At the start of this year I did something I thought I’d never do — enrolled on a stand-up comedy course.
And even more daunting than practicing and performing a few attempts at stand-up in a classroom situation in front of a tutor and other students was that the course included a ‘showcase’ performance for all the newbie students to perform their routines. Add into the mix that it was at a “real” comedy venue to a real audience. All this after a whole six weeks of study.
My reasons for taking the course were partly logical and partly just a hell-of-it idea to push myself well out of my normal comfort zone.
The logical justification was that I’d written short stories that had seemed to get a few decent laughs when performed by professional actors at Liars League. And, in general, my writing often has a habit of veering off in search of the humorous.
So, in theory, it wasn’t a huge leap to try my hand at writing the sort of material that might work in some types of stand-up.
The big problem was getting up and performing it.
That’s where the comfort zone thing came in. Talk to most people and they’ll say one of their biggest fears is public speaking. If it’s public speaking without notes to an audience that might include hecklers who expect you to be funny then it’s ten times worse. Many people have told me that having a go at stand-up is their worst nightmare.
In some ways stand-up is the opposite of writing — it’s performed in real-time, often with elements of improvisation, delivered in a uniquely personal style and involves direct interaction with an audience (unlike theatre, there’s no ‘fourth wall’). Writing distances the personality of the author, can be paused and re-read and is a solitary activity for the reader. Unsurprisingly, then, as a means of communication, writing often suits personalities on the introverted end of the scale, probably including me too.
But there are also similarities. Along with attending the course, I’ve read a few books about stand-up technique and by stand-up comedians. Sara Pascoe in her recent book Animal (it defies categorisation as it’s part memoir, part biology/psychology, part humour) makes a perceptive point — both authors and stand-ups effectively tell their audiences/readers to sit down and listen to/read their words for a long period. They’re not conversations. In her words, they’re both about showing off. Both stand-ups and authors of books have a story they ‘re insisting on telling the audience.
And as well as the general principle, many storytelling techniques are common to both genres, etc, etc.
Well, that was the psychological lifebelt I was clinging to — as the showcase performance at the end of the course started to move closer.
There are many stand-up courses available, taught in contrasting formats. The course I took was with City Academy (who do a lot of other courses in the performing arts, for actors/dancers/etc.) over six Monday nights, with the seventh week being the showcase.
The tutor was (and remains) Kate Smurthwaite. Since doing the course I’ve seen Kate interviewed all over the place, often about gender and feminist issues. She’s been on Sky News and became internationally famous a few weeks ago for showing her unshaven armpits on This Morning. She also even achieved a high accolade from the perspective of some of the posts on this blog — by being a guest on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2.
Besides her punditry in the media, Kate is also a professional comedian, touring her own shows and with writing credits such as Have I Got News For You. I found her a very broad-minded and supportive tutor, generating a rapport with all the students. She offered a good grounding in some of the practical aspects of starting off in stand-up comedy and provided positive, constructive feedback.
The other students were a diverse bunch (in terms of humour, especially) yet it was amazing how quickly we built up a shared sense of camaraderie. Perhaps it was the shared prospect of being thrown to the hecklers in the end-of-course showcase that helped us bond? Or maybe the ‘loosener’ improvisation exercises during the class — after which nobody can remain a shrinking violet.
There were some excellent budding comedians in the class. Each session was as entertaining as turning up to a comedy night in your own exclusive club.
So how did the showcase night at the Comedy Pub (near Leicester Square) go? Taking myself out the equation, I thought everyone on the bill completely nailed their performances — i was on towards the end and watched with trepidation because everyone else’s practising and adrenaline obviously paid off.
So, how did my career as a stand-up turn out? You can judge for yourself. Virtually all of my performance at the Comedy Pub near Leicester Square was recorded on the video below. I couldn’t bring myself to watch it again for a week but then I relented and thought it wasn’t too awful — so put it up on YouTube for posterity.
You can actually hear the audience laughing — and in mostly the right places. It was a pretty friendly bunch, generally friends and family of the performers (thanks very much for the great turnout from my supporters). If you listen carefully you can hear my heckler (a Chilean woman who was a friend of one of the other students who was apparently joining in because she liked me!). If you have any comments please leave them at the end of the post.
Was that night the beginning and end of my stand-up career?
Surprisingly, no. I know I’m not going to be the next Michael McIntyre, nor do I really have the desire to be (for one thing the slog involved in working ones way round the circuit is equivalent to writing a novel — and with a lot less tea and sitting down).
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the live performance experience and receiving that instant feedback from the audience , both during the the course and in the showcase itself.
In fact, I enjoyed it enough so to subject myself to more!
I joined up on Kate’s City Academy follow-on stand-up course, along with five other of the beginners’ course Monday students and others from the parallel Wednesday course, which Kate also taught. Sadly that course has no performance at the end but it’s meant to get students to a standard where they can venture out into the world of stand-up gigging with a five minute set.
Looking back, despite my best intentions, I’m still not exactly sure why I’ve not managed to keep up the previously modest level of posting activity. It’s probably prioritisation by default as I’m still writing and doing just as much interesting stuff in between. There’s also been various developments with the novel that I’m not really able to publicly blog about on here.
But one thing I’ve kept doing, mainly because it’s nowhere near as time-consuming as blogging, is taking lots of photos.
So in the spirit of a picture telling a thousand words here’s a photographic run through 2016 with a bit of commentary along the way
Perhaps one reason for being distracted from blogging is that I’ve spent the past year working in Soho. For example this place is just around the corner…
…and even though it’s no longer the groovy Swinging Sixties, there are enough spontaneous ‘happenings’ around where I work for me to have grabbed the odd evocative photo, like this one…
I walk past this iconic place almost daily (it was interesting to see it featured in The Apprentice this year)…
…and along here often too (and at the moment it’s worth walking to the end of Carnaby Street to the pop up shop set up by the V&A Museum in association with their You Say You Want A Revolution Exhibition).
And there’s plenty of things to be distracted by nearby — like the amazing Christmas angels in Regent Street…
…or just weird London scenes like this.
Sometimes it’s been restorative to occasionally get away from it all and lie (albeit briefly) under a tree on a patch of grass in one of those rare summer lunchtimes.
I don’t say much here about the ‘day job’. Until late 2015 that was partly because I might have been taken out and shot if I said too much! OK. That was meant to be a gross exaggeration about working in a government ministry but the way Theresa May’s government is treating its civil servants then perhaps it’s not. Nevertheless, I have a hazy recollection that I may have signed the Official Secrets Act, not that I had access to much secret stuff but I did work almost literally at the heart of government. I walked daily through the doors of a large ministry — one that was often on the front page of the newspapers — and shared lifts with cabinet ministers.
While I wasn’t exactly Sir Humphrey, I was given invaluable direct experience of the the way government works.
And in terms of writing benefit, I gained insider knowledge of the criminal justice system, through working with the police, HM Courts and Tribunals system ( even doing some work for those seditionary “enemies of the people” in the UK Supreme Court).
It’s all fantastic material should any of my future novels head in the direction of crime or politics.
The organisation where I now spend most of my nine-to-five working hours couldn’t be more different. I won’t go into specific detail but it’s a media-tech company (hence the Soho base) and uses a lot of clever technology to encourage people to pay money to look as absurd as the people below…
(Apparently the gun isn’t on sale yet.) Actually, the VR (Virtual Reality) experience is so immersive that these people won’t care how they look from the outside. I’ve tried VR and it’s convincing. I predict that the technology could be on the cusp of going mainstream. And don’t take my word for it — creating a VR game was another activity to be featured on this season’s Apprentice.
2016 produced some unexpected recognition for my writing — non-fiction this time.
I was elected (or admitted or whatever they do) to full membership of the British Guild of Beer Writers. It might seem surprising to some that this organisation even exists but it has a few hundred members, including household names and virtually every author of a book on beer or pubs or contributor on the subject to any broadsheet newspaper or TV or radio broadcast.
I was elected to full membership on the basis of published examples of my writing (which I don’t tend to talk about much on this blog) so it’s a huge honour to be in the company of so many illustrious and expert writers in that field.
Being a member of the guild let me rub shoulders with the movers and shakers of the beer writing world at their awards ceremony, including the odd, hairy beer-loving celebrity.
But even though my blog posts may have slipped off the radar, I’m still writing a lot of fiction, even on holiday in France (see below).
I could get used to that lifestyle.
With various things happening with The Angel (which, as it’s a book, have been invariably slow moving) , I’ve been hard at work on another novel. A heavily adapted version of the new novel’s opening even won a prize in the Winchester Writers’ Festival Writing Can Be Murder crime writing awards this year.
I’ve kept in touch with many writing friends, enjoying their successes, for example, with winning stories at Liars’ League and other writing -related developments that can’t be blogged about. I’ve also kept up my involvement with the RNA (see previous post) and received another great critique from their New Writers’ Scheme.
By providing a series of non-negotiable deadlines every few weeks, my membership of a writing group in London has proved invaluable. I’ve propped myself up and carried on writing well into the early hours on several occasions by working on a piece from the new novel. In the summer I carried on once or twice for the whole night — going to bed (briefly) once that sun had risen.
The standard of my fellow writing group members is generally excellent (one reason why I burn the midnight oil to try to make my submissions at least presentable) and we’re very fortunate that the group is run by someone who’s a professional writing tutor at City University and novelist.
The group’s feedback is excellent — both illuminating and honest — although not usually as brutally frank as the comment below.
I’ll save details of the current work-in-progress for another post. However, the next few photos might give a clue about some some of the things I’ve been doing that could act as background research for the world of the novel.
Here’s a shot of a pile of books waiting to be read…
…and below is another example of my methodical approach to shelving books (Owl Song At Dawn is an excellent novel published this year by my old City University creative writing tutor, Emma Claire Sweeney, who organises Something Rhymed — see earlier post).
I’ve not been to any music concerts quite as jaw-dropping at Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn (whose recording of the shows was released a few weeks ago and allowed me to relive sitting right in front of the spectacle — and the sonic battering of Omar Hakim’s drums — listen to the extended version of King of the Mountain on the CD and you’ll know what I mean).
But during the year I’ve been to see a couple of other giants of music from the past thirty or so years. Most recently I saw Nile Rodgers, also at the Hammersmith Apollo, who performed an incredibly energetic set of hits by Chic, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and others (several of which I heard a few days later being played from loudspeakers in Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland) and he also played an obscure favourite of mine, Spacer, originally by French singer, Sheila B.
Seeing Bruce Springsteen live has been one of those bucket list items I’ve always wanted to experience so I took my opportunity when he played Wembley Stadium in June along with 80,000 or so others. Elsewhere in the stadium were Bruce fans and writing acquaintances (and tweeters) Louise Walters (whose second novel is published imminently) and Pete Domican.
Springsteen’s stamina and his rapport with a stadium audience are awesome. He played from around 6.30pm to just before 10pm, non-stop. The sound where I was sitting in the south stand was fairly ropy but I was more dumbfounded by the behaviour of the people in the (not very cheap) seats around me. As can be seen from one of the earlier photos, I like a pint of beer, but many of the mostly middle-aged, middle-class audience seemed to treat the Springsteen show like a visit to a very expensive pub — possibly reliving their rose-tinted memories of some student bar. They constantly shuttled to and from the very expensive Wembley bar and then, inevitably, to the toilets. While loudly declaring their devotion to ‘The Boss’, some dedicated fans danced with their backs to the stage and got so drunk they either had to leave before the end. Some wouldn’t have remembered it anyway.
I was a little dubious in advance about another music-related experience in the summer — visiting the Latitude Festival in Suffolk in July. I wanted to go mainly to see Grimes: who’s nothing to do with the music genre grime, but a hugely innovative and original musician from Canada whose music defies any easy description — being both catchy and experimental — and mainly, but not exclusively, electronic.
It was described as one critic as being simultaneously like everything you’ve ever heard reassembled and remixed in a way which sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. That strikes me as something interesting to aspire towards in writing.
What massively impresses me about Grimes is that, with the exception of a couple of guest vocalists, she writes, sings, plays all the instruments, produces and engineers her recordings. I never get bored listening to her most recent album, the brilliant Art Angels . ‘Don’t be boring’ is another great rule of thumb.
Her live performance was equally original and self-reliant, accompanied by only a couple of dancers and her recent collaborator, Hana, on guitar (on left in photo below).
While waiting for Grimes, I had an unexpected opportunity to see Slaves, a two man guitar and drum modern-punk group. While the group themselves would be unlikely to dispute that their music is the opposite of subtle, their performance was amazingly good humoured (with songs about commuting like Cheer Up London or fat-cat bankers ‘Rich man, I’m not your bitch man‘) and created such an engagement with the audience that the FT reviewer described it as ‘life affirming’.
Before Slaves I was blown away by an electrifying performance by Christine and the Queens. Along with Art Angels, I must have listened to Chaleur Humaine (Christine and the Queen’s debut album) more than any others this year. I went to one of their two shows at Brixton Academy in November for a repeat of the live experience.
I’ve always had a fondness for French electronic music (Air are another of my favourites). When Héloïse Letissier (Christine is her alter-ego) announced ‘Welcome to the French disco!’ at the start of Science Fiction, one of my favourite tracks, it seemed an appropriate riposte to the narrow-minded bigotry and xenophobia that has scarred other aspects of 2016 which far too many despicable politicians and newspaper editors spent much the year cultivating.
Christine and the Queens are inclined to do unexpected cover versions live and I had the spine-tingling moment of serendipity when they covered Good Life by Inner City, at the time of its release in the late 1980’s a much-underrated track, but one of those tracks everyone seems to know — maybe because of the almost improvised vocal line that wanders where it’s least expected? But I guess Christine and the Queens may have picked it as an antidote to all 2016’s other shit?
