The Book Zone, Quercus Blog and Harry Potter

•August 31, 2011 • Leave a Comment

It’s ultra busy the day before publication of Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth.

On the Quercus Books blog (Quercus is my publisher) you can read my post about Doomed Teddy Bear Love.


On the brilliant Book Zone for Boys website you can read another of my posts, this time on the coolest way (we’ve yet come up with) to land on another planet.


Then, over at, there’s a piece on Jo Rowling’s and Harry Potter’s influence on the Johnny Mackintosh books.

What are you doing still here? Go and get reading!

Influences on Johnny Mackintosh

•August 21, 2011 • Leave a Comment

With my third novel publishing on 1st September 2011, pop over to the Johnny Mackintosh website for the latest news. I’ll be posting a series of pieces on the influences on Johnny Mackintosh in the run up to publication (and probably just after depending on how quickly I can write them).

Join in the conversation about the new book on Twitter using hashtag #JMB4E.

The Art of Glastonbury

•August 14, 2011 • Leave a Comment

After finally downloading some of my pictures, here’s a belated post about summer fun. If you’ve never been to the Glastonbury Festival you might be labouring under the misapprehension that it’s a music event. In fact, you could have a great time in the fields of Worthy Farm if you don’t do to see a band at all. A city of two hundred thousand people, three miles across, descends on the Somerset countryside and it is a city of wonders. I think the first time I went was 1992. I remember catching sight of the place and thinking I had stumbled upon Tina Turner’s Bartertown, from the Mad Max movies. There was just so much going on and here are a few pictures away from the music side:

Much of this year’s art was on a gigantic scale, set in some sort of post apocalyptic dystopian future. Here in an area of the site known simply as Block9 is “The London Underground”, a 50ft tower block complete with a crashed Tube train near the top.

Opposite “The London Underground” is another extract from an urban cityscape, the magnificent “NYC Downlow”. Dare you cross the road to enter what for the Glastonbury campers might still appear to be luxury accommodation. Yes the bathroom’s exposed to the elements but, hey, at least there’s a bath.

Shangri-La was a nearby area of the site that had “been contaminated”. It was a Blade Runner-style world with a mixture of hope and desperation. You entered underneath a neon banner proclaiming “We are all sky” which is something that’s always had a special resonance for me in my more poetic writing.

There was a rumour (that I started) that Bono’s plane had been shot down on leaving the festival, ending up as another club in one of the outlying fields. Or maybe this is an allusion to Lord of the Flies, that if the mud becomes too deep we’ll all revert to savages. Whichever, I think the styling’s extraordinary.

Here’s your chance to begin again in the off-world colonies. Now we’ve seen the final space shuttle flight it might be the only way to go there.

There are more conventional creations (but none the less disturbing) like this oversize sand baby. Basically everywhere you go that’s away from the very central area you’ll see something.

And, after his performance on the Friday night (I was on the front row, so confess I did see some music) where better to give thanks the Temple of the Blessed Bono?

If you go to the festival in 2013 (next year they’re having a break) then make sure you do more than sit in a field listening to faraway music.

See inside the Spirit of London

•May 8, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Have you ever wanted to peek inside Johnny Mackintosh’s spaceship, the Spirit of London? For those out there who don’t know, she sits at 30 St Mary Axe in the City, the capital’s financial district, and also goes under the name the London Gherkin.

Three months after the dreadful events of 22nd February when Christchurch, New Zealand, was struck by an earthquake, the Gherkin is unlocking its revolving doors to make way for the Step up 4 Christchurch Earthquake Appeal. You have the chance to walk or run (there’s even a race) all the way up the 1037 steps to the top or, if that sounds a tad too much effort on a Sunday morning (shame on you), there’s an alternative route to the top via the lifts. Sadly, these will be the conventional type rather than the antigravity ones normally used on the Spirit of London.

The event, taking place on Sunday 22nd May 2011, been organized by the Evans Randall Investment Bank so full marks to them. I was alerted to it by Meg Ellis who’ll be taking part as one of her 100 things for charity. There’s an entrance fee that goes to the earthquake appeal and, if you’re taking part, get yourself some extra sponsorship too.

