Everything But The Bar Sink…

…but I did get the dishwasher in!

Bearing in mind Judith Murray’s comment that ‘in some sense all novels are historical’, I decided to load my last reading with as many contemporary cultural references as I could think of. ‘Decided’ isn’t actually a good definition — throwing in various things that pop into my head is how I tend to write anyway although maybe I’d decide to delete most of them if a book got published.

I’m rather dreading reaction to the scene I’ve just written because it could go either of two ways. It’s a climactic scene after months of simmering, smouldering sexual tension between James and Kim and this comes to the boil (good cooking metaphors there, albeit cliched). To counter the tension as it rises I start off with the most banal sort of conversations. In one point (a cop out I’m sure I’ll be picked up on) I have the narrator say ‘she didn’t care who was talking’ and then throw in three or four unattributed pieces of dialogue.

The cultural references are quite a bizarre bunch. Remember these are all in a 2,600 word piece which is meant to pivotal to the plot: Amazon, Katie Melua, Charlie Brooker, the Guardian, the Wombles, Mike Batt, William Orbit, Orbit’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, All Saints’ ‘Pure Shores’, Katie Melua’s ‘The Flood’ (which goes on to supply metaphors for the later scene), Virgin TV’s ‘Naked Office’ (see below), Jamie Oliver, a Sky+ box, the Carry On films, ‘The Full Monty’, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ (and various of its contestants), Amanda Holden, Simon Cowell, Ant and Dec, ‘Sex and the City’, Heston Blumenthal, ‘The Fat Duck Cookbook’ and Heston Blumenthal’s notorious snail porridge. That’s well over 20 references that only someone living in this country in 2010 would really understand. Apart from the BGT references most of these aren’t gratuitously contemporary as they illustrate character and move the plot in some cases. The music is interesting as (it will be interesting to see if anyone picks this up) as Emma has bought the Katie Melua CD as it’s produced by William Orbit, whose works ten years previously (see above) were the soundtrack to a holiday she and James had in Ibiza when they first began their relationship. He’s meant to see the romantic significance in this — but doesn’t and needles her about Katie Melua’s previous association with Mike Batt (of the Wombles). So, a little vignette of their relationship.

I had to rush writing this piece and sent it out late to everyone. I’m still unhappy with the end and may revise it even further before I read it. I was totally knackered once I’d written it. Partly this was because I was determined to write something new and that pushed the boundaries a bit for me in terms of how comfortable I’d be with reading it. It’s also partly because I’m pushing myself to write new material for each reading and tutorial rather than polish up previously reviewed material. I also went to France very early on Tuesday morning partly to buy wine for our course reading. This produced probably a course first — for the first reading ever to be written, partially, on a cross-channel ferry. On the way out I annotated a printed draft then coming back I had the netbook out by the window looking out into the channel. Wonder if any of the nautical flavour comes through?

The piece was also very emotionally draining, which I found quite surprising. As it’s the consummation of a relationship I was trying to imagine and hold in my mind the feelings and emotions of the characters. When this involves scenes of a disintegrating marriage, seriously unrequited love and then some sudden switch into passion between two people who had (on the surface) treated each other as friends then this takes a lot of mental effort. I did this for three or four days and thought about it so much I was more than semi-detached from reality. I don’t know if it will be good for the writing that it felt like I was so intensely involved in their predicaments — your characters can’t do anything much more real than have sex with each other — or whether I might have got too close?

The writing was also difficult as I thought I had to do a sex scene for a reading as this is what the plot of the novel calls for and I wanted to get feedback on it — good and bad. I’m sure this is very difficult to get right and constructive feedback (though not sniggering) in this area would be a lot more useful than on a scene with people walking around London, for example. In the first drafts I had some graphic descriptions and used some very earthy Anglo-Saxon words. In some ways I’d rather these had stayed in as from a reading perspective because I’d like to have made myself read these out, to overcome the embarrassment. However, the word limit chopped any real physical description of the sex — there’s only really the build up but that’s the most interesting bit for the characters.  Even so, I’ve probably laid myself open to bonkbuster piss-taking.

