Burn’s Night love!

Burns Night 2014 is here! To celebrate I’m having a wee dram and reading my favourite poem! I’ve included it at the bottom of this blog – I’m nice like that!

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January 25th is a big night for Scottish people everywhere – possibly the biggest night of the year after Hogmanay (the New Year) itself. So as a sassenach (meaning ‘southerner’ and really meaning ‘English person’) what does Burns Night mean to me and what does it involve?

I think that Burns Night is a wonderful event: I am a great fan of ‘The Bard Of Ayrshire’, his poetry is wonderfully evocative and beautifully lyrical even if it can often be unintelligible to those of us born south of the border. Scotland should be proud that their greatest celebration is in honour of a classical poet. England has produced a wealth of great writers but alas we do not recognise them as they deserve: surely there should be a place in our calendar for a ‘Shakespeare Day’ or a ‘Wordsworth Night’?

Back to Rab Burns and his celebratory night. The night opens with a speech from the host in Scottish Gaelic and then grace is said: not any sort of grace though, oh no. This grace goes: “Some hae meat and canna eat/ And some wad eat that want it;/ But we hae meat, and we can eat/ And sae let the Lord be thankit.” If you struggled with that bit, then you are going to find the rest of the night rather incomprehensible.

After grace, the haggis is brought in! Or should I say ‘piped in’? Yes, it would ne’er do to bring the haggis in on a serving pate and plonk it down onto the table – it has to be carried in ceremonially accompanied by the mournful wail of the bagpipes. What is haggis? If you don’t know – it’s best not to ask. Or at least to eat first and ask later.

There now follows the ‘Address to the haggis’: this poem goes on, and on and on but when done well it is fantastic. The climax is when the orator says: “His knife see rustic labour dicht”, at which point the carving knife or sword is drawn, followed by, “An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht!” whence the haggis is sliced open from end to end.

Whisky is then drunk (this, I find, is the best part of the evening), and food is eaten before a speaker will give a talk about the immortal Robbie Burns himself. There then follows the ‘Toast to the lassies’: this is always a good time for feminists to make themselves scarce, as the speech that follows is rather old school in its views on women.

The women get their own back however, after more whisky, with the ‘Toast to the laddies’. By now most people will be toasted to within an inch of their lives – have a taxi booked in advance.

There then follows a wonderful climax to the evening: singing, music and dancing with Burn’s songs set to wonderful folk music. You can sing along – don’t worry if you don’t know the words to Tam O’Shanter or To A Mouse and the like – after half a dozen big whiskies or so you will sound just like the native gaelic speakers.

The Burns Supper ends with lots of hand crossing and the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (you will know that one) and then off home it is. What a wonderful and civilised way it is to celebrate the life of one of the greatest poets in the English (ahem) language.

Was Burns as great as I make out? Oh yes. One poem of his in particular holds a dear place in my heart: along with Wilde’s ‘Requiscat’ and Keat’s ‘Ode To A Nightingale’ it is one of my three favourite poems of all time. It is a love poem, and not one that you will hear at Burn’s Night but keep it in mind for Valentine’s day as the perfect serenade for whoever has captured your heart. So here I reproduce a work of genius, enjoy Burn’s Night as you read the greatest and simplest ode to love there has ever been: ‘Oh my luve’s like a red red rose.’

“O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry , my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve !
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!”

A Christmas Gift for you!

As you may know, I set up this blog to promote my children’s book ‘Tortoise Soup’ starring brave little orphan Ruby Tinker and her loveable tortoise Byron. Well, as a special Christmas treat on Saturday I will be releasing ‘Happy Tortoise Christmas’, a new e-book available exclusively from Amazon. It will be two books in one – for younger readers there will be a Christmas poem about how a little torty has to step in and take the place of Rudolph! There are seven beautiful illustrations (in colour as well if you have one of the newer Kindles or read it on a phone or tablet) and it should help the little ones get in the Christmas spirit. Here’s a sketch of the first illustration.

