One Step away from the Precipice: Climate Change in Fiction [Posted 20 Nov 2023]

 This was my article yesterday in La Repubblica - Italy's biggest newspaper. The title translates as 'One Step from the Cliff' - and it is an artcle about climate change in fiction, and about my novel 'The Wager and the Bear' (Soon to be published in English I hope). 

Here is the translation of the text:

David Bowie had a remarkable talent for writing songs that could conjure up a story. It is impossible to listen to ‘Space Oddity’ without imagining Major Tom, sitting in a tin-can, drifting forever into space.  But the Bowie song that stays with me most is ‘Five Years’. It tells a very simple story. News has reached us that the earth has only five years left. The planet is dying. In the song, the newsreader weeps. All around the market square people lose their minds.

What would it be like, I have often wondered, if we really were told this news? If a solemn news report, backed by all the world’s serious scientists, was to tell us we were running out of time? How would we react?

Well we now know the answer to this question. Newsreaders wouldn’t weep. No one would go crazy. We would ignore the danger and carry on with our lives as if nothing had changed. We know this because this is what we do. Every few months the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces a new report telling us the planet is running out of time. Every year the COP climate change conference makes dire predictions. Every year we learn that the previous year was the hottest on record. We watch forest fires in Canada and Brazil. We see dramatic floods, powerful storms, devastating droughts. We watch the collapse of animal populations. World leaders fly in and out of conferences. They make vague promises. But very little changes. And the world continues to die.   

The challenge seems to be a failure of human imagination. Perhaps it is the timescale. If the world was doomed in just five years, we might be more alarmed. If it was an asteroid hurtling towards us, we might make a real global effort to find a solution. But climate change seems to be a long unfolding tragedy. We are like passengers in a slow-motion train crash. The train is heading for a precipice, and all the pieces are in place for a terrible disaster, but everything is moving so slowly we stop worrying.  

All this presents a particular problem for story tellers. Climate change is the biggest story of our time, yet very few novelists are ready to grapple with this. Ten centuries from now, if humanity is still around, I suspect historians will only be interested in one story from our generation - how we responded (or failed to respond) to this existential threat to the planet. Science fiction, in general, has done us rather a disservice here. Writers have sold us either Mad Max-style desert dystopias, or impossible tales of starships taking survivors to new green planets. What we don’t have are real world stories that could help us to imagine the kind of earth we are creating.  And that is a shame, because imagination is what we need, now more than ever.

Once again, timescales seem to be the challenge. Novelists need a central protagonist with whom readers can identify. This character needs to have a story arc, and human dramas are typically too short for climate change to feature very much. There is a second problem too.  It is hard to imagine any character playing anything but a very minor role in what is a huge global drama. No one is going to step forward like Bruce Willis and save the world. For a writer, that is an unhelpful backdrop. We do not like to set up a jeopardy for our characters, without giving them some way to fight back. But how do you fight back against a warming planet?

In ‘L’Orso Polare e una Scomessa Chiamata Futuro’ (The Wager and the Bear) I hope I may have found a way to navigate a little around these two problems. The narrative unfolds over a whole human lifetime, and the central characters are front-seat observers of the climate disaster. The story involves two young men. One, Monty, is a politician. He is a climate change-denier. He lives in a grand house on the beach in Cornwall. He has a splendid lifestyle, and like so many of us in the slow-motion train crash, he doesn’t see the precipice approaching. The second man, Tom, is a climate scientist and campaigner. One drunken night, over too many glasses of cider in the local inn, the two men get into a quarrel. It ends with a deadly wager. In fifty years, either the sea will rise enough to drown Monty in his home, or Tom will accept the jeopardy himself, and will walk into the sea and drown. A video of the wager, posted online, goes viral. How will it all work out?

Well we have fifty years for the story to unfold. The lives of the two men cross several times, leading them both onto a melting glacier, and ultimately onto an iceberg floating down the coast of Greenland where their only companion is a hungry bear.  

The story is not entirely without hope. It is set against the backdrop of a campaign to restore some of what the world has lost. Neither Monty nor Tom can save the world. But there is at least hope, as well as despair.  

Climate change doesn’t have to be front and centre in contemporary fiction. But we shouldn’t be ignoring it either. As writers we have a responsibility, sometimes, to make the future seem real. We are hurtling towards a world of human-made disasters, of dying oceans, of rising seas, of failing harvests, of droughts, of economic collapse, and of climate-driven conflicts. We cannot ignore these things. If these aren’t part of our fictional landscape now, then they need to be.  Otherwise one day we may find we have just five years left. And it won’t just be the news readers weeping. 

Check out my website: 

A brilliant but rather scary Italian cover for 'The Wager and the Bear.'

