A Brief Encounter with the Hive Mind

Ant HeadSometimes I’m reminded that I don’t always see things the way other people do. It’s human, we’re all different, and in many ways it is a good thing, almost an ideal.  What a terrible fate it would be if we were all the same.

Lockdown has made me very productive in the house, the garden, my leathercrafts, but I’ve also become disconnected from my writing. The wider world is desperately distracting and it seems the part of me that writes is the part that gets most distracted. Meanwhile, the part of me that weeds and plants and grows food is positively encouraged.

I’ve started reading Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook, a book I’ve owned for several years and failed to engage with. This time however I’ve fallen into it[i]. Obviously the book hasn’t changed, it’s me. I’m intrigued, fascinated, and illuminated by VanderMeer’s  wise words, his open-minded approach to creativity and the internal and external worlds it needs. Wonderbook is very energising and it’s helping me regain focus and motivation.

It’s easy to look back at a day and think ‘I’ve achieved nothing worthwhile, I’ve wasted all that time,’ but most things worth doing take longer than a few hours, and down-time is needed. Those ten and twelve hour days are hugely satisfying but I also know I need to plan in those rest days so I can sit and relax, potter about, and let my mind wander. I need to make the time to simply be.

Over the past few days the black garden ants have been swarming. You can see them getting ready a week before they do – the workers enlarge the entrances to the nests (and, presumably the tunnels behind them) so the big flying queens can leave the nest. And they become more alert – a foot-stamp on the ground sends scores of workers flooding defensively from those wider openings.

A few days later you can see a few queens tentatively emerging and then retreating back into the safety of the nest, surrounded and escorted by attentive workers.  It turns out that swarming day is fairly unpredictable here in the UK, but is usually a humid day following rain sometime in July. Whatever the specific triggers, they help colonies coordinate swarming to maximise the chances of the queens meeting drones from other nests.

One reason to write (as if you need a reason) is to try and give shape to what it is you are thinking, and how those things you are experiencing make you feel – even if it’s just for yourself. Even if it’s an apparently little thing like watching ants swarm. Yesterday I sat on a step in the garden path near a nest and watched them. There were far more drones than queens, the queens seemed clumsy and indecisive at first, wandering back and forth then floundering through the air in short, low flights of just a few inches. I wondered if they were warming up their flight muscles.

I noticed other queens climbing up plants to take flight. I let one climb on my finger and held up my arm. The queen ran to the tip of my finger, checked it was as high as it could be, and took off. (Ladybirds do this too.)

Meanwhile our nice neighbour was having a minor panic about the swarms. Coming from another part of the world she’d not seen them before and was worried for her young children.  My partner, Gaie, explained there was nothing to worry about. I said it was one of the grand sights of English nature and she looked at me a little strangely.

Down in the garden dozens then hundreds of queens and drones took flight. It was the only time in their lives they would fly.  Each queen could found a new nest, a new underground city of ants. They would never see the sky again.

The air filled with flying ants climbing into the sky, each seeking a mate from some foreign nest. I watched them rise and wondered if those queens had hopes and fears, if their small minds held dreams for the future. Perhaps they did; the more we find out about insects the more we discover their version of intelligence.  In one shape or form ants have swarmed every year for over 100 million years. I felt very fortunate to be able to see this happen once again. An odd wave of optimism filled me.

[i] I’ve found myself reading a lot of graphic novels recently, I’m clearly being drawn towards visual as much as written narratives, and Wonderbook is very much that, filled with clever, imaginative and colourful illustration.

Free to read short story – The Savages

As of today my short story, The Savages, is free to read at Unsung Stories. Please do take a look!

The Savages is an alien coming-of-age story about gender and individual choice. I finished the first draft at a writing retreat in South Wales earlier this year. I knew it wasn’t quite right, so I offered it for critique to my writing group and received some really useful comments, suggestions, and ideas.

Having some distance between yourself and the work can be really useful, so I put this one away for a few weeks before taking another look.

I then had the fastest submission-to-publication of my entire life! Submitted on Tuesday, accepted on Wednesday, proofs and contract Thursday, and published Friday. Phew.

Early in the Covid-19 lockdown here in the UK Unsung Stories decided to publish a new story online every week. There are many great SFF stories there from some excellent writers, all free to read, and I’m delighted to be in such good company. It also means that if my one doesn’t press your buttons there’s bound to be others that do, so you should definitely check them out. Enjoy!



