Review 2014:
One Thing:
Karina Westermann.

Life I live in the UK, but I was born in Denmark. This makes me an immigrant – an EU immigrant, to be precise. I settled permanently in the UK because I fell in love with a Scotsman. Luckily, I also fell in love with Scotland and this is my home now. My Bella Caledonia. Nine years ago Dave & I were talking about wanting to live together and we had to decide where that should be. We decided the UK would be the best option because Denmark has huge problems with racism and xenophobia. Did we want to live somewhere where Dave’s accent would always set him apart and he’d never really be considered welcome? No. Did we want to live somewhere where his name and lack of Danish language skills would affect his job opportunities severely? No. I’ve now lived in Glasgow for eight years and I cannot imagine living anywhere else. I was worried about racism before I moved across, but it has been manageable so far. I’ve had a few drunks shouting things about foreigners, but that’s easy to shrug off. The drunks also recant as soon as I point out I’m a foreigner: Eh, I didnae mean you, hen!

In recent years the UK has seen the rise of anti-immigration rhetoric. From British Jobs For British People slogans to blaming foreigners for a National Health System struggling to cope with budget cuts. Britain even has its own anti-immigration party now which enjoys disproportional media coverage. I have a strong feeling of deja-vu as sentiments I recognise from Denmark have spread to the UK. Encouraged by certain corners of UK media, it has become more and more acceptable to say things that are overtly racist. Being one of those pesky EU immigrants blamed for everything from how sandwiches are made to pot holes in the roads, it is rather worrying.

Recently I was travelling from Glasgow to Edinburgh when I found myself next to a nice fifty-something lady with lovely hair, sensible shoes, a jolly yellow rain jacket and a posh accent. Without any prompting she began to inform everyone around us that Polish drivers were to blame for British road accidents, that Europeans had a different driving culture (“if you can call it culture“), that she once went to Germany and was shocked by how drivers did not stop for her when she crossed the street, and how foreigners coming to Britain needed to sit a driving exam before being allowed to drive on good British roads filled with decent Britons (although when challenged, she allowed that tourists may have a fortnightly exemption if they pledged to be law-abiding). This was the start of an hour-long monologue directed at different people around her. EU immigrants were welfare benefit cheats, killing people on the streets, stealing jobs from honest Britons, invading Britain under the cover of EU laws, intent on destroying Britain &c. The solution was clear, according to the nice lady. All foreigners should be thrown out of Britain! “What we need is a revolution!”

At first I was tempted to interject. I wanted to challenge her on what she was saying but I didn’t. Instead I started shaking. She noticed – oh, she noticed – as did a nice gentleman across from me who started talking to me about the sock I was knitting. Eventually I began laughing every time she said something particularly outrageous. It was a choice between laughter and tears – and I did not want to show her any tears. My laughter shut her up, finally, and she spent the rest of the journey reading a certain right-wing newspaper.

I have made so many speeches in my head since that experience. I have worked out all the things I should have said: “I am one of those EU immigrants you fear so much. Look at me. I hold two university degrees. I’ve never claimed any benefits. I run my own business. In my own country, people are saying all those things about my Scottish partner. What do you want us to do?”. I know nothing I could have said would have changed her mind, but I wish I could have tried. I have had racial abuse hurled at me before – including in my native Denmark! - but it has always been by people I could dismiss as either drunk or incredibly stupid. It is less easy to dismiss a a nice 50-something lady with a posh accent. It is scary because she is the type of woman who is recognisably, reassuringly an upstanding member of society. Her sort goes on BBC's Question Time or writes long letters to her newspaper. She legitimises scary sentiments.

I have decided the best way forward is to write about my experiences as an EU-immigrant. All those scare stories in the media work best if EU immigrants are portrayed as a faceless mass. Well, here I am. Hello.

You can follow Karie on Twitter @kariebookish.  Her blog is Fourth Edition.

Christmas Links #13

Christmas Decorations in Google Search:
"Just like last year and many years before, Google shows some special decorations when searching for [Christmas], [Hanukkah], [Kwanzaa], [Festivus]. Christmas decorations are animated."

Big Pottermore Reveal Has Actually Been Known in the Fandom for Years:
"JK Rowling released her first story of the Harry Potter 12 Days of Christmas series via Pottermore today and, according to MTV, she's revealing some "serious Severus Snape secrets." Too bad that the "secret" is something that's been a widely accepted fact in the Harry Potter fandom for years now."

My Sister-In-Law’s Lonely Christmas Cards:
"All of my wife’s four siblings are married except one. Bridget, the unmarried one, got cut out of her mom and dad’s Christmas card picture five years ago. Her parents found it awkward to have just one remaining child in her mid-20s still in the picture, so they kicked her out. Bewildered, lonely, and unsure what to do with herself in this big world, she began sending out her own Christmas cards."

Sick of saccharine Christmas films? Here are 18 that won’t make you puke glitter!
"What do you do when you’re being evicted on Christmas Eve? Go on a drug-fuelled odyssey of intersecting stories and Timothy Oliphant. Which NOBODY will remember was set at Christmas."

How to have an office Christmas party for one:
"Working for yourself is one way to take some power into your own hands. But with that power comes a great responsibility: providing your own Christmas entertainment. Self-employed people like me can claim £150 as an office party expense (it’s an exemption, not an allowance, ie not free money, but every little helps), but then what? Here’s how to create that party feeling without stepping into an office."

Could ‘Arthur Christmas’ Become a Classic?
"Arthur Christmas is one of those movies that, if it passed you by on its release, you may forget its existence. Though it was well-received critically and loved by audiences, it is a mighty task for a new Christmas movie to become a ‘classic’ in our homes if we haven’t grown up with it. Depending on your age, you probably even have your own preference of A Christmas Carol – whether it involves Muppets or a computerised Jim Carrey. Is there room for another seasonal movie on your festive favourites list?"

