National Crime Reading Month

NCRM-2022-banner-300x160The Crime Writers Association, in partnership with The Reading Agency, is sponsoring National Crime Reading Month in June. There will be a fabulous launch at Waterstones, Piccadilly on 1st June (I’ll be posting photographs) and a whole tranche of events are already scheduled (see link). It is hoped that more will follow, in local libraries and book groups and the CWA has listed crime writers ready and willing to participate in said events on the crimereading.com web-site.

Here in south London one of the NCRM local Ambassadors, Anne Coates, is teaming up with fellow south Londoner, Alice Castle and myself to produce ‘Sister Sleuths’. Each of us has books set in London, oftenSister Sleuths2 south London – Clapham in my case, where Cassandra Fortune lives, Dulwich, home of Hannah Weybridge in Anne’s series and Dulwich, Herne Hill and Belsize Park, among others, for Beth Haldane in Alice’s. The tales range across the capital, taking in Westminster, Theatreland, Fleet Street and the yummy mummy nappy valleys of south London as well as rather less salubrious locations, like King’s Cross and Elephant and Castle.

As you can see all our protagonists are women, hence the name. Cassandra is a civil servant, Hannah an investigative journalist and Beth an office worker; two of them are single mums. All of them get drawn into investigations by circumstances (though Cassie is more than willing in Plague, in order to get her career back on track).

ClaphamBooksLogoFirst stop on the ‘Sister Sleuths’ tour is at Clapham Books on 8th June, doors open at 6.30pm for a 7 o’clock start, later in the month we’ll be at Chener Books, on Lordship Lane in East Dulwich and, it is planned, more south London venues (details will be available on the Events page of this site). The events will be free to attend and should be fun. Anne’s Hannah Weybridge series which started with a tale inspired by Anne’s real-life journalism in Dancers in the WindChenerBooks is already five books long and Alice’s Beth Haldane (and her on-off boyfriend DI Harry York) has appeared in even more, beginning with Death in Dulwich. I am lagging behind with only two, though that will be increased in the Autumn when Opera, the third Cassandra Fortune is published.

I’ll also be speaking about researching both Plague and Oracle at the Riverside Book Club in Sunbury on Thames on 16th June. It is a long-standing date in the diary, but, as serendipity would have it, now part of NCRM. There will almost certainly be an event near you, across the country. But the idea behind NCRM is to encourage readers to create events for themselves and, at time of writing, the site currently includes over sixty crime writers of different types and sub-genres ( a figure that will grow as June approaches ) who are prepared to participate in these events. The website includes tips and hints on organising and promoting events, together with NCRM literature and templates. So contact your local library or book group and suggest an event. Or come along to one of mine.

A Salutary Tale

SundayTimesdebaucheryheadlineToday’s news media is full of stories about the casual misogyny and sexually predatory culture of the Palace of Westminster ( not just the Commons, though that features more often than the Lords ). This isn’t new. When I was writing Plague (Claret Press, 2020) I was taken to task by one of the readers of an early manuscript. She commented on my depiction of a male dominated, testosterone fuelled, hard drinking place, in which women MPs were treated as decorative, or routinely verbally abused and female civil servants and Parliamentary researchers ‘fair game’, saying it was incorrect to such a degree that no one would believe it in the twenty-first century. I begged to differ.

If you haven’t read Plague, be prepared for some spoilers, courtesy of the newspapers.

Of course, not all male, or female, MPs and Peers behave in such an ante-diluvian fashion, but there is aSunday Postdebauchery significant minority who do, as recently confirmed by the current, female, Attorney General, and witness the recent resignation of Neil Parish. The Palace is an unique and strange workplace, with MPs often far from home and under tremendous pressure, from their peers as well as the Whips. There is many an decent, family man (and they do tend to be men, but this isn’t exclusively male) in his constituency who lives a rather different life in Westminster. The ready availability of alcohol (or the stimulant of your choice) doesn’t help either. Catherine Bennett’s article in today’s Observer newspaper lists some examples from the Tory benches (see here).