An Ancient Horror Returns – Richard Middleton

Back in another era, another age[i] I bought a book in one of the charity shops along the local high street. This is something I’ve been known to do from time to time.  Sometimes I find a book by an author I like, or someone I’ve been meaning to read, or some interesting piece of non-fiction.

This one was a bit different,. It was old, it was a little scruffy, the pages were yellowed, and it was horror. I don’t read a lot of horror, but this one somehow, called to me.  Maybe I remembered the glorious description from the second-hand trade for books a little (but not too much) the worse for wear ­– slightly foxed but still desirable.  Some days I aspire to that description.

It also included a couple of stories by Arthur Machen, and that persuaded me. I bought it, took it home, and read it like horror should be read – in bed, late at night by the light of the table lamp.

Published by Hutchinson, New Tales of Horror by Eminent Authors had no publication date, and no editor credited. Maybe that information was on the long-gone dust jacket, maybe they didn’t do things like that in those days. Some simple Google-fu reveals it was published eighty six years ago, in 1934. With 17 of the thirty stories previously unpublished, I’m guessing this would have been a desirable book for horror fans between the world wars.

In the main I was a little disappointed, even by the Machen and the Hugh MacDiarmid. These are stories of their era, written in that era’s style. Some are more vignettes than tales, and too many relied in the shocking twist, the ghastly revelation on the last page. Except…

Except there was one story, by one of the many writers in the anthology  that I’d never heard of.  Love at First Sight, by Richard Middleton, was short, strange, shocking, and very clever. A story that brought me to a dead stop after reading it. I read it again. Clever, strange, and a little mad. That last line.

Middleton had a short and unhappy life. Suffering from depression he took his own life aged 29. By then he had real reputation. Machen and others rated him, and Raymond Chandler seemed a little in awe.[ii]  His  short novel, The Ghost Ship, is a book I would like to track down.

It’s hard not to wonder what unwritten stories Middleton had, and to regret their non-existence.  I also wonder at the names of the other Eminent Authors such E.H. Visiak, Sir Ronald Ross, Nugent Barker,and  R.L Mégroz and realise that almost inevitably given another eighty four years, someone finding one of my stories in an anthology will  think, ‘David Gullen? Never heard of him.’


[i] In other words, last year.

[ii] “Middleton struck me as having far more talent than I was ever likely to possess; and if he couldn’t make a go of it, it wasn’t very likely that I could.” (Raymond Chandler Speaking, Dorothy Gardiner, Kathrine Sorley Walker (ed.), Houghton Mifflin)

Review – The Novels of Fred Willard

I came to Fred Willard’s work back to front as it were, discovering him through his fiction before realising he was such a prolific film and TV actor. Willard only wrote two books. Both are noir crime novels and both are original, highly entertaining and well worth reading. The main characters are not so much hard-boiled as hard-bitten, they’ve made mistakes and learned from their criminal pasts, and get pulled back into the game by the lure of one last job.

Down on Ponce is the first, the tale of ex-dope-smuggler Sam Fuller’s time laying low on Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta. A job emerges, a crew of apparently hopeless street characters assemble – a voiceless cancer survivor, a paraplegic, a madman. Together they plan to rip off the biggest crime boss on the area and escape to better lives. Of course, nothing survives contact with the enemy and their plans for a bloodless scam unravel in the face of true criminal insanity.

There’s an unexpected tenderness among all the dry wit, twists and turns, set-backs and violence. Willard’s characters care for each other, they understand they are different and not only accept each other’s differences and disadvantages, they work with them too. Down on Ponce starts to wander a little as it approaches the final acts, there are few debut novels that don’t, but it soon gets its feet back under itself for a superb ending.

Willard’s second book is the gloriously titled Princess Naughty and the Voodoo Cadillac. Once again Willard has a misfit crew pitched against a mixed opposition of schemers and highly dangerous operators, this time on the decaying fringes of CIA covert ops. Willard really finds his style with this book, short chapters, quick changes of scene, a book written as if it’s filled with cinematic jump-cuts.

This time also the story as better balanced between the multiple narratives. Once again our crew are spiraling in on the big score, but other sharks patrol these waters too, and some are highly competent.