I thought I'd share this rather terrifying cover. A brilliant piece of art. Thanks to the great team at Bollati Boringheiri

Check out my website 


The Wager and the Bear (Der Eisbär und die Hoffnung auf morgen). [Posted: 27 April 2023]

So I have a new novel launching in Germany next month. The English title is, ‘The Wager and the Bear,’ and the German title (a little less catchy perhaps) is ‘Der Eisbär und die Hoffnung auf morgen,’ which my google translator tells me means, ‘The Polar Bear and the Hope for Tomorrow.’ It might be a while before an English language edition is published – which is a shame. I’ll try to explain that in a moment – but first let me tell you about ‘The Wager and the Bear.’

The original idea for the story came from my brilliant agent, Stan. I told him I wanted to write a climate-change novel, and he sent me an email in February 2021, outlining a scenario he described as a cross between Not Forgetting the Whale and Local Hero. He called it ‘Not Forgetting the Iceberg.’ I rarely (normally) pick up on story-suggestions people give me but this was a rather compelling idea, and I found myself sitting down and writing an experimental first chapter. Then of course I had to write a second, and a third … and this is how novels get written. Stan wanted the story to be set in Scotland. I wanted it back in Cornwall – in my fictional village of St Piran. Stan saw the iceberg as the central threat. I saw the iceberg as a harbinger of a greater threat. And so I set about ignoring all Stan’s advice, and now not much remains of his original story, alas, except for the iceberg. But the iceberg (as you will see if ever you read the novel) does play a very central part. It is a story still very rooted in St Piran, and both the hero, Tom, and the anti-hero, Monty, are St Piran boys. It is an action story, a love story, a story with real, terrifying jeopardy … and a story with a bear.

The challenge with any story about climate change is to accommodate the long timescales. The climate catastrophe is something that might be almost instantaneous in geological terms, but measured against human lifespans it is ponderously snail-like. (See my last blog post So unlike ‘Not Forgetting the Whale’ (Der Wal und das Ende der Welt) this story unravels over a whole human lifetime. And during this lifetime we will come to discover if Tom really is the hero and Monty the anti-hero. Or is it more nuanced?

I do hope, if you can read German, you will discover this book. If you do, please write to let me know your reactions. You can message me through this blog. If, like me, you are limited to reading in English you might have to wait a little longer. I suspect UK publishers want to wait to see how well it does in Europe – and this is because my last novel, ‘The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild’ didn’t sell all that well in Britain. My counter to this is to explain that ‘Heloise’ hit the bookshops in hardback when shops were closed due to Covid, and the paperback launched when bookshops were closed again. It launched with virtually no publicity. There was, I suppose, very little point publicising a book when the shops were all shut. So it goes. It had a beautiful cover – but (in my mind) the title was wrong. My original title was, ‘Katya’s Gift,’ and I can’t shake off the feeling that it would have done better with that title. Heloise is still my favourite novel by the way. And it is still out there if ever you’re looking for something new to read.

Anyway – all that aside, I can’t wait to see ‘The Wager and the Bear’ in print. Here again is that beautiful cover. And thank you once again to the wonderful people at S.Fischer Verlag for having faith in me.  

Cats, and Spaghetti, and Climate Change [13 April 2023]

 I can’t remember when (or where) I first heard the expression, ‘herding cats.’ I don’t think this idiom was around when I was young. So far as I can tell, it was invented sometime in the 1980s and it took off. Soon everyone was using it. It’s a great little saying because we all know enough about cats to understand right away what it means. ‘I did my best, but it was like herding cats.’ At once we appreciate the futility, the complexity, and the sheer absence of co-operation from everyone concerned. You don’t get herds of cats. They are too bloody-minded.

My father had a saying that meant almost the same thing. But not quite. He would say, ‘it was like trying to organise spaghetti.’ Somehow, for me, organising spaghetti feels like an enterprise even more doomed to failure than herding cats. The cats may not want to be herded, but there is at least the possibility that they might eventually succumb. Spaghetti on the other hand will never submit to organisation. And unlike the cats this isn’t due to wilfulness or contrariness. Disorganisation is a property of the spaghetti itself.

Efforts to resolve the climate-change crisis are often compared to herding cats. In this metaphor the ‘cats’ are the 195 countries on the planet, across 7 continents, where no two countries think alike, or act alike, or have the same priorities, or enjoy similar political systems, or possess the same resources, or have the same levels of understanding. How do we ever herd these slippery belligerent cats into the same box?  Even so, I worry that the problem is more like organising spaghetti. There is no way to do this. We’ll never get everyone on board. Perhaps we ought to accept this and find a different way.

There is, by the way, a rather clever online tool called ‘Google NGram Viewer.’ It can help you to figure out when (but not necessarily where) a word or an expression arose. It searches millions of books over the past two centuries, and if the words you’ve entered appear in 40 books or more in any calendar year, it counts them and plots a graph to show how the frequency has changed with time.  Forty books feels like quite a high bar to me. If you enter ‘herding cats’ you won’t find any use of this expression until 1938. In 1942 the phrase disappears, and it doesn’t reappear until 1987. After that the frequency graph rises meteorically, like the lift-off of a space rocket. It is as if there was something that happened in the Eighties that made this expression useful.

If, by the way, you try ‘organised spaghetti’ in NGram Viewer you don’t get any results at all. Maybe this expression was exclusively my dad’s.

