Monday, 10 December 2018

Nostalgic For My Childhood - Christmas Annuals (part 2)

"Christmas is coming!"
Me & Tracy, Christmas 1976 - I am clearly chuffed to have the Action Man game AND Evel Knieval, while TJ is pleased to have her Sindy horse (or could it really be Black Beauty?)
As I wrote about last year (you can read it here), one of the Christmas highlights when I was a kid (beyond the catalogues I wrote about in 2016) was seeing which annual I got that particular year.  For those who don't remember them, these were (and still are) large size hardback books, designed for children and based on existing properties, including comics, popular TV shows, the occasional film as well as sport and pop round-ups.

The ones based on comics featured the same cast as the weekly editions, while the TV and film ones had comic strips, the occasional short story, fact files and interviews and - brilliantly - in the case of The Fall Guy, behind the scenes information on stunts and how they were filmed.

Annuals are generally published towards the end of the year, cover-dated as the following year to ensure shops don't take them off the shelves immediately after the new year (though, by then, unsold copies are often heavily reduced).  Still as popular now - you tend to see fewer relating to ongoing comics (perhaps because kids today don't have the range of comics we had) - the only difference seems to be that they're much skinnier (and that's not just me being all nostalgically misty about it - my ones from the late 70s and early 80s are substantially chunkier than the ones I’ve bought for Dude over the past few years).

Here, then, is another selection of old favourites, ones I received and ones I remember my sister Tracy having.  I hope some of them inspire a warm, nostalgic trip down memory lane for you...
Blue Peter annuals were a bit of a tradition, though this is the only one I remember ever owning.  Book One was published in 1965 and the series finished, in 2011, with Book Forty (they skipped a few random years).
 Everybody..."Rupert, Rupert the bear..."
I loved comics that played spooky for laughs and this cover has everything - the headless ghost scaring the poor bloke out of not only his shoes but his wig, while a dog on the doorstep kills itself with laugher.  Fantastic!
As a huge fan of horses (she later worked with them and rode competitively), Black Beauty was one of Tracy's favourite TV shows and hearing that stirring music now makes me smile wistfully.
 More monster related fun!
I remember my friend Claire having this and it not making much sense to me - where were the comics?  Ah, the mystery of girls...
Ah, my hero and a Christmas staple for me though this edition (I felt) suffered with poor artwork.  It does, however, feature an article on hijackers (more a sign of the times, I feel, than an interest for most kids).
One of my all-time favourite comics (and it's still going), though surely they could have found space for Roger The Dodger on the cover?
Blake's 7, a wonderfully cheap (lots of action in quarries) but fantastically imaginative  BBC show.  I haven't seen it in years (and I'm not sure I'd want to revisit it) though I remember enjoying it a lot.  I once bumped, by accident, into Gareth Thomas in a post office in Aberystwyth - I couldn't think of what to say to Blake so my Dad apologised and led me out.
As happened quite often during my childhood, a favoured comic was absorbed into another, better selling title and most of the strips I liked faded over time.  Not in this case, it seems, as Kid Kong (from Monster Fun) takes centre stage here (Buster himself is to Kong's left with the green hat on).
My favourite funny comic from my childhood - I still proudly own my 'Friend Of Cheeky' badge!
 The Junior TV Times, this was a big favourite of mine (as I wrote about here).
The year 2000 seemed so far away then - next year, we'll be as far away from it as we were when this annual came out!
 Jinty does well, not spraying the icing everywhere when the kitten bursts the balloon, doesn't she?
Tracy loved Thelwell and his wonderful artwork of small children (often girls) on little rounded ponies.
 Targeted at girls, beloved by them and boys alike!
One of my favourite TV shows (I've written about it before, as a retrospective here and as part of my recuperation from my heart attack here) and this is a terrific annual - great artwork, good features and a spooky short story.
Another of Tracy's favourites, I love the artwork of this cover.

Happy Christmas!

scans from my collection, aside from the girls titles (thanks to comicvine for those)

You can read more of my nostalgia posts here

Monday, 3 December 2018

Bullet, 40 years on...

