I’d never claim to be a comedy writer. It’s a hard row to hoe, whose best practitioners are among the finest writers in any genre, but who also suffer from chronic lack of respect – after all, it’s just a laugh, isn’t it? Still, I’ve written plenty of funny stuff in my time, including loads of animation and, with co-writer Peter Lawrence, several well-received comic novels and a bio of Keith Moon (not without laughs.) Equally to the point, I’m a lifelong comedy buff, the sort of person who’ll watch a TV sitcom if he’s familiar with the writer.
In a desperate attempt to hold back the effects of gravity and pizza, I row regularly. Not on the nearby Thames, but in the living room on a Water Rower, with a telly on the wall opposite to stave off tedium. Recently I acquired, via EBay, a collection of ‘classic’ British sitcoms on DVD, originally giveaways with the Daily Mail. Swallowing my natural aversion to the Rothermere product, I settled down, over the course of several weeks, to work my way through some landmark BBC comedy. I was interested to see which series stood the test of time and which didn’t. Were the seventies and eighties the high water mark of British TV comedy? Or would the water cooler shows of those times now seem dated, corny and irredeemably naff?
In some cases, my suspicions were confirmed, in others I was pleasantly surprised. Hancock is still great, due to the genius writing team of Simpson and Galton and the lad from East Cheam himself. Only Fools and Horses is still pretty funny, in spite of some rather iffy of-their-time racial references. One Foot In The Grave stands out for its superb plotting, the ability of writer David Renwick to drop surprise comic bombshells. I still enjoyed Hi De Hi – It Ain’t Half Hot Mum not so much. While comedy often deals in stereotype, Perry and Croft kept just the right side of the line in HDH, but went too far in Hot Mum. (Generally, they’re pitch perfect – witness the perennial appeal of Dad’s Army, still running forty-odd years after it was first shown.)
It’s been said that sitcom only works if everything works – script, cast, production – but watching these old shows made me realise how much good comedy relies on character. Plotting is great, gags are fine, but it’s the characters that reliably make us laugh. That’s usually why catchphrases work – they’re an integral part of the character that says them. Which leads me to Are You Being Served? This is a show that has attracted equal parts praise and opprobrium, both then and now. Does camp character Mr. Humphries present an unacceptable ‘mincing queen’ stereotype, or is he bravely out and proud in an era when the tabloid press routinely referred to gays as ‘poofs’ or worse? I always found the show funny (partly because I’d worked in a store very much like Grace Brothers) and looking back, I realise that again, it was the characters that made the show. The actors went to town on them, and in most cases it was their finest hour. Mollie Sugden was a fine actress with an impressive body of work, but she’ll always be remembered for her versatile and much-loved pussy.
Recently the BBC made a new ep of Are You Being Served?, with the show supposedly updated to the eighties. I tuned in without much hope – in my book, most remakes are pointless exercises – but was pleasantly surprised. I laughed quite a lot, and later, reviewing it in my mind, realized that writer and actors had again concentrated on the characters, sticking as closely as possible to the original template (and props to John ‘Boycey’ Challis here – his Captain Peacock was almost superior to Frank Thornton’s original.)
INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
But what of the modern product? Do we have anything these days that stands up to comparison with the so-called ‘golden age’ of the seventies and eighties? Here goes – and I’m aware that comedy is the most subjective of all the art forms, one man’s hilarity being another man’s knuckle-gnawing tedium. First of all, much of the comedy from that era often wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I never found Till Death Us Do Part that funny (and a lot of it is wince-making now, despite writer Johnny Speight’s intention to satirise working-class Toryism rather than celebrate it.) Nor Steptoe and Son, nor The Good Life (although I loved Bob Larbey’s far less successful The Other One.)
Over the last couple of decades we’ve had the sharp satire of Ab Fab; the game-changing mockumentary style of The Office; the demented and often semi-surreal Father Ted; and the retro homage of Miranda. Which leads us to now. If you were to believe the pundits, TV comedy is currently a desert. I beg to differ. Plebs – writers Basden and Leifer – is sharp, filthy, and crucially, very funny. It’s been largely ignored, perhaps due to its berth on ITV3. Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner has got funnier and funnier as the series have progressed (in passing, Mark Heap’s loony neighbour is superb.) Greg Davies’s Man Down is consistently entertaining, and occasionally hilarious.
But to me the current reigning monarch of TV comedy is Sharon Horgan. A few years back Pulling raised the bar for anarchic, female-centric mayhem, and recently Catastrophe confirmed that Horgan has staying power. But with the recently broadcast one-off The Circuit, documenting a dinner party from the deepest abysses of hell, she staked a claim to Mike Leigh territory and established herself as a major comic writing talent.
Denmark has apparently got the happiest population in the world, and it does sound like a nice place to live. But it’s never going to produce a B B King or a Lenny Bruce, or for that matter a Hancock. Too happy, see? By the same token, the UK is full of miserable exploited bastards who are scraping by on fourpence a week and spending tuppence of it getting off their heads. But we’ve always produced great comedy, from music hall stage to the age of the podcast. In my opinion TV sitcom is in rude health, only matched by our reputation for stand-up. Nice to know we lead the world in something.
Going back a few years, I was a mentor on a two-part scriptwriting workshop that took place in Poland and Germany, with Polish, German and British involvement in its funding and organisation. Between the first and second halves of the workshop, the British funding was suddenly pulled, so abruptly that the British organiser was unable to pay for the flight to attend the second session. It turned out to be a sign of things to come, with successive workshops lacking British funding entirely and the British contingent of students getting fewer and fewer. Since the Brexit vote, I see this as a metaphor: as Britain becomes more and more a hard-right, market-driven society – as will be the inevitable result of this turkeys-voting-for-Christmas event – the ideas of co-operation, internationalism, all that hands-across-the-water crap that sustains the likes of us creative types, will wither and shrivel even further.
