Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Where the Title Came From...

This was the song which inspired the title of my novel. It seemed so apt on so many levels, and there could be no more fitting tribute to all those people who made 1976 and that whole period such a wonderful and special time for me. Thank you my friends, and thank you Mr. Harley for putting it all into words for me so masterfully.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Working At Worple by Ken Noakes - Review

Once again from the pen of my former primary school teacher Ken Noakes has issued forth a gem to keep alive the most precious of memories – those earliest years spent at primary school, in my case the eponymous Worple Road School in Isleworth.

Hot on the heels of his well-received Crowlink, a Magical Location for School Journeys: an Appreciation, a tribute to the serene South Downs hamlet at which most of us ex-pupils spent the first days of our lives away from the family home, Working At Worple provides a rich source of information both for the edification of those who were there or who knew us, and for the not unimportant purposes of historical record. Inconsequential though they may appear alongside two world wars and Brexit as historical events, my gratuitous sinking of a moored rowing boat along the banks of the Thames and my summoning of the fire brigade to my home under a false premise should surely not be allowed to simply fade into obscurity with the passing of their respective witnesses – and now, thanks to Ken and his diligent research and painstaking chronicling of events, they won't be.

Working At Worple is a significantly longer work than the Crowlink booklet, necessarily so as it covers a much longer period in time. Essentially it is divided into two parts, the first delving into the history of the school dating back to 1928 for which the author obviously had to depend largely upon logs and records, and the second relating his own experiences as a teacher at the school between 1969 and 1972. During his three-and-a-bit years at Worple, Ken had the misfortune of having me in his class for two of them.


The story begins in 1928, which was the year that Worple truly became a junior school. Before that it had received children up to the age of fourteen whilst in 1927, for one year only, infant-aged pupils had been taken. The junior school at Worple Road was separate from the infant school, although they co-existed on the same development and pupils progressed automatically from one to the other.

All head teachers were required to keep a log book in which all events considered to be of significance were recorded for posterity, including "the introduction of new books, apparatus or courses of instruction, any plan of lessons approved by the Board, the visits of managers, absence, illness, or failure of duty on part of the school staff, or any special circumstances, affecting the school that may, for the sake of future reference or for any other reason, deserve to be recorded."

One aspect of Worple life which did require to be logged was the meting out of corporal punishment, a.k.a. "the cane". It is difficult to envision in this modern age an environment in which children sometimes as young as seven would be disciplined by means of a painful, if measured, physical beating with a stick, but it was once accepted practice throughout the land and there is no evidence to suggest that Worple Road was any better or worse in this regard than any other school. Different head teachers would appear to have wielded the cane with varying degrees of enthusiasm, although towards the later years of its deployment it would seem from the personal testimony of survivors that not every incidence of its use found its way into the annals.

The author records these incidents, as with others which demonstrate an approach inconsistent with modern standards and expectations, in a pleasingly dispassionate manner, not admonitory or judgmental but certainly not approving. He appears, as I do, to take the view that the ways of the past belong to the past and that it is superfluous to judge them according to the values by which we live today.


It is the second part of the book which finds the author really getting his hands into the meat. This is Ken's personal account based upon his own first-hand experience, richly fortified by the input of many of his former pupils with whom he has re-established contact in recent years thanks to social media.

Young, enthusiastic and fresh out of university, the author approaches his first day as a real teacher (he'd served an apprenticeship of sorts prior to embarking upon his studies) with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. He describes vividly the various key characters with whom he came immediately into contact – teachers, ancillary staff, the caretaker – before listing some of the pupils that he had been told (or in some cases warned) about, along with many of their specific wonts and eccentricities. His first ever class comprises a full compliment of second-year juniors (although one of first-year age would seem somehow to have wangled his way onto the team-sheet). Nearly half a century later, and with some 44 years of subsequent teaching experience under his belt, the clarity of his recollection is staggering. That class of ours must truly have left a lasting impression!

Inevitably there is some mention of Crowlink, the then annual school holiday destination of choice for older Worple pupils and their teachers, and equally inevitably there is a small element of overlap with his earlier work. Although the trip to Crowlink only accounted for one week in the school year, and even the most affluent pupils whose parents could afford to send them away during both the third and fourth years only spent ten days of their school lives away at this wonderful location (in my fourth year the trip set my folks back a whole £8.50, plus £1 obligatory insurance), it was very much an integral feature of Worple life. With the excitement of the build-up taken into account, as well as the days following our return in which we designed and completed our project folders (which feature heavily in the book), Crowlink fever in practice consumed a hefty chunk of our third and final term.


