Sub ref, please

Watching my son play football yesterday (his team lost to a sickening last-gasp goal), I noticed straight away that the opposition coach had an extraordinarily loud voice. So what else could I do but write down everything he said over the course of the 80 minutes…

First Half
Keep it moving.
Make it stick.
Always awake.
Constant talking.
Ball to feet.
Leighton can hang.
Go with him.
Josh, talk to him.
Keep tight.
You can’t stand and watch.
He makes every ball look good.
Well in, Mario.
Round the outside.
Let’s get someone in the middle of the park.
Oli, quicker with your feet.
Joe, man behind.
No, no, no, no, no.
Take responsibility.
Don’t let them into the game, fellers.
And again.
Good head, son.
You know he’s not great at looking.
That’s a great ball.
Good football again.
Keep working.
Josh, beware.
Good lad, good tackle.
Are you having it? No?
Brilliant, mate.
Let’s play football, come on.
Get it on the deck.
Get it down and play.
Well in, Jacko.
Great football, that.
Finn, on your toes, mate.
Go with him.
Push forward.
Sub ref, please.
Right, get stretched out.
Keep it super tight.
Get out with him.
Chase him down.
You’ve got to work harder against him.
Jack, talk to Finn all the time, he’s not an experienced forward, is he?
Take him down, Finn.
Luke, if you think you’re in a good position, drop ten.
Jack, go hard.
Joe, you’ve lost a man behind.
You’ve got to drag him back in the middle.
Please don’t think for yourself.
Pressing, pressing.
That loose ball’s a one v one.
Run at them, Jack.
Run him, Mario, run him.
Fellers, when we get in their penalty area, pass the ball quicker.
Do not get too far forward.
Right Luke, talk to them all the time.
Move for each other.
Be incisive with your passing.


Lazy, that.
Come on, you’re better than that.
Tom, you’ve got to shield that back three.
Turn, give, have it.
Tom – centre, back of the circle… you can’t drift.
You’re making it too easy.
Sub ref, please.
Right, let’s attack this ball.
Luke, stay positional.
Unlucky, Brands.
Come on Jack, play football.
Tom, drop in.
Back you come, Gav.
Right, face it up.
Brands, you’ve got to pass our way out of trouble.
You think you can beat eight players past the halfway line?

Half time

If you get the ball with your back to play you can’t turn. If you could you’d be on the telly yesterday.
Positional discipline.

Second half
Mario, hit the byline.
Kick start your run.
Come on, two-touch.
Loads of bodies round you there.
We did an hour on that in training.
Unlucky Leight.
Follow it in.
You’ve got to be moving now.
Well in, Brands.
Again, look after each other.
Go again, go again.
Jack, press forward.
Who’s in there?
Get your foot in.
You’ve got to get in front.
You’re making life too easy.
Corner ball that, surely?
Get on the end of this.
Mario, give me five hard minutes.
Few tackles from behind there.
Work hard, mate.
Luke, if you think you’re in a good space, ten yards back.
Keep playing.
Sub ref, please.
Come on guys, that’s awful, no excuse.
Get ready.
Fellers, we’ve got twenty-five minutes, step it up.
Battle for it, fellers.
Sub ref, please.
Chasing the game now for the first time in six weeks.
It’s all about effort.
It’s got to go more diagonal.
Good head.
You’re left-footed – hit it.
Get on the keeper.
Luke, hold the centre, play it deep – everything else is brilliant.
Sub ref, please.
Tom, have a rest.
Keep it tight.
Twenty minutes, players, come on.
Come on, up we go.
Good lad, Luke.
Position now.
Luke, play deep.
Jacko, I know you know: let’s keep it tight, let’s make it stick.
Go with the line.
Twist your player.
Matty, you’ve got to be chasing everything.
Got to be doing that.
Go in, on the wing.
Don’t you dare turn away.
Fifteen minutes.
Man on.
Unlucky, Sammy.
Connor, you’re jogging.
Connor, you’ve got to work.
Help him.
Go again.
We’ve got to get it across the front of goal and in.
Joe get central, Luke get central.
Come on, be quick, be quick.
We’ve got guys in acres.
You’ve got to follow it in.
What are you waving your arms for?
Brands, if you moan again you’re coming off.
It’s all about how much you work.
Well in, Finn.
How long, ref, please?