Take a look at the leaders of this revolution: Johnson, Gove and Farage. Johnson’s a hard-right ideologue in buffoon’s clothing, who has pursued a career as a Murdoch lackey. Gove as Education Secretary famously pulled To Kill A Mocking Bird and Of Mice and Men from the school curriculum. While Farage… well, what can I say? He is on record as saying that he doesn’t listen to music, watch TV or read books. Of course at presstime there’s no saying who, if any, of this gruesome trio will end up in positions of power (Farage is already whining that he’s being excluded from the negotiating table – apparently, hard-right politicians are not very nice, who knew?) But in setting a general tone, it’s not looking good.
Back in May I wrote a blog outlining what I thought the result might be for writers and other creatives if the UK voted this way. I wasn’t sanguine about our prospects then, and now it’s actually happened, I’m even less sanguine. With successive right-leaning governments since 1979 (and I’m putting the New Labour lot into that category) there has been a progressive erosion of support and funding for the arts and creative industries, to the extent that it’s a wonder that our creative people have managed to survive, let alone hold their position amongst the world’s finest. They – we – have somehow managed to thrive in spite of official and governmental indifference. Now, with an incoming regime which will probably make the Thatcher era look like some kind of hippy-dippy love-fest, the situation looks blacker than ever.
Although at presstime there’s no certainty as to what’s actually going to happen post-Brexit (clearly there was no Plan A, B or C in place) there’s a pretty good likelihood that there will be some cobbled-together alliance of – I nearly said crypto-fascists, but that’s a bit seventies-ish – right-wing ideologues, steering the ship of state. For us, the creative community, it’s likely to be a catastrophe (and I know this sounds like a classic ‘first world problem’, but hey, we live in the first world.)
Leaving aside the lack of empathy at state level, in practical terms the only way is down. Clearly, while the new government is busy building a hospital a week and giving everyone in Sunderland a thousand quid, the arts and creative industries are going to have to take a back seat, and by back seat I mean a small fold-down just behind the guard at the back of the guard’s van. One of my colleagues, a long-time pan-European creative consultant, is already talking about relocating from London to Berlin (and that’s probably going to be difficult enough.) For people involved in animation (another area in which we’re among the world leaders) it’s as though a rug has been whipped out from under our feet. Most of the work I’ve done over the last ten or fifteen years has been either been directly for European production houses, or for European co-productions, in some case involving four or five different countries (could be a nightmare to work on, by that’s another story.)
At the very least, the layers of bureaucracy involved are likely to reduce the possibility of such co-productions if not eliminate them altogether. We’ve all got used to European co-operation, we’ve taken it for granted, as can be seen by the reaction of other creative industries: advertising for example, with big players reporting large chunks of business being pulled. The music industry, the ultimate cross-border business, had its say in a pre-vote Twitter poll, with a resounding 91% saying it would be bad news.
I could go on, but you get the general idea. What can we do? Well, individual writers are often at the bottom of the food chain (I once heard a producer describing us as being ‘two a penny’) but at times like this, we probably need to put that commission (if we’re lucky enough to have one) aside for a moment and have our say, in blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, any medium in which we can make our voices heard. I’ve already seen a handful of posters on windows proclaiming “Brexit – not in my name!’ We need to make it clear that’s where we stand too.
11th May 2016
In a quiet, leafy area a mile or so from the centre of Brussels, there’s an imposing period building that houses a number of businesses and enterprises. One entire floor is taken up by an arts organisation, which, judging by the elegant panelled rooms and up-to-date equipment, and the fact that it’s situated in Brussels, you might think is the hub of some vast pan-European, or even international organisation. In fact, it houses Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds, aka the Flanders Audiovisual Fund. This is an organisation devoted to supporting and funding the audio-visual arts in Flanders.
Here’s an extract from the VAF’s manifesto: “The aims of the Flanders Audiovisual Fund are threefold: to develop a sustainable audiovisual industry, to encourage and support upcoming audiovisual talent and to promote a vibrant audiovisual culture in Flanders. VAF accomplishes four main tasks. It provides financial support for audiovisual productions (1) and promotes these in Flanders as well as abroad (2). The Fund also grants scholarships, finances professional training and supports/organises workshops (3) as well as carries out surveys on the audiovisual field (4).”
Impressive, eh? I think so – and I have to emphasize that this organisation is for the benefit of Flanders, not the whole of Belgium. Flanders is about the size of the West Country, and although it’s densely populated, it’s home to no more than about 6 million people – half the population of London. I know all this because a couple of times now, the VAF has invited me to conduct short scriptwriting workshops for students of animation. Good fun on both occasions, and judging by the feedback, the students seemed to get something out of the sessions.
However, bear with me; I’m not just blowing my own trumpet. The point I’m leading to is that here, young people working in the visual arts are being supported. Not just by being able to pick the brains of a ‘veteran scriptwriter’ (as one of them described me) imported from the UK, but by a whole range of support services, particularly financial. Not long after my last session I heard that one of my students had received the funds to have their (excellent) project fully produced.
This nurturing culture is not confined to Flanders, or to Belgium. Over the last few years I’ve led many European scriptwriting workshops, and again and again my students – whether they’re from Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden or Poland – have mentioned that they’re developing their projects with a view to gaining funding. Even if they’re developing projects for their own pleasure or satisfaction, there’s a chance that they may be able to apply for, and receive, financial support. What’s more, funding bodies are often local, even more local than the Flanders fund.