Believe it or not, television in the chamber and the increasing number of women in Parliament has meant some improvement. Gone are the days when there was no debating cut-off time and the bars would be open (and full) until one or two in the morning, when MPs would spill out (sometimes quite literally) into the chamber to vote. It was a very tough woman who survived in that environment, though they have to be tough today too – witness the torrent of abuse poured on an MP like Diane Abbott. One of my villains is an MP who routinely regards women as prey and another a Lord who aids and abets him.

Cover_Template.inddBut back to Plague. We have been here before, when the media, or those parts of it more interested in fact than propaganda, reported on the scandals around PPE (and other) contracts handed, without competition, to cronies and the special ‘VIP lane’ of government procurement. There have been successful court cases branding the behaviour of the government unlawful.

The syphoning of money from the public purse into the pockets of cronies and allies via large government contracts is one constituent part of my villain’s modus operandi. My publishers even made a podcast programme about it COVID, Corruption and Crony Capitalism, which is still available, because the parallels were so obvious. Said villain has made a fortune in the City, he talks about the power of money and the super wealthy using the City to launder ill-gotten gains and buy up property. One of his international associates is a Russian oligarch in London.

Thus far the only other major element in the crime plot of Plague which hasn’t made the headlines is the murders (no one would want that to be real). Nonetheless, it’s worth reflecting on my heroine’s view of the Palace of Westminster when considering this weekend’s stories. I suspect there’s more to come.

Whitehall lay in front of them. At its far end, she saw the Palace of Westminster. The Elizabeth Tower was still shrouded in scaffolding, obscuring the clock face. Green netting was wound around the west face of St Stephen’s Porch. What else enmeshed the Palace and those within it? Had the corruption already taken hold, bringing its odour as surely as the subterranean Tyburn, flowing beneath it, brought the stench of putrefaction?

Black Friday and other stories

OracleCassiequoteVBGreyAll the published writers I know (except one) accept the need to promote their books, whether they are contractually obliged to do so, as a traditionally published author, or understand that they must get themselves and their book out there as a self-published author. Only those established enough to command a hefty advertising and promotion budget within their publishing house can sit back and even they can’t relax. Sir Michael Morpurgo, who is as established as they get, was on the road promoting his latest book at the Clapham Book Festival in October.

There are a plethora of ‘Black Friday’ deals being unleashed upon the general public this week and it’s no99pposter exception, with Christmas around the corner, in the book world. The ebook of Plague has been reduced to 99p online across stores (and on the Claret Press website) and I am publicising that at the same time as organising ‘giveaway’ competitions for free copies of Oracle within online book groups, like The Motherload.  It happens also to be six months since Oracle came out, so there is a bona fide reason to do the giveaway, aside from Black Friday.

TheMotherloadBookGroupFor a small publisher like Claret this is a neat way to get free advertising. For example in this ‘giveaway’ via Facebook of three books ( at cost and with postage of approximately £3 per book ) Oracle’s cover and blurb, as well as some quoted reviews, has reached 174,000 people in the last twenty four hours. Mostly these are via Twitter but the Club itself has 12,000 members.  At time of writing over eighty people have ‘entered’.

When the three winners’ names have been drawn out of the hat I will send each of them a signed copy,OraclePostcardimage complete with Oracle postcard and  message congratulating them, hoping that they enjoy reading the book and asking, if they do enjoy it, if they would pass the word on, by way of a review or a post in the Facebook Book Group and/or on Goodreads. If they do so this will generate more publicity. Oracle is, of course, readable as a standalone novel, but it may also encourage some folk to buy Plague, especially given its reduced price.

To that end I am appearing as a writer guest tomorrow night in the UK Crime Book Club’s Pub Quiz (Only not in a Pub). I don’t know what sort of audience there’ll be – the Club has over twenty thousand members – though I know there’s a Noir at the Bar tomorrow night so there’s quite a lot of competition.  It’s the ‘Thank Andrew’ edition, because November includes both Thanksgiving and St Andrew’s Day, with the focus on U.S. and Scottish crime fiction. I have been madly mugging up on both and realising just how much good crime fiction there is out there that I know nothing about. Wish me luck with the Quiz, I hope I don’t make a complete fool of myself ( preparing for a Select Committee hearing was never as nerve-wracking ).