As the title promises, the book has a dry and cynical humour. Ponce had that too, but here again it’s better developed and better used. Everything is turned up to eleven and Willard is pushing for twelve. The secondary characters are by turns sinister, ludicrous, pathetic, and deadly. And again there’s that unexpected tenderness in the character’s emotional lives. Well, some of them, most of the others are incapable of finding that and perhaps that was Willard’s point.

Willard’s book are convoluted and intricate but the plots never become confusing. There’s always an ‘X’ on the map that everyone is, by hook or by crook, working their way towards, determines to be the first in, or if not at least the last standing. While there might be no good guys (or gals) there are those who are less worse, and isn’t burning down the really bad guys and getting away with it something we all occasionally dream of?

Both books I suspect are out of print. To my surprise Down on Ponce is available on Kindle. I think Princess Naughty should be too, it’s the better book. There is, however, a decent second hand market for the print versions of both books. Go get ‘em.


Solar PV – 2020 Sunshine Levels

Once a quarter I log my Solar PV reading with my electricity supplier. I have a 3.8 KWh installation on a near-enough south-facing roof in the UK. Along with a Tesla Power2 it generates about 75% of our electricity in any year.

I’ve been doing this for 8 years, and logging the detailed info for the past six. It’s been interesting in that my perception of what makes a sunny quarter often isn’t reflected in the readings. They’ve been reasonably consistent.

1. March-May 2014-19

March-May totals 2014-2019 have been, on average, 1,178 KWh, varying from as low as 90% (1,064 KWh) of that average in 2018 to 106% (1,218 KWh) in 2015. (Graph 1.)

2. Cumulative Total

To show personal perceptions of how much sunshine there is can be wrong, the annual total generation for the past few years is pretty much a straight line. (Graph 2.)

But wow, that’s over 30MWh generated!

I’ve just logged this year’s Mar-May reading. Graph 3 shows what that first graph looks like with that reading added in. The new reading that is an extraordinary 129% above the previous six year’s average, at 1,515 KWh.

3. March-May 2014-20

One rule with SolarPV is the longer the days and the sunnier the days, the more electricity is generated. While a clear winter’s day can hit peak generation it will only do it for a short period because the days are short.

It’s been a very sunny quarter. Based on my generation records, there’s been more sunshine in this March-May than in any June-August quarter since 2014 (The highest was 1,490 KWh in 2018). In every other year June-August has always been the highest generating quarter of the year.

Great for us, in the last three months we used an insignificant 28KW from the mains grid, but I’m really wondering why there’s such a big jump. Was it the Covid19 lockdown giving clear skies, or climate change, or a bit of both? I’m wondering what next quarter will be like, and next year too.

Wet winters, dry clear springs and summers seems to be the new normal here. The weather’s beautiful but I can’t help but worry this is bad news.

Writing: Art or Craft?

I remember a conversation from many years ago in my first writing group about whether or not writing could be taught. Some people thought no, that writing alone in all the fields of human endeavour, was somehow special and the ability was innate, Gods-given. The best you could do was encourage, but teaching, darling, was simply not possible.

As a journeyman writer still wet behind the ears I soaked this up. Was it true? I had my doubts. Later I realised this was nonsense. Everything other human activity can be, and is taught, from acting to zoology. Writing is not that special, nor that precious. The conversation moved on to whether writing was art or craft.

Over time this question has interested me probably far more than it reasonably should.

In paraphrase, the great French poet Paul Valéry wrote that a work of art is never finished, merely abandoned. You can read the full quote in French and translation here, including his reasoning for why he thinks that is.  

From my own experiences, and listening to other writers, that’s pretty much true for novels. There’s either not enough time because of a deadline, or you’ve drafted it so many times you’re tired of it. So there we have it – writing is art.

Except there’s a craft to writing too, the developed skills in use of language, tension, characterisation, agency, and all the other tools in a writer’s toolbox. Skills that one hopes will never stop being refined and improved in breadth and depth. And of course we change too.

The other thing I can’t seem to leave alone is leather craft. Is this a craft? The name implies as much but I’ve seen work that has amazed me with its artistry. With its origins in the working classes isn’t this classification as much a social construct as anything?

I have a theory: The difference between Art and Craft is that craft can be finished.

When I write a novel, given time and inclination I could redraft it forever, but if I make a leather belt when it is made it is done, finished, and there is nothing more that could be done to make it more the thing that it already is. In fact doing more would risk ruining it.