Nice work if you can get it – and in the UK, by and large, you can’t. There are few funds available to support creative projects, and what there are aimed more at the ‘fine arts’ end – particularly writers of novels. Although Britain is still a world leader in the creative arts, particularly television, it is in spite of rather than because of encouragement and support by the state.
Why does this matter? Let me play devil’s advocate for a moment. The French film industry is often derided for its pretentious, self-consciously ‘arty’ output, the result, critics say, of its sucking at the government teat, of not having to stand on its own two feet. Of course, there’s something in that argument, but counter to it is the fact that France retains a thriving industry that is distinctively French, and that regularly manages to turn out artistic and commercial successes alike.
By comparison, the British film industry, always oscillating between boom and bust, seems doomed – with a few honourable exceptions – to churn out either ‘diamond geezer’ gang movies or period toffery. Meanwhile, publishers’ lists are filling up with ghost-ridden celebrity drivel, while actual writers find their incomes in freefall. (Just today I read about an elaborate launch party for the debut novel of ‘Lady’ Victoria Hervey – a woman hitherto known mainly for falling out of her clothes on various red carpets.)
The official British attitude – more so than ever with the current government – is that everything must have a monetary value. Ideally, an immediate monetary value. Long-term cultural strategy? Nah. Wellbeing of the artistic and creative community? You’ll be lucky. All right then – how about ‘it’s the duty of the state to foster an educated, aware and questioning population, who in the long run are likely to be happier and more productive?’ I should coco. With a Culture Secretary with no apparent interest in culture, who seems more interested in whipping the BBC into submission and having a professional dominatrix do the same to him, this situation doesn’t look likely to change any time soon.
Back to my headline question – in or out? I’m not going to pretend to offer a balanced view – I’m a lifelong internationalist, and don’t think there’s a single good reason for cutting ties to Europe. But as a writer, I’d naturally like to see opportunities for people in the creative fields expand rather than contract, and as things stand in the UK – and as they are going – I think this is unlikely to happen. I doubt that the environment for writers and creative will radically improve if we do stay in the EU, but I think that they’ll get worse if we don’t.
It’s a question of tone as much as anything else. It’s already feared that the government will make a bonfire of workers’ rights if we pull out, and I suspect that Brexit will also make things worse for creatives. The market will become even more of a free-for-all, and it will become ever harder for writers and their like to make a living. (Just as an aside, look at the leading lights of the Brexiteers: Johnson, Duncan Smith, Gove, Galloway, Farage – every one a potential book-burner if you ask me.)
Having worked for several French production houses over the years, every month or so I get a handy payment, sometimes for shows that I worked on more than a decade ago. These payments are courtesy of the SACD – the Societe des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques – a French organisation that takes the radical view that scriptwriters and authors should be properly paid for what they do. As I understand it, there’s a pot of money that producers and other ne’er-do-wells (just kidding, producers) can’t touch. It’s purely for writers, and gets distributed when shows get repeated, sold abroad and so on. Of course the ALCS performs a similar role in the UK, but I can’t help noticing that, script for script, the SACD is the organisation that coughs up the more serious funds. In my view, France has got the right idea.
Overall, I doubt whether the UK exits or remains will make much material difference to writers, at least not in the short term. Times will probably be hard, and continue to get harder, whether Britain stays in or decides to go it alone. But in terms of setting a broad cultural agenda, I think Brexit would send a signal to the free marketeers and the cultural deadheads, and that message would be something along the lines of ‘thank God we’re rid of those continentals and their poncey, artsy-fartsy subsidizing ways.’ Which is why, come June 23rd, I shall be marking the box marked ‘remain.’
19th April 2016
No. Not really. But you can learn to write better, if you have some talent, or flair, to begin with. As the actor Steve Martin famously remarked: “Some people have a way with words, and other people… oh, uh, not have way.” You need that way, and if you haven’t got it, no amount of creative writing courses or workshops is going to make much difference (although your grammar and spelling might improve, which is always good.) It’s the same with most branches of the arts: you could (probably) teach a chimpanzee to play the piano if you gave him enough time and enough bananas, but the end result wouldn’t be art, or even entertainment. Because by and large, chimps don’t have a flair for music.
So, flair, talent, call it what you will – what else do you need? Something else that can’t be taught: the ability to come up with ideas. Good ones, preferably. A young acquaintance recently sent me some fragments of her writing, just a few hundred words each, stream of consciousness really. They weren’t poems, they weren’t journalism, they didn’t fit into any recognizable format, so weren’t publishable. But they had an energy and rhythm that showed that the writer did have a way with words. Even better, there were the beginnings of original ideas swimming around in there, unformed and undeveloped, but ideas nevertheless.
My old friend and long-time writing partner Peter Lawrence has recounted how, as showrunner, he picked new writers for the iconic show Thundercats. He was prepared to overlook inexperience and unfamiliarity with the format, provided the script had an imaginative idea at heart. Scripts can be edited for structure, style, dialogue but you can’t edit in a good basic idea.
Flair, talent, ideas, they all coalesce in the creative imagination. It’s not a coincidence that people proficient in one branch of the arts often excel in another form: Steve Martin (again) is an interesting writer and a banjo player of professional standard; funny man and movie star Dudley Moore was an internationally recognized jazz pianist; writer Henry Miller was an internationally exhibited artist, as was ‘godfather of punk’ William S. Burroughs. There are many more examples. Flair, imagination, ideas, these guys had them all in spades.