Once I get the latest version of the manuscript of Opera off to Claret ( which is imminent ) I will be taking advantage of some Black Friday deals myself. 

Politics in crime fiction

CapitolRiot3My contemporary crime fiction is set in the world of high politics ( and low sleaze ), of ministers, conferences, lobbyists and business interests. Activists of various kind also feature, particularly in Oracle. In that book a contemporary political issue also impacts upon the plot; the politicisation of the police. This is specifically regarding the Greek criminal organisation Golden Dawn, which formerly styled itself a political party and to which many police belonged in the real world. There are other examples of politics intruding on police work, most notably in the U.S., where former President Trump deployed ‘private’ police forces funded with federal money in cities where demonstrations were taking place ( see pic left ). A ‘defund the police’ movement began as a result of this and of the repeated deaths in custody of black people. So far, so scary.

I’ve been speculating on whether or not this is going to appear more widely in crime fiction. It would be material to any fictional investigation. Can the investigator, police or otherwise, trust the policemen and women with whom they work?  Could those individuals owe allegiance to a different, political, organisation altogether?

To an extent this brings to mind the conspiracy novels of the 1970s, published just as the gloss of 60s idealism wasSerpico tarnished. In the US the Vietnam War, in the UK the three-day week and ‘the sick man of Europe’ made for a more sceptical and hard boiled sensibility.  The Day of the Jackal, The Andromeda Strain, Six Days of the Condor are three crime/conspiracy novels, turned into major films, which spring to mind.  Then there was police corruption, found in crime fiction like Lawrence Block’s NYPD stories, Leonardo Sciascia in Sicily ( long before Montalbano ) or countless Hollywood films, the Dirty Harry movies, Serpico, The French Connection. Is the politicisation of the police going to be something similar?

Then it occurred to me that maybe there were books already out there, it was just that I hadn’t come across them. So I asked, on the Facebook page of one of the UK’s biggest Crime Fiction clubs, for suggestions of crime fiction which involved politics. Now this isn’t quite the same as ‘the politicisation of the police’ I grant you, but I was interested to see what suggestions arose.

First Quinin Jardine’s Bob Skinner series, following Edinburgh’s fictional Chief Superintendent, was recommended as Crime & Punishmenthaving the politics of policing threaded though it (as it happens these also arose during a discussion I had on Sunday ).  Then a series I had never heard of but will definitely try – Ausma Zehanat Khan’s duo detectives Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty. Khan is a British born Canadian and now lives in the U.S. and her pair are Community Police Officers in Toronto, but the books range across the world. One series I remembered as soon as it was suggested was the Law & Order TV series based on four plays by G F Newman, which were also published as books A Detective’s Tale, A Villain’s Tale and A Prisoner’s Tale. HarperCollins reprinted them in an omnibus edition in 1984. These were controversial at the time, as they depicted a corrupt UK policing and legal system and shouldn’t be confused with the US TV series of that name. The UK series was altogether harder and grittier and caused ructions. As did Newman’s later Crime and Punishment, which involved a criminal bankrolling the Conservative party ( where have I heard that before )?

This is as far as the discussions went – although there were suggestions for other TV series, like the current favourite Line of Duty.  If readers of this piece can think of more crime fiction in which politics features, please don’t hesitate to tell me.

A most intrepid civil servant

That’s my heroine, Cassandra Fortune, according to Claret Press, my publishers. They are referring to my her as ‘the world’s most intrepid civil servant’.

There are plenty of real life intrepid civil i.e. non-military, servants of the Crown. The employees of the security services, for example, or holders of high profile positions like the Director of Europol. Policemen and women serve society in a civil capacity and there are lots of real as well as fictional police heroes and heroines, though, technically, they aren’t civil servants. The publishers are playing on the popular and entirely erroneous assumption that ‘civil servants’  are faceless ‘pen pushers’. I can personally attest to the fact that that stereotype is very far from reality.

