Review: The Ballad of Curly Oswald

The Ballad of Curly Oswald, by Curly Oswald (who else?) is a coming-of-age tale, told through the eyes of a child growing up in a hippie commune.

We open with a glimpse of Curly’s adult life in the high-end interior design world, catering to the pseudo-spiritual needs of the superficial. The flashy yachts and empty smiles give the impression that this ballad will be a salacious number, but we are immediately derailed by a traffic accident, leading to Curly’s hospitalisation. His near-death experience and sudden isolation inspire him to reflect upon his early life, and that’s where the real story begins.

At the time of his birth, Curly’s mystified mother, Wing, is living in a small community of hippies. Their caravan-park home is set within the grounds of a tolerant British lord, whose motives for allowing the existence of the settlement are left mainly to the reader’s speculation. The group live rent-free, with electrical and plumbing needs catered for, but are otherwise self-sufficient.

The first few chapters are spent fleshing out the characters who occupy ‘Lothlorien’, as they name their encampment, and establishing the code by which they live. Initially some of the characters feel slightly clichéd – talk of meditation and positive auras abound – but as we progress, almost all of the individuals are developed well; their traits, foibles, and histories thoroughly explored, leaving us with no doubt of the author’s affection for each. Apparent oddities, like charismatic leader-of-the-pack Bill, and the terribly refined and cuttingly dry Neat Pete, give layers to the group dynamic. Indeed, by the time real conflict is introduced to the narrative, I could feel my stomach growing tight with anxiety for the continued happiness of this rag-tag bunch of well-meaning misfits.

We accompany them as they face threats from within and without, from love affairs and social services, from depression and angry skinheads. Theirs is a story of the indomitable spirit of friendship, of putting the needs of the many over the needs of the self, in accordance with a shared belief that a better way of life is possible. Their love for their families and friends gives them the strength to stand by their principles. Much of this may seem quaint, and I suppose it is, but as easy as it would be to scorn their naivety, the author’s account is so emotionally visceral that the reader’s support becomes almost unconditional.

Although we are viewing Curly’s experiences through flashbacks from his hospital room, with the benefit of hindsight and an adult’s perspective, the author tells his story with the frank and unblinking eye of Curly the Child. There is much he doesn’t quite understand, as well as some faculties, such as emotional maturity, in which he is advanced for his years. As a result, we are presented with an unflinchingly honest account of the very human pitfalls still hidden within this seemingly idyllic fellowship. There are no real heroes in this story; all of our characters are imperfect, albeit in largely forgivable ways, with the exception of a handful of ‘Outsiders’ who represent the cut-and-dry evils of wider society.

Curly Oswald’s biggest triumph is in creating a story that is true to life. Not just the life of this specific boy, being raised in exceptional circumstances, but the lives of us all. This is most well-realised in Curly’s interactions with the other children in his world; for each scenario and micro-drama which is picked apart and minutely examined, there is another quirk of circumstance that goes entirely unaddressed. When the children are left out of the loop, or a character’s privacy is respected by the rest of the group, the reader is left to ponder the implications just as Curly is – on some occasions, that which we are asked to consider is so daunting it is hard not to feel as a child would: lost and uncertain. While this may appear to contradict my overall opinion of The Ballad of Curly Oswald as a warm and gently humorous tale of an alternative upbringing, exposure to this kind of contrast is the book’s raison d’être; what is life, if not a series of contrasts?


The Ballad of Curly Oswald by Curly Oswald is published by IndieBooks Ltd, available to purchase here.

Review: Begat – Felix Culpepper

Richard Major, writing under the pseudonym Felix Culpepper, presents us with Begat: an entertainment for the Trump epoch. It is a moderately updated version of an oddly prescient short story written by Major in the autumn of 2015, when it still appeared Donald Trump would be no more than a vulgar footnote in the election of the first female president of the United States. In a matter of days, Major produced his own Frankenstein, modernised to focus on our obsession with ‘unreality’ (what Baudrillard would have called ‘hyperreality’), and our willingness to let our lives be guided by sensationalism rather than truth.