At the other end of the socio-political spectrum to Slaves’ music, I’d been wary of Latitude’s reputation as the Waitrose of music festivals — with rehabilitated hippies regressing to the behaviours they liked to say they indulged in their youths. And, indeed, during the day there was indeed a scattering of baby-boomer types trying to press-gang their extended families into enjoying the festival in a conspicuously worthy way.
Boomer grandchildren were transported around in flower-garlanded trolleys like this one…
…and as it got later the place became more like a pop-up Center Parcs, except the vegetal aromas in the forest weren’t coming from wood burning fires. Eventually as the night wore on and the older people retired to their luxury tents the sound-systems and DJ sets attracted large, bouncing swathes of younger people, like moths to the flashing lights.
Wandering through the woods I came across a series of artists’ nstallations — and immediately recognised the brightly-coloured faces of David Shillinglaw’s work (whose studio I visited a couple of years ago with Love Art London). He’s an exceptionally friendly person and showed me around his unmistakable collection of positively painted sheds, which transformed into a music sound-system after dark.
I’d visited Latitude for the music but was most impressed by the festival’s showcasing of all types of art. When I first arrived I stopped off at the the literary arena to listen to an author interview with the Bailey’s Prize winner, Lisa McInery. It was a nice touch to have a bookshop on site.
Coming a few weeks after the EU referendum result, Latitude was a refreshing distraction that emphasised the pleasures found away from the poisonous and vindictive political atmosphere. Ironically, the industries represented by Latitude — art, music , comedy, dance, theatre and literature — are those in which the UK is an undisputed world leader (reflected in much of the content of this blog over the past few years) but seem undervalued by the closed-minded, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, expert-dismissing philistinism of the pro-leave bigots.
The opposite of a huge festival like Latitude is the proverbial gig in the back of a pub. I spent a fascinating evening in July on the Camden Rock’n’Roll Walking Tour, led by Alison Wise. Covering the amazing musical heritage of a relatively small part of London between Camden Town tube station and the Roundhouse near Chalk Farm.
I was especially pleased that we stopped off in several pubs on the way. Each pub had a strong association with one of Camden’s music scenes through the last few decades. The Hawley Arms was Amy Winehouse’s local (with the likes of the Libertines as regulars), The Good Mixer was where the leading Britpop bands hung out, the areas around Dingwalls and Camden Lock have many punk associations and the Dublin Castle in Parkway launched the careers of Madness and many other early eighties bands.
And here’s me with Molly from Minnesota (the only time I’ve ever met her) inside the Dublin Castle in a photo taken by Alison at the end of the tour.
It’s surprising how many of Alison’s tours round Camden and elsewhere are filled by tourists from overseas rather than native Brits or Londoners. Even though I’d worked in Camden for five years a while ago I still learned a lot from the tour — all relevant for writing purposes too. Alison also does Bowie Soho tours and album cover pub crawls which I’m sure are excellent.
I’ve read a lot of books over the year, although nowhere near as many as I’d intended. I’ve worked my way through a lot of musical biographies and autobiographies, including Chrissie Hynde’s frank Reckless, the bizarre Paul Morley prose of Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs and the beautifully written (and non-ghosted) Boys In The Trees by the wonderful Carly Simon.
A few Sunday Times bestselling blockbusters have also made it on to my reading list, mostly out of curiosity to understand the reasons for their success. After having read them, in most cases, I’m not much the wiser.
So I’ve been busy, enjoying lots of new experiences and taking many more photos than those above. It’s even more worthwhile then those experiences to settle into the subconscious, interact and collide and spark off little bits of unexpected inspiration I can later use in my writing. And to help the process, there’s nothing like taking a bit of time out and reflect.
So the last photo in the post was taken on a long walk between Christmas and New Year s the sun was setting over the Chilterns — a hopefully prescient, peaceful image to usher in 2017.
In some ways the novel featured in this blog could be interpreted as a love letter to this country. Much of it is set in the England of shady country lanes lined with cottage gardens and of thatched pubs on village greens serving real ale under indomitable oak trees.
If you have a strange feeling you’ve seen the village idyll in the photo above somewhere before then it’s because you probably have. I took it on Haddenham village green a couple of weeks ago. It’s a village a few miles from where I live which is frequently used for film and TV. It’s a staple location for Midsomer Murders, which is phenomenally popular abroad – apparently the most popular TV programme in Sweden.
This is the vision of this country we export to the world. It’s peaceful, gentle and tolerant. It’s the inspiration for The Shire in The Lord of the Rings, Constable paintings and Thomas Hardy novels. Generations have treasured the romance of the British landscape and the values it represents. And it still exists.
Alongside that bucolic version of England, the novel also celebrates the vital, ever changing cosmopolitan buzz of London and our other major cities – the likes of Shoreditch, Hackney Wick and Digbeth. These are places where the fabric of the area is transformed into a permanent arts festival (see the photo I recently took just off Brick Lane below – the artist who painted the famous crane is Roa – a Belgian).
This type of amazing street art, which is renewed on an almost daily basis, is merely the visible manifestation of a culture that attracts young, creative innovators from around the world. They bring an amazing energy that powers initiatives from web start-ups and craft beer breweries. One industry where Britain punches way above its weight is the creative industry.
Both contrasting visions of Britain complement each other – in fact, they depend on each other. Creativity benefits from a bedrock of tolerance and stability. Traditional Britain is prevented from becoming stale, insular and inward-looking.
Similarly, the two principal characters in the novel view Britain from these different perspectives. Despite his flair for cooking inventive, internationally inspired food, James is as solidly British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
Kim views the country through the eyes of an outsider. A passionately Anglophile German, she is more fluent and accurate in English than most native speakers. In common with other young Europeans she views the Second World War as something out of her school history books but nevertheless she immensely respects Britain’s pivotal role in creating the peaceful, civilised Europe of the post-war era.
She adores English eccentricity, humour and imagination — and she falls deeply in love with an Englishman who symbolises all the values she admires about this country – values that were celebrated with such unforgettable verve during the London 2012 Olympics (about which there are many posts on this blog).
While remaining a proud German, she sees views herself principally as a European and a Londoner. One of the questions asked in the novel is where will she decide to call home.
The country in my novel is something to be immensely proud of. However, I’m fearful that after this week’s EU referendum, my novel might need to be re-categorised as historical fiction – as the start of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between famously says: ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’
if you want only to read about writing and the novel and itself then stop here – or possibly skip to the final paragraph or two.
However, as the setting and characters demonstrate, questions of national identity thrown up by the referendum strike at fundamental themes in the novel.
I rarely comment on politics on this blog, nor in normal circumstance would I want to bang on about my views. I’m extremely interested in politics but my views aren’t extreme. However, aspects of the way this referendum campaign has been conducted have made me angry enough to write the following long blog post. And if you have the patience to wade through it you might discover, if you’re interested, something about the life experiences on which I’ve partly based my views on the referendum.
My sole previous political blog post was written way back in January 2013 on the same EU referendum subject. My views on the referendum itself have barely changed from those I expressed in that entry, which was prompted by David Cameron’s announcement of what must have seemed at the time to be a clever wheeze to give him an easy life in parliament. Read it here. Much of it has turned out to be quite prescient, particularly when I anticipated the tone of the debate.
However, I don’t think I expected to be so depressed by the shrill and personal tone of this EU referendum debate. Most fundamentally, it seems very un-British. Lying, mud-slinging, personally insulting opponents rather than discussing arguments have no place in the Britain that I’ve grown up in and written about with fondness. The repugnant tone, which seems to have its roots in the poisonous atmosphere of US politics, is hopefully an aberration – a mass neurosis like the 2011 riots that will pass and be buried in history.
Cameron has gambled badly, trying to present himself as both a Euro sceptic and a pragmatic Europhile and has allowed the Leave campaign the opportunity to present the EU as the source of virtually every problem the country faces.
Meanwhile, the Remain campaign has pushed a negative narrow economic message about the risks of leaving, rather than the benefits of staying, which has allowed its opponents to label genuine concerns as ‘Project Fear’. Jeremy Corbyn could have done a much better job of explaining the benefits that the EU has introduced for employees (holiday pay for one thing).
While the EU is by no means perfect, it’s not responsible for the extraordinary catalogue of misery that its detractors claim.
If this was a referendum with a question that would allow us to opt out from the brutal, economic insecurity caused by globalisation and the capricious power of global capital then I would certainly be campaigning to leave. The novel starts with James rejecting the pointlessness of his job, which merely seems to shift vast sums of money from account to account in a multi-national bank.
Several years after the economic turmoil of 2007-8, many in this country people still justifiably feel disenfranchised and disadvantaged. And I’ve been one of them. I suffered redundancy as a result of the credit crunch and I know what it feels like to have dependants to support and a mortgage to pay – and no foreseeable source of income.
Perhaps it’s this experience but I wouldn’t want my vote to increase the likelihood of putting anyone else in that position (if that’s what I judged the consequences might be).
I respect and share many of the genuine concerns that have attracted people to some of the arguments put forward by the Leave camp. But in almost all of these cases I have not seen any convincing plans or evidence that walking out of the EU into the unknown will do anything to solve these concerns. In fact, the likelihood is that the UK would be in a worse position after leaving the EU with respect to most of them.
Even the issue of immigration, which I agree that mainstream political parties have ineffectively addressed, is unlikely to be addressed by leaving the EU. We can’t change the geography that places us twenty miles across the channel. As for the idea we have open borders with the EU, the last few times I’ve driven to Europe (I last went in April), I’ve had my car searched inside and out for stowaways and the passport checks on the UK side have been extremely thorough.
Although I have an MBA, which means I’ve had some education in economics, finance and the way businesses operate, I wouldn’t claim to know much at all about the workings of international trade deals and negotiations. But because I don’t, I’ve read extensively about the pros and cons of EU membership.
I would particularly recommend The Economist’s very balanced coverage. They have a free downloadable 20-page PDF guide on their website which contains a wealth of impartial data. Unlike most of the national papers that have come out on the Leave side, The Economist is independent of any influence from a proprietor.
“It will be fatal for their careers, and for the reputation of British politics in general, if they follow the economically sensible course only to face a huge outcry from nativist voters who feel that all those promises on immigration have been betrayed again. Even aside from the economic consequences of a Leave vote (and read this LSE demolition of the Brexit case), the immediate future for Britain could be very ugly indeed.”
I could write hundreds of blog posts further expanding on my views on the referendum and the conduct of the campaign – and I may well do in the next few weeks. However, I want to present a largely positive case for why I believe Remain is by far the most desirable outcome.
In my previous blog post I described how I worked for many years travelling extensively in Europe representing the interests of the UK division of a large multi-national company to its German owners and I describe the often tortuous process involved.
The Germans may have been autocratic and slow to make decisions but their business made more money than the UK’s and German profits probably kept the UK division in business in certain years. And it’s my experience of negotiating with Germans that makes me sceptical that they’d make the UK a generous leaving settlement. But we cooperated and made it work. I couldn’t have done that job if I’d needed to apply for a visa for every 19-hour long day I worked when I flew on a day trip to Europe.
Despite our many differences, I made some great friends of decent, friendly Europeans of all nationalities. And we shouldn’t underestimate the importance and influence of the English as the business language of Europe. It gives us a natural advantage as mediators and conciliators.
I love travelling to Europe. I love experiencing European culture. As a British tourist, I also like the convenience of the Euro. However, I was sceptical about the UK joining the single currency (as I believe that financial and political policy are too inextricably linked). But we’re out of the Euro and can never be forced to be part of it. Fact. (Ironically, the most plausible way that the UK would end up in the Euro would be to leave the EU and then to be forced to accept the currency as price of being readmitted if everything went disastrously wrong.)
I don’t love the EU as an institution. Some of its officials appear almost as insufferably arrogant as the UK politicians who have been most vocal in the referendum debate. The EU should have made far more of a positive case about how it values the UK as a member (but then it would have been shouted down for ‘interference’).
Germany’s economic dominance is also a potential concern. Chancellor Merkel didn’t consider the consequences for other EU countries in last year’s asylum seeker crisis. But the UK is an essential counterweight to Germany inside the EU.
The decision making process may be sclerotic and opaque. The ability of national parliaments to veto major decisions makes the process slow but it also means that the UK can veto the Leave campaign’s apocalyptic visions of a European army or Turkey’s accession.
The EU is far from perfect. But they’re our neighbours. We will need to live alongside Europe whatever the referendum decision. Having suffered from inconsiderate neighbours myself, I know how preferable it is to compromise in order to coexist peacefully. As A.A. Gill’s brilliant article in last week’s Sunday Times magazine said, leaving the EU on the unrealistically rosy terms painted by the Leave campaign would be like trying to negotiate a divorce with your ex that still entitled you to have sex every weekend.
I’ve worked in central government and have seen the EU’s influence for myself. For three years in the last government I worked in the HQ of the Ministry of Justice in Petty France, Westminster. I shared lifts with Ken Clarke and listened to Chris Grayling’s droning staff addresses. I worked alongside senior civil servants. I was involved with prisons, H.M. Courts and Tribunal Service and electronic tagging among other areas – exactly the things the tabloids say we’ve lost control over.
I visited the UK Supreme Court, the Royal Courts of Justice, the Law Commission and met the people who literally write the laws of the land (they have special software to do it).
How much meddling by unelected EU bureaucrats did I encounter? None. My work was seen by ministers and senior judges. No one from the EU had any involvement whatsoever. In a department of maybe a hundred people, one person did a part-time role in which she travelled to Brussels occasionally to inform them about what we were doing. That was it.
Perhaps there are other areas of the Ministry and the legal system where there’s more EU influence but of the areas where I have first-hand experience, the EU influence was negligible. Don’t believe what you read in the papers.
A decade or two ago, claims of an incipient European super-state might have been more credible. But the UK has opted out of the two most fundamental aspects of EU integration.