One last thing, watch out for aliens when inside, including this one in the lobby …

eBooks and the London Book Fair 2011

•April 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Another year, another London Book Fair. You could be forgiven for thinking that very little was different – that everyone’s still talking digital, but no one really knows what the true impact of eBooks will be. Well, that seems to be changing with a vengeance – the news that, in February of this year, eBook revenues overtook trade paperbacks in the US is a tremendous wakeup call for publishers everywhere.

A stripey Cory Doctorow

The Digital Conference, the precursor to the main fair, took place on the Sunday. Although I wasn’t there, much of the Twitter comment suggested that it was the same arguments being rehashed, though Evan Schnittman (ex of Oxford University Press and now at Bloomsbury) created quite a stir by apparently announcing the enhanced eBook is dead. This was just as people were getting their previews of ePub3, next version of the digital format of choice for most eBook retailers apart from Amazon Kindle (which has its own proprietary format).

I arrived at Earl’s Court on the Monday, in plenty of time for “the great debate”, whether publishers themselves will soon be irrelevant. Representing the industry were Andrew Franklin of Profile and Richard Charkin (also ex of OUP and now at Bloomsbury, but with rather more than Evan sandwiched in-between).  The new media specialists on the other side of the camp were Cory Doctorow (founder of Boing Boing) and James Bridle, an editor and technologist.

We all know the industry has to change. Publishing is about connecting the creators of the content to those who need/want to use it – how it’s done can alter, but most of the audience seemed to think there will be a place for it. In my day job I’m a publisher at Oxford University Press, to which Charkin referred a fair bit, stressing the continued need for academic publishing. Franklin was more forthright that publishers are needed more than ever as arbiters of quality. Self-publishing is all very well, he claimed, except that no one would want to actually read the results – we sort the wheat from the chaff. The debate was a little like last year’s Prime Ministerial versions, with everyone queuing up to say “I agree with James” who spoke passionately and sensibly. Charkin did conclude by saying publishers need to bring books out far more quickly, and that they must be marketed continually, not just at the time of launch. Authors everywhere would doubtless cheer those sentiments.

Wayne Davies (left) & Mark Smith (right), co-counders of Quercus

Around the fair, of course I made my way over to Quercus and found its two founders, Mark Smith and Wayne Davies, momentarily free of appointments – it’s always good to chat about Johnny Mackintosh with the bosses. As ever, the stand was buzzing and impressive. I also snapped Australia’s Murdoch Books, who distribute my titles down under.

Last year the Book Fair was a bit of a write-off, disrupted by the ash cloud from Iceland. This year, to all intents and purposes, the British book scene showed itself off as vibrant as ever. An added plus, on the fiftieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic spaceflight, was a live linkup between the London Book Fair and the International Space Station. It was great to hear that the astronauts read while up there, and it’s now my mission to get copies of all the Johnny Mackintosh titles into their orbiting library. Though, I can’t help thinking that the ISS is one place where having a few hundred books on your eReader could provide a very considerable advantage over the printed word. Perhaps that’s the best demonstration of the need for eBooks.

Right now, the digital world is still problematic for publishers. Each reader has different requirements so needs different electronic versions (even different ISBNs). There’s also the question of rights – as Doctorow pointed out eloquently in the debate, readers have to be allowed to “own” eBooks rather than simply “rent” them. VAT (that’s sales tax to some of you) is charged at 20% on eBooks but doesn’t apply on print copies, making it hard to meet the market’s expectations. And the spectre of piracy looms large in the background. But unless the industry moves quickly, it’s very clear it will be cut out of the loop and left behind.

John Taylor’s body double

•March 13, 2011 • 1 Comment

I spent Saturday in the company of Duran Duran. Had you told me, back in the 1980s, that I’d do that, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet, in recent years, I’ve had nights out with a fair few of the popstars I grew up listening to or watching on Top of the Pops. There’ve been the likes of Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet, Leee John of Imagination (we danced together to “Just an Illusion” at the rap party of Reborn in the USA) or even the lovely Tereza Bazar from Dollar (who could forget that dress for Hand Held in Black and White?).

