Journal of the Plague Year

It was the toilet paper that brought it home.

Reports started coming in, can’t remember exactly when, of another virus outbreak in China – Wuhan, to be precise. The reports shifted quite quickly closer to home, with Italy almost in lockdown. Then Italy was in lockdown. Then the reports started up right here, at home, of emergency stockpiling – in particular toilet paper, which seems to have become the currency and barometer of the crisis. Supermarkets were running out of it as people bought it up by the truckload.

But, even though they were coming from within the borders of the United Kingdom, even these reports still felt like they were coming from a foreign country. Surely not here?

Then, last Thursday (12th March) there was no toilet paper delivered with our Tesco order: not even a substitution.

Yup, it was happening.

First thing the next morning, I went into Poundland: none there either. Fortunately Saver had packets of 18 stocked up to the ceiling, with a restriction of not more than two per customer. So, that will keep us going for as long we keep going while we keep going.

We went to Tesco in person at the weekend: shelves empty of pasta and other dried goods, and – yes – toilet paper. But still plenty of other food. I can only assume no one nowadays has a large chest freezer. (We don’t.) Also, bizarrely, an entire almost untouched pallet of tins of chick peas. Does no one in Abingdon know what to do with those?

Anyway, for the time being, as long as people are able to make daily visits to the supermarket, and the human infrastructure exists to manufacture and deliver and stack food on shelves, no one should starve. That is quite a conditional, though.

At first the government was playing it cool in the best “Keep Calm and Carry On” tradition. After all, a bit like chickenpox, the sooner everyone gets it then the sooner it’ll all be over, right?

Then three days ago, Monday 16th March, they about-turned. Imperial College published a paper showing existing measures just wouldn’t cut it. Suddenly official advice was to avoid as much contact with others as you can, work from home if possible and for pity’s sake, stop panic buying. Oh, and local elections postponed until 2021. Yay democracy.

This makes a lot of people every thoughtful: will we be crashing the global economy to save lives? Stepson is working day by day at the brewery; management there is seeking to preserve jobs though it may inevitably mean paycuts, at least pro tem. The government has announced £350bn to help companies ride the business downturn, mortgage holidays and other goodies, though many feel it could go even further. This is the first time I can actually feel good about Johnson as Prime Minister: I still loathe the man but I do accept we need someone with ideological flexibility at the moment. And “ideological flexibility” is his middle name, between “de” and “Pfeffel”.

(And – whisper it quietly – could this possibly be a way of extending Brexit past the end of the year without political embarrassment? Especially as Michel Barnier has tested positive for the virus. Added 20/3/20: And that pranny who runs Wetherspoons – so uninterested in his existence I can’t even be bothered to remind myself of his name – was on the radio this morning saying no, we shouldn’t put it back, which frankly is one very good reason to do so, just to annoy him.)

On Monday evening we went to what turned out to be the last of a series of Lent lectures on Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary by the Rector of St Helen’s. The audience was already half of what it had been in previous weeks. Then, yesterday, the C of E announced that regular church and church happenings were being put on hold. Churches have already been restricting themselves for the last few weeks, first they were asking you not to intinct the wafer; then it was wafer-only and no hand shaking for the Peace; now this.

The gut instinct, frankly, is to be afraid, very afraid. Then you look at the figures. There’s a BBC site that helps you track the spread of the virus ( As of today there are 34 cases in Oxfordshire out of a local population of 687,524. That’s quite high up the infection list, relatively speaking: but, do the sums and it’s a stonking 1 per 20,221. A stranger who dared to wander in across the border from Berkshire could meet 20,220 people and not be at risk. I feel I can live with those odds.

Still, this is probably the first time something has happened in my life that could go absolutely anywhere. We probably won’t end up in a Survivors or Earth Abides-type situation, but things are going to change. As with any life-changing crisis, the vested interests will probably hope everything returns to the status quo ante as soon as possible, while the newly empowered unvested interests will embrace the change and see no reason to let go of it. We shall see.

So, I thought I would chronicle events as best I can, at least as long as the electricity stays on and the internet abides. I’ll add new developments at the end as they come along.

Herewith the chronicling as of 18th March 2020.

First, the positives.