Walking on beautiful clean ice in Slovakian Mountains:
"Me and my friend walking on frozen mountain lake in High Tatras Mountains in Slovakia."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Tim Worthington.

Music If you haven't been following the 'Saint Etienne Presents...' series of compilations, then you really have been missing out on something special. Put together by Bob, Pete and Sarah from their massive collective collection of forgotten popular beat waxings, with assistance from their longtime associate and genre-inventing crate-digger extraordinaire Martin Green, each one aims to evoke a specific time and place, from Central Park to a Lyons Corner House, using nothing but the sort of little-remembered pop discs you might have expected to hear in the designated venue. What's more, they're mostly drawn from pop's formative years, pulling in hits that have been hiding in plain sight since the late fifties and waving a jazzy two fingers at the tedious insistence by the mainstream rock press that everything started with Love Me Do.

This time, they've turned their attention to Christmas, which will hardly surprise anyone familiar with Saint Etienne's back catalogue; after all, they've released a Christmas EP every year since 1993 (kicking off, of course, with the glorious I Was Born On Christmas Day), and even released a full album of Christmas Songs. But being Saint Etienne, and indeed being their 'Presents...' series, this isn't just any old 'Christmas'. It's Christmas in London in the long-lost days of black and white TV, when festive shop window displays were a dazzling new thing, home entertainment barely existed, and people were as likely to pile into the local carol service as they were the office party. This of course involves rifling through the surprisingly large volume of Yuletide-themed chart contenders in the days before we came to associate the Festive season even with Glam Rock Santa-hattage and Phil Spector emulation, let alone X Factor winners and, erm, Rage Against The Machine. So there's some familiar names, some not so familiar names, and some rescued from well-worn nigh-on-sixty-year-old discs in the absence of master tapes, which occasionally makes listening on headphones a bit haphazard but let's face it, who cares when this stuff actually is on CD, in many cases for the first time ever?

Songs For A London Winter, it turns out, are a mixture of rinky-dink singalongs, politely furious instrumentals, skiffled-up carolling, cheapo cash-in supermarket own brand covers, and the odd bit of Cleo Laine and Johnny Dankworth thrown in for good measure. Johnny Keating turns in a ramble through We Three Kings in the style of his more familiar Z Cars theme, John Barry rattles through a Shadows-aping rewrite of When The Saints Go Marching In that bizarrely threatens to turn into incidental music from Mr. Benn at one point, and brother-and-sister singing child sensations Elaine and Derek - 'Derek' of course growing up to become Charlie in Casualty - try their hardest not to sound like they're trying to sound like Anthony Newley while listing the sights and sounds of advent. Meanwhile, Zack Laurence, who would go on to become both Mr Bloe (as in Groovin' With) and the theme composer for Treasure Hunt and Interceptor, engages in a bit of piano tinkling in honour of the humble snowman. There's even what sounds like it could be an early electronic instrument on the aptly-titled Sounds Like Winter by Dusty Springfield's backing band The Echoes.

Where the the real surprises lie, though, are with the songs and artists that you sort of half-knew at the back of your mind. Even aside from Billy Fury's original of My Christmas Prayer, as later of course covered by Saint Etienne, you'll find The Beverley Sisters getting a touch funky on Little Donkey, and Ted Heath doing quite nicely on Swinging Shepherd Blues, even if his definition of 'Swinging' might pose some problems under laboratory conditions, while the piano-rattling of Russ Conway - so often the target of 'naff' jokes, sometimes even in person, in latterday comedy shows - turns out to be very pleasantly produced and arranged, Lionel Bart being Lionel Bart - oh what a surprise, he's asking for a 'kiss' - is never not welcome, and Adam Faith's Lonely Pup (In A Christmas Shop) isn't quite as annoying as you'd assumed it was on the very fringes of your consciousness. Alma Cogan can still keep that laugh-in-her-voice to herself, mind.

This is more than just a look at a prehistoric age of pop music, though - it's literally a glimpse of a lost world. This is the sound of the sort of Christmas you see in ancient Pathe News films, where massive crowds turned up to watch trees being unveiled on the high street, where queues for department store Santas snaked around the block and the youngsters only left with a cheap plastic doll where the hair came off when you washed it, and indeed where The Beatles put together their very first Christmas Fan Club records, and, believe it or not, even appeared in panto. See, it didn't quite all change with Love Me Do.

You can follow Tim on Twitter @outonbluesix. He's the author of Higher Than The Sun, the story of four albums released by Creation Records late in 1991, available at Hulu here.

Christmas Links #12

10 of the strangest: Messiahs
"As Christmas approaches, let’s focus on Handel’s famous oratorio and some of the weirder approaches to the Hallelujah Chorus. If you like your Handel with added psychedelic trance, LED lights and electric guitars, you’re in the right place"

Jewish angels and Roman gods: The ancient mythological origins of Christmas:
"Many Americans have heard that December 25 was a birthday of Roman gods long before it was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Some people also know that our delightful m̩lange of Christmas festivities originated in ancient Norse, Roman and Druid traditions Рor, in the case of Rudolph, on Madison Avenue. But where does the Christmas story itself come from: Jesus in the manger, the angels and wise men?"

Here’s why thoughtful Christmas gifts are the WORST gifts:
"In the coming weeks, millions of people will buy gifts for loved ones. Which is great—except that tons of those people will make the same glaring mistake, and buy the wrong gift. Roughly 10 percent of gifts are returned each year—and the percentage of unwanted gifts is surely higher given that nice people may not want to return presents."

Christmas parties: a survival guide:
"Parties – how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. There’s the dressing up for them. There’s the getting to them. There’s the being at them. The getting back from them. The meeting of strangers. Or people you know. There’s the not being at home. There are an awful lot of things."