We’re not in the Euro and we’re not part of the Schengen passport-free agreement. The UK hasn’t been ordered around and humiliated. It’s achieved extremely significant concessions and I’d anticipate this is the way the EU will evolve – an inner core of the Eurozone with the remainder in a looser federation. If the debate was more honest, I believe many Leave voters would realise we don’t need to “take back control” because we never lost it in the first place. Nor is there any prospect of doing so.
Unlike the majority of voters, I’ve also lived outside the EU. I’ve spent almost a year each living in both Australia and the US. There was a huge amount of red tape involved in obtaining visas, social security numbers, driving licences and so on to live in the US. California was a wonderful place to live but you wouldn’t want to be ill there without any health insurance. One of the many underrated virtues of EU membership is the reciprocal free health cover in all member states.
One of the many unknowns about leaving the EU would be what happens to such benefits enjoyed by ex-pats. The NHS would be faced with the biggest crisis in its history if hundreds of thousands of pensioners returned from Spain because they were no longer entitled to free Spanish health care at exactly the same time the EU nationals who form a large part of the NHS work force would be leaving — voluntarily or not. The Spanish prime minister has said ending reciprocal healthcare is a possibility. It’s certainly something that would have to be negotiated.
While I’ve had considerable experience of other countries and cultures, I’ve always had a deep-seated, possibly irrational belief, that this country is the best place in the world to live and that to call yourself British is something to be proud of – that, on balance, we’ve contributed hugely to what’s good in the world – culturally, diplomatically, scientifically, artistically and in so many other spheres. When I hear the opening of Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, which is based on timeless British folk melodies, I feel a connection with the country deep in my core that seems to reach back centuries (listen below).
I was born and brought up in the north-west. Some of my family has roots in the north-east. I went to university in Birmingham. I live in the south-east and work in London. I’ve experienced the incredible diversity of people and culture in this country.
And most of all I’ve valued the country’s tolerance, the people’s politeness and their fundamental sense of justice and fairness. This is a place that has always welcomed others and I’m disgusted that some immigrants who make a positive contribution to society have been made to feel unwelcome just by the tone of the referendum debate. Imagine how they’d feel if we voted to leave. The electorate can’t pick and choose the immigrants we want to avoid offending (“oh, we didn’t mean you“). Put it this way, if I lived in Europe and all I heard in the media was about whether they wanted to “take back control” from foreigners I think I’d start looking at my options. And, as always, the people with the most skills will have the most options.
Large parts of the country – London and the labour intensive farming businesses in the east of England – depend on EU migrants as their workforce. Imagine the red tape and bureaucratic interference involved in forcing companies to get government approval (to count the Australian-style points) to employ EU nationals – businesses already complain the process for non-EU nationals is holding them back.
It’s been said that the EU referendum is as more a vote about how what kind of a country the UK wants to be and how it sees its place in the world rather than the specifics of the relationship with the EU.
If so, I desperately hope that the country doesn’t opt to change into a place that nurtures the small-minded, vindictive, divisive nastiness we’ve witnessed in the last few weeks. It would undermines all that’s good about British values.
I don’t think a Leave vote would be an apocalyptic disaster. In fact, I suspect we’d end up with some messy compromise that gave us single market access without any say in it and still needing to pay the EU and accept free movement of labour. It would be a worse deal than we have at the moment, achieved through a period of needless divisiveness. It’s the subtle, insidious damage that would be done to the character of the country I’ve set my novel in that most concerns me.
Both campaigns have been culpable by exaggerating. This has obscured the fact that are honourable people with great integrity on both sides. Nevertheless, I believe any objective observer would judge the majority of the self-serving, spiteful vitriol to have originated from certain dark parts of the Leave campaign. Allied to a reluctance to engage with objective facts, this coarsens the whole debate. Once the touch paper is lit all sides get angry. I’ve seen the most appalling abusive trolling on Facebook and Twitter of people who are merely expressing their opinion.
There’s such a weight of opinion, ranging from all twenty Premier League clubs through to J.K. Rowling (who wrote a good piece today about how she recognises the techniques she uses to create fictional villains being employed by Leave), all major UK car manufacturers, the Governor of the Bank of England and the President of the United States on one side of the argument. All the other side can do is dismiss the judgements as those of ‘experts’ (as if that discredits them) or to retort ‘they would say that anyway’. To me that suggests the rational, logical argument doesn’t seem that finely balanced. Desperate people resort to desperate measures.
In a general election the voters are usually remarkably effective at working out which party represents their best interests. This referendum is unprecedented. People have no historical reference points.
When it’s a battle between ‘the grass is greener’ and ‘better the devil you know’, it’s a conflict between emotion and reason. And having apparently failed on the economic argument, the Leave campaign has chosen to inflame the basest of emotional responses with its inflammatory rhetoric on immigration.
I’m scared that good people are being manipulated and deceived by cynical opportunists into voting for something that will undermine what’s great about this country. Everyone is entitled to vote according to their conscience and without intimidation – it’s what a democratic society is founded upon. Equally, however, democracy fails when voters are blatantly misled and when an extremely complex question is twisted into a debate that merely sets one group of people against another.
Returning to writing, which is what this blog is meant to be about, I’ve been considering alternative titles for the novel. I’m undecided at the moment so won’t reveal my favourite here. However, it relates to accidentally inflicting an injury on yourself due to a lack of concentration in a domestic setting (how’s that for a crossword clue?) – and dealing with the painful consequences. Not a bad metaphor for the EU referendum, although with that decision the damage would last decades rather than hours.
Boris Johnson once said his view on cake was that he was ‘pro-having it and pro-eating it’. That seems to sum up his failure to address any of the difficult choices the country would need to make to fulfil the incoherent and contradictory claims made by the Leave camp.
If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t be fooled. We might not have a chance to be fooled again.
Around this time of year, back in 2012, I wrote a number of blog posts that were tangentially-related to my writing, celebrated that London felt like it was the centre of the world due to hosting the Olympics and Paralympics. (Imho London carried this off so successfully that in the intervening three years, the city seems to have consolidated, if anything, its hold on the title of global capital.)
One of the least successful aspects of the Olympics was the disastrous system of ticket allocation (something the coming Rugby World Cup appears not to have learned lessons from). Although I made it to the Olympic Park, I didn’t get inside the stadium itself.
I’ve visited the local area many times since access to the Queen Elizabeth Park (as the old Olympic Park is now called) has allowed public access — mostly because it’s a pleasant walk between two excellent brewpubs, Tap East in the Westfield shopping centre and the Crate Brewing Company in the White Building by the Regent’s Canal in Hackney Wick.
This weekend I finally managed to get inside — in one one of the first events since the stadium’s post-Olympic reconstruction.
The occasion was a friendly rugby game between the Barbarians and Samoa (one of the latter’s warm-up games before the World Cup). We have to hope a few teething problems are ironed out before the start of the tournament — the sprinkling system was unexpectedly deployed during the match on my visit, much to the embarrassment of the ground staff.
The stadium has been remodelled for a smaller capacity, down from 80,000 to 54,000, and there have been some substantial changes, particularly in expanding the roof and retaining the distinctive, original, triangular floodlight structures but inverting them below roof level.
I’ve visited most of the comparable new stadiums — Wembley, Old Trafford, the O2 — and the Olympic Stadium (or The Stadium, Queen Elizabeth Park as it’s officially known — are they waiting for sponsorship?) proved a more pleasant experience with less claustrophobic concrete and, because the pitch area is a sunken bowl, the access and hospitality areas seem lighter and less congested.
However, with West Ham going to make the stadium their home in under a year and the Rugby World Cup approaching, I wonder (as would James in my novel) where the fans are going to congregate around this area of idealistic, futuristic design when they want a few drinks. There are a couple of chain pubs in Westfield in addition to the marvellous (but small) Tap East — nothing likely to satiate up to 58,000 tribal drinkers.
No wonder NaNoWriMo (see last post) is held in November. Getting 5,000 words down, let alone 50,000, in December would be a challenge for me. I wonder whether all writers regard December as a month to (apologies for the pun) write-off.
Writers are notorious for finding displacement activities as a way of putting off sitting down at a desk and starting the hard work of putting words on the page. Suddenly tasks like ironing, filling in your tax return or going to the supermarket all acquire an attractive urgency compared with doing what you supposedly aspire to make your vocation. (I’m told this affects all writers — probably more so for those who make their livings writing as then writing equals the dreaded four letter word that begins with W.)
But December is something else again — all that precious time you normally manage to find by clearing time at weekends, grabbing the odd couple of hours on a weekday evening or even a little scribbling on the train is mercilessly elbowed aside by the extra demands of the festive season.
Like most people I’ve been up to my eyes in shopping, putting up decorations and, of course, lots of socialising. I’ve tried to convince myself that some of that socialising counts as writing-related, such as the excellent Word Factory Christmas party that I attended with Guy from the City course.
Unlike most Word Factory events, where I’ve listened to writers as diverse as Alexei Sayle, A.L. Kennedy and my own second year MA tutor, Nicholas Royle, the floor is open at the Christmas party for readings from the Word Factory audience and there were some excellent short stories read at the event by their authors, including those from friends Isabel Costello and Pete Domican (who were much braver than me by putting their names into the hat — maybe next year for me).
I’ve also tried to convince myself that, because food plays a large part in the novel, that all the time I’ve spent preparing mountains of home-cooked food for Christmas will contribute
as research time — that I’m connecting myself to the tastes, aromas and textures of food preparation. Perhaps there’s a case for this when I’m kneading out the dough for stollen, spicing some slow-cooked red cabbage or getting my hands up to my elbows in a mixing bowl of herby stuffing mixture but there doesn’t seem much inspiration to be found in peeling King Edwards at one in the morning (writers’ block would need to be rather severe for that to be a displacement activity).
The novel also follows the rhythms of the English countryside’s changing seasons of the best part of a year — the principal characters meet in late summer, experience a few chills and blasts over winter and then burst into new life in the spring. So it’s surely for research purposes that I made my own version of the bottled essence of summer that is traditional sloe gin. The prickly business of picking over a hedgerow on a fine, early October day, gathering a couple of kilos of
the tiny purple fruits certainly gives time to meditate on the shortening days and ripening of the harvest. And the periodic shaking of the steeped liquid through early winter heightens the anticipation of its eventual bottling at the end of the year when it takes on a gorgeous deep red hue. It certainly warms you up inside when you drink it so it’s best drunk in small quantities– mine lasted until the start of Lent last year. Maybe a small slug of the 2014 vintage will kick off my writing at the start of 2015?
December is also a time for visiting family and most of mine are quite a distance away. I may have mentioned on the blog previously that I originally come from the Lancashire side South Pennines in a town hemmed in by hills. Virtually every upward glance would take in the ‘wily, windy moors’ that provided inspiration for a surprising number of great writers and poets, the most local being Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and, of course, the Brontë sisters. My theory is that the wild and desolate landscape represents forces of nature that can’t be conquered or subjugated by civilisation and they’re also a potent metaphor for the subconscious.
While visiting the north a few days ago I took the opportunity to revisit the Brontë Parsonage Museum (bizarrely driving about fifteen miles of the route of this summer’s Tour de France — the roads are still marked with slogans encouraging Wiggo and company). It’s a fascinating museum cataloguing the family’s life. But for me the highlight was standing in the dining room.
Maybe it’s something innately writerly but I felt transfixed in an almost religious experience when I read that this was the room where both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were written, probably side-by-side at the dining table. I know Jane Eyre intimately, having studied it at school and written a dissertation on the novel and early feminism in the first year at university. To witness where the books were created (and the room is largely preserved as it was at the time) helps develop an understanding of the process of writing.
But perhaps my most tenuous piece of research was to investigate setting up a possibly lucrative sideline in Scandi-noir. At the start of December I spent the weekend in Stockholm. It was a bit crazy really — flying out first thing on Saturday and returning
Sunday night — spending about 34 hours in the city. I’d been there a few times before in my previous job (and got to know a few Swedes quite well) but a visit in December, when the light starts to fail about two in the afternoon and doesn’t return until about nine the next morning, helps to explain why the Scandinavians are particularly good at the dark side of fiction.
The northern Europeans have a reputation of doing Christmas ‘properly’ — with Germany’s Christmas markets being so popular that they’re popping up all over London — and the
Frankfurt market that takes over Birmingham city centre is phenomenally successful. (This welcoming of other countries’ customs is another reason why I believe the British aren’t Eurosceptics at heart.)
Sweden celebrates Christmas in a way that doesn’t appear brashly commercialised — with its own traditions such as baking saffron bread and celebrating St. Lucia’s day around a
fortnight before Christmas. I visited the most famous Christmas market in Stockholm, at the Skansen open air museum, which was a relatively rustic affair with open log fires and arts and crafts and reindeer meat stalls.
Stockholm itself is a beautiful city and would provide plenty of inspiration for writers. The Vasa, an incredibly well-preserved 17th century battleship that was lifted from Stockholm harbour, is jaw-dropping when first sighted in its museum and would provide all kinds of period inspiration for historical and nautical sagas.
Another theme of the novel is looking at this country (and London, which is arguably a unique place in itself) through the eyes of a European. There’s immense insight to be gained in seeing how other countries celebrate festivals — the better to understand the unique aspects of our own.
Kim in the novel is a devoted anglophile who thinks her excellence at spoken English and several years living in London means she understands the country completely but her German logic is occasionally confounded by the sheer eccentricity of the British.
While I witnessed it much too late to go into the novel, I’d have
loved to write Kim’s fictional reaction to a traditional mummers’ play performed by local morris side, the Owlswick Morris, in my local pub on Boxing Day.
Mummers’ plays date back to the middle-ages as they are very
loosely based on the crusades. When I was at school we performed a Lancashire version at Easter called the Pace-Egg play. I was the Prince of Paladine and had to have a swordfight with St. Andrew, as I remember.
The version performed by Owlswick Morris gave a few more nods to contemporary sensibilities and featured, among others, Father Christmas (not principally known for crusading through the Levant) who was played by a woman and a cross-dressing St. George.