From the Glass Half Full Department:

In other business:

Update: 19th March 2020

Okay, this does change things: schools and universities to shut from tomorrow. Academic exams for this year cancelled. Glass half full: no performance tables for 2020 to be published either. But even so. We’re promised this somehow won’t affect GCSE and A-level students: goodness knows how. Clarification awaited.

National Trust to open parks for free to give people ‘access to space’, though indoor sites are closing. English Heritage likewise. Update 23rd March 2020: and the National Trust is closing them again, as too many people are taking advantage of the offer and hence not properly social distancing.

Stonehenge spring equinox celebration cancelled.

Air pollution and CO2 fall rapidly as virus spreads, though there’s a warning to governments not to undo all the good work as they try to get the economy going again.

And our neighbours have started a WhatsApp group for our building so that we can all look out for and help each other. I don’t know them at all and they have a 3-month-old baby. I feel humbled.

Update: 20th March 2020

Cafes, pubs and restaurants must close from tonight, except for take-away food; all nightclubs, theatres, cinemas, gyms and leisure centres have also been asked to close “as soon as they reasonably can”.

That nice Chancellor has said the government will pay 80% of wages for employees who are not working, up to £2,500 a month.

Update: 24th March 2020

… and that really was the big one: Boris Johnson announcing at 8.30 pm last night that the UK is on lockdown. Shops selling non-essential goods to close (Sports Direct tried to take an unconventional approach to “essential” (but in the last five minutes since I started typing this has backtracked) and everyone whose job can’t be done from home to stay at home, apart from exercise once a day.

This will make life … interesting.

Beloved is still having to travel in to work. This morning she got a lift from a colleague who is also having to go in; this evening I will pick her up rather than subject her to public transport, which we both feel is within the spirit of the lockdown.

Update: 26th March 2020

No big news except that to say this is the first day of all three of us working from home. Bearing in mind other people’s problems, I have to make myself remember it’s all bigger than the minor loss of my accustomed state of having the house to myself during the day … Also that I’m now working from the laptop on the desk in the living room, since Beloved’s job can only really be done from the main computer in the workroom. Three more weeks. Meh.

Update: 27th March 2020

The government is matching its help to the self-employed with its help to the otherwise waged. My accountant’s generic email to all her clients laying out the guidelines for eligibility, and I would count. 80% of my average profits per month does not sound bad. It also sounds very, very naughty as I doubt my income will take a hit from this: if anything it might go up as more people need ghostwriters. So I will try to be strong and not claim, leaving more dosh for the genuinely deserving.

America now has more COVID cases than China … which Donald Trump says is a tribute to all the testing they’re doing. Good grief, that man.

Update 28th March 2020

Our first stab at a post-lockdown Tesco shop this morning. I didn’t see the inside because they only allowed one person per trolley in, with a carefully managed one in, one out policy to keep numbers down inside. Beloved queued in the overflow carpark – markings on the ground showing they were prepared for a queue that snaked the length of the carpark two or three times, but at 7.15 am it had just started on its second length – while I went home to shave and shower. I was just done when I got the call to come and get her. Anyway, apparently it was all quite bearable inside and she got everything she wanted.

Boris Johnson, the Health Secretary, the Chief Medical Officer and Prince Charles all now have it.

People who show too much initiative in finding somewhere isolated to exercise are doing it wrong, apparently. A couple walking their dog in the Peak District were photographed by a Derbyshire police drone and their image splashed up on Twitter marked NOT ESSENTIAL. Idiots. The police, not the couple.

Update 6th April 2020

Domestic abuse calls up 25% since lockdown, charity says.

The Queen addressed the nation last night.

Johnson is in hospital, ten days after first showing the symptoms.

My biggest fear: so many morons flouting the lockdown rules that going out of the house for any kind of exercise could be banned,

Earth abides.


The Further Adventures of Jim Hawkins

H.M.S. Barabbas cover

“ Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me back again to that accursed island …”

Almost the last words that Jim Hawkins writes in Treasure Island. So, why is every sequel to Treasure Island a return to Treasure Island? Sometimes it’s blatant, as in the several TV series called Return to Treasure Island. Sometimes it’s subtler: Andrew Motion’s Silver has Jim’s son and Long John Silver’s daughter returning to … guess where? (Although, as it’s their first time there, I suppose they don’t really return …) But even so, there has to be more to Jim’s life story than that accursed island.

Thus H.M.S. Barabbas. We’ve had Young Sherlock Holmes, Young James Bond … here is the Slightly Older Further Adventures of Jim Hawkins.

