people as possible to thank them for spreading the word. Then I sat back and enjoyed the nice, warm feeling of being second in a chart that probably boosts an author’s profile like nothing else can.  

I don’t yet know how many of ‘The Damage’ we sold but it was thousands. In one day. Like most authors, I am in it for the long haul though and my books have had their profile raised, which should lead to more people trying them out.

Of course it might make no difference to me at all in the end. I could ultimately be ignored, dismissed or forgotten by an apathetic public; a one day wonder, the guy who could have been a contender. I might live to be an old man, residing in some underfunded nursing home somewhere, surrounded by young people who might understandably doubt my credentials. They will look at me questioningly and ask themselves, ‘Did he really write a book that went above JK Rowling and Dan Brown in the Kindle chart?’ At which point, like some ageing actor from a forgotten era, who carries his creased and fading newspaper reviews around with him in his wallet, I will reach for whatever electronic device has superseded the lap top or tablet and I’ll show them that screen grab, while tunelessly singing ‘They can’t take that away from me, oh they can’t take that away from me,’ as they gently wheel me away for my medication.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

This is an interview that originally appeared on Ruth Jacobs great web site ‘In the Booth with Ruth’, which is here:


What’s your writing background? When did you begin writing and what inspired you?

I started writing years ago for a very popular Newcastle United fanzine ‘The Mag’. That was the first time I saw my name in print and it gave me the confidence to go on and become a journalist working for regional newspapers. I’ve written all sorts of things over the years, for web sites, magazines and newspapers but I was also writing fiction as well. Like most writers, I got plenty of rejection letters but they were nice ones. They usually told me my stuff was good and that was enough to keep me going. Obviously I read books but I think I am even more inspired by films if I’m honest. My first book ‘The Drop’ has been compared to ‘The Long Good Friday’ and ‘Get Carter’, which I am pretty chuffed about, as I love both of those classic Brit ganster flicks.  


How often do you write? And how do you manage to fit in writing among other commitments?

I try to write every day but it doesn’t always work out that way, as life gets in the way. Before jacking in the day job, I could only write in the evenings and at weekends, which put a lot of pressure on me. There were points during the writing of my last two books where I did feel absolutely knackered but I managed to keep going somehow. It wasn’t easy though and I had to be pretty disciplined. I hate wasting time, as I still don’t have much of it. I look after my daughter, which is wonderful but it shortens my working day, as you can’t really write once a seven year old comes home from school. I never watch soap operas or reality TV or much TV at all in fact. I moved house a few weeks ago and still haven’t rigged up the TV but I haven’t missed it. I try and ration myself to an hour a day with a DVD box set. Perhaps unsurprisingly I like something that has a bit of quality writing in it, like ‘The Killing’, ‘Mad Men,’ ‘Borgen’ or ‘Boardwalk Empire’. I’m currently watching ‘Spiral’ the gritty French cop series, which is very good.


In which genre do you most enjoy writing?

I’m not too hung up on genre but I have no problem being described as a crime writer or referred to as an author of thrillers, though it doesn’t worry me to write outside those genres either. I have written a historical story set in World War Two, which I am in the process of editing, so you might see that published at some point in the future hopefully. I grew up reading John Le Carre, Len Deighton, Jack Higgins and Frederick Forsyth so I’ve always enjoyed WW2 and Cold War thrillers. I’m currently reading Peter Guttridge’s ‘The Thing Itself’, which has sections set in WW1, WW2 and the present day and I’m loving it so far.


What draws you to write in that genre?

I’m led by the story not the genre, so I came up with the idea of ‘The Drop’ then realised it was a crime story. I enjoy writing crime because it gives you the opportunity to place your characters in pretty extreme, stressful situations involving death or injury, imprisonment or betrayal and it brings emotion to a story when so much is at risk for the characters.


Can you tell me about your current project(s)? 

Now that my trilogy of Newcastle gangster stories is complete, I’m giving David Blake and his crew some time off.  My new book is a crime story but this one has some different characters. I am tackling a book about a journalist who returns to his home to investigate the disappearance of a missing girl.  As usual with my books, it is more complex than that though, with several different story lines all happening at once, over two time periods. Somehow I never seem to keep it simple but I enjoy writing books that have a lot going on in them.


What are your writing plans for the future?

I don’t look too far ahead but I want to keep on writing books for as long as people are keen to read them. I’ve been lucky so far. ‘The Drop’, ‘The Damage’ and ‘The Dead’ have all been well received. I am published in the UK and Germany and the David Blake books will hit America in the autumn…or should that be ‘the fall’? The books have been optioned for TV too, so I just want to build on all of that and keep going.