‘Begat’ chronicles the creation of a university mascot so monstrously vacuous, he soon comes to embody the most degraded aspects of British culture. First the students, and then the whole country, fill the non-entity that is Armilus Lightborne with the parts of themselves too vile to express personally. Their sordid projections turn him into an invincible national antihero, and within the space of a few months he has conquered social media, risen to a prominent Cabinet position, and declared nuclear war.


The birthplace of this awful phantasm is the University of the Mid-Pennines. Located as it is in a concrete-grey post-industrial British town, it provides a brilliantly dismal backdrop to this grim tale. It is a tradition of Gothic literature that the setting foreshadow the gruesome events to come, although in most examples there is some romantic tempestuousness – not so here. Culpepper’s apocalypse is borne of apathy and sloth, therefore the epicentre and its occupants are bereft of soul; their vices dull, their imaginations vanishingly tiny, beyond the pleasure they take in the lousy university tradition of creating their mascot.


“Moreover, they’d had the ill-fortune to be born at the fag-end of that lull between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Towers. For twelve years, from 1989 to 2001, history passed through a Sabbath. Their parents had seen the age of tyranny fade into euphoria; they themselves had grown up with euphoria fading into surreality.”



The greatest evil in this short tale is apathy; an ailment most often ascribed to the millennial generation, but in truth a scourge on humanity since the dawn of civilisation. As Edward Burke said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In this case, our story-teller is neither a man, nor good in any discernible way. She is the university registrar, and takes rather a childish delight in unnerving people with her cold indifference. Ursula’s level-headed analysis of the chaos that surrounds her makes her a good narrator; while at times the prose can feel clunky, and some of the youthful vernacular is somewhat inorganic, for the most part Begat is smoothly written and drily witty, with certain passages that are downright haunting. Unexpectedly visceral depictions of gore counter-balance artfully the almost metaphysical explanations of Armilus’s power and influence.


“In Lightborne’s bosom people felt the absolute peace of stupidity, greatest of all man-made forces. Stupidity laid its hand across their eyes until their restless neurons ceased to bound and painfully twitch, until a stillness came upon their brains and they sighed, snuggling around themselves, like a duvet, the tepid Abysm.”


At once a send-up of the era of post-irony we find ourselves in and a polemic against the culture of vapidity and benign celebrity which helped transport us here, Begat is an enjoyable and timely read. It is an entertaining blend of Gothic and modern literature, dragging Frankenstein into the Age of Trump while staying true to its macabre roots –at least as horrifying as reality, and twice as much fun!


Begat is available to buy now at

Review: Flights – Olga Tokarczuk

Flights is billed as “a novel about travel in the twenty-first century and human anatomy”. ‘Novel’ is the right word, although perhaps in another sense; this book is structured in a way I have never encountered before, almost like a collection of short stories (a medium in which Tokarczuk has some pedigree).

We leap from modern Croatia to eighteenth century Austria, from a cruise ship in the Mediterranean to Chopin’s funeral, from the streets of Moscow to a Dutch laboratory. As we flit from one time and place to another, interspersed with notes on travel psychology and brief accounts of airport bars and hotel lobbies, we are drawn into the mindset of the traveller. “Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim,” Tokarczuk tells us. So it is with her stories; we collide with these characters, see into their lives and minds with dazzling clarity, but for an indeterminate length of time, as they are whisked away again to be replaced by a wholly different scene.

