Neil Marr – a personal tribute

A tale of inspiration and tragedy

Neil Marr 23 June 1949 to 17 April 2014

Neil Marr to right of Peter Tomlinson 2009

Neil Marr to right of Peter Tomlinson 2009

Decades ago while still a journalist for a major newspaper, Neil had an out-of-body experience after five heart attacks in a Manchester hospital – the one my grandson, Oliver, was born in. Neil woke up and was able to tell of how his synapses played tricks on his subconscious mind. Many heart attacks later, small amputations, near misses (once when stepping on to the road outside his Menton home (France) a peleton of cyclists nearly took him out. He loved to tell me as he knew I’m a keen cyclist) he finally hasn’t woken up. Neil was more than an internet friend to me, and many hundreds of other writers. He could be irascible and angry but mainly he was an inspiration and an encourager. There were times he encouraged a tad too much and where he maybe should have suggested an aspiring writer should give up, he wouldn’t – at least not to their online face. In that he was in opposition to Alex Keegan, famous for his tough Boot Camp writing courses where the weak are left on the mountainside to wither and die. Having said that, when I edit stories from survivors of a Keegan writing course I have an easy task, and many of his students go on to win competitions. Nor did Fay Weldon agree with Neil’s encouraging approach, I remember the laughter at the Winchester Writers’ Conference when as GOH she said if a woman sends her an unpromising story indicative of the need for a lifetime of editing, she’d send them a note: Are you any good at knitting?

 

Neil was brilliant at knitting people together, pearls a plenty fell from his pen as he gathered a few editors like myself, Sally Quilford and Donna Gagnon in the BeWrite Books Community Forum 14 years ago to help thousands of writers to hone their craft. Sadly, like with all forums, there are those who only sneak in when off their heads, to barb each other. Writers are barely-contained bombs of frustration, worked up to boiling point with agents, publishers, readers and each other. I used to have a standing order to wake up in the morning, put the coffee on, log on to the forum and delete, delete, delete certain members’ posts. We rarely banned members although I’d come close to calling the police when threats to kill others, or themselves came perilously close. Neil had had enough of the bickering even though he recognised the forum’s worthiness. It should have been a flagship forum to help sell BeWrite Books, which by then was the largest e-book publisher on the planet. However, few of the authors visited the forum to promote their novels and fewer of the forumifera ever put their hands in their pocket to buy them. Neil cited the reason for closing the BeWrite forum as the cost of maintaining it but I didn’t buy that. None of the moderators were paid and I know we and several members actually bought BeWrite books and that should have covered the few pounds necessary to cover web domain costs.

All was not lost for the hundreds of BeWrite forum members. Many of us remained friends in real face-to-face life, meeting at conventions, London Book Fair, and on the BeWrite table at the Wigan Words Literary Festival. I’m one of those nutters who cycle the country calling in on e-friends. Hence I met many in person that live near me in Cheshire, en route to my sister in Gloucestershire, up to Carlisle and abroad. The photo shows BeWrite author, Peter Tomlinson from Shropshire on one of his visits to Neil Marr near Monaco to discuss Peter’s books such The Petronicus Legacy. Perhaps as a sign of regret Neil encouraged a new kind of writers forum to be set up by Transylvanian Anton Szmuk, who’d moved to Canada and among other things set up Bibliophilia. It is still alive today here. Other BeWriters reformed in other places such as Café Doom for the fantasy genre, and the Write Idea.

Marketing BeWrite books then became limited to its website, which was in need of a overhaul. Neil confided in me that money from sales was very low and that he and the administrator, Cait, took maybe £2 a week (!!!) as wages, in addition to expenses. I’m sure if it wasn’t for Neil’s engaging personality, family support and his vast experience as an international journalist, BeWrite Books would have sunk at that time. His contacts from his life as a journalist for the Daily Mirror and other newspapers led him to live in New York, his homeland in Scotland, Ireland, London, Merseyside and finally settled with Skovia in the Mediterranean.

His international journalist press card came in handy to save a mutual friend’s life. BeWrite forum user and friend, LF, possessed many marvellous qualities but sadly also suffered various mental issues. He emailed me and Neil with a goodbye. I’d contacted the police in LF’s town and they told me to ring the local Samaritans. I phoned their 24-hour hotline only to find an answer machine telling me it’s closed and to call again the next day. You could have heard my ironic laughter all over Chester. I was about to call the police again when Neil phoned me. Within minutes he’d used his press card credentials to convince the police to call on LF’s home. They did and he recovered in hospital.