Even so, Duran Duran are special and I’ll certainly treasure my crew pass. They were always a cut above the others. While not necessarily regarded as such in their home country, they were the biggest British band in the US since the Beatles. Never overtly cool, they had a superb brand of brilliantly crafted pop that I’ve always loved. In fact, over their thirty year career in music, I’ve enjoyed every Duran single, perhaps with special pleasure reserved for the brilliant “Ordinary World” that led to a revival at a time when it appeared they would fade away, when their music has always deserved to be heard.

It’s thirty years since debut singe “Planet Earth”, a song the band sometimes mix with the underrated “All She Wants Is” in their live shows. There’s an element of sadness that, after all this time, the band are still worth writing about. I once scripted a TV show called Sing it Back with Paul Gambaccini, the walking encyclopedia of music who stated earlier this year that the era of rock ’n roll is over. It seems horribly true. It’s not just that I went to the opera a few weeks ago, and surprised myself by rather enjoying Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. It’s that there’s very little interest or enthusiasm from the young generation in forming bands and actually crafting songs.

On Saturday, Duran played three of their new songs, all of which were impressive, especially “Leave a Light On” which I presume is a single to come soon. The band were recording Duran Duran: One Night Only at ITV’s London Studios, hosted by Christine Bleakley. Very professional, they were working pretty much all afternoon on sound checks and setup, but at times even this band with great stamina (as you’ll know if you’ve seen them live) need a break. At one point I was asked to take to the stage and mime a little bass playing, giving John Taylor a well-deserved rest. I’ve done some strange jobs over the course of my lifetime, but I never expected to become the body double for one of the world’s great heartthrobs.

Independent on Sunday music journalist, Simon Price, complete with his wingsThe Independent on Sunday music journalist Simon Price, perhaps the man with the most distinctive haircut in music since Phil Oakey, also came to the filming. I always see him at gigs and wish now I’d asked him who he feels the next decent band to break might be. There’s lots of hype around Slough’s Brother or Chapel Club from my own East End, but I’m not convinced they have The X-Factor (another ITV show which is, without doubt, brilliant television, but has probably played its part in undermining real music). But this was a night to look back, not forward, and enjoy a great musical legacy, and share a beer in the very crowded green room afterwards – even Frank Lampard popped in after the show to join up with Bleakley.

The show transmits on Sunday 20th March and will be well worth watching for any Duranies still going strong (I’m sure there are lots). Once it’s been seen, I might add a few of my own pictures from the day to spice up this entry, but I’d hate to annoy either the band or the good people of ITV by slipping them out into the ether before the show is aired.

It’s Only a Movie – Book Review

•January 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Earlier this week, I found myself wandering the rainwashed streets of New Orleans with U2’s “All I Want is You” playing on the soundtrack in my head. Cut to sitting at the French Quarter’s hippest bar, sipping cocktails mixed by a beautiful actress bartender. Chatting beside me was a local gallerist* and, along from him, a couple of artists he represented. In front of me was the notebook open at the final chapter of Johnny Mackintosh: Battle for Earth and a copy of Mark Kermode’s autobiography, It’s Only a Movie.

The gallerist wanted to talk science fiction, notably Iain (M.) Banks and Dr Who. We had similar views on both and I could recount the time where I accidentally got the Scottish novelist a little drunk in a bar before a book reading, buying him whisky and telling him he’d inspired my own novels. It took a little while for the bartender to fess up to being an actress (it turned out a show of hers was even on HBO when I returned to the hotel), but once the fact was divulged she was reciting Shakespearean sonnets and having me recreate a scene from Austin Powers with her. After which I could even tell her how I once worked with Mike Myers!

I know I’m incredibly lucky, but it often feels as though I’m living inside a wonderfully entertaining movie in which I’m director, screenwriter, cinematographer, location manager, head of casting and leading actor. And that’s exactly the conceit of Dr Kermode’s autobiography. It’s already the third book I’ve read this year so I figured it’s time to get busy reviewing or get busy dying. Choose life.

