Friday 16 September 2022

Yea Lord We Greet Thee - Born This Happy Morning (originally published 01/01/2022 on the other site)

This is a bit late, since I started writing it during that strange gap in time that we now call Twixtmas: a special period of having little to do, of loafing and binging and pondering what we might do when we are forced to become productive again.

Not for me, I was back at the dayjob after having the bank holidays off and nothing more. Thanks boss. But I’m not dwelling on that.

I am always sucked into believing that those couple of extra days off work will go on forever and that I will be transported back to my teenage years, when I could spend the Christmas holidays being disappointed by the Queen/Beatles/Jimi Hendrix songbook I bought with my hard-earned Christmas money when all the songs turned out to be scored for horns in Eb and Bb. I would, however, spend all that extra time with my guitar, messing about, making noises on whatever new toy I had got for it, be it a slide, a capo, a flanger or a wah-wah. Or, that rarest of things, a new set of strings. I had hoped to get a minute or two out in the studio playing on my much-neglected instruments over this time, but as yet people haven’t stopped fucking ‘popping by for drinks’. It’s so important to catch up isn’t it?


It’s not.

I want to dick about with my guitar, watch telly, listen to records, read books and maybe, just maybe, eat some biscuits, and that is all.

However, I’m at work and it’s pretty much all over, so that’s not happening.

Don’t worry, I’m okay, just jealous, and I’ll have three days off to welcome in 2022 and do nothing. I’ll be fine.

I did give myself the end of the year off from writing and stuff though. It’s been a busy year, as I detailed in my last blog, and I finished a first draft of something I am pretty sure I’ll never finish on the day before Christmas Eve. I’m not allowing myself to do any more bookish stuff until the 4th, when everyone else comes back to work at the dayjob as well (again, thanks Boss, thanks so much). So I’m spending my early morning writing time polishing up my blurbs and covers, ready for some big marketing next year. I know, I know, I said I wasn’t going to do any work, I really was going to just read other people’s books, but the anxiety said no.

Here’s me at fifteen years old messing about with a guitar - might have been Christmas (that’s still my main guitar, if you’re geeky enough to be interested in such things)

Christmas Eve brought an odd revelation. I found myself wanting to go to Midnight Mass, since when I was a kid I was made to go every year whether I wanted to or not. Perhaps it was because I made the Midnight Mass such an important part of the Christmas-based plot of The Bellever Hagstone (Part 2 of my Wicker Dogs Folk Horror Series) or maybe it was the fond memories of my brother and I sitting there pretending to be sober while wolfing down peanuts we’d brought with us from the pub to soak up the beer. Either way, sneaking in the back twenty minutes late and slightly wobbly felt like old times.

It was a lot emptier than I remember. Though it’s a different church, different decade, different town and different world than it was when I last attended.

It hit me right in the feels from the get go, sitting at the back, in the dim candle-light of the cold breath-fogged church, trying to follow the service from the bit of folded up A4 the nice lady who spotted me coming in late walked over to hand me. Wrapped up in three coats it had the familiar tang of the early ‘90s for little Dave.

But it was the singing I went for, and I was not disappointed. Generally, when I’m in a church these days, it’s for a funeral or a wedding, and so I tend to do the hymns with my much quieter bass register, in order not to make it look like I’m the massive show-off I really am at heart.

But it was Christmas, and the best way to spread Christmas cheer, is singing loud for all to hear.

So I let the big tenor loose, and since everybody else was muttering into their shoes, it was like getting to do a solo in the big wonderful echoey space that is my local church.

Me and the organist, giving it beans and having it large.

Music, so they say, soothes even the savage beast.

I spent a lot of years refusing to sing in church, after I renounced the whole thing and went militant atheist. I could not spout lies in song. Another example of my inner pretentious dickhead ruining my fun, and doing me out of something I genuinely enjoyed. As a cherubic eight year old I sang in the church choir, and as a teenager, I sang at evensong in Exeter Cathedral with the school and if I hadn’t done all of that, I almost certainly wouldn’t have the stones to sing in public as much as I have done these last thirty-five or so years.

