Point of View

 

The Shadow of Shadows
A Shadow Amongst Shadows

The point from which this view can be seen is unique — with that tremendous triangular shadow — and it’s only been open a week. I must have been very lucky to have caught a moment where the sun was almost directly to the south of the Shard and low enough in the winter sky to have thrown that needle-like shadow long enough to cross the Thames and into the heart of the City itself. While I’ve reduced the resolution of the photos for quicker downloading, it can be seen that the tip of darkness points about a hundred yards directly east of The Monument — perhaps rather symbolic from the new structure in Southwark.

So — I couldn’t resist it. I splashed out my £25 and went up the Shard on Monday this week — only the fourth day the viewing platform, The View From the Shard, had been open.  Well, I had to really, after all, I’ve been following its progress while it’s been under construction and charted much of its development on this blog.

This post isn’t entirely unrelated to the novel. A significant part of The Angel’s plot happens in places photographed below, which I’ll mention, and I suspect there’s something quite writerly about enjoying a view like this from high above.

But principally, this post is an unashamed Shard-splurge and, rather appropriately, takes up a lot of vertical screen space — but, if you’re on the home page and looking for other posts, keep on scrolling as it’s all still there — just a long way down (like the River Thames above).

I’ve thumbnailed seven photographs below from in 2011 and 2012, most  of which have appeared on the blog. Taken from various viewpoints (anyone want to guess where?), the photos show the rapid pace of construction.

Here’s the Shard rising in 2011.

Shard's Construction in 2011
Shard’s Construction in 2011

The viewing platform is lower than might be imagined. It’s on the   highest of the steel floors that were slotted around the concrete core as it rose upwards. However, The pinnacle of the building (a considerable height as can be seen from one of the photos below) was prefabricated like a 3D jigsaw and assembled in Yorkshire before being disassembled and lifted into place on the top of the building.

Here are four shots from 2012. The crane has disappeared in the May photo but the lift along the outside remains attached. I was baffled at the time about how the crane at the top would be removed but the builders ingeniously erected a temporary crane on the side of the Shard close enough to the top to be able to reach up to remove the tall crane but accessible enough from within the building to be disassembled. Cranes fascinate me.

Sp the viewing gallery is around the point where the track for the exterior lift stops in the May 2012 photo. Even so, it’s very high, as can be seen by some of the pictures below, and it’s odd to think that slightly over a year ago the viewing platform was just empty sky.

Completion of the Shard in 2012
Completion of the Shard in 2012

The dreadful weather in London over the last couple of years is noticeable in the series of photos — there’s barely any blue sky in any of the photos — even those taken in the summer.

By contrast, I was lucky with the weather when I was actually on top of the Shard. Monday was a bright and breezy day. Imagine pre-booking several tickets at £25 to find that the top of the Shard was shrouded in low cloud — something that will happen. Looking at the website’s terms and conditions, it appears that the management has discretion to provide a voucher in lieu of future use in these circumstances.

Although the top floor of the observation area is open to the elements, there’s still a safe wall of glass extending well above head height. The combination of glass and light entering from all directions means the viewing area, particularly the higher level, is tricky for photography (at least when it’s bright — next time I won’t wear a light-coloured coat). Half the photos that I took aren’t publishable on this blog due to smeary reflections.

As its marketing suggests, the View From The Shard is a well-organised and a friendly experience, if the chatty lift attendants are anything to go by. Unlike the London Eye, where by definition your viewing time is limited, visitors can stay all day at the top of the Shard (although entry is by timed-slot). Much attention has been paid to the detail, with an interactive map of where the four viewing platform lifts are positioned and even specially woven London sight-themed carpets. There’s also a little gift shop seventy storeys up. But as I queued in front of a large video screen for the airport style security scanners, I didn’t expect to see the scene below:

Village Underground -- Let's Adore and Endure
Village Underground — Let’s Adore and Endure

Yes — Village Underground’s facade on Great Eastern Street was entertaining the waiting tourists. (This is where Kim has her studio at the start of the novel.) It was part of a montage including Brick Lane and other ‘edgy’ urban attractions that shows how the urban street-art scene is now an established part of the London tourist experience. I asked Village Underground via Facebook if they knew their wall was being used as part of the Shard’s tribute to the capital’s culture — they didn’t but thought it was quite cool.

So, how far can you see? As this picture shows, I was able to get a  hazy view as far out as Wembley, with a fuzzy glimpse of Harrow-on-the-Hill and the Chilterns beyond. The hills of Essex and the North Downs are also visible from other directions but I’d love to go up on an exceptionally clear day with a pair of binoculars and find out how far I can see.

Wembley Arch and the BT Tower
Wembley Arch and the BT Tower

One paradox of the view from the Shard is that it’s a high enough perspective to avoid all the buildings that normally clutter London’s sightlines. Take St. Paul’s Cathedral. Although it’s a little distant and the view is necessarily from above, in this picture it’s possible to imagine how St. Paul’s used to dominate the London skyline until the second half of the last century.

St. Paul's From the Shard
St. Paul’s From the Shard

The St. Paul’s photo shows something of a parallel with narrative point-of-view. The height of the Shard gives an almost omniscient, third-person perspective — with enough information to see the big picture — how the components of the view or narrative relate to each other. And (with a camera or change in what Emma Darwin calls psychic distance) you can zoom in closer to the subject. But the trade-off of omniscience is distance and remoteness. Only by standing close to St. Paul’s can you appreciate its scale or touch the fabric of the building and feel its solidity. And to stretch the metaphor further, go inside the building and explore within.

A significant part of the plot in the London section of my novel occurs around St. Paul’s and the Millennium Bridge also features.This photograph shows the elegance and economy of its design — leaving very little impact apart from a silvery filament connecting both banks of the river.

And it serves as a great metaphor — linking the commercial Square Mile with the two cultural icons of the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank. The top of the photo also shows part of the new, incredibly long, Blackfriars station which extends right across the river. Note the solar panels that provide half the electricity for the station.

Millennium Bridge from the Shard
Millennium Bridge from the Shard

Having a camera with a (modest) zoom lens is obviously useful when you’re 300m up. Also, going back to locations in the novel, the below is a telephoto view of the bridge that takes the new Overground line across the top of Shoreditch High Street. The bus is at the end of Kingsland Road near the Geffrye Museum by a line of shops that features in a section of the novel connected with street art, although this piece might be one of the casualties of revision. I tried to spot Village Underground, with its tube trains on the roof but it appears to be hidden from the top of the Shard by the Broadgate Tower — which is at the extreme right edge of the photo.

This is a telephoto view of what I'm fairly sure is the bridge that takes the new Overground line across the top of Shoreditch High Street. The buses are on the end of Kingsland Road near the Geffrye Museum. The line of shops features in a section of the novel connected with street art, although this piece might be one of the casualties of revision. I was trying to spot Village Underground, with its tube trains on the roof. It appears to be hidden from the top of the Shard by the Broadgate Tower -- see the extreme right edge of the photo.
London Overground Through Shoreditch

Here’s the London Eye with St.James’s Park behind. Buckingham Palace is around ten o’clock — it’s quite a difficult place to pick out — I had to describe the location it to a family who were particularly looking for it. This shows that the London Eye is in a far better location for sightseeing, being much closer to the main tourist sites. Unfortunately for tourists, most of the view from the east and south sides of the Shard is devoid of landmarks, although I’m quite interested in looking at ‘ordinary’ London from the Shard. Even though I like the Shard, I’m glad it’s not been constructed slap bang in the centre of London — imagine how out of scale it would look next to Nelson’s Column or Big Ben.

London Eye from the Shard with St. James's Park and Buckingham Palace
London Eye from the Shard with St. James’s Park and Buckingham Palace

It’s a shame the big beach volleyball stadium at Horse Guard’s Parade has gone. It would have been slap right in the middle of the photo.

The height allows you to get up close for unusually personal views of better known landmarks from a unique perspective.

The Gherkin from The Shard
The Gherkin from The Shard

Sadly the well-loved Gherkin seems to be in danger of being obscured, especially from the west, by its new neighbours under construction — the Walkie Talkie and the Cheesegrater. Both are seen in the photo below, although I’m not yet sure which is which.

Cheesegrater and Walkie Talkie
Cheesegrater and Walkie Talkie Under Construction

Slightly to the west (the other side of Bishopsgate) is the building that was the tallest in the country for many years — Tower 42 (previously the NatWest Tower). The perspective from the Shard shows how much the new record holder looms so much taller.

Tower 42
Tower 42

(Tower 42’s story partly explains why the opening of the Shard gallery is such an event. When it was the Nat West building, it was  severely damaged by a terrorist bomb. Terrorism was one of the reasons why other high buildings either closed to the public or never opened public observation areas at all — such as the BT Tower and Canary Wharf tower. Unlike many other cities, London had no public high level viewpoints, excepting restaurants and bars, until the Eye opened in 2000 — the Shard really is an innovation.)

The below picture also gives an idea of the Shard’s height — it looks down on the roof of Guy’s Hospital tower — which was one of the tallest buildings south of the river pre-Shard.

Guy's Hospital from the Shard
Guy’s Hospital from the Shard

A sense of height is also given by the way the railway lines from London Bridge stretch out into the distance.

London Bridge Railway Lines
London Bridge Railway Lines

This view towards the north west shows how the BT Tower also stands high over Fitzrovia and Marylebone. In the bottom right there’s a good view of the Royal Courts of Justice and to the upper left the colourful, new St. Giles’s development stands out. (Maybe I should get a job as a London tour guide?)

Covent Garden and West End from the Shard
Covent Garden and West End from the Shard

From this high up, the Olympic Park seems relatively close to the centre of London — much nearer than Wembley, although the Shard’s position itself is skewed to the south-east of central London.

East End and Olympic Park
East End and Olympic Park

One of London’s most distinguishing characteristics is the meandering Thames — and the twists and turns of the river can be appreciating from the Shard as from no other perspective.

Thames Looking East and  Tower Bridge
Thames Looking East and Tower Bridge

And yet the Shard’s summit is substantially higher than the public deck, although you’d have to have a hard hat and a remarkable head for heights to climb the pinnacle below to reach the very summit.

Shard -- Looking Up
Shard — Looking Up

So, is it worth it? If you’ve got a morning or afternoon to spend and you’re interested with London’s geography already then you’ll be fascinated — but also if you just want to indulge a child-like sense of wonder of being so high above the rest of the city then it’s a unique experience. There’s something inescapably human about wanting to stand and look at a city in this sort of panorama. And, to bring it back to novel writing, think of all the many stories that are playing out down below.

Panaroma from the Shard

Panorama from the Shard

Parallel Lines

A Rana Begum Work in Her Studio
A Rana Begum Work in Her Studio

Last week I ventured into deepest Stoke Newington for another fascinating Love Art London event. I wasn’t sure what to expect in advance of visit to Rana Begum‘s studio.

The Love Art London website promised that ‘tightly controlled compositions, hard-edge lines coated in thick glossy resin, impeccably applied colour and seductively tactile reflective surfaces are all very powerful features of this extraordinary artist’s work. Rana’s paintings are each an exercise in rhythm, symmetry & repetition which satisfy the eye’s appreciation of order and beauty in its simplest form.’