So if you can’t learn to write, what can you learn? I have to go back a few years, to 2004, when I was first asked to mentor at a scriptwriting workshop. I was a little sceptical, as my writing career had been firmly based around the principle of ‘write; then write some more; then write some more.’ Honing my craft, I’d worked as a journalist and an advertising copywriter. I wrote a lot, and over the course of the years worked out what was bad and what as good, and bit by bit impressed enough people that I was able to make a living at it. Workshop? A word that I’d hitherto only associated with piles of old tyres and an ailing Ford Mondeo on a ramp. However, I said yes, as I was curious, I was going to get paid, and I make it a professional rule to say yes to everything.
Truthfully I had no idea what to expect, or even what I was supposed to do, but over the course of the first week, at a big old house in the Kent countryside, it slowly became apparent that I wasn’t expected to be a teacher of writing – the participants all had at least some professional experience – but a kind of roving counsellor-cum-sounding-board-cum-sympathetic ear. I was able to help not by commenting on paragraph structure or the minutiae of dialogue, but by talking, guiding, suggesting, throwing ideas at the participants that they might not have thought of themselves.
What I was offering them was the practical expertise that I’d built up over the course of a couple of decades, helping them out of holes that y might have written themselves into, working with them to make their projects as good as they possibly could be. Often, it was simply a case of pointing out a way forward that hadn’t occurred to them: “why don’t you try this?”, “why don’t you try that?” In the end you have to teach yourself, and a good educator is someone who gives you the tools and inspiration to do just that.
I also quickly realised that what I was doing was what a good editor does: clearing a way for the writer to best realize their ‘vision’, without compromising their creative signature. Like most writers, over the years I’ve edited and I’ve been edited, and I’ve come to realise that the greatest gift the good editor can bring to a project is simply a second pair of (informed, interested, expert) eyes. When you’re working on a project, there’s always a point at which you can’t see the wood for the trees. To mix metaphors, you’re so involved in nurturing your baby that you don’t notice that it has an extra couple of toes. It takes someone else to do that, to gently point the fact out, and to suggest solutions. Many psychiatrists see psychiatrists: to quote a fictional example, in The Sopranos, Tony’s psychiatrist Dr. Melfi regularly sees a psychiatrist herself, colleague Dr. Kupferberg, to maintain and tune her own mental balance.
What else? Well, interest is all. I’m a lifelong jazz fan and occasional musician, and if I can’t play something, at least I know how it should be played, because I love the music and have spent countless hours listening to top players. But from talking to music teachers, I know that many come to jazz playing without any real history of listening – they’ve heard Norah Jones in a wine bar and think they like jazz, whereas what they like is something that sounds a bit like jazz. If you’re not into it, why would you want to play it? Same with writing – if you’re not a reader, you’ll probably never be a writer, and why would you want to be? Again I, and others in my field, report that many would-be writers seem to have read little. Or, if they’re scriptwriters, they don’t have a working knowledge of the classic movies or TV shows, even in the field they’re working in.
So, to go back to my original thesis – can you learn to write? No – but if you’ve got the spark, the basic skills, the right help can make a difference. Help you speed the process up. Perhaps help you bypass some of the heavy lifting that writers had to do before the advent of creative writing courses and the like. My experience of workshops over the years has shown me that overall, they provide a positive and inspiring experience for both mentors and participants. The people who take them already pretty much know to write; but by listening, trying this, trying that, experimenting within a nurturing environment, they can learn how to write just a little bit better.
16th March 2016
The great thing about writing rules is that they’re there to be broken – just ask Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and any number of others. In any event, these aren’t even rules, they’re just a rough guide, a sat nav if you like, that can get you onto the right road, and, most of the time, get you where you want to go. However, if you wanted to go to Hampton Court and ended up at a block of flats in North London, well, you should have glanced at a map too. By which I mean that these are just tips that I’ve worked out for myself over the years. Mostly, but not always, they’re useful…
1: Keep going
Don’t be discouraged if you have a sneaking suspicion that what you’ve just written is rubbish. All writers know the feeling, however long they’ve been at it. Just press on. Don’t look back. Get to the end. Then go back and assess what you’ve done. Chances are that what you wrote first time wasn’t so bad, and if it was: so what? As the old Hollywood saying has it, writing is re-writing.
2: It’s in there somewhere
Whatever you’re writing – book, TV ep, screenplay – don’t think of it as linear. Instead, consider it as a whole, as if you’re starting off with a block of stone and creating a statue. Somewhere in that block is the story you want, you’ve just got to chip off the rest of the stone. As you’re writing, think forward, think back, make the connections that turn a sequence of events into a coherent story.
3: Set yourself a target
Set yourself a daily word or page goal. 1000 words or 7 or 8 pages of a script is a reasonable target – although some can write much more (and some less.) At 1000 words a day, in a couple of months you’d have most of a novel.
4: Make a plan
Everyone who works in TV or film is familiar with writing to an outline, sometimes provided by others. Literary novelists may scoff, but it’s generally useful to map out a narrative in advance. At the very least, it’ll provide a rope and tackle to help climb that mountain of a first draft, and you don’t have to stick to it rigorously (or at all.)
5: Cut and cut again
When you’re getting close to final draft stage, analyse every line. What is it doing? Why is it there? Is it funny? Is it dramatic? Does it illuminate character? Is it advancing the story? If it’s not really doing anything, cut it. Very few pieces of work have ever suffered by being made shorter. As Truman Capote said ““I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”
CLAWS OF FURY was originally published by Bloomsbury in 1996, under the title KATZERS. It was one of the first swathe of titles to be published by their just-set-up children’s division, soon to become awash with money when Harry Potter took off. Despite the promise of publicity and promotion for KATZERS, little was forthcoming, and the book was also saddled with possibly the most hideous cover of all time. CLAWS OF FURY is now available again on Amazon Kindle with a great cover by renowned comics artist Kev Hopgood, as is its sequel CLAWS OF THUNDER. I’m working on the third book in the Trilogy, CLAWS OF VENGEANCE, aiming at publication in 2015.
