Starter for Ten w/c 2-3-2020

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up and blank pages are not allowed – if all else fails type out song lyrics. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold!

Suckage often occurs. Tuesday’s is pretty weird this week…



The lift trundles downwards. It has been descending for nearly ten minutes now and there doesn’t seem to be any sign of it stopping. Inside the lift the usual social etiquette that restricts conversations between all of those inside has thawed as the occupants realise that this isn’t a normal lift ride. Three of the occupants are sat cross-legged on the floor and the rest laze against the walls. One has lifted himself up onto the section of the drill bit that is sharing their descent and seems to be trying to sleep.

The lift passes harsh lights at roughly twenty metre intervals and Gabbon’s mind reels at the thought of being asked to wire in those lights. Did they stop the lift and work from inside, or were the electricians lowered in a cage? The thought of opening the doors and looking into a bottomless shaft fills Gabbon with horror and a wash of bile makes it to the top of his throat before he manages to collect himself.

“How much lo-“ one of the men sitting on the floor starts to ask but is cut off as the lift quietly and efficiently stops and the doors roll open smoothly revealing the largest space that Gabbon has ever seen. He thinks briefly of the Grand Canyon which he visited in his teenage years, but this is bigger. The fact that it is so far under ground provokes a mix of emotions: surprise, excitement, fear.

The team step out of the lift, working their way around the drill section and look up and around trying to make out the cavern’s roof. With a start Gabbon notices a truck is driving towards them. At this distance it makes the truck seem comically small but as it approaches it becomes apparent that this is a normal-sized truck.

A woman wearing a hard hat and safety goggles opens the passenger door and swings her legs across the threshold and climbs down the truck’s four steps.

“Gentlemen, welcome to my mine. Anyone who isn’t already wearing their hard hat and goggles put them on now. This will be the only time I ask you to do this. If I see you without them from now on then you will be escorted back to the lift and removed without pay.”

A flurry as the men all guiltily don their safety equipment.

“Very soon, you will all feel the effects of dehydration. You are in a salt mine and the salt is greedier for the moisture in the air than you are, so the air you are breathing will have typically less than 0.0004% moisture. On the surface, this can be up to 3%. Use your camelbaks or your lips will crack, your vision will fail and before a day has gone you will look like a Californian Raisin. But a very dead raisin.”


We play a game at home called “BIRD!” and I’m going to explain how you can play it too. “BIRD!” is suitable for any number of players, of nearly any age. All you need is a window that is transparent and some people who can talk. The aim of the game is to look out of the window and when you see a bird then you shout, “BIRD!” No one else can claim the same bird, but it’s never really made explicit which bird you’ve seen as you don’t have to point at it. If the view from the window is relatively far, then you will end up with situations where the players cheat and just shout “BIRD!” almost constantly.

The shelf-life of this game – as in the time that you can play it for before you want to find a very heavy set of book-shelves and pull them down onto your body – is around three minutes. Despite this fact I find myself playing it with a greater degree of regularity, than I might have expected. Even now as I write this I am glancing out of the window and playing “BIRD!” with myself and extracting about as much joy out of it as I usually do.

“BIRD!” resists all attempts at strategy. It cannot be leveled-up. There is no sell-on merchandise or expansion pack. It doesn’t even have a box that we can put the majority of the pieces in and return it to a shelf, and then, in time, to the loft, and then, in time, to the charity shop. I created the game “BIRD!” and I am sorry for it.  


At the assembly the head teacher read Jessica’s name out and she stood up from the school hall floor, with its weird glossy varnish and picked her way through the ranks of children sitting cross-legged on the floor. The head teacher had a strange habit of announcing children’s names with an ominous booming sound and making them come to the front of the hall before she declared whether it was good or bad. It was invariably good, but it didn’t stop Jessica from trembling slightly as she stood at the front. Her right foot rolled over her ankle repeatedly as she fidgeted in place.

“How do you spell locate, Jessica?” the head boomed. Jessica’s face fell. A hall full of children looked on eagerly, awaiting Jessica’s inevitable weeping.

“L-O-C-A-T-E?” she replied in barely more than a whisper.

“Correct!” said the head and another teacher moved from the plastic chairs at the side of the hall with a large box of Maltesers, which the head took from her and passed with a smile onto Jessica. “And that was just one of the words that you spelled correctly in the recent whole school spelling test and it’s why you won the prize!”

Jessica looked at the Maltesers that seemed to have materialised in her hands. The box was massive and as she held it you could hear the little chocolate globes rolling about inside. To our ears it sounded like there must have been thousands of them. Jessica blinked. The children clapped and the head moved on. Jessica and the large red box of sweets returned into the crowd of children. The box’s presence so unusual – a child, an actual child, allowed to roam freely with more chocolate than most of us saw outside of ten Halloweens.

