Wednesday, 3 July 2019

Puppetry of the Pizza

All of the best stories have their roots in real life.

Following on from my last post about the origins of Cockerings, let me explain where some of my inspiration for the circus characters came from.

Back in the early 1980s, when I was a young cop pounding the beat in Uxbridge, West London, there was a pizza joint near the bus station called Stanelli’s. I often thought, as I wandered past, that it would be quite funny to discover that the owner was actually called Stan Ellis (he wasn’t) and that he’d adopted the Italian sounding name in order to sell more pizzas (he hadn’t).

So, when I began thinking of a name for the circus in Cockerings, the name Stanelli’s tumbled out of my memory. It was perfect and it would allow me to use the Stan Ellis gag. However, I first decided to google it - just in case the pizza place was still going or, indeed, if there really was a circus called Stanelli's). And to my utter surprise there was! Except ... it was a puppet circus.

The very talented British puppet maker and performer Stan Parker had once created and toured a show called Stanelli’s Super Circus. Some of his splendid puppets  are peppered throughout this post (all photos from The moment I saw them I was smitten. These puppets were so close to how I imagined the characters in my geriatric circus would look. It was like suddenly seeing my players made flesh (or wood, anyway). The Flying Mannings’ trapeze troupe. Della the incontinent elephant. Strongitharm the balding strong man. And a character that I mentioned in my previous blogpost and who I'm sure you'll grow to love - Bozo the alcoholic clown.

Parker died in 2004 at the age of 78. But in his time he performed all over Europe, Japan, Korea, Israel, Pakistan and even the USSR. His beautiful hand-made puppets became a huge inspiration for me and were always in my mind as I was writing the book. There are some lovely videos of the puppets in use here. But here's one of them.

 I’m pleased to report that when he died, his collection of puppets was saved for the nation thanks to a grant from the National Lottery. It’s now safely housed and archived at the Up Front Puppet Theatre in Cumbria.

Naturally, I wanted to include a tribute to Parker’s work in the book but, obviously, I didn’t want to cause any copyright hassles by using the name Stanelli’s.

So that was how Ben Ellis and Benelli’s Circus was born.

Different name, same gag.

Isn’t it amazing where a pizza can lead you?

Sunday, 30 June 2019

Here we go again ...

I've just announced that my third novel will be called Cockerings.

Yes, Cockerings (it's pronounced as 'Corrings).

It's a book that's been a looooooong time coming ...

Back in the late 1980s/early 1990s - before some of you were even born I suspect - I shared an office at Hendon Police College in London with a chap called Chris Hale. We were members of the Met Police's training and curriculum design team and part of our workload consisted of writing scenarios for prospective promotion candidates to use as mock exams before they faced the real thing. These scenarios were called Knowledge and Reasoning Tests, or K&Rs. What we had to to do was set up a situation on paper and then ask the candidates to prove their mettle by identifying which, if any, offences were being committed and by describing what course(s) of action they would take. We did this once a month for several years. But then, responsibility for writing these K&Rs was taken over by the Home Office. This was good because it freed us up to do other work, but we also knew that we'd miss writing them as the K&Rs were the most creative and fun part of our jobs. So Chris and I decided that we'd go out with a bang. For our final promotion class mock exam K&R, we would create the maddest, most ridiculous (though still possible) scenario ever. It involved a geriatric circus, a catastrophic fire, drunk clowns, a troupe of aged trapeze artists, escaped tigers, an incontinent elephant and so much more. The promotion candidates loved it. And, afterwards, I realised that the idea of a geriatric circus was just too good to throw away. So, with Chris's blessing, I wrote a short comic story about the circus and about Bozo the Silesian clown called The Big Flop.

Then, in 1992, I expanded the story into a full-length novel called Pumps and Circustents in which the circus came up against a secret society. Here's a photo of the only existing copy of that novel (and written before I'd adopted the Cornish 'Stevyn' as a way to sift me from all the other Stephen Colgans worldwide).

The reason that it's the only copy is that in 1993, I suffered a catastrophic hard disk crash and lost the whole thing - all 92,000 words of it! I was heartbroken. Thankfully, I'd printed it out. But it was a harsh lesson in learning to back up your work and I've never lost a file again.

