My original blog was Hoses of the Holy (ca. 2003), which ended up being abandoned in the dark days of 2007. I started this one in 2011. Scroll down for the archives!

The Obald – episode 1

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The third season of my fiction podcast is a reading of my speculative fiction espionage thriller The Obald (follow that link for the first episode on Apple Podcasts). Perhaps not the most indicative title in the world, but (as always) I reserve the right to perverse self-sabotage. I wrote the first half of (the original) The Obald in 1983, when I was around 20 and 21 years old. I was inspired then by the idea that secret passages existed in the London Underground, behind unmarked doors and closed off tunnels. The idea of these secret rooms came from my imagination, as I had no idea (at 20) that such places did indeed exist. The title came from a neon sign in a shop window, the sewing machine brand Theobald rendered in two slightly separated signs.

Considering it now, I think it might be the best thing I’ve done. The ending was a bit naff, however, so I’ve been in and lopped it off. If you want the original – naff – ending, it’s available on Amazon for the moment, but I’ll probably update the ebook at some point.

When Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere appeared on TV in the mid-90s, I felt like someone had been inside my head and stolen my thoughts (about the hidden tunnels), only with more actual research. In the meantime, I’d converted the original story of The Obald into a short story entitled “Movie” that appeared in the small press Slow Dancer magazine.

I’d long-since lost the original Obald manuscript, which I had typed out on pink foolscap paper (see above re perverse self-sabotage – the emphasis is on fool). But when I decided to participate in the 2009 National Novel Writing Month, I wanted to revisit the idea from memory.  I also decided to add a section that took place thirty years later.

(On the subject of perverse self sabotage, I feel I ought to also confess that when I was in a band – like the protagonist of The Obald – and we hired an 8-track machine to cut a single, I insisted it was mixed in mono. Of course, this was me being a way-ahead-of-my-time hipster, but the result was that literally everyone just assumed we couldn’t afford stereo, or something.)

So if you’re looking for me, I’m the one with a pink foolscap manuscript and a mono single.

Anyway, for some reason, I left the new version of The Obald sitting on a shelf for four years before pulling it out and reading through it again. I’d convinced myself it was still unsatisfactory in some way. Reading it again in 2014, I decided I quite liked it – it’s even funny in places, which is something that used to characterise my work. So here it is.


In 1983, I was a year into my first job. I’d been politicised by 18 months on the dole before that, and I was an active trade union representative and “known troublemaker” who had been on a CND rally or two. I’ve written before about my certainty that I was one of hundreds of civil servants who were blacklisted back in the 80s. We’d seen the Falklands War, and we were gearing up for the miners’ strike, and trade unions (and other forms of collectivism) were under attack from a government that had just been re-elected (in June 1983) with a huge majority. I spent the next couple of years kicking against the pricks and doing my career no favours. I was dumped from department to department, office to office, under a series of managers who criticised my every move and the clothes I wore. There’s a conversation in The Obald in which a manager criticises the protagonist for the way he walks, for the collars on his shirts, the ties he wears, and even the way he looks through files. That conversation is a thing that really happened to me. 

I applied for dozens of other jobs but got nowhere. It was enough to make you paranoid. One day, a union friend of mine who was ‘in the know’ told me my name was on a list—one that, so it went, contained no pertinent information, just names. Your name on the list was enough to signal that you were a troublemaking pain in the arse, a dangerous radical.

I’ll tell you what, if you want to radicalise someone for life, just stick them on your shit list, and they’ll hate you forever. It turns out, I think, that 1983 was some kind of watershed. January 1984, for example, saw the release of the first Apple Mac. Before that, there was DOS and the Apple II and nobody knew what was to come. November 1983 saw the release of the first Now That’s What I Call Music compilation, which I think means that the hits of that year are vivid in the memory of anyone who was around at the time. It was the beginning of the era of such lists in the media, the eternal recycling of the recent past.

With a Parliamentary majority of 144, Margaret Thatcher’s government could, in earnest, begin their work of dismantling society and creating a nation of selfish individuals who actually feared many of the things that had served to improve our quality of life in the previous forty years (public health, public education, taxing the rich, joining a union). Further afield, construction started on the 27 kilometre tunnel that would eventually be used to house the Large Hadron Collider. 1983 saw the last serious shit-your-pants nuclear alert of the Cold War, which of course we knew nothing about at the time.

I don’t feel a particular nostalgia for 1983. I was unhappy, lonely, and unlucky in love. But, looking back, it does feel like the end of an era – or the beginning of one – in the same way that 1963 now looks like the proper beginning of the 1960s. For my generation, sexual intercourse began in 1983, which was rather late for me.


Prologue/Episode One

Ronnie Smith, 21, is in a band but still has to work. His day job is mainly admin, in some kind of civil service department, and pricks his conscience somewhat because it involves collecting data on people with perfectly legal political beliefs. It’s 1983, his love life is complicated, and there’s something in the air…


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