Although travel and anatomy may at first sound like disparate topics, there are red threads that course through the narrative like arteries, and Tokarczuk guides us with such elegance that we soon realise the two things are a mirror of each other – an outward journey, and an inward. It’s a popular trope that people travel to ‘find themselves’; the anatomists and the taxidermists of Flights map the body searching for the locality of the ‘self’, and seek to perfect the preservation of the human form after death. We bear witness to wonderful phenomena – phantom limbs, strange disappearances, which make us question the simple assertion that we are fixed, rational individuals. Tokarczuk’s characters are often displaced, geographically or mentally, their sense of self disrupted by paranoia or loss. Through the gaps in their psyches, as in the diagrams of a skilful dissection, we are able to explore the nature of what constitutes a human being, the fabric of our reality, and the cages from which we experience it.

Much of this may sound unsettling, even chilling, as Flights can be at times, when Tokarczuk strips away the comforting illusions of stability and endurance, leaving us with not even the protection of our own bodies or identities and reminding us that we are essentially free-falling through time, migrants in hostile lands. She does this readily, turning her “eviscerating knife” on the human condition, and of course it is unsettling – how could it not be? To read of your own fears and frailties, laid down with such startling ease of language. And yet, there is much delight to be taken too, in rediscovered loves, in Tokarczuk’s often gothic humour, and in the endless hopes and opportunities of life’s journeys. I believe the true spirit of Flights lies in a passage near its end:

“…whatever your destination might be, you are always heading in that direction. ‘It Doesn’t Matter Where I Am,’ it makes no difference. I’m here.”


This is not what I would call an easy book to read, and it is harder still to describe. What I would say is this: if you are a pilgrim, of mind or road or page, here is your guidebook.

“Move. Get going. Blessed is he who leaves.”

Happy travels.

The Nature of Writing

“A spider draws a strand between my forearms; she has created a nerve and creeps along it as an impulse – a new synapse connecting me to the world.”

   These words came to me unbidden as I sat in the garden reading Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights. It’s a remarkable book, structured unlike any novel I’ve read before, and even in its translated form the writing seeps into my mind like cool air, clearing out the dusty corners and inflating the whole. Thoughts float freely, collide, convalesce, dancing to a tune that I can’t hear but experience second-hand, evident only in its effect.

   This isn’t how I work. I’m a methodical writer, the ‘sit down and slog it out’ kind of writer, constantly wrangling with sentence structure, picking each word apart and scrutinising every inch of it to make sure it belongs on the page, that it isn’t an imposter. I can write a thousand words to gain fifty worth keeping.

   So when I feel the slight tickle of the spider’s movement, through the ends of the line it has surreptitiously cast between my two raised arms, and this phrase is turned right behind my eyes, a fully-formed metaphor materialising with no conscious effort, it takes me by surprise.

   Now this isn’t to say the phrase is beautiful, or even well-worded. I’m no poet – some may find it clumsy, or obvious. It’s not the idea’s appearance that so struck me but the manner of its appearance: it came through inspiration, rather than diligence. Some cocktail of conditions was mixed and inadvertently served up as an original thought. Tokarczuk’s exceptional example no doubt played its part, but what else? The sun. The breeze. The spider. Nature.

   Nature inarguably plays a large role in the work of the novelist. There is no surer way to transport a reader than through a skilful description of the environment in which the story takes place.


There was a wide treeless space before them, running in a great circle and bending away on either hand. Beyond it was a deep fosse lost in soft shadow, but the grass upon its brink was green, as if it glowed still in memory of the sun that had gone.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring


  This can be especially effective in the fantasy genre; as we know, nature has its own magic, and so what better way to tempt the reader to suspend belief, to accept an entirely alien world with its own rules of reality, than through the very components on which the world is built?


“His mind searched for something tall in that landscape. But there was no persuading tallness out of heat-addled air and that horizon – no bloom or gently shaken thing to mark the passage of a breeze… only dunes and that distant cliff beneath a sky of burnished silver-blue.”

Frank Herbert, Dune


When we view a character’s surroundings through their eyes, we can be made to feel nature’s resonance in their senses. Some aspects of the setting may go beyond the physical; a bleak landscape can foreshadow despair. A clever author can imbue the wind with portents of love and war.