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Alongside the poem there will be a brand new Byron and Ruby adventure – a seven chapter novella called ‘Byron And The Mince Pie Spy’. Can our heroic duo save the day when the village of Auchtinoo is threatened by a rogue santa? Children from 8 to 108 will enjoy finding out! As a special Christmas treat I am publishing the first chapter completely free below. I hope that you are having a wonderful Advent!

Byron And The Mince Pie Spy – Chapter On
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Auchtinoo is a village in Scotland, close to the border with England. The village has a school, an inn, shops, lots of farms and streams where salmon leap playfully from the water. There are woods nearby were deer with big antlers roam wild and free and happy, and the people of Auchtinoo are just as happy and free, even if they are a little less wild.
The village had an air of excitement hanging over it every December. It was looking forward to its annual Father Christmas competition, people would come from far and wide to dress as Santa and the winner would win a bottle of whisky, a huge Christmas pudding and enough crackers to last a lifetime. Little did the people of Auchtinoo know that this year some people were watching from the shadows and plotting – they had a fiendish plan to ruin Christmas for ever!
Ruby Tinker lived in a big house on the edges of Auchtinoo. She lived with her Uncle Peter and Auntie Francesca, and their friends and helpers Eli and Tanya Tigerlily. There was one more inhabitant of Auchtinoo Hall where they lived – he had four legs, a wonderfully smooth shell and a little head with a beautiful tortoise smile. His name was Byron, and he and Ruby loved each other very, very much.
When Ruby had first been brought to Auchtinoo to live with her Uncle she had been very sad. Byron had been left behind in the Children’s Home where they had been staying. Every day at school she would sit silently at the back of the class, she never raised her arm to answer a question – even though she knew most of the answers. Ruby didn’t play with the other children and they never invited her to join in their games. The other children thought that she was strange because she didn’t speak, and she walked in a funny way with metal supports on her legs and she always had such a gloomy look on her face. Only one classmate made an effort to speak to Ruby and her name was Faria.
Faria had come from a country far, far away and because of that some of the other children thought that she didn’t belong in their school – they left her to sit at the back of the class alongside Ruby because nobody else wanted to sit there.
Faria was a very kind girl, if only her classmates had bothered to find out. She could tell that Ruby was sad and sometimes when she could see the tears welling up in Ruby’s eyes she would reach over and hold her hand under the desk so that she knew she had a friend.
Things changed for Ruby after Byron came to live with them. What an adventure he’d had to get there and what a difference it made to Ruby. She became the happiest girl in Auchtinoo, always laughing and singing. She would clap her hands when she saw bright yellow butterflies. When she saw the highland cows in the fields she would wave at them and they would stick their tongue out in a friendly greeting.
‘Those cows are just like me’, she told Byron one day, ‘with their lovely orange hair.’
‘Well if you’re going to be a highland cow, then I want to be one as well!’, said Byron the tortoise.
Ruby told this to Miss Tigerlily and the next day, to her surprise, she saw that Miss Tigerlily had knitted a little coat for Byron to go over his shell – it was made of shaggy orange wool. What fun Ruby and Byron had that day – stomping around their room together, mooing at each other!
Everybody at the school was amazed at the change in Ruby. She never stopped talking now, and the teachers were shocked at how clever she was -Ruby could answer the toughest of questions. She couldn’t run very well, but the children always made sure that they had games that she could play. She became a very popular girl, but there was one friend in particular that meant a lot to her.
Ruby hadn’t forgot the kindness that Faria had shown to her and she spent as much time with her as she could. Faria was very bright as well, but classes were a bit more difficult for her because every time that she was asked a question she had to translate it into her own language, in her mind, come up with the answer and then translate it back into English so that she could tell the teacher. Imagine how difficult that must be? By the time that she was ready with the answer somebody else had usually answered it for her.
Ruby would help her as much as she could, and when the rest of the class saw this they began to like Faria a little bit themselves – maybe she isn’t so bad after all if Ruby likes her so much?