And if I can sing about the highway to hell, and shouting at the devil and reigning in blood etc. etc. without believing a word of it, then I can sing the songs of the other side surely? I don’t have to believe in either. Music is music, no matter where it comes from, and like they say, why should the devil get all the good tunes?

So I have been very at home singing carols for a few years now.

Here’s the ruins of Holy Trinity Church in Buckfastleigh. The inspiration for Dourstone Nymet's St Euphemia’s where the Midnight Mass that kicks off the final confrontation in The Bellever Hagstone takes place. I would love to go to a Midnight Mass there.

However, I haven’t done the last verse to Oh Come All Ye Faithful in a very long time, as you only get to do it one day a year - born this happy morning.

I found myself overwhelmed with nostalgia, joy and that excellent feeling you only get when you’re in a group of people all doing the same thing.

What my old Church Youth Group leader called the Holy Spirit, and which I quickly found out feels the same at a Slayer gig as it does at a mass Christian thingy, so it’s not.

In the back of my mind, I heard my grandmother’s voice doing the descant parts, as she always did in life, and that’s when it hit me. What I loved about Christmas when I was a kid, was seeing my grandmother. Singing the carols with her at midnight mass was every bit as important as the big dinner and the presents.

Maybe my grinchiness for all these years has simply been because I miss her?

Anyway, I felt closer to her than I have since she died eight years ago, just before her 90th birthday (which was at Christmastime, another reason to associate it with her) as a result of going to church.

So I had a profound, emotional, spiritual and yet entirely secular experience in a house of God, on Christmas Eve.

The vicar (who is a friend of mine, and very keen to get me back in the flock) was very pleased to see me there, and said so afterwards after I thanked him for the service. I had to tell him that I was only there because I like to sing, and I miss my gran - which was true, but only really half the story.

Merry Christmas.The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite? (Originally published 19/12/2021 on the other site)

Four years ago, I began my annual rewatch of the BBC TV series, The Box Of Delights, while reading John Masefield’s original book for the first time. The wolves were running and so was my brain. I wanted to write a story where magic spilled over into the real world, and nobody questioned it or scoffed. Where a daring Kit Harker could take on a merciless opponent like Abner Brown and win against all the odds.

But I wanted it to be in modern Devon - not the non-specific shires of the 1930s, and I didn’t want to have to tone down the language, or the horror, for kids. 

After a walk on the moors with my adopted Alaskan malamute, Sky, I had an idea. I came back and roughly scrawled out the opening chapter. It’s not very different from the one you can read if you buy the first in my folk horror book series, Wicker Dogs. The final version is missing three unnecessary prologues, a lot of pointless scene-setting, and Patrick’s no longer a total shit, but it’s not far off.

It’s been a hell of a time since that heady December of 2017 though right?

It looked a lot like this on the moors behind my house that day - although we took this picture this morning while Dartmoor was hiding in the mist

At the end of 2020, I was doing David Gaughran’s highly-recommended course on Book Marketing, in which he suggests it is near impossible to market fiction unless you’ve written a series. Now, at this point, I already had two Weekend Rockstars books published, and half an idea for a third in the back of my head. So it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to just churn one more of those out and focus my attention on putting them in front of people. After all, Weekend Rockstars was, at that point, still my strongest seller, even after four years of my not really marketing it, or realising it was, in fact, a series.

But, as is so often the case, I decided to make my life a little more difficult. I came up with a new pen-name, D.A. Holwill, and vowed to release the first three Wicker Dogs books over the next twelve months instead. After all, horror sells in much lower numbers than rom-coms, and is near impossible to market. I abandoned the rom-com I’d been writing for half of 2020 (that ties in with the Weekend Rockstars/Gap Years universe really well) and threw my whole head into the new idea.

In my defence, I had been querying Wicker Dogs for a year and a bit at this point, and book two, The Bellever Hagstone, was almost ready to go to my beta readers. All I actually had to do to thrust this series into the world and put Mr Gaughran’s solid advice into action was write one more book. Since the first book is set around the fictional Wisthound Weekend, the first weekend in December, I set that as publication date for book three. My 2021 challenge was set in stone, this thing I would do, no  matter what.