“The ground became soft and damp, like volcanic ash, and the vegetation was thicker and thicker, and the cries of the birds and the uproar of the monkeys became more and more remote, and the world became eternally sad.”

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude


“A burst of yellow and black first alarms and then amazes him. It soars skyward, lands on a flat-headed tree, where it spreads out its wings and, like a butterfly, flitters: a supernal bird. Then, at night, the stars. A discovery: here, the moon was the other way round. He had lost his north.”

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust


But the natural world isn’t just a selection of backdrops, or a conduit for literary devices. It is a bottomless pool of spiritual and physical resources. The writer’s relationship with nature is fundamental – on what did I set down these words (before typing them up, of course)? Although more and more publishing houses are moving to recycled materials, and the practice of binding books with leather and rabbit-skin glue is all but obsolete, the earth is owed a great debt for the forests that adorn our shelves.

It is vital to remember that we are nature, an easy fact to forget when we shut ourselves away for days at a time. The setting of a story matters, because the natural world speaks to an innate part of our beings, and to tap into this channel of communication it is essential that we connect with the world. In our offices, at our desks, there is no breeze to stir the soul, no dappled sunlight to engage our eye. No spiders alight to remind us.


“The trees are coming into leaf

Like something almost being said;

The recent buds relax and spread,

Their greenness is a kind of grief.”

Philip Larkin, The Trees

You Only Live Twice

Whether or not you believe in the Easter story, the ‘saviour’s resurrection’ has become an iconic plot-line for fictional heroes, usually employed (for obvious reasons) in the fantasy genre. This Easter Sunday, we’re going to take a look at the best brushes with immortality literature has to offer.

Let’s start with the re-birthday boy himself. If you ignore the triumvirate business of Jesus being his own father, and therefore also responsible for some pretty ethically shaky dealings in the past, then Christ is the quintessential ‘good guy’. However, disregarding the Old Testament leaves the sequel without much of a story arc; Jesus is born perfect, making character development completely unnecessary. He may be a renegade, bringing his own brand of pacifistic justice to a land of zealots and heathens, but his own infallibility somewhat dampens the drama.

It is undoubtedly true that a story’s impact lies in the author’s ability to make the reader feel invested in their characters, and this is where the Bible really sells itself: Jesus dies to save all of us from eternal damnation – it’s an ambitious twist, and as long as some people still believe in it, this story’s here to stay.

Moving on to another robed lover of pithy idioms, we have Gandalf the Grey. A towering giant of the fantasy world, Mithrandir’s adventures are many and varied; in fact, thanks to Tolkein’s prolificacy and boundless imagination, Gandalf dying and being reborn are among some of the dullest things that happen to him.

One aspect of Gandalf’s story that differs from Jesus’, and many others that follow the same pattern, is that his death is not preordained, or in any way vital to the success of his venture. Whereas Jesus dies to save humankind, Gandalf dies trying. Fortunately for Frodo and Gimli and the rest, the Gods of Middle-Earth are so impressed with the old wizard’s record of bad-assery that they decide to send him back from the abyss with extra powers and a freshly laundered dressing gown, until such time as he has rid the world of Sauron’s evil.

Now we come to the most hirsute hero on the list: Aslan. Being an almost direct allegory for the sacrifice of Jesus, Aslan’s death and subsequent reincarnation are vital for the redemption of humanity/Turkish delight-gobbling brats. Due to the brevity of C. S. Lewis’ tale, the splendid and omniscient lion-god is largely reduced to enigmatic teachings in a soothing baritone, although his appearances elsewhere in The Chronicles of Narnia reveal rather more of his identity.

Like Jesus, however, Aslan knows he will rise again before he gives his life for another; in this regard, resurrection is merely a plot device, and the reader is only invested insofar as his death affects the rest of the characters.

Which brings us to our One True Lord and Saviour. Perfectly imperfect. The Chosen One.

Harry James Potter.