It was the last day of term before the Christmas holidays began. Everybody was very excited. The teachers were wearing musical antlers and the children were allowed to play games all day long. Ruby’s desk was full of all the lovely Christmas cards that she had received but next to her Faria had only one card. It was from Ruby and had a big jolly snowman on the front.
Faria was so happy when she received it, nobody had given her a Christmas card before, but on the last day of term she looked very miserable. Ruby left the games to one side and put her arms around her friend.
‘Faria’, she said, ‘you look so sad today and everybody else is really happy. What’s wrong?’
‘Ruby, you are such a kind friend – I will miss you so much.’
‘Miss me? We will all be back at school in two weeks time.’
‘I won’t be back at this school Ruby, in fact I don’t think that I will see you again.’
Tears began to roll down Faria’s face. Ruby took a mince pie from her lunch box and handed it to her friend. The mince pies were hand made by Auntie Francesca – she makes the best mince pies in the world, they can cheer up anybody.
‘Tell me about it’, Ruby said as her friend ate into the lovely soft pastry.
‘My dad told me yesterday. There is something called a visa that lets people like us live in this country, and it’s run out. Dad has been trying to convince people to let us stay because it’s not safe where we came from but our last hope has gone. They are going to send us away just after the New Year and we’ll never be allowed into this wonderful country again.’
Faria started sobbing once more, although she did nibble at the mince pie between sobs.
Ruby wiped her friend’s tears away.
‘Try not to worry about it Faria. Come round to my house tomorrow, it’s the big one called Auchtinoo Hall. Eli says that my Uncle Peter is a very powerful man and he can do lots of things – I’m sure that he can come up with something that will let you stay here!’
Faria cheered up a little. She had never been to anybody’s house except her own and her dad had told her that there was nothing more that could be done for them. But Ruby sounded so determined, so convinced that her Uncle Peter could help that Faria allowed herself to become a little convinced as well. She looked at the card on her desk again and smiled. It read: “Hope you have a wonderful Christmas.”
That night Ruby told her Uncle and Auntie that her friend would be coming to visit tomorrow. They were very pleased with the news, whatever made their niece happy made them happy.
‘And there’s one more thing, Uncle Peter.’
‘What’s that, my poppet?’, he said as he peered over the top of his newspaper.
‘My friend Faria came to this country for help but in a few days they are going to send her away forever. I said that you might be able to help her?’
Uncle Peter put the paper down, carefully folded as always.
‘Help her, my dear? I wish that I could, but how can I help her? I’m just a boring old civil servant.’
Auntie Francesca gave him a stern look, the kind that she only ever used on him. He squirmed in his seat.
‘Well, I will see what I can do’, he said.
When she went to bed, Ruby told Byron all about it. Byron thought it was very sad – he remembered when Ruby had been sent away from him.
‘Do you think that Uncle Peter can help?’
‘I don’t know, Byron my love. He keeps saying that he is only a civil servant.’
‘What’s a civil servant?’, Byron asked. He always liked to learn new things from Ruby.
‘It’s a man who works for the government, Uncle Peter says it’s a very boring job – he just sits behind a desk all day tapping things into a computer. But’, and here Ruby’s voice fell to a whisper, ‘Eli told me that there is more to Uncle Peter than meets the eye. He says that he has a very special job, and he does special important things.’
Byron nodded his little head up and down.
‘I bet he does something special’, Byron said, ‘how can he afford a lovely big house like this if he only taps things into a computer? I’m going to keep an eye on him from now on.’
‘Oh Byron, you’re going to be just like a tortoise spy!’
Ruby winked at Byron and Byron winked back at Ruby.
There was a knock at the door and Auntie Francesca came in.
‘It’s an early night for you two adventurers. We’ll all have to be up early in the morning if we are having a visitor. I’m going to bake some more mince pies specially for the occasion! Night night Byron, night night Ruby.’
She turned off the special light that hung above Byron’s enclosure and he yawned and trotted slowly off to bed. His enclosure was a big wooden box made especially for him by Eli. It had slates for him to eat off, and a water dish. It was covered in soil that he liked to dig in and hide under sometimes and there were lots of pebbles for him to push around and play with. At one end of the box was a little room with a roof on top and straw on the floor. This was his bedroom.
Auntie Francesca covered Ruby in kisses, as she did every night, pulled the bedsheets around Ruby’s shoulders and turned off the light. The two friends were soon fast asleep.
Morning came and the house was alive with excitement. Miss Tigerlily was helping Auntie Francesca in the kitchen, she had flour on her face. The strange thing was that when Ruby saw Eli go past the window he also had a smudge of flour on his face.