The millennium came and went and I had an idea for a completely different novel that could involve Bozo and his circus of pensioners. Very soon it had evolved into a novel called Going Out With A Bang in which the circus got caught up in an armed robbery. I submitted it to my agent and he liked it. He then floated past the commissioning editors of several major publishers. And they all said much the same thing: 'We really like this'; 'This is well-written and very funny'; 'I loved every minute of it'. But then they also said, 'Unfortunately no one is publishing comedy novels right now so we can't see where to place it in the market. Can he write a Dan Brown type book instead?' I'll admit that I felt very disheartened and I returned to writing non-fiction for a while.

Then, in 2016, and having had several non-fic books published, I thought I'd try again. I had a new agent and he liked the book. However, he got the same response from trad publishers that his predecessor had, except now they said 'Can he write a Scandi-Noir type book instead?' So I pitched it to the innovative new hybrid publisher Unbound and they liked it too. Unbound is a traditional publisher in every sense. However, they use crowdfunding to let readers decide whether books get published and not some nameless accountant.

At last Cockerings, as it was now called, would be published!

But then Unbound asked me if it was a one-off novel or part of a series and I told them about the other novels I'd written. After some discussion they decided that it would be prudent to put A Murder To Die For out first as it would hit two audiences at once: comedy and murder mystery. That would give me a greater chance of success, they said. And they were right - the book did well and was nominated for two awards. And then, because there were plot strands to tie up and stories to resolve, I had to publish the sequel, The Diabolical Club, which, curiously enough, ended up using left-over material - the stuff about the secret society - that had originally been in Pumps and Circustents way back in the Nineties.

In writing, all ideas are recyclable!

But now, finally, it's the turn of Cockerings to take its place in the spotlight. It's been nearly 30 years since Bozo and his aged entertainers first came creaking and grumbling into my life and they feel like old and much-loved friends. Our journey together has been bumpy, occasionally heartbreaking, but always entertaining. All of which is why I am SO delighted to announce that the book will now be a reality.

This book means more to me than any other I've written because it's been with me for so long. Those who have read it tell me that it's the funniest thing I've written to date. I hope that's true.

And I can't wait to share it with you.

See link (right) or click here for more details.

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Dwile Flonking for Gold

The first physical copies of The Diabolical Club arrived this week, which is fantastic. The three things that always get me revved up are (1) seeing the physical book for the first time, (2) seeing it in a bookshop, and (3) seeing someone reading it. All very exciting!

The books are printed by a long-established company called Clays from Bungay in Suffolk and, as I saw the name on the outside of the delivery box, something began tickling at the back of my memory. Isn't Bungay one of the places where they still play Dwile Flonking? And wasn't Clays involved in some way?

Dwile Flonking is an East Anglian 'sport' which some people would have you believe is centuries old. In fact, it's only around 50 years old but it may be a revival of some old harvest ritual. The modern game is believed to have been created in the 1960s by rival printing apprentices at Clowes of Beccles and Clays of Bungay.

At Midday the two teams assemble - usually in a pub garden -  and dressed as yokels. The referee, or Jobanowl, decides which team goes first by throwing up a sugar beet. The teams then become either Flonkers or Girters. Girters form a circle by holding hands and they surround the first Flonker in to 'bat'. The Flonker holds a short pole called a Driveller and uses it to pick up the Dwile - a soaked bar towel - from a chamber pot full of beer that stands in the centre of the circle. Upon the command of  'Here y'go t'gither!' the Girters start to dance around anti-clockwise while the Flonker goes clockwise around the chamber pot and attempts to 'Flonk' the Dwile at one of the Girters.

A direct hit on a Girter's head is called a Wanton and scores three points. A hit on the body is called a Marther and is worth two points. A leg hit is a Ripper and scores just one point. If the Flonker misses all of the Girters it's called a Swodger. The Girters then form a straight line and the outgoing player must down a pint of ale in a quicker time than it takes for the Dwile to be handed down the line of Girters. If they can't do it, they're out and the next Flonker comes in. This continues until the whole team is out. Then the teams swap over. Once everyone has Flonked the winning team is decided on points.

Unsurprisingly, many of the players end up riotously drunk, falls are common and there are occasional casualties as the result of a good hard Wanton. Which is why the sport has been banned on several occasions for violating health and safety regulations. But it continues to persist and, if anything, trying to ban it just makes the British want to play it even more. We love being the underdog fighting against authority. We love people like Eddie the Eagle more than we love the actual champion. It's no wonder that many of our folk heroes are criminals: Robin Hood (armed robber), Rob Roy (armed robber), Dick Turpin (armed robber), and Guy Fawkes (terrorist). They all stuck it to 'the man'.