Indeed. And this is an accurate description of the finished works — but we discovered that behind the discipline and order of Rana’s art there were also some fascinating stories, involving some chance and almost haphazard events, which are as fascinating as the geometry of the work.

Rana’s studio is hidden down the end of a mews just off Stoke Newington Church Street. On entering, it seems more like an engineering workshop than anywhere an artist might be at work, as you walk past metal cutting and sanding machines, propane bottles and stockpiles of aluminium. It’s a paradox when you meet Rana, who’s physically quite petite, that these industrial tools and materials are those with which she (and her team) create her artworks.

Although she is known to her team, uncompromisingly, as ‘the boss’, Rana was an informative, generous and charming host. As the Love Art London party trooped around her studio, she took us through the lifecycle of a typical piece of her work, a good example of which is in the photo above, taken in the studio.

For one of these pieces, using parallel metal bars, square sectioned pieces of aluminium are inspected and then cleaned, cut and sanded and prepared for powder-coating at a specialist supplier — usually in black or a neutral colour. Rana then carefully paints the surface of the material of the component parts as part of an overall pattern. These pieces of metal are precision engineered — to thousands of a millimetre — to ensure that they hang exactly in place.

As can be seen in the photograph above, the colour works in its own right, visibly applied to the metal surface. However, given a blank background and enough light, the colour casts a diffuse reflection on to the space in between the bars. If two facing bars are finished in different colours opposing each other, the reflection of  each interferes with its opposite to form a third colour, which often subtly changes in proportion to the quantity of its ‘parent’ colours (often the patterns taper along the inside metal surfaces).

When the piece is viewed as a whole, these interactions form a fascinating overall pattern within the bars. The photograph above is an example of this effect. It’s very clever – almost as if these industrial, inanimate objects have created their own artwork independently. Add the changing quality of natural light and these inanimate sculptures constantly evolve.

Rana has produced these large scale works for public spaces — one is on Regent Street — and other can be found in places such as health centres, probably a good choice as the pieces can be contemplated for a long time.

She also produces similarly geometrically orientated artworks in other materials — folding sheets of metal like origami and some amazing folding wood benches.

But Rana’s own story is also enthralling — and echoes some of the themes in the last blog post. She was born in rural Bangladesh but moved with her family to this country when she was eight, not being able to speak a word of English. She described how she may have expressed herself primarily through art in the period where she tried to catch up with the language — a skill she extremely modestly said she hadn’t yet fully mastered — don’t believe her, she has — I had a lovely, long conversation with her in the pub after the visit (which was so unpretentious that it ended with Rana pointing me in the right direction for the number 73 bus).

While Rana’s patterns are stark and geometrical, her studio had much human warmth, even eccentricity. There’s the evidence of her two young children’s about the place but it’s additionally home to two team members. One is Pierre, her French (I think) assistant who shares much of the donkey work of sanding and cutting metal. The other is Bob — a thoroughly down-to-earth, somewhat grizzled, East End bloke who, amongst other things, drills the keyholes in the metal so the works can be hung precisely.

It turned out Bob played another role in the Rana’s story – she’d actually bought the studio from him. They’d become acquainted while Rana was working in an artists’ co-operative studio in the building next door. Bob was looking to retire from his engineering business when, serendipitously, Rana was also looking for her own premises.

In a mutually beneficial arrangement, Bob sold his workshop to Rana but, realising that her artwork employed the use of some of his skills, he began to help out with the preparation. Some of Bob’s metal-working machines remain in the studio and he still pops in to help out a few days a week.  He told me he has no idea about the artistic side of Rana’s work but perhaps a trace of his non-nonsense stoicism comes through in the minimalist designs, regardless?

As a result, the studio is an idiosyncratic combination of corners full of Bob’s tools, with the accretion of the detritus of years of use, and Rana’s bright, clean minimalist office and exhibition space.  There are also areas of the studio where Rana gets thoroughly messy – I looked in the spraying room where the painting is done and I noticed shelves full of the Montana Gold spraycans I used in my own street art experiment.

Rana is a now a very successful artist, exhibiting at Bischoff/Weiss plus a gallery in Germany and in India, as well as the major art fairs, such as Frieze and the London Art Fair. I can’t help thinking her story, especially that of her studio, is something of a metaphor for how London has changed – and is changing – with artists moving into previously industrial areas of the capital. But in the case of Rana, she’s not displaced what existed before, but adapted it and worked with such an unlikely artist’s assistant as Bob, to create art that’s both new and inventive and also very reflective of its time.

In-Out, In-Out, Shake It All About?

The Hokey Cokey seems to possess the same level of serious reasoning as did last week’s  unconvincing and desperately tactical David Cameron  speech on an ‘in-out’ referendum on British membership of the EU. His gambling with the country’s political relationship with its nearest neighbours and biggest trading partners infuriated and depressed me but it may not be such a bad thing for my novel  Contrary to his short-termist intentions, I suspect he’s raised the political profile of one of its main themes.

While there’s little overtly political in the novel (or this blog), the plot and characters unavoidably raise issues regarding Britain’s relationship with Europe (and, to some extent, the rest of the world). The novel also goes further – highlighting the differences between London and the rest of the UK – which are probably more marked in many significant ways than between London and other European capitals. That London is both an amazing cosmopolitan city as well as the country’s capital is something that Cameron is likely to be aware of himself.  But this is a realisation that the engineering of this referendum is designed to disguise in its simplistic pandering to the those holed up in the Home Counties who see London in terms of bearskins and red phone boxes.

 

The Angel's Near Neighbour -- Chequers -- Where The Referedum Wheeze Was Probably Thought Up
The Angel’s Near Neighbour — Chequers — Where The Referedum Wheeze Was Probably Thought Up

So, if Cameron’s speech provokes a prolonged debate the differences between ‘us’ Brits and ‘the foreigners over there’ then the novel might happily chime in with the cultural zeitgeist (how backbench Tories and UKIP must hate that word) – at least in the run-up to the election.

The Angel’s two protagonists, Kim and James, are German and English respectively. She sees herself primarily as a European, influenced by her university experiences in Berlin, but like many Europeans I’ve met myself recently in London, she’s also a committed anglophile who loves the city’s cultural diversity and unrivalled artistic opportunities. Being absolutely fluent in English, there’s no reason she sees to prevent her living here for the rest of her life.

James could only be English – on one hand a rugby-playing bloke but intelligent and enquiring with a self-deprecating attitude to British culture that’s led him into a fascination with the sophistication of Europe. In his case he has a voracious appetite for the techniques of French and Italian cooking and is beguiled but intimidated by modern art.

In a reflection of its setting and the times, the novel also has plenty of other ‘foreign’ characters — Poles, a Romanian, an American and others – and they aren’t just confined to London.  However, Kim finds that attitudes can be quite different in the English commuter countryside – the kind of seats represented by the Eurosceptic Tory MPs who sadly seem to have forced Cameron’s hand into the current bodge.

(In reality, the setting for The Angel could well be David Lidington’s Aylesbury seat. Ironically he’s the current Minister for Europe and will be tasked with the thankless task of trying to dream up what on earth to renegotiate with the EU.  I know he’s not actually a rabid xenophobe, having met him in person quite a few times – I know him well enough to have exchanged hellos in St. James’s Park.)

She is at first amazed, but quickly becomes accustomed, to being quizzed by amateur enthusiasts about German military strategy in the Second World War – a conflict she thinks has as much relevance to her as the Battle of Hastings does to the English. During the novel she develops a deeper understanding of English character and how that has influenced the culture of London she so value. But, equally, with her über-liberal Shoreditch and Hackney beliefs and behaviour she challenges and changes the reactionary UKIP sympathies of the middle England types — not just towards Europe but also towards their other traditionalist cultural mores.

In common with, I’d guess, the vast majority of most of the EU citizens who fill the tubes and buses in London, Kim would be incredulous that a vote on the UK leaving the EU could seriously be contemplated, especially as it is so contrary to her everyday experiences.

She’d find the referendum prospect unsettling, as well as irrelevant, grudging and ungrateful – not necessarily at face value but for the insular, sneering saloon bar bigotry that oozes from the pores of some of its xenophobic proponents. Also, thinking of an episode of German history that she does know well, as an entartete Künstlerin she’d worry about the divisive cultural implications of ‘us and them’ attitudes, which could be the thin end of  a very nasty wedge.

Not that Kim thinks the core EU countries have got everything right. After all she’s moved to London and likes it here on the periphery outside the Euro and the Schengen Zone.

It’s more that, as someone who sees the wider picture, she despairs when short-term politicking and parochial, self-delusion threatens the relative harmony of one of the most remarkable achievements in history. A previously fractious continent that spent much of the first half of the last century destroying itself has peacefully worked together — and if the worst thing the Eurosceptics can say is the EU prevents our junior doctors working a hundred hours a week then that can’t be too bad. She’d agree with the Swedish Prime Minister who tweeted in response to Cameron: ‘Flexibility sounds fine, but if you open up to a 28-speed Europe, at the end of the day there is no Europe at all. Just a mess.’

What's Mostly Left of the Berlin Wall
All That’s Left of the Berlin Wall in Most Places

Also, part of her predicament at the start of the novel is a result of the huge amount of immigration into London in the past few years – as an artist she’s being priced out of even the lower-cost areas of the capital.

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I told the German organiser of an exhibition in Shoreditch of German artists that I was writing a novel about a German artist working in Shoreditch, the first thing he asked was what she did for money. When I said she lived in Homerton, he said that was still expensive for an artist (perhaps why all of the artists he represented hadn’t made a move to London).

I was talking about rents for rooms in shared houses with my ex-City course-mates last week (we had lunch at an Old Street restaurant so trendy the chefs wore trilby hats). Apparently in Hackney rooms in unlovely shared houses are going for the upper hundreds per month – a very significant chunk of a yet-to-be established artist’s income.

The Impressive Front Entrance of the Office Where I Used to Have A Desk
The Impressive Front Entrance of the Building Where I Used to Have A Desk

Part of the reason the novel has a European theme is that I worked for nine years for the corporate headquarters of a pan-European company. For most of that time it was German owned  — a member of the Frankfurt DAX30. I mostly had German managers and got to know many German colleagues very well. In fact one of the reasons why I was recruited was that it was thought I’d ‘get on well with the Germans’.

For years I travelled on average every other week to Europe,  – usually walking into work through the impressive marble lobby in Hanover (it also had a conference room suite featuring modern artworks). But I also visited virtually every other large Germany city and most other large European capital cities (as well as out of the way places like Oostende and Enschede and debauched conferences in Tenerife and Dubrovnik that provided almost enough material for novels in themselves).

But more tediously, it was often my job to try and sit in meetings and try to get all the nationalities to agree on something — usually a common approach to an IT project. One English colleague compared my job with being an EU negotiator, which to him was his idea of purgatory (there were quite a number who were peeved for years that the British company had been taken over by The Bloody Germans).

One of my tasks was to look beyond the bluster and try to identify what were true cultural differences between countries’ markets and what was common to all — which where the value is unlocked in multi-national companies and the EU itself but it also threatens comfortable vested interests.

