Friday, 24 April 2015

Book Post: Submissions. Oh joy.

The Rubber Band
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A Simple Irish Farmer, which I am assured is the thriller working title from hell by people who know better than I, is going out for a round of submissions to UK literary agents. Here's a handy Q&A for anyone interested in the whole area of novels and the process of submission. And no, there's no BDSM stuff going on here beyond perhaps a slight queasy feeling of impotence and pain the whole process engenders.

Why are you submitting your novel to agents?
Most publishers worth talking to won't talk to an un-agented author. If you want to get your work in front of an editor, the person who decides to take a book on within a publishing company, you'll need an agent. Agents are also useful further down the line for things like contract negotiations and a number of other things that make them worth the 15% of your income they'll charge.

No, I mean why are YOU submitting your novel to agents?
Mr Self Publishing, you mean? I've always sent my novels to agents. About 100 rejected Space, about another 80 rejected Olives - A Violent Romance, another 80 or so rejected Beirut - An Explosive Thriller before one signed me up and then 14 publishers rejected that book. Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy was sent out to a small number of agents, 3 or 4, including my own. When HE rejected it, my own blasted agent, I terminated our agreement. And when the others did, I self published it. Believe me, I am very, very good indeed at rejection. I can, we can safely say, handle it.

Why only a few agents for Shemlan?
I was weary then, (and I'm even more weary now) and was pretty much going through the motions before self-publishing the book. Shemlan didn't even get the promotion it deserved because of that weariness, which is a shame because it's probably (IMHO) my best work so far. I reckon if you pick up 10-25 rejections, you're self publishing or sticking it in a desk drawer.

Submitting to three million agents won't change your chances. Don't ever waste your hopes and talents on a desk drawer. Self publish. Hell, what have you to lose? Amazon, Smashwords et al don't cost a penny and if you earn $10 from that book, it's a) $10 more than you had b) been enjoyed by several more people than it took to write.

So you want a publisher?
Yes. I need a UK publisher to get some scale and traction into that market and beyond. With Olives and Beirut selling out their print runs in the UAE, a very small market, and all three books getting positive reviews from media reviewers as well as Amazon and Goodreads I still haven't managed to drive any scale. I need help to do that.

What if they all reject you?
Self publish. I've said this all along at workshops and things: don't do what I did and collect 100 rejections. Submit to a number of agents who are open to submissions and willing to look at work in your genre. If they all pass on it, self-publish rather than get caught in iterative Sisyphean loops of polishing the work and resubmitting it. In my experience the issue isn't necessarily quality.

What is it, then?
Serendipity. Is your book the kind of thing they're looking for? Does it press the right buttons? Does it deal with issues they don't think the market will buy, either for reasons of squeamishness, sensibility or ignorance? Is it in a genre that's selling, with a clear standout 'hook' that makes it a powerful book to market? All these things are commercial decisions agents take.

Being able to write well doesn't mean your book will sell well and knowing what will and won't sell is where agents pretty much stake their livelihoods. 15% of the author's 10% cut of the cover price of a book that doesn't sell is hardly going to send young Clarence and Philomena to Repton, is it?

What do you send them?
A query letter that clearly states who you are and what your book's about, a synopsis of the book as a one page document, a bio of yourself and 10 or 50 pages of the manuscript, depending on their guidelines.

It's very, very important to visit each agency's website, make sure they're working in your genre and that you identify an agent who would be interested in you. Make your submission to that agent, ideally explaining why you think you might be interesting to them. And then you sit back and wait, for anything up to a couple of months.

Do they ever give you helpful feedback?
Almost never. Getting feedback from an agent is quite a deal. An average UK agent gets about 40 submissions a day, an American one anything up to 200. Nobody in their right minds is going to give 40 free writing a book sessions every day. And if they did, they wouldn't be in their right minds for long.

A high percentage of those submissions will be way off the mark, so the winnowing is quite harsh. Very few will have enough spark to merit a closer look and a read of that 50 pages. And very, very few will get through to the next stage, which is a request for a 'full read'.

I've heard that term before. What's a 'full' vs a 'partial'?
There are three stages, really. A query, which is a letter saying I've written a book in this genre, it's about this and that, do you want to take a look? If they say yes to that, they'll ask for a partial read. Many will take the partial as part of the original submission package and, if the book's in a genre and has a hook they can see is commercial, they'll dip into the writing sample you've sent.