Byron, who Ruby had brought downstairs with her, laughed. He often saw Eli and Tigerlily give each other a peck on the cheek when they thought nobody was looking.
‘I’ve heard them speak’ said Byron, ‘and I think that they are planning to get married!’
That was the advantage of being a little tortoise, people said things in front of you that they would never say in front of anyone else. Ruby’s heart leaped for joy – perhaps they would ask her to be a bridesmaid?
There was a timid knock at the front door and Auntie Francesca rushed to answer it, wiping her hands on her apron before she did.
The door was opened and Faria walked shyly in. Auntie Francesca hugged her and planted a big kiss on the girl’s forehead. Uncle Peter held out a hand and said, ‘Pleased to meet you Faria. Ruby has told us all about you.’
Uncle Peter liked to be very formal in everything. He could come across as a bit of a stick in the mud but that was just his way – everybody who knew him knew that he had a very big heart.
Ruby and Faria sat on the big leather sofa and watched cartoons, swinging their legs happily as they did. There was a beautiful smell of baking wafting through the house.
‘This is Byron, my tortoise and the bestest and bravest friend that a girl could ever wish for.’
Ruby held Byron up in front of Faria’s face. Faria reached out and touched his shell – it was lovely to stroke and Byron smiled at the new guest.
‘Hello Byron’, she said with a giggle.
‘Hello, little lady. What’s your name?’
‘My name is Faria’, she said.
Byron was surprised to receive an answer. He decided to test her.
‘How many legs have I got?’, he asked her.
‘You’ve got four legs of course, silly.’
‘Wow! You can hear me.’
‘Yes, I can hear you. Shouldn’t I?’
Byron was open mouthed in amazement, it was left to Ruby to explain.
‘Byron and I always talk to each other – but nobody else can ever hear him until now. You must have a special bond with Byron if you can hear what he says. How lovely – now there is no way that we can let them send you away!’
The three friends sat on the sofa playing ‘I spy with my little eye’, until Auntie Francesca called them into the kitchen.
‘Ruby! Faria! The mince pies are ready!’
The kitchen smelled heavenly and the mince pies tasted even better than they looked. A mouse ran across the kitchen floor, unseen by anyone except Ruby, Byron and Faria who let out an eek.
‘Shush!’, said Ruby, ‘it’s a nice and friendly mouse – I drop him a few crumbs sometimes and he seems to like them.’
Ruby dropped a little pastry onto the floor and the mouse gobbled it up, smiled at them and ran off.
Auntie Francesca, helped by Miss Tigerlily, packed the mince pies into two cardboard boxes.
‘Now remember girls,’ she said, ‘the ones in the blue box are for us but the ones in the red box are especially for Uncle Peter.’
‘That’s right!’, Uncle Peter shouted from his study (he always heard everything whenever his name was mentioned), ‘I’m taking the ones in the red box over to the office later, for my workmates to share.’
Ruby, Faria and Byron returned to the living room. Byron was telling Faria about his many adventures – how he had once been swallowed by a snake and how he had flown through the air underneath a big bird, how he had been shot at and how a nasty woman had tried to bury him under the soil. But now here he was in a lovely warm house where everyone treated him as if he was the king of tortoises! Faria listened in awe, she was so excited that she forgot her own troubles for a while.
The girls kept going back to the kitchen and returning with new mince pies, this gave Byron an idea. He would play a fun little Christmas trick on them. While Ruby and Faria were engrossed in a cartoon he walked slowly out of the living room and into the kitchen. I will hide myself in the box of mince pies, he said to himself, and when they come to get one and see me in there what a surprise it will be!
There were two boxes, one blue and one red. Byron tried hard to remember which box it was that was for them – blue or red, red or blue? Ruby’s hair is red, he reasoned, so that must be best! He pushed himself onto his back legs and clambered up and into the red box. Now he had to sit and wait!
The girls were engrossed in their cartoons, they didn’t even notice that Byron had gone. Many minutes had passed when they heard Uncle Peter scream. It had come from the kitchen.
They walked as fast as Ruby’s legs would allow and found that everyone was in the kitchen looking at the one box that remained on the floor. Uncle Peter stood with a horrified look on his face and his hands were on his head.
‘They’ve gone, they’ve gone! Somebody’s taken the red box of mince pies! This is the worst thing that could ever happen!
It was then that they noticed that the kitchen window was open where it hadn’t been before.
‘They’ve broken in and taken the box with the top secret mince pies!’, Uncle Peter shouted.
Top secret mince pies? Ruby was confused, perhaps Byron could make sense of it all? She looked round but Byron was nowhere to be seen.

