Friday, 27 November 2015

Yes, I know it's still November

It's almost December and I'm afraid it's that time of year when I have to mention that Christmas is coming and that if you want to buy books for Xmas, now would be a good time to think about ordering them.

This is my Christmas cactus, so it must be that time of year again.

However convenient e-books are, there's no doubt that, as gifts, paperbacks have the edge. There's something about unwrapping a book on Christmas Day that a digital gift just can't replace. Fortunately, all my books are available in paperback.

Books are great gifts. They show that you respect the intellect of the person that you are giving them to and they show your own intelligence at the same time. Most importantly - let's be honest here - buying books supports authors. In these days of ridiculously cheap (and often free) e-books many people have got out of the way of ever ponying up actual money to pay for their reading material. Once a year you have the chance to impress your friends with your erudition and taste and make a small gesture towards those authors whose work you will miss once they've starved in their garrets. This is especially true if you enjoy reading their blogs through the year.

It's Christmas. (Well, it soon will be.) Do the right thing. For your friends, yourself and authors everywhere: buy a book.

Friday, 13 November 2015


The last couple of weeks have seen blog posts from guest writers talking about how they got into writing – whether by genetic disposition (Jenny Kane) or by going on a residential writing course (Maggie Cummiss).

Guest posts like this always get a lot of interest. Perhaps it’s because a lot of my readers are themselves writers, so they want to know how other people have made their way into print. But a lot of people seem to be interested in my posts about tango and I'm sure I have already written something about how I started writing, so I wondered if some of you might be interested in how I moved into the strange world of Argentine tango.

When I started to ski I looked for something that would keep me ski fit out of season and what I came up with was ice skating. Eventually I took up ice dance, the evil love-child of figure skating and ballroom dance. One of my fellow ice dancers turned out to be a tango teacher and she persuaded me to give that a go.

After the strict tempo rigidity and formalised postures of ballroom dance, the freedom of the fluid tempo and constant improvisation of tango came as a revelation. Here was a dance where you could let the music take you and sweep you along and where your partner would move naturally with you. People complained that tango stretched their ability to balance, but after years of staying upright on blades a few millimetres across, the idea that I could rest my whole foot on the ground was an unprecedented luxury. And moving from getting up before dawn to practice in a freezing ice-rink to staying up late on a sweaty dance floor was very heaven.

We started to learn a very theatrical style of tango – showy and fun, but more Strictly than anything than an Argentinian would recognise as their national dance. Still, my partner and I knew no better and, caught up in the romance of it, we eventually booked our tickets to Buenos Aires.

Maldita Milonga, Buenos Aires

 With all its dirt and poverty, crime and corruption, its economic insanity and political failure, it remains, for us a city of wonders. We love the buzzing streets, the friendly people, the food, the cafes, the bookshops and theatres, the zoo, the parks. Over the years we've been robbed (Buenos Aires pickpockets are true artists), we've found ourselves staying in an apartment without electricity or water, we've been lost, soaked (in summer it doesn't rain often but when it does there can be catastrophic floods) and baked. And we still love the town and have met some wonderful people. Most of all, for us, we have heard marvellous music and seen some fantastic dancers. But on that first visit, most of this was before us. What we mainly realised was that we couldn't dance tango at all. The style we had been taught may have looked quite glitzy but had nothing in common with the close embrace and sensuous movement of the dance we saw in Buenos Aires. We came back to London and got a new teacher.

Bianca is from Eastern Europe and has an acerbic teaching manner. But, as someone explained, ‘She is so harsh because she cares so much.’ A brilliant technical dancer (and an astonishingly sexy one) she took our dance to pieces and slowly put it back together again in something that approached an Argentine style. We went back to Buenos Aires and found ourselves taking the floor without making quite such fools of ourselves.

A couple of years later we moved on. Bianca was great, but we wanted to explore other styles and we started lessons with Alexandra Wood. You may have seen Alex on TV (she appeared on Strictly and turns up from time to time on other shows) or in the stage show (or DVD) Midnight Tango. A lovely dancer and a fantastic teacher, she built our confidence while remorselessly drilling us in the basic steps from which all the other fancy moves flow.