Review 2014:
One Thing:

Coming of Age.

Life Go to the mall, the grocery store, or just stand on a busy street corner and look around at the people swirling about you. Are you younger than most of them? Perhaps you fit comfortably in the middle? Or do you notice that it is only the ones who look as if they might be collecting a pension that appear older?

2014 is the year I started to feel old. This came as a bit of shock, because as much as I flatter myself that I am a self-aware and a discerning observer of life around me, I swallowed more than a few glasses of youth culture kool-aid over the years.

Combine the decades-long bombardment of media messages exhorting us all to buy this cream, eat this super-food, join this gym program and follow these Six Steps to A Better You with the underlying premise that with enough money and effort you can reverse time, and you get a seriously messed-up culture.

Age is just a number.

You are only as old as you feel.

The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.

Only the sentence by Robert Frost is correct.

I and just about everyone else of my generation grew up in expectation. Life was ahead. It was going to happen. Out there. When. When we finished school. When we moved into our own apartment. When we got that job. When we met the right someone. And it was all going to be champagne wishes and caviar dreams minus the braying Robin Leach soundtrack.

Our whole lives have been aspirational. Nations’ economies depend on it.

My parents’ generation grew up in the still lingering shadows of the Depression and World War II rations. They strove to contribute to rebuilding a better world. They still wanted the house and the car and the summer vacations. But they talked about being comfortable. They could see how their lives were easier and more secure than their parents’ and that was success.

My generation grew up with the message that it was all waiting for us Out There and television showed us just how much Out There existed in the world. Greedy doesn't begin to describe the rapacious insatiable appetite for the good life we all came to expect as our due.

We had a road map too. Hard work, good looks, and a winning personality and the world would fall at our feet.

Hard work was a matter of will. Good looks used to be a roll of genetic dice but by the end of the Seventies you could buy a new face for not much more than the cost of a car.

The winning personality depended on what collection of self-help aphorisms was hogging the best-seller list. It started with I’m OK-You’re OK which propelled us down the path to magical thinking and all its other delusional siblings. It was quickly followed by The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People which promised to teach us how to win at life while at the same time reducing it to a series of lists. Lists are great. Lists are manageable. Lists have no time for ambiguous, or intangible, nuanced messiness of living. Lists reduce everything into easy bite-sized Happy Meals. (The internet loves lists—but that’s another issue.) We kept chasing after the mirage of more, because to settle for less is to fail.

And so we continued living life as possibility. It can all happen. Still. Until the day it can’t. We wake up and suddenly, with even the most basic grasp of mathematics we know there is more behind us than in front of us and what lies ahead looks grim no matter how fat the wallet.

It happens in small increments, mistakes, accidents. The first bumps are the sort of hip check that takes you away from childhood dreams of professional sport or celebrity. You shrug it off as silliness and set you sights on a new passion. The thing is time is against us. We all know this and I have yet to meet anyone who accepts it on a personal level.

Live each day as if it were your last.

That’s crazy talk.

If I did that, right now I’d be on a beach in Hawaii (it’s December and I hate the cold) with a plane ticket to Europe in my purse and nothing in the bank.

We are all going to die. It’s the when and how that eludes us.

I have been told I can expect to live longer than previous generations did. I am not guaranteed that the quality of those days will be any better. Already, if I make a list of all the people I have known, the list of the quick is smaller than that of the dead. I am at the age where I understand why my grandparents spent so much time discussing the past—it’s where they did their best living.

What nobody told me about aging is that the outward signs are nothing compared to the interior collapse and decay and that it begins long before the end. Bones, muscles, sinews, synapses, hormones—it all starts to break down; if I was a car I’d be trading myself in.

This is where, if this were a magazine piece, I’d be expected to impart a piece of warm hopeful wisdom. The wonderful thing I’ve learned this year.


I’m still in the middle of this. More people have left my life than entered it this year, so I can tell you to cultivate young friends. I’m not being flippant.

Most of my friends used to be older than me, because they were more interesting. They had seen and done things, while my peers were as clueless about life as I was. Most of them are gone. I am cultivating younger friends because now they are the more interesting.

I can also tell you that anyone who says that they have no regrets in life is either trying to sell you something, or is too stupid to know better. I regret plenty of things, and most of them are things I didn't do. What I regret is of no use to anyone but me, with perhaps one exception- I regret any time I had a chance to be kind and didn't take it. Except with politicians. And bankers. And bureaucrats. Oh hell.

You can follow @asta on Twitter here. Kitchen Bits is her Tumblr.

Christmas Links #11

Playing With My Son: An experiment in forced nostalgia and questionable parenting:
"I love games, and I genuinely wanted Eliot to love and appreciate them too. So, here was my experiment: What happens when a 21st-century kid plays through video game history in chronological order? Start with the arcade classics and Atari 2600, from Asteroids to Zaxxon. After a year, move on to the 8-bit era with the NES and Sega classics. The next year, the SNES, Game Boy, and classic PC adventure games. Then the PlayStation and N64, Xbox and GBA, and so on until we’re caught up with the modern era of gaming."

NPR Music's Favorite Songs Of 2014:
"... we turned our tidy list of songs into a massive, party-starting player in which you can actually listen to every single one of the 302 songs we loved this year, from every genre we cover. You'll find a 19-minute doom-metal epic and a few two-minute punk explosions. Classic-sounding R&B and Vine-inspiring hip-hop. Ecstatic choruses and devastating harmonies. Beats from around the world and unwavering political folk from here at home and plenty more that blurred the boundaries."