At break time Jessica attracted a crowd on the playground. Well, Jessica was to some extent an irrelevance. Sure, she could spell, but it was what her spelling had unlocked that us children were interested in. Her right leg rolled over her ankle again as the crowd around her built until it was easily four deep.

“Show us the box.”

“Yeah, hold it up.”

Jessica knew nothing of crowd control, so she blithely did as the loud voices requested.

“Give us one.”

“Yeah, can I have one?”

Jessica could have said no. They were her chocolates. But the sheer number of them. You could hear it from the trundling sound that they made inside that there must have been easily a hundred Maltesers per child in a box of that magnitude.

“Well, I suppose-“ Jessica began and inserted her finger into the perfect circle of the box and pulled back the perforated cardboard tab that kept them all in.

The hands.

All the hands.

Jessica could do nothing more than hold the box aloft. The hands pushed past her. My own hand among them. The hands of the crowd reaching and grabbing and dispersing.

The hands were gone.

Jessica held the slightly crumpled red box without a single Malteser in it. It seemed smaller now, like a magic trick when you figure out how it’s done. Jessica held onto the box. 


Barry hated the word Barista. In part this was because it opened up too many jokes about his name. “You can’t spell Barista without Barry!” his shift manager was fond of saying. It wasn’t just inane it was inaccurate. You could clearly say Barista without Barry. The joke felt too close to the truth to Barry, like some sort of nominative determinism that he couldn’t escape. He kept thinking of the card game Happy Families and wondering if he was just another in a line of Mr Bun the Baker people. It reinforced the power of branding. If only his parents had thought to christen him Billionaire instead. Barry chuckled to himself as he realised that there probably was some poor chump called Billy O’Nare, who had even more of a reason to hate his parents.

Such was his attention to this particular day dream that Barry didn’t realise that his hand was directly under the hot water spigot as he span the handle and steam gouted out of the grubby silver opening. The pain was instant and all-consuming. He dropped the cup as he reflexively pulled his damaged hand to his chest. He span on his heel and barged his way past Erin as he made for the sink. A searing belt of pain reached his senses and he risked a look at the back of his hand. It was a sweaty, red colour and there was blood leaching out from under what looked like a cut. Bubbles of yellow were raising on the skin and Barry could feel the drool of repulsion gathering in his mouth.

Erin had finally understood what was going on and was shouting for Tom. Barry heard the customer asking if he could get his drink as he ran the tap on full power and forced his hand into the stream.  


I studied the blade for several years. The katana, shuriken, bo-staff, those over-sized pasta fork things. They do have a name but I can’t remember it. I was actually going to go to Japan to study at one of the temples they have but there were quite a lot of entry requirements and between one thing and another I didn’t get in.

So most of my martial arts these days are tai-chi. It’s actually pronounced TAY-CHWEE but lots of people don’t get what you’re talking about if you invite them to come to a TAY-CHWEE taster session. There was a bit of awkwardness where an older lady thought it was a sort of afternoon tea thing and then she started shouting about having a voucher from Groupon and in the end I just made her a sandwich and a brew and she calmed down.

People often mistake tai-chi for an exercise for geriatrics. Not so. It’s by far the most deadly martial art out there. It shits all over krav maga and your BJJ. There’s this story that Bruce Lee would fight anyone and all sorts of people would turn up at his dojo – wrestlers, karate men, boxers and he wiped the floor with all of them – one inch punched them out of the ring. But one day this guy turns up asking to fight and Lee asks him what he studied. This guy goes “tai-chi” and Lee turns as white as a sheet and gives him a thousand dollars to go away. This guy says I want ten thousand and Lee goes straight to the bank and gets it for him.

That’s a true story.

You see tai-chi only looks slow because that’s how it was smuggled out. There was this ancient master and he created tai-chi but it was full speed tai-chi, with punching and kicking. And the ruling emporer at the time said, “This is the best martial art in the world, a lot better than krav maga, we need to keep this secret” and they used tanks and bombs to try and kill everyone who knew tai-chi. But this ancient master escaped and started to teach it as a slower exercise. It was the same moves, he just slowed them right down to about a thousandth of the speed. The emporer never realises that’s what’s happened and tai-chi sneaks under the radar – this emporer even ends up taking lessons himself!

Oh look, seems like we’ve been cleared for take-off. I’m Martin by the way.

Starter for Ten – w/c 17-02-20

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up and blank pages are not allowed – if all else fails type out song lyrics. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold!