Marlow 5

Not only do I have the election to distract me from writing at the moment but this morning I also ran the ‘Marlow 5’ — a race of 5 miles (or 8km in the more runner-familiar distance) around the streets of the extremely affluent town of Marlow in Buckinghamshire — part of the route goes up the High Street past Paul Costelloe’s boutique.

Marlow is a town with quite a literary heritage (see Paul Wreyford’s book ‘Literary Buckinghamshire’). Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’ there apparently and her husband also write much of his poetry here. It’s also associated with Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘Three Men in A Boat’. I’m familiar with the place where T.S. Eliot lived, near the Two Brewers pub by the river, when he was commuting to his banking job in central London around the end of the First World War on the so-called Marlow Donkey (which is the railway branch line but also a pub). The Shelleys also lived on the same road.

I didn’t exactly prepare myself like an elite athlete for the race. Yesterday I went on a ‘brewery tour’ of Loddon Brewery (between Reading and Henley) where the very pleasant proprietor, Chris Hearn, allowed us about two and a half hours to sample as much of his excellent beer as we wanted while also having a really informative discussion about the licensed trade — great research, of course, for ‘The Angel’. (Loddon supply a lot of Wetherspoon pubs in London and the South East and their beer is well worth seeking out — particularly ‘Ferryman’s Gold’, ‘Hoppit’ and ‘Bamboozle’.

With this preparation the day before, I was quite pleasantly surprised with my time — 44 minutes 47 seconds (all electronically timed with a chip embedded into the race number — click here to see it) — which is about 10% faster than I normally run. I came 932nd  out of about 1,650. This puts my achievement in context: pretty rubbish compared with the ‘proper’ runners from clubs (like my friend Simon who was disappointed with his 33 minutes) but not quite as bad as the fun runners.

Occasionally I see running as a bit of a metaphor for writing a novel. I don’t really enjoy it while I’m doing it but it’s one of those things that gives you a sense of achievement when you complete something you set out to do. I’ve sent in an application to do the Prestwood 10k next weekend and then will do a much harder race towards the end of July — the High Wycombe half-marathon — no brewery visits the day before that one I think.

‘I Agree With Nick’

Seems to the new catchphrase of the moment — and very apposite as both Cameron and Brown desperately try to convince Clegg that they do agree with him just enough to get him to drop his core demands and prop up their minority parties.

I find politics absolutely enthralling, especially when politicians aren’t in control of events, as in elections, and are unable to spin their way out of setbacks, compromises, about turns, revelations of hypocrisy and duplicity and so on. Election night coverage is fantastic as the politicians have to constantly adjust their positions to the results as they unfold. They normally have to try and pretend they’ve understood the will of the people and accept defeat gracefully through gritted teeth or try not to sound too triumphalist or relieved if they’re winning. Normally by the weekend after the election we’re into some refreshing honesty with the new government trying to dampen the expectations they’ve just spent weeks raising and some public back-biting and candid blame allocation in the defeated parties’ ranks. Not this time, though — the intrigue continues with plenty of politicians petrified of what their party leaders might sign up to and some coded warning shots coming out in interviews.

The aftermath of the election promises to be more fascinating than the election night itself. I stayed up for the whole duration of the BBC Election programme — 9.55pm until 9.30am the next morning. I caught myself nodding off only once or twice for five minutes at a time around 5.30am. I wanted to stay up to see if the Greens won their Brighton seat (who I probably would have voted for if they’d stood in my constituency — which was had no serious candidates as boundary changes have put me in John Bercow’s speaker’s seat). I set myself up with two laptops streaming Sky and ITV’s coverage and which I used in conjunction with the BBC and Guardian websites to do my own analysis on the seats as the counts were announced. (I used up all my remaining mobile broadband allocation for the month by using it to watch the Sky pictures).

Election Night 2010
Jeremy Vine augmented by Two Laptops -- Election Night 2010

Here’s the scene from my sofa with Jeremy Vine on the BBC with Sky on the laptop and ITV on the netbook. (Jeremy Vine is in my academic year — he shares a lot of cultural reference points with me when I hear him on his Radio Two show).