That says so much about the British character doesn't it? It's why attempts to ban cheese rolling at Cooper's Hill in Gloucestershire have failed (people held the race in secret at night with the potential for greater injuries). It's also why we play River Football in Bourton-On-The Water, and go Bog Snorkelling in Llanwrtyd Wells. It's why the Haxey Hood takes place in Lincolnshire, and Shin Kicking in Lancashire, and Cornish Hurling in St Ives and St Columb Major; a sport so violent that it  had to introduce a single rule - No Weapons.

It's all a bit of nonsense though, isn't it? Maybe not. I say that we should be embracing these silly sports because they're traditions worth keeping. And besides, in a curious way, they led to the modern Olympics.

The Cotswold Olympicks - inspired by the Olympic events of Ancient Greece - were first held in 1612 on Dover's Hill, Chipping Camden, and survived until 1652 when the Puritans shut it down. It featured Shin-Kicking, Tug Of War, Sack Races, Sheaf Throwing (lobbing a hay bale as far as you can with a pitchfork), Climbing a Greasy Pole, Morris Dancing and Back Swording (or 'Cudgel Play) in which contestants keep hitting each other until one is unconscious. The Olympicks returned after the Restoration and continued for another 200 years before being, once again, shut down by the authorities. But, by then, the event had inspired Dr William Penny Brookes to create the Wenlock Games at Much Wenlock, Shropshire in 1850. And it is these games that directly inspired the creation of the modern Olympics in 1896. That's why, for the 2012 London Olympics, our bizarre cyclopean mascots were called Wenlock and Mandeville (the latter named after Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire where the Paralympics were created).

So there you go. The British may like a daft sport or two but who knows where a silly idea might take you? It might take you all the way to a gold medal.

Photos taken from the Beccles and Bungay Journal 

Monday, 10 June 2019

It's finally here!

Yes indeed. The Diabolical Club now physically exists. It's on sale from July 11th through Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles - online and, indeed, bookshops - and wherever books are sold.

And don't forget that you can hear Paul Waters and myself on our writing-themed podcast We'd Like A Word every other Thursday. Previous guests include Graham Norton, Belinda Bauer, Anthony Horowitz, Dr David Bramwell, Will Dean and there are plenty more to come.

Find us on iTunes, Spotify, Podcast Radion, Anchor FM or anywhere else that podcasts lurk.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Cover me up!

It's time for a cover reveal.

No, it's time for a double cover reveal.

Here's the brilliant Neil Gower's cover for The Diabolical Club. And look at those shiny cover quotes!

As the book is set in October, we went for Autumnal colours. They contrast beautifully with the Springtime theme of the previous book.

I'm delighted with both covers. And I'm also very pleased with this third cover, which resonates nicely with the novels:

As you may (or may not) know, everyone who subscribes to The Diabolical Club will get a free bonus e-book of short stories called The Nearly Invisible Man. This won't be available to buy in the shops so, if you want to read stories about the extraordinary detective Gavin Quisty, or the eccentric Mr Spurgeon and his flag collection, you need to pledge NOW. 

And do it soon as the funding campaign will be shutting shortly. What you'll get is an early copy of the book (published 11th July), plus the e-book (which also features a two chapter teaser of my next novel, Cockerings) and you'll get your name printed in the book as a patron.

So click here and pledge now! 

Thursday, 28 March 2019

March Round-Up

Spring is bursting out all over. The snail is on the thorn, the lark is mollocking in the yollops and all manner of good things are in offing.

Firstly, I've now received the proofs of The Diabolical Club and it's looking great. Roll on July 11th.

Secondly, I've seen Neil Gower's sketches for the cover and they look exactly as I hoped they would. I'll reveal soon but just know that it will sit beautifully side by side with A Murder To Die For.

Thirdly, I may have some more book news to reveal soon.

And, fourthly, I'm starting a podcast! Beginning on Thursday 25th of April, my good chum BBC radio producer Paul Waters and I will be launching a fortnightly podcast called We'd Like a Word in which we look at all aspects of writing - from novels to song lyrics, reading groups to performance poetry and everything in between. And we have some stellar guests lined up for you.

In preparation for this, Paul and I did a photo shoot this week with award-winning photographer Mark Page. He's not bad is he?

More news as it comes in!