Sub ref, please.
Well done, fellers.
Right, let’s go for this, fellers. Let’s go for this.
Press forward, Mario.
Mario, lead the line.
Sammy, dictate.
Get forward, let’s go.
Luke: super tight, super deep.
Unlucky, Gav.
I just wanted you to roll it.
Leighton, make four in the middle.
Great ball,
And again, let’s go.
Brands, lead the line.
Sammy, there’s only you and Leighton in the middle.
Sammy, do you want it?
Do you want Brands to have it?
Good save, keeper.
Right, let’s go again.
Drop out.
Go for it Sam, have it off him.
You’ve got to win it in the middle.
Face him up, Connor.
Right, let’s go again.
Great supporting, Luke.
We have no time.
Right, come on, we’ve got to go.
Sammy, drop.
Go on the back post.
Think, will you?
Sub ref, please.
Brands, off.
For giving it the ref.
You’re out of order there.
All right, see you later.
If you barrack the ref and get a red, I agree.
Unlucky, fellers.
Walk it off, walk it off.



Full time

Why Blonde became Dust

In the mid-90s I read all five of Derek Raymond’s pitch black Factory novels: He Died with His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home on Leave, How the Dead Live, I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright*. I’d been of a mind to write a crime novel of my own for some time, and had dabbled with the odd short story here and there, but I wasn’t sure how to attack it. Reading Raymond unlocked the handcuffs. His nameless, profane (but intensely compassionate) Detective Sergeant was the grit in the grease of the police force, but he ground out results, identifying with the victims and immersing himself in the psychology of their killers to an uncomfortable degree.

Illustration by Paul Millner
Illustration by Paul Millner

I didn’t want to get bogged down in the politics of police procedurals, and decided my rogue element would be an ex-copper with a weakness for missing persons. I wanted it to be gritty and grimy, harrowing and horrific, and Derek dark.

I wrote Blonde on a Stick in 2003, the first in a planned series in which my protagonist would come to terms with the violent death of his wife and the subsequent disappearance of his teenage daughter.

I struggled though, to find a publisher, despite the enthusiasm of my then agent. The rejections were full of encouragement, however, and one or two houses had almost bitten, which kept me optimistic. But it wasn’t until my wife noticed a Facebook post by Maxim Jakubowski referring to the news that he was overseeing the launch of a new crime imprint – MaxCrime – at John Blake Publishing, that I felt my confidence return. Maxim had known Derek Raymond; indeed he had acted as Raymond’s agent for a spell (and still represents his estate). The stars were in alignment, it seemed.

I was thrilled when Maxim bought Blonde for his list and my mind turned to future books. At last Joel Sorrell was on his way…

blondeAlas, more bad fortune was to follow. John Blake is a publisher of repute, but its bread and butter is in non fiction. This first foray into novels lasted less than eighteen months before the list was cancelled. However, they had only purchased UK rights so it was not inconceivable I might be able to resurrect the series with another publisher. Luckily Titan Books showed an interest in Joel Sorrell towards the end of 2013. They agreed to publish two more books in the series, but they also wanted to reprint book one, albeit under a new title.

I was very attached to that original title, but Titan’s argument was that it didn’t quite sit comfortably with the content. It needed a more elegant name, so I came up with one and they produced a striking cover to go with it. I was happy with the decision (all three novels in the series so far are quotes from literary sources – William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare) and excited that finally, over ten years on from his conception, Joel would be able to reopen the file on his missing daughter.

I worry a little that people who have read Blonde will pick up Dust and Desire thinking it is a new book. It is not. It has been revisited, spruced up, modernised, but it is not substantially different. A brand new Joel Sorrell story – Do Not Resuscitate – set shortly after the events in Dust and Desire is included, along with a Q&A. Not that many people would have chanced upon the initial MaxCrime version – I only ever saw one copy in one bookshop and that was positioned ‘spine on’ – so I doubt much confusion can arise given that there was no worldwide or e-book release.

