World Book Day and A Lot of Nonsense

I often used to wonder what authors did before they turned up at signings, how strange and wonderful their lives were, and I suppose now, to a certain extent, I know.

I travelled to Kew Gardens yesterday, to talk at the Queen’s School (not at the plants), and on the way, my mind seemed to unravel a series of curious thoughts.

As I cycled to the station, it was barely dawn, all mystery and foxy as my wife would say. The trees gathered in darkness, with low lying mist wrapped around their roots, made me imagine Cambridge as it was hundreds of years ago, before the houses were built: a tangled woodland ringing with nightingale song, perhaps.

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Sky Creatures

My part of Cambridge is near to Cherry Hinton and I wondered if the straggly old cherry trees, some now cornered in suburban gardens, remembered the old days of the Great Wood that legend says stretched from one end of these isles to the next, so that a squirrel could spring from Land’s End to John O’Groats without touching the ground.

On the train I looked out of the window and saw a jet trail, but imagined it as a vast, crystalline, sky-ranging, serpentine, sea-horse-like creature – possibly because I had been listening to Peter Serafinowicz’s Radio 6 podcast in which he describes alternate life on earth (in the voice of David Attenborough).

“This creature’s name would take a human being hundreds of years to pronounce, but for our purposes we’ll call it an alternate elephant – although its closest relative in our dimension is probably a robin. Truly one of alternate nature’s giants – so big it has its own sun and moon orbiting in a triple nine formation. But it’s also so small it’s in constant danger of being crushed… by atoms. It’s favorite meal is Time, and indeed in one sitting this elephant can devour 20,000 years in just under a second.’

Magical stuff. Check out his Radio 6 podcast on Joy of Six. http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/th

After this my mind turned to my talk – partly about monsters. Should I mention Grendel, one of the first literary monsters, from Beowulf? The strange thing about this story, is that after the hero kills the creature he has to face… Grendel’s mother! This is a formula that not many subsequent stories have followed. Imagine the hero putting a stake through Dracula’s heart, only to hear the vampire gasp out, with his final dusty breath ‘you fools, you have not won! Now you must face… my mum!’

Arriving at Queen’s School, Kew, the sense of unreality was heightened by the fact that everyone – staff and pupils alike – were dressed as children’s book characters. Strange remarks could be heard from the corridors, like: ‘Oh no, I’ve broken my tail!’

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Photos of previous school visitors in the reception included a NASA astronaut and Colin Firth. Helium balloons surrounded the stage where I was due to give my talks, with Pooh and Tigger already waiting patiently.

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I talked about Candle Man in the morning (Not mentioning Grendel’s mum), then in the afternoon showed one of my epsiodes of Shaun the Sheep to the infants.

Me: “Shaun stories are about  7 minutes long – how long do you think it takes a team of grown men and women to make them?”

Child: (after some thought) “EIGHT minutes!”

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Lunch time

In the heady atmosphere of nostalgia and anything seeming possible, even the school dinner smelt delicious, but as my wife texted to warn me – it probably smelt better than it tasted. During my book-signing in the library, I had to make do with four bakewell tarts instead – or is that just fantasy too..?

Happy World Book Day, and thanks to the Queen’s School for a great day.

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Here Be Dragons (and rain)

Site of the Ludham Dragon Legend

Have you ever wanted to wander off of the map into that bit at the edge that says ‘Here Be Dragons’?  Well I did that by mistake on my holiday. Setting off into Norfolk with the idea of forgetting about Candle Man, monsters and stories for a while, I immediately stumbled across a rain-spattered information board in the hitherto unheard of (by me) village of Ludham.

What surprised me was that Ludham had a real bona fide DRAGON LEGEND. You might think this unsurprising, but there aren’t that many actual dragon legends around that tie a sighting to a real place. I mean WHERE did St George actually kill HIS dragon? I don’t remember ever being told.

The Ludham legend says that a dragon used to come out of his hole – between the church yard and the high street –  and annoy the locals with his monstrous antics. They attempted to prevent this by blocking up his hole with any old rubbish while he was asleep. It never worked! After a while they gave up – possibly the dragon put up a sign saying: ‘Entrance in constant use – do  not obstruct.’