The top-hatted doctor, whose resurrection skills make him one of the most recurring characters, fortunately made an appearance to revive slain Slasher. (Who knows, he might be an early precursor of Doctor Who?).
I can see the slapstick elements of the mummers’ play appealing to Kim’s German sense of humour but I imagine she’d still be puzzling out how to interpret it several days later.
And thinking of Kim, whom my RNA reader described as a ‘great character and an unusual and original heroine’, I came across the beer in Utobeer in Borough Market that I mentioned a year or so ago on the blog was presciently appropriate for her — Redchurch Brewery‘s Shoreditch Blonde. (Not so much for the hair colour but because at the start of the novel she works in a pub near Shoreditch and her expertise with beer puts her at the vanguard of the recent popularity of craft beer. Redchurch Street in Shoreditch is also a place where she’d get out her spray cans and create her street art.)
I didn’t have a choice but to buy a bottle to open on a special occasion (like Kim, it’s sophisticated and not cheap). So what better time than New Year’s Eve?
Here’s a toast to Kim, and all my other characters, and to hope they help make 2015 a very special year. And a happy New Year to all my blog readers and best wishes for all your plans and endeavours (writing or otherwise) in the year ahead. Let’s hope it’s a good one.
As well as being the title of the novel, The Angel is also the name of the pub at the centre of the narrative. It’s a fictional village local somewhere in the Chilterns and, is a little like George Orwell’s famous Moon Under Wateras it’s something of an idealised English country pub (at least in its appearance — thatched, whitewashed, low-beams, inglenooks, flagstoned floors). As mentioned previously, it’s not based on one particular pub but everything in it is an amalgam of real characteristics of about a dozen pubs in the Chilterns that I know very well.
Of course, the physical appearance of a pub is only part of its appeal — the set where personal dramas are played out. As anyone who’s visited more than a few pubs knows (in the country or city), it’s doesn’t take that much searching to come across some very idiosyncratic features — or strange activities that occur in otherwise ‘normal’ pubs.
Only a few days ago I visited a pub I’ve known for a while called England’s Rose in Postcombe, which isn’t that far from M40 junction 6. I’d naively assumed that the pub had borne that name for centuries but no — it was renamed from The Feathers almost exactly 16 years ago in 1997 after — you’ve guessed it — Elton John’s reworking of Candle in the Wind at Diana, Princess of Wales’s funeral. The pub had been converted into a shrine to Lady Di.
We were given a tour by the licensees. There was a whole bookcase of Diana-related literature in the main bar but the restaurant extension was where the Diana memorabilia had been most concentrated. Sadly quite a lot of the souvenirs had been thinned out in recent years but there are still rare photographs on the wall apparently presented by Mohammed Al Fayed.
In a similar vein, although there is more of a geographical connection, the Red Lion in Knotty Green near Beaconsfield has celebrated the life of probably its most successful writer — the phenomenal Enid Blyton.
I say ‘probably’ because Terry Pratchett is said to have been brought up in the area, although he may have lived closer to the spectacularly ancient Royal Standard of England in nearby Forty Green. Huge though Terry Pratchett’s sales are, I’m not sure if he’s yet eclipsed the figures for the Secret Seven, the Famous Five and the rest of her vast backlist.
Fortunately, perhaps, at least for adult drinkers, the pub hasn’t themed itself around Noddy, Big Ears and friends. When I last visited a few years ago, it was more a collection of soft toys, books and a few photos framed on the wall. But it’s an example of how pubs can mark unexpected associations with their local communities.
On a more seriously literary note, the Pink and Lily pub on the scarp of the Chilterns near Princes Risborough, has a wonderfully atmospheric room devoted to war poet Rupert Brooke which is preserved almost exactly as Brooke would have drunk in it himself almost exactly a hundred years ago. Brooke does have a personal connection with the Pink and Lily, having written a poem about it and spending a lot of time in the area whereas I’m not sure if Diana ever drank in England’s Rose or Enid Blyton in the Red Lion.
Combine the oddity of pubs with their role as venues where the local community comes to mix and things can get very strange indeed. It’s always been an ambition of mine to visit some of the inexplicably weird traditions in some of the remoter parts of the country. The tar barrels of Ottery St. Mary are near the top of my list, although not strictly pub related, but I’m most curious to visit the completely bonkers Straw Bear Festival of Whittlesea — which seems to be the most surreal pub crawl imaginable.
But very peculiar entertainment is laid on in pubs closer to home. Below is a YouTube video I took at the Swan in Great Kimble during its recent beer festival (or Oktoberfest — which explains Mick, the landlord’s rather incongruous Lederhosen). No expense was spared in the provision of scintillating entertainment for the patrons — there was a nail driving competition.
For anyone unfamiliar with the idea (as I was) it is a stunningly straightforward contest. Two people with two hammers and two nails — and the fastest to knock their nail into the stump wins. Who needs 3D films, karaoke or even television when we can entertain ourselves like this?
But, in this clip, entertaining it definitely was. The two contestants are my friends Carl (on the left) and Simon. There are two separate contests but Simon is trounced in each one. The scepticism and bewilderment that Simon displays through movement and body language in checking Carl’s nail has indeed been driven in faster is pure physical comedy.
It’s a priceless little nugget that shows how British eccentricity still thrives if you know where to look for it.
It’s been so long since the last post I’ve taken inspiration from the chiller at the end of the aisle in my local Tesco and have produced three posts for the price of one.
Last Saturday night, primed after a few pints from the local pub, I joined the annual British tradition of watching the Eurovision Song Contest.
Nowadays this appears to be a ‘game of two halves’ affair. When the performers gamely take the stage, we indulge in the finest British tradition of thoroughly taking the piss, especially of the self-deluded countries that appear to take the competition seriously. But we’re often dumbstruck when some of the acts are so bizarre they rise above irony.
Among the general cheesiness this year was an apparent theme of giants — including a towering vampire giant from Romania — and a bizarre song from Greece called Alcohol is Free –if true then then it sounds great place for a couple of weeks in the summer. (Perhaps it’s to try and convince the Germans of the merits of their economic model?)
The second half of the show is like a hangover. All our European friends get their own back on all our withering sarcasm by apparently voting in concerted geo-political alliances which have the ultimate aim of making sure the Royaume Uni comes last – although this year, reflecting Euro tensions maybe, the Germans received the same kicking.
Like most parties, it’s a good idea to leave well before the end.
And we’re not just limited to using our own sparkling wit to complement Graham Norton’s (who maintains the peculiarly British Eurovision tradition of having an Irishman to cheer-lead the devastating put-downs). In the age of social media we can exchange our banter real-time in cyberspace in real time in a national Twitter bitchathon. Some academic could probably establish a correlation between retweeting and favouriting and the flow of booze as the night wears on.
Once, like some of the newer European countries, we seemed take the Eurovision Song Contest seriously – or maybe it’s just that I was child (just about) when the likes of Bucks Fizz and, earlier, the Brotherhood of Man actually won the thing.
Could it be that the Tory party’s neurosis over Europe can be directly traced to when the foreign Johnnies spurned Cliff Richard’s Congratulations — and, even worse, when we gave them a chance of atonement when he tried again with Power to All Our Friends?
And suspicions over our continental cousins would have been kindled when they failed to be seduced by the charms of our own Olivia Newton John. So what if she actually came from Australia? Before her fall from grace as Sandy in Grease and her raunchy Physical phase Olivia was very much the kind of girl next door beloved by the swivel-eyed loon community, albeit from 10,000 miles away.
For a period its popularity seemed to be waning – you can’t imagine the Britpop types of the 90s giving Eurovision more than a post-ironic ‘f*** off’ – but Eurovision has undergone the same renaissance as many other re-invented guilty pleasures. Who’d have ever thought ELO would become über cool?
Is it because, to the annoyance of some, that we’re far more integrated into Europe and the British lifestyle has become more comfortably continental?
Or, does the Eurovision Song Contest, amongst the uncool crooners and ubiquitous camp dancing, offer rare nuggets of unbridled eccentricity and uninhibited spontaneity – exactly the type of entertainment that’s normally lacking from prime-time Saturday night schedules?
I don’t watch vast amounts of the likes of the X-Factor, The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent (the novel-writing takes care of that) but I’ve seen enough to know that ‘success’ (at least in the first two of those programmes) is dependent on conformance to rigid stereotypes.
Simon Cowell and his ilk have condensed the music market into reliably marketable categories: the soul diva; the guy next door with that twinkle in his eye; the sassy girl-power group or the boy band with cheeky/smouldering/six-packing members (clichéd descriptions, I know, but that’s the point).
While it’s true that most music is marketed using less overt but equally cynically derivative formula, these stereotypes are particularly fail-safe. The distinction between successive years’ talent show winners are often of a similar magnitude to the great technological innovations that are emblazoned on the packaging of toothpaste or dishwasher tablets – a load of powerballs.
Nor do The X-Factor’s less manufactured rivals provide a feast of musical originality. The likes of Emili Sandé or Adele produce very competent and well-crafted albums and the bands like Coldplay can work a stadium along with the best of them (who are probably still the ancient Rolling Stones). But none of their work is likely to confound the expectations of their fans.
(This isn’t to say I dislike any of these above artists as I’ve bought CDs by all of them – yes, CDs show I’m old-fashioned enough to actually still buy music).
What tends not to succeed with these formulae are the qualities of imagination, eccentricity inventiveness and experimentation, the lack of which may explain the phenomenal popularity of the current David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A Museum. Bowie’s even on the cover of next week’s Radio Times. (There’s a programme about Bowie’s most significant five years on BBC2 tonight (25th May) – which I’ll probably watch after exchanging messages with my German friend Thomas about the all-German Champions League final at Wembley.)
I’m not a mega Bowie fan but I learned my lesson from failing to get a ticket to the V&A’s recent Hollywood exhibition so booked early (tickets went very quickly) and managed to spend a lunchtime there last month.
It wasn’t nearly long enough – it would be easy to spend an hour or so just watching the concert footage. I compensated by buying the big, heavy show catalogue – for which my groaning bookshelves won’t forgive me.
From the point of view of plugging away for years at my own creative endeavour, it was reassuring that the exhibition started with the efforts of Bowie and his record companies to persist in trying to breakthrough commercially in the late 60s – something often forgotten in career retrospectives.
Bowie spent around five years on the fringes of Swinging London (from the famous 1964 BBC Tonight long-hair interview) until Space Oddity established his reputation, commercially timed to coincide with the Apollo moon landings. (Oddly, I didn’t see any references whatsoever to The Laughing Gnome throughout the exhibition.)
That so much of the material came from his personal archive also showed how assiduously Bowie has curated his own artistic legacy.
The V&A show displays many Bowie stage costumes. Viewed close up, some of the outfits look less like iconic images than home-made fancy dress costumes. But these were an essential part of Bowie’s distinctive appeal as he underwent style makeovers at a dizzying pace, especially in the early 70s, changing from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane and so on. That’s one era that I’m fortunately too young to remember properly, although I do recall my uncle, a student at the time, showing my dad the cover of Diamond Dogs – to which the response was something like ‘What the bloody hell is that?’
Worth the entrance fee alone, particularly as a piece of social history in the week when a gay marriage bill has gone through the Commons, is the hilariously caustic Bernard Falk film for BBC Nationwide which is played on a loop in the exhibition. Dating back to 1973 it spits studied disgust at Bowie’s androgynous gender role-play. It’s well worth clicking the link to watch it on YouTube.
‘David Bowie spends two hours before his show caressing his body with paint…a bizarre, self-constructed freak…it is a sign of our times that a man with a painted face and carefully adjusted lipstick should inspire adoration from an audience of girls aged between fourteen and twenty…he will earn around half-a-million pounds this year [so] he can afford a personal make-up artist to cover his nails in silver.’
Being too young to follow Bowie’s reinventions at the time and his withdrawal (literally from drugs — his cocaine spoon is in the exhibition) and renewal in his Low period and the Berlin years, I found this an interesting section of the exhibition, especially as I like the city myself.
The first Bowie record I bought was, I think, Ashes to Ashes (that video is very peculiar), followed by Catpeople (both versions are brilliant), the weird Baal EP and the commercial Let’s Dance (I love Nile Rogers’ work from the late 70s to the mid 80s).
The videos for some of Bowie’s greatest tracks can be viewed alongside the original costumes and his own handwritten lyrics. These fascinate me. It’s an amazing experience to read lines like ‘Sailors fighting on the dancefloor, Oh man, look at those cavemen go,’ in the writer’s own hand, hearing the words sung simultaneously. Maybe it’s because I have the mind-set of a writer but I venerate these pieces of handwriting like religious artefacts (as I did viewing handwritten drafts by the likes of Jane Austen, Hardy, Eliot and J.G. Ballard at the British Library last year).
Reading Bowie’s own handwriting I realised this was the first time I’d actually fully understood many of his lyrics – especially lines like ‘strung out on heaven’s high’.
The strange juxtapositions that are a feature of Bowie’s lyrics were partially explained by an exhibit about the ‘Verbasizer’: a computer program he commissioned to randomly assemble fragments of sentences that had been fed into it . Bowie trawled the output for interesting combinations that he could develop further – maybe a useful tool for a poet or fiction writer?
I can’t agree with those who say Bowie was the most significant popular musician of the late twentieth century. However, his creation of enough artefacts to sustain a show at the V&A demonstrates, perhaps, his approach of constant re-invention and challenging of the audience through playing with the persona of the pop star meant that he was uniquely pivotal in developing the interaction between popular music and visual art.
In doing so, he created some beautiful music – I always think the ending of Ashes to Ashes is one of the most exquisite passages of popular music. Bowie was also shrewd in working with some great collaborators. They contributed hugely to the sound of the Zeitgeist of the time– for example Rick Wakeman’s haunting piano on Life On Mars and the work of Mick Ronson (who worked as a council gardener in Hull immediately prior to being one of the Spiders from Mars), Iggy Pop, Tony Visconti and many others.