Stories like that of Neil are legion, but this isn’t a biography. In 2009, the administrator of BeWrite Books, after a relationship change, needed a life away from BeWrite and so understandably stepped down. Why I ever thought I’d be suitable to step into her shoes baffles me to this day. I hate admin tasks. I tell lies to amuse readers, a writer of fiction and occasionally non-fiction. Perhaps it was the urge to discover the workings of a small press, the promise of expenses-paid trips to the New York, Frankfurt and London Book Fairs, but mainly the need to help Neil that I stepped in as administrator of BeWrite Books. Neil wrote glowing introductions about me, but he overestimated my abilities. After several weeks of handling spreadsheet files of royalties, re-formatting manuscripts, rewording and sending out contracts to authors and artists, and many other tasks, which took much longer than the two hours daily I was promised, I sadly quit. BeWrite needed better than me.

I was astonished when going over those spreadsheets how few sales are made by highly talented authors. Howard Waldman’s Back There is one of my most favourite literary novels. He’s an American living in Paris. I found that from its publication in 2005 to 2008 it had sold 9 copies! I’d edited his cunning science fiction novel, Time Travail, and asked him if he’d like to do some promo. No, he would not thank you. He was a writer not a salesman. Nevertheless, I mentioned his book on blogs and sales went up in 2009 but still only a handful. Other good books go unnoticed by the great reading public too.

Being in daily contact with Neil at that time revealed those life coincidences we all share. I mentioned how I helped my dad move to Berwick-upon-Tweed: Neil bought his kilts from there. I live in Chester – so did Neil’s former partner of 10 years splitting from her when they lived in New York. I told him I cycle to Warrington often, to see my father-in-law so Neil tells me how he and another Daily Mirror reporter once took a TV to George Formby’s mother in Warrington so she could watch his films. I told him of my Xaghra’s Revenge novel-in-progress and he tells me Anthony Burgess (Clockwork Orange) lived there and had his house sold by the government when he’d stayed too long out of the country. Burgess moved to Monaco where he became a regular drinking buddy with Neil. Near Malta my novel is based on when all the population of Gozo were abducted by pirates in 1551. Neil referred me to a pal, Revel Barker. “Revel goes back for yonks as well. He was Robert Maxwell’s number two at the Mirror Group. The only thing found on Maxwell’s desk after his mysterious death was the last thing he’d signed before leaving for the long boat trip … the agreement to Revel’s resignation payoff and pension.” It’s like that six degrees of separation except with Neil it is only 2!

Then we have the curious tale of BeWrite’s best seller. Jay Mandal is the pseudonym of the publisher’s highest ranking gay literature. They filled an early genre niche and sold thousands. Jay’s novels helped to keep BeWrite afloat and yet Neil hated them. He wasn’t homophobic but couldn’t read beyond a few pages of those novels because they didn’t reach his standards of literary quality. Another editor worked on them. Jay was often on the BeWrite forum and from replies and discussions we all assumed Jay was a man, but I saw the contract. Well done mrs!

Neil published other books he didn’t like, and even loathed. Although he was the co-author of Bullycide, Neil sometimes felt bullied into publishing collections of short stories and novels that he didn’t like. I won’t mention real names because those writers continue to believe Neil liked their work. He would be the first to agree that reading and liking what you read is as subjective as editing, more so.

Neil’s son took over the administration of BeWrite after I left but he had another job, so Neil shortly announced a new administrator, the same Tony Szmuk, mentioned above. Within months, Tony had crafted a new blog – it still exists, here is Peter Tomlinson’s page. Tony also created a hugely improved website and started the mammoth task of reformatting and arranging Smashwords to sell the titles. Sadly, a few years later I received emails from BeWrite authors asking why they had not received royalties for a while. Some thought I still worked for them and knew I’d calculated royalties and sent out statements. After asking around I made some surprising discoveries. Many authors were so happy to see their books published they didn’t ask for royalties and don’t recall seeing a contract. (Cait and I sent every author a contract – something Neil insisted on after a potential author had his long novel edited for free by Neil and then ran off with the polished doc and found a different publisher). Many cover artists such as the marvellous Steve Upham never received payments. Most authors were only owed a small amount but at least one artist and one author were owed hundreds of dollars – and still are.

Neil phoned me not long before he wound up the business to say that Lightning Source Inc was owed thousands of dollars by BeWrite, that he regretted allowing the company to be transferred to Canada and experienced terrible stress when he thought of the authors who were angry and frustrated with the company. It wasn’t his fault that the new administrator “borrowed” the coffers. A large-hearted editor and journalist was having his heart broken by the very vehicle he’d created. Such a shame. On the plus side, he’d inspired so many aspiring writers and even those owed the most, have gushed with his praises.

Besides work and the forum, Neil and I met regularly on an online scrabble and games site, ItsYourTurn. I’m still there. We could leave messages to each other with each move and many times he made me laugh, and I hope the mirth was reciprocated. He’d like to hear of my bike riding misadventures and the topic came up in his illness tales. For an example this shows how fragile his health was even 5 years ago. “Just waiting for the doc to arrive. Managed a short walk on Saturday in new shoes and got a wee blister on my little toe. Nothing, eh? Och well, it seems to have become infected and — with my problems — the last time this happened, they had to amputate the blistered toe and part of my foot. Wouldn’t have happened had I had a bike.