But then one day, while the dragon was out flying around, one brave, powerful man found a big stone and rolled it over the dragon’s hole. Old fiery-breath came back, and was unable to remove the stone. He left in a flap, smashing his mighty tail into the local abbey on the way – leaving it in ruin!

The evidence for this myth is very convincing.

1. There IS a ruined abbey nearby.

2. The dragon has definitely left Ludham.

The thing I like about this legend is its (dare I say it) typical East Anglian humility, no great hero here who slew a dragon with a sword and married a princess. Rather the more modest, almost comical aim of blocking up the dragon’s doorway while he’s out, in the hope that this will annoy the fire-breathing, supernatural menace enough to make him go away.

And it worked!

Even at the start of the story, the idea of killing the dragon is never suggested, as if such a thing was unthinkable to the villagers. I like that. Man knowing his place in the great scheme. No courtly glitter has been added to this piece of folklore, which makes it all the more enjoyable.

I think I was about a thousand years late to spot the dragon, so instead I took this picture of the ruins he created (with some bloke standing right in front of them).

In Search of the Ludham Dragon

Candle Man audio – Christian Rodska interview

I was delighted when I heard that AudioGo, the BBC audio dept had picked up the rights to record Candle Man, and even more thrilled when it turned out they had made their version available so swiftly. 

http://www.audiogo.co.uk/search?q=Glenn+Dakin&x=9&y=15&sort=score%2520desc

Christian Rodska

The actor chosen to read my story is Christian Rodska, known for his early role as Ron Stryker in Follyfoot. He has appeared in countless BBC TV dramas, and has recently worked on Dr Who audios such as Hornet’s Nest with Tom Baker. I was familiar with his atmospheric tones as he narrated Ice Road Truckers on Discovery Channel, one of my personal favourites.

I have had great fun listening to Candle Man being read aloud, and especially enjoy Rodka’s savouring of the villainous and semi-villainous types that fill my book. He does an endearing Mr Nicely, a wonderfully ratty old Foley and a smoothly sinister Dr Saint.

Here’s a part of our rambling conversation.

GD: I recognize your voice instantly from Ice Road Truckers. I like the minimal nature of that. Just the every day lives of these men set against this amazing snowy waste.

CR: Yes, well the thing about Ice Road Truckers is: (confidentially) nothing happens really!

GD: I think that’s what I like about it.

CR:  (Laughs) Well yes, exactly.

GD: How long did it take to record Candle Man?

CR: You obviously don’t just take the book in and read it. It takes a long time to prepare. The more characters there are – the more off-the-wall it is – which your book is, obviously – the longer it takes. There was a lot of work to do on it. Generally with a book the preparation time is at least twice the length of the recording time, so you can reckon on at least 6 days for Candle Man. We did it at the end of last year.

GD: Do you read it straight in your own voice or do you interpret some of the characters and give them voices?

CR: I give all the characters voices. There are two approaches to recording audio books, some people do a very slight voice, but I think – just for the hell of it – for the fun of it, and I‘ve spoken to listeners – the ones I’ve spoken to have liked it when every character is different. That can be a rod for your back sometimes, because if you’ve got a thriller with six Russians in a room, (does heavy Russian accent) six different kinds of Russians – some talk much more lightly like that, (changes into quirkier musing Russian) or maybe more slowly… like this, some like that… (goes up and down in a variety of spy-movie accents). But I do try to make them all different.

GD: In my book there are creepy creatures, garghouls and little imps called smoglodytes.

CR: Yes indeed, they were quite smoky sort of wispy characters, I did them like that (puts on smoky wispy voice). I think they were something like that. I did it all the end of last year. It seems to me you’ve written another one at least since then, haven’t you?

GD: Yes book two is out already and I’m half way through book three so you never know you might get called back.