Those on the City Course and close readers of the blog will know that I have about 50,000 words written of a political novel. It’s gone on the backburner a bit for two reasons. One is that I’ve used parts of the City course to develop a new idea — and that’s gone pretty well as ‘The Angel’ is probably a better structured novel. The other is that I’ve been aware of events making my political angles in the novel obsolete or dated — one point being that it involves a New Labour minister. Politics isn’t the main driving force of the plot, though, and a rewrite could probably have made it appropriate to a Tory administration.

But a traditional change of government isn’t what we’re going to get — which means the legacy of Labour is likely to be felt for quite some time, either through their participation in a Lib Dem-Labour coalition or in their machinations if some alternative arrangement works. We’re also likely to have another election sooner or later.

Another interesting factor is the resurgence of interest in politics — with increased turnouts demonstrating the evidence.

So I’m quite encouraged that my political novel isn’t going to be obsolete or dated and might actually have something to say that’s going to be quite relevant to whatever happens in the next couple of years. Also, Oxford East, the constituency that my MP’s is based on stayed Labour against the odds. I just have to get writing the two novels — great fun as the election was it meant I wrote nothing myself.


It’s Masterchef final day and I watched it after Manchester United’s referee-induced ten man capitulation to Bayern Munich — which might bring a smile to Kim’s face but not mine (btw she supports Chelsea).

I watch the programme occasionally with a morbid fascination — partly due to the stilted formulaic presentation where Greg Wallace and John Torode always have to shout at each other about one finalist. The other reason is to why these mad people actually want to be chefs. One of the finalists is a paediatrician who, no doubt, earns a six figure salary from working about three and a half hours per week, twenty weeks a year for the NHS while running a private practice at £1,000 an hour. However, it’s good that there are crazy people like for whom food is a passion as that’s what James is going to have a go doing at The Angel so they’ll make his decision — to invest his redundancy in a pub — quite credible. (In fact, he’ll tell Kim that he’s been a failed contestant on a programme like Masterchef — and he won’t be lying.)

Yet all these people maintain they have a passion for doing a job that is inherently financially unstable, involves very anti-social hours and requires high levels of skill for little guaranteed financial reward. I’ve always thought these people must be barking mad.

Compare them with those who would-be novelists — the people who expend huge amounts of effort sitting in front of a computer screen on their own, investing time, most of which involves anti-social working, in something that may never be seen by more than a handful of people — even if it defies the odds and is published.

Makes you wonder who’s really the most crazy doesn’t it?

Diet Pastiche

I’m working to some quite tough deadlines at the moment. I’ve just had to submit a 4,000 or so word assignment for my Software Development MSc. which outlines my plans for the dissertation. I’ve also got a huge amount of work to submit for the Novel Writing course. For tomorrow there are four 500 word pieces for Emily, covering the themes of this term’s classes. I’m reasonably happy with three of them but I need to polish one up quite considerably. Then I need to submit my opening (up to) 4,000 words of the novel to Alison by Saturday and I also have a tutorial on Saturday with Alison for which I need to provide the text by Thursday. I could theoretically use the same material for both of Alison’s submissions but it seems a wasted opportunity — so I have a deficit of about 4,000 words that I need to plug by Thursday.

It’s also bi-monthly deadline time for a magazine that I write for locally. Over the last few years I’ve produced a few April fool articles of a bit of a surreal or satirical nature and I’ve come up with one for this year which celebrates, if that’s the right word, the sort of British pub culture that I’m going to try and work into ‘The Angel’. It’s written in the style of a woman’s magazine, particularly the opening, and tries to suggest a way of subverting the government’s increasingly over-prescriptive messages on alcohol. The big irony is that I’m currently abstaining from alcohol myself, loosely for the Lent period, and I’ve written this when I’ve not had a drink myself for over a month, incredible though it may seem.

Watching the Pints

Sunlight at the End of the Tunnel?

Just as the weather has started to turn after the greyest, most miserable winter, I’ve been struck down by a horribly persistent virus that I thought a week ago was a cold but now I’m wondering if it might be some sort of flu. I’ve managed to drag myself into City University three times in eight days – two Wednesdays and a Saturday for my reading — but was certainly unfit for work duty between Friday and yesterday (Wednesday).