Except the learning of the craft never ends. Skills improve, the links between mind and eye and hand strengthen, new tools and techniques are discovered or learned. There’s an art to all this after all.

I still like my theory, but I think what it really shows is art and craft are two hands working together, inspiration and application. If I cook a meal, that is a piece of craft, once it’s done it is done, but the learning (and believe me in this realm I have much to learn) never ends.

So is writing an art or a craft? It’s both, obviously, just like everything we do. And yes, it can be taught. And learned.  But what about reading, a lone and possibly snarky voice calls? Reading? Don’t get me started.


(A slightly different version of this was originally posted in the Milford SF Writers blog in February, 2020.)

Axe the Reading Tax

That wonderful organisation the ALCS (Author’s Licencing and Collecting Society) have been running a campaign called Axe The Reading Tax to have VAT removed from digital publications in the UK. They are now asking all UK writers to write to their MPs before the coming budget.

Not only is this an illogical tax, it also penalises the disadvantaged. Rather than repeat myself, please read the draft letter below. Even better, use it as a template to write to your own MP.

I based my letter on the one the ALCS have on their campaign page. Feel free to use and edit it as you wish.

Please spread the word if you are able. Thank you.


Dear xxxx,

I am writing to you as a local constituent to ask that you write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, to ask on him to remove the tax on digital publications in the coming Budget.

Printed books, magazines and newspapers have always had a zero-rate of VAT applied to them, and rightly so. But their digital equivalents are subject to 20% VAT. This is illogical and unfair, and is in effect a tax on reading, education, and learning.

Ever since the UK’s VAT regime was established in the 1970s, it was recognised that books and knowledge are essential to people’s lives and applying tax to them is wrong. This long-standing belief has helped ensure that reading and learning remains affordable and accessible to people of all ages, incomes and abilities.

According to research from the National Literacy Trust, over 45% of children prefer to read on a digital device and young people on free school meals are more likely to read digitally than their more advantaged peers. Furthermore, this tax disproportionately impacts vulnerable groups such as the elderly and people with disabilities, who may need audiobooks or e-readers that can be used to alter print size. In this light the tax on digital publication appears arbitrary and unkind.

Please support the campaign to end this tax.I enclose a pre-paid envelope and look forwards to your reply.

Yours sincerely,

The First Story I Ever Wrote

Twenty-seven years ago I was thirty-five years old, with a young family of three children. It was 1993 and I had just been made redundant for the second time. Each morning I went through the adverts for jobs and applied for the suitable ones. I was (and still am) an experienced VMS Operating System admin, and in those days there was work to be found.

Twenty-seven years ago jobs were still advertised in print magazines, even local newspapers. I had a chunky old Windows 3.1 386 computer, and a dot-matrix printer, printing on micro-perforated fan-fold paper. Did I have an internet connection at home? I honestly cannot remember. I don’t think so, but a new search engine called AltaVista was a revelation at my next job

I was a regular user of the local library (remember when those wonderful places were in almost every town?). On one visit I saw an advert for a writing competition run by the Adult Education college in nearby Richmond. Effectively, the brief was to write a short story on any subject. First prize was, I think, £30.00, the word limit around 2,000.

I applied for job in the mornings and my afternoons were pretty empty. I’d always wanted to write, I was out of work. This, I thought, was a good opportunity. So I sat down and wrote 2020 Vision, a story about life in the year 2020. You can read it here.

The new year reminded me about this story and after many, many years, I hesitantly read it again. To my relief it wasn’t that bad. A first effort, an apprentice piece. What was more interesting was to look at what I had got right, or wrong in my predictions.

The short answer is quite a lot!


I might have been right about the increasingly difficulty of getting state aid by people who need it, but failed to imagine the sheer hostility of the present system. My future dystopia feels cosy compared to reality.

While I was wrong about the spread of specific drug-resistant infections, I had the general trend right. That wasn’t hard because even back in the 90s there was serious concern about the spread of drug resistance. And I was semi-right about the difficulty funding research into ‘Third-World’ diseases in a profits-based pharma culture. Wrong also about compulsory treatment. This is probably a good thing.

I was completely wrong about cybernetic body enhancements. They never happened. I and many of my geeky, techy, ShadowRun-playing friends were in love with the idea, as well as William Gibson’s Neuromancer vision of the future. Right now I’m unconvinced it will ever happen and problems of tech obsolescence aren’t going to go away.