CR: Look while we’ve been talking I’ve dug out my notes for your book. I keep a list of all the characters I’ve done and make notes. I’ve got in front of me ‘Candle Man.’ For example, Mr Nicely: false cheery, ex-army, obsequious, I think he’s probably a bit like that, Sir, he’s probably a bit like that. (Rodska makes him sound a bit like Parker out of Thunderbirds) Foley he was an old bloke wasn’t ‘e I fink?

GD: Yes he was the wizened old robber he knew tales about the Candle Man.

CR: Well I hope you like what I’ve done.

GD:  I can tell from what you’ve done just then it’s going to be terrific. I was hoping to get a little glimpse. Is there a director there in the studio, or an editor?

CR: There’s one person recording – they trust the actors to come up with it. One thing they can do – I’m finishing Hornblower this afternoon – I was last in the studio 3 weeks ago. I may have slightly lost one or two of the characters. But every time the character comes on the producer punches a button and plays back the voice to you.

GD: I was going to ask you about your Dr Who audios. When you record these things are you not in the same room at the same time?

CR: No you ARE in the same room, because that’s a drama. Your book – and all the books that any of us do – 98% like that – are just one reader. If it’s letters between a couple of people they’ll get two actors in. but the Dr Whos were dramas, so it’s just like doing a radio drama actually.

GD: Was it fun working with Tom Baker? Is he a bit of a character?

CR: Oh yes, – completely. Two or three! But he was very pleasant to me actually. Laughs. The Dr Who I did was called Hornet’s Nest .

GD: I’ve heard he can give people a hard time.

CR: Oh well he does do that, he does complain quite a bit (laughs). Yes I mean that’s his personality, but he was very good as the Man.

GD: Do you remember being in The Tomorrow People?

CR: I remember doing it but I don’t remember what it was about.  In those days special effects – ha ha – were in their infancy. Now everything is so much more credible. I remember it being  bit of pain because one was acting against a blue screen and one’s movements had to be very precise and you didn’t get a chance to really inhabit the character too well.

GD: If I google you I see a character grinning out at me from Follyfoot Farm. You must be a very good actor, it’s like you’re regenerated into a different person from those days.

Ron Stryker from Follyfoot

CR: Well I have less hair!

GD: Your whole demeanor– if that’s the word – has changed entirely.

CR: Oh well thank you, I think the fun of being an actor is doing a lot of very different things.

GD: How old were you?

CR: Its 40 years ago, so I was 25-26.

GD: It was a bit like a soap opera – dramatic and sentimental. It wasn’t like other children’s shows.

CR: It wasn’t, but it was incredibly popular.

GD: It still is – if you go on Youtube people have put up montages. There’s a Youtube film of you as Ron, to the soundtrack of David Cassidy singing ‘I am a clown’.

CR: (Laughs) I must check it out. Actually there’s a sort of reunion, at the beginning of next month. A Follyfoot reunion. Of course two of the cast – Arthur English is dead and so is Desmond Llewelyn, so they won’t be making an appearance but the younger characters will be there.

GD:  Maybe some of the horses will make an appearance. I have a friend who summed up Follyfoot in one line: “But Steve, the horse will die!”

CR: (Laughs at length!) Hah – very clever!

GD:  In terms of your drama career now, what character do you think you get called in to play the most? Is there a typical persona?

CR: Well I don’t think there is. The thing about being versatile, which is great fun, is it’s not the way to become very famous – not today. I mean people become pigeon-holed. On radio drama the great thing is I play loads of different things. I played an absolute bastard in a sailing epic – a Patrick O’Brian thing, that went out three or four weeks ago. Last week I was playing a rather old-fashioned Geordie stand up comic. It can be anything really.

GD: Thanks for your time… I can’t wait to hear the audio.

CR: Well I hope you like it, and I hope you make a lot of money from the sales!

Candle Man in Texas

I’ve just finished doing 14 events in schools and bookshops in Texas, which means I’ve spoken to around 2,000 kids and said to them all: ‘and then, before their eyes…. he melted.’

I spent five days in Lufkin, which isn’t the biggest place in the state, but by some quirk of planning and happenstance has the largest middle school in Texas.