Often people argued that they should be allowed to do whatever they liked in their countries because they were just so unique. At a peer level, there wasn’t much voluntary co-operation and the countries only tended to reach collective agreement when either offered cash to do so or be told so by the Vorstand (the board), who crucially had the power to fire a country’s manager.  That’s why the idea of a looser, á la carte EU seems like a pipedream to me (and most intelligent Eurosceptics know it).

Some 'Quirky' Modern Art in the German Head Office
Some ‘Quirky’ Modern Art in the German Head Office

It was often infuriating but was always fascinating to observe national cultural differences – which sometimes lived up to stereotypes (often, one suspected, intentionally) .

  • The Germans wanted everyone to do things their way – but were so sensitive to accusations of bulldozing their preferences through that they were prepared to argue endlessly until they achieved what they thought was a consensus (usually via attrition).
  • It was hard to get the French to turn up – they thought if they didn’t show then they could carry on doing what the hell they liked, which is what they always did anyway.
  • The Belgians and Dutch participated like good Europeans but took a delight in being as awkward as they could to the Germans.
  • The Scandinavians were organised and a little aloof, often taking pleasure in showing how they’d quietly been beavering away and come up with a solution in Stockholm in the time everyone had been holding meetings elsewhere just to talk about doing it.
  • The British politely endured the protracted debates beloved of the Germans but then would react by then trying to prove them wrong by going out and wasting loads of money by ‘doing something’ in the sake of Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurialism – even if the JFDI attitude always resulted in some pathetic cowboy joke of a solution that was doomed to failure. This played into the hands of the Germans — who ended up winning most decisions just by tenacity and doggedness (perhaps that’s a metaphor for the EU as a whole?).

But it was almost taken for granted that we all conducted our meetings in English. The Germans occasionally talked amongst themselves in German but this had the disadvantage that the Dutch could usually understand them.  It’s ironic that, probably more than political or economic union or the Euro, what has bound the countries of Europe closer together at a practical and a commercial level is the ubiquity of the English language, which despite its inconsistencies and irregularities can be understood, even if spoken quite basically.

Proficiency in English is a source of great pride to the northern Europeans, in particular, and being less than fluent was a large career barrier. I noticed that most Germans I met who’d been born after the mid-1970s were exceptionally fluent in English — even speaking with a slight American accent. Dutch and Scandinavians of all ages were completely fluent.

I’m in awe of all the Europeans who speak and write English so beautifully and precisely, although I was always surprised at the amount of English used natively within Europe. It’s quite common to see German billboards or products displaying some English word prominently – like, ‘Cool!’ or ‘Sexy’ – and only have the small print in German.

And, of course, a large proportion of popular entertainment – songs on the radio, films and TV and a lot of books – are either in English or dubbed or translated. In this vital regard Europe looks towards the UK – and the Olympics didn’t do this any harm. In today’s Times (firewalled) there was a story about how the Spanish have fallen in love with all things British to the extent that some middle-class parents speak exclusively to their children in English.

Native speakers, because we don’t have the near necessity of learning English to be able to interact with other Europeans, probably take a lot else for granted in terms of cross-European co-operation. The golf club Farages have no comprehension of how the single market (which even they are not lunatic enough to want to leave) only works because of the standardisations, agreements and protocols that have to be agreed.

For a small island on the edge of Europe, Britain has had an astonishing and incredibly positive effect on the rest of the continent – as is evidenced by the huge numbers of EU citizens who want to take advantage of their right to live here (especially the huge numbers of French in London). And I think this is appreciated by the vast majority of UK voters who don’t see Europe as anything like the issue that Cameron seems to suppose.

(Such is the way democracy works, many Tory MPs in safe seats know the threat to their own longevity comes not from the electorate but the ageing reactionaries who form their constituency selection committees – and does Cameron really think these people are going to be appeased enough by his referendum promise to drop their opposition to his more liberal policies, like gay marriage? Similarly, most British newspapers have no influence outside the UK, so their proprietors certainly favour more power to be ‘repatriated’ to the politicians they are able to lobby for their own interests.)

Because of the undisguised schadenfreude (oops another foreign word) with which the Euro’s troubles have been viewed by the Eurosceptic lobby, there’s no chance of the UK joining monetary union, meaning a de facto two speed Europe is already evolving. I cannot see any constructive reason for Cameron to then bring up the question of Britain doing anything so destructive to its self-interest.

Death Strip Near Bernauer Strasse, Berlin -- One of the Many Places I Travelled
Death Strip Near Bernauer Strasse, Berlin — One of the Interesting Places I Travelled Across Europe

It’s also ironic that the likes of UKIP and the extreme Europhobes tend to be those who go on endlessly, seventy years after the event, spouting about the bulldog spirit of the Second World War in order to justify an isolationist attitude to Europe. When they invoke this country’s ‘finest hour’, don’t they realise that was when Churchill vowed to fight back to make to make Europe a better place? ‘If we can stand up to [Hitler], all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.’ And with the anniversary of the start of the First World War looming next year, the cemeteries in France and Belgium full of British white crosses are testament to this country’s ultimate commitment to Europe – now we’re in the broad, sunlit uplands, that’s something far too important to throw around in party political games.

London: Thank You For 2012

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.

Did That Party Hat Come Out of a Giant Cracker? The Shard 14th December 2012
Did That Party Hat Come Out of a Giant Christmas Cracker? The Shard 14th December 2012

And in the spirit of London 2012, here’s a few more night time photos of landmarks old and new.

Breathtaking
Breathtaking

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.

The View from Westminster Bridge 14th December 2012
The View from Westminster Bridge 14th December 2012

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.

St. Paul's from the Golden Jubilee Bridge 14th December 2012
St. Paul’s from the Golden Jubilee Bridge 14th December 2012

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.

The Olympic Stadium from the London Eye -- Yes, You Can See It.
The Olympic Stadium from the London Eye — Yes, You Can See It.

 

Shard and Canary Wharf October 2012
Shard and Canary Wharf October 2012

 

BT Tower at Sunset
BT Tower at Sunset
A View of Westminster Bridge
A View of Westminster Bridge

 

Bong
Bong

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.

Venice: the Grand Canal from the Rialto
Venice: the Grand Canal from the Rialto
Venice
Venice

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.

I Did Finally Get There -- At the Olympic Park for the Paralympics -- 1st September 2012
I Did Finally Get There — At the Olympic Park for the Paralympics — 1st September 2012

(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.)

Shoreditch Blonde

 

Shoreditch Blonde -- Redchurch Brewery
The Beer of My Novel? (Image linked from Redchurch Brewery website)

There’s a report on the BBC website today about the increasing fashionability and popularity of craft brewing in London. Its main focus is the Beavertown Brewery in Hackney where the brewer is Robert Plant’s son.

A few years ago it was only bearded, beer-bellied types who were proudly out in their appreciation of real ale and the vast number of diverse styles that offered an alternative from the industrialised, mass-marketed poor-man’s pilsner styles that dominated bar counters in this country. (Stella Artois always gets stick for leading the bland lager pack but I actually think Stella is relatively well-made and has less of the chemically taste of the cheaper brands.)

But now craft beer is, to use a Sunday supplement phrase, ‘achingly trendy’. Craft beer isn’t always real ale – punk anarcho-brewers like Brewdog take pride in setting 41-year old CAMRA’s (the Campaign for Real Ale) nose out of joint. But, generally, the presence of living yeast in the brew gives a marvellous complexity to a well-brewed beer and the majority of new British brewers (with a few exceptions like Greenwich’s Meantime) tend to use traditional methods.

In the last year or so, I’ve been to a lot of the new craft beer outlets in London – the two Cask Bar outlets in Pimlico and Hatton Garden, the architectural oddity of the Euston Tap, the Brewdog pub in Camden, Tap East in Stratford Westfield and so on – and I’ll perhaps plan a visit soon to Hackney to visit Beavertown.

But I’ll be even keener to try and find the beer whose photo from the brewery’s product page I’ve linked to above – Shoreditch Blonde by the Redchurch Brewery. They’re based in Bethnal Green but the name is an obvious reference to the famed Redchurch Street – maybe, apart from the Leake Street tunnel near Waterloo, the most active graffiti art area in London.

Beer plays quite a part in the novel and the character who has a passion for it is cool, urban Kim – James just drinks lots of it (at the start of the novel, anyway, before he goes on his personal narrative beer journey).

So, in another of those extraordinarily touches of serendipity that give me a little hope that the novel is tapping into the Zeitgest, the beer is based on a German style and brewed with German malt. I’ve been looking for a significantly named beer for Kim to serve James in a scene early in the novel – and now I’ve found the perfect one. Now to find a pint of it.

 

A Flying View of London

This weekend I visited the latest fascinating addition to London’s skyline, a construction that would probably have attracted a lot more attention had it not opened immediately before the Olympics — an event it was partly conceived to serve.

Its official name is the rather ghastly corporate speak of ‘The Emirates Air Line’ after its sponsors — who also have their name symbiotically linked to Arsenal’s stadium. However, if taking the Emirates money was the difference between constructing this spectacular cable car ride and not then I’m glad Boris and TFL took the shilling. It’s magnificent and I’d recommend anyone to take a ride — take a look at this view of the Shard that I took from ninety metres above the Thames.

The Shard Rising
The Shard Rises Between the Canary Wharf Towers

Stunning: shame I didn’t get the top of 1 Canada Water but the Shard only appears between the Canary Wharf buildings for a few seconds, such is the speed of the ride.

It’s apparently the most expensive cable car system built anywhere in the world — a legacy of the ‘cost is no object’ building frenzy in East London in the run up to the Olympics. It opened ahead of schedule a month before the games and theoretically links the ‘North Greenwich Arena’ (O2/Millennium Dome) with Excel in the Royal Docks area.

Dome and Canary Wharf
Canary Wharf Seen from Above the Millennium Dome (O2 Arena for the modernists)

Its two boarding stations are pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which makes the cable car’s presence all the more surreal. It’s the type of structure that would probably never have been built at any other time and so, to my mind, all the more valuable for that — like many other highlights of last summer, it’s frankly a bit bonkers.

Olympic Stadium from Above the River
Olympic Stadium from Above the River

The photo above shows post-Olympic contrasts in this part of London. The stadium (now looking darker after the removal of the white decoration that clothed its circumference) and Orbit tower sit in the distance surrounded by a post-industrial landscape of squat warehouses, electricity pylons and tube lines.

The Emirates Skyline Cable Cars
The Emirates Skyline Cable Cars

Maybe in years to come large numbers of commuters will actually commute across from one regenerated side of the Thames to the next? (As hinted above, it’s an integrated part of Transport for London — you can get a discount with an Oyster or Travelcard but not fly for free.) In the meantime it brings some fun to this rather bleak and windswept part of London.

As well as Canary Wharf, the dome and the Olympic Park, the cable car gives great views of the rest of London — including the unusual perspective of the City from the East. The push to move the centre of gravity of London to the east, of which the Olympic legacy was meant to be part, is reflected in my novel. Much of the London of The Angel is surveyed in the two photos below:

The City from the East
The City Seen from Downriver
East London
East London

Apart from a brief excursion in the middle of the novel, the furthest the characters go west is the line of the hidden river Fleet (running approximately down Farringdon Road to Blackfriars Station). The characters work and play in the bohemian, unmanicured areas of Shoreditch, Old Street, Spitalfields and Brick Lane that abut the City and live further out in the likes of Dalston and Hackney Wick.