And, against all odds, I’ve actually done it. (And filled all three books with cryptic references to the Box Of Delights, they're not hard to spot.) Despite the last twelve months taking two cars, three cats and the use of my left ankle away from me (the ankle was only for a couple of months, but it really didn’t help). I did have to completely rethink the way I approach my writing though.

All three books, done and dusted in time for Christmas - with some weird hairy bloke holding them

As 2020 drew to a close, like a lot of people, I was struggling to put words on the page. Spare time got harder to find, and, by evening, my brain really couldn’t think good, let alone write nice. So I woke up in January 2021 and made a decision. I would get up before six every morning, and get at least a whole hour’s writing in before going to the day job. I really didn’t expect it to work, since I am not, and have never been, a morning person. But it did, my half-asleep, semi-unconscious, brain is apparently way better than the supposedly fully-awake version I had been trying to access during lunch-breaks and after work. This year I have regularly knocked out more than my 1.5k wordcount targets every day before I leave for work. Sometimes in less than an hour.

I have a policy that as soon as I hit that 1.5k target, I stop and do something else. Thanks to Graham Greene, who famously did the same thing when he hit 500 words. I don’t have the same luxury of time as Mr Greene, so I still have to work harder, but it’s achievable, and way better than my old method of doing as much as I possibly could in every spare minute I could find. Pro-tip, give yourself permission to stop before you burn out.

Previously, I had spent all day fretting about how I would get that wordcount in, then stare at a blank screen in every spare minute I could find: getting it done - but having to drag word by painstaking word from the depths of my overstimulated, whirling brain. I was giving myself anxiety and not getting any real breaks in the day. Now, even though I hate the sound of the alarm, and still get those anxiety pangs while I’m in the shower, dreading having to throw words at the page, it’s out of the way before I start my real day. And I get to spend my lunchbreaks reading for fun, or watching crap on the telly, while in the evenings, I do marketing plans, write blogs (hello) and try to be funny on social media. I hate the early starts, but I seem to have fixed my writing problem, and this year has been more productive than ever.

I opened the year drafting book three, while I polished up books one and two, ready for human consumption. I put my dayjob-honed Photoshop skills to good use in the evenings and knocked up a solid concept for ongoing cover art (using my dog, Sky’s, hypnotic eyes to maximum effect) and sketched out the way I’d put all the pieces in place by the end of the year.

I even put together a free prequel story - The Stalking Of Lady Sophia - that needed way more research than I expected, and not enough people have told me they like just yet. Do please rectify that by downloading it for free - you just have to sign up for my mailing list, and I really don’t mind if you unsubscribe as soon as you’ve got your free book. It’s cool.

I almost kept to the spreadsheet, though not rigidly. I needed to be flexible, for the sake of my mental health. Summer came and, due to car number two being destroyed by a passing 4x4, I ended up sending out the beta version of Jack Sharpnails late, and fell behind the curve. I took a bit more downtime than planned, spent some quality time with my wife, rehabilitated my ankle properly and still managed to get book three ready in time for Wisthound Weekend. It’s done, it’s out, and I started writing this blog on the very day that Polly and Patrick moved to Dourstone (probably).

If I hadn't become obsessed with the Box Of Delights again, didn’t live in a small town where they hold a very odd, fire-themed carnival every year, and hadn’t adopted such a singular kind of dog, then I doubt very much I’d ever have come up with the book. If I didn’t have such a supportive wife and helpful bookish friends and connections, I’d never have finished the first book, let alone all three.

Merry Christmas to one and all (especially the guy I know in town who wants me to sign his copies of the Wicker Dogs books, but unwittingly revealed he had never read them by asking me if Sky was a husky - with no trace of irony. I genuinely love you, please never change). I hope this next year brings you all the same satisfaction this last year has brought me.