1647: The year Christmas was cancelled:
"Howard Goodall examines the original handwritten journal from the House of Lords from 8 June 1647, the day the law cancelling Christmas was passed, and meets Professor Ronald Hutton to find out why. Taken from The Truth About Christmas Carols, originally broadcast on Christmas Day 2008."

The six worst TV Times Christmas Covers:
"Slap-bang in the ‘so much more than TV times’ magazine era, Harry Secombe, there, firmly on the highway to getting sozzled, in a perfunctory photo-shoot of the ‘let’s just split for lunch’ variety. Sack the art ed who married those red and white hues with a lime flavoured logo."

How the film Elf ruined my day:
"I flopped down on the bus seat, on my way to do whatever it is I do for a living. I hadn't shaved that morning, for reasons which need not concern you. In a certain light I fancied I looked elegantly rumpled, in all other lights I knew I looked a total state. Then my phone buzzed. It was a message from a man from the television asking me to go on the news to discuss the Will Ferrell film Elf. This did not come out of nowhere. I had recently written a blog post about the film, which I detest, and it had provoked some controversy."

No, I will NOT wrap all the presents. Why are women still responsible for the holiday joy?
"We all know that women do the majority of domestic work like child care, housework and cooking. But the holidays bring on a whole new set of gendered expectations that make the season less about simply enjoying fun and family and more about enduring consumerism, chores and resentment so that everyone else can enjoy rockin’ around the Christmas tree. (I bet even Mrs Claus gets upset that Santa works one night a year but she’s dealing with hungry elves 24/7. That would be almost enough to make you want to over-indulge in eggnog and hurl yourself in front of a reindeer-pulled sleigh.)"

Mary And Joseph Brave Oxford Circus On A Donkey:
"Chester the donkey is said to be a bit of a diva, but hopefully the method-acting mule will be on form next week when he escorts actors playing Mary and Joseph through Oxford Circus at the start of the Wintershall Nativity."

Jim Broadbent and Rafe Spall on Get Santa:
"Director Christopher Smith, producer Liza Marshall and cast members Jim Broadbent, Rafe Spall, Jodie Whitaker, Kit Connor and Warwick Davis reflect on Get Santa (2014), their seasonal comedy. Smith explains how and where he devised the film’s plot, while Marshall and the cast discuss the plot of the BFI-backed production."

31 Reasons Christmas In New York City Ruins You For Life:
"It’s not the holidays without at least one trip to the Big Apple."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Essie Fox.

Film My One Thing relates to a film that I’ve never forgotten – because it scared it me half to death, and the terror of that memory remains just as vivid as it did when I was the schoolgirl who crept out of bed to watch the late night TV films. Since then I’ve often thought about the nightmare tension of that film – all the melodramatic darkness that burrowed its way into my mind, and from which it has never re-emerged.

The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise in 1963 (since when it has obtained a certain cult status, with Martin Scorsese calling it one of the all-time scariest films that he has ever seen) is based on a novel by Shirley Jackson; herself the undoubted mistress of compelling psychological horror. And this is how her novel begins, with an atmosphere of implicit threat contained within these few short lines that is then more than fulfilled in Robert Wise’s visual adaptation –

“Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

Even today, that opening – the threat of the madness that haunts the house – still fills me with a sense of dread. I can almost relive the scene in which the vulnerable protagonist awakes from sleep to hear some monstrous banging sounds … like the beating of the giant heart of some animalistic, unseen ‘thing’ that is lurking outside in the corridor, trying to force its way on through the bulging bulk of the bedroom door.

There is also a cast iron staircase which swings and creaks as if alive, which seems on the verge of collapsing, just as the victim’s tortured mind is spiraling ever downwards into a private mental hell, while filled with the sense that she is cursed – her doom to be found within Hill House.

So – if there’s one scary film that I can recommend to you – the one film that I hope to watch again over this Christmas period, then it has to be The Haunting.

You can follow Essie on Twitter @essiefox.  She's the writer of Victorian gothic novels. The Goddess and the Thief, her latest book, contains many ghostly elements.

Christmas Links #10

Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, Spotify and App Stores Have Killed Christmas:
"It’s not just limited to films, either — my traditional Christmas shopping plans have been scuppered by Spotify and the many app stores. too. The Scott Walker and Sunn O))) albums for my older brother will have to remain on HMV’s shelf as he can already play it on Spotify. The Run the Jewels album for my other older brother suffers the same fate, while picking up the Shadow of Mordor video game for my teenage cousin seems a futile exercise seeing as it’ll almost certainly be knocked down to a pocket-change price by the Steam Christmas sale."

The Hazards of Christmas Decorations:
"Industrial hygienist Monona Rossol discusses the potential hazards of Christmas decorations, and the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission’s proposed rules about them. A chemist and an artist, Rossol is the president and founder of Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to providing health and safety services to the arts. She is the author of Pick Your Poison: How Our Mad Dash to Chemical Utopia is Making Lab Rats of Us All."

In Soviet Russia, Christmas celebrates you!
"What was Christmas like under the communists? Well, actually, when the Soviets took power in Russia they abolished Christmas – but it was replaced by New Year celebrations, which under the Russian calendar actually happened 6 days earlier than Christmas! Bonus!"

Sony, you have the wrong Dakota:
"I get emails. Lots of emails. I get tons and tons of emails. Some of them aren’t for me, but they are for someone with presumably the same name."

Look!: A Giant LEGO Christmas Tree Built In Sydney:
"LEGO crazy at your place? The Southern Hemisphere's biggest LEGO Christmas tree has just been built in Sydney, Australia! Here are all the stats, and links to plans to build some LEGO Christmas trees of your own."

Christmas card from 1982 forms lasting link between families:
"It was the year E.T. wanted to phone home. Edmontonians were clubbing at Scandals and Flashback, Ottawa was in the midst of a constitutional crisis and the up-and-coming Oilers won the Smyth division for the first time. Mike Leggett sent a Christmas card to his boss in 1982 and started a Christmas tradition that persists to this day."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Simon A. Forward.