Last summer, on holiday, we visited Whitby (a town all three of us loved) and, quite by chance, I discovered a retro shop on Baxtergate (it was next door to The Whitby Cobbler, but appears to have closed down now) and couldn't resist a look around.  At the back of the shop was a big section full of old comics and I found three boxes full of Warlord, Battle, Crunch and Bullet comics and was completely in my element (when I took my haul to the counter, Dude asked “are you sure you’ve got enough there Dad?”).

Bullet was my favourite comic growing up, as I previously wrote about here and over the rest of the holiday week, I read through my stash and those old strips sparked all kinds of fantastic memories - stories I’d forgotten all about but remembered the moment I saw the masthead, images that had burned themselves into my brain and tales that grabbed my attention.  It was fantastic and so, in honour of that wonderful comic of my childhood (which, forty years ago, on 2nd December 1978, merged with Warlord), here’s an appreciation of Bullet.
Bullet was launched by D. C. Thomson on 9th February 1976, “packed with action stories - fast and furious” with Fireball (the comics figurehead and main character) preparing the reader for his “super thrill-packed story [and] other rough, tough action stories”.  Focussing on action & adventure, science fiction, war and sport, it was a popular boys comic that ran to 32 pages and started out at 7p an issue.

17th July 1976 issue back cover, featuring Bullet writer (and future D C Thomson
editor) Garry Fraser as Fireball)
Fireball, a moustachioed, highly skilled and multi-talented secret agent, appeared in his own strip every week (it sometimes ran to 9 pages) and was the ward of Lord Peter Flint, from the same publishers weekly comic Warlord.

Other stories included Twisty (a footballer with attitude who raced pigeons in his spare time), Smasher (a 50-foot city-smashing robot who was finally destroyed by being nuked), Wonder Mann (raised by computers to become a world beating all-round sportsman), Midge (a 16-year-old 7-stone weakling who became a bodybuilder - one my favourite strips), Tasker (a tearaway with a chip on his shoulder learns to box in borstal), Three Men In A Jeep (a self-explanatory World War Two adventure) and Vic’s Vengeance (a tall of revenge set in the East End of London) and Solomon Knight who introduced a weekly tale of terror.  There was also Werewolf (an ex-detective gained the power to turn into a werewolf and used it to fight crime), Ginger (a greyhound and his master who was on the run from an abusive stepfather) and Frontline UK (a Scorpion tank crew fights a guerilla war against invaders in Britain during 1978).

Fireball Calling appeared weekly and included trivia, password messages and competitions.  Reader letters got a Fireball t-shirt and the letter of the week won an electronic pocket calculator, which was a big deal then.  There were also sports profiles, often featuring footballers and fact files, while the back pages often carried “A to Z” entries on various topics.

There was also the Fireball Club where, for 25p (postal orders only, please), you got the Fireball story (which also acted as the decoder for the Top Secret messages in Fireball Calling) in a red plastic wallet, an ID card and, best of all,  the Fireball ‘Flaming F’ pendant (which was not only very cool, it was worn constantly by Fireball and saved his life on occasion).
But even great things end sometime and, as was often the way with favourite comics of my childhood, this meant merging into a bigger title.  Bullet succumbed after 147 fantastic issues and joined Warlord (with issue 220) on December 2nd 1978.  I carried on buying Warlord for a while even though, as was always the way, most of the strips I enjoyed didn’t make the transfer with the rest fading out as the weeks or months rolled on.
As an aside, rival publisher IPC released the first issue of Action two days before Bullet and while the comics were meant to compete - they shared the same format and price - that wasn’t really the case.  Much keener to push the grittiness envelope (and it was great fun), Action suffered a media furore that saw it last 36 issues before being pulled and neutered.  It ran for a further 50 issues and merged into Battle in November 1977.
left - in Whitby with Dude, 2018 - right - with my sister Tracy, sporting my Fireball pendant, in 1977
Thanks for the entertainment Bullet!

The first copy I ever remember seeing, during wet playtime one day at Rothwell Juniors.  I was so excited about it, my Mum had the newsagents reserve me a copy every week afterwards.
I loved this Denis McLoughlin cover so much I chose it to copy in an art school class, the first year I went to Montsaye.  I remember my teacher not being particularly impressed with my choice...
Cheerio then Bullet (and farewell Fireball...)