Teachers have shaken my hand, baked me cookies, called me ‘Sir’, provided lifts in their enormous cars, rushed me out to drive-in delis for my lunchtime sandwich, and put chocolate shakes in my hand if I looked thirsty. The kids have got to know me, coming up to me in the corridor asking me to sign bits of paper, look at their cartoons and poems, and ask me to say ‘aloominum’ – they can’t believe we Brits pronounce every bit of ‘aluminium’.

Lufkin has been staging the musical ‘Oklahoma’ and it was a delight to see their version of the show, as well as the children wandering here and there in the corridors in period costume.

I’ve had three lunches with student groups, all of which have been accompanied by Candle Man cookies, baked in the shape of the snow globe Theo is given in Chapter one of book one.  Kids have asked me great questions. How do you decide what size to make your characters? Why are Clarice and Chloe twins? Were you invited to the royal wedding?

My favourite question came from a boy at St Cyprian’s school, who at the end of my talk, asked in a quiet voice: ‘Is this the world?’

‘I’ll just check,’ I replied, looking at the ground below my feet. ‘Yes, yes, I believe it is.’

I realised afterwards he was probably asking if Candle Man was set in the real world. Still, we authors have to get out laughs somehow.

I have to give special mention to Diana Hineman who looked after me so well I had nothing to worry about except remembering to open my mouth when it was time for my events. With her family we went on one of my favourite excursions of the week, to the ‘Boil and Go’ crawfish restaurant.

The food is served out of a caravan on a street corner, heaved from a big boiling contraption like something out of ‘Deadliest Catch’. The customer gets a plate heaped with crustaceans – crab, crawfish, shrimp, plus sweetcorn and red potatoes. This spectacular feast is infused with hot spices which I was assured would make my lips burn later on in the evening – and they did.

The customers were families, beefy bikers in bandanas, a man in a multicoloured sombrero, and me. Our waitress was one of the schoolgirls I had spoken to in my events, and it was funny to see her delicately explaining how to twist, rip and pull a crayfish apart, in the midst of a crazy outdoor racket of music, traffic and raucous customers.

I mistakenly referred to Boil and Go, as ‘Boil–a-Bug’, when talking to Egmont about it, and since they call crawfish ‘mudbugs’ here, that could be a name to go forward with.

At the end of the feast, one of the kids at the table said to me in a confiding way: ‘this is the second most redneck thing you can do around here!’ On enquiry, the MOST redneck thing turned out to be ‘a bonfire in the country’. I think he meant a barbecue.

One less than brilliant trip was my signing at a book store almost an hour away up the road. My books hadn’t arrived on the right day, so I went to the shop the day after (when I would actually have something to sign). It was weird to sit in an empty, cavernous bookstore, next to a poster saying I had been there the day before.  To cheer me up the owner said it had been empty the day before too.

Now I’m in Houston, and it is all change. My main amusement is that the put-upon reception guy in my hotel sounds exactly like Squidward so it’s fun asking him for stuff.

My final event – a signing at Barnes and Noble, gave me the chance to meet Laura Montgomery who is giving my book a great boost here. Outside of Tristus himself, I doubt if anyone has looked after the Candle Man so well. It was great to finally meet someone with such an insight into my book and talk to her about – well, Dr Who of course! Hi Laura, hi Diana… seeya Texas. A cold beer and then I’m outta here…

Will make your lips burn

We are the crelp – from Candle Man 2…

…The creatures pulsed in the darkness, as if pondering their reply.

“We are the crelp,” one of them said. “Do not fighting with us – for we- we only wish to killing of you, as is our custom.’

The unearthly frankness of this left Theo stunned.

’Why do you want to kill me,’ he asked. The crelp seethed again, fluttering and squelching in the dark.

‘Because dead is better for us- for what we wanting to do,’ came a low, eerie reply.

Theo frowned as the circle of crelp seemed to edge nearer to him…

This extract from Candle Man two, introduces a new enemy for the Candle Man, the Crelp. These sinister, slurping creatures like collecting bones from graveyards and are charmingly frank about their evil.