Tap East
Tap East, Stratford Westfield

I started off my trip with a visit to a new pub brewery in the unlikely setting of the retail temple of Stratford Westfield (bibulous research for the novel) and then moved on from the southern terminus of the cable car into Greenwich.

 

Walking from the area of the O2 into Greenwich, I was struck by how much of this area is still post-industrial and a little down at heel — quite a contrast from the centre of Greenwich around the Cutty Sark where the pubs and bars were heaving at 6pm.

Canary Whard Lights at Night
Canary Wharf, Illuminated

As night fell the towers of Canary Wharf illuminated like beacons in the dark — I walked through the Olympic equestrian venue of Greenwich Park and took a night-time version of the stunning vista that was featured in the horse-jumping events. But with their bankers’ logos on display, the towers across the river seemed to represent the distance and remoteness of the financial institutions from the London that surrounds them — the tension and conflict that I’m trying to tap into as the wellspring of The Angel.

Night Time View from Greenwich Park
Night Time View from Greenwich Park

Transmission

In the last post I mentioned the ‘Transmission Project’, which according to the Manchester Metropolitan University student handbook is ‘an independent research unit, undertaken at the end of the taught element…to explore a specific area of the transmission of text.’  This basically means students have to submit work in a form that’s not the chosen ‘route’ of their MA (be it novel, poetry or children’s writing).

Some of my course mates have devised original and innovative ideas for their own Transmission Projects. Anne devised an experimental website to examine readers’ reactions to discontinuous, interrupted narrative styles (using embedded hyperlinks, for example) that modern technology can enable. Kerry has produced an e-book of 51 pieces of fiction (Fifty One Ways to Leave Your Lover — click here for Amazon link) comprising ‘short stories, flash and micro fiction pieces which reflect and explore some of the problems, issues and triumphs faced by women and girls’. Sales of the ebook raise funds for the charity, Platform 51, which assists women in disadvantaged areas. It’s not only an original project but helps a very worthy cause — and a bargain at only £1.02.)

Originally I had a plan to develop my project in an unorthodox literary form but I was deterred from that particular idea by the course director on the basis that it was content that might eventually form part of the finished novel. My next idea, a screenplay adaptation was thought a better alternative. While it is based on the same characters and roughly the same scenario (I hesitate to say plot), the ‘transmission’ of the text is very different. (I wonder if I should have done a screenplay for TV as that would be ultimately the best match for MMU’s curious transmission terminology.)

As I’ve only just submitted the project for marking, I’ll deliberately make no further comment on the specifics of my screenplay or explanatory essay. (But should any of the English faculty at MMU be reading this, I must stress my summer of dedicated research into the form and months of locking myself away in a darkened room to draft and redraft the project.)

One very obvious general point that I made in the accompanying essay is that a screenplay is a working document, which others in the creative process use to make the final artefact. It’s not intended to be a work to be enjoyed directly by the viewer, as would a novel by a reader.  This difference in approach proved surprisingly useful to me with the novel at its current point of development.

A screenplay passes responsibility to intermediaries for execution of the pleasurable details — actors nuancing their lines with gestures, expressions and inflections; a director and cinematographer developing its visual styling; designers creating costumes, sets, make up and so on. The writer provides the framework for others to use their talents.Virtually all exposition must be external: with rare access to the characters’ inner thoughts; description of character and setting is minimal.

Components of a film that chiefly within the control of the writer are character, plot, setting, scene selection and dialogue. With the possible exception of dialogue, these elements also provide the structural ‘scaffolding’ which holds a novel together. The difference is that it’s also the novelist’s job to evoke all the other elements too: the imagery, detail, sensory appeal and inner character exposition are hung with evocative prose on the structural framework that the reader should never obviously notice.

Another factor that belongs in the specialist subject of the bleedin’ obvious is that a film (or even TV serial) takes less time to ‘consume’ (is there a better word for this?) than a novel. Although the standard feature length screenplay is 120 pages, this equates to around 100 minutes of screen time. I doubt even the fastest readers can get through an average 80-100,000 word novel that quickly (although I’m often dumbfounded at the number of books some people claim to get through — maybe I’m a slow reader).

So, depending somewhat on the source material and the approach of the adaptation, it’s inevitable that a fair amount of the novel’s content is omitted. Anyone who’s ever watched a screen adaptation of a novel they know well has the experience of noting changed or absent characters, plot twists or settings.

Books on screenplay technique encourage the writer to work within what, compared to prose fiction, appear to be limiting constraints: to produce work that emphasises the visual and fast-moving and to use short, snappy dialogue. (When dialogue is written in a thin column down the centre of the script, it’s easy to spot verbosity and talking head scenes stand out immediately.)

Advice is also concentrated around the structural aspects of plot. A separation of a script into three acts, divided by plot points, is given as practically a natural law of the genre.

The project meant I finally read Robert McKee’s Story, a screenwriting guide recommended by many as the best work on plotting for almost any dramatic or fictional form. It takes a scientific approach and, in places, it’s more like physics textbook — with lots of diagrams with arrows about how different levels of conflict within characters intersect with the structure of the plot and many other factors.

It’s drawn from fundamentals of storytelling that have endured from time immemorial. These follow, roughly, a pattern that goes: introduction to a character and setting; then a source of conflict that the protagonist(s) need to overcome; finally an event which triggers a resolution (which can either be complete or not).

It’s argued that this basic narrative pattern is something humans are either born to respond to or that it becomes ingrained in us from an early age. Whilst most people aren’t explicitly aware of the fundamentals of story structure, it’s said that most readers (or viewers) will feel react with innate dissatisfaction when a story lacks this shape.

The Transmission project, while delaying the revision needed on my novel, may have been opportunely timed. The research I’d carried out into the screenplay form focused on the mechanics of plot, making the story work, ensuring pace and rhythm, distilling the essence of a scene and so on.

Applied to novel writing, these are all very useful aspects to consider after completing a full draft, compared to the original plan (however sketchy and flexible); has the novel lost its balance, become bloated in some sections, under-developed in others and the task of revision is to sharpen the novel, omit extraneous material and add in any necessary additional material required to make the novel work as a whole.

Assembling the screenplay from the manuscript has been fascinating. I’ve pulled scenes pulled from chapters in very different parts of the novel, often brutally extracting small portions of the action or dialogue and redeploying it in a quite different context — and it’s surprising and pleasing to see how often these small sections then work on their own terms.

(For this type of task I may, unusually, be able to call on skills I use in the day job — which requires me to often deconstruct complexity and draw out underlying themes and causes. I’m also experienced in constructing sophisticated solutions from orchestrating many component parts (if this sounds jargony and baffling you should see my CV — I have an MSc in this). Perhaps this background is one reason why the novel hasn’t been written in sequences but largely slotted together around its most fundamental parts.)

I relocated part of a scene that appears about a third of the way through the novel into part of the opening section of the screenplay. I needed to write a new, short sequence of dialogue to knit the two together but the effect seemed to work so well that I’m considering putting the new dialogue into the novel. Play around with the material and discovering how it works in different configurations gives a refreshing new perspective, but one that’s also scary in opening up many new opportunities to tinker around. This is where deadlines are useful, as I had with the screenplay project itself.

I’m confident that The Angel has a sound structure. It’s not fundamentally changed since I first mapped it out with Post-It notes on a conference room wall — see post here from two and a half years ago. (Two and a half years, blimey, I really do need to get it finished and over with!). However, since then I’ve inevitably ladled in lashings of sub-plot, themes, brought in the odd new character and so on.

While people who’ve read parts of the novel tend to say that it reads easily and quickly, I know that I’m going to get a more favourable response from agents if I send in a manuscript of a length that doesn’t scare them off. I went to the September meeting of the London Writers’ Club in Clerkenwell last week. During a break I had my opportunity to buttonhole the guest agent speaker and asked whether agents made a snap judgement on manuscript length: would a ‘typical’ agent look more kindly on (i.e. read) a file of 90,000 words, say, as opposed to one of 120,000. While she said a lot depended on the quality of content and the genre, she recommended avoiding any extremes and mentioned an old-school agent she used to work with who would refused to read any submission that wasn’t between 70,000 and 100,000 words (although this isn’t common nowadays).

If it’s wise to err on the side of brevity when revising that raises a latent paranoia I have that I may discover, after trimming my work down to a sleek and concise 70,000 word draft, that this might only represent the innards of the novel — a prose version of the skeleton of the story represented in a screenplay. All the distinctive parts that might mark it out as individual might be squeezed out — the humour, observation, reflection, insight into the characters’ internal thoughts and so on. I worry that I may end up with a story that might work very efficiently but wouldn’t the novel that I originally set out to write.

This is a concern I can’t resolve without getting on and doing it — and now the Transmission Project has been safely bound at Rymans and delivered to Manchester I can completely focus on finishing the novel — from both a personal and an MA perspective. The only remaining piece of assessed work is a finished draft of the novel itself. We get another year to complete this — although I may try and submit mine in the spring (surely it will be done by then?) so I can have an earlier graduation date.

With the other coursework over (unless my screenplay is so bad it fails and I have to resubmit) and with the nights rapidly drawing in, I need to settle back into writing mode — or, more precisely, editing mode. And on that valedictory note to the summer of 2012, it might be appropriate to post this rather sad photo of Horse Guards Parade, now restored to its original state. (This photo was taken only about five weeks after those on this post that show a 15,000 seater stadium on the plot.)

 

London 2012 -- Horseguards All Gone 070912
Not a Grain of Sand Left in Horse Guards Parade

By the end of September, virtually all the other temporary infrastructure had been removed from the Mall and St. James’s Park (as I saw when I walked across the park to the Mall Galleries to view the entries for this year’s Threadneedle Prize, one of which was by my artist reader Adeline de Monseignat — see previous post).

Incidentally, I was very pleased to manage to finally visit the Olympic Park itself, during the Paralympics. I’ve posted a few photos of the park on this blog page.

York Festival Of Writing

Apologies for the absence of recent updates: writing time has recently become increasingly hard to come by, although mostly in a good way, via holidays and other enjoyable events that I have hopes of getting around to writing blog posts about eventually – I’ve got a nice batch of photos to upload, if nothing else.

In addition to this summer activity, the MMU MA has crept up on me. The enigmatic Transmission Project needs to be submitted very soon (perhaps more of this in another blog post). As far as the MA course goes, once that project has been completed then it’s just a case of completing The Big One – handing in a 60,000 word minimum manuscript of a novel.  Regular followers of this blog will know that hitting that word limit isn’t likely to pose me any problems in itself as I already have a completed manuscript that comfortably exceeds that length (rather too comfortably as it currently stands).

Despite my best intentions, however, the novel still needs a degree honing and polishing before it’s ready to submit to anyone – a tutor for assessment for an MA or an agent or publisher. It’s frustrating but that’s where I am, even though back in March, I wrote a post with great expectation that the professional feedback I’d had on my manuscript had suggested that that it was only a couple of weeks or so’s hard work away from being a respectable manuscript.