Sources (and further reading):
Downthetubes interview with Garry 'Fireball' Fraser
Downthetubes interview with Bill Graham
Colin Noble's 40th anniversary tribute
Lew Stringer - Action-vs-Bullet
Bear Alley on Warlord

Monday, 26 November 2018

Sledge-Lit 4, Derby, 24th November 2018

This year saw the fourth Sledge-Lit event in Derby, held at the Quad and as I had such a good time at the previous events (I wrote about 2015 here2016 here and 2017 here), I bought my ticket as soon as it was announced.  Intrigued by the event - and my enthusiasm for it - my old friend David Roberts (who I've been co-plotting my thriller novels with) decided to come along too.  Organised and programmed (as ever) by Alex Davis, Sledge is not only great fun, it helps bridge the gap between FantasyCon (my report on this years is here) and events in the new year.
from left - David Roberts, me, Dion Winton-Polak, Tracy Fahey, Yvonne Davies
We made such good time to Derby, chatting about plots and our plans for the day, that for the first time ever I was at the Quad early.  Alex opened the doors at 10am and Pixie came out to check our names on the list which was great because it meant I got my Pixie-hug early.  Once signed in, we put our names down for the workshops we wanted to attend then headed into the bar, bumping into Dion Winton-Polak on the way.  James Everington came over to say hello (I’d told David that James was reviewed in the Guardian and liked to be reminded of the fact) and we went to sit with him, Dion, Tracy Fahey (who wore the most fantastic leggings), Yvonne Davies and her daughter Megan.  All too soon, it was 10.25 so we headed up for Cinema 2 and the first Guest Of Honour interview with Gary McMahon posing the questions to Mark Morris.  We saw them as we were leaving the bar so got to say hello and I introduced them to David.

I saw Sarah Pinborough in Cinema 2 and we said hello, she introduced me to her new partner, I introduced her to David and they talked dogs for a while as we waited for the event to start.  When it did, the 50 minutes whizzed by - Gary asked some good questions and Mark was an ideal subject, making for a terrific interview.
from left - me, Andrew David Barker, Ren Warom, James Everington, David, Neil Bond
Back at the bar, I chatted with Yvonne and Megan, then James & I spotted Ren Warom sitting on her own and went to say hello.  David and Neil Bond joined us and we chatted, Andrew David Barker arrived and sat with us, then Peter Mark May joined us.  Everyone got involved in some wide-ranging conversations, we had lunch then Sue Moorcroft turned up (fresh from a literary event in London) and it was great to see her.
David, Neil & me in the bar
Our first workshop was “Worldbuilding Through Language”, which wasn’t exactly what I’d expected it to be but ended up good fun all the same.  I nipped out to use the loo, saw Mr Mauro on the way back and shook his hand (without properly thinking it through - my hands were still wet from washing them) and then found myself locked out of the room (how on earth did I manage to do that?).

David stayed for the “Worldbuilding: A Team Sport” workshop while I went to the panel Sarah was moderating, on how to plan and develop intrigue in a plot.  The turnout was so high we ended up in Cinema 2 again and, having met Angeline Trevena in the corridor, we sat together.  The panel went really well, I picked up a couple of ideas for things to do in the thriller I’m currently writing and, again, the time flew.
from left - me, Donna Bond, Peter Mark May, Sue Moorcroft
Since David stayed for another workshop, I went to the bar where Sue, Selina and Pete were chatting, got them and headed up for the Black Shuck Launch.  On the way, I said hello to Kevin Redfearn, hugged Simon Bestwick, saw Fergus & Alison Littlewood and CC Adams - handshakes and hugs all round - then we found our seats.  After a couple of readings, I spoke to Hayley Orgill, Priya Sharma and Georgina Bruce, while getting my copy of Tracy’s new collection signed.  I also picked up the 2019 Annual from Sinister Horror and it was good to say hello to Justin Park again, who reckons a sliver of the inspiration for the annual might have come from my last Christmas post.  I’ll take that.