As he approached the foothills, the young Katzer warrior reined in his mount and turned to look back over the plain.
It was a day’s ride away now, but in his mind’s eye he could still see the battlefield: the scattered dead, the wounded supporting each other as they staggered from the scene of slaughter, Mangies to their tented camps, Katzers to their walled cities.
He shook his head as if the gesture would rid him of the pain, the dull ache that had been his companion for every step of the ride. He felt the place where his right ear had once been. Now there was nothing but a ragged stump, the fur around it caked with dried blood. It was the legacy of a wild stroke from a Mangy shortsword . . . and the beginning of the legend of One-Ear Tom.
It had been a great victory for the Katzers. The Mangies outnumbered them, and they were savage fighters, giving no quarter. But they were disorganised and undisciplined. In the end, they were beaten by the subtle strategies of the Katzers, led by three warrior chiefs – Tom, his brother Tamm and Fleekolla.
Yet for Tom, it was a hollow victory. He had seen many friends killed or wounded. He had also seen Tamm die, going down under a howling, snarling pack of Mangies. Pity his poor young widow,and the kit she was expecting!
Tom wanted no more of it. His taste for fighting had been dulled by years of war. Now he just wanted peace, quiet and, above all, solitude.
He turned away from the plain. He flicked the reins, and the big dappled war rat snorted once and moved off, picking its way carefully over the loose rocks.
Above him, in the distance, he could see the snow-covered peaks of the Stony Mountains . . .
With all the fluid grace of his cat forebears, Ninelives padded down the dark alleyway, his smoky grey fur blending with the shadows. He scanned the grimy, peeling walls for an escape route – a door, a window, anything. He was only seconds in front of his pursuers, and – spit and screech, it was a dead end! No, wait. There, in the wall, a gate . . .
He wrenched it open and found himself in a courtyard, a green, shady place walled in on all sides. He looked around. Which way? Not much choice – back the way he had come, or through an archway that led to some steps. There was no cover, just a few shrubs and plants, nothing that would hide even his slim frame. So if he didn’t hit the steps they’d got him for sure . . .
Ninelives sprinted for the archway and leaped up the steps, taking them three at a time. Moments later, his pursuers arrived in the courtyard.
There were two of them; a girl with salmon-pink fur, a boy with a glossy black coat and white hind-paws. The girl pointed at the archway. ‘He must have gone that way. There’s no other choice.’
The boy grinned. ‘Ha! I know this building. My uncle used to live here. There’s only a couple of flats up there, and then the roof. We’ve got him!’
Whooping excitedly, the pair rushed for the archway and up the stairs.
Ninelives had already reached the roof. Claws of hell! A sheer drop on all sides! The nearest building was five metres away, across a side street. He looked down at the street, which was
thronged with Katzers, rushing to finish their shopping for the coming Katerwaul Festival. It was at least ten metres down, a risky drop even for a young, fit Katzer like Ninelives.
There was no way, and yet . . . Ninelives could hear the stairway echoing with footsteps as his pursuers closed in on him. He made a fast decision. As the boy and the girl burst through the door onto the roof, they saw Ninelives dashing for the edge.
The girl put her forepaw out in a warning gesture. ‘Hey, don’t . . .’ she shouted, her cry dying in her throat as Ninelives launched himself into the void, hind-paws pumping like a long-jumper’s.
He nearly made it. If the rooftop on the other side had been a few centimetres lower, he would have. But instead of hitting the roof hind-paws first, Ninelives slammed awkwardly into the wall, his claws scrabbling at the edge of the roof.
For a moment, Ninelives hung. But his strength had been knocked out of him by the impact, and his grip quickly began to falter. He looked down. Some of the Katzers in the street below had spotted him and were pointing upwards. On the opposite rooftop, the girl and the boy were shouting and waving their arms.
Ninelives didn’t hear them, nor the Katzers in the street. He relaxed his limbs, letting the key muscle groups fall into place. Then, as the crowd below gasped, he dropped, feet first.
The moment stretched out, dreamlike . . . then suddenly, halfway down the wall, Ninelives seemed to stop in mid-air, as if he’d hit an invisible safety net. Actually, as he dropped, he’d seen a waste pipe which ran across the side of the building, and had instinctively grabbed it. For a moment, it held . . . then sheared away. Again, the crowd below gasped. But instead of breaking away completely, the pipe buckled. Under Ninelives’ weight, it bent towards the ground, creaking and cracking, until, a metre from street level, the young Katzer was able to drop lightly down onto the pads of his feet.
The crowd heaved a sigh, a mixture of relief and disapproval. One of them, a well-dressed, middle-aged Katzer with long, waxed whiskers, shouted at Ninelives: ‘Hey, kit, you want to watch yourself, larking about like that! You might have fallen on someone!’
But Ninelives was already away, his body singing with adrenaline. He was used to being lucky.
‘Sorry! Gotta go!’ he called back over his shoulder as he sprinted off.
By the time his pursuers dashed out into the street, Ninelives had disappeared and the crowd had dispersed. Hands on hips, the girl glared up and down the street. ‘Spit!’ she exclaimed. ‘KatHunt is supposed to be a game! How dare he take risks like that! Wait till I get hold of him! I’ll kill him myself! I don’t care if he is my brother!’