I believe the novel deserves a second chance and I’m grateful to Titan Books for granting it.


Joni Mitchell


Joni is 72 today. I grew up on her music. My dad was (still is, let’s be honest) besotted with her. He’d take a walk out to Ames record shop in town to buy every new LP of hers on the day of release. Last time I asked him, he reckoned Blue was his favourite album of hers, and why not? It’s a classic. It’s up there for me too. But there are one or two other albums that vie for top spot: Hejira, for example. And The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Here are six songs of hers from those three albums I’d happily take to a desert island with me (ask me again next week and I might choose a different six…):

Little Green (Blue)
Heart-rending song about the girl Joni Mitchell gave up for adoption in 1965.

Edith and the Kingpin (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)
A lush song about a gangster and his squeeze. I remember being hypnotised by the economy and beauty of the simple line: His eyes hold Edith/His left hand holds his right.

Shades of Scarlett Conquering (The Hissing of Summer Lawns)
Another effortlessly gorgeous couplet: Out in the wind in crinolines/Chasing the ghosts of Gable and Flynn.

Amelia (Hejira)
Joni’s guitar. Jaco’s fretless bass. Amelia Earhart. I dreamed of 747s over geometric farms…

Refuge of the Roads (Hejira)
Joni’s guitar. Jaco’s fretless bass. Wanderlust. These are the clouds of Michelangelo/Muscular with gods and sungold/Shine on your witness in the refuge of the roads

Blue (Blue)
Acid, booze and ass, needles guns and grass, lots of laughs…

Happy birthday, Joni. Get well soon.

Chess, gloves and ‘up your nose’…


Thanks to Litro Magazine for running a Q&A with me recently. You can read it here.



There’s some good can come from waking at 5.30 am with a full bladder, or an accidental kick in the shins, or the cat deciding that your head is the place where it wants to sit. This morning I drifted in and out of consciousness, now eyeing the LCD of the clock radio, now fending off a cat tail like a supersize feather duster, and ideas accumulated. Swathes of dialogue, scenes, plot points, possibilities. I opened my mind and sucked it all down. The drawback, of course, is that you then have to get up and write it all down, or risk dropping back into sleep and forgetting the lot. I usually have a notebook and a pen by the bed. This morning? Of course not.

Kindle surprise

7vdRQ31423306750 VX68aA1423240504

Two recent short stories, originally published by the good people at This is Horror and Nightjar Press, are available to buy online. The Fox was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award and was well received by Starburst: “As events unfold, a knot appears in your stomach, twisting tighter and tighter until you reach the denouement.” Adam Nevill said of The Jungle: “In a Conrad Williams story you always see the very texture of the world’s simplest wonders and sudden horrors, but through eyes you thought had closed in your past.”

Priced at £1.99 each ($2.99 in the States). Cheap as chips. Or fries.

Tram: 13.11.14.

That man on the tram. The one who catches your eye. There’s usually someone. Don’t you find that? An anomaly. A jarring presence. Or maybe not. Maybe just someone other. An against-the-flow type. A grit in the grease. This girl with the tattoo. A heart on her hand. For some reason. This guy with headphones. Smiling, tapping his foot. An older chap, all po-faced. Folded crossword puzzle. A glance, then tucked away. A photocopy. Him or it? Your guess is as good as.

You know. That music he’s listening to. You know. It isn’t music. Take the headphones off. Black oil pours from his ears. Or a swarm of flies. Or a nightmare made solid. That tattoo. Does it hide another? Was there an initial once? A previous life. Skin palimpsest. A tattoo always visible to her. A reminder. A threat. Would the replacement remind you too? Would it help you forget? Spare cuts of carpet on stains. A photograph concealing a crack. The razored remains of journal pages.