A 'partial' as I noted above is a sample of 10 or perhaps 50 pages which demonstrates to the agent that a) you can string two words together b) your plot and characters are developing as per the synopsis. Now, if they think your book's in a commercially viable genre (and they don't already have full complement of writers already working in that genre/area) and stands out within that genre AND you can write and your book seems to be delivering the goods, they'll ask for a 'full read' - that's the whole manuscript.

At this stage you'd better really have finished the manuscript and not be winging it in case someone says yes to it. You send 'em the full MS and they will read or, typically, pay a reader to look at it. Very few get through to the 'full' stage precisely because at this stage an agent is putting a lot of time or a little bit of skin in the game.

So you're almost there!
Yes, you are. But not for sure. I've known full reads come to nothing (and yes, it sucks), so don't go getting all puppyish about it. If the agent thinks the whole thing smells of roses, they'll sign you and go on to represent your books to the publishers they deal with. In an ideal world, loads of publishers will fight to get their hands on your brilliance and the agent will conduct an auction, getting your book into the hands of the highest bidding publisher.

Sounds exciting!
It doesn't happen so much these days, although it does still happen. Large advances are not so much a part of the publishing landscape. Agents like advances, because they pay for Tuscan holidays in nice, satisfying single transactions. Authors have to earn back their advances, so it's a bit like having a mortgage.

Can you play one agent off against another?
No! If you get an offer of representation, take it. Don't go playing silly B's at this stage, just take it. If you have two offers, take the agent you think you can work with - who will do the best job for you and with whom you could bear working. Sign and then sit back and let them get on with selling your book.

If agents aren't buying the kinds of book you're writing, why not write what they do buy?
I'm not really very interested in writing to order. I write what I do because the situations, locations and characters interest me. As a life-long voracious reader, I like the idea of different, intelligent thrillers. And if nobody's buying Middle East thrillers, or editors don't like books about people with cancer or retired IRA bombers, that's my tough luck. That's what interests me - and in my experience so far - has interested readers. I can't write Scottish romances. Not only would it bore me to death, I'd probably be really bad at it.

So what happens next?
You sits back and you waits to hear from 'em. You NEVER ever call 'em up. Just leave it with them. Welcome to your first taste of the passivity of the book industry...

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Authors Bleed For Art

Value for Money
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The BBC ran a neat piece yesterday, exploring the money British authors are making. Pal Taline shared it, which was kind of her. When I had finished wiping the tears from my eyes, I got past the headline and started to read the actual piece.

It's not pretty.

The top 5% of authors earned 42% of all the money authors earned. And they pulled, on average, £100,000 each. That's as good as it gets. The big time. Tickertapesville. Yay.

Now, I'm not saying we should be turning our pretty little noses up at £100k. Far from it, let the 100k's flow like the very rivers I say. But it rather reinforces the warning I give whenever I do book writing workshoppy things: chances are, overwhelmingly, this book writing thang isn't going to make you rich. If you think the road to Scrooge McDuckness is paved with words, you are about to get a gilt-edged wake up call.

I have quoted it so often, I've forgotten the source of the statistic: 98% of books in print sell less than 500 copies. And that - as the BBC points out in its piece - is getting even worse as a flood of thousands of writers washes around in the market. It's hard to build a stand-out position in this tide of relentless 'read my book' imprecation. Only a very few 'break out' - and while the average full-time writer earned £11,000 according to the Beeb, the vast majority self-published authors won't make one percent of that.

For myself, I don't care. I still prefer getting emails from Amazon with royalties to getting cut and past rejections.

But it's another reminder that you'd better be in this book thing for the love of it...

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Long And Short Of Stories

Photograph of Ernest Hemingway as a baby.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have been asked once again by the Canadian University of Dubai to be a judge of their short story competition, '100 words'. This statement is laced with mild surprise that any reputable academic institution would repeat the same awful mistake: I was a judge last year, too.

It's a fascinating task, weeding through submissions from three groups, Under 12's, high school and university level entrants. For a start, you wouldn't necessarily be able to divide the submissions if all three groups were mixed up. Birth and death are themes that run through a number of the stories. Some chose not to send in a story at all, but an essay. Quite a few tried the old trick of setting us up for a punchline ending: a couple delivered with quite astonishing verve.