The contrast between the Bowie’s rip-it-up-and-start-again approach and the industrialisation of the X Factor wannabees is also perhaps applicable to the experience of the aspiring writer. The goal is similar – to impress the judges – agents, publishers, booksellers – who can metaphorically allow their work to proceed to the next round, etc.
While some are happy to write for themselves and a limited audience, the majority of writers seek their work to be read by as widely as possible. The motivation might be very similar, in a quiet bookish way, to the attention-seekers on TV talent shows – having your name on the cover of a book on sale in a shop must be immensely gratifying, even more so after the long, lonely slog of writing a novel. On a more personal level, I’m sure most writers get an ego buzz when someone says they’ve enjoyed reading their work – why workshopping writing can be stressful – will you get a high of approbation or a low of ‘this didn’t really work for me’?
It’s likely there are more people who aspire to be novelists than join the next One Direction. While it probably wouldn’t be very televisual to film a show with hopeful writers auditioning their prose, which would probably vary between execrable or surprisingly good, it would still be compelling, competitive drama.
In the meantime, there’s no shortage of writing competitions or other forums in which writers can offer up their work for the judgement of others (writing groups, creative writing courses, etc.). Having taken many writing courses and kept in touch with quite a wide network of writer friends, both physically and online, I’ve had plenty of experience of having my own writing critiqued. I’ve also critiqued a lot of other people’s writing in return.
I like to think that I try to offer feedback by suspending, as much as possible, my own preferences and to assess whether the writing achieves the objectives with which its author set out (as far as these can be discerned). But I had an experience last week that made me wonder if I’d been swallowed up by the great ‘rules of creative writing’ homogenising machine.
A new friend who’s a writer sent me the opening of a book she was working on. It was very compelling, although I’d annotated the manuscript with quite a few notes for feedback. She’d also read the work to a writers’ group she’d recently joined and had sought the opinions of other writing friends.
We met up for a chat and when I mentioned various points that had occurred to me about the writing – like the narrative arc, scene-setting/chronology, point-of-view, intertwining of detail and back story – she invariably said ‘That’s really useful as the writers’ group said that too’ or ‘That’s exactly what my friend said’.
This was quite reassuring for her – and in some ways for me – because if my suggestions were similar to those of other people I’ve never met then my comments weren’t the ramblings of a lone, self-opinionated eccentric.
It’s likely that these other reviewers were influenced by the same courses, books/magazines on writing, conferences, agent talks, blogs, Twitter, etc. And this means that our collective perspective probably largely coincides with the general views of the professional ‘judges’ of writing: agents, publishers, editors and so on.
But, to return to the previous musical comparisons, do these universal truths mean that following these collectively-held writing axioms is more likely to shape a literary Joe McElderry than a David Bowie?
While conscientiously workshopping one’s writing is likely to purge the equivalent of cheesy, lame Eurovision entries, the tendency for writing groups to search for consensus might also dismiss the mad, off-the-wall eccentricities that are comparable to what makes the song contest’s unique appeal.
My Twitter friend, Pete Domican, makes some good points on his recent update to his blog entry about his decision to avoid buying from Amazon, which is well worth a read.
One of the points he makes in favour of using specialist bookshops is the serendipity of finding the unexpected: ‘I want to find books on a shelf that I’d have never discovered otherwise… I want to have conversations with writers who write ‘weird’ stuff…’
There’s so much advice aimed at making writers’ work stand out in the slush pile that its truisms are almost ubiquitous – and the focus is usually on trying to reduce the risk of making mistakes. It’s tempting to think that this might encourage a general shift towards the formulaic although there are certainly plenty of books published that don’t follow The Rules (probably by writers lucky enough to attract attention who have either avoided the traditional sources of advice (or deliberately contradicted them). And established writers potentially may feel freer to experiment.
Given last Saturday’s reaction from my ex-City university writing group friends to the latest section of my novel, I probably don’t have to worry too much about my own writing being over-homogenised. I was asked ‘Do you put these things in to deliberately get a reaction out of us?’ The answer is that I don’t (although I did slip in one line for that purpose in last week’s extract). It appears my novel is quite capable of setting off lively debates and reaction without any pre-meditated intervention – which I think is probably a good thing, on balance.
While I read a great deal and try to do more if possible, the necessity of grabbing bits of spare time to write my own novel means I don’t get time to get through nearly as many contemporary novels as I’d like – I’d love to get through a fraction of the number of new novels as does another Twitter writer friend, Isabel Costello.
Isabel’s blog, On the Literary Sofa, features many of her reviews of recent and forthcoming novels. The latest post lists her top ‘10’ summer reads (worth visiting, not least for the chance of winning one of the books). I noted that the majority of the titles, which on first impression seem to sit around the ‘sweet spot’ between genre and literary fiction, were set overseas, particularly in North America and South Africa.
The interesting location of the novels reflects the importance of setting to a reader – using a novel to imagine oneself transported into another world is a fundamental attraction of fiction. What Isabel’s list doesn’t appear to feature heavily is the ‘high concept’ novel.
‘High concept’ is about trying to make a novel sound completely unique – particularly when reduced to a one or two sentence ‘elevator pitch’ – and according to a lot of advice I’ve read or heard, the more quirky or intriguing the concept the better – they often involve devices like memory loss, manipulation of time, improbable challenges and so on. But, paradoxically, when an increasing number of successful novels are evidently constructed around some kind of attention-grabbing concept then the need for a similar hook starts to become another essential item on the how-to-get-published checklist.
I’m currently reading a novel in which the prose is wonderful, the main character is sympathetic and credible and the author is adept at using difficult technical skills, such as dropping in backstory that anticipates readers’ questions that have been subtly raised. It’s also constructed around an obviously whimsical, quirky concept. While the concept works as a device in giving momentum to the narrative arc, I’m already becoming quite exasperated because it also seems to stretch the plot’s credibility past breaking point. It also requires the author to address otherwise unnecessary details that result from trying to sustain the central premise.
The book has clearly worked commercially and I’m sure I’m particularly curious about the techniques used to structure a narrative. However, I wondered if it had started as a ‘quiet’ book, concentrating on character-related development, and had the concept reverse-engineered into it. I may be completely wrong – the hook may have sprung into the writer’s mind before the rest of the novel but I it will be interesting to see the approach the author takes with her next book.
Like most such fashions, hopefully the primacy of high concept ideas will pass as, while it helps make a great pitch to a Waterstones buyer, ultimately the reader will suffer if writers of sympathetic and intelligent books feel the incorporation of some over-arching novelty is a pre-requisite for publication.
Having cited David Bowie as an example of rule-breaking and diversity, some might argue his approach to showmanship is in the spirit of high concept. In the case of Bowie as an individual artist, this is probably true. However, a truer analogy with writing advice would have resulted in every aspiring singer in the mid-70s to be told the way to success was to ape Bowie and re-invent elaborate personas for each album. To some extent this happened with prog-rock (remember Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower?) but what swiftly followed was a huge two-fingers being given to this prevailing orthodoxy: punk.
I recently read John Lanchester’s Capital, partly because it has some genre similarities with my own writing. I had high expectations for the novel. These weren’t wholly fulfilled but I admired the book’s ambition and the way it contradicted much of the received writing wisdom.
The ‘ultimate question’ asked in courses and workshops about a novel is usually ‘whose story is it?’. Capital can’t answer this – there are well over half-a-dozen characters who share equal prominence. And it’s not the story of Pepys Road (in south London, nominally where it’s set) either because there’s no real connection between the characters apart from vague demographics – some don’t even live there. There are also many sudden POV shifts, a large amount of exposition by ‘telling’ and there isn’t much of a narrative ‘chain of causality’.
Some of Capital’s characters work better than others but, as a reader, I’d rather Lanchester attempted the diversity of writing from the perspective of a female Zimbabwean parking attendant or a character innocently caught on the fringes of religious extremism than to stick with what seems the safer, more comedic territory of the disillusioned banker or football club fixer.
The book similarly varies in tone – ranging from terminal illness through the sexual motivation of Polish builders to the topical humour of an irredeemably consumerist banker’s wife. But I can imagine a writer being given advice on pitching a similar novel ‘but what is it – a romance, a comedy, social commentary’?
Like Eurovision and Bowie, Capital defies easy categorisation, and should be admired for that because if a ‘rules of the X-Factor’ approach is over-rigorously applied then we’re in danger of losing the serendipity and variety of the eccentric and individual that provide genuine surprise and delight.
I couldn’t end 2012 without something for my Shardenfreude followers. I’ve had a fair number of hits on the blog over the past couple of years looking for photos of its construction and now it’s finished and shining like a, well, shard.
And in the spirit of London 2012, here’s a few more night time photos of landmarks old and new.
It’s so apt that London’s most well known modern landmark (or is it now the Shard?) is an inclusive circle — or in the year of the Olympics — a ring.
As anyone reading the posts on this blog over the summer will realise, I think this was an extraordinary year to spend time in London — and it was a privilege for me to be here in 2012 to witness how the city, probably already the most international and cosmopolitan on earth, became a place that literally, with the extraordinary army of games-makers, welcomed the world — and incredibly efficiently too.
I’m still awed by the Danny Boyle Opening Ceremony. I’ve watched the start a few times since — and I now have my Olympic DVD — and in places I still have that spine-tingling feeling of watching a piece of genius unfolding — and a peculiarly eccentric English genius. I’d almost forgotten that the official speeches were made from that bizarre interpretation of Glastonbury Tor — that spewed out industrial workers. Perhaps it’s because Danny Boyle comes from the fringes of Manchester, as I do, that the Pandemonium section with the rising mill chimneys had such resonance. But, as I’ve blogged already, the narrative of that sequence was brilliant — obscuring the denouement of the unification of the five rings, except for that wonderful moment when the audience suddenly realises what’s about to happen, and then has a final surprise payoff at the end with the raining fire.
In retrospect, it’s easy to forget the doubts we all had about London even having a tolerably good games and avoiding something disastrous. It’s not surprising in retrospect that the Olympics and Paralympics put on a great show. London routinely handles huge sporting events — with the likes of Wembley, Twickenham and Lords being some of the best stadiums in the world (I know Twickenham wasn’t used but, having lived nearby for several years it shows how 80,000 people can be processed in and out of a suburban stadium). London, and the country in general, put on huge cultural events, like Glastonbury and the Hyde Park concerts, every summer and the country is able to put on spectacular state events, like the Royal Wedding and this year’s Jubilee celebrations (though we can’t control the weather). And, here’s a slightly tenuous connection to the novel, London and the rest of the country has probably the most thriving cultural industry of any city (or country) in the world — punching way above its weight in music, art, theatre, television, writing — almost any branch of culture you can think of. And the government, for a change, didn’t cut the budget. Of course we should have put on a good show but it’s a reassuringly diffident British characteristic to think that we wouldn’t.
Apologies for repeating myself but we’re not going to get another event like it for a long time and, although the Olympics knocked my writing schedule way behind during the summer, it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed.
So maybe another few photos from the landmark that will explode in a huge circle of fire in a few hours to celebrate the end of such a great year for the city.
There’s been so much else I’ve done in London in 2012 that I’ve not even had change to blog about — exhibitions seen, events I’ve attended, walks I’ve taken — the Shoreditch graffiti walk and previously mentioned Abbey Road Studio Two visit being but two of the highlights.
I’ve also met so many wonderful new friends, particularly associated with the arts in London. Maybe I’ll do a proper round up post in the New Year?
And between the Olympics and Paralympics I belatedly discovered Tuscany and Venice for the first time, which would have been the highlight of most years.
I do have a finished novel, although it’s not yet quite polished enough yet, which is a little frustrating, but I think it’s benefited from being in progress during the year — especially if I can manage to capture a little of the headiness of this past year in the city.
So 2013 is only a few hours away — the year when I finally hope the finished novel is going to gain me that MA in Creative Writing after three years of study (after all the OU, Lancaster and City courses as well). So, in novel writing terms, perhaps a little like the Olympic hopefuls this time last year, but in a more modest, literary way, my New Year’s Resolution is pretty straightforward — do my best, work hard, accept any criticism and setbacks as constructive feedback and then see how my efforts measure up — finish the novel to best of my ability, send it out and then start on the next one…but also carry on enjoying myself as much with the next as I have with this one.
(And my other New Year’s Resolution is to clean out all the crappy extraneous characters in the old blog posts that appear to have arrived with the database copying problems.)
While â€˜unbelievableâ€™ seemed to be the word applied an unbelievable number of times to British sporting achievements, â€˜bonkersâ€™ seems theÂ most appropriate description to apply to the cultural and social impact of the Olympics â€“ especially after that closing ceremony. Its astonishingly uninhibited chaos mixed flashes of genius with the heroically tacky and cheesy â€“ and slightly sadly probably showed a more accurate reflection of British popular culture than the mesmerising Opening Ceremony.
It feels a world away now but the Opening Ceremony set the tone for what appeared to me to be a staggering transformation in the collective mood â€“ certainly in London.
What seemed to make the change in mood of the last couple of weeks genuine — and profoundly touching — was the collective astonishment â€“ we couldnâ€™t believe that we were pulling it off.
Beyond the worries about crowding and traffic there were at least a couple of major problems that could have occurred at this Olympics: terrorism and rioting. Fortunately neither the events of July 2005 or August 2011 were repeated. But we all collectively held our breath and by the end of the games all the doubts, warnings and cynicism were forgotten. Instead we all went bonkers.
Walking around LondonI was reminded of the title of the Jeremy Deller retrospective earlier this year at the Heyward Gallery â€“ Joy in People. And veryÂ serendipitouslyÂ I came across Sacrilege, Dellerâ€™s bouncy castle Stonehenge in Victoria Park, Hackney (it only stayed a day in any one place inLondon on its cultural Olympiad tour). I also saw another piece of British bonkerness in Victoria Park â€“ the eccentric Universal Tea Machine.
