Thursday, 8 September 2011

Arctic Adventure: Day One

This is a blog of my trip to Tromso and Hammerfest a week ago. An entry a day, as I toured northern Norway to research settings and storylines for my next novel.

I have wanted to go to Tromso for years. It appeals to me because it's the most northern city in the world. It's almost at the top of Norway, with nothing but water and ice before you hit the North Pole.

For some reason that idea has obsessed me. To go somewhere like that. The only way that is going to happen is if I set a book there.

The story - probably called WHITE FEAR - is about five children who are trying to prevent WW3 breaking out. As the ice melts in the Arctic Circle, more oil, gas and other resources are made accessible - and several countries want to lay a claim. It could easily be a source of enormous tension within years.

That's the backdrop. The story will consist of the children listening in, following, chasing, being chased and - in the darkest scene - being hunted like animals across the mountains around Tromso.

That's why I went up to the mountains today. It was wonderful.

First, I took a cable car, then hiked into the mountains behind. I wasn't sure what I was looking for. That's part of the reason for going: to get ideas, to see what might work and what might not. It's the easiest and most exciting part of writing a book. Anything can happen.

I found:

* a mountain refuge hut - perfect for the children to hide in when hit by a blizzard and now I know exactly what they look like and how they could save the children's lives

* an Arctic hare the size of a goat - something for them to hunt, as they may be up there some time

* spectacular views of fjords, mountains, glaciers and how they made me feel - to help with the description

* a plane coming into the airport, so low that I was above it and could see the pilot's face - ideas for a military or search flight in the story

* the cable car itself and how it rocked in the wind - that just has to be involved, the peril will be fantastic, hanging on a wire in a metal box in a howling gale

But, more than anything, it was the feel of a place that I was after. How it felt to be up there for four hours seeing no other person. The power of the wind and how it pushed me around. The rocks underfoot. Then the bare soil stripped of life, except for a few dead roots. The feelings of loneliness, paranoia, excitement and heightened alertness.

I like setting books in new and distant places. I have set books in Ghana and Moscow in the past and like to think I caught the feel of the places. I went to Ghana and Moscow too. They're both such different places to England and they would have been weaker books had I not visited them. I got details I could include, but, equally importantly, I left things out that I might have included. Errors. Cliches. Inaccuracies.

That's why I went to Tromso.

Tomorrow, I'm going to all the museums in Tromso, devoted to explorers like Nansen and Amundsen. I want to work in an exploration dimension to the book, but I'm not sure what. The museums will help me.

Then, that evening, I will head off on a boat to the very northern tip of Norway.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


Engage is about Matt Hampson, an emerging rugby union player in 2005.

Hampson was in the Leicester Tigers first team squad and was playing regularly for England U21s, but in March 2005 he had an accident in training when a scrum collapsed. He broke his neck and was paralysed from the neck down.

The book is a collaboration between Hampson and the much-respected sports writer, Paul Kimmage.

Engage tells you about Hampson's life in rugby, the day of the accident and since the accident, giving you an insight into what it was like physically and mentally for Hampson to go through and come to terms with such a terrible event.

It is a distressing read in a lot of ways. You get to understand how Hampson feels, but also how his mum and dad are coping with it. This is tough to read. When you see the player through the eyes of the people he loves and who love him, the story becomes much more poignant.

But, as well as a harrowing read, it is an uplifting read. Hampson is a strong man. He learns to cope with what is happening to him. He draws inspiration from people he meets along the way. He grows.

This is as much a book about rugby as his accident. You get to see what rugby players are like on the pitch, in the dressing room and out and about. I found that fascinating. You meet some huge names from the game.

For me, Engage is like a novel. There is a form of novel in Germany called the Bildungsroman. It is about how a young person grows from being a young man into becoming an adult and how they meet people along the way that help them to develop into what they are going to become.

Engage does that. Hampson has ongoing relationships with people from England legend Martin Johnson, to other patients in Stoke Mandeville Hospital and his parents. They all grow and change together in this compelling story.