“There I was, tied to an ox with wain-ropes, being dragged back to the island. ‘Oh, the irony’, I thought …”

That is not how H.M.S. Barabbas begins. Instead:

“We buried the doctor today. The old man nearly made his century, which would not have surprised anyone who knew him …”

Within hours of the suggestion that I write the Further Adventures of Jim Hawkins, the first chapter had written itself. Sir James Hawkins, FRS, MD, wracked by Weltschmerz, is penning his memoirs on the day of the funeral of his mentor and father figure Dr Livesey. Clearly, it’s many years after Treasure Island. So, what did Jim Hawkins do next?

He’s still young at the end of Treasure Island. He’s also rich, and despite his antipathy to strong lengths of twisted cords and cattle, I believe he would have a taste for adventure. He might not go back to the island, but he would also not go back to meekly running the local inn with his mother.

The starting point of all this was thinking of Jim as a kind of anti-hero – a Flashman figure whose life is essentially all one big con. I didn’t want to do that, though. Jim has genuinely been a positive role model for generations of boys and I didn’t want to take that away from Stevenson’s accomplishment.

But Jim is a flawed hero – an interesting mass of contradictions. He is never quite as brave or as strong-willed as he would like to be (until it really counts, of course). He can be a self-righteous prig, ready for a right good slapping. On at least one occasion, the plot of Treasure Island goes on hold for a couple of pages as he pleads with a pirate to consider his immortal soul. (Stevenson was agnostic-verging-on-atheist but he knew how to play to his Victorian gallery.) At the same time he can cheerfully blow the head off Israel Hands with a pair of pistols at point blank range (admittedly in self-defence) and joke about it. Following the plot-convenient death of Jim’s actual father in chapter 3, part of the fascination is watching Jim torn between two father figures: Dr Livesey, upright and moral and just a teensy bit boring; and Long John Silver, wrong but wromantic. There’s a lot of possibility here.

Silver is out of the picture (for now) and Livesey is clearly the man Jim admires most in the world. Obviously, I decided, Jim wants to learn medicine himself. He won’t be able to do that in the unnamed west country village he lives in; he will have to go up to that there London. And what might happen to him on the way? Well, that’s when the further adventures begin, isn’t it?

Suffice to say that Jim doesn’t get as far as London; not yet. He probably will in the next one.

As the plot of H.M.S Barabbas developed, I had to make some decisions.

Tell the story in first person or third? Treasure Island is in first. The problem there would be having to replicate Stevenson’s writing style, which I knew would just sound like someone hamming up nineteenth century gothic prose. It also has the problem that you can only ever show things from the point of view of the narrator (though Treasure Island gets round that by inserting clips from Dr Livesey’s diary, when Stevenson really got bogged down); and, given that this is all in the past tense, it’s a fairly massive clue that the narrator survives. Granted, you can generally surmise that of the hero of any novel, and you can draw your own conclusions from ‘The Further Adventures of Jim Hawkins’, but … In short, I decided third person would work best. The very brief first and last chapters are all the first person you get – about as long as I can carry a convincing Stevenson impression for.

Jim, Livesey and all the other characters from Treasure Island are safely out of copyright (as of 1964) so I can do what I like with them – but to make the Further Adventures mine, I needed more characters of my own. There’s also a singular dearth of female characters in Treasure Island: Mrs Hawkins is the only one, and her only job is for Jim to think of from time to time. So, I introduced more characters, and I’m pleased to say most of the ones I intend to carry on into further books are female.

And what of Jim himself? I can work with his established flaws. Jim can be refined by hardship, having his priggishness knocked out of him, bringing out his innate decency and emerging the better for it. Jim will always be a combination of innocent abroad who is also able to sup with the devil, but he can have self-knowledge too. To set this up, I let one small detail of Treasure Island turn out to be a little white lie that has preyed on Jim’s conscience ever since.

Jim’s greatest handicap as he sets out in life is that there are people who have actually read Treasure Island. We know Jim wrote an account of the expedition at the behest of Livesey, Squire Trelawney and other survivors. In H.M.S. Barabbas I have it that Trelawney had Jim’s account published privately and a handful of people have read it. At best, this colours their perception of Jim, not always accurately or positively. At worst, it tells them that here is a young man who knows where there’s more treasure …

What of the future? Jim should continue to pursue his medical ambitions, at least until the point something else comes up. He can’t have life too easy – he will have to lose that fortune of his to make things more interesting for the reader. There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in the late eighteenth century, but Treasure Island is never more specific than that it is written in “the year of grace 17__”, and for that reason, I won’t tie it into any specific historic events. Maybe it’s in a parallel universe with the same events, just not in the same order.