As well as making for an entertaining and informative read, Working At Worple captures for the enchantment of generations yet unborn the unique and indomitable spirit of Worple Road Junior School in the late 1960s and early 1970s which still pervades every reunion. Supported by photographs and work extracts aplenty, it cannot fail to transport the ex-pupil back to a place in time that was both more innocent and less buffered from the everyday iniquities that we needed to encounter, and to overcome, in order to become – for better or for worse – the people that we are today. I can still feel in my own work as a writer of fiction the call of What I Did At The Weekend, penned in 1969-70 and in which the aforementioned rowing boat sinking was proudly recounted.

This book really is essential reading for old pupils and staff of Worple Road, Isleworth residents and ex-residents with an interest in their own local history, and indeed anyone with a curiosity to understand the dynamics of junior school life in the late sixties and early seventies. As a community Worple Road was unique, but then so is every community. For me, it didn't hurt (too much) to see, for once, my younger self through the eyes of somebody entrusted with the unenviable task of being at once my tutor and my disciplinarian. That won't, of course, stop Ken being much relieved not to be the one to have to write the sequel.

Working at Worple by Ken Noakes is available at £8.00 plus £1.50 postage and packing (UK orders). Contact to order a copy.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Authorsinterviews - My Interview With Blogger Fiona McVie

Book enthusiast Fiona McVie (left) has been interviewing authors for many years. Her blog Authorsinterviews is a rich resource for anybody who wants to learn a bit more about the people behind the stories, so it was my great pleasure to respond to her questions when we communicated last week.

The full text of my interview with Fiona can be found here.

Friday, 7 December 2018

The Summer Of '76 by Ray Burston - Review

To begin with this book was an easy sell to me because I find myself enchanted by the seventies in general and by anything to do with 1976 in particular. So a simple glance at the title made it a must-buy. When I discovered that it was set on the Isle of Wight, not only in a town but actually around a street with which I am very familiar (for it has been the venue of countless family holidays in more recent years), my complete and undivided attention was assured.

But mere familiarity of setting and nostalgic indulgence would not have been enough to retain my interest throughout a full-length novel were it not for a captivating storyline. And The Summer Of '76 does its work beautifully and with consummate skill by calmly setting a scene which is idyllic as well as ever so slightly twee, and then rousing the reader from that comfort zone by increments but in a way which is nonetheless quite relentless.


I am reluctant to relate too much of the storyline as much of the magic of this wonderful book rests on the unexpected twists and turns that it quite cleverly drip-feeds to us. In essence it is about a young man from the Midlands, in his late teens, who visits his aunt and uncle at their seaside home in Sandown and discovers a whole lot more about himself than he could possibly have bargained for. In the process of so doing he encounters a pretty young American student who for a while becomes his love interest, but events and cruel fate inevitably come between them.

From the beginning the seemingly disparate characters who happen upon one another by chance find they have much more in common than any of them could have expected. Eventually it is the sheer improbability of these relationships and interactions, like a soap opera on steroids, which makes the story so special, and so difficult for the reader to disengage from.

As the tale unfolds many themes remain constant, such as the Christian faith shared by many of the characters which conflicts them all the more as they wrestle with questionable events from their dim and distant pasts, and the helpful - and to some of us evocative – contemporary news bulletins and musical and topical by-lines which appear with apposite regularity.


Perhaps inevitably I found myself making comparisons with my own debut novel The Best Year Of Our Lives, not in a competitive way but rather in an intrigued and constructive quest for any similarities or differences between the writer's recollections of that glorious summer and my own. What became clear was that whilst The Summer Of '76 has a unique and profound vibe all of its own, there is a commonality of spirit which is shared by so many of us whose adolescence was defined by that era.

The writer has a flair for melodrama and for thematic writing which cannot be overstated. I am really glad I purchased this book, and feel doubly blessed that what I had expected to be a mere harmless foray into my own formative years turned out to be such a whole lot more. It would be good as a film, and I hope that one day it is picked up by somebody with the connections to visit upon it the recognition it deserves.

The Summer Of '76 by Ray Burston is available from Amazon in both paperbook and e-book format.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

My Top 10 Online Survey Companies

According to somebody who knows about these things, there are an estimated 62,000 authors presently "in some sort of employment" in the United Kingdom.