Twenty kilometres from Katzburgh, out on the plain, Warrod the Cur paced up and down the tent of skins and furs that was his headquarters, twirling the gnarled hardwood ‘war rod’ that had made him famous. Part wolf, part dobermann, two metres of solid muscle, Warrod looked every bit the ruthless warrior he was.
He was attended by his two deputies, Rottler the rottweiler and Gizzard, known as the Merciless, apit-bull crossbreed whose compact build belied his legendary ferocity. They both knew better than tointerrupt their chief when he was thinking.
Warrod spoke, the sudden harshness of his voice making his deputies flinch. ‘A festival, you say?’
‘That’s right guv. They call it the Katerwaul Festival,’ said Rottler. ‘Once a year they hold it. Quite an occasion, I’ve heard tell.’
Warrod sneered. ‘An occasion, eh? It sounds as though you’d like to go and join in the fun. You wouldn’t be a Katzer-lover, would you, Rottler?’
Rottler shifted his feet uneasily. ‘Hey, not me, Warrod. I’m no Katzer-lover. I just meant –’
Gizzard continued for the tongue-tied deputy: ‘He just meant that it’s quite an event, Warrod. It starts off with this big race in the main square, then there are circuses, sideshows, all sorts of things. It usually goes on for days.’
‘Well, it won’t this year!’ said Warrod, his eyes glittering. ‘Because this year those fun-loving fishgobblers are going to entertain some special guests: Warrod the Cur and the hordes of the Mangies!’
Rottler looked dubious. ‘Er, with respect guv, it seems a bit unfair. I mean, attacking them when they’re having a knees-up. Know what I mean?’
Warrod exploded, smashing his rod down onto the table with tremendous force. ‘By the fangs of the Cur! We’re talking about the enemy here Rottler!’
A spasm of fear passed across the deputy’s battle-scarred face. ‘I know guv, but –’
Without warning, Warrod reached out and grasped Rottler by the throat, lifting his heavy bulk effortlessly off the floor. As Rottler gagged helplessly, Warrod thrust his face close to his deputy’s muzzle. ‘The Katzers are the enemy, he hissed, and don’t you forget it. It’s them or us Rottler! Katzers or Mangies!’
Rottler’s eyes were bulging, but he managed to croak: ‘Y-yes, Warrod, them or us. I know, I know!’
As suddenly as he had grabbed it, Warrod released Rottler’s throat, pushing his coughing, choking deputy away from him in disgust.
He started pacing again, for all the world as if nothing had happened. Finally, he turned and looked at Gizzard and Rottler. ‘Tell me, why do you think the Katzers live in comfort, while we Mangies have been reduced to eating lizard meat?’
Rottler and Gizzard had no answer.
‘Wham!’ The war rod smashed down again, this time onto a stout wooden chest. The lid of the chest splintered under the impact. Warrod’s eyes glittered as he hissed at his two deputies: ‘I’ll tell you why! It’s not because they’re cleverer or tougher than us. It’s because they’re better organised. That’s why they beat us forty years ago, and that’s why they’re better off than us now!’ Warrod emphasised his point by sweeping everything off the table with his rod, lamps and dishes smashing on the floor at the feet of Rottler and Gizzard.
Rottler licked his lips nervously. ‘Yeah, right, guv. I couldn’t agree more.’
Warrod turned his piercing gaze on Rottler. ‘I don’t want agreement Rottler, I want action! Finally, under my leadership, the Six Tribes of the Mangies are united. Now, for the first time in forty years, we can grind those milk-drinkers under our heels!’
Rottler nodded enthusiastically. ‘Under our heels! Right! We’ll fix those Katzers!’
‘We’re your men, Warrod,’ said Gizzard softly. ‘Just give us the word!’
Warrod’s cold stare swept over his two deputies. ‘I’ll give you the word, Gizzard. The word is kill! The word is burn! We’ll hit them right when they’ll feel it most – in the middle of their precious festival!’
Rottler looked dubious again. ‘But – with the greatest respect guv – we know that they double the guards. . . and they check out every traveller arriving at the town . . . and . . .’
Warrod interrupted him. ‘You’re forgetting something Rottler. The Mangies now have a leader – a leader who’s survived years of tribal war and four assassination attempts. So this time, Rottler, we’ll use our intelligence.’
Rottler tried, unsuccessfully, to look intelligent. ‘Intelligence, right guv, I’m with you.’
For a moment, it almost looked as though Warrod was going to smile, but he didn’t. Instead he turned to his other deputy. ‘Gizzard, I want you to infiltrate Katzburgh, find out what’s going on, take hostages if you have to. I want an up-to-date report on the Katzers’ defences.’
‘I’m on my way.’ Gizzard left the tent, while Warrod continued to issue orders. ‘Rottler, I want you to call a meeting of the Top Dogs.’
Rottler was all business. ‘Right guv, no problem. Er, when do you want the meeting for, exactly?’
Warrod looked at his deputy as if he was talking gibberish.
Rottler continued quickly: ‘I mean, they’re all pretty busy, being Top Dogs and all . . . how about tomorrow at noon?’
Warrod drew himself up to his full height, his hackles rising as if electrified, his yellow eyes
bulging with rage. ‘Now!‘ he screamed, swiping at Rottler with his rod. ‘You thick-necked excuse for a half-witted tripehound! When I say I want something done, I want it done now!’
Rottler scuttled towards the exit, warding off Warrod’s blows with his thick forearms. ‘Right guv, got you. I’ll have them here right away. They’ll be here immediately, if not sooner . . .’