The problem has been finding that’s two weeks’ worth of extra time in this Olympic summer when I’ve not only been doing the MA but finding all kinds of loosely novel-related but fascinating research in London (mainly art-related with plenty of visits to Shoreditch). I know from having taken an MSc with the Open University that took over six years that I’m much more productive in the darker months – I like getting out in the sun too much.

Nevertheless, with springtime optimism, I booked myself a place at the York Festival of Writing. Amongst its literary attractions, I anticipated the event would be a perfectly–timed opportunity to advance my path to publication. With my long-completed manuscript under my arm and more agents attending than you could shake a Kindle at, I’d be able to immediately hand my over my burnished tome or send it speeding within minutes into the lucky agent’s inbox.  After all the Festival was in September – six months in the future.

York University 090912
York University Campus — Where the Festival of Writing Was Held

Unfortunately, September sneaked up on me much more quickly than anticipated – immediately after my spontaneous sabbatical over the late summer – of London 2012, holidays and even a little bit of decent weather. As mentioned in a weary-sounding blog post in July as well as reaching ‘the end’ I’d also done a fair bit of work on a submissions package (a polishing the first three chapters, writing a synopsis and covering letter). It’s just that I’ve finished knocking the rest of the manuscript into similar shape – and I’d learned enough about agents to know that if they’re interested in a novel that they immediately want to read the manuscript in its entirety – not several months later. (That didn’t stop me hopefully printing off a few hard copies of my first three chapters to take to York, just in case.)

When I booked the festival I didn’t really think about York (it’s held at the attractive York University campus) being rather a long way away from here in the Chilterns. Having done nearly 2,000 miles of driving around Europe in late August, it was inevitable that my journey north would provide another horrendous example for my 2012 collection of summer traffic jams (after some nightmarish examples on Italian autostrade). I was held up for over an hour on the M62 — the kind of jam where the cars come to a total standstill and after a certain point their occupants emerge gingerly and start to colonise the alien carriageway, exchange a few words of exasperation with their normally faceless neighbours — and then suddenly run back from the hard shoulder or central reservation and jump back in when the traffic unexpectedly starts to move. Maybe there’s a germ of an idea for a novel in that? Maybe not!

M62 Traffic Jam 080912
I Should Have Been Listening to Jojo Moyes At This Point

So I arrived late at the conference, almost at lunchtime on the Saturday, not in  the most positive frame of mind: why have I driven 200 miles north to spend the my weekend with a bunch of people I’ve never met – and I haven’t even finished the novel? Shouldn’t I be spending the time more productively at home finishing the book? Or, more likely, enjoying the last throes of this meagre summer, enjoying the sunshine in a deck chair rather than sitting in windowless lecture theatres?

But I left the conference on Sunday afternoon feeling remarkably upbeat and happily kick–started out of my summer writing hiatus. I’d not been able to pitch a completed novel but I’d come away uplifted by all the other benefits of spending the best part of a weekend in a community of writers.

For anyone who’s curious about the York Festival of Writing, it’s organised by the Writers’ Workshop, a literary consultancy. The conference, held over a weekend, is structured around a programme of seminars, workshops and plenary ‘keynote’ sessions (similar to day–job related conferences I’ve been on). Sadly the traffic trouble meant I missed the Jojo Moyes keynote on Saturday morning).

But, as with most worthwhile conferences, it’s the intangible elements rather than the programme itself that were most inspiring. Writing is (usually) a solitary experience but a weekend that gathered hundreds of writers together in the same place – most with very similar shared ambitions, interests, questions and anxieties – seemed to prove an affirmatory experience for those involved.

Committing the time (and money) to attending a writing conference means all participants had made the psychological step of regarding themselves as ‘a writer’. You chat to and exchange experiences with others working towards the same goal and come away feeling validated – that your aspiration to become a published writer isn’t futile self-delusion because so many other people are working towards the same – and agents and editors have made efforts to come and meet us all.

There’s camaraderie in numbers but the number of people there (at least a couple of hundred I’d guess) makes a sobering point. After an agent discussion, one panellist, who is a full-time reader of unsolicited manuscripts for a leading agency, said informally that he’d estimate that perhaps only one or two of the delegates might end up being successfully traditionally published novelists.

Despite (or maybe because of) these odds, the event wasn’t in the slightest cut–throat and competitive – everyone was unfailingly open and keen to ask others about their writing. I suspect that most people felt, like me, a little daunted about walking into the dining room for a formal dinner without really knowing anyone else there, having not met anyone else in the room before that weekend but it was a very friendly and sociable event. Happily, there wasn’t the chest–beating atmosphere of a sales conference – with backs being knifed in pursuit of the deal (well, not on my table at least!). Perhaps writers, almost by definition, tend to congregate at the quieter end of the introvert–extrovert spectrum, preferring to commit our ideas to paper or on screen?

(A tutor on a short course I took at City University had a theory that all writers were ‘damaged’ in some way – creating a compulsion to write – a view which I think has more than a grain of truth but is no reflection on the nice people I met at York!)

The welcoming atmosphere may have been connected with the number of northerners among the delegates (I can happily suggest this as an exiled northerner myself). My ‘day job’ is currently bang in the centre of London and one of the consolations of toiling away there is a feeling that I’m not too far away from the literary London of agents and publishers (being able to see the London Eye, Gherkin, BT Tower and Buckingham Palace from the window, as well as being convenient for too many cultural distractions to complete a novel).  It’s not very logical but I’ve recently quite enjoyed walking past Random House’s HQ on Vauxhall Bridge Road on the way to work meetings. And I’ve idled away the odd lunchtime following literary walks past London’s numerous writer–inspired blue plaques.

Bronte Birthplace
How They Do It in Yorkshire — Birthplace of the Brontes

At the conference I met writers from places like Durham, Lincoln, Doncaster, Nottingham and quite a contingent few from York itself – all places where it doesn’t take an Olympic Games for people to be friendly to strangers. Obviously, writers can work virtually anywhere but being in central London most days means it’s easy to believe the outer limits of the publishing world coincide with the Zone Two and Three boundary. So credit to the Writers’ Workshop for travelling up to York, reinforcing that there are thriving writing communities all over the country.

As an aside, the inspiration provided by the British landscape to writers over the last thousand years is the subject of an engrossing exhibition at the British Library. I’m aiming to blog, eventually, about visiting Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderland but, in the meantime, I’d recommend anyone to visit in its final week and be as awestruck as I was in seeing original manuscripts by Hardy, George Eliot, James Joyce, Charlotte Brontë and countless others. And, speaking of the wily, windy moors, there’s a series of photographs of the Pennine area where I grew up, which gave inspiration Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

Back to the less gritty setting of the Vale of York and, having made the generalisation that writers might be quiet sorts, it certainly doesn’t mean they’re not sociable creatures. In my own case, one of the reasons why my novel prominently features the fortunes of a pub is because I like to spend so much time there – another reason why my manuscript still isn’t quite ready to set before an agent. The speed with which the (sadly limited) complimentary wine was downed and replacement bottles ordered at the dinner tables, the York festival showed many writers are similarly sociably minded.

Bronte Birthplace Plaque
Bronte Birthplace Plaque, Thornton, West Yorkshire

And, because writers are normally scattered working in solitude all over the country this sociability has found an enthusiastic, virtual outlet in blogging and Twitter. It was probably via Twitter that I learned about the conference in the first place. I’d certainly come across some of the agents attending and some very helpful blogging book doctors via Twitter – and one of my objectives was to hunt these down, in the nicest possible way, so I could say ‘hello’ in person rather than online.

My Big Two, in terms of tweeters I wanted to track down, were Debi Alper and Emma Darwin. I managed to buttonhole Debi after dinner and she introduced to me to Emma. They’re both successful authors and had a long day book–doctoring (as well as running workshops, about which other delegates were very complimentary) but they were both very friendly and approachable. Emma’s blog, This Itch of Writing (see sidebar) is an antidote to all the ‘Follow My Ten Rules and Write a Bestseller’ sites and,  now having met Emma in person, I can understand why it’s one of the most intelligent and practical resources on writing that I’ve found on the web.

The role of literary agents in the traditional publishing process is often described as that of gatekeepers – it’s said that finding representation by an agent is frequently the biggest obstacle a writer has to overcome on the road to publication. So when they emerge out of hiding behind website submission guidelines and laconic Writers and Artists’ Yearbook entries, one might imagine agents to seem as unyielding as doctors’ receptionists from hell.

York -- Old Star Inn 090912
A Lovely Pub in York I Didn’t Get to Visit This Time — The Old Starre Inn Sign — Stonegate

The great benefit of a conference like the Festival of Writing is to allow writers to discover that they’re not. At least the many that decamped out of their normal habitat to spend the weekend in York, make strenuous efforts to seek out new talent (seeing half–a–dozen writers back–to–back for the intensive ten minute one–to–one sessions must be exhausting work – like speed-dating with reams of A4). Beyond the scheduled one–to–one sessions most agents seemed perfectly approachable although the Festival Handbook reminds over–zealous delegates of protocol – don’t try to subject your selected agent/victim to your carefully honed three–hour elevator pitch over dinner or try and open (and close) a deal in the queue for the toilets.

Given the unagented, aspiring writer’s curiosity about agents and how best to make an approach, it doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to imagine a David Attenborough–style whispered commentary: ‘Here we see the literary agent species drawn out of its usual habitat of secluded offices in Camden, Bloomsbury and Notting Hill to gather around this alluring watering hole. And contrary to the species’ forbidding reputation, they can be observed to be a remarkably sociable group.’

If anything, the experience of meeting agents, listening to their views on panel discussions and the like, shows they are remarkably diverse bunch: talkative extroverts, intense bibliophiles (not a reference to the festival bar), laid–back ‘regular guy’ types and one who, oddly, reminded me of Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It.

Writers who desperately want to get ‘an agent’ are sometimes advised that it’s not ‘an agent’ they need but the right agent and, having seen more agents together in one place at the Festival than I ever have before, this would appear to be sound advice (see this guest blog post I found via Twitter from A.P.Watt agent Juliet Pickering). Accordingly, they’re all so different that not all are going to like your book – but you hope that, with so many different personalities, eventually one will. That is unless you happen to have self–published and have sold tens of thousands of e–books already, in which case, it’s likely most agents will want to shove a contract in your direction.

That last point was made in one of the panel discussions on the future of publishing – a topic no–one seems to be able to agree on. Attitudes do seem to have recently changed to suggest that it does an author no harm to self–publish, if it’s done properly. David Gaughran, a self–published writer who’s also written about the subject, stressed in response to a concern about the overall quality of self–published books, that he has access to the same freelance copy editors as used by large publishing houses.  Similarly, self–published authors can also pay for the services of other professionals in the publishing process, such as PR agents. While this breaks the maxim of ‘money flows to the writer’ it’s argued that the much higher royalty rate on self–published e–books can be more financially rewarding overall, even on lower net sales, for an author even when such expenditure is incurred upfront.