Life What has a hazelnut in every bite? Topic. I didn’t really have one in mind when Ian kindly invited me to write a guest post for his 2014 review, then I remembered I have a new book due for release this December.

And what better respite from the deluge of carols and Christmas pop tunes in the cafes and shopping centres of the world than the sound of an author blowing his own trumpet?

On the other hand, I didn’t really want to make this a commercial.

Now, in fairness, my Evil UnLtd books aren’t all about self self self, since if you put them on your shelf shelf shelf all royalties will go to Cancer Research UK so a purchase (of ebook or paperback) is all in a good cause. And in looking back on this year it’s impossible for me not to think on this, the fourth volume in this increasingly epic sci-fi series of mine.

It’s about time, as the tagline said of the Doctor Who TV Movie. Which is to say, this instalment is about time (my DW novel Emotional Chemistry featured four different modes of time travel and I think I may have outdone that with this one). And it’s also an admission that I took my own sweet time writing it.

You can put that down to my meticulousness and exacting standards. And if you’ve scribbled as many Doctor Who reviews as I have, complaining how many of the episodes don’t make sense, you’re under some additional obligation to take care over your own writings and make sure the dots all join up sensibly. Even more important, I suppose, when those writings are a fiendishly fangled Evil time-travel adventure. And if it turns out the tangled web of time is riddled with mistakes, well, readers are invited to make omelettes out of all the egg on my face.

Time allegedly flies when you’re having fun and it’s true to say I always have great fun writing these books. They’re supposed to be funny, after all, so it’s a good sign if I’m having a laugh or several along the way. Hopefully folks will have nearly as much fun reading them.

But time only flew occasionally. Sometimes it crawled, sometimes it got completely away from me, sometimes it had trouble dragging itself out of bed in the mornings, sometimes it crashed altogether. Because, at the risk of a brief moment of sobriety ahead of the impending festive season, there was one other major feature to characterise my 2014 and definitely played its part in slowing up the creativity.

Depression, to give it a name. The black dog, to give it another.

It’s hounded me (haha) for years, but this last year was particularly tough, turning at times into an obstacle course of deep troughs and huge mountains to climb. I mention this not to cast a downer on everyone’s Christmas, but because depression is far from uncommon and none of us should be afraid to fess up to it. Also because one other 2014 memory that springs too readily to mind is Robin Williams, a warm and very funny guy now who inherited RIP after his name in August. A sad loss, for him and us.

It’s particularly easy to fall prey to the black dog at this time of year and I wish I was brimming with wisdom and bright advice for other sufferers out there, but even if we are not alone but we do face it largely alone. What works for me may not work for you.

What worked for me this year is that I made it to December with a finished book to show for it. And a comedy at that. Depression’s not entirely useless in that it does fuel some measure of the cynical humour that colours much of the Evil UnLtd series. I guess that’s key: for one, it helps to laugh, even at the crappiest things in life, for two, it’s a matter of turning even the darker emotions to some sort of advantage.

It’s like turning fat into muscle. And as anyone with a lapsed gym membership will tell you, that’s hard work. But just as we needn’t be afraid to talk about it and should never be afraid to get help, we really need to not be afraid of the hard work it takes to negotiate that daily assault course and stay ahead of that damned black dog snapping at your heels.
So, I guess ultimately what I (finally) wanted to say here is this:

Happy Christmas. But in case it’s not, don’t be afraid of the big black dog. It may pee all over your Christmas tree, but it can be trained.

I can’t claim to have mastered it but at least for this year I can count my achievements as well as my blessings. A fourth book in a series is no mean feat, plus I’ve continued to produce short fantasy fiction in my Tortenschloss Chronicles at the rate of an episode a week and managed various other bits of creativity in the face of adversity. And knowing that feels like an encouraging pat on the back. So if you’re looking back on your 2014 and it’s been a rough one, I recommend counting anything and everything you’ve achieved, no matter how small. And if it was a struggle to get this far, well, d’you know what? That makes those achievements all the more notable and valuable. Count em twice.
There. That’s me done with being sober for the year.

Here’s to 2015, in which I’m planning, amongst other things, a fifth Evil book. That one is not going to be about time. In theory it should be about politics. So if nothing else depresses me next year, that certainly ought to do it.


You can follow Simon on Twitter @perfect4d.  He's the author of several Doctor Who novels, audio dramas and short stories as well as the writer of three novelisations for the BBC’s Merlin series. He also self-publishes his own sci-fi comedy series, Evil UnLtd (see and you can find some of his fantasy fiction at The Tortenschloss Chronicles:

Soup Safari #11:
Parsnip at Manchester's Christmas Markets.

Lunch.  £2.95. Lancashire Hot Pot stall (owned by Manchester Central Convention Complex), Manchester Christmas Markets, Albert Square, Manchester, M60.

Christmas Links #9

Christmas tat comes but once a year, so embrace that reindeer jumper:
"The new issue of Vogue is specifically dedicated to people’s work wear: “I always enjoy trying to guess what someone does for a living from what they are wearing, and generally have a pretty good strike rate,” the magazine’s editor, Alexandra Shulman, writes. I reckon everyone has a great strike rate when it comes to guessing your occupation, Mr Claus, and while this might spare you some tedious small talk at cocktail parties (“What do you – oh, right”), I bet it raises other complicated issues, ones possibly not mentioned in Vogue, because life is complicated when Christmas clothes are your perennial personal style."

College basketball fans toss Christmas toys onto court during game:
"A college basketball team takes a technical foul just to make sure children have toys under the tree this year."