By now a horrifying amount of our lives is defined by tango. We go out dancing socially far too often (you can dance every night of the week in London if you want to) and have danced in Paris and Reykjavik. My partner has even danced in Seoul. Whenever we can afford it, we are off to Argentina again. We have cleared out a room in our house so that we have space to dance. We have adapted to a life that only really gets going after 10.00pm (2.00am in Buenos Aires). We both own ridiculous numbers of shoes and the first question my partner asks when looking a new dress is: ‘Can you dance in that?’ Our music collection is dominated by tango in all its forms, from the deeply traditional orchestras of the 1930s to tango covers of Beatles classics.

Tango by the Seine

Tango (we are assured by Argentines we know) has been scientifically shown to ward off heart problems, depression and even dementia. There’s no doubt that it improves posture and general fitness. It’s clearly true that it brings a whole new social life and the knowledge that in any big city in the world you need only a pair of shoes and the address of the local tango club to find yourself among friends.

With Burke in the Land of Silver I was able to combine my love of Argentina and my love of writing. There’s no reason why I should ever have to choose between tango and writing, but, if I ever did, I think it is writing that would be cast aside while I hit the floor to lose myself in dance.

Bianca teaches in London. Details at

Alex divides her time between London and Italy. Her website is at

If you have questions about taking up tango, feel free to post them here.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Guest blog: Maggie Cammiss shares her writing journey

Another guest post this week as Maggie Cammiss tells us about how she came to write her first novel (published by Accent Press, who also publish my books). Everybody starts differently and it's always interesting to see how people get from that first idea to seeing their words in print.

Maggie Cammiss

It’s taken a while but I think I’ve arrived. This summer I put ‘novelist’ in the ‘profession’ column of my brand new marriage certificate. But my biggest challenge these days is applying backside to chair and actually getting the writing done. I live in a beautiful part of the country and the temptation to down tools and go for a walk on the beach, whatever the weather, is always there. Self–control has never been my strong point. 

I’ve always been an avid reader – my mum made sure I joined the public library as soon as I was old enough – and my love of the written word was reinforced in my first career in public libraries. Later, I moved into film archives, where I discovered an interest in history and current affairs, and in 1989 I joined Sky News, when the 24 hour news channel first launched. I wasn’t a journalist and my background in libraries and archives presented an unconventional route into television.  

Working in rolling news was a bit like being in a revolving door; there was always something going on, no matter what the time, day or night. But the shift patterns meant I had time to concentrate on my growing love of writing. I read mostly fiction and that was what I wanted to write. But there’d be no paddling about in the shallows of short story writing for me; I decided to jump straight in.

Like a lot of people who tell you they would write a novel if only they had the time (!), I had this naïve idea that, because I was a keen and critical reader, writing a novel wouldn’t be too difficult. I was soon disabused of that notion; writing convincing dialogue is hard, I discovered. But I was determined. I went on a residential Arvon course and began collecting a library of how-to books. I joined a local writing group, bought myself some notebooks and set about coaxing the characters in my head onto the page.

I’d been warned that my characters would have their own opinions about what was going to happen. I didn’t take this very seriously. They are my creations, I thought; they will do as I say. Wrong. My characters always know their own minds. I’ve been taken up so many literary cul de sacs I’ve developed a reversing light. But I’ve learned to wait and trust my subconscious; the solution will reveal itself in its own time – usually in the dead of night. Which is why I keep a notebook by the bed: to jot down those elusive thoughts that would otherwise vanish with the dawn. It helps me believe that I’m in control. 

It’s a bit of a cliché these days, but the old advice to write about what you know certainly worked for me. The 24-hour rolling news environment provided me with all the inspiration I needed for my debut novel No News is Good News and I used the familiar setting of a television newsroom as the background to the novel. It concerns a young producer whose career is compromised by an intriguing storyline which eventually threatens her job and reputation. There’s a romantic element to the story, as well as some dramatic twists and turns. I joke that I changed all the names to protect the guilty, but I promise you, the characters and storylines are entirely fictitious.    

I didn’t have an agent, but I’d read about Accent Press in Writing Magazine and I submitted the novel via their website. To my surprise and delight, Accent took the book on and it was published last December. Since then, I’ve been working
hard on the next novel, which is set in the same fictitious TV newsroom and features a minor character from the first book, with a whole new set of personalities and problems to grapple with. It's now in the final editing stages, so look out for it in 2016.
My advice to anyone contemplating writing a novel and beset with doubts – don’t talk about it, just get on with it. Otherwise, how will you know? 

Twitter:  @maggiecammiss