If I look up from my keyboard, and glance out of my window, I can see a storm coming. The clouds gathering over the estuary look as grey and heavy as gunmetal.

And now, in the time it has taken me to type that last sentence, the storm is upon us. The rain is driving against my window. I no longer have a view.  Funny how the weather can do that, and we all accept it. We look at the forecasts and we plan our days around them. Let’s do the beach on Sunday when the rain stops. But if we’re told the whole global climate is changing, we go into a complex form of denial.  We don’t really know how to plan. We hope that tomorrow will be much the same as today, and on the whole it is, and that gives us comfort. It makes us think this is nothing to worry about. Yet.

One metaphor I have heard used about climate change is ‘a slow-motion car crash.’ I used this myself in a novel, ‘The Wager and the Bear.’ The image I wanted was  of an impending catastrophe where the parts are all in motion, where no one is yet hurt, but where terrible death and destruction await if no one acts to stop it. A slow-motion car crash seems to tick all of those boxes. But all the same, I’m not altogether happy with this metaphor. For a start it seems too prosaic. (I’m using the word prosaic to mean lacking in poetry – but also to mean lacking in purpose.) I’ve tried to think of a better image. A train crash is better perhaps, because it involves more people. But slow-motion is insufficient to describe the slow and gradual increments of change that the climate crisis delivers. Sea levels are rising by around four and a half millimetres a year. In ten years, at this rate, they will rise four and a half centimetres. And the sea, as we know, moves up and down, sometimes quite erratically so that doesn’t feel like a threat. Not really. In a century the sea might rise forty five centimetres. About knee high. And none of us likes to think forward more than a century. Do we?

Isn’t that odd? We don’t have this blind spot with history. We’re fascinated by the lives of the Tudors (Henry VIII was on the throne 500 years ago). We love stories about the Romans (2,000 years ago). And yet we don’t speculate much on where our descendants might be in 500 or 2,000 years – what kind of world they will inhabit. Or what (since we chose this measurement) the sea levels might be. So let’s speculate then. Assume that sea levels keep on rising at 4.5mm a year (in reality the rate will almost certainly accelerate but let’s ignore that for a moment.) Our descendants in 2000 years will inherit seas 9 metres higher than today. The map of the world will have been altered irreversibly. Britain will have lost most of East and Central London, and great swathes of the Thames Valley including towns like Dartford, and Kingston. Hundreds of seaside towns will have been wholly lost to the rising waters - places like Portsmouth, Southampton, Middlesborough and Blackpool, Cardiff and Newport, and Gloucester. Lincoln (now 38 miles from the sea) will be a seaside town. So will whatever remains of Cambridge. So will York. So will Taunton.  Across The Channel most of the Netherlands and much of Belgium will be underwater.  So will huge tracts of Northern Germany. America will lose thousands of communities down the Eastern seaboard. China will lose Shanghai and Guangzhou. Bangkok and Kolkata and Ho Chi Minh City will be gone. And Basra, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. 

And here’s the thing. The water will still be rising. It still has a way to go. If all the ice melts (and it probably will if global temperature rises by 4 degrees) then sea levels rise seventy metres or so.

9 metres of sea level rise puts the Netherlands underwater

And sea level changes are, perhaps, the least of our worries. A 4 degree rise would make most of the world between the tropics practically uninhabitable. It would certainly make agriculture almost impossible. It will cause catastrophic drought . And the Northern farmlands which will now be warmer will not take up the slack. Celestial mechanics will still restrict sunlight in winter, and the soils are anyway very unproductive. And anyway a weird side effect of climate change might mean that as the world gets hotter (and sea levels keep rising) Europe curiously will get colder as ocean currents slow down.

Finally there is a terrifying threat. This is how it might be in, 'The Year of the Dugong.' If atmospheric CO2 levels exceed 1,200 parts per million (ppm) (and they could) it could push the Earth’s climate over a tipping point. This would see clouds start to break up, and, a cloudless world will reflect away less sunlight. According to research published in the journal Nature Geoscience, this could trigger another 8°C rise in global average temperatures. Game Over. 

So slow-motion train crash doesn’t work, does it? ‘Ultra-slow motion asteroid-collision,’ might be better. A disaster movie that runs at one frame a year. But the disaster is still going to happen. And it is inevitable unless we can herd the unruly cats who govern us and get them to start organising the spaghetti. Now.

Please check out my website for more information on my books. 

More Movie Cliches ... [31 March 2023]

Back in January I wrote a blog post bemoaning lazy cliches in movies and on TV. This, in turn, was prompted by an earlier blog post grumbling about the gun-related cliches in the new Avatar movie.

Well, as often happens, those posts got me noticing plenty more lazy cliches that movie makers use; so here, just for you, are a few of them. You’re welcome…

1. PSYCHO KILLERS ALWAYS PASTE THEIR BEDROOM WALLS WITH NEWS CUTTINGS. When the cop finally stumbles into the lair of the serial killer/psycho that’s how we know they’ve found the bad guy.