There are plenty of civil servants in literature – see, for example, the entire oeuvre of C. P. Snow, various characters in the novels of Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch and A.S.Byatt, to name a few. But fictional civil servant detectives? Well, Cassie wouldn’t be the first.  They are more rare, though they do exist.

Natasha Cooper, former Chair of the Crime Writers Association had Willow King, at the Department for Old Age Pensions, who first appeared in Festering Lilies in the 1990s. Agatha Christie, no less, wrote a series of short stories featuring a retired civil servant named Parker Pyne in Parker Pyne Investigates (1934). I’m sure there must be others and there are probably real civil servants who are more intrepid, though they may not meet with murders and villains with such regularity as Cassandra does.

This started me thinking about the professions and jobs of fictional detectives. Aside from police and associated professions, including Private Investigators, what do fictional detectives do for a living?  Amateurs, by definition, many belong to the ‘gentleman’ or ‘lady’ detective category, individuals of independent means who are intrigued by mysteries and/or spurred on by a love of justice.  This covers many ‘early’ detectives, like Poe’s  Auguste Dupin or  Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey. From a quick hunt around my memory, there are plenty of writer or journalist detectives, whose job requires them to find things out, I suppose, but also former forces people, like Dr Watson or Sax Rohmer’s Nayland Smith the sleuth in his Fu Manchu novels. Academics feature but also psychologists and psychiatrists.  Lawyers too, in part I suppose because of their association with crime and the law, e.g. like Kate, in Sarah Vaughn’s best-selling Anatomy of a Scandal (2018)

There is a modern trend to go for something different. So we have Jimmy, homeless veteran and PTSD sufferer who is the hero of Trevor Woods’ Debut Dagger winning The Man on the Street (2020). Hetty Wainthropp, the working class retiree from Darwen in Lancashire, who first appeared in David Cook’s Missing Persons (1986) is another such unusual character.  Personally, I would like to see a Tesco’s check-out female investigator, who teams up with the assistant from the local chemist to solve crimes.  Or maybe a teacher, or a local authority drainage engineer? Ordinary people.

My heroine, Cassandra, is ordinary, though she’s intelligent, quick-thinking and brave, all attributes which don’t require a private income, a silver spoon or a university degree (though she has one of those).  And yes, she is intrepid and a civil servant, though not the first.

For Valentine’s Day?

It’s Valentine’s Day on Sunday and the media company who do the promotional images for Plague had a Valentine’s Day version in the series relating to topical dates and days.  Now, we all know about star-crossed lovers, but I’m not really sure that either of Cassandra’s ‘romantic’ relationships fits this bill. ‘A plague on both your houses,’ Mercutio cries as he lies dying, which is probably the closest Romeo & Juliet comes to Plague.

The romantic element in Plague is… umm… somewhat complex and cautionary. How else to  describe it without spoiling the plot? So the tagline I offered for the Valentine’s banner was suitably equivocal. Rather like Cassie when it comes to making decisions about her romantic life. A number of readers have found her indecision, not to say, vacillation, hard to credit.  There is, however, no clear winner in terms of who had ought to gain her favour.  In retrospect I think I made one of those characters much too sexy.

It’s refreshing, however, to consider Plague as something other than a mirror to real life shenanigans in government. Last week’s COVID, Corruption & Crony Capitalism discussion for Claret Press has sparked quite a lot of interest and not a few compliments. There were lots of good questions on the night and there have already been plenty of views of the recording.  If you missed it you can see that on the Claret Press YouTube Channel here.

More excellent questions arose after Politics & Prose for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries, which I’ve written about before on the blog. The tech didn’t quite work as well as it had on a previous occasion for the Libraries but those watching seemed to enjoy it and it was good to place Plague in context as a ‘Westminster thriller’. It’s available for a limited period on YouTube here.