I always feel a bit sorry for them: while 100 words may not seem too daunting a task - 500 or 1,000 words seeming too much like 'real work' to encourage entries - 100 words puts us in the realm of 'flash fiction', stories of extreme brevity - it's actually quite hard to pull off well. For a start every single word counts and lazy habits like redundancies, filters and adverbs stare out of the screen accusingly at every turn.

She screamed with her mouth. Suddenly the gun fired. She cried deeply and agonisingly, her soul bared for all the world to see her pain. He laughed with joy, the sound of her lovely, golden voice reaching him across the wide yawning gap of the ages. The trophy dropped down to the floor and landed with a bang.

These are all remarkably common occurrences and when you've got 100 words to play with, you can't really afford them. Actually, I'd argue you can't afford them even when you're playing with 90,000 words - I'm currently reading one conventionally published author's second book and his publisher seems to have decided it wasn't worth hiring an editor this time around. I'm actually finding it hard to wade through the text at times, there is so much of this sort of thing going on. So it's no surprise to see them creeping into students' short stories - but they needn't be there. They're cuckoos, stealing space that other words deserve to occupy.

I find Twitter one of the most useful editing tools of all time. Expressing yourself in grammatically correct English using 140 characters (no 'text speak', please) can work wonders in encouraging the habit of actually constructing sentences as elegantly as possible. It's a skill I think we lose when we sit down to type stories on a word processor rather than a clackety typewriter or even, saints preserve us, grabbing a pen. Writers like Durrell, Waugh, Greene and Hemingway had time to think about every sentence, to roll it around in the mouth and savour it before committing it in inky scratches to that sheet of fine vellum. When they weren't busy beating their women or carousing in low bars, of course.

The perfect example of a short short - probably about the flashiest flash fiction you'll find - is often attributed to Hemingway, but sadly it's apocryphal and there's no proof it was Ernie at all...

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

There we go: six words and it never fails to punch way beyond its weight...

Friday, 10 April 2015

IzaKaya Dubai: Of Japanese Times Gone Bi

This delicious image was brought to my attention courtesy Mr +Gerald Donovan*, whose laconic 'Was she indeed?' on Twitter opened up the new worlds of alternative meaning caressing this otherwise unremarkable attempt to breathe life into a daft advertising-led 'social media' campaign for the Izakaya Japanese restaurant at the JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai.

Launched, in time-honoured ad-agency style, with a press handout highlighting that most tremulously newsworthy of events, the launch of a Dubai Taxi bumper sticker campaign, the campaign will now delight many people in ways its instigators had - we can only presume - never imagined.

And of course now we enter a whole new - and infinitely more entertaining - world of extrapolation and exploration. From being a side salad to a Dubai taxi, Iza Kaya is now elevated to the status of a little avocado mystery. She was, but is no longer. Its all rather fascinating - what happened to change her? Was it a slow jading of the palate or a bite of life's bitter lime that transformed her? And while she might not be of that shade any more, there's a certain colourful 'frisson' about her now. Would she go back? Or are her emerald charms now set firm only for the less gentle sex?

We are all schoolboys...

*(He's @gerald_d on Twitter, but Google+ likes to intersperse itself and suggest G+ links when you start throwing Twitter's trademark @ signs around.)

Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Hatta Track Is Closed

English: 18th cent watch-tower, Hatta, UAE
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We tootled off into the Hajjar mountains, a merry little party of merry-makers and nieces on our way to take a whizz up the Track Formerly Known As The Hatta Track. As eny fule no, that track has now been transformed into a metalled road, the bumps evened out and the surface a ribbon of blacktop threading through the arid and majestic moutains.

The Hatta track takes you to the famous Hatta pools, a series of pools in the wadi bed, long strewn in graffiti but still beautiful. It takes you through the mountain villages of Rayy and Shuwayah, past the lovely Oleander Waterfall (now only accessible if you really know what you're doing, the original gatch track that led right up to it having long been washed away in a winter spate) down onto the plains that will take you to Al Ain and Buraimi.

Only now it won't.

We got to the UAE border point on the track, formerly only a sign on the open road and then a police post where your ID would be requested and glanced at before proceeding, only to be told that this time round, it would be as far as we were going. There had been trouble with the inhabitants of the village beyond the border point and people had been 'angry', the Omani police had been involved and there was a vague mumble about too many Europeans.