Suckage often occurs.

I took a break from Starter for Ten while I was busy marketing Before and After, but as I start to focus on writing a new book, the plan is to do them daily again but publish them weekly, or possibly weakly. Hopefully that way it gives you a bundle to read or ignore as you see fit, in one handy package.



There’s a little scratch on the wall and it bothers him. The walls were only painted a few months ago and to see this scratch where flecks of paint have been scraped off, reveals the colours underneath – that awful green that the landing had been painted ever since they arrived. He runs his thumb across the scratch and a minute fleck of the paint chips clings to his nail. It’s fine. He moves on with his day.

Later, he finds himself on the landing with a fine grade of sandpaper. He’s not entirely sure where he got the sandpaper from, but he dimly recalls a shop and a joke about DIY. Now here he is and he eases a sheet of the paper out and folds it carefully around a small block of wood, about the size of a chalk-board eraser. This gives him a pad which he can use to gently push at the edges of the gouge. He’s decided it’s a gouge and not a scratch – almost like it was a nail that pulled through the surface. He brushes and wipes and vacuums and soon he has a flat surface – the gouge is less prominent but underneath there’s that green colour that his wife insisted on. It reminds him of pea and ham soup. It’s a colour from another era.

The next morning he lays out a small cloth on the floor which is covered with spatters of colours. He’s mesmerised briefly and half composes a thought about Jackson Pollock, which dissipates as he returns his focus to the wall. He has a small tester pot in a colour which very, very closely matches the colour he chose for the landing when he was redecorating. He unscrews the pot and feels his tongue protrude through his lips as he daubs the paint in a neat line across the length of the seven inch fissure. In a macro he can picture the little valley of the gorge. The trauma that there must have been to create it. He pushes his face up close to watch the brush deposit the paint. As the paint hits the wall it fills the valley. It blots out any trauma and once again pushes the green walls back out of existence. It calms him to look at the now smooth walls. The paint is a good match. You’d hardly ever notice. He hopes it won’t dry darker, he’ll check again in the morning.


There was a small black cat on the table. It could only have been a few months old. Its body was growing but it’s head was still kittenish and her paws still seemed a little large for her body. The children had named the cats, so this one was Bing. The other ginger kitten was Mr Tumble, which had been shortened to Tum. She pushed at a pen on the table until half of it was over the edge. All right gents, I’ve got an idea. The pen fell and skittered across the floor. The noise scared the cat and it bolted from the table, which wobbled under the sudden movement and the vial tipped on one side and rolled with intent towards the edge of the table. Just as it approached the edge, the man reached out and calmly put a finger on top of the vial stopping it a centimetre from the edge.

He was a big man, but the word fat wouldn’t have done him justice. He was just large. His head was large. His chest full. His frame was double-sized. Even the finger that now held the vial was large, the nail as big as a fifty pence piece. He wore a double-breasted white suit and his head was wet shaved so that the lights glinted off his dome. Bing circled around his foot, feeling the safety of his presence and scenting his feet. He carefully lifted the vial and placed it back in the rack, where it should have been but it was an object that called to him and demanded to be lifted and rolled between his fingers. The outright horror of what lay behind the simple rubber bung never failed to bring him a thrill. To own death and to keep it trapped in such a feeble prison amused him.

He lifted Bing onto his lap and the cat brushed its face against his hands. It circled several times and sat on one of his thighs, its entire body easily fitting. He lightly curled a finger around the cat’s ear and it lifted its chin to glory at this attention. He reached over and pulled the vial from the rack and ran it across the cat’s jawline. The cat enjoyed the game and feinted to bite at the vial. The man smiled and pulled it out of reach and secured it once more. How thin the lines were between chaos and normality. 

“Not today Bing.”


“’…Slapped the fish on the table and said cook it yourself’ – that’s not good,” Pops looked up from the laptop. He raised his eyebrows – inviting comment. When nothing came he carried on.

“’Our party was then told that the table had been double-booked and the waitress told us we had to leave, even though some of us had already been served our starters.’ That’s not good. Marcy? What can you say?”

Marcy lifted her eyes and took an exaggerated breath. She twiddled the control stick of her wheelchair which made her fidget on the spot.

“Trip Advisor is a really important source of customers for us – if we get reviews like this then it hurts us as a business. And if we’re hurt then it hurts our staff – including you – as well.”

Pops made an awkward face at Marcy, his expression like he was witnessing a five car pile up on the freeway. “If you can’t tell me why you did it, I think we have to let you go.”

Marcy twirled the pommel of the control stick in her hand and found that it was a bit loose, so she pinched harder and screwed it back into place. Pops was still looking at her, the grotesque pantomime of awkwardness playing across his face.