There are a couple more Plague events lined up for March and some in the pipeline for April.  The first is for The Thorney island Society & Friends of St James’ Park and the Green Park on 9th March. I will have to be on the top of my game as far as the historical aspects of Plague are concerned, I suspect the members of the Society know as much, if not more, than I do. It will be interesting to see if they find any of the Palace of Westminster aspects surprising. This talk is all about what inspired Plague, the history and the place. Tickets are £10 (£7 for members ) and are available here.

Already the events are being organised for promotion of Oracle, the publication of which draws ever closer ( I have finally agreed with the publishers on the publication day of 5th May ).  That book will be up on NetGalley soon for early review and there will be ARCs going out. Yet I have another book to write!

For more on the events which I have been speaking at recently take a look at the Events Page ( many are still available on YouTube ) or read about them  at

Politics & Prose          The Circumlocution Office           Going Underground

The Circumlocution Office

Let me take you back in time.

Back to Sunday, 21st January 1855 in a Trafalgar Square deep in snow, where about fifteen hundred people are gathering. They’re meeting to protest at the mismanagement and needless loss of life in the Crimean War, but can’t help larking about and they pelt passing traffic (and pedestrians) with snowballs. The police ask them to stop, but the protesters pelt the police too.

What begins in laughter escalates into a full scale riot and troops are called. Yet these protesters are representative of public opinion in regard to the war.  Enthusiastic support among a populace worked up into a war fury by the press at the war’s beginning had turned to amazement and shock as disaster after disaster was reported by war correspondents like William Howard Russell for The Times and the photographer Roger Fenton.  Not just military mismanagement – the Charge of the Light Brigade in the previous October came to symbolise that – but the failure to provide troops with the most basic necessities of life and the dreadful death rate resulting.

Florence Nightingale, quite aside from the assistance her hospital gave, was a first rate data gatherer, a medical statistician who documented the privations and resulting medical conditions of the troops, far more of whom died from disease, malnutrition and neglect than on the battlefield. These logistical failures were partly because of difficulties with distance and terrain but also because government positions were filled by placemen unqualified for their role and supplied by contractors who had got their contracts because of their connections, not because they provided the best goods and services.  Money was made, stipends were paid but the servicemen were not supplied with what they needed.

Like many others the novelist Charles Dickens was angered by this. Dickens fans will recognise the name of this article as belonging to the government office in his Little Dorrit, where Arthur Clennam goes to discover the details of William Dorrit’s incarceration in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. The Circumlocution Office was Dickens satirising the parlous state of what passed for the civil service in those days. Totally dominated by the Barnacle family  (a not so subtle metaphor on parasites clinging to the ship of state) it is ‘0ne of the principles of the Circumlocution Office never, on any account whatever, to give a straightforward answer.’ You can read Chapter 10, in which the Circumlocution Office features here.

In late 1854 and 1855 the press turned against the government and Parliament passed a vote demanding a full investigation. Lord Aberdeen, the Prime Minister, resigned on 30th January 1855. 

In fact, the sorry state of government civil services had been noticed earlier and a report commissioned by none other than Gladstone in 1853. The resulting report, by Northcote and Trevelyan, recommended the establishment of what is now the Civil Service and what the historian, Lord Hennessey calls “the single greatest government gift from the nineteenth century to the twentieth century; a politically disinterested and permanent civil service, appointed on merit and with core values of integrity, propriety and objectivity.”

That’s what Britain still has. There are some service failures today – nothing is perfect – but these are often driven by politicians not civil servants, however much politicians seek to blame them (sometimes aided and abetted by the press). We touched on this in last night’s panel discussion on COVID, Corruption and Crony Capitalism, but we ran out of time before we could discuss why cronyism is so damaging to public service provision and so destructive of human lives. This article is by way of a reminder;  January 1855 is where we were. Let’s not go back there.

The discussion was fun to do, especially for such a serious subject and, I am told, is generating lots of good feedback (and some book sales). Thanks to everyone at Claret Press for organising and to fellow panellists, Vicky Pryce and Dr Emily Barritt.  The recording is available on YouTube HERE.