A damn fine bfi book I published with Jonathan Ross

Ever since I noticed there were film critics, Kermode has been my favourite. He’s risen through the ranks to be the nation’s favourite too, with regular slots on The Culture Show and a weekly movie roundup with “clearly the best broadcaster in the country (and having the awards to prove it)” Simon Mayo that’s so entertaining it’s been extended to two whole hours on a Friday afternoon. Possibly the highlight of my time as publisher at the bfi (British Film Institute) was receiving a very lovely email from Dr K. It goes without saying he wrote the bfi Modern Classic on The Exorcist, but this is also the man who made On the Edge of Blade Runner.

Mark kermode is On the Edge of Blade Runner

Kermode, inevitably played in the movie inside his own head by Jason Isaacs, bookends his tale with a scene filmed in LA. He’s interviewing Werner Herzog when the Bavarian actor/director is shot. Herzog is calm and describes the bullet as “not serious” while Kermode scarpers for his life. This is a very self-effacing autobiography – it’s also laugh-out-loud funny as I’ve kept finding to my cost, drawing curious stares from the strangers around me while I’ve been reading.

The bookend could have been an Angelina Jolie anecdote but it’s as though Kermode didn’t think about it until the end of the story, at which point it was too much effort to go back and restructure the book. That’s how it should be. Kermode’s gift, as well as sound judgment, fairness and honesty as a reviewer, is his stream of consciousness good humour. He recounts his first radio experience (horribly similar to my own) of sitting in a studio, going straight to air, panicking and rambling incoherently for several minutes until finally the nightmare ended. I wish I’d been there as I’m certain it was both informative, entertaining and opiniated, much like the book.

The next week, miraculously, Kermode was back for another slot. This time it was studiously prepared, scripted, slowed-down and dull. None of that’s Kermode’s nature. Behind the quiff (much admired by Jolie) is a tightly coiled spring of film-obsession that simply has to be released. The book is a rollercoaster ride through hilarious stories and the only problem with it seemed the great gaps. I wanted more, but perhaps we can look forward to a sequel coming to a bookshop near you sometime soon.

Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode talk about movies

Mayo & Kermode together at the pictures

The only thing I partly disagreed with in the book was that Kermode reckons he’d make terrible movies himself. The typical description of a critic is “someone who can’t, writes about it” but, judging by the direction of the film inside this book, I suspect any film he directed would be a pretty good watch. Though he might need Simon Mayo or similar alongside him to organize it all with a steadier, overtly professional hand.

As with my own sentences, most of Kermode’s open with, “So, …” A joy of the book is that his distinctive narration becomes the soundtrack while reading it. If you want a good story, or an insight into the life of an international film critic, or are wondering whether or not it’s a good idea to go to Odessa to experience a film set first hand, then this is the book for you.

*I was editing Ben Dupre’s excellent 50 Philosophy Ideas you really need to know and was desperate to save any space I could. Ben, unusually for him as he’s a brilliant writer, had produced a rather clumsy sentence about the philosophy of art along the lines of “The person owning the gallery …” which I amended to read, “The gallerist…”. Ben’s retort, that “If there is such a word as ‘gallerist’ there shouldn’t be” was witty but misguided. Of course I changed it back, but it remains one of my favourite nouns and a minor flaw in an otherwise masterful book that you should also read.

There’s a connection in that another author I publish, Nick Bostrom, argues convincingly that we’re all effectively living inside virtual reality simulations without realizing it. I first encountered Nick’s ideas when editing Ben’s opening chapter (The Brain in a Vat) which describes this conception, at the same time rather loosening one’s hold on reality. Kermode’s grip on reality is as tenuous as my own and he admits that much of what happens in his book may not actually be true, but was at least “inspired by true events”. Of course that’s the secret of every good storyteller.

Alien Hunting – the best summer job ever!

•January 4, 2011 • Leave a Comment

What if I asked if you wanted to search for aliens this summer? And be paid for it!

Readers will know this is a subject close to my heart – I’m not giving much away in terms of my books, because it’s on page 2 of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London that Johnny uses a SETI program (that’s the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) to detect a signal from space.

When I was growing up I applied to places such as CERN and Jodrell Bank for summer jobs, offering to sweep the floors and make tea. Sadly they weren’t interested, but things are so much better now. If you’re resident in the US (citizen or otherwise), the SETI Institute is recruiting for summer interns. It’s the sort of thing I would pay to do but no – they pay you! And house you and give you a food allowance. As well as being at the Institute, you also get to work at nearby NASA Ames Research Center (home, for instance, of Kepler), and get to spend a week at the Allen Telescope Array.