What must be straight away obvious is that not all of these people can be living in the lap of luxury as a consequence of their literary efforts. Indeed for every J.K. Rowling it is reasonable to assume that there will be, well, at least 61,000 "professional" authors at the opposite end of the income scale, having sold their self-published magnum opus to their mother and her mate, and to very few others. By comparison, my own four-figure sales tally (at time of writing) may strike one as a veritable success story. But it still doesn't pay the bills.

Which means that, like most other writers, I find myself doing other "jobs" to plug the wage gap, and one of my many income streams is paid online surveys – assisting market researchers in undertaking demographic profiling for the extremely modest payment which they all offer.

There are literally hundreds of survey providers, some of which are better to work with than others. Below I have listed ten of my favourites:

Provides intelligent research and informed insight for clients in the worlds of business, culture and politics. On balance probably my first choice for surveys due to its generous payments.

PROS: Amongst the highest payers, PopulusLive surveys generally command around £1 for every five minutes' work undertaken. Surveys tend to come in clusters, with two or three some days and nothing for several days at other times. Screen-outs (an irritating occupational hazard for survey enthusiasts in which participants are advised that they are unsuitable and do not qualify) are infrequent by comparison with some others, and occur – as they should – early into the process. The interface is nearly always the same, making for an unflustered and easy-to-follow experience. Payment is by cheque in increments of £50, sent out the month after the target has been reached.

CONS: Customer service can be erratic. On the one solitary occasion when I've had to report the non-arrival of a cheque I had to threaten the company with the regulator before it felt the need to respond to any of my e-mails, and then the reply was perfunctory and unapologetic. Take care when completing surveys to enter accurate information as failure to do so usually results in instant disqualification with no second chances.

Formerly called Mintvine, this US-facing company provides a whole bunch of surveys each and every day, some of which command very generous payment and others which certainly do not. Each day at 3pm (UK time) a new mini-poll appears on the home page which pays $0.05 for a single question answered. Not much I know, but you'll be surprised how much it adds up!

PROS: Nearly always a wide range of surveys to choose from, for which notification is sent (if you so choose) by e-mail. Some can offer up to $4 a time, but the beauty is that the survey value is always provided so you can choose which ones you think are worth doing (although quite often the high-value surveys become unavailable very quickly). Low payout threshold of just $10 cleared funds, which can be achieved in a matter of a couple of days.

CONS: The US focus means some of the surveys can be arcane and irrelevant to UK participants. Screen-out can sometimes occur some way into the process and a formal complaint will usually, even if successful, result in a meagre amount of compensation being awarded.

London-based market research and insight consultancy. Surveys tend to pay 25p, 50p or 75p, depending upon length.

PROS: A consistent interface and relatively few screen-outs. Although payments are modest surveys tend to be of an acceptable duration, with unpleasant surprises a rare occurrence. Payouts are made promptly once an account balance of £25 is reached.

CONS: The website can be very hit and miss, with error messages aplenty. Surveys are not usually affected, but such things as checking one's balance are a luxury best taken advantage of when everything is working.

One of the original and best-known survey providers, YouGov specialises in providing polling data for political purposes but it also does a whole lot besides. Its easy-to-use format and generous referral bonus makes it something of a favourite for many.

PROS: Screen-outs are almost unheard of as potential customers are screened before invitations are sent out (most other survey companies are appallingly lazy in this regard). A regular interface and impressively interactive website make for an enjoyable survey experience.

CONS: Rewards are modest (usually 50p) and surveys can be few and far between, meaning it can take some months to hit the £50 threshold for a payout. A good account to have in the portfolio but don't be depending on it to feed the family.

An online and app-based mobile community asking questions about the products and services you use and places you visit every day.

PROS: A handy app enables participants to take surveys on the go without having to negotiate the torturous web links and awkward screens not properly configured for mobiles which can be the experience offered by many of its rivals. Although most pay 25p, 50p or 75p higher value surveys up to £3.50 are not unusual. Payout is at £25, which can be reached relatively quickly.

CONS: Screen-outs occur more frequently than would be ideal, sometimes some way in to the survey. Customer service can sometimes be erratic when this is complained about.

Australia-based but UK-facing provider which provides a handy feed containing surveys roughly matched to your profile. Surveys are usually valued according to length and rewards are reasonable.

PROS: Easy-to-use feed and a good proportion of valid surveys which enable you to complete the process and claim your reward. Where screen-out occurs a compensation payment of 5p is made, making the disappointment a little more bearable. Payout is at £25 and arrives promptly.