It also reads like a novel in that it is so well written. None of that heavy biography style that so often makes amazing lives seem tedious. This is sharp, lively and - at times - a bit experimental. There are dream scenes, courtroom dialogue and other devices used, for instance.

I may have made Engage sound a bit fancy. It's not. It's blunt and tough and deeply moving.

Engage: The Fall and Rise of Matt Hampson was published by Simon & Schuster in August 2011.

Saturday, 3 September 2011


Two more books to review in the run up to the Rugby World Cup.

Just out is Lawrence Dallaglio's World Cup Rugby Tales (Simon & Schuster).

The book is full of Rugby World Cup stories that Dallaglio has gathered, after deciding to ask dozens of players what their favourite World Cup story or experience was on or off the pitch.

It is a great way of telling the story of the tournament through the eyes of the game's greats. Such as Jonathan Davies, Michael Lynagh, Will Caling, Gavin Hastings and many more. You get the great games, the famous moments, plus antics off the pitch.

It's funny, informative and - if you want an even better reason to buy this book than to be entertained - all the sales will help raise money for a charity Dallaglio supports that looks out for physically disadvantaged children: Wooden Spoon.

Another book is Rugby Union: the Men Who Make the Game by Ian Smith (Book Guild). It is an excellent set of chapters about great rugby players at club and country level. Subject players include Toby Flood, Nick Easter, Steve Borthwick and there's a foreword by Rob Andrew, no less.

I like the way this book is written. You get career highlights about the players chosen, but also you find out more about them personally. Books like this can be dull and two dimensional, but this is nothing lie that.


There are some great Rugby Union magazines about. The two main ones that I could find on the news stands are Rugby World and The Rugby Paper.
They are very different, but both excellent in their own right.

Rugby World (September 2011, £4.10) is your classic glossy, thick, well-put-together monthly. Like FourFourTwo or Runners' World in other sports. It is ful of well-written articles and interviews and indteresting features. This World Cup special features interviews with Ben Foden and an excellent pullout about England's pool in the World Cup.

The Rugby Paper (£1.50) is more like a newspaper. In fact, that's what it is. It has match reports from England down to some of the lower leagues. Very up-to-the-minute opinion pieces by writers like Jeff Probyn, Peter Jackson and Matt Emery. All about rugby with no other sports to get in the way. This is edition (August 28th 2011) has a pull out guide to the Aviva Premiership too. It made me wonder why there wasn't something like this for football.

The third featured here is Sir Clive Woodward's Guide to the World Cup (£2.95). This is an interesting combination of a basic run down of all the teams and the players likely to grab the headlines, plus three or four essays by Sir Clive about captaincy, motivation and sports psychology. I found it really interesting and can see why he is in demand as a speaker across business as well as sport. A good price for a glossy magazine.

In the next week you'll be able to pick up the October 2011 RUGBY WORLD and this week's THE RUGBY PAPER, as well as the THE RUGBY PAPER'S Essential World Cup Guide, so, if you're skint, stay out of newsagents.

Thursday, 1 September 2011


Scott Quinnell's book - The Hardest Test - is my favourite rugby book.

What I love about it is that it is a short, but jam-packed, story about a rugby player's career. From being a youth player to Welsh international and British Lion.

In clear, readable prose you find out what that felt like for Quinnell.

But there is another dimension to the story. The player's battle with dyslexia.

That is what I enjoyed most. Quinnellis very honest about how he struggled at school and what impact that had on his life and how he felt about himself.

I have read a lot of sport players' books and a lot of them are just a list of great games a player has played in and his opinions on people he had met in the sport. The Hardest Test is different because you find more out about the man. That's down to his honesty.

When I was writing one of my Football Academy books - Reading the Game - I found this book very useful. It helped me understand how a boy at school who was struggling with reading might feel. And how he might try to conceal his problems with other behaviour. I work in a lot of schools and I meet a lot of boys who struggle with reading in the same way. I always tell them about this book.

The Hardest Test by Scott Quinnell is £1.99 and published by Accent Press.