What’s most depressing is that the virus seems to be tapping my energy to write stuff. I did the piece of Kim’s hometown when I was coming down with it but have only done another 500 words since then. It’s been well over 10 days since I was able to get out for a run — and the weather for it is fantastic now compared with a week or two ago. I’m hoping I can get out and run tomorrow — I don’t always use the time to think about writing but sometimes it gives me a good opportunity to think these through. It also generates the various endorphins and dopamines (or whatever) that make me feel invigorated to get stuck in to things. (Incidentally I had James do a bit of internal monologue about hormones or other body produced chemicals involved in physical attraction. When I read this out on Saturday at City it caused a bit of debate. I didn’t have chance to say that I deliberately wrote it to show his confusion — not sure if that actually worked — but I originally started off from the premise that he’d be fantasising about touching Emma in a way that would set  off her oxytocin level — the human-bonding hormone or whatever it is.)

To try and impress the joys of spring, here’s a photo of the grass verge outside our house. I planted it a few years ago with crocuses and have added snowdrops in the green over the last couple of years. It looks wonderful when the sun is out on days like these. Soon the snowdrops will go over but hopefully they’ll come back stronger next year. (I’ve ordered another 100 to add to them.) This is quite an unselfish flower display as we can’t see it from the house — the main benefit is to people walking by — some of whom repay the compliment by letting their dogs crap on the grass.

Spring 2010 -- At Last
Spring 2010 -- At Last

This morning I had a tutorial with my Open University MSc. dissertation supervisor — Dr Lucia Rapanotti — who I discovered, is a real Italian. It was the first time I’d used Skype and, quite bizarrely, when I put the webcam on it inherited the settings that had been last used by my children — which included the image manipulation software that doctors the image in supposed funny ways. I couldn’t find a way to turn it off so throughout my tutorial, my supervisor saw my image with huge cartoon horse ears attached to my head! Talk about making a good first impression.

The MSc. work is hopefully part of a plan that will allow me to develop a specialism in an area of IT (IT Governance and Enterprise Architecture) which could lead to some opportunities to write and do consultancy. If I’m successful then this would fit reasonably well with doing creative writing as well — write the technical stuff to pay the bills and try and hammer out as much creative stuff as I can until the point where I might be able to ditch the more boring stuff. Still, I’ve not proved I can make any money from either yet so I need to do a lot of work to get to a point where I might. That’s why it’s pretty frustrating to be laid up ill — so much to read and write and the clock’s ticking.

Tony Beckton — ‘Beyond Reason’

I’ve been involved in quite a few reading sessions where people (including me) have read out loud pieces of writing. They can be quite intense and draining experiences so I found it hilarious to watch a series of piss takes of the whole reading aloud process on ‘Bellamy’s People’ tonight. The book in question was probably by the least literary character of the whole lot — Tony Beckton — an East End Kray wannabee (hilariously played by Simon Day). The book is called ‘Beyond Reason’ and it’s an autobiography/confessional about his life of crime — supposedly forty or so years banged up in prisons and mental hospitals. The prose style is a clever blend of monosyllabic repetition (‘we changed cars’) and some incongrously flowery prose about his anguish. It also alternates between the banal and the surreal — a rhesus monkey is used as an accessory in a robbery and cheese and Christmas cake are weapons used in prison.

It can be seen for the moment on the iPlayer— Tony Beckton’s reading starts about 15 minutes of the way through and there’s about 5 short clips spread over the remaining 15 minutes.

Silly Love Songs

In the reading I’m doing for the workshop on Saturday I mentioned a couple of pieces of background music that set the mood in a tastefully refurbished pub (‘marinated in a knowing, post-modern irony). These happened to be playing on shuffle on my computer as I was writing it. One is ‘Amoreuse’ by Kiki Dee, which is a song that few people probably know by name but most people will recognise. It’s actually a French song to which Gary Osborne put English lyrics (who wrote ‘Get the Abbey Habit’ and the lyrics to Elton John’s ‘Blue Eyes’ if I remember correctly).  