It is a common trope of YA fiction that the hero seem entirely normal, until discovering some fascinating aspect of their heritage, or having extraordinary circumstances thrust upon them. It is a form of escapism that can seem quite cliche, but those of us who grew up with Harry Potter are still half-hoping for our Hogwarts letters, and will be for the rest of our lives.

There are many similarities between the circumstances of Harry’s and Jesus’ deaths: the measured acceptance of their fate; their sacrificial nature; their being part of the plan of a higher, bearded power. In one crucial way, they are different: Harry faces death believing that it will be the end. It doesn’t even cross his mind that he may be able to return to life. He allows himself to be killed, at the age of seventeen, to give his friends a better chance at defeating the most powerful dark wizard of all time.

Is it going too far to say that Harry Potter is better than Jesus? The evidence is mounting…

The scene concerning Harry’s mental preparation as he walks to his death is one of the finest pieces of writing in the Potter series; it speaks of the tremendous depth of J. K. Rowling’s compassion, and the intensity of her feelings for the characters she created. To my mind, it is the greatest (temporary) death in the literary world.

At least until Winds of Winter is released, and Zombie Jon Snow starts splitting wigs and taking names.

Review: Happy – Derren Brown

In Happy, Derren Brown employs centuries of philosophy to tackle the problems – both real and imagined – of modern life. He does it with much humour and compassion, as well as scepticism for the easy answers of charlatans and gurus.

Happy begins by outlining the shortcomings of current self-help dogma, in a style sure to have fellow sceptics cheering their justified frustration. It is hard not to grin with relief and approval as Brown demolishes the twin pillars of goal-orientation and tyrannical positivity.

He then takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of philosophical history, picking out the most pertinent points regarding the question of how to live well. The process seems a little subjective, but this isn’t a textbook, and the reference list is there for a more comprehensive overview. Besides, as the author tells us, he wants to keep the focus on practical application, and on what can we rely for this but personal experience?

When Brown zeroes in on key ideas, he picks them apart and applies his not inconsiderable logic to explore the benefits and realities within. This is most effective in the section on death and coping with loss, which gives some surprisingly bold and resounding conclusions.

The highlights of Happy lie in Brown’s anecdotal storytelling; he can have you laughing helplessly at paragraphs concerning his partner and his parrot, and a few pages later move you to tears over the journey of a terminally ill friend. A couple of times, beautifully emotive observational passages rise from nowhere and offer raw glimpses of a truly remarkable mind and richly cultivated soul. It is these moments, rather than Brown’s earlier logical cut-and-thrust, that attest to the simple power of the Stoic ideas he espouses; the power to achieve clarity through consideration, and to find happiness in the smallest of details.

This feels like a book I will return to often; for guidance, for suggestions for further reading, and for the simple joy of it as a piece of work.

I guarantee this book will make you happy. Even if the ideas and advice never make it off the page and into your everyday life, just to read it is a genuine pleasure.

I just wish I could pick it up without the Pharrell song popping into my head…


This is my first blog post. As such, I have no followers. This may change, and it may not.

My foremost reason for starting this blog is to practise creative writing and develop something resembling style. With that in mind, I have completed a short exercise known as ‘7x7x7’; I have taken the seventh closest book on my shelf, turned to the seventh page, and copied out the seventh sentence, for use as the first line of a seven-line poem.

The book in question is ‘Critical Path’ by R. Buckminster Fuller, and the seventh sentence of the seventh page is suitably poetic; fortuitous, surrounded as it is by delineations of studies by Darwin and Mendeleev.

If you are reading this, welcome. Here is a poem.


Spontaneously, we are simplistically inclined – it feeds the ego.

That moment of ‘Eureka!’, that passing wonder

Which pierces the mind, skewering us in time,

Only to pass straight through, leaving nothing in its wake

But the hole, which in our haste we fail to fill,

Fancying instead the problem solved;

Our surety, in a vacuum.