I have always been fascinated by the power of frankness – the role of truth in our lives. We are taught to be honest, but it seems, more often than not, a well-intentioned lie is what society really prefers. Yes, I loved the photo of your dog you gave me for Christmas, no I don’t mind working late, of course your new bald look is stunning.

Honesty is highly prized, but as the wise man Nasrudin once said: ‘Haven’t you ever noticed it’s the scarcity of something that determines its value?’

One of my favourite blurters-out of frank remarks in literature, is Gollum in the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. It is compulsive reading, the way he speaks aloud his thoughts and sometimes vile  intentions, in frank discussions – with himself.

In a way, Gollum is a kind of inside-out person, because he externalises the things he should keep hidden. This in a sense makes him quite a modern character, a paranoid, nervous, self-questioning figure, and these modern qualities make him stand out vividly against a backdrop of more conventional. noble souls.

Among the people of Middle-earth, he is more, dare I say, it, like us, than many of the good characters are.

In Candle Man two my new creations, the crelp follow a slightly different  line – they blurt out  vile thoughts but to people’s faces.

… “So what are you doing here?” Theo asked. ‘Creeping around attacking people. You won’t make many friends that way.’

There was almost something childish about the crelp that made Theo want to scold them.

‘The crelp don’t wanting to make friends,’ one of the creatures hissed. ‘We are only being here because we were released from the darkness.’

‘Released?’ Theo echoed. ‘How? By who?’

The crelp bubbled and hissed for a while among themselves. ‘It is not worthy – worthwhile – crelp telling you. We will probably tricking you soon and make you die. It is better..!’

It’s a special day for me today with Candle Man two , The Society of Dread coming out in the USA, and a chance for me to further explore my own nether-world of smoglodytes, garghouls and now, the crelp.I would like to tell you more, but unlike the crelp, authors have to keep their secrets…

Who Invented The Self Destruct Button..?

As I begin working on Candle Man 3, and grapple with the plot, I find myself noticing the cunning plotting, the contrived set-ups, and the dodgy sleight of hand in all the TV shows and movies around me.

One classic plot element, which is satirized daily in kids’ cartoons (such as the excellent Fineas and Ferb), is the idea that the villain’s base has a self-destruct button, or ludicrous weakness, with which the hero, in his moment of darkest peril, can turn the tables on his enemy.

From James Bond, through Star Wars and beyond, this notion provides a neat, explosive finale to many a convoluted storyline. This convenient plot device guarantees the maximum of tension at the climax of the story. It cleverly requires the hero to proceed to the very heart of danger before he can solve his problem.

But where does this unlikely plot element come from? Why would the bad guy have a self-destruct for his own base? Do you have one in your own home?

I was pondering this and decided the buck stops at… JRR Tolkien.

Lord Of The Rings was voted the most popular story of all time in the UK, and its resolution depends on the idea that the heroes (Frodo and Sam) have to travel into the very heart of the baddie’s domain (Mt Doom), and there – where they are in the midst of their darkest peril, at their most helpless, can suddenly bring down not just the enemy’s base, but his whole empire in one fell swoop (Destroying the Ring).

So Tolkien invented the self-destruct button.

Talk about a tidy ending – even some of the script editors I’ve come up against couldn’t complain about it from that point of view!

Tolkien showed that the dramatic tension really could be kept up until the last shot of the war – and then, of course he spent several chapters exploring the fall-out – but that’s another story or two.

How do writers get away with such convenient and credulity-stretching endings? Perhaps because while storylines of this type may be hard to believe – on a literal level – they do contain metaphorical truth. In reality, to solve our own problems we have to go into the hardest place, face an enemy, a difficult situation, a personal demon, in order to win out in the end..!

You have ten seconds to close this page before it explodes.

Night of the Deathly Mushrooms

See you in Edinburgh – I’m off up there for the book festival – check programme for details! While I’m away I thought I’d drop this short piece of ‘flash fiction’ onto my blog. It’s a little Candle Man related piece I created for the VVB32 Reads Steampunk festival! Some of you may have missed it!