The Lower Depths at Manchester Capitol Theatre

Last night I went to see The Lower Depths at Manchester’s Capitol Theatre. The production of Gorky’s masterpiece was produced, directed and acted by final year students at the prestigious Manchester School Of Theatre. I had heard great things about the Manchester School’s productions – they have a habit of unearthing real talent and it is often a showcase for the stars of tomorrow.

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Although I am a theatre buff, as you know, I’ve never seen this work before. I am a huge fan of Gorky’s autobiographical novels – I read his ‘My Childhood’ three times whilst I was a student, so I had an idea what to expect: oppression, misery and discourses on how the proletariat are being downtrodden by the wealthy Russian landowners. I certainly wasn’t disappointed! The irony of course is that history judges Gorky as a close friend of Stalin who had more than a hand to play in the terrors that swept through Russia during his dictatorship.

The Lower Depths is not a cheerful play. Act one ends with a woman dying of tuberculosis and Act two ends with the hero hanging himself. In between there is cruelty, murder and hatred and a graphic scene of a woman who has had boiling water thrown over her. Yet, for all that, it is a fantastic theatrical experience.

It is a hard play for young actors to work with, many of the characters are older and world weary and whilst the themes of impoverishment and crushed dreams are as relevant as ever the setting is alien. Having said that many of the actors did a sterling job. I would single out three for especial praise – Elena Clements as a captivating Natasha, Simon Pothecary as Vasca – the man caught in a deadly web of lust and intrigue and especially Dale Mathurin – highly believable as the wise old man with a secret past.

The staging was wonderful. Full advantage was taken of the Capitol’s intimate surroundings, bunk beds were arranged around the audience and you could almost feel the wind whistling around. There were Russian songs as well – expertly performed, Manchester’s School Of Theatre has some impressive vocal talent!

It was a very brave staging, full credit must go to the director Madeleine Potter. Under her leadership the ensemble really threw themselves into their roles. I would love to see them attempting something like The Ghost Sonata by Strindberg or Rhinoceros by Ionesco – experimental yet brilliant, I believe this young cast could pull it off!

It runs until Saturday at the Capitol Theatre, just off Manchester’s Oxford Road and I recommend that you try it. I give it a four tortoise shell rating and a deserved round of applause! We need more theatre like this, challenging and well executed.

Self Publishing tips for Amazon KDP!

In this blog I will be looking at how you can get your own book published on Amazon via their KDP programme – and it’s all free! My latest thriller novel, The Last Of The Heroes, was released this week and so it’s a very exciting time for me! It is the follow up to my earlier thriller ‘The Girl On The Bus’ which has been a smash hit, selling over 10,000 copies a month at one stage and spending over 9 weeks in the Amazon top 100 best sellers chart! So if I can do it then so can you!

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I am revisiting an earlier blog because I found it so useful myself when publishing The Last Of The Heroes this week – I hope that you will find it equally useful. The main tip that I can give you is GO FOR IT!! The only thing that is stopping your book becoming a potential best seller is your reticence. Don’t put it off – if you have a book that is ready to go then don’t hide it away, get it out there!

There is no cost at all to upload a book to Amazon via KDP – the only costs that you may encounter are the costs for proofreading and the costs for a cover. I find that Gumtree is a good place to find budding illustrators, many of whom will do a great job for a very reasonable price. My cover was created by a brilliant Italian artist called Anna Chiarini, she replied to my ad on Gumtree and she has done a great job for a very reasonable price. I will certainly be using Anna again. Alternatively you can search on Google for pre-made covers that can be personalised for your book for a small fee.