17 Badass Women You Probably Didn’t Hear About In 2014:
"The 600 volunteers who added 101 female artists to Wikipedia."

The Box of Delights and other stories about dreams:
"Yet The Box of Delights is also set at Christmas, when dreams mean something different. For one thing, they're important in the Nativity story. In Matthew 2, the Magi are warned in a dream not to tell Herod where he can find the infant Jesus; then Joseph is warned in a dream to flee with his family to Egypt to escape Herod's wrath. I'm interested in the interpretation of dreams in life and fiction—and how one use of dreams in particular shaped our modern sense of Christmas."

The Interactive Polish Christmas Guide:
"Polish Christmas interactive guide project is horizontal scrolling, illustration-driven journey explaining Christmas traditions in Poland."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Jacqueline Rayner.

Books Guest blog goal: to bring something obscure to a wider audience. Well, 2014 marked the end of a quest of mine, a quest to find all that could be known about a character called Reginald Fortune. Obscure? Well, I’m obviously not going to be the only person in the world to have heard of him. But back in the early 1980s it felt like I was...

When I was about 11 or 12 I was exploring my Nan’s house when I came across an old, very tatty cloth-bound book called Clue for Mr Fortune by H C Bailey. The (foxed) imprint page told me it was the third impression ‘(first cheap edition)’ and that it had been published in September 1937. No one knew where it had come from or who owned it, so I was allowed to take it home to read. Clue for Mr Fortune contained six stories, each dealing with a different ‘clue’ that spoke volumes to the eponymous Reginald Fortune, a gp who advised Scotland Yard. The book’s language was occasionally archaic in both construction and word use (the first story has a girl who steals a flapjack, which turned out to be a powder compact and not, as I confusingly thought at the time, an oaty treat), the cherubic Reggie was not the most sympathetic of lead characters and the action was often gruesome (the flapjack story not only had dead humans – perfectly acceptable in detective stories – but also a cat with its head bashed in, which was fairly traumatic). Nevertheless, I adored the book and wanted to read more.

I turned first to my library, but the Essex Library Network had only one H C Bailey volume – and that was in its reserve collection, not even on the shelves – a reprint of the first book, Call Mr Fortune. As far as I could tell with my limited resources (no internet!), only two books had ever been reprinted, the rest had been out of print for decades and the chances of any library having a 50 or 60 year old edition on their shelves seemed slim. So for the next few decades I scoured second-hand bookshops, flicked through every mystery anthology I could find hoping to see the magical words ‘by H C Bailey’ in the contents list, and even regularly picked up ‘Book and Magazine Collector’ to search through its classifieds (growing to loathe Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Mr Fortune’s Maggot along the way). Slowly, gradually, my collection built up. There were additional delights in discovering these often ancient books: for example my 1943 US Pocket Book edition of The Best of Mr Fortune Stories asks the owner to send it to ‘Commanding General, Fourth Corps Area Headquarters, Atlanta GA’ when they’ve read it, ‘to help the boys in the service’ who need books ‘for amusement and recreation’. Lovely stuff!

Mr Fortune is one of the detectives emulated by Tommy and Tuppence in Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime and H C Bailey is one of the authors mentioned in another of her books, The Body in the Library, presumably therefore both Fortune and Bailey would have been familiar names to readers of the 1920s-40s. So why have they both fallen into obscurity now? Perhaps it’s because authors such as Christie can transcend their time period, but Bailey is very much of his. In these cosmopolitan days there would be little place for some of Reggie’s deductions – there’s the time he solved a case by discovering that the stomach contents of a murdered victim contain saffron and deducing he must find a Devonshire household as only they would know of saffron cake, and a similar experience when he deduces a fragment of a menu must be from Brittany so searches for a crime there.

Then there’s his relationship with the police which is patronising in the extreme: he frequently bursts the smug bubble of some local police official by pointing out that, eg, an absence of blood on the ground means the corpse was murdered elsewhere, while his acolytes (Mr Lomas, the Chief of the CID, and Superintendent Bell) look upon him with awe (OK, so there was no CSI in the early 20th century, but really...) And then he’ll go in the opposite direction with deductions so out of left field that you have to credit him with second sight – even his colleagues think his powers verge on the supernatural. (“‘Very odd how he knows men,’ said Superintendent Bell reverently. ‘As if he had an extra sense to tell him of people’s souls, like smells or colours.’ And he has a clear head. He is never confused about what is important and what isn’t, and he has never been known to hesitate in doing what is necessary.”)

That’s a quote from ‘The Unknown Murderer’, a story from Mr Fortune’s Practice that showcases several of the features that distinguish the Mr Fortune stories: an unusual and disturbing motive (in this case, murdering people who are greatly loved to inflict suffering on those left behind), and Reggie’s own sense of justice – ‘doing what is necessary’ as the text has it – another thing that might make him unpalatable today. Here, his struggles with the murderer lead to her death, which he then denies knowledge of and classes as suicide during his own examination of the body as Home Office expert. Slightly dodgy? Oh yes. But at least in that case the criminal was trying to kill him at the time; in a really quite startlingly large percentage of stories Mr Fortune either causes or fails to prevent the death of the criminal, often cold-bloodedly – and even considering the death penalty of the time, this can make uncomfortable reading. It may make it more or less acceptable that these deaths often occur when Reggie knows that there’s insufficient evidence for a conviction or when the punishment would be, in his eyes, inadequate – he’s carrying out the death penalty that he feels they deserve. (“‘They’d tortured that boy and his mother. They planned to murder mother and son. They did their best to murder the boy’s soul. And the law would only have given them a few years in prison. I want justice.’ Bell looked at him with dread. ‘It’s an awful responsibility to take.’ ‘Yes. I take it,’ Reggie Fortune said.” – ‘The Only Son’, Mr Fortune’s Trials.)