3. SENIOR COPS ALWAYS BAWL OUT THE GOOD COP. This seems to be a rule. There is always a more senior cop usually with a glass fronted office that looks over the incident room, and he (or she) is NEVER pleased with the way the case is going, never says, ‘well done,’ usually threatens to take the good cop’s badge, and generally pulls the good cop off the case.


5. COPS NEVER CATCH ANYONE IN A CAR CHASE. Did you ever see a car chase where the cops catch the guy they’re chasing, even if they throw a hundred cars at it? No. The guy (who is being chased by cops usually because of a misunderstanding) always gets away.

6. WRITERS ALWAYS WEAR SPECS. Also they either live in a cabin by a lake or in a New York apartment. 

7. HEROES ARE NEVER HAPPILY MARRIED. Usually the wife has died. Or else they’ve had an undeserved separation. Whatever, they are now available but only reluctantly.

8. TEENAGE SONS ARE ALWAYS REBELLIOUS. If the hero dad gives his teenage son an order, you know the son will flagrantly ignore it in the next scene. But in the end the teenage son comes good, sees the errors of his ways, and makes up with the dad.


10. DOCTORS ARE ALWAYS READY TO TELL YOU HOW LONG YOU HAVE TO LIVE. AND IT’S USUALLY JUST SIX MONTHS. But protagonists with six months left always look reasonably fit, they don’t spend the six months suffering in bed, they get out there and fight the bad guys.







17. THE BAD GUY’S HENCHMEN DIE FIRST. Finally he’s the last one left alive, but he’s also the trickiest to kill. Also, have you noticed; henchmen never have any lines. No henchman ever has a wisecrack, or says something poignant while dying. A shot henchman simply does the decent thing and dies quickly and quietly. Also where does the bad guy find all these henchmen? Are they amazingly well paid? Do they get paid holidays? Do they grumble over their conditions of employment?  Why are they always happy to do as they are told even when it looks as if they’ll die doing it? Why do they never say: ‘hey, this isn’t my fight. Leave me out of it.’ And on that subject ...  

18. HELICOPTER PILOTS EMPLOYED BY VILLAINS ARE STUPIDLY RECKLESS. Where do you employ a guy who is happy to fly a helicopter into such a dangerous situation that he and his helicopter will end up as a massive fireball? There must be an agency somewhere specialising in suicidal pilots ...

19. THE UNIFORM ON THE PEG/DEAD GUY IS ALWAYS A PERFECT FIT WHEN SOMEONE ELSE NEEDS IT. We never see a character struggling to get into a stolen uniform. A side door just opens and out they step, dressed up. And amazingly no one will question them.


21. BIG PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES ARE ALWAYS EVIL. So are the billionaire owners of social media and tech companies except for Stark Industries

22. IT IS REALLY EASY TO KNOCK SOMEONE UNCONSCIOUS. If you’re cool and you know how.

23. IT IS REALLY EASY TO KICK DOWN A DOOR. If you’re cool and you know how.

24. IT IS REALLY EASY TO SNATCH A GUN OUT OF AN ANTAGONIST’S HAND. If you’re cool and you know how.

25. IT IS REALLY EASY TO HACK INTO JUST ABOUT ANY COMPUTER. If you’re uncool and a nerd hacker.

26. IT IS ALWAYS EASY TO PARK. There is always a convenient space.


28. IF THERE IS A POKER GAME – SOMEONE WILL ALWAYS HAVE AN UNBELIEVABLE HAND. One protagonist has a once in a lifetime hand. But what do you know. Someone else at the table has a better one.


30. IT ONLY TAKES A SECOND TO PAY FOR A CAB. Movie people just pass over a banknote and get out without speaking.


32. THE HERO ALWAYS MISSES HIS DAUGHTER'S BIRTHDAY PARTY / CONCERT. It isn't his fault. He'll be forgiven at the end.

I'm beginning to think this is an almost endless seam to be mined. If you've spotted any more lazy tropes, let me know, or drop them into the comments. I daresay I'll keep noticing them. 

Please check out my website for more information on my books. 

The Key to a Great Safari: A Great Safari Guide [9 March 2023]

Paul Mbugua
I wanted to avoid an organised safari. You know the sort of thing - the luxury experience plucked from a glossy brochure where you’re dropped into a fabulous safari resort from a shiny light aircraft and you float over Samburu in a balloon, and, ‘here’s your agenda – it’s eight o’clock – let’s go and see the lions. Oh. And here’s the bill. You’re going to need a mortgage.

But what’s the alternative? Safaris are expensive. They’re complicated. They don’t always go to plan.

Well I thought I knew the alternative. We were travelling with friends and that would spread the costs. I would plan our safari myself. It would be way cheaper. I knew Kenya. I knew where I wanted to go. So I googled safari lodges, and I read online reviews, and I worked out an itinerary that would suit us. We’d do Nairobi National Park and the elephant orphanage. We’d visit Lake Naivasha, and Crescent Island, and Hell’s Gate. We’d stay at Lake Nakuru for the flamingos. We’d go on to the Masai Mara and we’d spend time in the conservancies as well as the Mara Triangle. It would be awesome.