The Night of the Deathly Mushrooms/A Candle Man Flash Fiction by Glenn Dakin,

‘I was in Japan in March, 1945,’ said Magnus, raising a skeletal hand to wipe dust from the old monitor screen. He peered at the fuzzy cathode ray image hoping for a glimpse of the Candle Man, but the tunnels appeared empty.  ‘It was an unhappy time, even before this fragile world learnt to put the words ‘atom’ and ‘bomb’ together in the same sentence.’

‘’45?’ Chloe gave him a suspicious look. She was adding up his age in her head.

Magnus ignored this. ‘I was with British Intelligence seconded to the US marines, sent to investigate the reports of a doomsday weapon underneath Tokyo. I suppose, being what is known today as a conspiracy theorist, you are aware of the mystery of the Oedo subway line?’

‘I’m a conspiracy activist,’ replied Chloe with a grin. ‘I actively conspire. And no, I haven’t heard of it.’

‘Well, you are young, Miss Cripps,’ Magnus observed with a frown. ‘But I, as the oldest member of the Society of Unrelenting Vigilance, contrive to detect our enemy’s hand everywhere. Usually in governments and charity work, especially where large sums of money disappear, along with a nice body count.’

Chloe scowled. Magnus had seen so much fighting in his life, he had come to regard cruel and random deaths as a comforting sign that mankind was ticking over healthily.

Chloe smacked a cockroach from the top of her tousled dark brown hair, and poured a glass of 1950s lemonade from the antique store locker.  It was no party waiting in the bunker for Theo to return, but she would try to make it as pleasant as possible.

‘So?’

‘When the Japanese government raised funds to build the Oedo subway line, the money turned out to be unnecessary. A system of tunnels was found to already exist down there. They provided access to the Ghost Hole, as the locals called it, a secret space underneath Tokyo that predated any known excavations.’

‘I was there with Captain Bobby Lee and the most engaging group of psycopaths you could ever hope to meet. But instead of finding a Japanese doomsday weapon under the city, we found – as I expected – a close replica of the tunnel network below London.’

‘How close?’

Magnus raised a shrivelled finger. ‘Complete with alchemical city, which some locals had discovered and converted into a Shinto temple. But it wasn’t the locals I had to worry about – and this is the bit where you have to pay attention, my dear –‘

‘I am paying attention!’ groaned Chloe, tipping sand out of her boot.

‘I encountered Edgar Mourain, the then Head of the so-called Society of Good Works.’

Chloe raised an eyebrow. Was Magnus really going to tell her about Edgar the Excessive? It was too much to hope for.

‘He was experimenting with Quickfire,’ Magnus said, now sombre. ‘A kind of accelerated sunshine, that contains some of the properties of atomic radiation.’

‘That was what set the Geiger counters off and caused the Americans to get their bandanas in a twist.’

‘Exactly. Edgar Mourain, ever the eccentric, had even used it to create a system of driverless rickshaws to convey dead bodies down from the surface to feed his rot-powered computing system.’

‘The quickfire leaked out, contaminated the luminous fungus for the lighting system and caused a plague of brilliant toadstools to issue upwards through the drains and carpet the city above, making Tokyo visible to US B-29 bombers for one terrible night.’

‘The destruction was unimaginable. In fact, I don’t think my hearing has ever fully recovered. The Society of Good Works were forced to flee the place – as was I – but not before I had glimpsed the real reason that they were down there.’

‘Which was?’

‘The Wonderful Machines,’ sighed Magnus. ‘Part of the same ancient engineering work that lies below our feet here in London.’ A flicker of dread passed across his pale old eyes. ‘It’s the thing that our great leader Mr Norrowmore feared most of all.’

At the mention of the Wonderful Machines, a terror from her childhood nightmares, Chloe went pale.

‘And this it’s not just a yarn to distract me from our miserable predicament? It’s really true?’

‘As true as the day I glimpsed it, back in 1945, by the light of a million toadstools, beneath a burning Tokyo, with no hope of a proper cup of tea to be found anywhere.’

ends