2022 will be a whole different challenge, and those Weekend Rockstars books will be coming your way, as well as Wicker Dogs Four. The problem with achieving your goals, is that you know what you’re capable of, and you have to live up to your own newly-altered expectations.

God damn it.

I Don't Miss Gigs (But I Miss Gigs) (originally published Feb 13 2021 on the other site)

Since that ‘First Concert, Best Concert, Worst Concert, Last Concert’ bullshit is all over Facebook like a rash of twats again, I have a terrible secret to admit. I’ve been a gigging musician for over 30 years now, but I don’t actually like going to gigs.

To clarify, I like going to gigs – if I’m playing – and I do like a certain kind of gig, although if I’m not playing regularly I’m like a jealous lover watching the object of their affections being mauled by some unsuitable suitor. But at 43 years old, I am finally going to stop pretending I’m a proper music fan (see here for earlier writings about not being a proper fan) and admit I have lied to myself for years about what a great time I had at certain events.

My first ‘proper’ gig was a big one. AC/DC, Metallica, Motley Crue, Queensryche and the Black Crowes at Castle Donington – August 1991. Nearly every one of the friends I have made in the 30 years since that day has told me they were there as well, but I didn’t know any of them then so it was just me and Paddy all day, once we’d lost Nick and his mum. I had been to plenty of local gigs before that, (Any other North Devon kids remember slogging around after Shea and Testament in the spring of ‘91?) including being roadcrew for a christian Rock festival in Crediton (featuring Cliff Richard’s actual guitar player – not Hank Marvin or Bruce Welch though – and the actually fucking brilliant Brussel Spaceship). Technically my first gig was The Spinners at The Queen’s Hall in Barnstaple, but I will never ever want that one to count. It was my parents’ fault, as is the ‘Judy Drownded’ earworm I’ve just given myself.

This is an actual picture of the actual event from an actual photographer
who I couldn't find the name of to credit, sorry

In my memory, Monsters Of Rock 1991 was the best and most exciting day a fourteen year old boy could ever have had. That same memory that always, without exception, lies to me about my past happiness. In reality, it set a precedent for my future crazy that would never leave. Long car journeys, endless encores, no way of getting away and being penned in on every side will never be my idea of fun. I didn’t realise until I watched the DVD of the show over twenty years later just how long it took to replace Angus Young’s sweat-drenched, malfunctioning guitar in Let There Be Rock. I could say it didn’t get boring, but I would be lying. I still have nightmares about trying to eat a whole tray of Mr Kipling’s pies without waking up the four other people sleeping in the car that was still so so far from home in the middle of the night, filled with hunger and regret at having launched our spring rolls at Vince Neil in disgust and living on Marlboro reds all day.

Any time I go to see a ‘proper’ band I am hit with ‘please stop doing encores’ PTSD, reminding me of being 14, cold, tired and battered by a thousand metalheads fighting over the ‘Money Talks’ dollars that were spunked into the crowd at its climax. Never more so than at a Motorhead gig in Exeter when they were on their fifth ‘exit’ and still hadn’t played the Ace of Fucking Spades. I should have gone to the bar before they did the first one. I’ve been on the receiving end of a crowd that just won’t let you stop, it’s addictive. But sometimes you really should leave them wanting more, some of them are being polite and really want to go home. It’s not you Lemmy, it’s me.

My greatest memories of music I’ve not played myself are all, without exception, from sitting in front of some speakers in my own home/a record shop/a mate’s house, or sharing earphones on the school bus (and one notable night of nothing but Prince outside the Fortune of War in Brighton). The studio version will always be the definitive version, honed from many takes to be as good as possible, so why would I like a bum-noted, fluffed lyric imposter in a poorly designed room where I can’t hear the fucking bass properly?

On the other hand, I do like the energy of live music, I like the intimacy of small shows and I adore open mic nights, even if I don’t play. But I don’t have the attention span for the long gig. The idea of Springsteen’s 4 hour marathons brings me out in hives, I can’t even get to the end of Thunder Road without wanting to leave. It’s not just that I don’t like Springsteen (for clarification, I don’t) it’s just that I can only tolerate a single act for about half an hour before I want them to fuck off and put something completely different on. It’s why I like festivals (apart from the camping, and the endless queues for the inevitably overpriced drinks) where you can wander from stage to stage and end up in the disco tent, where the funk lives. Even Public Image Ltd and Jethro Tull had me bored rigid eventually, and they’re two of my favourite bands.