Proof reading is important, readers do pick up on typos and grammatical errors. This will be the major cost to you but I feel that it’s worth it in the long run. The following link gives a directory of professional proofreaders:
http://www.sfep.org.uk/directory/directory.asp
This is an invaluable resource – these people are highly qualified and experienced editors and proofreaders. Their rates vary but expect to pay in the region of £300 for a 40,000 word book. This sounds like a lot but you can recoup this in two or three days if your well proofed book takes off!

Now you are ready to upload your files! KDP stands for Kindle Direct Publishing. In effect you are becoming a publisher – how exciting is that! The sign up process is very simple – if you have the ability and chutzpah to write a book then you certainly have the ability to sign up to KDP!

You will have to decide on a name for your publisher – make it something different and fun (Blue Robot Press maybe?), or something personal like Joe’s Gran Books. After this you can upload the cover and the text itself. The cover should be in JPG format – 1200 pixels wide by around 1800 pixels high seems to be the perfect dimensions, remember that you want your cover to stand out when it’s seen in miniature on the Amazon shopping page.

The body of the book itself, the text, should be in Word format. I myself don’t have Word or any of the Microsoft suite on my computer – I use something called Open Office. It is completely free (I like freebies, can you tell?) and can save things in Word’s .doc format without any compatibility issues. Once you have uploaded your ‘Word’ file you have the opportunity of previewing how it will look on various Kindle devices as well as how it will look on an Ipad and Iphone app. This is vital – it only takes a few minutes and allows you to see whether the format needs changing. If it looks too messy, small or cluttered then simply change the font, or the style or the layout and upload the file again. Only click the final publish button once you are happy with how your masterpiece looks!

On the subject of fonts, many people use the standard ‘Times New Roman’, but this can make it stand out as being independently published because it’s so ubiquitous. Try a different font – I personally like the ‘Georgia’ font but there are plenty to choose from to give a little individuality.

You also need to create a sales blurb! This is of primary importance because unless the blurb stands out and grabs a reader then they are never to going to read your brilliant book. Here is a big tip: Amazon will tell you that you can’t use HTML tags on your blurb but this is incorrect. The Tortoise Soup tip is that you simply must use HTML on your blurb! If you don’t then it will all come out in one paragraph and look plain and boring. Get the HTML in and stand out!

Don’t know anything about HTML, huh? Don’t worry – neither do I, but you only need to know the very basics that can be found via this very helpful link! http://www.tckpublishing.com/how-to-use-html-to-format-kdp-kindle-book-descriptions/ HTML is the language of the Web, it tells the Interweb thingy how to display information. The main ones to use in your blurb are b to put something in bold and i to put something in italics and finally p to create paragraphs. At the end of an effect the same letter must be used with a / in front of it. For example /b will end the bolding and /i will end the italicisation. Believe me, this is a lot easier than it sounds and will make your blurb stand out. Have a look at how my blurb, the product description, looks – it’s better when it’s not just in one bland lump.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Last-Heroes-John-Halle-ebook/dp/B00GFPWC4G/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1383996473&sr=1-1&keywords=the+last+of+the+heroes

You next have to set the price – you can price them high or go low and try to sell in bulk. That’s what I do, for a book that costs 99p you will make 34p for each one sold. That doesn’t sound a lot but if you are selling hundreds a day it will soon add up to a nice little pile! There is also the option to enroll your book into ‘KDP Select’ – again this is a personal choice. If you go down the ‘Select’ route then your book cannot be available in any other e-book format (although you can have a paperback version). The advantages are that Amazon Prime customers can borrow your book and you can take advantage of free promotional tricks that Amazon has available. You actually make more money out of people borrowing the book than buying it so my personal opinion is that it is worth joining the KDP Select club.

And there you have it – you are now an independently published author, with your book available across the world. And when your masterpiece takes off you can sit back and wait for the monthly transfers directly into your bank account from Amazon – that is a truly great feeling, making money from something that you have truly loved creating!

Good luck, and as I say – don’t hold back, get your book finished and get it out there! If you have any comments on my article or any further hints and tips regarding KDP publishing then please comment below!

The Halloween Tortoise – a tale told darkly!