Sadly, the opportunity is only open to residents of the US (though you don’t need to be a US Citizen). If that’s you, get applying now and good luck!

What do we want to do when we grow up?

•January 2, 2011 • 1 Comment

When I was a kid the brilliant Space 1999 was in its pomp. This was in the mid-1970s. As a family, we’d recently moved back from America, but the Moon landings were still fresh enough in the mind to believe that, by the year 2000, space colonies would be everywhere. I figured I should run the biggest, most important one (naturally), so decided that Commander of the future Moon base would be a good career choice. So far, things haven’t worked out, though if any of you can get to the Imax3D movie Magnificent Desolation: Walking on the Moon, you absolutely have to do it. When I was working on the Science of Spying at London’s Science Museum, I was able to go loads of times, and never once got tired of it (occasionally I’d see Space Station 3D instead, but it’s just not the same).

The Science of Spying

I also expected to be a writer. I’ve still kept my early notebooks and must digitize them so I can put a couple of stories online and you can see the early inspiration for Johnny Mackintosh. Then, I did kind of expect to be a footballer at some point. I was captain of the school team and we were pretty successful, so to an 11 year old it seemed a small step up to become a professional.

Sometimes my ambitions were a little more down to Earth and I thought about going into politics. I was going to be the leader of the first world government, bringing peace to mankind and unifying our efforts to colonize space. During my teenage years I heard about the PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics) course at Oxford University and decided that would be a fun thing to study (in fact it’s exactly what the current British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and many of his peers, did), but as I approached the sixth form I began to get sidetracked.

I do remember my English teacher taking me aside after one lesson imploring me to study English literature at ‘A’ Level, but despite my love of writing, by this point I’d been bitten by the beauty of mathematics and physics. It’s a great mystery why the universe seems to run along mathematical lines, but we should be grateful it does. Hence I went to Cambridge University to study mathematics (with physics). You can read a little of how that turned out in a career interview I recently gave Plus Magazine.

The great thing is, that you never grow out of growing up. People say “40 is the new 30” and the world (and beyond) still seems full of possibilities. It was only three years ago that I applied to ESA to become an astronaut and, as we enter another year, I’d encourage everyone to dream great dreams and do your best to turn them into realities. I don’t know what I want to be doing in, say, 20 years’ time, except that I’ll always have a notebook with me and be writing something.

On Radio Five Live in Support of Harry Potter

•October 18, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Last night, I plucked up the courage to ring Dotun Adebayo’s Virtual Bookshelf. Readers of this blog will know I’m a fan. Normally nowadays I can’t listen live, as the phone-in takes place between 2am and 3.30 (not great when you have to out the house for 6.30 to get to work). However, I’ve taken time off to write Johnny Mackintosh’s third adventure (provisionally Battle for Earth) so I, like Dotun, can afford to be up all night.

I telephoned to nominate Harry Potter – the entire series – for a place in the list. Dotun, lovely man that he is, allowed this, which did rather set the cat amongst the pigeons. Do the rules of the Virtual Bookshelf allow a boxed set? Everyone hates listening to their own voice but, for the next few days only, that shouldn’t stop you hearing my praise of the boy who lived and his magnificent creator on the bbc i-player:

I’m between 1:21:25 and 1:29:30 (a whole 8 minutes).

The nomination caused much heated debate, with many voices against (and every vote against cancels one for), but at the end of the phone-in Harry won the day and made it on as Book 60. However, Harry Potter still needs your help. Next week, Dotun and his literary reviewer (last night it was Hephzibah Anderson) invite listeners to remove one from the most recent ten titles on the list. Harry creates strong feelings in people and Dotun suggested he was in danger of being removed after only one week.

Don’t let that happen. I propose the AA Road Atlas of Britain (currently in place 51) should go as it doesn’t really compare with Rowling’s great work – I would be more lost without Harry than I would without a map. So next Sunday night/Monday morning, I say the atlas has to go.