Writing books is a funny way to try to earn a crust. Authors are expected to be slightly odd characters (and most of us can live up – or down – to that), with peculiar insights which can be gained only by using illegal drugs or by excessive quantities of legal ones. I tend to the second.
But being a writer, for me, was a way not so much of earning a living, but of continuing my delight in and with books.
I have always loved books. I find it deeply, humiliatingly, hypocritical still, to be telling off my son for reading under his bedclothes, when I can still remember doing the same thing myself at his age. And, oddly enough, reading the same William books as he is now. Exactly the same in most cases, since the thieving little brute has filched my ancient hardbacks.
Books have accompanied me through my life. As I sit here, irritably wondering when I’ll ever be able to get the paintings down from the roof to decorate a wall, all I can see is the thick, insulating layer of hardback and paperback titles on the walls all around. There is no space whatever for paintings.
Some of these books I recall from early childhood.
The William Brown books I started reading when I was only about eight years old. And at the same time, every year when a new Paddington Bear story came out, I went straight to the bookshop in Purley to buy it. I can still remember the delight of finding a new title that appealed to me. The day I found The Hobbit and felt that slightly thicker paper, I knew I had to buy it, and read it voraciously that weekend. Oddly, I was keen at that time on Neil Young, and After the Goldrush and Harvest still evoke The Hobbit better than any film score for me.
Almost immediately afterwards, I had to read The Lord of the Rings. Not the three volume version – that wasn’t on sale, I think – but the original, ruddy great tome that pulled at my satchel’s straps as I walked to the train. There has never been a book that grabbed my attention in the same way, I think. I adored that. I’m delighted that my son has already nearly finished it (two or three years ahead of me, then).
At the same time I discovered Elliott O’Donnell’s Casebook of Ghosts, a series of tales of his investigations into various apparitions in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Obviously most of these are invented twaddle, but the impact of such ghoulish, gothic stories on an imaginative child’s brain can be guessed by the books underneath that on the shelves: The Vampire, a collection presented by Roger Vadim that I remember reading with thrills of horror during English at school (and for those of a mind to see such things, the story of The Cloak by Robert Bloch, and Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu, are still among the best vampire stories ever written – infinitely better than the present crop, to my mind); the Dennis Wheatley books; collections of mild to horrible penny dreadfuls with skulls and ghosts on the covers, too. I will return to The Vampire and read it again soon.
However, while I have always read fiction for pure pleasure, my whole life has been influenced most strongly by non-fiction, and in the main, history and warfare. I was nine when I picked up Lyn MacDonald’s book on Paschendaele, and only a little older when I read Walter Kerr’s The Somme. In short order I read Mannstein’s Lost Victories, Bidwell’s The Chindit War, and the superb, much-thumbed, History of the First World War and History of the Second World War, both by the brilliant strategist and tank exponent, Basil Liddell Hart. I read Popsky’s Private Army, Rome ’44, The Battle for Stalingrad, Das Reich and hundreds more in my very early teens. Warfare has guided my reading, my holidays, my thoughts, for all my life.
I still read many books for pure pleasure. I cannot help but acquire all the books Terry Pratchett writes. When I need relief from writing, it is him and PG Wodehouse to whom I turn. But I have to admit that for me reading is less of a pleasure than it used to be.
I tend not to read crime books any more. It’s a shameful admission, for I was once the chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association, and have performed on many crime panels and stages over the years – but I find now that so many crime books are so graphic in their portrayal of extreme violence towards usually defenceless victims, that I cannot extract any pleasure from them. The intellectual striving for the truth that I always (and still do) enjoy in Sherlock Holmes tales doesn’t really occur in so many modern books. To a large extent, I think that the crime genre has expanded to encompass the horror genre that I used to read as a teenager. Also, while I love reading books like those written by Manda Scott, Tony Riches, Ben Kane and Robert Low, I daren’t read too many of them in case my own writing is too heavily influenced by theirs. It is a difficult thing to read other people’s books.
Which is why I tend to read books written by long-dead authors. Somerset Maugham, Conan Doyle, Alistair MacLean or Graham Greene all work very well. And I am still happy to pick up even older works – especially since they can be acquired free, or at least very cheaply, as ebooks.
Because the most important thing about books is not, really, whether they are on paper, an electronic screen, or carved with care into blocks of granite. The important thing is, that they are read.
My books, the ones all around me here in my huddled, messy, dusty, scruffy office, are old friends. I could no more sell my red-covered copies of The Great War in four volumes by Winston Churchill, or my Hobson Jobson or my Mr Punch’s History of the Great War, or my Big Fat Book of the .45 ACP than I could commit suicide. And I couldn’t, no. I have about 6,000 books in my house. I ain’t reducing that willingly.
In years to come, my lad will probably sit in a room and look at his ancient Nintendo, his Kindle and his – whatever the next thing will be – with as much fondness as I look at the coloured spines running around my walls. I can’t help thinking that his minimalist shelves will be sad and empty, though.
It’s a father’s prerogative to prefer his own belongings. I’m allowed to. But I appreciate that many people really, really like the thought of getting their hands on fifteen hundred books simultaneously on one pocket-sized device. For you, at the end of this post there is a list of all the books you can now buy on ebook. All my first thirteen and the last three Templar series titles are available to you now, as well as two collections of short stories and my hugely acclaimed modern spy novel, Act of Vengeance. The later titles in the Templar series will soon, with luck, be available too.
And for the old fogies like me, who really do prefer paper – the first thirteen books will all be republished this year.
Act of Vengeance – a modern spy novel. Lee Child: “An instant classic British spy novel. Mature, thoughtful, and intelligent. Highly recommended.” http://tinyurl.com/b748l8g for US & http://tinyurl.com/a5b4pvl for UK
No One Can Hear You Scream collection of Michael Jecks Short Stories: New collection of short stories ranging from Roman Britain to present day, a mix of tales: http://tinyurl.com/8rrdmdn & http://tinyurl.com/8cc7sr7
Anyone who likes Baldwin de Furnshill Templar stories should read the Templar short story collection: For the Love of Old Bones. http://tinyurl.com/ara6zt7 or http://tinyurl.com/ara6zt7
#1 The Last Templar on ebook from Simon and Schuster: http://tinyurl.com/bgydkpl
#2 The Merchant’s Partner is still one of my personal favourite stories: http://tinyurl.com/bcnrbsr
#3 A Moorland Hanging is selling well as an ebook – http://tinyurl.com/apnm6qr
#4 The Crediton Killings – lovely new cover for the ebook looks lovely! – http://tinyurl.com/a532a58
#5 The Abbot’s Gibbet is going very well as an ebook: http://tinyurl.com/agmh7pa
#6 My first love story, as the agent said: The Leper’s Return in ebook: http://tinyurl.com/bh5w83v
#8 Belladonna at Belstone caused more complaints than any other story! Naughty nuns as they were reported in two Devon Bishop’s visitation records