Children feature frequently – Mr Fortune is a champion of children and places their welfare above all things, but what happens to them before his arrival is frequently extremely distressing, and there are many that he arrives too late to save and can only avenge. But putting aside the terrible things that happen to these children in the name of fiction, possibly the worst crime that is committed in these stories is the way that the youngest of the children speak: so vewwy vewwy twee. Weally they do. It’s the only folly in the prose that really needs the reader’s forgiveness.

Mr Fortune is the opposite to contemporaries such as Poirot and Inspector French in that he works better in short stories than in novels – even with my love of the character I find the novels can verge on impenetrable at times, but there are compensations: Mr Fortune Finds a Pig provides one of the best book names ever created, drily literal and absurd at the same time, although the plot of the 1943 book is grim – pig -> blood of a sucking pig used to culture typhus -> typhus used to murder evacuee children -> murder of evacuee children used to create unrest. Then there’s Dead Man’s Effects, the cover of which provides the unforgettable illustration of some people dramatically looking down at a very small set of false teeth (‘dead man’s effects’ being WWII slang for false teeth). Glorious!

As of 2014 my 30-odd year quest has ended: thanks to the Internet I have finally tracked down all the volumes of short stories. No more new Mr Fortune for me (although there are still those cases never recorded except as a brief recap at the start of a story: “‘That was chocolate cream,’ he said placidly. ‘You’d better arrest the aunt’” or “Mr Fortune came back from the Zoo pensive. He had been called to the inquest on Zuleika the lemur – a strange, sad case”, which can at least be discovered by an exercise of the imagination). So where do I go from here?

Mr Fortune is a great character. He’s lucky that in these Internet days he’s become slightly less obscure, there’ve even been reprints of a couple of his books in recent years – but they still need to be sought out, which requires people to know about them in the first place; that’s the challenge. How many other great characters have been lost to all but a few who frequent second-hand bookshops? How many now exist only in the few stories that have been anthologised? So I’m going to keep my eyes open for some other tatty, foxed, century-old volume that’s never been reprinted – and maybe find another character who doesn’t deserve to have been thrown on history’s scrap heap. Why not join me? Rescue a lost character today!

A few story picks:

‘The Furnished Cottage’ (Mr Fortune’s Trials): a twisted tale of revenge. “Perhaps the water wasn’t really poisoned. He put the tip of a finger into it and touched his tongue. Bitter! Yes, the old woman told the truth. Strychnine, and a good dose of it. And he would be sitting there, wild with thirst, looking at her poisoned water. . . . The old woman must have thought a good deal about making him suffer.”

‘The Dead Leaves’ (Clue for Mr Fortune): picturesque murder in the Lake District. “’He didn’t get it on that rock. It wouldn't grow there. He’d been higher. On the mountain.’ Bell watched him gaze up at it with a queer wistful look. His round face had the expression of a child wanting the cruel, difficult world to be kind.”

‘The Little House’ (Mr Fortune, Please): a drawing of a kitten leads Mr Fortune to a tortured child. “’They’ve been making experiments. Not for science. For the devil.’”

‘The Profiteers’ (Mr Fortune’s Trials): Reggie’s only supernatural case. “‘When they broke the door in they found him over there in the corner. Sort of kneeling in a heap, they say. As if he died saying his prayers.’”

You can follow Jac on Twitter @girlfromblupo.  This is her Amazon shop and she also has a Doctor Who blog.

Christmas Links #8

Christmas at the Front (1914) - First World War:
"From the BFI National Archive"

Black cabs: is it the end of the road?
"In Liverpool, they use cabs instead of buses, partly because there aren’t many buses and partly because at night, few people want to take them. So here, in a neat reversal of the situation in London, there are cab ranks at supermarkets and in areas where people can’t afford cars. They’re also deregulated, so apart from a very slimline version of the Knowledge, black cab drivers are unified only by the desire to make a living. Thus, when you come out of Central Station, you can be greeted by any number of wedding, hen and stag cab specialists, plus at least 14 competing flavours of Beatles tour. Tourism is worth £3.1bn a year to Liverpool, and four men from a band that broke up 44 years ago must account for about half of that."

Starbucks Bets Big on Beans:
"Can the retail giant Starbucks recast itself as a source for rare, hand-crafted coffees? At its Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in Seattle the company is showcasing its premium coffees from roast to brew."

Bristol School Pupil Wins Competition to Design The Big Issue's Christmas Cover:
“My Dad always brings home The Big Issue and I wanted to make it Christmassy. Usually I start drawing quite quickly with my crayons and this didn’t take long to finish once I had started it. I hope it helps the vendors have a nice Christmas.”

Doctor Who Christmas special: What is the significance of the tangerines?
"In new pictures from the seasonal episode Last Christmas (see below), it pops up again and again. In one shot, a serious-looking Doctor (is there any other kind these days?) cradles a tangerine portentously. In another, Santa tosses one into the air."

This Henry the Hoover nativity scene is the best shop window you’ll see this Christmas:
"Kris Sale (44) and his son Ashley Sale (16) have done something very special in the window of their electrical appliances shop in Southend"

Putting summer vacation photos on Christmas cards:
"Areti Bratsis has found that summer visitors to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, often have more on their minds than going to the beach, eating seafood and watching sunsets. Many are hiring photographers to take family portraits with the intent of using the photos months later on holiday greeting cards."

The National Gallery Nativities Trail:
"Follow the Christmas story through six paintings in the collection."

Searchers find Sitka man lost while cutting Christmas trees:
"A Sitka man out cutting Christmas trees Sunday afternoon triggered a several-hour search involving multiple agencies after he became separated from the rest of his group, Alaska State Troopers said."

Review 2014:
One Thing:
Chris Brown.