CONS: Very few, other than at times viable surveys can be frustratingly few whilst at others they can be plentiful.

A favourite to many survey enthusiasts but a source of some frustration to others, Panelbase is one of the fastest-growing and most popular online research communities on the web. Also provides occasional focus groups by invitation.

PROS: Alerts are sent by e-mail and rewards are usually generous when measured against time taken. Any surveys under £1 are pleasingly concise and a low threshold of just £10 means frequent prompt payouts. By popular consent one of the best-paying and most well-liked providers out there.

CONS: Screen-outs are frequent and would appear to have become more so of late, to the point where they now seem to be the norm rather than the exception. Sometimes they appear random and arbitrary, whilst at others they can occur well into the survey rather than during the first few screens as is supposed to happen. Complaints are sometimes addressed promptly – if you reach the right person. I tend to avoid their third-party surveys as some of them seem a tad unscrupulous and Panelbase seem to exert little control over them.

Wants to hear what you think about the very latest products and big issues affecting you. Offers surveys, discussions and polls.

PROS: Generous rewards for surveys which are of a reasonable length. Sometimes provides online communities by invitation which can pay at a rate of up to £15-£30 per hour. £20 threshold for payouts.

CONS: Surveys are infrequent and can sometimes be on very similar topics, meaning that participants who are screened out of one are likely to be screened out of all of them. Unless I have been unlucky, payouts seem to arrive some very considerable time after they have been claimed.

A very popular and quirky survey company which provides a large number of very short, low-value and often "fun" polls, as well as the occasional outdoor video project.

PROS: Lots of short polls – by the time the participant has gone through the list there will probably have been another one appear. Fun topics make them a pleasure to take part in.

CONS: Low rewards mean a lot of effort has to be put in to reach the £40 payout threshold (although loyal customers are sometimes rewarded with their own personal lower limit – mine is currently down to £25!).

I have included this because it is "different" in so many ways. Participants who have opted in to receive them are sent notices of each new survey (literally dozens each and every day). Priced in dollars and with a US slant, it might just be possible to use up every waking hour only attending to surveys from this company. Some I know do just that.

PROS: With an almost unlimited supply of surveys, the $30 minimum payout is not difficult to reach in a relatively short space of time. Some, although certainly by no means all, pay quite generously.

CONS: A high proportion of screen-outs, and many surveys are priced at "Up to….." - so one never really knows how much they are paying out until the money is in one's account. And that doesn't happen until a week later.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

The Best Year Of Our Lives: The Characters - Alan Webb

Alan Webb is the only character I am profiling who is not a member of the eight. The reason will be immediately obvious to anybody who reads the story: the gang's enmity for Paul Adams' erstwhile mucker is the chord which binds them together during this their second rideout. He alone had been the reason for the gang's demise the first time around, of which we know only a limited amount, and he is equally the cause of its coming together for a second time – older, wiser and rapt by the most beautiful summer that living man had encountered before or since.

But there is another reason why I feel the need to grant special status to Alan Webb. When discussing The Best Year Of Our Lives with friends and acquaintances who have been kind enough to read it and offer me feedback I have been overwhelmed, if not entirely surprised, by the amount of sympathy that this character in particular has provoked. "I feel sorry for that person you bullied," said one, confusing me as author with the lead actor. "I liked Alan Webb much more than I liked Paul Adams," admitted another.


I have to confess this wasn't entirely unintentional on my part. The negative portrayal of Alan Webb throughout most of the book was only ever intended to reflect the view of him taken by the one through whose eyes the story was told. He begins the tale as Alan, is relegated to Webb before becoming Alan once again with a handshake and an awkward reminisce. But through it all he is stoical, courageous and admirably defiant in his predicament. He has to suffer, in order that the gang might thrive. He is the blood sacrifice of a halcyon adventure. That is the simple dynamic, the reader was never meant to hate him.

Alan Webb brings out the leader in Paul, the loyalty in Jim, the affection in Tina and the infant heroism in Pete. Unwittingly he is the catalyst for great things, for an explosion of love made magnificent by a common if oft exaggerated hatred. Some would see him as one of the most noble characters in the book, and I always intended it that way.

Alan doesn't leave the story in as dramatic a style as he first entered it, but he is thematic to it throughout. Wherever he is today, I wish him well and I'm sure Paul Adams would feel the same.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti - Review

Tony Visconti looked up at me as I approached the table behind which he was sitting with a welcoming expression, and what appeared at least to be a genuine willingness to engage me in conversation and an eagerness to be helpful in answering any questions I might have had for him.