And so I booked it. Six hotels/lodges. Twelve days.  I flirted briefly with the idea of self-drive but quickly abandoned it. I contacted Rhino Safaris because I trust them. I wrote to Lacty, the owner, at . And I told him I needed a good safari land-cruiser and a first class guide for ten days.

Readers – that is what we got. And it reminded me how essential a great guide is for a good safari. Paul Mbugua was more than a first class guide and an excellent driver – he was a splendid travelling companion too. His knowledge of Kenyan wildlife and geology is astonishing. And considering he was ferrying two smart-ass zoologists, and a geologist, including one who felt he knew it all already (that would be me) he still had a whole lot to teach us. Crucially he had enthusiasm. In spades. He would urge us to set off early and return home late and it always paid off. Once we did two back-to-back nine hour days and he never tried to rush us, or to set off before we had seen what we wanted to see. He persuaded us several times to change our agenda. Once was to break with the plan and visit Lake Elementeita. What a good decision that was. Another time we swapped days around because he’d picked up rumours of a leopard. Another good decision. His knowledge of every park was amazing. And the only time we flummoxed him was when we told him we wanted to visit Mount Suswa for the caves on the way back to Nairobi. Well, he’d never done that trip before. So he hired a guide too. This time a Masai guide called Kiano ( ) And what a trip that was.

Would I recommend a self-booked safari? Absolutely I would. It will be half the cost. And you stay in control.  I suggest you call Lacty. And make sure you ask for Paul. (Paul's whatsapp is +254 723 266 401). And for Suswa drop a mail to Kiano. And make sure you send me some photos.  Here are some of mine. 

Nairobi: Was it right to go back? [3 March 2023]

At Kenton ...

The Stanley


Back in January I shared, on this blog, my anxieties about going back to Nairobi. ‘Never Go Back,’ was the advice so many people gave me. I grew up in Nairobi you see. I once knew every city street, and shop, and market stall. I was comfortable prattling in Swahili. I felt as if this city was part of my identity; somehow encoded into my very DNA. But fifty years have passed. I’ve lived in England since 1971. It’s a different time now. Hugely different. Someone warned me that the Nairobi I left was a city of half a million people; the Nairobi I was set to visit had five million. ‘Don’t go back was his advice.’

So did I do the right thing?

Memories are curious things aren’t they? If you live in a place all your life, your recollections of that place evolve along with the landscape as the years pass. But if instead, one day, you simply get up and leave, your memories become frozen in time. Going back is like owning a precious vase, but alas, the paintings on the vase are fading. Someone offers you a brand-new vase with bright new paintwork. But if you accept it, you have to smash the old one. What should you do?

Well of course, I went back. I smashed the old vase. (We took a safari holiday with friends. I will blog about that sometime soon.) And guess what? I didn’t regret a moment. Yes, it was strange. Embakazi Airport (Now Jomo Kenyatta International) once the size of a high-school science block and comfortably out of town, is now a huge complex bristling with dozens of airplanes and now it is buried in a suburb of high-rise buildings, and the roads into town are giant freeways and the traffic is terrible. But I found this exciting. Not depressing. I knew the moment I stepped out of the plane I was going to love this place. It was still Nairobi. (Perhaps that was the biggest surprise.) Lots of the city is still absolutely recognisable. But even if it wasn’t, there is something ineffable about this city, something I can’t quite describe or explain, that stamps this place and its people with its mark and makes it simply the best and most exciting city in the world. It’s a noisy, chaotic, colourful, amazing place. Still. Thank goodness.

We stayed the first three nights at Masai Lodge – a safari lodge in the National Park (a lovely place about an hour out of town. I’d recommend it. Say hi to Cedric on the reception desk for me if you go there.) And we stayed the last few nights at The Stanley. Good choices both. I’ve wanted to stay at the Stanley all my life and it didn’t disappoint. And I visited my old school (Kenton College) and had a very warm welcome there. It was emotional. I watched a mixed-sex and multi-race group of kids doing football practice on the very field where I once played (in an exclusively-white-male school), and it brought a lump to my throat. I used my fifty year old memory to navigate through the streets past the market and the University and the Norfolk Hotel to the snake park (beware there is a new highway in the way) – and hey presto the snake park itself is unchanged in almost every way. Even the black mambas are in the same tank.

It was wonderful. It was cathartic. I left my fellow travellers at the pool on our final afternoon and I took a walk around the city centre on my own, and soaked up the magic and replayed my memories, and relished all that was new and all that was unchanged. So yes – the old vase is smashed; but I love the new one too. And my advice if you, like me, have been away for too long, is very very simple. Go back. It’s wonderful.  

Please check out my website for more information on my books. 