Monday, 8 July 2013

Music Maestro

This post is from a piece I was asked to write about music and writing:

I like to listen to music while writing but my choices are limited because I just cannot write while anything with a lyric is playing. I am so interested in writing of any kind that I become too easily distracted by other people’s words to write my own. As a result, I am usually restricted to tuning into Classic FM, so most of my gritty, contemporary crime stories are written while the music of long dead composers plays gently in the background.

Music does feature in my books. I figured David Blake, my white-collar gangster anti-hero would spend a fair bit of time in night clubs, so I researched the kind of music that would be played in them these days and was quite surprised to pick up a taste for R&B along the way. I found myself driving around with Rihanna and Black Eyed Peas CDs in my car and Flo Rida or Neo blasting out of the radio. Down with the kids? No, it’s more of a guilty, private pleasure. If I attempted to bust some moves to Rihanna, I’d look like one of those embarrassing dads trying to dance at a wedding.

If I’m really looking for a bit of inspiration to get the words flowing or to drag me away from the twin, distracting evils of Facebook and Twitter, I’ll play a film score. I’ve always been a film fan and my writing is more influenced by films than books if I’m honest. I love soundtracks and these days, with the advent of YouTube, it’s even easier to find obscure scores from long forgotten movies or TV shows. I’m a fan of Ennio Morricone, particularly his score for ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ and John Barry’s themes from, ‘The Ipcress File’, ‘The Persuaders’ and the Bond films never seem to diminish with age. Hans Zimmer, composer of ‘Gladiator’ amongst others, writes some stirring stuff to help gee up the word count and it doesn’t get more atmospheric than Trevor Jones soundtrack for ‘Last Of The Mohicans’.
Ipcress File Theme

I’ve never been able to pick up a copy of my all-time favourite film soundtrack, so I have to summon it up from YouTube whenever I feel the need to hear it again, which is often. The theme for ‘The Long Good Friday’ is simply terrific.  Francis Monkman’s pulsating score might sound like it was distinctly of-its-time but still provides the perfect backdrop for London’s top boy, Harold Shand’s arrival at the airport, ten minutes into the film. Bob Hoskins doesn’t even have to emote at this point. The theme tells us everything we need to know about Shand. He’s nails and you wouldn’t mess with him……unless you happen to be the IRA of course, which sets us up for possibly the finest climactic scene of any British film ever. Hoskins face, as he is driven away at the end of The Long Good Friday, to the strains of Monkman’s brilliant theme, lives long in the memory.
The Long Good Friday theme:

A couple of years back, I managed to get hold of the soundtrack for the classic British gangster film ‘Get Carter’, which has a particular resonance for me. My first book ‘The Drop’ has been described as “A Get Carter for the 21st Century”, partly because the two stories share a common gangster theme but primarily because ‘The Drop’ is also set in Newcastle (though the original book ‘Jack’s Return Home’ by Ted Lewis is famously not based in Tyneside). Roy Budd’s soundtrack is one of those scores that’s instantly recognisable. ‘Get Carter’ is a very good film that becomes a terrific one because the incidental music lends it an instant ambience of understated cool. It even makes up for Michael Caine’s ludicrous accent; a Geordie returning to his homeland? I don’t think so, unless the Elephant and Castle is actually a district of Wallsend. Somehow it doesn’t matter and ‘Get Carter’ is still a classic.
Get Carter theme:

When my second book ‘The Damage’, came out, I was interviewed on TV for the first time. The ‘North East Tonight’ reporter asked his cameraman to film me walking up and down the mean streets of Newcastle. I was eager to please but more than a little self-conscious. I didn’t expect much from the end result but was pleasantly surprised when they aired the footage. I was no better looking, cooler or harder than normal - I look like a chubby Peter Beardsley on a good day - but, as I made my way through the dimly-lit, pedestrian tunnel behind Newcastle Central Station they played a bit of background music that I instantly recognised; the theme from ‘Get Carter’. The reporter concluded that, “Forty one years on from Get Carter, Newcastle may have another gritty gangster thriller to define its character in the eyes of crime novel readers.” I don’t do cool; never have, never will but that was……almost cool. So shoot me know. Thanks to Roy Budd’s iconic theme, that short walk, captured on film, was easily my finest hour.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Living with a Gangster

I was honoured to be invited onto author and reviewer Graham Smith's blog in May, which is where the following post first appeared. Graham has a lot of interesting posts on his blog from up and coming writers. There's a chap on there at the moment called Lee Child for example and he seems to be doing okay.