The silence stretched until Pops could bear it no longer.

“Marcy – was it because of the wheel-, because of your…did it happen…”

“Oh fuck off Pops. I kicked them out because I was bored. It didn’t have anything to do with my wheelchair. It didn’t have anything to do with my leg. It didn’t have anything to do with anything, other than the fact that I was bored of looking at another table of shit-munching customers who expected me to bring them food.”

“But you’re a waitress.”

“I was a waitress until ten seconds ago. Now I’m a gin-seeking missile.”


The line is nearly out of the door. It’s not even straight, it sort of circles around a display tables that has books about crochet on it. The audience is mixed, good balance of male and female, good ethnic mix and, best of all, they’re young – maybe averaging at around mid-20s. That’s all the more unusual when you consider that the city is mostly older and affluent. To attract an audience like this is surely the sort of thing his handler will take back to the publisher.

The handler was suggested by his editor. “She’ll help you make all the arrangements; it’ll free you up so you can focus on getting pages down.” That was the most appalling horseshit. The handler was there to take the temperature. Sales weren’t good on his last two books and although it still made all of the usual lists, that was now a given rather than a bonus. He briefly thought back to that magical Summer evening when he hit the best-seller lists for the first time. There had been whooping and wine and sex. The last time he hit the best-seller list his editor sent him an email asking if he had corrected the proofs for the German version.

He was saying a few words before the signing started. Generous, self-deprecating comments pushing his brilliance to one side and blaming the excellent crowd on the weather. Inside he thought about his pages. There were none. It was the book’s central idea that was the problem – there wasn’t one. He’d declared a breakthrough on this book so many times that it was becoming a bit of a cliché. Every time he thought he’d pinned the idea down it slithered from under his grasp like a squid. Fucking analogies.

“With no further ado then let me open the signing and thank you in advance for your patience.”

The table was set, a comical number of his favourite marker pens, a drink – lightly alcoholic – and, of course, his handler. The first reader came forward and smiled.

“Please could you sign this,” she asked and he took the book from her hands, opened it and fired his standard greeting into the inside cover.

“Thanks. Do we get the twenty pounds from you as well?” she asked.

The handler’s head snapped up.


It felt tickly, that was a warning. It felt a bit like a cough, but also like a bit of the food had got stuck in her throat. The difference was that coughing really didn’t do anything to remove the sensation. She started to cough anyway, a light, high-throated Hrrrem noise that she repeated two or three times.

“Are you all right, Shirley?”

“Bit of a frog,” she managed to croak in-between hrrrems.

But she knew. It had only happened two times before and those were in very different circumstances. Very different.

Shirley started to panic. If previous occasions were anything to go by then within a few minutes her throat would be closing up and her breathing would sound like a punctured bagpipe.

“Ladies and gentlemen, will you please rise for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.”

There was a sound of chairs being politely scraped back and a hundred cake forks hitting plates as the star of the garden party arrived. Even given her situation Shirley found the power of royal obedience compelling her legs to stand. She tried to hrrrem even harder in the hope that it would dislodge something.

But she knew. The real horror was how had it been triggered? She knew it was absurd, but she searched her mind for any way in which she could have forgotten a meeting of that sort in the last few hours. But there was nothing! Of course, there was nothing! She and Katya had been in the hotel, they had dressed and as the invitation had promised carriages had arrived – albeit a hackney carriage, where it had deposited them here and they had joined the queues of ladies, all looking so stately and perfect.

It had to be something she had eaten then. She breathed hard through her nose and looked at her plate. Two fairy cakes – which were exquisite – and three long-fingered sandwiches. A cup of tea with milk. Shirley was peripherally aware that the Queen was circulating closer to their table. She was shaking hands with a chosen few. She had beautiful, long white gloves. It was true what they said too – she was smaller than you expected. She exuded a force though.

HRRREM – another effort to dislodge the blockage. Katya was now shifting between beaming with joy at the nearby royal and looking with a dark concern at Shirley. Shirley looked at the Queen and wondered why she was so bendy. Why would the Queen have black splodges on her? The roof of the tent was beautiful. Why didn’t everyone lie on their back and look at it, like Shirley did.   

Starter for Ten – 25/07/19

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold. Suckage often occurs.


When they built the railroads in Australia they didn’t account for the fact that the country was federalised. In part due to the massive size of the country each state functioned almost independently of the others. Consequently, no one had bothered to ask what gauge track each state was using and, naturally, they all chose differently. After the tracks were laid it was too expensive to standardise and so trains would cross a state and then at the border they would have to be lifted by a crane and placed on the rails of the next state’s tracks. It could then continue until it hit the next border.