At its most basic, an author’s journey for publication is a search for people prepared to invest money and time (and a professional’s time means money) in editing, printing, distributing and publicising your work. Each link in the chain is like a pitch from Dragon’s Den to persuade someone to commit resources: author to agent; agent to commissioning editor; publisher to bookseller and so on.

York Minster
York Minster

That’s why I found one of the most informative workshops at the Festival was The Acquisitions Meeting with Gillian Green and Michael Rowley, both editors at Random House, who are currently building a fiction list for Ebury Press.

They gave an intriguing insight into the business side of publishing a novel. They explained how non–editorial staff, like the production director, who counts the cost of shiny covers and different grades of paper, have a vital say in whether a title will be acquired or not. It’s the antithesis of the literary agent’s unquantifiable ‘I just loved it’ reaction to a text – where calculations about break–even print runs in a spreadsheet determine the final publication decision.

Forecasts of sales are much more rigorous than finger–in–the–air. For debut authors, analysis will be made of the sales of comparable writers’ titles and existing authors will have their Nielsen Bookscan figures scrutinised. If an author’s sales have been on a declining trend then this can be a deal breaker, no matter how great their new book. A debut author’s lack of a track-record can paradoxically work in their favour.

I’ve dwelt on those elements of the conference that were particularly relevant to where I am now with my writing but, as well as content on the process of publishing, there were plenty of sessions and workshops on writing technique (voice, character, editing and so on). And probably having already written my longest post on the festival (ridiculously long for a blog) I guess I’ve proved I found plenty to interest me in York.

Oh, and how did I get on in my one-to-ones with literary agents, bearing in mind my initial frustration that with no finished manuscript to offer, I worried they’d be wasted opportunities? (You submit the first chapter and an ‘introduction’ in advance so the agent can arrive prepared.) Well, I got some very useful feedback on how to describe the novel in a covering letter and comments on extra angles I might consider in the first chapter.  (It’s always really valuable to get a reader’s initial reaction to the novel – bearing in mind that most people who are kind enough to give me feedback have seen it develop as a work-in-progress.)

The agents seemed to like the writing and thought it fitted the type of genre that I was aiming at (note that both asked me which writers’ novels I thought might be similar to my own). I was given positive comments on the structure of the novel, the dialogue and the writing about food (the first chapter is very culinary – it would be interesting to find out what they’d think about themes in later chapters).

I’m told that agents, while being polite people, don’t want to waste their own future time by giving false encouragement which would leading writers to inundate their inboxes with further material the agent knows from the initial reading that that they’d never represent anyway. So I guess it must be encouraging that both agents said they’d like to read more of my novel when it’s all ready.

The agents also, perhaps most importantly, seemed to have thought carefully about whether there was a market for the novel – and they both thought that there was, although admittedly from reading only that rather foodie first chapter.  I was also asked by one agent if I’d had direct experience of the dramatic predicament that opens the novel. Apparently she’d had approaches from a couple of people who’d been in that situation in real life and she found my description (which I’d largely imagined) very realistic and compelling, which can only be good.

So no being signed up on the strength of the opening 2,700 words but I think their collective reaction was quietly encouraging.

But, to underline the points about informality and networking, I stayed behind after an agent panel debate with the intention of saying hello to an agent who’d read some of my novel’s very early material at another conference a couple of years ago. I’d talked to her once since at an event at the start of the year (when I’d said the novel wasn’t too far off). I was pleasantly surprised that she recognised me at York and was the first to strike up a short conversation. She might have been being terribly polite but it’s still a good piece of motivation to have a literary agent say goodbye to you with the words ‘I’ll look forward to getting the book’.

Now that might go a long way to towards explaining my uplifted mood as I drove back down the motorway.

Olympic Legacy?

The last few postings on this blog have been about the fast-fading memories of the 2012 Olympics and it might be asked what relevance  photos and discussions about the Olympics have for blog about writing a novel. Fair question — but I’d reply ‘everything’.

The Flag from the 1948 Olympics (and Possibly the 1936 Games) -- Wembley Stadium
The Flag from the 1948 Olympics (and Possibly the 1936 Games) — Wembley Stadium

One of the novel’s themes is identity — one of the two protagonists is non-British but sees herself as a Londoner. One source of conflict is how she deals with the difference between London and the rest of Britain — the cosmopolitan international city contrasted with the timeless English landscapes only forty miles away (and less than an hour and a half’s travelling time as I demonstrated with a nifty one train, two tube and car journey away from Blackfriars after coming into London on a Sunday for the women’s marathon).

It’s also been fascinating, from a writer’s perspective, to observe how the city has been

Three Modern Icons of London -- The Shard, the London Eye and Johnny Brownlee Getting Triathlon Bronze on the Big Screen
Three Modern Icons of London — The Shard, the London Eye and Johnny Brownlee Getting Triathlon Bronze on the Big Screen

transformed from the territory of sharp-elbowed suits into a uniquely welcoming environment. The streets and tubes have been full of people obviously enjoying themselves so much — not just international tourists but plenty of British visitors who’ve come to enjoy London. It’s wonderful to see the pleasure people take in being photographed next to Big Ben, Buckingham Palace or, bizarrely, some of the Wenlock and Mandeville figures that have been dotted around London on the Mayor of London’s strolls.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of the Olympic and Paralympic period has been the almost ubiquitous ‘games makers’. I’ve travelled to plenty of tourist cities (I used to work for British Airways) but I’ve never seen anything remotely like this small army of volunteers in stations, tourist sights and near Olympic venues whose sole objective is to welcome and help people to the city.

A Games Maker Points The Way -- Exhibition Road
A Games Maker Points The Way — Exhibition Road

And they’re still doing it. I was given a free copy of this week’s Time Out by a games maker in Covent Garden this week and the ‘Boris’ maps they’re handing out are brilliant.

Whenever I’ve seen the volunteers I’ve feel completely humbled — and grateful that they’re giving such a good impression of the country to visitors that are here. This parallels the incredibly positive image of London that’s been projected via the Olympic media coverage to people around the world.

I wondered how long the interest in London would last after the Olympics but they appear to have been so successful that London will retain its interest as a city for a very long time for people all over the world.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Olympics is how much London 2012 would

Do You Have A Question? Outside the V&A
Do You Have A Question? Outside the V&A

represent the rest of the country – London being seen by the rest of the country already as something apart and privileged (albeit that the Olympic Park is situated in some of the poorest boroughs of the country on any measure). This could have been a valid criticism until the medals started coming in and that the importance of achievement on home soil was — and our first wasYorkshire’s Lizzie Armitstead’s silver on Sunday in the women’s cycle road race (of which I saw the start and almost finish – see photos on my Olympic photo page).

The athletes who ‘medalled’ (to use that jarring verb-noun mutation) have come from all parts of the country — from Jessica Ennis’s Sheffield to Andy Murray’s Dunblane to Ben Ainslie’s Cornwall to Greg Rutherford’s prosaic Milton Keynes.

It was weird for me to discover that Mo Farah comes from Feltham (where I worked for four years and used to drive past Farah’s school almost every night) and that he trained at St. Mary’s College in Strawberry Hill, Twickenham for ten years, while I was living just up the road.  My personal connections are tenuous at best but I guess millions of people are doing the same up and down the country — which hopefully proves a point about a sense of ownership.

Alistair Brownlee Running Towards His Gold in the Triathlon
Alistair Brownlee Running Towards His Gold in the Triathlon

The theme of identity — the question of ‘who are “we”‘ — might perhaps be the most lasting legacy of these Olympic games (and ‘we’ as the British appear to be extraordinarily unified, at least from the media coverage) — and that’s a big issue in my novel.

Setting is also important in the novel. I’m not sure why but I was on the Jubilee Line heading for Westminster to find a place to watch the women’s marathon and I decided to switch at Bond Street to the Central Line and head to St. Paul’s instead. Co-incidentally, I’ve been revising a part of the novel where my characters walk around St. Paul’s, which was a good move in terms of getting good places to watch the runners come past. The marathon route followed closely, if not identically, the route that my characters take around the Blackfriars/St. Paul’s area.

The Finish Line on the Mall
The Finish Line on the Mall

Sport is also drama in a very pure sense — with commentators and competitors using the same lexicon as writers do about constructing narrative — with expectations, twists and tuns, surprises, sub-plots, etc,.

The BBC are very good at creating montages of these sporting moments but, for me, there was one that transcended them all. It was when Gemma Gibbons, the Judo player from Charlton, exceeded her expectations by winning her semi-final bout with a single move. She started crying and looked upwards, mouthing ‘I love you, mum’. Her mother died of leukaemia eight years before, having pushed her daughter into starting her judo career. It was a candid moment that must have made anyone who’s ever lost a parent break sown in a similar way.

Some Very Lucky People Down There
Some Very Lucky People Down There

Then there’s the parallel of novel writing with sporting achievement. I was reading a conversation on Twitter today between some literary agents who were making the point to writers that novel writing is more like a marathon than any other event, which certainly seems true in my case.

There are plenty of parallels between these athletes training away in anti-social hours for four years and undiscovered writers who similarly toil with no guarantee of reward for their efforts — and also of the odds against achieving success. I’m not sure they stand up in detail but there are certainly morals of perseverance, determination and self-belief that can apply to writers as much as athletes.

The East End -- Then and Now
The East End — Then and Now (from the BT Observation Wheel, Victoria Park, Hackney)

But one thing Olympic athletes have that writers don’t is an organisation like Sport England — whose various programmes in identifying talent have given financial and coaching support to those they’ve identified as having promise. That’s the opposite of the literary world where writers invest in their own training and there’s comparatively tiny government funding to help nurture new talent.

Coming third in the medal table, perhaps the sporting approach works?

Mad Men in the Serpentine
Mad Men in the Serpentine

Bonkers

The Hottest Ticket in Town
The Hottest Ticket in Town

While ‘unbelievable’ seemed to be the word applied an unbelievable number of times to British sporting achievements, ‘bonkers’ seems the  most appropriate description to apply to the cultural and social impact of the Olympics – especially after that closing ceremony. Its astonishingly uninhibited chaos mixed flashes of genius with the heroically tacky and cheesy – 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 – certainly in London.

London 2012 -- Doubters
What We Were Warned About.

What seemed to make the change in mood of the last couple of weeks genuine — and profoundly touching — was the collective astonishment – we couldn’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 – Joy in People. And very serendipitously I came across Sacrilege, Deller’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 – the eccentric Universal Tea Machine.

Jeremy Deller's 'Sacrilege' -- Victoria Park, Hackney
Jeremy Deller’s ‘Sacrilege’ — Victoria Park, Hackney

Back to the Opening Ceremony, the first point when I realised that I was watching something 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 haven’t heard it mentioned elsewhere but I picked up a definite nod to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with the green and pleasant land turning into a furnace of fire-beaten rings.)

The Mall As It's Never Been Before
The Mall As It’s Never Been Before

More anything else, for me,  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 – 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 – such as advertising and television – both based on the creative manipulation of imagery – and this has been transferred to the games. It’s amazing to consider the attention to detail involved in London 2012’s branding. The presentation of the venue has been amazing.

The colour scheming of the games has been meticulous – 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 – the bright pink and deep purple. These colours don’t clash with many, if any, flags and they simultaneously convey both excitement and informality (the pink) with a stately  self-assured competence (purple).