So that was it. Turned back. No Hatta track. Not even the NoFun OneCal blacktop one.

First Wadi Bih and now this. Pants.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Meeting Mr Fox

The shell which almost killed them all had come with no warning, sounded no different to the thousands of others scudding around the blue summer skies like little birds. Baba was reading a newspaper, his shirt sleeves rolled up. Ahmed was sitting under the wooden kitchen table. The shell exploded and suddenly Ahmed wasn’t under the table anymore. There was a lot of dust and smoke. Baba looked asleep but mother was holding her head in her hands and crying. Ahmed wanted to go to her but his legs wouldn’t work. Baba had eventually woken up and Ahmed had walked with a limp ever since.

After the shell, they had a big piece of orange plastic sheeting over the hole in the wall. It stretched from the floor to the roof. Now winter had come, it let the cold in. Finding wood for the fire had become very difficult. The winter took everyone by surprise. This proved, Ahmed’s father growled as he hunched over the mean fire in their damaged kitchen, they were all donkeys. Winter always came, this year was no different. Except this year they were distracted as the fighting became worse, the houses shaking with relentless concussions.

Ahmed didn’t go to school anymore, so he was at home when the soldiers came. His mother was making bread, the bakery having been shut by an explosion that took away ovens and bakers alike in a single savage moment. Baba had salvaged a sack of flour from the ruins before the flames took hold and the stock room collapsed on the heads of some thirty men trying to do the same. They ate bread every Friday to try and make the flour last.

Monday, 30 March 2015

The Vicariousness Of Self

Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest building ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm constantly battling the urge to beat people to death with their own selfie sticks. I know it's their life and they can do with it what they will, but for some reason the whole performance irks me in a deep and profound way.

We nipped up to Hatta a while ago for two days of mountain air and Martinis in my favourite bar anywhere in the world ever (the luxuriantly '70s brown velour and walnut charm of Hatta Fort's Roumoul Bar) and I sat, aghast - interrupted in my mission to lie sunning myself by the pool and consuming as many books as a Kindle Voyage can carry - as a couple swooshed around in the water gurning at a GoPro hoisted on the end of a selfie stick.

They were filming themselves so that in 20 years time they can look back at that time in Hatta when they didn't enjoy the pool because they were too busy filming themselves not having fun so they could capture their strange, onanistic non-fun pool filming for posterity.

They probably shared the moment they never really had. Up on Facebook it goes, that time we walked around a pool filming ourselves so our friends could see what wonderful lives we're leading together and experience the moments we never got around to having because we were so busy making sure everyone else had a glimpse of what it is we haven't got.

I stopped taking pictures of food for Instagram quite quickly. I realised I had started to eat excellent food that had gone cold. I have since come up with the brilliant scheme of Instagramming empty plates. Those smears I'm sharing are the meal I enjoyed all the more because I didn't share the moment of epiphany when a plate of really good food leaves a kitchen and is slid noiselessly under your nose with a murmured 'Bon appetit'. There I said it. I care more about food than you.

This is not new behaviour, just in case you're tempted to think it is. It's more aggressive because of the Internet, but I remember walking the bounds of Chester a decade or so ago because Sarah was attending a course there and I was left to spend my days fossicking around the city's ancient ruins and medieval buildings. The city was full of chattering groups of excited Japanese people who thought the world was square, their view of anything of even the slightest significance being captured from behind a viewfinder.

By the way, apropos nothing really very much, this tumblr blog is rather brilliant: Pictures of Asians taking pictures of food.

We're constantly being egged on to share, seek the approval of our peers, our 'friends' and 'followers'. But sharing a moment doesn't signify enjoyment: it means you've denied yourself that moment. And approval isn't experience.

Live it. And just be aware, as you raise that selfie stick to capture yourself and your pimply moon-faced girlfriend framed by the Burj Khalifa, you might be the ones that make me finally snap.

Yes, yes, I do feel better now, thanks for asking...

Friday, 27 March 2015



The Dubai Radio ad scriptwriters would have a field day. Free books. What more could you want?

Here's a brilliant scheme which allows you to get Olives - A Violent Romance, Beirut - An Explosive Thriller AND Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy ALL FOR FREE.