I subscribe to the notion that a novel, as a general rule, should always tell the most important thing to have happened to its protagonist at that point in their life. That’s why novel blurbs say things like “his most exciting adventure yet!” rather than “a doddle compared to the last one”. On that basis, every sequel to Treasure Island must out-Treasure Island Treasure Island. That’s quite a challenge. It will be fun to see how I manage.

His Majesty’s Starship, part 3: a bloody children’s publisher?

Go to the book's home page

Go to the book’s home page

Slowly but surely His Majesty’s Starship approached completion … and approached it … and approached it. For a very long time indeed I was almost there, with just a couple of thousand words to go, and I simply wasn’t writing them. I self-diagnosed the problem, which was that I had a life and I was unwilling to lose it. The solution was to start getting up earlier, writing before going to work. It’s a habit I’ve kept.

Placing it with a publisher was quite atypically easy. Two friends from my writers group already shared an agent, Robert Kirby. Robert had been sufficiently tickled by their descriptions of the group to ask if he could have first refusal if any of the rest of us ever wrote a novel. I sent His Majesty’s Starship to him in August 1995, shortly before the Glasgow World SF Convention, which was my first worldcon. He finally accepted it, and me as a client, in January 1996. I had an agent! For a while I enjoyed dropping the words ‘my agent’ into conversation with friends, family and strangers.

(I recently came across an old letter from Robert thanking me for introducing him to his latest client, one Alastair Reynolds. Purveyor of retirement plans to agents, that’s me. No finder’s fee, sadly.)

And then Scholastic expressed an interest in it.


A bloody children’s publisher?

Robert’s precise reason for sending the book to Scholastic was, and I quote, “Gilmore seemed to me a sort of modern day Biggles and the level of sex and violence would not have raised the collective eyebrow of readers of Captain W.E. Johns.” As Gilmore, in the draft he read, was a divorcee from a group marriage with a teenage son, and there is an alien sex scene in chapter 16, I disputed this point of view, but it’s amazing the effect having a publisher actually express interest will have on you.

Further, I had been put off Scholastic by hearing horror stories from a friend who had had a novel published by their Point SF imprint which was systematically neutered to make it suitable for a young audience. (Or rather, one suspects, for the young audience’s parents.) The approaching middle age, divorced heroine became a teenager. At one point, in the original draft, she comes down first thing in the morning and finds the boyfriend having breakfast, with the implication he had stayed overnight; now he had to walk up the garden path first thing in the morning and ring the bell to be let in.

I don’t know who edited that book but it certainly wasn’t Scholastic’s David Fickling, a boundlessly cheery Roy Hudd lookalike and publishing genius. (All my writing breakthroughs seem to be thanks to someone called David: Fickling, Pringle, Barrett …) Practically my first card on the table when I met David was that the alien sex scene stayed. “Absolutely,” he said cheerfully. I was to learn he said a lot of things cheerfully, including his careful enumerations of your novel’s precise faults.

David was the man who had signed Philip Pullman (Northern Lights had just won the Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction) and was looking for something meatier than Scholastic’s usual teen fare for a new imprint. Robert forewarned me that David thought the book was bogged down with too much detail. I went into the meeting determined to refute this viewpoint and I left agreeing with him. I also saw how it took far too long for the story to get going, and it finished too soon – about three quarters of the way through the book, with a lot of mopping up after. I needed to rewrite it so that it ended at, you know, the end.

The kicker was: if David suspected for a moment that I was just agreeing with him to get the book published, rather than rewriting with my heart in it, he wouldn’t be interested. Not that I would have just agreed with him to get it published … but it concentrated the mind.

This began the first of quite a few rewrites: new opening chapter, throwing us straight into the action and highlighting Gilmore’s tactical ability. A space battle, a few people killed. All good stuff. I sent off the rewrite.