Unchanged - The Snake Park



My Book Shelves (11): In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall [19 Jan 2023]

The first time I read Jane Goodall’s ‘In the Shadow of Man,’ I was studying zoology at university, and this was one of our course-books. I was expecting a dry, academic tome. What I discovered was the intensely personal autobiography of a young English woman and a detailed account of the family of chimpanzees that accepted her into their fold. It is a book that has never left me, and I have re-read it several times. One feature that makes In the Shadow of Man so compelling is the family-tree of chimp faces that appears on the flyleaf. It is impossible to read the book without regularly consulting this handy guide to the chimps in the troop. Goodall was twenty-seven when she started work at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. It was 1960. For years she lived in the park, spending most of her daylight hours with the chimps. She is said, to this day, to be the only human ever to have been accepted into a chimpanzee group, and for almost two years she was the lowest ranking member of the Kasakela troop.

Almost every aspect of Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees was pioneering when she started, and not always welcomed by the scientific community. The idea that a researcher should live among a group of wild apes was considered rather shocking, especially if the researcher was young, blonde, and female. But Goodall’s most unconventional idea, perhaps, was to give her chimps names. This annoyed traditional primatologists who accused her of becoming emotionally attached to the animals. Today it is common practice for zoologists to name animals, especially primates, and the names Goodall gave to the Gombe chimps helped to bring their stories to a worldwide audience in a way that would never have happened had they been Chimp A or Chimp B. I still remember with affection the names of the chimps from In the Shadow of Man – David Greybeard, Goliath, Flo, Fifi, and Flint.  

The family tree from 'In the Shadow of Man.'
The Family Tree from In the Shadow of Man

I've been working on a novel, on and off, that may or may not ever see the light of day. It draws heavily from 'In the Shadow of Man.' At present my title for this book is Girl/Ape. It is the entirely fictional story of a young woman who lives with a troop of wild chimpanzees. I'm 38 thousand words in; but who knows. I shall let you know how it goes.

Sue and I have been lucky enough to meet Jane Goodall twice on her UK lecture tours, and both times her stories have brought us to tears. If you want to learn more about Jane Goodall I heartily recommend In the Shadow of Man, along with ‘My Life with the Chimpanzees’ and ‘Through a Window: 30 Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe.’  You might also like to subscribe to the Jane Goodall Institute’s YouTube channel.

Please check out my website for more information on my books. 

My Book Shelves (10): The Asterix books by Goscinny and Uderzo [18 Jan 2023]

 It is the year 50BC. After a long struggle, Gaul has been conquered by the Romans. All Gaul is occupied.  All? No. One village still holds out stubbornly against the invaders…

And there it is. The simple conceit that launched over forty books, a theme park,  a film franchise, and one of the most enduring partnerships in graphic literature – Asterix and Obelix – the indefatigable (and indomitable) warriors of the little Gaulish village we have come to know so well. If you’ve never encountered Asterix – where have you been?  Surely no one can have escaped at least a passing acquaintance with the books.  In a 1999 poll by Le Monde, 'Asterix the Gaul' was voted 23rd greatest book of the 20th Century. And it isn’t even the best of the canon. Not by a very long chalk.  But it was the first,  published in 1959 (and in English translation a decade later.)

Some of my dog-eared Asterix books ...
Some of my dog-eared Asterix books ...

I’ve been a fan since … well, since a teacher at my school gave us untranslated versions of the books to encourage us to read in French. I was about twelve. I dare say couldn’t make head or tail of the language. But the pictures themselves are enough to draw you in. And then one day I discovered Asterix and Cleopatra in English and that was it. I was hooked. And I have been ever since.

Where do I begin to catalogue everything that makes the Asterix books such works of unrivalled genius?  They are funny, witty, touching, and beautifully drawn. They mercilessly lampoon every national stereotype in a way (and to an extent) you probably couldn’t get away with now. They are charming. Original. Clever. And above all they are great stories.

But I need to make an important distinction here. My unrequited love for these books is limited to the first 24 volumes – those written by written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo (and translated by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockeridge) until Goscinny’s death in 1977. These are:

1.     Asterix the Gaul

2.     Asterix and the Golden Sickle

3.     Asterix and the Goths

4.     Asterix the Gladiator

5.     Asterix and the Banquet

6.     Asterix and Cleopatra

7.     Asterix and the Big Fight

8.     Asterix and the In Britain

9.     Asterix and the Normans

10.  Asterix The Legionary

11.    Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield

12.   Asterix at the Olympic Games

13.   Asterix and the Cauldron

14.   Asterix In Spain

15.   Asterix and the Roman Agent

16.   Asterix in Switzerland

17.   Asterix and the Mansions of the Gods

18.   Asterix and the Laurel Wreath

19.   Asterix and the Soothsayer

20. Asterix In Corsica

21.   Asterix and Caesar's Gift

22.  Asterix and the Great Crossing

23.  Obelix and Co.

24.  Asterix in Belgium

After Rene Goscinny’s death Albert Uderzo ploughed on alone, writing and drawing the books. The eight books Uderzo created are not nearly so good. I possess them all – of course. But who, if anyone, really enjoyed Asterix and the Actress? Or the Falling Sky? The books are a poor imitation of the first 24 – and oddly even the drawings aren't as good. In 2013 an agreement was made with Uderzo and the estate of Goscinny for a new writer and illustrator to take over. Enter Jean-Yves Ferri as writer, and Didier Conrad as illustrator. The books were better than Uderzo’s solo efforts. Asterix and the Picts was even quite good. But they too have failed to hit the highwater mark of books like Asterix the Legionary or Asterix in Corsica.