It's thanks to Amazon's pretty cool 'Matchbook' promotion.

You just go to Amazon and buy one of these super books as a paperback gift for a deserving UK-based relative or friend. Go on, you know they could do with a wee surprise from you to show your appreciation/love/dedication. I've even included the links for your listening pleasure:

You'll actually save £2.68 on the cover price of Shemlan 'cos Amazon has, as they do occasionally, decided to take a haircut and is offering a discount on the book!

All three could be delivered anywhere in the UK free of charge if you a) buy something else to take the total over £10 or b) agree to a free trial of Amazon's Prime service.

You can, of course, swap the in the URL for .com to buy for anyone in the States, or .de for Germany or .fr for France etc etc.

Amazon will then offer you a Kindle version of the book for FREE. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Maafi.

And there we go - three free books!

Don't forget (altogether, now) no refunds!

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Novels, Dreams, Stuff, Books, Things.

English: Illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When I started work on Beirut - An Explosive Thriller way back in November 2009, I posted this here lump of semi-prose on da blog. It was the dream/half-thought that was to lead to the book's creation, along with another nocturnal shade, a morning time dream-memory of a man being propositioned by a peroxide cropped-haired girl in the cold German winter night and brushing her off. These things coalesced over time and became the book that is the book it is.

Olives - A Violent Romance was also conceived from a dream-memory. I woke with a book in my head after sleeping to George Winston's February Sea - a track that made me think of a girl dancing in the rain, a scene that is actually physically and literally at the very centre of the book today.

And Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy started with a dream, too - although the dream sequence itself didn't make it into the final book: Shemlan opens with Jason Hartmoor wakening in a sweat after a nightmare.

I've, literally, dreamed my novels. If I've been stuck with a book's progression, I've taken the problem to bed with me and more often than not woken up with the solution - if not clear in my mind, somehow easier with me as I've tackled it the next day.

I love the story of the bloke who invented the sewing machine. Having wrestled with the problem to no avail, he woke up one morning having dreamed of being chased by pygmy head-hunters brandishing spears with a hole in their tips. Eureka!

I think dreams are our way of managing experience and input, a sort of file management routine that lets us sort our most recent experience and weigh it against our remembered relationships, a way of learning that prioritises and balances our memory, learning and experience. We discard the unimportant, re-calculate our understandings and problem solve our issues. We re-balance, based on the inputs from the day that was. I truly believe my subconscious helps me build books.

I might, clearly, just be a total loony.

Many, many years ago I woke with the below in my head. I shared it with my girlfriend at the time, who lived in Sharjah while I lived in Northampton, in the UK. She's my wife now (Oh dear, that was rather League of Gentlemen, wasn't it?). It's probably my first attempt at writing, although the very idea of writing books hadn't occurred to me at the time. The short story I dashed down while the memory was still clear in my head all those years back has queued patiently to take its turn, but now it is my main focus. This is the core of my new book and I can't stop working on it. I've started writing again, having just finished The Simple Irish Farmer or whatever it'll be called.

I swear to God, it's a disease - an addiction...



Ashridge was a welcome contrast from the grey oppression of the city. After only a week living by the forest I had recovered my interest in life and work. The only source of worry in my delight with these freshened circumstances was that Mariam hadn't been able to get away from the city to come up and see me yet.

The city! A memorable misery; three years of making do and being alone amongst millions. Spending my working days in an antiseptic environment, preferable to the dirt, smoke and rush of the morning and evening commute. Even the small bedsit I had managed to find was little comfort as a haven, depressing every sensibility with its Victorian plumbing and Edwardian wallpaper. The ageing shabbiness came with a very modern price tag. London evenings were just a gap to fill between work, food and bed.

Even then, late at night, the city intruded. I had grown used to traffic rumbling through my short time of clear reflection before sleep, too used to faces that had no time, no concern for anything other than their own secret miseries. Now, here in the country, I found light, laughter, sharp air and the heady scents of wet leaves and fresh grass. At night I sat by my own handiwork, a wood fire that filled the living room of the little house with warmth and the hint of pine in its smoke.