Johnny was travelling abroad for a month, he had left his beloved tortoise Tonka in the care of his thrifty neighbour Hoagie. Hoagie would do nothing for anybody, he kept old ha’penny bits to put in collection boxes and no piece of clothing was too tattered and torn to be worn again. But Hoagie loved money and Johnny paid him well to keep Tonka in the style to which he was accustomed.

Hoagie had been given a list of food to give to Tonka, but the food was eating away at the cash that Johnny had given to him. He began to scrimp and scrape. The light was left on for seven hours instead of eight, and then six, five and four. Soon it was hardly on at all. He did not go out collecting weeds as instructed or feed succulent salads, he gave him scraps from his old plate. This mangy old tortoise is getting a taste for meat, thought Johnny, he doesn’t want crappy old lettuce.

Tonka was neglected, and grew sad. His beautiful head plopped down onto his cold soil. Hoagie was shocked – if the tortoise died he would not get the extra payment Johnny had promised on his return in two days time!

He went to a reptile shop and said: “I need my tortoise to grow big, strong and happy straight away!” The shopkeeper winked: “We have a special Halloween offer – tort pills, give him two a day – no more – and recite the magic spell! Remember now – no more than two a day!”

Hoagie rushed home, Tonka lay listless. Two a day, he thought, oh no – I need him better by tomorrow! He fed him the whole bottle, desperately wolfed down. In a somber voice Hoagie read the spell given him: “Trot Aknot, Trot Aknot, Worg Gib, Worg Gib!” There was a flash of light, green smoke bellowed, the very walls trembled. Then nothing. ‘Twas Halloween night, children were knocking for sweets and treats. Hoagie was so mean that he switched all lights off and retired to bed. If only that puny reptile could get better, he thought, then I could really fleece Johnny!

Morning broke, he went downstairs – what a sight! Tonka was huge! Ten foot side to side, ceiling scraping! Hoagie screamed but it was too late. You fed me not, cared for me not, you bad man, Tonka thought, now you will feed me! He opened wide his gigantic mouth, his pretty pink tongue wrapped around Hoagie and pulled him inside. Nom, nom, nom – misers sure taste fine, but his ragged old shoes were spat out.

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The next day Johnny returned. “I love you Tonka, daddy’s home!”, he cried out. Love! Oh love that endures all, that conquers all. Love cures every ill and love destroys evil spells. The word made all good again. Whoomph! Tonka was back to his usual small self. Johnny cuddled him, and gave him special treats. “Where is that miserable Hoagie, his shoes are here but he is not? Ah well – I had brought him a present but now we will share it ourselves.”

Tonka and Johnny were happy together, friends forever. Hoagie had enjoyed his last miserable Halloween darkly alone.

The Winter’s Tale at The Crucible, Sheffield

The dark nights are drawing in and it is thus more than apt that The Winter’s Tale has just opened at Sheffield’s theatre in the round The Crucible.

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William Shakespeare’s play has, of course, nothing to do with winter. A winter’s tale, as referred to in the title, is simply a dark tale – possibly a scary tale which was told to pass the long wintry evenings. And whilst The Winter’s Tale does have its dark side these are more than made up for by an abundance of fun and joy.

I adore Shakespeare but The Winter’s Tale has always been one of my very favourites from the bardic canon. I liked it so much that I wrote and performed a one man play, Julio Romano, atop the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square that was about some of the minor characters in the play. Surely you remember that? I’ll never forget it – my papier mache masks blowing every where and the drunken crowd shouting that they couldn’t hear me. Yet despite all that I do still love The Winter’s Tale and Paul Miller’s production at the Crucible shows just how brilliant this play can be when done well.

In reality it is a play in two halves. The first half very dark, brooding and angry. It is a tragedy of jealousy to rival that of Othello. Leontes, King of Sicilia, is driven crazy by false jealousy and destroys all around him leading, so we are led to believe, to the death of his son, his wife and his baby daughter.

But, as is often the case with Shakespeare, things aren’t always as they seem. The second half is a much lighter affair – a roister doistering romp of a comedy in which we find that the daughter has survived after all. Can Leontes be cured of his madness, can King and heir be reunited? This is Shakespeare – what do you think? The second half, the comedy half, also contains lots of song and dance and brilliant set pieces around a topiary sheeps head. It is as beautiful to the eye as the words are to the soul.