Back in the bar, we commandeered two tables in the corner where Sue, Pete & I were joined by John Travis, Lisa Childs, Andrew and CC.  David returned and chatted with CC while the rest of us ended up discussing pornography in the 80s, parents discovering stashes of magazines in your bedroom and how easy (or, more often, not) it was to buy them from newsagents.  Andrew also brought up the peculiar phenomenon of finding Razzle magazines in bushes - I suggested there might have been a Razzle Tree back then.
from left - me, Peter, CC Adams, Lisa Childs, John Travis and Sue.  James and Georgina Bruce are deep in conversation behind us
Pete had to leave for his train so we started the process of saying goodbye (the worst thing about Cons) then trooped back to Cinema 2 for the raffle, compered by the mighty combo of Gary and Sarah, with the wonderful Pixie (this year dressed as the worlds most pissed off looking Christmas tree fairy, complete with tree top under her skirt) on hand to give out the books (though Alex seemed to be doing more of the running about).  I also took the opportunity for a chat with Penny Jones, comparing war stories about agency submissions for novels.  Once the raffle was underway, Ross (not there in person) won nothing (the same as me, Sue, Lisa and Andrew), Pete (in his absence) won a book, James won a huge Harry Potter behind-the-scenes book (which he donated to Megan) and David managed to pick up the Patron prize from Sarah, a Kindle paperwhite.  First con and he scoops the top prize in the raffle - I mean, where’s the justice…?
In Ask Italian, from left - me, David, John, Lisa, Andrew, Sue and James
Our little band said our goodbyes and headed over to Ask Italian for dinner which, after we’d fixed a flickering light by taping a napkin and menu over it, we spent a long time chatting, eating and laughing.  It was a wonderful way to cap off a superb day.  Outside, as I was driving David and Sue home and Andrew was dropping Lisa and John at the train station, we walked back to the car park, still chatting and laughing.  We paid for the tickets, said our goodbyes and did all the hugging, then realised we were all going upstairs together.  If that wasn’t bad enough, it soon transpired we were parked on the same floor.

Another great Con, with a great programme of events and some wonderful people in attendance, I loved it and it was terrific to see David, at his very first Con, enjoy himself so much as my writing family quickly embraced him.  Roll on Edge-Lit!

Monday, 19 November 2018

The Smallest Of Things, by Ian Whates (a review and Q&A)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the genre (sci-fi thriller, in this case) and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
There are many Londons. From pomp to sleaze, from sophistication to dark corruption, Chris knows them all. A fixer with a particular set of skills, he can step between realities, piercing the thin veils that separate one London from another to find objects or locate people that have fallen between the cracks.

When a close friend, Claire, comes to him fearing for her life he is forced to use his abilities as never before, fleeing with her through a series of ever stranger Londons, trying to keep one step ahead of the men who murdered her boyfriend and are now hunting her.   

At some point, Chris hopes that he and Claire can pause long enough to figure out why these mysterious figures from another London want her dead, but right now they’re too busy simply trying to stay alive.

Taking as its central conceit that there are multiple Londons, co-existing in different dimensions and each distinctive from the other, this follows Chris, who can travel between them.  He’s a fixer, a troubleshooter who can find people or things that have fallen between the cracks, a sort-of Robin Hood (as one character calls him).  When his old friend Claire gets in touch, fearing for her life as she’s just witnessed her boyfriend being murdered by men in brown coats, he’s called upon to help her escape from these mysterious strangers who will seemingly stop at nothing to catch her.

Told with skill and poise, this paints a picture of modern London quickly and vividly, casting dark shadows onto places we all see every day.  With Chris and Claire, fully formed characters who leap off the page as soon as they’re introduced, we drop straight into the story and the pace doesn’t let up, slowly revealing plot points that build brilliantly.  The men in brown coats are cleverly used and the cast of supporting characters, who assist Chris in various ways, are given just enough history to make an impression without clouding the main story.  As for the Chris and Claire backstory (I’d love to see more of it, to be honest), that feels fully formed and just out of sight, with plenty of mentions of Chris’ previous jobs that all sound as exciting as this one.  The different Londons are excellent - a high-tech one with wide roads and trams, another a smog-filled Dickensian nightmare and others, including ones very similar to ours - and again feel fully formed, though they’re not revelled in, there’s no “look at what I made here” indulgence, we see just enough to realise we’re in a different place and then we’re off again.  Filled with well realised set pieces, some terrific action scenes and a nice line in humour, this works on every level and is greatly assisted by the brisk pacing (though I’d have preferred it to be much longer).  An excellent sci-fi thriller, this is a great read (with a brilliant last line) and I’d highly recommend it.