While I feel I came quite close predicting high personal debt from university fees, that was simply a case of turning what was already there up to 11. It seemed pretty obvious.

Not Even Close!

I didn’t even mention HIV. I don’t know why, it was a big deal and high on government agendas and in the news. It’s still with us and while there’s disagreement, some believe its elimination within a decade is possible. Let’s hope so.

No doubt you can think of plenty more mistakes and omissions, but the big, bigger, biggest thing I totally missed was climate change. It was there but it had no real priority in either mine or the general consciousness as being anything more than ‘something that needs to be dealt at some point’. This, I think, is a real failure of imagination on my part as a writer of science fiction. But this was my first story, so give me a break.


I was nearly right about gene therapy fixing inherited diseases. I trained as a biologist, life and the processes of life still fascinate me. The other sciences are interesting but biology and especially genetic research is where it’s at. (As a total aside, how’s this for brilliant?)Back in the 90s this was all so far under the radar it was underground and even today the wider population seems unaware of just what a revolution is coming. A little slower that I’d hoped but it is just about here and few people have noticed.

I was right about the garage science bit too. Basic CRISPR gene editing can be done by anyone, by smart children, by you and me. It doesn’t need much equipment and costs are plummeting. Regulating this will be a challenge, but it’s one of the new sciences that holds enormous promise and hope, and it’s coming to your neighbourhood soon. To your street, your house. You. Puma claws for everyone, I tell you. Everyone.


P.S. 2020 Vision won that competition. I signed up for a term of classes at the college and the class went on to form my first writing group. Looking back, I think much credit goes to the judges for even considering an SF story in a general competition. 18 months later I sold my first story to Trevor Denyer’s Broadsword magazine.

Writer not rich enough for a bursary.

Note: This is essentially the same as a recent Twitter thread I’ve posted. I decided to blog about it too because not everyone uses Twitter and it’s easier to cross-post from here to places like FB. Also, because I am incensed.

Briefly, some background: I am the current Chair of the Milford SF Writers conference, an annual, week-long event for critique & discussion. We’ve run in the UK since 1972.

Since 2017, thanks to the generosity of individuals and two EasterCon committees, we have been able to offer bursaries to BAME writers around the world, and currently are funded for a few more. We’ve always been pleased to offer two bursaries a year.

To date, as well as UK writers, this has allowed SF&F writers from Nigeria, Netherlands, and USA to attend Milford. Not this year.

For 2019 we were again delighted to be able to fill both places. Except – annoyingly, frustratingly, infuriatingly, one must now fall vacant. Because UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) have rejected their visa application on the grounds of ‘financial capacity’.

One committee member is highly experienced in the problems the Hostile Environment policy causes musicians seeking visas, and has seen the refusal letter. It says there is no room for appeal, and in their experience it means exactly that. The writer we had been hoping to welcome to the UK says it is too heartbreaking a task to try again.

We’ve lost them. This is enormously disappointing. We are proud to be able to play our own part in increasing inclusion and diversity in our field of literature and the arts, immensely grateful to our donors. It is obvious that everyone benefits.

But this is where we now are with the poisonous Hostile Environment policy that Theresa May, our outgoing Prime Minister, introduced in her time as Home Secretary. It tells us low-income writers from other countries are not welcome, & we cannot help them with grants & gifts.

In short, this government thinks they are not rich enough to be given a bursary.

Third Instar – Out in the Wild!

Third Instar - Front Cover

My chapbook, Third Instar, has just been released by the innovative Eibonvale Press – Huzzah!

What is a chapbook? I hear you wonder. In the past they used to be short booklets, often printed on one sheet of paper and folded into four or eight small pages. In Third Instar’s case, it is an individually published long story.

Too long to be a short story, and too short to be a novel – it’s a novella.

What’s it about? Like most writers I babble incoherently when asked to describe my work. I think publisher David Rix, does much better than me:

“A vivid, evocative and ultimately dreamlike fantasy … set in a city on the edge of the world in the most profound sense – a city filled with colour and life against which David Gullen* creates a beautiful universal tale of romance and almost mythical loss.”

Until recently it was hard to find homes for stories of this length. Thanks to publishers like Eibonvale there are more and more available homes for them – just like there once used to be.

It’s great to have another story out there in the wild, finding its audience. If you read this one I hope you enjoy it.


*Yours truly.