So saying, moving amazingly fast for such a heavily built Mangy, he escaped through the tasselled doorway of the tent.
Ninelives made straight for the main square of the city, the Katzerplace. He had a plan. He knew that, the day before Katerwaul, the square would be filling up with market stalls, all laden with festive delicacies – smoked carp and roach, eel fingers, starling kebabs, fragrant cream and yoghourt dishes.
It would be filled with strong smells that would throw a cloak of confusion over his tracks.
Ninelives rounded a corner into a street which led to the Katzerplace, only to find his way blocked by dozens of colourful hand-painted wagons and trailers. Spit and screech! The circus! The street was closed and the only way ahead lay through an entrance with a turnstile, guarded by a tough-looking Katzer who was as wide as he was tall.
As he got closer, Ninelives recognised him. It was Sly Squat, a swaggering bully with whom he’d had a number of run-ins over the years. Ninelives hadn’t seen him around in a while, and now he came to think of it, Spacer had mentioned something about his joining the circus.
Ninelives thought fast. He smiled to himself. Here was a chance to put distance between himself and the other two, and get up Sly’s nose at the same time. Ignoring the queue of young Katzers waiting to get in, he dashed towards the entrance of the circus, and, right under Sly’s nose, vaulted over the turnstile.
‘Oi you!’ Sly called after him. For a moment, it looked as though he was going to desert his post and chase Ninelives, but there were too many excited young Katzers in the queue. He contented himself with snarling after Ninelives: ‘Don’t worry, kit, I’ll get you later!’
Then he sullenly turned back to his customers, his hand already out for entrance money.
At presstime we’re working on the final chapters of THE RECKONING, the third book in the FRANKENSTEIN VIGILANTE series – book one, THE INCORRUPTIBLES and the second volume, THE FEAR, are both currently available. Here’s the opening chapter of THE INCORRUPTIBLES, in which our heroes are found fighting off ruthless mobsters The Silencios:
OUTSIDE, IT WAS PAST MIDNIGHT, but who would know, the way days were in The Smoke; the dirt, the smog, sulphurous vapour eternally swirling, daylight hours often as dark as night.
That was one of the passions that drove Doctor Pedro Robledo Efrain’s furious efforts to find solutions; not so much the dark of the days but the filth, the mucous acid air that ate away soft membranes and turned eyes red as roosters. Tonight, he’d been working eighteen straight hours in his laboratory, the electro-acetylene arclights throwing pools so brilliant that individual molecules might almost have popped into view; but only Efrain’s rumbling hungry stomach marked the passage of time.
Several years ago, he had brought electricidad to life, summoned it from the skies, harnessed it, certain that one day it would render coal and shale extinct, evolve The Smoke to a state of grace beyond steam. But, summoned, electricidad refused to capitulate, other than on a scale that could power Arielectros and other small two- and three-wheeled vehicles. These were being seen in gradually increasing numbers on The Smoke’s streets, humming along for the short distances they could achieve between battery changes.
On the grand scale needed to light and power The Smoke, electricidad killed even while it promised a new life. Efrain had succeeded in storing the new force in accumulators; sidecar-sized for the Arielectros, and massive lead and glass structures for heavy duty usage. These batteries would hold their charge for a short while, but the real problem remained: how to transmit electricidad over distances longer than a city block without fatal side-effects. Efrain’s single-minded determination to solve this conundrum provided all the sustenance he needed to work days and nights at a time.
With the kind of money they made, the danger pay, the pioneering electricista engineers might have leapfrogged into The Smoke’s affluenzos but for the extreme peril of their work, which had a fifty per cent mortality rate. Efrain had built diffusers to neutralize stray death waves, but so far they didn’t react fast enough to be much use.
Now he bent over an aluminium chassis on which were mounted a series of ceramic coils, his focus so intense that he didn’t hear the laboratory door open. Didn’t see the killers who moved silently through the pools of blinding acetylene light. Didn’t sense the presence of death.
To the assassins, focussed on Efrain’s laboratory-coated back, the man seemed more vigorous than expected. Leaner. More youthful. But it was just a sense. How could it be more, the Doctor hunched over his coils, his face hidden from the assassins?
They glided across the laboratory in formation, an asymmetrical trident, the smallest and most lethal of the trio leading, blade glittering, held flat, parallel to the floor. The second assassin carried a spring-loaded cosh, and the third a short-barreled Smallwood shotgun, hammers cocked. The lead killer drew back for the attack, his plan to angle the blade in below the rib cage and then twist and sweep, so that the razor edge would slice organs, guts and blood vessels – not an immediate death but spectacular, and the Silencios loved spectacle. It kept the victim pool cowed.
But even as the murderer reached for Efrain, planning to lock one arm around the Doctor’s neck while the other plunged the knife, the Doctor turned and stood tall, his lab coat hanging open to reveal not a middle-aged, frail academic but the young, powerful Cerval Franks, leader of the youthful vigilantes known throughout The Smoke as the Incorruptibles. No one knew their identities, but they were capturing the imagination of The Smoke’s UnderGrunts and, increasingly, its hard-pressed middle class. One thing was certain – they were hated equally by Silencio mobsters and the Commission. In The Smoke’s oligarchy, the Commission was the administration and the executive, the Silencios the executioners.
The killer hesitated for a second then pressed ahead, knowing he was supported by bludgeon and shotgun; but the delay was enough. Cerval’s hand shot forward, holding the jagged end of a glass pipette. Its hollow tube pierced the assassin’s throat just below his Adam’s apple. Cerval withdrew the tube and stepped back, watching with an almost curious expression as the assassin’s hands went to the tiny round, red wound. He tried to speak, but air burst from the hole, diverted from his vocal cords, spraying pink foam. Nothing but a stunned, sibilant hiss – then the killer support crew burst into action, recovered from its moment of shocked paralysis.