* * *

I enjoyed the story so much, I decided to ask Ian some questions about it and he was gracious enough to answer.

MW:   What’s the story behind this novella and how did it come about because it feels like we’re seeing something that has a very complete backstory.  What came first, Chris or the concept of the alternate Londons?

IW:   Chris came about a few years ago, following a day of wandering around numerous shops in central London. While my better half, Helen, continued with the retail therapy, I sought refuge in a pub close to Covent Garden, where I began jotting down notes on the various characters we’d encountered during the day.

As I did so, I reflected on the manner in which London possesses so many different faces: the political hub of the nation, the financial centre, the home of pomp and ceremony, celebrity restaurants and high-end dining, exclusive boutiques and prestigious department stores, cockney heritage and the spirit of the Blitz, nightclubs and all-night bars, markets and street entertainers, red buses and tourist attractions, and so on… I found myself thinking: what if there were other Londons, less apparent, more difficult to find? Londons that brush alongside the city we know without quite intersecting, hidden from view by the facets we’re so familiar with that catch the light and sparkle.

Those notes, scribbled while sipping a pint or two of Young’s Special, became a story called Knowing How to Look, which marked Chris’ debut. It featured a succubus and a curse, but I realised immediately that this premise of different Londons would enable me to play around with aspects of science fiction, fantasy and horror, mixing and matching as I chose, because there are an infinite number of alternative Londons and anything could be possible somewhere. Making a cameo appearance in this first story was a character called Claire, based on a tall, vibrant young woman we had come across earlier that day serving in a Berwick Street shop …

MW:   PS have done a fantastic job with the novella.  How much fun was the launch at FantasyCon?

IW:   Yes, PS have done their customary fabulous job, and I must thank everyone involved; also huge kudos to Ben Baldwin, who produced the cover art. Nicky Crowther at PS first proposed a map of London tearing to allow a man to step through. I then added the suggestion that part of the map could be in flames, as if lit by a match, and Ben ran with that, taking our suggestions and pushing them one step further. I love the result, which couldn’t be more appropriate.

The launch at Fantasycon was great fun. Thankfully, not everyone attending came up only for Ramsey Campbell and Stephen Volk’s signatures, and sufficient copies of The Smallest of Things were purchased to keep me busy.

MW:   A lot of Chris’ previous adventures are alluded to in the novella, have you written any of these?

IW:   This is actually the fifth of Chris’ adventures I’ve written (though the first at this length). One of the others, frustratingly, has been lost somewhere along the way without ever being submitted for publication. The first story, in which Chris attempts to save his sister’s life, is the safest in some senses, because it’s set entirely in our reality, although it relies on interaction with beings from other Londons (it’s currently available in my first collection Growing Pains). I wrote the second, which involves the Green Man (the creature of folk lore, not the pub), for an Alchemy Press anthology, and that’s now in my third collection Dark Travellings. The fourth, The Yin Yang Crescent takes us to the London that’s home to Jed, who has a cameo in the new novella. That one sold to an American publication a few years ago but for various reasons they never published it. I subsequently sold the Spanish language rights and it featured earlier this year in the excellent Windumanoth magazine, but has yet to appear in English.

Claire doesn’t feature in either of these tales, but the (ahem) missing story centres on a gig by her band Quiet Catastrophe. The frustrating aspect of this being lost somewhere between computer change-overs is that I wasn’t convinced the idea would work as a story. It did, and I was quite chuffed by the result. My fear is that if I try to rewrite the piece, I’ll never get it to work again.

MW:   The alternate Londons are beautifully constructed though you don’t dwell on your world building, we see them as briskly as the characters do which is fantastic.  How many Londons did you create and what drove you to use the ones you chose?