Early 1997: he didn’t like it. I began to see the problem: I had added more plot but left the excess verbiage in as well. David did me a huge favour for life at this point by recommending that I read Patrick O’Brian’s Master & Commander, first of the Aubrey series. O’Brian’s characters just slide into the action: Aubrey has been through some considerable scrapes prior to the novel’s opening and we only hear about these second-hand.

I applied this to the novel and I cut out anything that didn’t directly relate to the action, including (though it broke my heart) chapter 8, in which the Rustie Arm Wild interviews the crew. That chapter was the key one to introducing not only the crew but also the alien mindset to the reader. The novel was now down to 92,000 words, from its first draft of 113,000.

Back to Scholastic, and David courted death with a casual comment along the lines of: “don’t I remember a chapter where Arm Wild interviews the crew? I quite miss that …”

I restrained my homicidal impulse and learnt the lesson: anything that develops the characters is probably acceptable, even if it doesn’t contribute to the action. The interview was reinstated.

In January 1998 I sent in the final draft at 100,000 words, and it was accepted. And despite all the twists and turns over the last two years, it really was the story I originally wanted to tell.

I was struck by all the pluses of dealing with David, as opposed to the horror stories I had heard of other publishers: incompetent editors who want to be writers themselves and fiddle at every stage; who have no idea of science fiction beyond Star Trek; who bow to the High Priests of Marketing and tell you to put the sex here, the extra 200 pages there, and where’s that dragon when we need it? And all for a product that ultimately will have a life expectancy that makes a mayfly seem pensionable, because that’s how the bookselling system works. (Note: further on and many years later, I still have yet to meet any editors who match this stereotype … but I was young then and, like it or not, the stereotype exists.)

I was bowled over by an editor who encouraged me to cut. Not willy-nilly, but surgically. Cut this, yes, but expand that, because you leave off just when the reader’s getting interested … you see? And yes, I did see. David never lifted a finger to fiddle with the science fiction – that was entirely my own. He just concentrated on the story, and I came out the other end of the process a convert to the demands of children’s publishing: proper children’s publishing, not plot lobotomy as is sometimes practised. Just tell the story, then stop. That’s it. No more. Let it be as long as it needs to be. And you end with a story to be proud of: the story you wanted to tell.

I still had to stay on my toes. There were those within the Scholastic empire who clung to the old ways and David couldn’t control everything. Like, a frowning copy editor changed one character’s “Sod it!” to “Damn it!” We compromised on “Nuts!” (I had a vision of the guy wandering the corridors of their offices in New Commonwealth House muttering “Sod it / damn it / nuts / sod it / damn it / nuts …”, perhaps looking to see which of his colleagues swooned at what.) Strangely, the occasional utterance of “Christ!” caused no upset at all; a sad reflection etc. etc.

The learning experience continued right up until the end. At proof stage, I was told it was one signature too long for its price range. Books are typically printed in multiples of sixteen pages – eight pages get printed on either side of a large sheet of paper which is then folded and trimmed. That is a signature. My choice was: cut it by sixteen pages, or let Scholastic put it up by a pound. I cut the sixteen pages. It’s humiliating to realise your book has sixteen dispensable pages in it, but it was an invaluable exercise.

His Majesty’s Starship was published in December 1998. My author copies were delivered while I was at work on the last working day before Christmas, so I had to go and collect them from the depot. As I drove away from the depot, with the holidays ahead and my first novel in the boot of my car, the radio announced that Peter Mandelson had resigned from the cabinet. And then it played the third part of Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite, a piece of music I really enjoy with a triumphant trumpet fanfare.

I was pretty pleased with myself and with life generally.

Still am.

Life goes on …

It enjoyed modest success and some fairly nice reviews: I still relish the tingle when I saw SFX had awarded it more stars than the other book on the same page, a Star Trek: Voyager novel. It went out of print in 2002. A few years later I did a print-on-demand version because I was still getting a trickle of enquiries. And then I heard my friend Cheryl Morgan was starting a new e-book publishing company …

Andy Bigwood did an awesome cover for it – see above. It’s now available as both software and treeware (i.e. e-book or print).  The original Scholastic edition was also published in America under the utterly baffling title The Ark … presumably as in Ark Royal, and in deference to the United States’ anti-monarchical past, and because if you want an exciting novel about starships, obviously you go for one named after a big wooden boat. But that is out of print too, and the only edition available anywhere for new has the right title. The one God intended. His Majesty’s Starship.

Accept no substitutes.