COVID, Corruption & Crony Capitalism

Last Monday evening listeners to my talk ‘Politics & Prose’, for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries, seemed to enjoy it, especially the Q & A afterwards. There were some excellent questions.  But barely have my feet touched the ground and I’m involved in another event.

Next Thursday ‘COVID, Corruption & Crony Capitalism’ is a discussion organised by publishers Claret Press which promises to be equally interesting, if rather different.

The panellists will be Vicky Pryce, noted economist and current member of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills Panel which monitors the economy, Dr Emily Barritt, Co-Director of the Transnational Law Institute at King’s College London and me – I get billing as either an ex-high ranking Civil Servant or as author of Plague. The session will be chaired by Dr Katie Isbester, Editor-in-Chief of Claret Press and supported by Ko-fi as part of the ‘Claret and Conversation’ series of online discussions.

In Plague the villain co-ordinates a complex strategy to emasculate or destroy the institutions of democracy including Parliament.  He says ‘Democracy is so easy to pervert, why replace it? Money can buy anything. If a government gets difficult another can be sponsored. Sometimes it takes time, sometimes it’s easier, but there are always people willing to take over. When national or global institutions fail to serve the purpose they are destroyed, distorted or hollowed out from the inside.‘ (P236). Money, the media, the connivance of powerful individuals, inside and out of those institutions, enable him to do this, together with leverage over others who are hungry for power.

This includes illegally determining the award of lucrative public contracts so they go to friends and allies. On page 246 the heroine says to him ‘You’re ensuring the contracts go to the right companies so you can reward your friends and allies while you make money on the markets.’

In real life, the Good Law Project, the Runnymede Trust and a non-partisan collection of MPs from various parties have sought judicial review of the Department of Health and Social Care’s awarding of billions of pounds worth of contracts since April 2020 to private companies e.g. for Personal Protective Equipment. That is, they’ve asked the judiciary to adjudicate on the legality of the contract awarding process. Of these contracts, many millions remain unstated and have not been made public as regulations require.  The Labour Party has raised this issue in Parliament and via the media ( see HERE ).

In correspondence with the GLP the government has recently stated its intent to spend £1 million in defending the case, stating that finding out whether they acted lawfully in channelling hundreds of millions or billions to their VIP associates, is not in the public interest. The money is, apparently, to fund a vast exercise in disclosure, not required by the courts. The GLP, funded by small donations, will be unable to accept such a financial risk and has sought a cap on costs from the court. If this isn’t granted the litigation will have to be abandoned.  Perhaps the villain was right and ‘Money can buy anything.’ even the law. I hope not.

COVID, Corruption and Crony Capitalism looks at the situation and the impacts of corruption and ‘crony capitalism’ on a country’s economy, on its system of law and on how such a country is governed and administered.  Join us on Thursday 4th February. It’s a FREE event, but you need to register on Eventbrite.

If you missed the broadcast you can watch the recording HERE.

Politics & Prose

Question – which of the following is true?

  • Stories which deal with political ideas need not be stories about politics.
  • Stories which show the struggles, jealousies and rivalries, or alliances and betrayals of politicians, may not be about political ideas.
  • Most fiction is about power and its balance, so all fiction is about the political.

All three, as far as I’m concerned. It depends, of course, on how you define politics and the political. The dictionary definition is ‘the art or science of government or governing, especially the governing of a political entity, such as a nation; and the administration and control of its internal and external affairs. ‘

While that encompasses an awful lot, it is actually quite a narrow definition.

Yet, as Orwell said in Politics and the English Language his essay of 1946, ‘There is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.’ Since 2019 the UK has had a prize, the Orwell Prize for political fiction.

I will be addressing these questions and lots of similar, related ones in Politics & Prose, a talk for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster Libraries on Monday 25th January at 18.30 GMT. It’s a FREE event, but you have to register with Eventbrite if you want to attend ( you can do so HERE ).