I give you below, the opening page of Asterix in Spain. If you can show me a better opening page of any book, I should like to see it.

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Never go Back. Should I revisit Nairobi? Or not? [13 Jan 2023]

 Never go back. I’ve been given that piece of advice plenty of  times, by lots of different people, but always with reference to one particular place. Nairobi. The city where I was born. Where I went to primary school. Where I went to prep school. Where I lived until I was seventeen.

Never go back.

I get it. I do. I understand why you should never go back. Memories are fragile enough as it is, why spoil them? Everything will have changed. I left Nairobi in 1971, and when I did, I felt as if I knew every street corner, every shop and bar and café and market stall. I knew the bus routes, and the clubs, and the museum, and the National Park. I was a regular at the Impala Club, and at Dam Busters, and the Snake Park, and the animal orphanage. I knew my way unaided around the city maze. I used to sit at a table in the Thorn Tree Café at the New Stanley Hotel and spot celebrities with my big sister. I was on first name terms with the man who ran Top Ten Records on Kimathi Street, and with the Sikh who ran the camera shop next to the market, and with several owners of second-hand bookstores all along Bazaar Street. I knew the best stall to buy mealies and the best place to get cut pineapple.  My little brother Paul and I used to take the lift to the top of the highest building (then the Hilton Hotel) and climb the service staircase to the roof and we’d sit there watching the whole city at our feet. It was our city. That was how it felt.

Me at Kenton College in around 1966. I'm the miserable looking one - second to the right on the front row. 

There is still a city called Nairobi, and it still stands in the same place - midway between Mombasa and Kisumu on the great railroad - but it isn’t the same city. I understand that. I look at the city on Google Streetview and nowhere is recognisable. I try to find the several old colonial bungalows where we lived at various times between 1958 and 1971, and I can’t find them. The houses all have high walls now. Nothing looks familiar.

Never go back.

But should I? Won’t I get a frisson of pleasure from recognising the occasional place? Surely my old school won’t have changed very much. Surely the Impala Club is still there. And the hippo pool in the National Park. And the museum. And the Stanley Hotel …

Well it’s a moot question. I’m going back. Next month. With Sue and with our good friends Graham and Jenny.  Feel free to send me your advice. Places to see. Places to avoid. I will blog about the trip and let you know how it was. But I can tell you this already. Four weeks to go and I’m already ridiculously excited.

Please check out my website for more information on my books. 

Movie Clichés (tropes and memes). And why it's time to stop them. [13 Jan 2023]

I wrote a blog post last month about ‘Avatar 2 (The Way of Water)’ and I used this post to bemoan the prevalence of lazy movie memes – especially memes that involve guns. But maybe, on reflection, ‘meme’ wasn’t the right word. Some people, I’ve discovered, call these things ‘tropes,’ which makes them sound almost respectable. But I’m starting to think of them as clichés. When a hero is rescued by a gunshot from an offscreen character (the Deus ex Machina escape) this is surely nothing more than a lazy cliché – predictable, unoriginal, overused, and boring. 

Clichés take the fun out of movies. They tell you, 'here is an unoriginal screenwriter and an unimaginative director and a studio that is happy to rerun old ideas.' It is time for us, the movie-watching public, to call out these mind numbing practices.  So I thought I might use this blog post to start a collection of these clichés, and I shall add to it when I come across new ones. Feel free to contribute movie clichés that annoy you – just drop them into the comments and I’ll add them on. Here are a few to get us started.




If the TV is on in the background of a scene, and the news is on (or there’s a news flash) – you can be absolutely certain this news item will be central to the story that is about to unfold. Particularly if it happens in Act 1. No other story will be aired and the characters will turn off the TV before the football results come on.


If a character is a teacher or a professor we will join them in class, but only for the last few minutes of class up until the point where they are interrupted by the bell. Never midway through. During the few minutes we see, the teacher/professor will expound upon a theory that will prove central to the story that is about to unfold. Particularly if it happens in Act 1. Usually he/she will be interrupted by a smartass student with a smartass question. This student will turn out to be the hero or the nemesis of the story.


There’s a dog! Oh dear. He’s going to die. Or go missing.


Two characters share their suspicions about a third character. Big mistake. The third character will be standing silently out of sight listening to everything.


Every spaceship / building / ship / prison will have a network of ducts that are just wide enough to crawl through. Each duct has a cover with just two screws. A character can also use a duct to eavesdrop on conversations (see previous cliché).


For no known reason, bomb makers helpfully include a digital count-down timer (even when they don’t expect anyone to be there to be there to see it.) The bomb maker is never smart enough to have triggered the bomb at any point on the countdown except zero. This is lucky because generally the hero will defuse the bomb with just three seconds to go.  