What An Arena -- Beach Volleyball on Horse Guards Parade
What An Arena — Beach Volleyball on Horse Guards Parade

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. It’s a shame the security fences mean that it’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 – 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.

The Horse Guards Conga -- It Felt This Blurry Too
The Horse Guards Conga — It Felt This Blurry Too

Beach volleyball has been one of the revelations of these Olympics – I’ve read several newspaper articles which, in pre-Olympic times, might have sneered at the event’s supposed frivolous, if not outright exploitative, image but they’ve all concluded that the Horse Guards stadium has provided wonderful entertainment – and that the players are also serious athletes.

I’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 – 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 – not to accompany the knowingly camp dancers but for the volunteers who levelled the sand – ‘The Rakers’ (who sounds like an American college basketball team).

The Cheerleaders Play With Their Balls
The Cheerleaders Play With Their Balls

The atmosphere was infectiously surreal – 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 Madness’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.

Uncle Sam at the Beach Volleyball
Uncle Sam Made An Appearance at the Beach Volleyball

After a while  the over-the-top announcer’s voice became extremely familiar and once the penny dropped there was no doubt – it was the man himself – Peter Dickson – the ridiculously hyperbolic Voice-Over Man from the X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent and many other programmes. He’s the voice that always seems to announce that this week’s warbler is the ‘biggest selling female artist in the history of the universe’.

USA v Argentina -- The Sporting Action
USA v Argentina — The Sporting Action

Like everything associated with the rest of the event, Peter Dickson hammed it up spectacularly: ‘I hear the Prime Minister has an early morning tomorrow and he’s asking if we’ll we turn the noise down?’ (Incredibly cheesy but the bizarre location demanded it.) No guessing what the crowd’s answer was.

The setting of Horse Guard’s parade, with the purple-decked stadium, a rectangle of beach sand in its centre and Nelson’s column, Horse Guards, Big Ben and the London Eye visible on the skyline provided an iconic image.

Sitting in the ‘Downing Street End’ of the stadium I wondered what other country would site a beach volleyball stadium within 50 yards of its government’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.

There are 15,000 Crazed People Lurking on the Left
There are 15,000 Crazed People Lurking on the Left

And Were We Ready?

I posted my last blog post about 30 minutes before the Opening Ceremony of London 2012 a little misty-eyed with expectation and anticipation.

It feels like an awful long time ago now but, walking around central London, I’d had the feeling that the rhythm of the preparations in London had started to step up to a point where there was an odd conjunction of the organisational pulse quickening and the rest of the city relaxing into a mood that is probably best described as ‘joyous’ (an instance where Seb Coe’s choice of adjective was perfect – no Twenty-Twelve management speak). It felt exciting – as if we could really allow ourselves to believe that London was on the brink of staging something momentous.

And it did. It bloody well did.

Boris Johnson’s ‘are we ready’ speech has been answered with one yes after another. London has delivered beyond perhaps anyone’s expectations.

These 2012 Olympics have been absolutely wonderful – brilliantly conceived and executed. I’ve enjoyed this last two weeks so much and I’ve loved almost every aspect of the games.

In fact, as far as the purposes of this blog are concerned, I’ve loved it too way too much — my writing has virtually gone on hold as I’ve watched the events on television and mingled with the crowds in London and taken in as many of the events as I could (two ticketed and four of the free events). I’ve drafted long blog posts on what I’ve enjoyed but been to busy enjoying the events to edit them (hopefully I can post some more before the end of the games).

So in writing terms, I’ve been a little like Phillips Idowu – I’ve gone AWOL. I’ve done some revising but missed yet another notional self-imposed deadline for getting my first draft edited down.

But, to look at things in the zeitgeist of national positivity, I’ll never get the chance again to experience the city that the novel’s largely about in such a uniquely relaxed, celebratory mood – and to enjoy a genuine mood of euphoria which, after all, isn’t often something that features in many novels. So I’m convincing myself it’s writerly time well spent.

I’ve taken loads of photos — some of which I’ll use in later posts — but I’ve put them all on a page in the blog to give a visual impression of what I’ve been enjoying so much (there are a few surprisingly good ones). Click here to view.

‘The Geiger Counter of Olympomania is Going to Go Zoink Off the Scale’

…as Boris Johnson inimitably said last night in Hyde Park — before his brilliant put-down of Mitt Romney. Well, my Olympomania Geiger counter has been building up to Zoink steadily over the last few weeks but Boris’s ‘Are we ready?’ speech seems to now catch what seems like a suddenly enthusiastic zeitgeist.

London 2012 Olympic Torch
The Olympic Torch on Birdcage Walk — carried by (I believe) Jon Sayer.

Last night the Olympic Torch came within a hundred yards of where I work for the ‘day job’. It was due to arrive about 6.20pm and there was no way I was going to miss it. Expecting big crowds, quite a few people buggered off out of the office early. In that respect there seems to be two types of people. Those that prefer to preserve their routine from disruption as much as possible and those who are intrigued by the novelty and the new experience. I’d suggest that writers, and creative people generally, would hopefully fall into the second group.

I waited on Birdcage Walk (on what a policeman disconcertingly described to me as a grassy knoll). I saw from distance the bizarre spectacle of the Secretary General of the United Nations handing over the Olympic Torch (I knew it was Ban Ki Moon as I was watching the live TV pictures on my iPad coming from a helicopter overhead ).

In a slight touch of serendipity the torchbearer in my photo is (I believe from the BBC

London 2012 102PF Flags
The Olympic Flag Flying Over Where I Do the ‘Day Job’

commentary) Jon Sayer, a Scout leader who rescued someone from a swollen river, who comes from Todmorden, a  West Yorkshire town near where I was brought up that has a passing reference in my novel.

I avoided the tube and walked direct to Marylebone Station, passing by Buckingham Palace and having to detour round the torch’s route into Hyde Park — and the atmosphere was fantastic. People were standing on bollards and hanging off lampposts to get a view. A group of Brazilians were parading with their flag around Wellington Arch. Although London in the summer is normally teeming with foreign tourists, there seemed to be a huge number of overseas visitors flocking towards the parks and there were many international TV anchors in position in front of Buckingham Palace.

London 2012 Big Ben
Big Ben Olympic Ready

Perhaps because I’ve been working in Westminster in the  writing-time-sapping ‘day job’ for most of the last year, I’ve become fascinated by the way the Olympic preparations have gradually come together — accelerating over the last month and especially over the last week or so.

It’s not so much the big symbols like the rings on Tower Bridge but the small, mundane but essential and attentive details that  have almost had me welling up. For example the lurid bright pink venue signs in the tube stations or the direction signs back to tube stations that have been sprouting on street corners and all over the parks.

(Is that because I try to cultivate a writers’ habit of close observation or that I’m a sign-nerd who did A-level Geography and interested in aspects of place and setting (see my interest in geosemiotics).

It’s also slightly touching to see the Olympic ‘pods’ with their ambassadors in Olympic T-

London 2012 Queen Anne's Gate
One of the Suddenly Ubiquitous Pink Signs

shirts who’ve been put in the parks and on the streets to point visitors in the right direction — although Blue Badge guides they appear not to be.  And the incredible politeness of the soldiers drafted in for security seems fundamentally British. I chatted to some in St. James’s Park on Thursday. These people were probably in Afghanistan a few weeks ago — now they’re pointing tourists in the right direction for Big Ben.

Even though it’s been coming for seven years, when I see the signs to ‘Olympic Park’ I almost have to pinch myself, having memories of watching past Olympics from what have seemed mostly exotic and/or obscure places. I remember visiting Barcelona after their games and constantly being reminded of the Olympics and once I had a tour of the Munich Olympic stadium and a meal in the aerial revolving restaurant there that still had resonance thirty years after the event.

Of course, the Olympics also fascinate as a sporting as well as cultural and symbolic festival. I was on holiday in Scotland during the Beijing games and, having had a tent wrecked by the Scottish weather, spent much of the rest of the time watching Olympic coverage, which became compulsive after a while.

London 2012 Soldiers on Whitehall
Not Helmand Province

It’s a shame that access to the Olympic Park itself has been so restricted. I’ve had a few glimpses of the stadium and facilities from Hackney Wick and Stratford but I’m sure that people might feel a greater sense of affinity with the Olympic Park itself had it not been cordoned off with extraordinary secrecy. But maybe that’s the point — impress us with the shock of the new?

But perhaps impatiently wanting to go and visit the area shows how the locality has been transformed – would anyone have been so excited about visiting Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Newham or Waltham Forest seven years ago?

There have been plenty of British cock-ups to justifiably complain about — ticketing was a

London 2012 Cenotaph
Two Contrasting Examples of Nation Against Nation

hopeless fiasco. I spent years working on booking systems for airlines and it was inept to use a concert system like Ticketmaster for such a volume of traffic. And I can’t understand why I got no tickets at all on my first attempt when I’d applied for some football tickets — that haven’t even been sold now.

Bizarrely, I ended up with tickets for one of the most sought after events — not the athletics that I also applied for — but the infamous beach volleyball. (My excuse is that I was working through the list of sports alphabetically, not realising I could only apply for three the second time round. And the sessions are for both men’s and women’s volleyball, which no one mentions, of course.) I go on Sunday and I’m also hoping to see the start of the women’s cycling road race as it heads through Hyde Park Corner and Knightsbridge and then go to the London Live Event in Hyde Park.

London 2012 Mall Finish
Cycling Road Race Start and Finish on The Mall

The corporatism increasingly jars with the growing feeling of excitement, which is all the more genuine for arriving seemingly spontaneously. Why can we only pay with Visa? McDonald’s and Coke are the ‘preferred’ food and drink. The brand infringement rules are draconian. But most of these restrictions come via the IOC and we’ve had to accept them, although we police them in our assiduously British way.

And the mascots are ludicrous, although I feel their names have some uncanny personal associations for me (see post from over two years ago). But that’s also a key national characteristic — the resigned humour that comes from the absurd and ridiculous.

London 2012 has already had one real-life moment of stunning absurdity worthy of the

London 2012 Triathlon Finish
The Triathlon Stadium on the Serpentine

brilliant Twenty Twelve satire before it has officially started — when the South Korean flag was displayed against the North Korean women’s football team (and Twenty Twelve had just sent up women’s football). I can imagine the Hugh Bonneville character’s shambling attempts to defuse that row.

It’s predicted that a billion people will apparently watch the Opening Ceremony, which I’m looking forward to for the music as much as anything else — rumoured to include Muse, the Clash, Queen, the Prodigy, Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse, the Specials, the Doctor Who theme, bizarrely, ‘God Save the Queen’ by the Sex Pistols. It’s appropriate that the ceremony will also featuring the world’s greatest living songwriter, Paul McCartney, who contributed so much to London’s profile in the 60s.

I’m looking forward to see how the opening ceremony contrasts the Britain of Blake’s green and pleasant lands with the gritty, urban post-industrial Britain of some of the more contemporary artists. My novel also contains many themes derived from the differences and similarities between the two extremes (the London of the City, Shoreditch and Hackney and the rural Chilterns).