This by itself was much to be admired. I had been more or less at the back of a long queue which for an hour and a half had inched laboriously forward, as one by one attendees of what had been a fascinating talk by Visconti and Woody Woodmansey about the making of the album The Man Who Sold The World patiently awaited their turn to exchange a few words, shake hands and, for the lucky (or precocious) ones, have their photographs taken with two legends from the music scene of the 1970s and beyond. By the time I appeared in his line of vision he could have been forgiven for emitting a weary sigh, blindly scribbling something illegible across the inside cover of the paperback which I had handed him and sending me on my way.

Instead, he seemed happy to talk. He obligingly signed the copy of his autobiography that I handed him, as well as the foreword to Woody's My Life With Bowie, which he had also written and, along with Woody, a copy of my own humble literary effort The Best Year Of Our Lives. I admitted to him that the concept of record production was essentially alien to me, that my engagement with music began and ended with listening to the finished product and enjoying the sound with very little knowledge of the processes involved in preparing it for the listener. He softly, and encouragingly opined that having heard the presentation I would perhaps listen to it henceforth in a more discerning way.


He was right, of course, but the presentation was only the beginning of that experience. It wasn't until I actually read the book which I had handed him to sign that I became fully cognisant of the role of the person behind the scenes who marshalled the musicians in the studio, put their various efforts together, listened to their output with a critical ear, made the technical changes and improvisations that were necessary, massaged the egos and perfected the chemistry between them. The producer is the conductor of the orchestra in private session, and yet much more besides. And as the 1970s progressed, Tony Visconti became the go-to guy for a whole bevy of very big names in the world of rock and pop, as well as some less well-known acts who were also fortunate enough to be able to draw upon his services.

In fact, the acts he has produced read like a Who's Who of the seventies and eighties (I wouldn't recognise any names from beyond those decades even if they were bigger than Elvis). The promotional spiel on the back cover includes a quote from Q magazine, viz. "Just as George Martin was the definitive '60s producer, so Tony Visconti's work with David Bowie and Marc Bolan shaped rock's landscape in the '70s." 'Nuff said.

And yet the producer when all is said and done remains the guy who works privately in the background, at least to those of us on the outside. Nobody I went to school with had posters of record producers pinned up on their bedroom walls. Reading his account I sense that there is a part of Visconti that would have liked to have been up there on the stage, enjoying the life and the adulation that came with being a guitar hero or a frontman (although he happily volunteers that he is not the latter), and indeed anyone who has watched him performing live with Holy Holy will confirm that he fits the role rather well. But, alas, his enormous talents beyond the stage condemned him to be "only" one of the very most successful music producers in the history of the medium.


Tony Visconti's autobiography chronicles the career of a man who made some of the best music of my time happen - the logistics, the obstacles to be surmounted, the relationships and the dynamics of bringing fragile egos together to create soundtracks which would define the lives of millions. Having read his book I feel that at last I understand some of the processes which come together in the studio when a brand new sound is created for the edification of the record-buying public (as was). It seems those vinyls didn't just happen after all. They were not, as my one and only attempt at recording a single was, manufactured on the spot in a tiny booth on the concourse at Waterloo station. A lot of thinking, a lot of hard work, sometimes a lot of conflict and not a little angst, went into them before they reached us. Having read, and listened to, Tony Visconti I know that now.

What he also gives us in his memoir, and what is equally valuable to old collectors like myself (though in my case not conspicuously funky-thighed), is a fascinating insight into his working relationships with two of the men who for me provided the cultural backdrop for the 1970s. Visconti is tactful yet informative in equal measure when he describes some of the difficulties he encountered in his dealings with Bolan and contrasts them with the smoother working relationship that he enjoyed with Bowie, who famously would allow and even encourage those around him to express themselves and then absorb their ideas and contributions into a cohesive whole, of which he would then take ownership. It is a mark of the genius of the latter that he mastered this art, and that he believed sufficiently in himself not to feel threatened by the creativity of his many high-profile collaborators.


I'm glad I bought this book, and I am more glad still that I managed to get the opportunity to speak a few words with a great man who made so much happen in that formative, unique and special period of my life. I played the records - I never heard his voice nor for some time even his name, but I heard his work and it defined a beautiful era with precision and perfection. I would have loved to have chatted with him for much longer - for hours and hours in fact - but I doubt very much whether the feeling was mutual. It was a long queue, and a long night, so I will just say thank you for the music.