God knows there must have been a lot of mud. But long dresses stay clean.


Usually by water. Or in a trailer. Or a boat. Or somewhere spectacular. Never in an apartment block or on a dull estate.


They just hang up. Rude.


This cliché annoys me more than any other. We think we’re watching a bona-fide scene in the movie. Dreadful things happen. They get worse. Oh my god! But then the protagonist awakes. Phwew! It was only a dream.  


If a car driver has five lines of dialogue, he/she will deliver this whole spiel while looking directly at the passenger, and the passenger will never panic or say ‘keep your eyes on the road.’


One cough is all it needs and you know the character has consumption and will surely die before the credits.


But don’t worry. They will always get their comeuppance in the final act.


Usually a little overweight. Not too bright. Not too good looking. Often a member of an ethnic minority. They will fall out with the hero in Act 3. But they are staunch. In Act 4 they will reappear just when they are needed.

My Book Shelves (9): Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke [5 Jan 2023]

I once wrote a novel about a man called Thomas Post who happened to be (fictionally of course) an international authority on the subject of coincidences. (The novel is, unsurprisingly, titled ‘The Coincidence Authority,’ and it is still available if you are interested.) Anyway. Because of this book, people sometimes send me coincidences that have happened to them. They think I might be interested, and I always am.

But now it is time to share one of my own.

Sometime in around 2006 or 2007 or thereabouts I bought a copy of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in paperback from a bookstore at Glasgow Central Station. I needed something to read for the journey home. Now this is a hefty volume (1,006 pages) and I usually run a mile to avoid starting anything over 300 pages (although for exceptions to this rule you may want to read my blog posts on Donna Tartt and John Irving). Nonetheless, something drew me to this book, and I’m dashed if I know what it was. I was aware of the book, but only faintly. It had been Costa shortlisted and had been busy gathering other awards. But I had never planned to buy it. Never expected to read it. Nothing about the cover blurb excited me. I hate travelling with a book that won’t slip into a jacket pocket. And generally I don’t read fantasy.

So why did I buy it? I really don’t know. But by the time my train was passing through Carlisle I was already too hooked to look up and see where I was; and when I had to disembark at Stafford I was resenting the drive home. I wanted so much to read on. This is a story as magical as the characters who inhabit its pages. I rarely read fantasy novels, so I don’t know where this book belongs in the canon, or whether the tropes that populate it are original, or borrowed, or part of a noble tradition. All I know is the quality of the writing, and the depth of characterisation, and the sheer detailed bravura of the magical landscape that Susanna Clarke created make this book a genuine undisputable classic. Clarke litters the text with academic footnotes and even an imaginary bibliography (3 A Complete Description of Dr Pale’s fairy servants, their Names, Histories, Characters and the Services they performed for him by John Segundus pub. By Thomas Burnham Bookseller, Northampton 1799.)  She creates a world unlike any other, so rich in its particulars, and rules, that you will never question any conceit. It is a world we already know – or think we know – where Wellington is fighting the Peninsula War and where nineteenth Century mores and manners prevail – but where magicians, like the rock-stars of their age – manipulate the very fabric of reality. And at the heart of the story an age-old professional enmity – the kind of intergenerational abyss we all recognise – as the reckless but brilliant magician Jonathan Strange begins to outstrip the skills and achievements of Norrell, his mentor. I love this book.  I turned every page with a sense of awe. Who was Susanna Clarke? How had she done this? How had she created this colossal fictitious citadel?

And now here is the coincidence. I had a good friend at school who was (still is) a writer. His name is Colin Greenland. Among other things he won the Arthur C Clark award for his novel, ‘Take Back Plenty.’ (A brilliant book). We used to talk a lot. But we’d lost touch. Some years had passed since our paths had crossed. We had barely swapped emails for a decade. All I knew was that Colin still lived in Cambridge, we occasionally exchanged Christmas cards, and Colin’s card in recent years had read ‘Colin and Susanna.’ And that was that. Meanwhile the only biographical note that Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell offers on Susanna Clarke is just eleven words long. ‘Susanna Clarke lives in Cambridge. This is her first novel.’ Hmm. Finally the very last line of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an acknowledgement ... ‘and above all to Colin.’  So I dropped Colin an email, and discovered that according to the ‘seven degrees of separation’ rules I was only one connection away from the author of just about the most brilliant novel I’d read for years.     

Thomas Post, by the way, would say this isn’t a coincidence. Millions of people read this book, so some are bound to discover a connection to the author. But it feels like a coincidence to me, so I’ll take it.

And as a postscript – if you really can’t face 1,000 pages, may I recommend Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. I don’t want to tell you anything about it. Just that you ought to read it. Another masterpiece. And then have a go at Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. 

Please check out my website for more information on my books. 

One Step away from the Precipice: Climate Change in Fiction [Posted 20 Nov 2023]

 This was my article yesterday in La Repubblica - Italy's biggest newspaper. The title translates as 'One Step from the Cliff' -...