One across. One down. Cryptic or quick? Prize or just for fun? That face suggests the latter. Or maybe not. The tram stops. Some get off. Some get on. These three remain. Crossword, tattoo and grinning nightmare. You might follow one home. If you had the time. If you burned to know. An address. Some door. An inkling. The way they tend the garden. The colour of the curtains.


Graham Joyce


I stayed at Graham Joyce’s house on the 1st March last year. We were reading at an event at Warwick University. He wasn’t feeling too good. I was hoping he’d be up for a monumental Leicester curry afterwards, but his appetite was shot. His lovely wife Sue made me ham sandwiches instead. I slept in his study at the top of the house, the room where he spun gold.

Howz yer guts? I emailed him, a few days later.

Not great. Just had to cancel talk I was doing tonight. Doc thinks it muscular, so I’m on strong painkillers. Hope it goes away. Enjoyed seeing you the other night. Bright light in a dull evening.

It was a Graham Joyce sort of day, yesterday. The sun was out and the clouds were high and light. There was a touch of autumn in the air. I was out all day, working. By the time I got round to thinking of heading home, I received a phone call. Graham had died.

For some reason I thought of him at my wedding in 2002. At the time, Graham was adapting his novel The Tooth Fairy for a Hollywood production company. After the ceremony, after lunch, he stood with me and my dad. Dad was in the police force for 25 years, and then for seven after that he ran pubs. He’s no stranger to industrial language, but he has no truck with those who speak it. I dare not utter an oath within earshot of him, even now. In the past I’ve seen him harangue gangs of teenagers on street corners for trading four-letter insults.

‘Dad, this is Graham. Graham’s a writer. He’s doing stuff over in Tinsel Town.’

‘Really?’ Dad asked. ‘How are you finding it?’

Graham (normal talking voice, ie. loud): ‘They’re a bunch of fucking cunts, Grenville. Bunch of fucking cunts.’

It says something about Graham that he charmed the bristles smooth on my dad within seconds. To this day my parents still talk about that meeting. ‘He had a way of telling a story, didn’t he?’ my dad says. Too true.

I don’t remember getting back to my tram stop, but I remember walking through the park. I was expecting to see a ladybird. I was trying to see Graham in something. If anybody could reach through, it was him, this amazing writer who wrote so beguilingly about nature, who sometimes seemed so very close to the liminal, the numinous, that he was also somehow of it. I was looking for a sign.

The last time I saw him was on Boxing Day. My wife’s parents live in Leicestershire and we’d often take advantage of that to drop in on Graham, Sue, Ella and Joe. We all went on the walk in Wistow he describes in his final, stunning blog post. It was a glorious day. He was in good spirits. There was much laughter and we talked about writing and guitars and football and family. When we got back to his house he got the karate gloves out and sparred with my boys.

Yesterday I cried and my kids hugged me and I smelled their gorgeous heads and thought of Smoking Poppy. I hadn’t seen a ladybird. Or a heron. And there are no hares in Didsbury that I’m aware of. Later, my wife said: ‘Have you seen the moon?’

I went outside and there was a breathtaking, swollen supermoon rising over the village. Of course Graham would die on a day such as this. How could he not?

But he isn’t gone. He’s in the words of the extraordinary books he wrote, of course. And he’s larger than life (if that is at all possible) in the memories we have of him. He was a man of laughter and mischief and generosity. He was one of my very best friends and I’ll miss him enormously. But I felt self-conscious about my grief yesterday, and I imagined him with that twinkle in his eye, pressing a pint into my chest, telling me to cheer up, you soft bugger.

Kurt Cobain

Photo by Martyn Goodacre
Photo by Martyn Goodacre

I’m not interested in why. I don’t care if there were clues there for all to see. So he was a drug user. So he couldn’t handle fame. Twenty years have sanded away my opinions about that, if I even really had any. Outside of family and friends, his death shocked me like no other. He was only 27 years old. There was pain and rage and screaming, but there was melody too.