Trouble is with my wee hassle that — having no real blood circulation from the waist down — antibiotics and antiseptics don’t reach the parts. A tiny thing like an infected blister can very easily cost me a leg. Better to lose another toe than a leg, I guess. Seems crazy for a darned blister on the little toe, eh, Geoff? N.”

Health problems extended to his pets too. “Just had to make an emergency dash to the vet’s with Norman the cat. He had an injection for an eye infection and is all stocked up with medicine now. He’s OK. I, of course, am scratched to shreds after struggling to hold him while the needle went in. I’ve left hospitals after major surgery in better shape. Luckily, there was a handy bar next door (a kind of recovery room) where a couple of large brandies restored me to health as we waited for the taxi home. Neil.”

Neil knew the end was coming from a long way off. After one scrabble game during which we discussed the folly of spending our lives hoping to make it big with writing (he was more successful than he realised) and after I’d resigned from BeWrite Books, he wrote: “You’ve got it right, Geoff. And if I could bring myself to do so, I’d never read a book with a pencil in my hand ever again. And I’d chuck books away that didn’t prove within two pages that I wasn’t wasting precious reading time. N” Life’s too short to read something you are not enjoying.

I’ll end this tribute with a quote from Neil on how much he enjoyed his young man’s job as a journalist. This was spurred by him realising I lived in Chester. “There used to be an orang-utan at Chester Zoo that liked wearing newspapers on his head. I spent two or three days once with every newspaper I could lay hands on, tossing them to him one at a time. My snapper was good and the idea was to catch the orang-utan as he was raising the papers to his head just as they reached the position where he might be reading them and with the title masthead in clear view. The pix then went out to the relative newspapers and magazines. A ridiculously profitable lark was that.”

Anyone like to step into Neil’s shoes and make a few bob the same way?

Here’s to you, Neil.

—–

Nelder News

ARIA on wikia http://nelderaria.wikia.com/wiki/NelderAria_Wiki

Another web database here http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/nelder_geoff

Geoff’s UK Amazon author page http://www.amazon.co.uk/Geoff-Nelder/e/B002BMB2XY

And for US readers http://www.amazon.com/Geoff-Nelder/e/B002BMB2XY

You tube video trailer for ARIA http://youtu.be/oh0AAXIe8VU

Like if you will, the ARIA facebook page at http://on.fb.me/12vz7IW

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8 Responses to “Neil Marr – a personal tribute”

  1. Malcolm Ryding Says:

    Worked with Neil in Wigan. Only made contact again two years ago following death of a mutual friend. More folk need to know of Neil’s great work – including Death at Playtime -Bullycide. An obit in the Daily Telegraph/Guardian would be a fitting tribute!

  2. geoffnelder Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Malcolm. The TImes too. I recall Neil telling me that while in New York he’d coached one of Rupert Murdoch’s daughter in the rudiments of the newspaper business.

    I wonder if the Mirror has carried an orbit? He worked more for them than most, I believe.

  3. Geoffrey Shryhane Says:

    Death of a legend. Knew Neil as a 17 year old when he worked in the Hindley Office of the Bolton Evening News. Always hail fellow well met. Every year a Christmas card. RIP Neil

  4. hmd65 Says:

    Thank you Geoff for getting this into print. So good of you.
    I’m a bit of an interloper as I only met Neil ‘online’ about eighteen months ago but what an impact he made on me. I miss his Facebook posts so much and frankly don’t take so much interest after he died. I was so shocked and hadn’t realised the state of his health although he did write to me and say, ‘There is no stage four.’
    I do hope there will be suitable obits. He was loved by so many around the world.
    I send you my best wishes and thanks again for all the background to Neil and anecdotes for a man who left his mark and made a difference.
    Kind Regards,
    Harry Dunn

  5. geoffnelder Says:

    Thanks, Harry, for your comments. Neil was an inspiration to us all. I know a huge number of writers he helped and I do my best to emulate him. Bestest – as he would say.

  6. Henrietta Lala Says:

    I have been unable to locate Harold Waldman’ s works to which you referred. Do you have a link where I can order them?

  7. geoffnelder Says:

    Henrietta, I have heard from Howard ! He’s delighted there is interest in his books (he mentions he has to lie down with the sudden fame) and says all 4 books can be had for just under a dollar at Amazon at this link
    http://www.amazon.com/Howard-Waldman/e/B001KP6HW4/
    Sadly they are not available currently as paperback except sometimes for silly money on ebay etc.I am particularly fond of Back There and helped him edit Time Travail.
    I hope this is helpful to you. Let me know.

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