The other was one of my very favourites (and not just because of its drinking related title) — ‘Love Hangover’. I like the Associates version but the original Diana Ross recording is both incredibly seductive (in the opening) and then has the most incredibly charged erotic energy — the hi-hat making it pound along. I think I remember some Paul Gambaccini programme on Radio 2 describing how that Diana Ross was reluctant to record such a blatantly sexual song at first and the producer had to seduce her into it with the lights turned down very low.  (There’s something similar about it on this website.) It’s unusual as it’s written by two women — Pam Sawyer and Marilyn MaLeod.

I came back to try and find it on the laptop and did a filter for everything tagged with the word ‘love’. I don’t consider myself to have a collection with loads of soppy songs and it probably removed about 80% of the tracks. However, I was stunned by how many of those that were left were tracks that I really like. Having ‘love’ in the title almost seems to be a predictor of quality. Of those that are on the playlist are gems like ‘Big Love’ by FleetwoodMac, ‘I’m in Love with A German Film Star’ by the Passions, ‘Sowing the Seeds of Love’ by Tears for Fears, ‘Love at First Sight’ by Kylie, ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell, ‘Friday I’m in Love’ by the Cure, ‘I’m Not in Love’ by 10cc, ‘Justify My Love’ by Madonna, ‘Love Shack’ by the B52s, ‘Love is the Drug’ by Roxy Music, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppellin, ‘Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding’ by Elton John,  ‘Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover’ by Sophie B Hawkins, ‘Saving All My Love for You’ by Whitney Houston, ‘Love is a Battlefield’ by Pat Benatar (I Love That) and, of course, ‘Silly Love Songs’ by Wings…though I wasn’t so enthused by ‘Boys (Summertime Love’) by Sabrina.

I’m not arguing the self-evident point that lots of pop songs have ‘love’ in their title but that I’m far less likely to skip to the next track when I’ve filtered for the word. This makes me think that. perhaps, that for a lot of artists that they are more confident of titling a song with a potentially ‘cheesy’ like ‘love’ when it’s a strong, good quality track (i.e. because it’s good they don’t need to be defensive about it). Paul McCartney’s lyric to ‘Silly Love Songs’  sums up this critical tendency. This is less true of the likes of Diana Ross but very true of the more macho male groups and singers. I think that may be a lesson for writing as well — if you’re dealing with emotions then it will work if you do it directly and confidently then that will be the best remembered of your work.

The K Factor – So You Think You Can Knit

After a long day thanks be for Harry Hill and the Knitted Character. He rose from the flames to have his own reality competition: the K Factor.

TV Burp is a masterclass in building humour from the compounding effect of repetition and self-deprecation. Now I’m not sure which is the best of the two. Which way to decide?

Real Life Intervenes

I suppose there’s always a trade-off when you’re trying to write something between being a complete hermit and staying in solitary confinement to get something down on paper and also going out and interacting in order to collect experiences to write about. It’s often surprised me on some of the creative writing courses that I’ve done that a lot of people tend to end up on the extreme side of staying in and writing. I’m always surprised that they can write about so much without experiencing it themselves.

I’ve had the opposite problem in the last few days — very little time to spend on the writing as I’ve been doing so much. Last night I was out in Marlow and High Wycombe — experiencing market town circuit drinking bars at their most prosaic in Wetherspoon’s in High Wycombe at 10pm. Then it was back on the train through Wycombe this morning to go to Wembley to watch England Under 21s play Portugal with my son’s football club (the tickets were very cheap and we had a superb position on the centre line just below the television cameras — see the photo).

Fantastic seats or what?
Fantastic seats or what?









And this weekend we have a momentous thirteenth birthday happening in the house — and I might have to go and watch the 2.5 hour long ‘2012’ film as part of it. And I need to plant a boxful of bulbs (mainly tulips) that should really have gone in at half term — and I need to go for a long run to work off all the crap (doughnuts, sweets, crisps and so on that I ate at Wembley). And I need to write some articles about walks I’ve done locally. And I have a bunch of interesting programmes waiting to be watched on the hard drive.

I suppose I ought to be happy if I just get the synopses rewritten as opposed to anything else.