The ending itself is incredibly moving – I can never watch it without a manly tear in my eye. It needs to be done subtly, with sympathy or else it could seem pathetic but the Crucible cast strike exactly the right note. I won’t reveal the ending but it is well worth seeing.

The cast are wonderful – especially Daniel Lapaine as a raging Leontes and Kirsty Oswald as a frightfully alluring Perdita. Special praise must go to the multi role performance of Patrick Walshe McBride – the young man has real comic timing and presence, he should go far in such roles.

The Winter’s Tale is sometimes called a ‘problem play’ as it is hard to classify – being part tragedy, part romance and part comedy. But the only problem is if you can’t get a ticket for this spectacular production. It is heart warming, life affirming stuff. If you haven’t loved Shakespeare before then this will change your mind.

It’s been a good season for my theatre jaunts for The Winter’s Tale gets a well deserved five tortoise shell rating! It runs at The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield until 2nd November. Catch it while you can – and don’t forget to watch out for the bear!

Educating Rita at the Lowry, Salford

Educating Rita is the current production by the Manchester Library Theatre at their temporary home in Salford’s wonderful Lowry complex. If you’ve never been to the Lowry then you are in for a treat, it’s a beautiful gentrified location by the historic Salford quayside and next to the sprawling television studios belonging to ITV and the BBC. It’s only spoiled by its proximity to Old Trafford, the theatre of comedy, but that’s another story.

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Educating Rita is a play by Willy Russell and is rightly famous from the 1983 film version starring our national treasures Michael Caine and Julie Walters. Those are big shoes to step into but Philip Bretherton and Gillian Kearney do it with aplomb.

The stage version differs from the film in one crucial point – there are only ever two actors on the stage. Bretherton and Kearney have to bring a whole wealth of background characters to life and it is testament to their stage skills, and to the brilliance of Russell’s script, that they carry this off flawlessly.

Bretherton plays Frank, an ageing University lecturer who has signed up, against his better judgement, to teach Open University students. He is a troubled man, with a failed marriage and a penchant for lining up bottles of whiskey behind his dust covered bookshelf. He is a cynic weighed down by his own self loathing and sense of failure as a poet. He teaches English literature yet states that he hates the theatre and never goes.

Kearney plays a character called ‘Rita’ – but is she really Rita at all? I won’t say any more on this matter – see for yourself if you don’t already know the plot. Rita is a hairdresser who dreams of becoming socially mobile. She knows nothing and cares about nothing when we first see her but what she does have is a drive and desire to learn and as the play progresses we see her blossoming intellectually and socially under the guidance of Frank.

It might seem as if Frank would be an unsympathetic character, a morbid and jealous drunk – but not a bit of it. He gains our sympathy with every lurch, every slurred bon mot. Whilst he is undoubtedly pathetic we can’t help but feel sorry for him. He sees Rita change, yet he cannot change. He is emotionally moribund, incapable of expressing his feelings – struggling manfully, yet failing pitifully, to tell Rita that he loves her.

And this, I feel, is the pathos that is central to this brilliant play. At the beginning Frank is the man of importance and Rita is under his spell and insignificant but by the end the roles have completely reversed. Rita has become a success, a social butterfly, a learned woman – but at what cost? Is her life at the end, under the courtship of yet another man who she doesn’t care for, any better than the life with which she started? It seems that Rita will never fit in, she is destined to be a traveller throughout life rather than a settler.

Willy Russell is a brilliant wordsmith, and at its joyous heart is a paeon to the importance of education yet he also seems to say that more important than learning, than certificates is emotion and love itself. And these can so easily be lost in the struggle for the materialistic possessions that modern society deems to be of more importance.

It is a beautiful play and the Lowry give it a triumphant production. There is some great 80s music to accompany the scene changes as well and these brought back some great memories.

Educating Rita is on at the Lowry Theatre, Salford until 12th October. I urge you to see it and have no hesitation in giving it the big, big five tortoise shell rating!

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