Back to theÂ Opening Ceremony, the first point when I realised that I was watching somethingÂ really spectacular was an overhead shot of the molten iron circle being symbolically beaten by foundry workers. I thought ‘Hold on that looks a bit familiar’ and the shot cut to two glowing objects moving overhead from the edges of the stadium. Then the molten ring lifted and everyone knows what happened next — the Olympic Rings of Fire were assembled above the stadium.
(I havenâ€™t heard it mentioned elsewhere but I picked up a definite nod to Tolkienâ€™s Lord of the Rings with the green and pleasant land turning into a furnace of fire-beaten rings.)
More anything else, for me, Â in the incredible show, it summed up the essence of creativity — taking a symbol as familiar as the Olympic rings and presenting it in an entirely new, innovative way. It was as masterful as reading the denouement of a brilliantly plotted novel — a moment of unexpected, revelatory insight into what came before.
The Opening Ceremony drew on skills in which it was generally acknowledged that Britain was almost uniquely good at â€“ creativity, innovation, contemporary music and design. Although with Britain third in the medal table (and writing just after the closing ceremony) perhaps we should put sport higher on our list of national strengths.
Skills in which Britain leads the world â€“ such as advertising and television â€“ both based on the creative manipulation of imagery â€“ and this has been transferred to the games. Itâ€™s amazing to consider the attention to detail involved in London 2012â€™s branding. The presentation of the venue has been amazing.
The colour scheming of the games has been meticulous â€“ and brilliantly successful in an understated way. The largely restrained palate of colours used for the games was clever: an aqua blue, orange, yellow and the two most prominent â€“ the bright pink and deep purple. These colours donâ€™t clash with many, if any, flags and they simultaneously convey both excitement and informality (the pink) with a stately Â self-assured competence (purple).
No venue has used design to appear as stunning as the unlikely temporary beach volleyball arena on Horse Guards Parade, which I was lucky enough to get tickets for on the first Sunday of the games. Itâ€™s a shame the security fences mean that itâ€™s been difficult for non-ticket holders to get a view of the stadium.
It has seated an incredible 15,000 people and was constructed in the few weeks between Trooping the Colour and the Olympics â€“ and I can say from personal experience it was no ramshackle affair. It had to be solidly built to cope with the energies of the crazed, conga-dancing crowd.
Beach volleyball has been one of the revelations of these Olympics â€“ Iâ€™ve read several newspaper articles which, in pre-Olympic times, might have sneered at the eventâ€™s supposed frivolous, if not outright exploitative, image but theyâ€™ve all concluded that the Horse Guards stadium has provided wonderful entertainment â€“ and that the players are also serious athletes.
Iâ€™m normally someone who would run a mile from an event with cheerleaders and similarly mandatory jollity. But faced with the rather un-British beach and tan culture. Londonreacted in the best of British traditions â€“ it took the piss out of it. The staging of the event was staged with such exuberantly over-the-top genius that it even used the Benny Hill theme tune â€“ not to accompany the knowingly camp dancers but for the volunteers who levelled the sand â€“ â€˜The Rakersâ€™ (who sounds like an American college basketball team).
The atmosphere was infectiously surreal â€“ four second blasts of music accompanying the action and absurd crowd participation (a bizarrely eclectic mix of Blur, LMFAO, the Beach Boys and, of course, Dizzee Rascal himself), I doubt many London audiences would jump out of their seats as readily to perform a huge conga around the stadium and when Madnessâ€™s One Step Beyond boomed around the seat of British government at 11pm on a Sunday night there were 15,000 pairs of arms moving up and down in unison.
After a while Â the over-the-top announcerâ€™s voice became extremely familiar and once the penny dropped there was no doubt â€“ it was the man himself â€“ Peter Dickson â€“ the ridiculously hyperbolic Voice-Over Man from the X-Factor, Britainâ€™s Got Talent and many other programmes. Heâ€™s the voice that always seems to announce that this weekâ€™s warbler is the â€˜biggest selling female artist in the history of the universeâ€™.
Like everything associated with the rest of the event, Peter Dickson hammed it up spectacularly: â€˜I hear the Prime Minister has an early morning tomorrow and he’s asking if we’ll we turn the noise down?â€™ (Incredibly cheesy but the bizarre location demanded it.) No guessing what the crowdâ€™s answer was.
The setting of Horse Guardâ€™s parade, with the purple-decked stadium, a rectangle of beach sand in its centre and Nelsonâ€™s column, Horse Guards, Big Ben and the London Eye visible on the skyline provided an iconic image.
Sitting in the â€˜Downing Street Endâ€™ of the stadium I wondered what other country would site a beach volleyball stadium within 50 yards of its governmentâ€™s centre of executive power? Only one that was bonkers. And that sums up the genius of these Olympic games: I had one of the most enjoyable nights of entertainment I can remember in a long time.
I’ve sadly under-nourished this blog over the past few weeks for a couple of good reasons and one that’s, unfortunately, not so satisfying.
The first good reason is that I’m trying to get the novel manuscript revised after Emma Sweeney’s feedback (the two solid weeks mentioned in previous posts) and I’ve decided to ask her to look over the first three chapters of the novel in more detail as these are what it will initially be assessed on by agents.
Incidentally I was invited by Emma on Thursday to the Literary Club at New York University in London, where she teaches, and I met the novelist Edward Hogan who was giving a reading. I had a short chat with him and he’s really nice chap. Several people have recommended his novels Blackmoor and The Hunger Trace and the reading he gave us from the latter was very compelling.
The second reason for lack of blog updates is fitting in lots of commitments in general life. As well as the evening at NYU in London, we had a rare evening workshop with the ex-City stalwarts on Tuesday and there have been some gripping, if disappointing, Premier League matches that haven’t escaped my attention.
But Saturday was something of a ceremonial milestone as I went to up to Birmingham,
where I spent three years as an undergraduate, for my Open University MSc degree ceremony at the Symphony Hall.
(As a strange co-incidence, the redeveloped canals of city-centre Birmingham — one of which I’m posing next to — play a part in my MAÂ course-mateÂ Kerry’s novel-in-progress.)
It’s been over a year since I finished the MSc (see this post about when I got the hard copies back) and I could have gone to earlier graduation ceremonies but I wanted one at a weekend and I thought it quite appropriate to return to the scene of my undergraduate dissolution. The Birmingham Symphony Hall was an impressive venue — preferable imho to the OU’s London location for graduation — the Barbican (where I was presented with my MBA from Kingston University) — described as a ‘concrete bunker’ by someone I work with who had a choice of Barbican or Brighton Pavilion for his OU graduation.
I’m such an OU advocate that I went back to look at the website to see if there were any courses I could do that might advance some of the interests I’ve picked up in the long process of researching this novel — art being an obvious choice but also architecture and psychology.
I had a shock when I saw the cost of a 60 point humanities course had shot up to Â£2,500. I had a look at the prices for the Creative Writing and Advanced Creative Writing courses — and both were also the same price. When I first enrolled for Creative Writing back in 2007 I’m sure the cost was more like Â£600.
Perhaps the government has cut the OU’s funding — but the OU may also feel it can justify charging more because 360 points earns a student a bachelor’s degree — so Â£15,000 at current prices which is far less than the Â£27,000 or so students will have to pay at most conventional universities.
This means anyone taking the same creative writing courses as those I did will need to shell out Â£5k nowadays — which, I suppose, makes me appreciate more the amount and quality of creative writing teaching that I’ve been taking almost continuously for the last five years — and this in turn makes me think that I need to push myself to try and get a return on all this investment (hence less time spent blogging recently and more writing the novel). And perhaps mercifully for my leisure time the OU’s new fees deter me from casually signing up to a new Arts course on the basis that it looks interesting.
It’s very easy for an aspiring writer to spend a lot of money in the quest to become published and I wonder if more money is now made by people charging for courses, manuscript appraisals, consultancy, conferences and so on than is made by writers in the act of writing itself (if you take the likes of J.K.Rowling out of the calculation). It seems that plenty of excellent published writers supplement their scandalously meagre income from writing in this way.
However, this might not be such an odd model for the future — it’s how activities like sport, art or cookery are organised — with a few star professionals whom the masses aspire to emulate. Even though they know they’ll never be Wayne Rooney or Damien Hirst or Jamie Oliver, millions are happy to practice in their own leisure time and pay others for tuition. If writing hasn’t already adopted this model it might be because of the high fixed costs of publishing — but now with cheap access to e-publishing and print on demand — then there are fewer barriers to much wider, paying participation as with sport.
But back to the graduation ceremony. One thing that struck me was the demographicÂ compositionÂ of my fellow graduates. Probably two thirds of those being ceremonially conferred with a degree were women — and women of all ages. The men were skewed much more towards the older age group — I was told that I was one of the few who didn’t have grey hair (not enough to notice on a stage anyway). This might not have been surprising for postgraduates but the undergraduates outnumbered us by about 8 to 1.
This ties in with evidence, such as that cited in The Economist’s Megachangebook that I was given to read, that women already outnumber men overall in the tertiary education sector. If, as we’re told by forecasters like The Economist, that the future of work will depend much more on the sort of intelligence and innovation that comes from a higher level of education then the larger proportion of women than men! who seem to put in the sort of timeÂ commitmentÂ and motivation that an OU degree requires, ought to manifest some profound changes in the workplace.
I travelled up to Birmingham on the train and, as if to re-inforce the point, there was a large party of Scottish twenty-something men in my carriage. At 9am they were swilling Rab C Nesbitt’s favourite tipple — Buckfast — straight from the bottle and washing it down with cans of Red Stripe. Like most people I guess I have a fairly hypocritical attitude to public drinking if it’s not me that’s doing it — if I’m sober and I smell beer on someone’s breath on the tube I think ‘alky’ — even though I must often be that beery-breathed person myself. Â So I was pretty appalled by this bunch even though they were (at that time in the morning) fairly good natured. Presumably they were on some weekend bender of which I was glad to have only to witnessed the beginning.
Nevertheless, while extreme, this seemed to sum up the contrast between feckless under-40 males and their more diligent and industrious female counterparts.Â At the risk of making sweeping gender stereotyping generalisations, the fact that, on average, men manage to hold their own in the workplace against better qualified women seems to me to be another instance of the ‘bias towards bullshit’ in British corporate culture.
This prejudice leaped out of one of Lord Sugar’s comments in the latest Apprentice — where he reasoned that Azhar ought to be fired partly because his sensible points and good ideas were ignored by other the more loud-mouthed and egotistical contestants — and that telling idiots who are too self-absorbed to listen that they are wrong is somehow ‘too negative’.
This is a theme, possibly unintentionally, of my novel — with two contrasting but highly educated and highly motivated female characters. Both Kim and Emma have Master’s degrees and are ascending to the top of their professions (albeit in ways that might not seem obvious at the time). James also has an MBA but he’s disaffected and marginalised by working life and the novel starts with him wanting to get out but drifting rather than than being driven to achieve his ambitions.
The MSc in Software Development is something of a clue that my ‘day job’ is something to do with IT, which is thought of as a fairly male-dominated industry. However, I tend to have always worked quite closely with women. My first job was as a graduate trainee at British Airways and I had a female on-the-job tutor and I’ve worked very closely with many women — for a long time in my last job I was the only male in a team of three who travelled abroad a lot together (mainly to Germany — hence the background to the novel) and I ended up for a time sitting next to the two PAs who worked for a FTSE 100 company’s UK IT director — which provided quite a few fascinating insights. (No surprise there’s also a PA in the novel.)
I’ve consequently found it odd to be working recently (the third reason for under-nourishing the blog is having to spend lots of time commuting for this job) in a team of people who are 100% male — the office environment and projectsÂ I mostly work on are fortunately quite mixed but the team meetings have been quite strange affairs. Today there was a discussion in blokily knowledgeable detail about how the missiles planned to be stationed in London for the Olympics would be used to shoot down any errant airliners. It’s as if it’s unsaid butÂ everyone realises there’s something indefinable that’s missing –I’m sure there’s a similar sort of dynamic in all-women teams too in professions where women are dominant (apparently publishing is meant to be one).
Ironically, if someone said ‘what we need on this team is a few women’ then it would get exactly the sort of ribald, guffawing, nudge-nudge response that would prove the point. And I suppose a lot of the novel is about this subject too — the interactions between working men and women provide much of the novel’s momentum.
[NB. Post has been cleaned up after up the mess of trying to edit a blog on an iPad using Safari on a 3G connection on a train.]
This photo might be more relevant for my other novel, that’s currently languishing on the back burner waiting for The AngelÂ to be completed and sent off to its destiny, but it’s certainly topical.
It was taken this morning after the Sport Relief mile at Prestwood. This is a village in the Chilterns, ironically quite close to the HS2 route, but also only about three miles or so from Chequers. I’ve done the Prestwood 10km race at least twice in the last few years, if not three times, and the first half of that course is painfully hilly — going up and down the rolling Chiltern slopes.
But the Sport Relief mile was confined to the sports ground from where the 10km starts and finishes and is totally flat — not a bad place for the Prime Minister to come and jog.
This is my photo — I did actually get that close to him and it wasn’t my doing either — he just appeared next to me after he’d been in the sports club pavilion immediately after the run. It was all incredibly informal although there seemed to be a mobile CCTV surveillance van parked to keep an eye on things (the camera attached to a mast can be seen in the background).
And Cameron did actually run the mile with a couple of minders but also his wife and children and a few friends of his that I maybe should have recognised, but didn’t. By contrast, I can’t imagine anyone being let within a Sport Relief mile of Obama in an equivalent situation in the US.
I was on the lookout for some sort of celebrity when we arrived at the sports ground as I couldn’t see why else there were TV cameras plus four photographers with huge lenses if it was only a couple of hundred locals there — and just before the race started the Camerons appeared discreetly out of a little convoy of cars.