Before I went to work at the Institute each day, the cold morning light would find me padding with a little thrill across the rough flagstones of the hall with the makings of the fire to prepare for my homecoming. Scrunched paper, criss-crossed twigs, then a couple of larger cuts laid down ready to take to flame on my return in the chill night. A lifetime away from igniting the Bakelite gas fire that brought warmth to that dingy London flat.

Of course the dog took to his new life immediately, not a moment’s hesitation there as he pounded down the woodland paths each day. Even buying a dog had been a trial in London, the pet shop filled with animal screeches and the sight of puppies scrabbling for space in tiny cages forming a background to the spectacle of the owner in her shabby pink dress and painted face.

Her voice rasped with fags and an awful confiding leer in every vowel. ‘You can't keep a big dog like this in a flat, you know.’ She coughed at me. ‘They grow up hellish fast.’

But I wasn’t buying year-old Bill for a flat. I was buying him to move into the great outdoors and now the patter of his claws on the flagstones peppered the silences, barking as he rushed to meet me every evening, Bill The Happy Labrador. I delighted in the contrast: cold screens and air conditioned clean rooms by day, a red glow and glass of scotch at night. After five days in the country, the hammering in my head receded and my new employer had commented on the brilliance of his find. 

This was my first weekend at Ashridge, and I wasted no time in pulling the collar and lead off the coat hook (with the usual attendant barking and skittering) and sallying forth on a long Saturday walk. Bill pulled and my feet scrunched on the wet gravel path, clouds of breath in the bright morning air. Soon we were away from the road, and I let Bill off and stooped as he bounded away chasing ghosts in the undergrowth. The woods took us both in, the dog and I, and we meandered for over an hour together through the pathways, Bill racing in great, curving arcs through the heather, returning to tease me with his big, brown laughing eyes.

I heard the children laughing a long time before I saw the green light of open field through the woodland. Bill was off nosing through the undergrowth again, muddling through the heather and snuffling excitedly at the day-old scent of pheasant. Labradors, I have found, are the world's greatest optimists, becoming so ecstatic at the prospect of game that they rush off making the most awful racket, never seeming to mind that every animal for a mile around has instantly gone to ground. Making enough noise for six humans, poor old Bill would never catch even the most stupid pheasant. And believe me, pheasants are off the dial stupid.

Nevertheless, he was delighted to be pushing through the bracken, and I was happy enough walking the dark leaf mould and listening to the far-off tinkle of children’s laughter. It must have come a good ten minutes after I had first heard them, the red flash of a tiny figure running past the opening into a field. Bill re-joined me on the path, soil on his muzzle, and leaves on his back. I dropped my cigarette, careful to heel a hole and bury the smoking mottled orange stub in a shallow grave of wet leaves.

I will never know why I didn't just walk straight onto the common. It was the first time I had walked that path, although I had strolled in the vast woodland several times during my short stay in the area. I’d normally have carried on through onto the common, and into the next patch of trees visible past the gentle rise of the otherwise flat grassland. But I stood just inside the shaded boundary of the wood and watched the source of the laughter, six children playing by the other edge of the common, some two hundred yards distant. Four were boys, about eleven years of age. The two girls were distinguishable only because they had longer hair, all six dressed in jumpers and jeans. They were capering around one of the boys, the smallest, who was standing stock still, and looking towards the top of the trees bordering the third side of the grassland.

The girl in the red jumper seemed to be leading the whooping dance around the small, expectant figure. The boy, still fixing his gaze on the treetops, reached down, and touched the tip of a small brown pile with his index figure. As he straightened, Bill pushed against my leg and, in my annoyance at the dog for breaking the spell of my voyeurism, I almost missed the boy reach out his arm to the sky. Red jumper faltered, and fell to the grass, screaming. As the dancers stopped, and the girl on the ground kicked, a bird flew to the small boy, perching on his beckoning index finger. Quick as lighting, he grasped the bird with his other hand, and twisted its neck. I heard the faint, high pitched crack.

Again he reached upwards, and again a sparrow alighted, only to drop to the pile of dead birds. Red jumper screamed again as a third bird came to its caller and fell to the pile. A fourth. A fifth. The dancers had come close now, and were holding hands as a sixth bird died. Red jumper was silent as the pile grew, she staggered to her feet and joined the dancers but I could see her pallor, even from that distance. My senses returned and I blundered through the undergrowth towards the group of children to stop this wrongness. Something clamped onto my mind and I slammed against the trunk of a tree, grasping it like a long lost friend.