For the past three years now I’ve been living with a gangster. It’s been a dysfunctional and abusive relationship but you might be surprised to learn that he took the brunt of the violence not me. In three books now; ‘The Drop’, ‘The Damage’ and ‘The Dead’, which has just been published by No Exit, I have taken great delight in placing my Geordie, white-collar criminal, David Blake, in trouble again and again. Blake has been beaten up and shot at, chased by men on motor bikes then threatened with imprisonment, torture and execution. He has been targeted by hit men, assaulted by Police officers and forced to fend off an attacker in his apartment, using nothing but an urn containing the ashes of his girlfriend’s mother.

Blake is no saint however and he, in turn, has killed people in all three books; with knives, guns, machetes or simply by ordering their deaths. Not bad for a man who never actually considers himself to be a gangster. Blake’s life is pretty stressful, so he has occasionally turned to drugs but, being an old fashioned, northern lad, he tends to prefer booze or, on occasions, women to relieve that stress. He is not the best boyfriend material however, having cheated on his girl with minimal guilt, and is unlikely to empathise with you if you’ve had a hard day at the office, as it is unlikely to have been as tough as the 24 hours he has endured.

And what has David Blake given me in return for all of the grief I’ve put him through? Well, plenty. Apart from the obvious relief and joy that comes with finally becoming a published author and seeing my name on a book cover, I wasn’t sure what to expect as a first time novelist. Would anybody read my book, would anyone actually like it? Thankfully they did and they do. I have had some wonderful moments because of Blake. I’ve been reviewed positively by, amongst others, The Daily Mail and The Times; the latter naming me as one of their top five thriller writers of the year because of ‘The Drop’, an accolade that I still can’t quite believe, even now. Frankly I’d be happy to have that one etched on my tombstone.

In the north east in particular, the books have gone down really well and I have received a stack of messages from folk who enjoyed reading a story that is set in an area they know. I’ve been interviewed in all of the local papers, made numerous appearances on BBC Radio Newcastle and even been on TV.  I’ve also given away my books in competitions on, the web site for exiled Newcastle United fans around the globe, which I think gave me almost as much pleasure as the Times review. ‘The Drop’, renamed ‘Crime Machine’, has been published to great reviews in Germany, so ‘The Damage’ will follow it there next year and, in the Autumn, Harper Collins will publish both books in the U.S. God knows what they will make of my Geordie gangster in America.

The only thing that could possibly top all of the above is the e-mail my publisher received from someone claiming to work for David Barron, producer of the Harry Potter films. He had apparently bought a copy of my book, read it, loved it and wanted to turn it into a TV series. This seemed a tad unlikely but it turned out, astonishingly, to be true. A few weeks later I was sitting in my agent’s London office in a meeting with David, who turned out to be a very nice bloke indeed. I spent a pleasant hour or two with the man behind the most successful movie franchise the world has ever seen, discussing the practicalities of bringing David Blake to the small screen. The scripts are being developed by JJ Connolly, another top man, who wrote the great British gangster flick, ‘Layer Cake’. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to watch David Blake being put in peril all over again; this time on the telly.

Now that the trilogy is finally complete, I’m not going to say whether Blake, or his large assortment of supporting characters from the Newcastle underworld, will ever make a re-appearance. That’s dependant on me coming up with a strong enough storyline. The last thing I want to do is churn out two dozen very similar books, on auto pilot that, like Hollywood sequels, fall foul of the inevitable law of diminishing returns.

I have an idea for a new book and I’m afraid there’s no space for David Blake in this one. I owe the fellah a great deal but I’ve been seeing other people lately; in my mind’s eye at least. I’m going to take a break from Blake for a while, to allow some different characters to live with me instead. However there is no way I am ever going to forget the man and everything he has done for me. Who knows, maybe one day, I’ll come crawling back to him.

Monday, 28 January 2013

On the Joys of Editing ‘The Dead’

This writing lark is easy really. Just rattle out a first draft of your novel in six months or so then send it off to your editor, who’ll ring you straight back to tell you she just loves it, don’t change a word; job done. Oh, if only.

I finally sent the second draft of ‘The Dead’ off to the publisher last week, meeting its deadline by, well, minutes, if I’m honest. The second draft is the big one. When I send the first draft to my agent and editor it feels a bit like stepping off a cliff. Nobody else has seen it until that point, so I have no idea what their reaction will be. There was a huge sense of relief this time when they both really liked ‘The Dead’, because they would tell me if they didn’t, believe me.

So they both loved it but there were just a few changes needed. Even though I have been through this process before with ‘The Drop’ and ‘The Damage’, I was still lulled into a false sense of security by their positivity, mainly because I was pathetically grateful that they didn’t hate the book. They really like it! So I must be nearly finished, right? Wrong.