When I first heard the song… that song… in 1991, I was a second-year student sharing a house in Bristol. Too young to have appreciated punk in 1976, I suddenly understood – as those power chords kicked in – how people hungry, primed, for musical change (here we are now, entertain us) must have felt. I listen to Nirvana and the hairs on the back of my neck rise. The music is still relevant, in my eyes. It is timeless, visceral, raw and beautiful.

Joel Lane

Me with Ramsey Campbell and Joel Lane, photo by Peter Coleborn
Me with Ramsey Campbell and Joel Lane, photo by Peter Coleborn

In 1986 I was desperately trying to find like minds. I wanted more than anything to be a writer but there was nobody at the sixth form college in Warrington where I was studying for ‘A’ levels who was similarly driven. Then I heard from one of the older boys in my form about a writers’ group in town that he sometimes attended. It was hosted one evening a week by a poet called Gary Boswell in a cold, prefabricated unit (now demolished) on Museum Street. I went along and met Gary, and the other members of the group, and continued for a year or so until the group disbanded. On one occasion, Gary invited Rupert Loydell along as a guest speaker. Rupert edited (edits! it is still going) a small press publication called Stride. He brought some free copies for us to take home. Inside these magazines were mentions of other small press markets looking for stories.

All of this is a long-winded way to explain how I first learned about Joel Lane, who died on Tuesday. It was through the small press publications being produced in the middle to late ’80s that first alerted me to a wonderfully dark, perceptive and very British voice. It was also the first voice in fiction that really called to me, as if something stoppered inside had been uncorked. He wrote fearlessly, honestly, with verve and crunch, and narrated urban horror stories about places I recognised. He became a great influence and it was wonderful to finally meet him at the Midland hotel, Birmingham, in 1992 when I attended Fantasycon for the first time.

We became good friends. He visited me when I was living in Morecambe, studying for my MA in 1993. In an age when people were turning more and more to word processors and electric typewriters (one email he wrote to me after sending him a PDF while I was putting together the Gutshot project, for which Joel provided the closing story, reads: There’s no attached PDF on my screen. I have no doubt you sent one but my PC won’t register it. Technology hates me. It’s mutual. I have no solution except smashing my computer, which won’t give me a proof, or burning down the house, which won’t help anyone. If this were the wild west I’d know what to do, but you know what? It isn’t), he was resolutely old school, writing long letters to me in his unusual, almost childish handwriting, very neat (I wonder how many bottles of Tippex he went through), the words transferred so hard to the paper that the back of the page felt like Braille. He would send me mix tapes he’d created (Joel cared very deeply about music and had deep knowledge of and an eclectic taste in it) with titles such as The Miserablist Tape [you ever heard]). Sometimes he would phone me and we’d talk about how we were doing, what we were working on, what we were reading and listening to. Once, in that soft, lightly lisping voice of his he told me he’d been a bit fed up – health issues, problems at work, etc – and then he sighed and said: ‘I’ve been reading a lot of Polish war poetry lately…’

His fiction is sometimes difficult, but in a good way. It often paints a bleak picture, but it is underpinned by love and hope and humour. Joel was a very funny guy. He was also deeply thoughtful and ludicrously intelligent. And he was generous with his time, reading drafts of new stories, offering detailed constructive criticism, encouragement and suggestions. He became greatly animated when I told him I wanted to write about insects for The Unblemished, and rattled off a list of authors I’d do well to read. I hardly ever saw him angry, but he was fiercely against injustice of any kind. He was one of those rare people who are more concerned for those around them than for themselves.

Since getting married and having children, I saw and heard less of him and now, of course, I’m regretting that. At least I got to see him once a year at Fantasycon, and I will always remember him from those times, in his tight-fitting jeans and silk shirts, rubbing at his head as if trying to quell the machinations of his brilliant mind, carrying his plastic carrier bag of books. Hi… how are things with you?

It’s unbearable to come to terms with the knowledge I’ll never see him again, but I’m privileged to have known him. And how lovely that we will always have his many, many outstanding stories to help remind us.

Nothing lasts for ever, and there’s no eternal. Everything falls apart in the end.