In these desperate fractions of seconds, which stretched out into long and easy moments of contemplation as lethal action slowed time, Cerval wondered what had happened to the journalist. Where was she? Had he chosen the wrong one, distracted by sexual desire, the gut kick he’d experienced when she’d interviewed him? Too late now. She’d miss the sting, a sensational exclusive that would surely have enabled her to break free from the smarmy platitudes of The News Of The Smoke’s society columns.
During these contemplative fractions of time, it seemed that Cerval was a sitting target; for he took no notice of the two follow-up killers, the one raising his cosh and the other the sawn-off Smallwood. His focus remained on the standing knifeman who, though not yet dead, was immobilized by incomprehension and agonizing pain.
Then – pandemonium. A giant of a man – young, but well over seven feet tall – erupted from beneath a massive copper and teak workbench, sending it flying as if it were a child’s school desk. The giant seized the Smallwood, wrenched it from the killer’s grip, reversed it and fired both barrels. The blast almost cut the gunman in two, throwing him back in a splatter of red and fatty tissue, a stench of gunpowder and shit.
“Thorsten,” said Cerval reprovingly; ideally, his plan called for the assassins to be taken alive and made to reveal their employers. But even as he spoke Evangeline Evionne appeared, as if from nowhere, springing towards the third killer. Despite the shock of Efrain’s transformation into Cerval and the Smallwood’s deafening blast, his cosh was already raised and swinging down in a short arc which would shatter Evangeline’s skull – except that she was now where the cosh was not, seizing the killer’s arm as it descended. He stumbled forward, and Evangeline whipped him in an almost complete circle, initiating a violent somersault which ended when his head struck the sharp brass corner of another lab bench. He slid to the floor, leaking blood and brains.
It had all taken perhaps thirty seconds; and in the silence, shotgun blasts still echoing in their ears, Cerval stepped towards his still-standing assassin and gently shoved him backwards. The man sat heavily, the grunt coming not from his mouth but from the hole Cerval had opened in his throat. He tried to say something but only gurgled a bloody spray. From his sitting position he fell slowly sideways, to lie spreadeagled like a broken puppet.
“Can’t speak?” asked Cerval. “Now you really are a Silencio.”
A sudden explosion of sound and action and the three Incorruptibles whirled to see at least half a dozen more Silencio gunmen smashing into the lab. An ambush! A betrayal! The journalist? Or, Cerval wondered, at the moment he foresaw and accepted his own death, a set-up: the Silencio bosses were ruthless enough to sacrifice the first three assassins if it meant that they could kill or capture the young vigilantes.
A gurgle. Cerval looked down and saw a half-smile flicker across the face of the stricken knifeman. In a spasm of fury he slammed his foot down on the man’s punctured throat and heard the hyoid break. The knifeman’s silence was now eternal. Cerval turned to join his partners. They would sell their lives at high cost.
Cerval, Thorsten and Evangeline were hopelessly out-numbered and out-gunned. Cerval himself had no weapon – he hadn’t thought he would need one for this simple sting operation, designed simply to capture Silencio assassins and expose them. The sting was just part of Cerval’s longer term plan to sever the connection between the Commission and the Silencios, to empower The Smoke’s people to halt the city-state’s decline from democracy to autocracy.
He had dedicated his young life to this idea, and believed, heart and soul, that the elimination of crime and corruption, the destruction of the Silencios, the Commission’s most effective enforcers, was the first step. That was the story the journalist was supposed to tell on the back of this sting. The plan had backfired.
Off to one side, the giant Thorsten had picked up the lab table and, holding it before him like a huge shield, was driving a handful of shooters back. Some were armed with Smallwoods, latest model, their blasts deep, booming, regularly spaced because every two shots required reloading; some were armed with the new multi-barreled Ximan machine pistol, a weapon whose wild inaccuracy was counteracted by its terrifying fire power. As the slugs hit the two inch teak of the table top, splinters flew off the reverse side, slicing into Thorsten, but the giant youth continued to move forward, fearless, a force beyond nature.
Evangeline was fighting her own battles, zigzagging with the unpredictable speed and the dance-like moves of karoeira, the martial art she had practised for twelve years. She hit one gunman so hard that his ribcage imploded and the Ximan flew from his hands. Evangeline snatched the weapon out of the air and tossed it to Cerval, who turned it on the attackers but was hamstrung by the weapon’s erratic pattern. In these close quarters, he might as easily kill or wound his friends as his enemies.
On one level, Cerval fought for his life. On another, he continued to wonder: if this was a Silencio ambush, how had they known of his plan? Had he been betrayed by the beautiful journalist? Or by one of the Incorruptibles, unthinkable as that might be? Was there an unknown informer?
He knew that he would never have the chance to figure it out, for he, Thorsten and Evangeline were going to die in this ambush. Already, Thorsten was weakening, lacerated horribly by the teak splinters and now under attack by two shotgunners who had outflanked him. Cerval lunged towards them, cranking the Ximan and seeing the heavy slugs stitch a blood-soaked path across one of the Silencio goons. The others were too close to Thorsten for Cerval to get a clean shot, so he dropped the weapon and sprang forward, knife in hand, accepting that he would die in the attempt to save his oldest friend.
He found Evangeline at his side and couldn’t help himself.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Better sorry than safe,” she replied and the two of them moved to join their staggering, bleeding, dying friend, the mountainous Thorsten Laverack.