I think it’s because of the distances involved. Had I lived in a city and been able to stroll from venue to venue, dipping in and out of gigs and able to leave once I got bored, I might have happier memories. But I’ve lived my whole adult life in rural Devon, where the most famous band to be put on within walkable distance (or reasonable public transport) was that famous version of Dr Feelgood with no original members left; or on one notable occasion, Chumbawamba in Westward Ho! Although it was three years before Tubthumping and only Jim, Tarot, Paddy and myself knew who they were.

There’s just so much driving and admin involved in going to watch bands. I do not enjoy either of these things, or feeling obliged to have a good time on account of how much money the tickets have cost. If, say, you suffer from anxiety that you’ve spent over forty years masking from your friends, you might perhaps not enjoy such an occasion to the hilt, but instead pretend to, and convince yourself you have for years afterwards.

So no, I do not wish to pay a week’s wages to stand in a room where I can’t have a fag and wait through eight encores to hear a poor imitation of  the definitive version of the only song I came to hear. It feels good to say that. Honestly, the amount of bullshit excuses I used to not buy the many Kate Bush tickets that were offered me would astound you. As would the many imitations of regret that I was not there I have made since. Reader, I regret nothing. I stayed at home and listened to side two of The Hounds Of Love as it was intended to be heard.


Tonight is the anniversary of the last time I sang in public, and it has affected me more than I thought. For, in a twist of irony, I have little to no interest in just playing music for myself. I don’t need a big crowd, I’m happy just to sing at the barstaff (which is lucky most of the time) just some kind of human interaction, even if it’s only a kid rolling their eyes as they walk over to throw fruit at me. I know other musicians who are happy to just keep practicing, playing their instruments to nobody but themselves in endless self-improvement, or writing and recording their own music at home. And while i used to enjoy that, it feels pointless at the moment with no endgame in sight.

This is an actual picture of the last time I played in public
I've not got my eyes closed with passion, I was trying to remember the first line of the second verse

I’ve been recording some vocal tracks for a friend recently, so had to warm my long-out-of-use voice up. As I sang my way through my usual Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift repertoire it properly hit me. I remembered how a year ago I began making videos with the express purpose of getting solo gigs at little festivals: because this is the 21st century and you can’t get gigs without videos. Two videos in, the first lockdown hit and I saw it as a blessing. Time to pull together a good hour’s worth of material to pick and choose from so I could play to whatever crowd I found myself in front of by the end of the summer. As soon as it became clear there weren’t going to be any crowds I just couldn’t face it anymore. I had nearly two hours worth of material for no good reason.

So last night, standing in my shed, singing my way through Wrecking Ball for the thousandth time (it’s a great warm up) I stopped before the middle eight, looked around at my tricorn hats, gathering dust where I’d left them last summer, put my guitar down and very nearly cried. What’s the point? Once the gigs do come back I’ll be able to get it back together again and right now it just makes me utterly miserable to think of the good times we used to have when we could scream along to Baby One More Time in the pub.

I love little multi-band gigs for the same reason I love open-mic nights, a quick changeover, a chance to meet other musicians and find a little camaraderie in a business that gets a little shitter for all of us every year. So at the moment every note I coax from throat or fingers reminds me of what we’ve lost. I was prepared to get back to it last August,but since then I have all but given up.

Anyway, there is video footage of my last public performance but it was on my wife’s last but one phone and has probably gone forever.

Luckily I’ve got these versions of both songs I did that night, and since these were recorded carefully, in a studio, with time for extra takes and overdubs, they are better than the inevitable speeding up and fluffed lines of my performance that night. Live is never better for the listener.

Enjoy, and I hope to see you on the other side of a mic stand soon.