IW:   To be honest, I conjure up the different Londons as needed. I spent six years attending school in the City, so have a strong affinity and reasonable familiarity with London (and during that period won the Lord Mayor’s Prize for English, open to every school in the capital, with an essay called ‘London: the Living City’, which drew comparisons between London and a living organism). Yes, the city changes constantly and often dramatically, but I can still recognise the London I know and adapt my knowledge of it to each altered incarnation.

With the Londons that Chris and Claire encounter in The Smallest of Things, I wanted to depict contrasts, so I started with a glimpse of a city very like ours but where trams are an established form of public transport, and followed that with a version where the industrial revolution still holds sway, where pollution is rife and the infamous London smogs are still a thing, another hi-tech version where human transport is apparent but no person is ever seen (a tip of the hat towards the concept of technology distancing us from our own humanity) and finally one where prejudice and suspicion of ‘others’ leads to mob rule.

MW:   The action sequences are gripping, punchy and well-paced, did you have to do a lot of planning with them?

IW:   Thank you, I’m glad they work. Most of the action centres on two chase sequences. Knowing there were to be two of these – the first when Chris first meets up with Claire and learns of the people hunting her, the second after they’re surprised by a trio of ‘brown coats’ at Claire’s flat – I wanted to avoid repetition by making them markedly different. Escalation was important: the first had to be sufficiently tense to hold the reader’s attention, but the second had to out do it in every way; so I kept the first to this reality, drawing on Chris’ knowledge of London and its people. The second was where I let rip, and had Claire and Chris pursued across a series of starkly contrasting realities.

In the story, Chris utilises a number of trinkets he’s accumulated during various jobs, including hi-tech gadgets and lo-tech charms. For the story to work as intended, I needed to ensure that my villains the Faramund (brown coats) were biologically different from us in a subtle way, and I wanted to make that difference scientifically plausible. To ensure it was, I ran my thinking past a former member of the Northampton SF Writers Group, Dr. Steve Longworth (an MD), and his input was invaluable in getting that aspect right.

MW:   I liked the characters of Chris and Claire a great deal, partly because of their close friendship and shared history.  Can we expect to see more of them?

IW:   That’s certainly the intention (and thank you, I’m fond of them too). I’m delighted to say the PS Publishing have commissioned a new novella to follow on from The Smallest of Things, which I’ll be writing next year, and, you never know, I may yet bite the bullet and re-write that lost story.

MW:   What’s next for you?

IW:   All manner of projects with NewCon Press – I’m currently committed to publishing 35 titles over the next two years, a mix of novels, novellas, anthologies, and single author collections. At the same time, I’m determined to find space for my own writing. I have a commissioned novella to finish for Shoreline of Infinity (this one is fantasy); my fourth short story collection (in English – I also have another collection out in Spanish) is due from Luna Press next summer; I’m determined to finish the third volume of my Dark Angels space opera trilogy of novels for release next year; and I have a literary fantasy novel called Twelve Faces of Beauty sitting with my agent, which he’s asked me to revise but I simply haven’t found time to as yet. Doubtless there’ll be one or two short stories along the way as well, but I reckon that should be enough to keep me occupied.

* * *
Ian at FantasyCon 2018 in Chester, at the Smallest Of Things PS launch
Ian lives in a sleepy Cambridgeshire village with his partner, Helen, and a manic cocker spaniel called Bundle. A writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and occasionally horror, he is the author of seven novels (four space opera and three urban fantasy with steampunk overtones), the co-author of two more (military SF), has seen some seventy of his short stories published in a variety of venues, and has edited more than thirty anthologies. His work has been shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award and twice for BSFA Awards. His novel Pelquin’s Comet, first in the Dark Angels sequence, was an Amazon UK #1 best seller, and his work has been translated into Spanish, German, Hungarian, Czech and Greek. His fourth short story collection in English, Wourism and Other Stories, will appear via Luna Press in 2019.

Ian served a term as a director of SFWA (the Science Fiction Writers of America) and is a director of the BSFA (the British Science Fiction Association) an organisation he chaired for five years.  In 2006, Ian founded multiple award-winning independent publisher NewCon Press by accident, and he continues to be baffled by the number of titles the imprint has produced.

Ian can be found online at