I then had to wade through every comment on my one hundred and four thousand word manuscript and there were a lot of them. Not every page warranted their scrutiny but every now and then there’d be a little observation on the side of a page, “Can we have a little bit more of this….or a little bit less of that? Could we delete this bit for pace but could we expand on this? How about an extra scene here, where we see this explained earlier and, I hate to say it, but do we really need this chapter at all….you know…the one you spent a week writing.…..oh and that character…you know the one…..sorry but I’m afraid she doesn’t really work for me at all.”

At this point my heart sinks and not because I resent my agent and editor’s input, far from it. It’s precisely the opposite in fact. I really respect their opinions and had to think long and hard about what they had told me, because I want this book to be the best it can be. I obsess about it in fact. I picture readers having the exact same thoughts they do. I know what it feels like to spend eight quid on a paperback and invest a week or two of your commute time or that precious last hour before bed, only to be disappointed by the outcome. I don’t want to be responsible for that feeling in anyone, so I am my own worst critic. I’d rather change or bin anything that doesn’t quite work long before it reaches the reader.

When I wrote the second book in the David Blake trilogy, ‘The Damage’ I took out two whole chapters because both my agent and editor thought they were “good but they slow down the narrative”. I think I allowed myself to use the word ‘bollocks’ quietly to myself more than once, as I contemplated the time it had taken me to write, edit, re-edit and final-edit the words I was about to delete but when I looked at the book again with fresh eyes I knew they were right.

Editing ‘The Dead’ was tricky. I’d specifically asked my extremely talented editor, Keshini Naidoo, if she could help me get the word count down and she removed 5,000 words before returning it to me. This was great on one level, because it saved me a lot of work, but it still hurt a little when I saw some of the writing I had been quite proud of culled from the page, even though I knew it had to be done. I then went and made another fifty-five fairly major changes. I know it was that many because I made a list of all the work I had to get through to complete that second draft, so I could cross each one off when I’d finished. Some of those changes took a few minutes, some half a day. The worst one involved removing a key character that had become an integral part of the story and one of half a dozen plot lines that were all interwoven nicely together in ‘The Dead’. As I mentioned, neither my editor nor my agent were convinced by the character and felt removing this plot line would streamline the whole story and make ‘The Dead’ a stronger read. No problem I thought, as I methodically removed every scene involving that character, sobbing to myself inwardly as more than eight thousand words hit the cutting room floor.

Eventually, draft two was complete and a manuscript covered in electronically generated amendments – the Microsoft word equivalent of reams of red pen crossings-out – was off to the publisher. This version will be copy edited and returned to me with just a few grammar amends and literals that three pairs of eyes all somehow missed (it happens, believe me) and I’ll get to read through the whole thing again to check that I’m finally happy with it. Draft three will be the final version that hits the book shops on April 25th. We will be launching ‘The Dead’ with a couple of events and some signings, plus radio and press interviews, which is a fun and exciting way to complete a very lengthy process. I can go into the launch with a clear conscience because, after all of the hours of hard work, fretting, editing, more fretting, further editing and fretting about my fretting…..I am really happy with the end result and I hope that readers of ‘The Dead’ will be too.

The only bit that remains is the nervous breakdown, which I have pencilled into my diary for the end of May.

It’s strange though. I had been really looking forward to completing that difficult second draft and was going to reward myself with a nice little rest from writing for a while. After a couple of days I was already reading through my notes on a new book.

The writer Eugene Ionesco once said, “A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.” In my case, he could possibly have added ‘with just a few strategic breaks to read web articles about incoming Newcastle United players during the January transfer window” but, aside from that, the gist of what he said is undoubtedly true.

The next book after ‘The Dead’ will be my first that does not feature David Blake. I have some great ideas for this one and I think it will work but I know there will be countless man-hours devoted to knocking the first draft of that one into shape. Then, if I am really lucky, my agent and editor might both agree that they love it……………but they’ve got just a few, little changes in mind…………

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Geordie gangster, David Blake, returns in 'The Dead'; to be published by No Exit on April 25th, 2013. In the third installment of the trilogy the reluctant gangster is back on his home patch and facing his biggest challenge yet

David Blake is now running three cities, top boy. Life is sweet until his bent accountant is arrested for murder. The money man is nailed on for a life sentence until he puts five million pounds out of Blake's reach. Now Blake faces an agonising choice; fix the acquittal of a child killer or run out of the cash he needs to bankroll his empire.

Meanwhile, Serbian gangsters are slowly taking over his territory and a crazed Russian Oligarch wants to use Blake's drug supply line for his own ends. Back at home, the Police are closing in, determined to take David Blake off the streets of Newcastle forever, and Blake's girl Sarah is asking awkward questions about the death of her father that he really doesn't want to answer.