Life I was cleaning out a cupboard a couple of days ago when I found a blue bag filled like a time-capsule of my education. It was full of school reports spanning 10 years of my life and between them was everything from certificates celebrating my attendance through to my acceptance letter for secondary school and then, finally, congratulation cards for my first “proper” job.

What was notable about it was it didn’t contain a single element that I would put on my CV, I assume my degree certificates and professional qualifications are in another blue bag in a different cupboard elsewhere. But here it was a lengthy description of how I was doing at the age of 7 – 18. I was never very good a sport, for example, but quite good at writing.

There was one line in there that stood out though from when I was seven. “A quiet, rather unsure little boy.” As a statement it still stung me now. Was I? It’s a bit of a Barnum Statement really, which children do not face doubts at that age.

The thing that sticks in the mind though is, I wasn’t very confident as a child, but I’m not sure when that change happened. The more I think about it the more I consider that it was around this time. I do wonder the impact of reading that, at a time when I was trying to work out what kind if little boy I was.

So here’s what I’ve learned this year, or rather what I already knew but it’s the best advice I’ve got today. This is what I’d tell that seven year old boy. The world is full of experts that don’t know you but still feel they need to impose themselves on you. The most damaging thing I can possibly imagine is telling a child drawing a picture or writing a short story that their work is “fair“ and nothing else.

We are so obsessed with running towards the next thing, to recreate something else that replicates what we believe is good work, that we forget the value in all art, or the value in just creation.

Imagine telling a seven-year-old his creative ideas aren’t good enough. Then we plump them in front of X Factor at the weekends and show them armies of teenagers being informed that their impression of Al Green or Dusty Springfield isn’t up to snuff. We tell them that singing and enjoying performing isn’t enough. What they’re really being told in that crushing five minutes of their lives is that a panel of judges don’t think they can sell enough records off their back. They are reduced to a commercial failure without the benefit of having to try and then get the benefit of being patted on the back and told they are being done a favour. “Back to Tesco you go and no more of this nonsense about performing for others.”

There are also experts who always seem to pop up at University lectures as guests or the person who gives you “the talk” at work experience. Though a mix of nostalgia and a wish to reduce the competition, you’ll be told that it isn’t as good as it was. You’ll be told that the opportunities have gone and you might as well not bother. They’re the worst, they’re the ones who ignore the fact that the world changes and things improve and it’s them that haven’t adapted. They tarnish the young with the same ideas as their own failures. They accept that the rules can’t be changed because they don’t know how. They don’t understand that we need young people, it’s them that will push us all forwards. That won’t happen if we keep on telling them that they need to be only as good as the last good thing and woe betide if you try and innovate.

I couldn’t imagine not writing now, that quiet little boy has two successful podcast series and a book under his belt, along with a fair few years in journalism too and, probably, would have had more done by now if he wasn’t so unsure of himself. If that teacher had decided to do a little more of their job in educating and motivating, rather than being snide, then I might have done more.

So if you want to write, then do so. Do all you can. Grab the opportunities and write and write and write. Do it because you love it and want to keep on doing it. If you want to sing then do so, sing and sing and sing. Because every moment that you write, sing, dance and work you drown out those whose only contribution is to make you feel small.

The saddest thing about reading that report was I couldn’t remember a single thing that teacher had taught me - not one moment from her lessons.

That’s the biggest waste.

You can follow Chris on Twitter @orange_monkey.

Christmas Links #7


"Here's what is playing on the Ice Rink (with the exception of Club Nights and other DJ's)" "Listening to 'I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor (Arctic Monkeys)' by 'Sugababes'"

Rockefeller Center Christmas Trees through the years:
"Each year, Rockefeller Center celebrates Christmas by displaying an enormous tree lavishly decorated with ornaments and lights, attracting tens of thousands of visitors to see it."

Where do our Christmas traditions come from?
"Griff Rhys Jones and historian Daru Rooke discuss the history of Christmas decorations in this clip from Charles Dickens and the Invention of Christmas, originally broadcast on BBC One in 2007."

So I donned my Christmas suit and tried to blend in …
"And so it is that at 11am on a Thursday I emerge from the tube on to London’s Oxford Street in a bright red suit, for all the world dressed like a man in wrapping paper. The very first comment I hear is the succinct “Holy shit, what is he wearing?” "

Football Remembers: Celebrating 1914 Christmas Truce match:
"Professional and amateur clubs united on Saturday for the start of Football Remembers Week. Numerous events were held across the United Kingdom to mark one of the most iconic moments of World War I, the 1914 Christmas Truce football match. Teams uploaded pre-game photos this weekend to social media with the hashtag #footballremembers."

How Finsbury Square Gave The World A Christmas Tradition:
"It’s entirely appropriate that the ostentatious fountain should be a confection of architectural styles, for it was erected by the sons of sweet manufacturer and inventor of the Christmas cracker, Tom Smith."

Father Christmas: Saint Nicholas' face revealed:
"The "most realistic" portrait of the saint who became Santa Claus has been produced at a Liverpool university. Saint Nicholas was a 4th Century bishop who liked to give gifts secretly. His relics lie in Bari Cathedral in Italy. The image of him has been created using a facial reconstruction system and 3D interactive technology by Liverpool John Moores University's Face Lab."

Santa turns heads on Christmas motorbike:
"Liberton man Jockie Reid, 81, had cars honking as he roared through the area and was even chased by police – so officers could take a selfie with Santa."

Lyme Regis Christmas pudding racers aim for glory:
"Hundreds of people are competing for the honour of being the champion Christmas pudding racer. The event involves teams of six tackling an obstacle course on the seafront in Lyme Regis, Dorset, while carrying a Christmas pudding. Organiser Philip Evans boasted it was "Dorset's whackiest festive event". "