When JFK stood and delivered his rousing anti-communism speech in West Berlin, one of the most well-remembered lines is when he pronounced “Ich bin ein berliner”. The reason it’s well-remembered is that it was a mistake and rather than allying himself with his host city, by leaving the “ein” in Kennedy was actually declaring that he was “a Berliner” which was colloquially taken to mean a donut. The miscommunication though wasn’t Kennedy’s but history’s. It’s perfectly acceptable to use such a phrase and was understood in the manner which Kennedy meant it – the audience even cheered the comment, both times that Kennedy said it. Now though the berliner/donut lie has perpetuated to the extent that it’s taken as truth.

If fake news is destined to be the dividing line of our times then we must own our miscommunications.

Starter for Ten – 24/07/19

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold. Suckage often occurs.


I have a new tactic to stop procrastination. In my office there are two desks, a sitting desk and (because I’m easily influenced by health editorial) a standing desk. I alternate between the two desks based on how stiff and how lazy I’m feeling. I actually find it a really useful tool because there seems to be a different energy between the two positions and sometimes you want to take a slouchy, crushed-vertebrae sort of energy into a piece of writing.

Anyway: the technique. I am positioned at the sitting desk. Over at the standing desk is a large mug of tea and a packet of blue Hula Hoops. Until I’ve finished this Starter for Ten I am not allowed to cross the divide and receive my reward. I didn’t even have a sip of the tea while I was bringing it out to the office. Plus, if I delay too long then the tea will be a sub-optimal temperature. Cannily though I did open the Hula Hoops and had ONE of said hoops. This has primed my salivary glands and I’m now drooling thinking of crushing each and every one of those saline tori encased in their shimmering cerulean home.

I wonder if when we leave the EU if we can finally address the issue of standardising the flavour colours. It’s often bothered me since I was young when I always refused to eat Smokey Bacon crisps because they were West Ham’s colours. I didn’t have any particular reason for this antipathy towards the Iron Men, there was just a strong collation in my mind between the colour and the flavour. Why is blue salt and vinegar, but sometimes cheese and onion? Why would you choose blue to represent cheese and onion? If ready salted are the neutral/flavourless/vanilla option – wouldn’t it make more sense to have them wear white rather than red?

Tea’s up!

Starter for Ten – 23/07/19

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold. Suckage often occurs.


“My, my, music hits me so hard/Makes me say oh my Lord.”

No! Stupid Hammer! Stupid! How are you gonna battle with half-rhymes.

“My, my, music hits me so hard/Makes me say oh my gawwd.”

NO! That’s worse. Who are you? Scarlett O’Hara? MY GAWWWD.

Ok, just chill Hammer. Chill. Speak from the heart. Tell the truth. Does my music hit me so hard? Yes it does – that’s not hyperbole. What does my music make me want to say? Ooof? Ow?

“My, my, music hits me so hard/Makes me say “Oof! Ow!”

Ok, at least that’s honest Hammer. But you need to fix the rhyme. If being hit with my music makes me say “Ooof! Ow!” then I need a synonym for hard that rhymes with Ow. Cow/wow/show/ciao.

“My, my, music hits me so ciao!/Makes me say “Oof! Ow!”

NO! FUCK! This is too hard! Why did I ever choose this path? What am I bringing to the MC industry? How do I have the audacity to tell people that they can’t touch this, when what I’m putting forth is evidently within touching distance.

Starter for Ten – 16/07/19

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold. Suckage often occurs.


The hot water bottle wasn’t quite full so it undulated queasily. The ridges across the maroon surface could be strummed with the thumb to create a uniform chord of no real purpose. Colin shook the thought loose from his head and held the precious warmth to his stomach. He hunched his knees closer to the other side of the bottle. May as well get maximum value from it, he thought.

He looked at the clock and wondered if taking more ibuprofen 30 minutes earlier would count as an overdose. Surely not he reasoned – these things had to have a heavy margin of error built in. He thumbed out two of the shiny tablets from the foil strip and swallowed them dry, reaching for the water on the other side of the bedside table was too daunting. With one eye he appraised the pint glass and noted it had been comprehensively cheesed with greasy fingers. A minute sediment floated in the water and he felt his stomach move treacherously, producing a gurgling sound effect that would have been considered OTT for a gross out teen comedy.

He reached his arms around his knees and physically pulled them in closer to the hot water bottle. How were hot water bottles not available on the NHS? He decided that before his next period he was going to construct an entire suit out of them, he wondered if the suit could be plumbed in to avoid the constant trips to the kettle. A roll of pain made him grimace and obliterated the idea.