I’ve not watched any of the TV coverage but found a few links to the race. I’m on this one -Â just about…on the far left partially obscured behind a blonde woman with sunglasses…and I streak past in a blur in this ITV coverage on the Daily Telegraph site.
On a more minor scale I also saw David Lidington, who’s the Minster for Europe, in St. James’s Park last week and he recognised me and said hello (I’ve met him a few times, although I know his wife better to talk to — we saw her last time we went to IKEA Milton Keynes).
While Cameron was clearly on a photo-opportunity, he didn’t try and muscle in on the event and was quite approachable — something that is true of most of the politicians in this country and that we should perhaps give them more credit for? And the cost of this privileged access to the Prime Minister — Â£6 to charity.
As anyone who’d watched TV or picked up a newspaper since Christmas will know, 2012 is the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of arguably Britain’s greatest novelist. If you’re a person with more modern tastes in literature you may believe that the quality of his actual writing is less laudable (he uses plenty of adverbs and adjectives, omniscient narrators and other contemporary sins), you’d still have to concede the lasting influence of Dickens on British society and culture.
I would be interesting to see how a modern-day Dickens fared in a creative writing workshop. As Armando Ianucci argued in his recent BBC programme celebrating Dickens, it’s the writer’s gift for creating memorable characters, evoking setting, raging against social injustice and, above all, as aÂ humoristÂ that make his works so memorable — and so widely adapted into other media. Character, setting, theme and the ability to give a reader the sheer enjoyment of reading are vital ingredients of a successful novel but are very difficult to teach on creative writing courses that necessarily focus on analysing shorter passages.
I bought Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on LiteratureÂ for my recent MA essay on The Rules of Creative Writing and Nabokov uses a lecture on Bleak House to examine Dickens’s techniques in detail. Nabokov identifies thirteen different different attributes of the style of Dickens’s language — including repetition, evocative names, plays on words, oblique description of speech, epithets and something called the Carlylean Apostrophic Manner.
NabokovÂ criticises Dickens’s storytelling ability but still rates his as a great writer, as well as a particularly enjoyable one to read. Bearing in mind the extended form of the novel Nabokov says ‘Control over a constellation of characters and themes, the technique of holding people and events bunched together, or of evoking absent characters through dialogue — in other words, the art of not only creating people but keeping created people alive within the reader’s mind throughout a long novel — this, of course, is the obvious sign of greatness.’
This last point is so obvious it often seems to be omitted from a list of techniques required by novel writers — ‘the art…of creating people [and] keeping [them] alive’ — all other novelists techniques are really subordinate this aim.
Dickens’s actual birth date is the 7th February, next Tuesday, but I’m paying tribute to the great man in a way that he would surely approve of — by organising a pub crawl around some of the drinking establishments that he visited himself and featured in his novels. So tomorrow (as I write it — Friday 3rd February for clarification) I will be leading a party in literary homage visiting the following places at approximately the following times:
6pm Cittie of York, 22 High Holborn, WC1V 6BS (Chancery Lane Tube) –Â The Cittie of York is on the site of Grayâ€™s Inn Coffee House, mentioned in both David Copperfield and Barnaby Rudge.
6.45pm Knight’s Templar, 95 Chancery Lane, WC1A 2DT — not much of a Dickens association apart from being in the middle of Chancery Lane — so bang in legal London — it’s a Wetherspoon conversion of what was apparently the Union Bank.
7.30pm Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,Â 145 Fleet Street, EC4A 2BU — the current building dating to a rebuild in 1667, Ye Old Cheshire Cheese was one of Charles Dickensâ€™s favourite pubs, along with many other famous authors. It is likely the inspiration for a pub on Fleet Street mentioned in The Tale of Two Cities.
8.15pm Ye Old Mitre, 1 Ely Court, Ely Place, EC1N 6SJ — Dickens was known to drink in the historic and secluded Old Mitre — a pub that has so much bizarre history (its licence used to be granted in Cambridgeshire until the 1950s) it could fill its own guidebook.
9pm Craft Beer Company, 82 Leather Lane, EC1N 7TR — close to Bleeding Heart Yard (in Little Dorrit*) but it’s the best new beer pub in London (*anyone know which flower’s most well-know variety is named after this novel?)
9.45pm The One Tun, 125-6 Saffron Hill, EC1N 8QS –Â The One Tun is believed to have inspired Oliver Twist. The Three Cripples fictional public house was located next door to the One Tun and a real-life Fagin lived nearby. Dickens drank in the pub from 1833-1838.
If you’re in any of those pubs on Friday 3rd February then come and say hello — although it might need to be a virtual one via the blog. If I say you’ll be able to spot me as I’ll be semi half-cut (a tautology I used in work submitted on my MA course) with a group of around half-a-dozen males looking desperate for the next ale then it won’t be much use as half the pub will answer that description.
Anyone familiar with London will notice that this subset of pubs with Dickens associations is in the Holborn-Fleet Street- Farringdon-Clerkenwell area — not a particularly touristy part of the city even now — and one that changed a greatly in the nineteenth century with, among other developments, the culverting of the River Fleet in the Farringdon area in conjunction with the construction of the Metropolitan Railway — the world’s first underground. Â (Crossrail now means the Farringdon area is being dug up all over again.)
Even so, the area north of Hatton Garden around Gray’s Inn Road and Mount Pleasant and stretching towards King’s Cross retains a more raffish atmosphere than most parts of London — this was the territory of Bill Sykes and his presence still seems to permeate the area. Perhaps it’s the geography of the area — much more vertical separation than most of London with a roads on different levels and a few steep streets?
I’m attracted to exploring these lesser known parts of London and the characters in my novel will make a journey on the other side of the Fleet valley (the contours of a river valley are very noticeable, particularly where Clerkenwell Road crosses the Metropolitan Line near Farringdon station) from Shoreditch to Bankside via Hoxton, Finsbury, Clerkenwell, St.Paul’s and Blackfriars — not the areas you normally find on the open-topped bus routes.
I always thought Victoria Coren — of Balderdash and Piffle and Only ConnectÂ was an intelligent person but now I realise she’s a rarer breed — an intelligent person who’s not a cultural snob.
In her column from today’s Observer (retweeted by Carole Blake) she ranges about familiar targets of intellectual derision, such as Harry Potter and Michael McIntyre, and exposes the very unpleasant assumptions that lie hidden beneath the snobbery.
However, it’s her story about how a King LearÂ DVD has become a surprise bestseller at Poundland that hits home because it ties in closely with the arguments in Jonthan Rose’s book The Intellectual Life of the British Working ClassesÂ (review from the Independent here and Guardian here). Coren’s comment is true of far more walks of life than the literary:
Give it six more months, a million more sales, and we’ll start hearing thatÂ King LearÂ is a rubbish play from a second-rate crowd-pleaser; John Webster was always the man.
This makes the powerful point that many people marginalised by traditional intellectual educational establishments still have a thirst for the pleasure and satisfaction achieved through classical, literary or artistic knowledge. It seems to me that one of the most grievious mistakes the left has made in the post-war era is to conflate a lack of formal higher education with philistinism.
The comments she makes about the demise of The News of the WorldÂ also resonate with me. It certainy wasn’t my Sunday newspaper of choice but I can’t believe that everyone gleeful about its demise was motivated by concerns over voicemail privacy.
The same principles hold true in novel writing: the closer one comes to the language and experiences of ‘normal people’ the more people will try to dispute your characters motives and credibility. If one writes about a nineteenth-century, deformed, psychotic serial killer then few people in a creative writing workshop will try to put themselves in the position of the character and try to question his (or her) motivations — and they’ll discreetly leave it to the author to work on his or her impressive feat of the imagination.
Yet write something set in the present day about someone who’s been working in an office whose marriage is a little unfulfiling and there will be
Apart from the two novels in progress I’ve also authored a more prosaic volume over the past fifteen months or so. And — spit on me now — I’ve decided to self-publish it. I don’t have much capital so it’s only a print run of two — but it’s available in both hardback and softback binding (see photo below).
At 17,000 words (not including appendices) it’s a slightly shorter read than the creative works in progress but at least it is finished, although it’s not yet been marked.
For anyone who’s interested in the title it’s:
IT Governance Design: An Application of Problem Oriented Engineering to Enterprise Architecture, TOGAF and SOA Development
When I did the literature search I didn’t find much other work in this general field and my supervisor has raised the possibility of presenting my findings as an academic paper at a conference in Barcelona in the autumn — and now they’re suggesting I consider carrying on my study with a PhD. If this is a hint that my dissertation has earned me a pass then I’m on course to end up by 2013 with three Master’s degrees — an MBA, this MSc and an MA in Creative Writing (although there’s a long way to go with that one yet). Continuing studying seems a bit like overkill but they say learning is lifelong these days — and maybe it will entitle me still to a discounted subscription to The Economist — so there may be some plus points.
The printing and binding process does show how relatively simple it is now to get work into print — I found a specialist thesis printer online and submitted a pdf through their website — although the economics aren’t very good for short-runs — it cost me a lot more than a typical Amazon purchase. Maybe I should produce a Kindle version?
There are some interesting comparisons between the MSc dissertation and creative writing. Enterprise Architecture, the specialist area of IT that I concentrated on, is all about being able to sift through the detail of business process and IT systems and then to arrive at an abstracted, high-level view of the ‘big-picture’ of how everything connects and interacts (if, indeed, it does). It seems a relatively simple discipline but, the literature and evidence suggests, that not many people are able to do it — it’s all about pattern recognition.
In many ways a novel writer needs similar skills — to sustain plot, theme, consistent characters that interact together and so on — but a novel is harder because all the underlying structure is then hidden again under descriptions and dialogue (assuming that the author approaches it in anything like a methodical way).
I was also lucky with my dissertation as I had a lot of guidance from my supervisor and my specialist advisor. My supervisor was a veryÂ conscientiousÂ and dedicated Italian woman whose fluent but distinctive way of speaking English has helped me along with Kim’s dialogue. (One thing I’ve learned from having had conversations in English with probably hundreds of Germans and other Europeans is that there really isn’t much that marks out a fluent English second language speaker from a native English speaker — except that the second language speaker is usually more precise.) If you have a good supervisor as a mentor and follow their instructions and put the work in then you’ll probably do OK in a dissertation. The same can’t be said for a novel, which is a far more risky and speculative undertaking.
A week last Saturday there was a documentary on BBC2 that was ostensibly about the sorry state of the world of books (riven as it’s meant to be by factionalism between literary and genre) but I found that, ironically, the programme itself served as an example of the inherent problems of a whole genre of television documentaries.
I’ve been meaning to blog about the three documentaries about books that were broadcast to co-incide with World Book Night and the Sebastian Faulkes series on the novel on the preceding four Saturday nights. Unfortunately I’ve had three pieces of writing to send out for tutorials or workshops in the meantime and had to submit my 118-page MSc dissertation at the start of last week.
Even so, Sue Perkins’ s programme ‘The Books We Really Read‘ Â was responsible for a minor fire-storm of tweets and provoked enough subsequent comment that its memory has maybe not yet totally escaped away into the ether.
Creative writing courses and their alleged ‘writing-by-numbers’ approach to novel writing came in for a bit of stick both in the Perkins programme and the following documentary, which profiled 12 ‘important’ debut novelists. Curiously, it seemed to me that it was the misapplication of a key creative writing class concept — plot — to ‘The Books We Really Read’ that made it grate far more it probably intended to.
One of the basic plots found across all fiction and drama is the quest whereby the hero sets out to achieve something, overcoming fear and obstacles on the way and thereby changing by gaining some self-knowledge.
It’s an archetype that’s been applied recently to documentaries, particularly the celebrity-led. This person is sent on aÂ ‘personal journey’ which, naturally, progresses in true classic narrative plot style, from wariness or cynicism to growing familiarity, experiences a few challenges along the way, and ends with something of an epiphany. The Jamie Oliver school dinner documentaries were much in this vein as are the ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ documentaries where invariably something unusual or emotional is uncovered in the subject’s past.
This concept has been broadened into subjects where there is less personal involvement by the presenter and the concept is that the celebrity mediates between the subject and the viewer — the viewer gets signals of how we’re meant to react. This risks being patronising but can come off is the presenter is aimiable and sympathetic enough — the Al Murray documentaries on Germany were structured something like this.
This style of documentary making seems to have been what the makers of ‘The Books We Really Read’ had in mind but they appeared to spectacularly misapply the formula. The logic seemed to have gone: let’s do a documentary about how some books are considered easy to read and some scarily hard but it would be too patronising to have a presenter who was scared of literary fiction and was ‘improved’, Educating Rita style, into eventually enjoying it. Why not do it the other way round and have a presenter who affects only to enjoy literary fiction and expresses almost a fear of popular fiction — and in the course of the journey we learn that genre fiction isn’t all bad. Ironic and post-modern, huh?
This probably seemed a cleverly subversive idea but it also subverts the basics of the classic plot device it tries to exploit to the point where it worked against the programme. For the quest plot to work the reader (or viewer) must accept that the quest is credible and the hero must engender some sympathy or identification.
So to compare ‘The Books We Really Read’ with a similar, recent quest documentary — the Comic Relief documentary about Helen Skelton’s high-wire walking, we had Skelton working towards overcoming the fear ofÂ walking 60 metres in the air on a rope slung between two of Battersea Power Station’s chimneys whereas Sue Perkins was forced to read thrillers, crime fiction and romances. It might actually have worked had they approached the subject the other way round and followed an ‘ordinary’ reader’s apprehensions about tackling Perkins’s favourite author, Dostoyevsky — but that wouldn’t have been very innovative.
It was also inevitable that starting from a position of ostensible ignorance about popular fiction would portray the presenter as unavoidably snobbish. So we learned very early on that Â Sue Perkins read English Literature at university and, inevitably (though I don’t see why), she had never read the type of dross that people choose take on holiday with them (cue interviewing people in an airport) but she’d judged the Man Booker prize instead.