My novel Plague (Claret Press, 2020) has been described as a ‘Westminster novel’, and, I am proud to say, a page-turning read, but is it political fiction?  It’s commercial, not literary fiction, but that shouldn’t prevent it dealing with ideas. It  deals with crime, with torture and murder, but also, something of very topical moment,  crony capitalism. As my hero says to the villain, ‘you’re ensuring the contracts go to the right companies so you can reward your friends and allies.’ (P246) There are real legal cases underway claiming that the current government is using the COVID emergency to indulge in exactly that.

As the pandemic began early last year I believed that Plague had lots of resonance with reality and, of course, its title attracted attention. Yet, as time has gone on, it has been the politics, not the pandemic, which resonates more. The crony capitalism, the link between political policy and making money on the financial markets and manipulating the media to influence the public that seems more apposite. Plague‘s successor, Oracle, is much more of a ‘classic murder mystery’, though I hope it has the same page-turning quality. Yet it too has the political at its heart and, already, some of its themes are hitting the real-life headlines, like questions about the politicisation  of the police, something which surfaced again after the assault on the U.S. Capitol.  I suspect that this issue is something crime writers will be incorporating in their stories for the next few years.

I’d also like to answer the following question;  in an age in which the novel is arguably no longer the dominant force in story telling and when social media allows us all to be citizen journalists and political commentators, what place does political fiction have? An important and relevant one, in my view. And I’m not alone – see this piece of graffiti, found in London, NW7 earlier this week ( thank you John Johnston for the photo ).  Is the political image of our age the age of the boot on the face, or the pill and the palliative? Orwell or Huxley?

I hope some readers of this piece might come along and contribute on Monday.  Here’s a book list of books which will be mentioned.

Politics & Prose Book List

Listening

It is estimated that audiobook sales have more than doubled in the last six years, with a significant rise during the pandemic. There has been double digit sales growth in the English speaking markets  for the last three years ( the US is by far the biggest market for audio books, but the UK and Australasian markets are growing rapidly ) and more audiobooks are being produced than ever before. UK book sales are still overwhelmingly (80%) of printed books, but the digital market has grown at the expense of print during the pandemic, possibly after the Treasury reduced VAT on digital books to zero, in line with printed books, in May 2020.  Digital fiction sales is the fastest growing element of this market.*

In terms of retail, the giant Audible (Amazon) dominates, but there is an increase in subscription services like Scribd and, this year, local libraries are seeing an unprecedented surge in audio book borrowing. This is probably also tied in with COVID, as reading, of whatever kind, has increased during our different stages of confinement.

Incidentally, Neilsens also finds that audiobooks reach the younger market, with big numbers in the 18 – 24 age group. In the UK the average audiobook user is an urban male, aged between 18 and 34, who listens while working, commuting or running outdoors. Given that women read more than men and younger men in particular, this is tapping into a new market, good news for the book industry.

Claret Press, my publisher, is expanding its audiobook offering too and the recording, by Essential Audiobooks, of Plague is well underway. The reader, RSC Associate actress and voice coach, Alison Bomber, is on the final few chapters, then there’s the editing and the music and finally the audiobook comes into being.

I haven’t heard it yet, though I have heard Alison read and she’s very good. By a strange coincidence I met up with Elizabeth Bergstone, the actress who read the audiobook of my short story collection,  The Village, only last week. A long time Los Angelina, Elizabeth now lives in North Carolina, so we had been corresponding during the recent US elections. Originally from south London, she was over to visit her sister for Christmas. She gave me lots of tips about online speaking, having listened to my recent talk for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries ( she thought my delivery poor ). I learned a lot, for example about Forvo, the online pronunciation dictionary ( which tells me that the name of the engineering genius Sir Joseph Bazalgette, is pronounced with a soft, not a hard ‘g’, as I had thought, so that caller to my session was correct ).

The good news is that Essential Audiobooks provide a ‘taster’ for promotional purposes, so I’ll make that available here as soon as I have it. I don’t know if the upsurge in audio will continue into this new lockdown period, when only essential workers will be commuting, but there will be plenty of joggers, like me and plenty of walkers and gardeners too, who will be outdoors at the first sign of spring.

And already the days are growing longer… but there’s still time to enjoy a book!

*Data from Neilsens, AAP, IBIS.