The boy had turned, and stood with his hand stretched out to me. Doubt and foreboding filled me as his beckoning filled my vision and the urge to go to him, to give my life up to him, hammered at me. I looked down to avoid that intense stare. Bile rose in my throat. Green stains were slashed across my chest from the lichen on the tree-trunk. My impelled legs were heavy, not mine to command. I fought, my arms clutching at the rough bark, my body compulsively jerking forward. An age of battling the urge to run to him and be consumed before a girl's scream broke the spell. ‘Martin!’

It shed the urge like the lifting of stone weights pressing the life from me. The desire to be another sparrow evaporated as the boy turned and fled with the others into the far woodland. I slid down the trunk, spent, its roughness scraping my back. I sat in the wet leaves, tears running down my cheeks and bewildered Bill licking at my face.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Pink Caravan: Riding For Courage.

The Pink Caravan initiative has been going for the past five years in the UAE, a drive to raise awareness of breast cancer early detection and screening and to raise funds to buy an advanced mobile mammography unit to serve the United Arab Emirates. This unit, the 'Carevan', has screened almost 30,000 men and women (men can get breast cancer too) and detected 21 malignancies in women and one in a man since the programme started.

There's a whole cultural angle to breast cancer and its screening here, of course. But the women of the UAE are rallying together and some remarkable work is being done here at a grassroots level to bring women across the country around to the idea that regular screening is a good idea. A couple of years ago, Ajman turned its speed bumps pink to raise awareness. Hang on, in the 'conservative' UAE, we're making pink bump gags to get the point across? Yes, we are.

As anyone who remembers the days of GeekFest will know, I'm a massive fan of communities and online activism for good - and Pink Caravan is both of these things in spades.

Side note/ramble: now a long time dead, GeekFest was a regional social event for online people I was involved with - I was reminded sharply of it over the past couple of days as names I knew from the events we held back then started popping up around the audience of the Arab Social Media Influencers' Summit event in Dubai wot I have bin attending. Much nostalgia followed. Funny how in the Internet age, a couple of years is 'the good old days', isn't it?

Anyway. Pink Caravan. Each year, a group of some 250 horse riders takes to the roads and tracks of the seven emirates, joined by 200 volunteers and ambassadors, well-wishers and supporters. The ride has visited over 80 schools, travelling some 1,000 kilometres around the UAE in its quest to help build awareness, detect and eliminate this deadly disease. They call it 'Riding For Courage'.

From March 16th to the finale on the 25th in Abu Dhabi, the riders will do their thing. They left from Sharjah through Dhaid to Masafi and ended up in Khor Fakkan today, via Fujeirah.

Tomorrow, the 19th March, you'll find them in Ras Al Khaimah, starting at HCT Women's college at 9am and finishing at the Cove Rotana in the evening. The 20th (Friday) will see them riding in Umm Al Quwain and ending up at the Ajman Kempinski at 5.30pm - I'll see you there, it's my 'manor' and I wouldn't miss 250 riders with pink tack for the world!

Saturday the 21st March they'll leave the Ajman Kempinski and ride to the Qasba in Sharjah (passing by my house, natch) and then on Sunday 22nd they'll set off from the Palm Jumeirah Rixos to the Fairmont, The Palm. On Monday 23rd March they'll ride from Downtown Dubai to the Burj Al Arab, Tuesday they'll ride from the Formal Park in Abu Dhabi and end up at Zayed Military Hospital.

Finally, on Wednesday 25th March, some 300 saddle-sore chaps and chapesses will ride from the Sheikh Zayed Mosque to the Galleria Mall. This will be followed by a closing ceremony at the Rosewood Hotel in Abu Dhabi. Anyone wants a VIP pass, they can have mine, kindly sent me by the Pink Caravan Team. For a Sharjah boy, Abu Dhabi on a school night is not really on the agenda, dears.

The Carevan will be following them on their trip around the UAE, visiting an average of three hospitals, health centres or community centres in each location and offering free breast screening at selected stop-offs.

You can find out more, donate or join in by going to the Pink Caravan website here. There's an agenda detailing locations, a calendar of Carevan screening sessions and other events and the chance to donate to support the campaign both as an individual and a corporate partner.

Coming together for good. What's not to love about that?