This was obviously meant to set out the starting position from which she would mellow and ‘learn’ by the end of the programme but it sent the message that she’d be metaphorically holding her nose until persuaded otherwise. This wasn’t the best way of gaining sympathy for the hero’s quest and raised the question of what audience the programme was made for — maybe just fellow Oxbridge English graduates and probably not even the majority of those. (I’m not sure whether she mentioned it was Cambridge where she read English — sadly the programme is no longer available on iPlayer — but Â somehow that fact has lodged in my brain, as probably was the intention.)
This positioning of the presenter took up a good five or ten minutes at the start of the documentary and it was entirely irrelevant to the subject. It’s a shame as the underlying hypothesis is fascinating and topical– is there a meaningful distinction between the sort of literary fiction studied at Cambridge and the type of books sold by the yard at the local Asda?
Perhaps trying to analyse popular taste in the arts using a highly personalised approach is inevitably flawed — it seemed to be at the root of the unsatisfactory aspects of ‘Faulkes on Fiction’.
The programme wasn’t above using a few documentary makers’ tricks to advance its agenda. We saw many of Lee Child’s fans queuing for his signature in a bookshop and many were asked about how they pictured his thrillers’ hero, Jack Reacher, who’s a rugged type, not unlike how Child himself appears in person. The implication seemed to be that his readers were like the sort of soap opera fans who run up to an actor in the street to berate the character they play’s actions — ‘How could you swap the baby?’
As always, ‘ordinary’ people were shown jostling in the public space of a shop whereas ‘the experts’ always sit in a quiet room with a nice table lamp in the background — or on the solitude of a park bench.
Child made a feisty contribution, his revelling in the ‘us and them’ divide between his genre and literary fiction seemed to fit the documentary’s pseudo-narrative opening chapter. He made the inflammatory assertion that literary fiction writers are unable to write genre fiction and the snobbishness of the literary establishment is because they know that bestselling authors could write literary fiction as easily as dropping off a log.
This claim could have been exploited better in a traditional documentary — by introducing counter arguments.Â Instead his arguments were apparently undermined simply by Perkins reading out passages of his prose in a silly voice. This is something she did for the work of several other authors.
Maybe Child’s arguments have already been discussed to death in various versions of the ‘is Dylan better than Keats’ debate on the likes of Newsnight Review?
But no doubt many of the readers of genre fiction agree with straightforward proposition that the writers who Perkins investigated have the talent to identify what the majority of readers want from a book and are rewarded by selling a lot of books and, presumably, making money whereas many literary fiction writers scrape by on Arts Council grants and the proceeds of prizes allocated by the literary establishment.
There’s always also a widespread suspicion of claims made about a work’s intellectual or aesthetic pedigree when the acclaim comes from a closed, elite group of arbiters. This is the classic ’emperor’s’ new clothes’ situation that applies even more to modern art, modern classical music and various other art forms where there’s a suspicion that reputations can be determined by a small number of influential critics who may be motivated by political or social factors.
The tone of the interviews followed the narrative arc of the programme — Child was confrontational, then Ian Rankin was emollient on crime fiction (conceding that armies of 70-year old detective spinsters stretched credibility). Sophie Kinsella, sitting agreeably in her pyjamas, was then able to make the assertion that allowed the self-knowledge aspect of the documentary’s ‘plot’ to reach its conclusion: Jane Austen wrote on subjects that are staples of modern chick-lit.
The logic of this argument was about the universality of human experience: one of the English language’s greatest novelists wrote about the difficulty for women of finding a good man — and so, for that matter, did Charlotte BrontÃ«. This is very true but it’s also true that many of Shakespeare’s plays could be considered thrillers or fantasies and that, even, Austen’s Emma could be argued to be the first detective novel.
It’s not really an argument that equates a bit of Jilly Cooper with literary fiction but it seemed that the programme had come so far in its journey that it ended up arguing for the values of relativism that it had held in contempt at the outset.
The mention of the universal appeal of the basic romance story of the search for the perfect partner allowed the programme to reach its rather unconvincing — but inevitable conclusion — people liked bestsellers because they have a plot, which is something that, as everyone knows, literary fiction books don’t.
So in the end, the programme concluded that there were some good things about literary stuff — like the enjoyment of beautiful prose — and good things about thrillers, crime fiction and romances (well, perhaps, just one albeit the most important in any narrative work) and, actually, maybe they’re not too different after all and wouldn’t it be nice if they could, maybe, learn a bit from each other? Now that sounds like the basis for a programme I’d really like to watch.
Continuing on the theme of end of year greetings and the real Christmas message (not the ‘buy buy buy’ one that Amazon stopped imparting once it realised it couldn’t deliver its goods) here’s a very apt scene that I took on Sunday 19th December — on the way back from the Nine Lessons and Carols service. I’ve not photoshopped the colours — it came out like this with the moonlight on the snow.
I was wondering whether I had something of a plausibility gap in the premise of ‘Burying Bad News’ as I have an MP with an attractive young, Eastern European aide (though mine, Ana, comes from Latvia, which is inside the EU and makes her eligible to work here without a visa). But splashed all over the papers today is something a lot juicier from real life than how my plot is set up. As the SunÂ inimitablyÂ describes the story:
A DISHY Russian who worked as a British MP’s aide is facing deportation as a suspected spy.Â Sexy Katia Zatuliveter, 25 – employed in the House of Commons as an assistant – is understood to have been detained after a lengthy investigation.
So maybe not so good from the perspective of originality but certainly good for plausibility. It gives me more reason to complete this novel once I’ve done a first draft of The Angel — although the two are connected by literary connecting doors as it is. Sally turned up in The Angel in my reading at the workshop yesterday.
On a politically-themed tangent I’ve just seen David Cameron’s signature in the guest book of our local church. He visited the two local churches on Tuesday 30th November — putting his address as Chequers — which is only on the other side of the hill.
I also bumped into the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, on Friday night — he’s our local MP and was in Princes Risborough for the turning-on of the Christmas lights.
Not satisfied with having recently finished the City University Certificate in Novel Writing while also doing the dissertation of an MSc in Software Development at the Open University, I’ve now taken the plunge and started an MA in Creative Writing. This is with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), although I’m doing the online route which can be done entirely remotely (they do offer some campus based activities and priority on their courses in association with the Arvon Foundation but they’re not compulsory). Due to my personal circumstances I can’t commit to physically travel to any particular place over the next year, let alone the two years a campus based MA would involve (the online route is three years).
Also, having travelled into central London two nights a week (or the weekend equivalent) for the City course during the last academic year, I think I pushed past the limits (in various senses) of physical course attendance, so won’t do more, at least for the time being. However, I will be meeting with most of the City cohort every month in London to continue workshopping — so that will mean some welcome human face-to-face interaction in addition to being a virtual student — and also, hopefully, a few sessions in the pub afterwards.
Ideally I might have taken more time out between courses but various doom-laden predictions of the axe currently being taken to higher and further education put a doubt in my mind about whether there would be the same level of choice of course available this time next year. I read a headline in the Times Education Supplement that a third of further education jobs would be cut. (Of course, this has the knock-on effect of reducing the usefulness of an MA in Creative Writing as one of its benefits over and above courses like the City Certificate and Arvon-style courses is that it increases one’s employability in the academic sector — something that would be figuratively academic were there a lot of unemployed creative writing teachers.)
There are a few online courses available but I liked the description of the MMU course as, for two terms a year, it employs as a teaching method a virtual chat room teaching method at set times with a tutorial led by a tutor. I was interested to see how this would work and, last Monday, I found out.
For the first term we look at examples of other novels, starting with ‘Old School’ by Tobias Woolff. This book is so well written that it has thoroughly depressed me, especially when at the same time as reading it I’ve been trying to revise some of my own first draft material, which seems so pedestrian and uninspired by comparison. However, it’s a very concise book (under 200 pages) and I suspect that Woolff’s superb prose was assisted by countless revisions and re-draftings.
The online tutorial seemed to work really well. It was led by Dr Jenny Mayhew, who’s the tutor of this module. The novel ‘route’ of the MA appears to be fully subscribed — with 12 students. (The selection process for the course was quite rigorous — with references required, a submission of both critical and creative work and an interview.) I was pleased to see a couple of students are based near me — in Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead — ironically places that I drove past on the way to Finsbury for the City course. There are people based in Spain and the Czech republic as well as elsewhere in the country. I’ve picked up a new blog reader already — Anne who’s from Denmark but lives in the UK and writes flawless English as far as I can tell. (I’ve already told her about having a fluent European ex-pat as a character in my novel.)
As well as criticism of a novel each week, we are expected to do a creative writing task inspired by the text — and I’ve got until Sunday to do one. I was pleased to discover this aspect as I enjoy writing exercises.
So now I can add Manchester Writing School (comprising the MMU department and its associated activities) to the lengthening list of universities where I’ve done creative writing — Open University, City and Lancaster. In case it appears that I’ll just end up with a bunch of certificates rather than a novel at the end of all this, the Manchester novel route carries something of a big stick that appeals in a masochistic way– you don’t pass until you’ve finished the bloody thing.
There are two reasons why the blog has been a little quieter than usual recently. One is that an element of my â€˜other lifeâ€™ intruded â€“ hopefully the side that will continue to pay the bills in future.Â I had to submit an assignment for my Open University MSc in Software Development.Â Iâ€™d set aside a fortnight or so to concentrate on this but I ended also producing going on for 7,000 words of â€˜The Angelâ€™, which diluted my efforts somewhat.
I ended up sitting at the laptop in the end from 6am one day until 2am the next morning to try and complete the assignment before the deadline.Â The way this OU course works is to build up the final dissertation of about 15,000 words in incremental assignments so you start off with a proposal and then add the literature review and the draft research before submitting the whole thing at the end all polished up and with a conclusion.
What I had to complete was the literature review â€“ which isnâ€™t an enjoyable account of a few choice novels read recently but an attempt to track down academic literature relevant to your subject and assess its contribution to the body of knowledge. My topic is Enterprise Architecture, which is basically how one organises the many IT systems within an organisation to work effectively rather than, as usually happens in practice, allowing IT to re-inforce the warring sectarianism and factionalism within any large organisation. Â The term ‘architecture’ has been appropriated by the IT industry to the annoyance of some of the building variety but the analogy transfers quite well. (And I believe that the same sort of skills used in this line of IT work transfer well into novel writing — being able to see the underlying structure of plot, pace, character and so on which lie beneath the surface detail and complexity — I think some of the feedback I gave in the City course owed something to these skills.)
In this area, where IT interacts deals with the corporate strategy of an organisation, itâ€™s quite difficult to find any contemporary academic literature in the first place. This is probably because, despite IT all being based on the work of very clever people in universities, many contemporary practitioners are militantly anti-academic â€“ wanting to prove) how macho, hands-on and problem solving they can be to â€˜the businessâ€™ (a meaningless and self-loathing term that is used to elevates the status of anyone in a company NOT in IT the IT department as doing the real work).
In â€˜The Angelâ€™ James is motivated to leave his City job by this sort of philistinism. Despite his outward gaucheness Â and blokey good nature, heâ€™s actually a very bright chap â€“ he has some Masters degree in Finance â€“ his (ex-)job is in the application of clever computer systems which few people (including Will, his boss) can understand. He wants to learn â€“ except now about art and cookery â€“ and heâ€™s pretty appalled by the crass anti-intellectualism of those around him.
So Iâ€™ve been finding recent academic papers in my area from places as diverse as Venezuela and Taiwan and Iâ€™m a little guilty of not really reading them properly â€“ just finding a quotation which illustrates a point Iâ€™ve wanted to make. Doing the novel writing course has made me aware of the main criticism Iâ€™m likely to get from my supervisor for what I submitted â€“ the narrative coherence could be improved.
There are a reasonable amount of references and itâ€™s all pretty much on-topic but thereâ€™s probably far more work require to relate these to my own argument and research question (and the vagueness of exactly what it is what Iâ€™m meant to be analysing in my own research is another bigger flaw).
Even so, this is exactly why the OU structures these dissertations as it does — so when you make a cock-up of the first attempt you have plenty of time to improve it before the eventual submission deadline. Hopefully!
It’s an interesting time management challenge to juggle a serious MSc project and trying to complete the novel started on the City course — a distillation of the question about what I need to do to make a living against what I think I’d like to do. Â However, I read a few writing magazines on holiday which gave some information about average published novelists’ earnings suggests that no matter how successful the writing goes, the day-job is likely to be needed for a while yet.
I wonder whether today might be an occasion I could use in my novel — pubs should be doing well out of this great weather and the World Cup. 45 minutes to go until England play Germany — that would be a great event to have Kim reflect on English attitudes to the Germans. What would she make of the papers or the massive build up to what’s just a second round game — and exiting it would mean a pretty disastrous World Cup for either side.
I’ve been e-mailing my German friends in the build up — wishing Germany luck but not as much luck as for England. I’m also wearing my new England away strip (the red one) that I’ve worn quite incongruously to a couple of classes at City. I turned up after watching England v Slovenia on Wednesday in the Freemason’s Arms, Covent Garden (where the rules of football were first written down). I was about 6 pints worse for wear and that might have been why my reading rehearsal was rather slow.
I’m also really pushed for time with the end of the month coming up — notably our reading night on Wednesday. I’ve made things worse for myself by volunteering to create a website for the evening — something that took me most of yesterday to do.
Lots of things I need to blog about but haven’t done so far and may not do until the end of the week:
A bit of agent reaction to the first few pages of The Angel
The antidotes I’ve experienced to the angst that has featured in a few recent posts
A write up of Penny Rudge’s visit from a couple of weeks ago (we’ve exchanged a few comments via Facebook in the meantime)
The experience of using this blog as the basis for my end of term commentary assignment
And much more…
Watch this space…but now it’s time for the football. Come on England — and we’re owed something special from The Big Man and Fat Frank.