I do have a few reservations as there hasn’t been as much hype for a televised public event since, er, the Millennium River of Fire.

As mentioned in previous posts, I’m kicking myself that I’ve not managed to get my novel that, in parts, out into the world by now, as in parts it certainly celebrates London – and some areas close to the Olympic Park. So it’s a slightly selfish hope of mine that the Olympics builds interest so readers want to know more.

Tower Bridge Olympic Rings 110712
Tower Bridge with the Olympic Rings

What stirs the profoundest emotion in me is that the Olympics that goes beyond the corporatism and even the sport itself that shows something about the human spirit. The Olympics are a symbol of generosity and hospitality. We’re welcoming everyone else in the world to our city for our games — either in person or via television — to say ‘this is what and who we are and we want to enjoy sharing it’. It’s our London – it’s the city that we’ve all created and we’re going to throw a huge party.

The enormous global prestige of the Olympics is perhaps difficult to appreciate, even a few hours before the opening ceremony. But hearing the news in 2005 that London had been awarded the games was one of those ‘I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing’ moments. I was in a meeting conference room in Greater London House in Camden and someone got the news on their BlackBerry. Everyone in the meeting was stunned because we were so conditioned to losing — London and the UK just didn’t win anything like this. It didn’t happen. But it had — and it was literally unbelievable.

Now it’s here. As the cover of Time Out says (and I agree) it’s the greatest time to be in the greatest city in the world and I feel extraordinarily proud.

London 2012 Time Out
Time Out Welcome to London

Was It Worth It?

Last Saturday morning five of us ex of the City course met for our last workshopping session of the current year (although it’s two years since we finished the course we’re still loosely following the Sep-June academic year). I sent out the last ‘proper’ chapter of The Angel for discussion. There’s an epilogue that follows but this chapter brings many of the novels threads together and concludes the narrative arc. In the hope that one day the novel might find a wider public I’ll declare a spoiler alert and avoid any more discussion of the ending.

Sue wrote at the top of her comments ‘Congratulations Mike on reaching the end. Yes, you should be celebrating’. She recommended that I ‘open a bottle’. It’s lovely to be reminded of the achievement by someone else who knows exactly how difficult an undertaking it is and it comes at an opportune time because, rather than feeling celebratory, my current attitudes towards the novel are characterised by frustration and borderline despair.

I’m probably at the place that’s the most infuriating — having reached the end of the writing of a novel, I’m almost desperate to walk away from it but also, paradoxically, reluctant to let go.

I have a draft that I’m happy with — it tells the story that I planned when I set out and has evolved and developed along the way, although that’s resulted in the manuscript still being too long, even after I’ve taken out the most easily removable parts. In terms of loading in the extra material Delia Smith’s re-assuring advice comes to mind from the Christmas cake recipe that I’ve been following for more years than I’d like to admit. ‘If you add the eggs slowly by degrees like this the mixture won’t curdle. If it does, don’t worry, any cake full of such beautiful things can’t fail to taste good!’ It’s also had a pretty positive critique by a professional reader but my dilemma is how much more effort I should expend on polishing and editing it further.

At essence it boils down to a test of faith in my own writing against many obstacles and anxieties.

I’m very tempted to send a submission off to agents straight away. Even though I know there’s likely to be more work needed, it would be enormously encouraging to have an agent say that they liked the writing and the concept and with a bit more work they’d take the manuscript on. There would clearly be a reward for the remaining effort in this case. I know of one other writer from the City course who’s that type of position.

Alternatively, it could be argued that I should first complete all the work that I think might need doing anyway before submitting anything to agents at all. The advantage of this approach would be that a tighter, better edited manuscript would be more impressive, giving me a better chance overall of being represented by an agent and potentially leading to a quicker submission to publishers.

But spending a lot of time buffing and polishing the manuscript would be pointless if, for example, the whole concept of the novel isn’t distinctive enough or doesn’t show any commercial appeal. In that case, perhaps the sooner I stick the manuscript in the proverbial desk drawer the quicker I can employ my writing skills on a project that may be more attractive — treating the development of this novel as a long (and expensive) creative writing exercise.

And there’s no doubt that my writing has improved. Ironically, the ending of the novel that I workshopped on Saturday was based on one of the first sections I wrote — nearly two and a half years ago. It contained some good material but I think I now write to a consistently higher standard. This is a view endorsed by Eileen from the City course who joined the workshop after an absence of a year or so when she compared the latest extract with what she remembered from before.

Another weight on my mind is that a moment of opportunity may be passing. Agents will now be taking summer holidays (and sod’s law says my submission would hit their inbox just after they left the office for a fortnight). Additionally, as any reader of this blog’s past posts will realise, London plays such a prominent role in the novel that it could almost be a character itself — and it’s the east London of Hackney, Shoreditch and environs that will be a worldwide focus of attention in under four weeks — not just through the Olympics themselves but with all the attendant cultural events (such as the Cultural Olympiad and the Mayor of London Presents series). I know there’s no way that my novel could be published until probably two years after the London 2012 events but I wonder if there will be a London hangover effect on the people who’ll (hopefully) read the manuscript ‘Not another novel with London in! I’d rather read something set in the Arctic tundra.’

But if the Olympics create the lasting buzz and change in perceptions that rubbed off on Beijing or Barcelona then it may be a good thing that my characters are roaming around Shoreditch and St. Paul’s. After all, the 2012 logo looks like a slightly sanitised version of something that could be on a wall on the Regents Canal, Redchurch Street or Village Underground.

Perhaps the factor that’s stopping me racing to the finishing line is physical tiredness. Having almost achieved it myself, I now admire anyone who’s completed a reasonable length, coherent novel regardless of its quality or published status — and especially so if that person has grabbed time around the margins of doing a full time job, fitting in the demands of studying for a course, having family responsibilities and so on.

I’ve burnt the candle at both ends — routinely staying up past midnight to carve out a little bit of time to demonstrate I’m still making progress on the novel but then getting up at half-past six in the morning to get the train into London (I’ve developed an aptitude for being able to easily drop off to sleep in my seat).

This perhaps shows how almost insane the determination to finish the novel can become – an obsessive quest like Captain Ahab’s in Moby Dick. I’d have to be very lucky author to bring in an income from writing comparable with the income from how I currently make a living – the best I could probably hope for is enough to afford to reduce my hours a bit.

I’ve studied part-time for both an MBA and MSc and found the work involved for both to be significantly less than this novel — it’s almost like doing two jobs.

I’ve not yet repeated before a working day what I did one Friday night before a workshopping tutorial when I wrote from about 10pm until 6.45am, went to bed for an hour and then caught the train into London at 8am.

This tiredness is largely my own doing. If I was sensible I’d work away every lunchtime (rather than a couple of times a week) and return home every night and lock myself away with the computer. But instead I go to the pub, started to visit a lot of art galleries (and events like Love Art London), go running (good for thinking about the novel, if not actually writing it), get tempted by all the Olympic-inspired events like Poetry Parnassus, go to the theatre and music concerts (I had a brilliant time watching the Pierces at the Union Chapel in Islington last week) and, the ultimate displacement activity, writing this blog (although there haven’t been many posts recently I have a couple lined up in draft).

I guess it’s not surprising that the home straight is going slowly. Perhaps I’m subconsciously hanging on – not wanting to send the novel and the characters I’ve lived with for so long out to fend for themselves in the world outside?

Yet I’m going to have to part company with them soon, if only because there’s only so long that the long list of important but non-urgent activities can’t be put off forever: the house is slowly falling to pieces; the garden is turning into a nature reserve; the room where I’m writing from is an absolute tip; there’s a pile of books about three feet high that I want to read and so on.

They’re all evidence of what I’ve increasingly neglected while writing the novel and make me wonder whether I’d have thought it was would be worth it had I realised just under five years ago what enrolling on the Open University Creative Writing course would lead me to in terms of disrupting the rest of my life – sometimes making me feel guilty and anxious for not doing the things I ought to do in favour of writing and then, in turn, feeling guilty and anxious about writing or not writing. I guess one answer to that question will depend to a large extent on whether the investment of time and money leads to anything tangible – although I realise that being represented by an agent and getting a publishing deal are just the start of another huge slog.

But Sue is right, whatever happens, I should be celebrating in some way having almost got to the end as when I finally get down to the writing I enjoy it immensely and for its own sake – the satisfaction of coming up with a particular phrase or thinking of an intriguing situation for my characters. And those characters have potentially kept me sane through some of the events I’ve been through in their company.

A look through the eclectic topics covered in this blog also shows how much I’ve learned through writing – not just about writing itself but about art, London and many other things and met some fascinating people in the course of doing so. (I’ve been flattered that two people from the London art world have read extracts from the novel and have said they’d like to read some more.) If a reader finds a fraction of enjoyment in the novel that I’ve experienced while writing and researching it then it ought to be a pleasurable and thought-provoking read.

So now I need to do the whole project justice and make it, as writers are often advised, ‘as good as it can be’ which, sadly, means chopping bits out rather than writing anything new, however, tempting.

I already have my synopsis drafted – using Nicola Morgan’s e-book – and an introductory letter and had them both critiqued – twice. I’ve also revised again the all-important first three chapters and sent them to be critiqued a second time – producing the hopefully prophetic comment from my reader ‘so much to keep a reader turning the page’. I’m hoping that I’ll soon move on to the next page myself.

Poetry Parnassus

Poetry Takeaway
MIne's a Doner With Extra Alliteration And Hot Metaphors Please

Here’s a very quick and timely post — showing that I’m still updating the blog despite only having posted once in June. (I’m furiously — and that’s probably a very apt word — trying to edit the novel into a state where I can send it to agents. But it’s a slow process and difficult to fit in with The Day Job and, more happily, the many diversions I end up spending time on through being in London during the week. (Of which perhaps more in other posts.)

Here’s something I visited one lunchtime this week — Poetry Parnassus. It’s part of the cultural Olympiad and is billed as the ‘UK’s largest gathering of world poets’ — in fact it’s said to be the biggest poetry festival ever in this country. It’s all organised by the South Bank Centre — and there’s plenty of information on their website.

There talks and readings by many famous poets, which is all of great interest to someone like myself, who’s dabbled in poetry writing enough to have had some published and be a member of a poetry group (Metroland Poets).

I particularly liked the quirky events held outside the Royal Festival Hall which try to inject a bit of humour into the precious and worthy image that often is unfairly associated with poetry.

Above is a photo of the Poetry Takeaway — a trailer designed to equate poetry with the sort of greasy kebabs that are sold to hungry, drunk customers from vans late at night in badly-lit car parks. The ‘customer’ queues to place an ‘order’ with one of the three poets ‘serving’ in the van (who can just about be made out in the photo). The poet (and they are relatively well-known poets) takes a bit of information about the person and what subject they’d ordered and the customer turns up an hour or so later to be served with a reading of their personalised poem. All great fun and completely free.

Sadly I had to get back to the office before I could order my takeaway.

There’s also a Poems on the Underground themed tent (see photo below) cleverly designed like a tube train (not quite convincing enough to believe it’s the real thing — unlike those at Village Underground, which are genuine). I didn’t go in the tent but apparently it holds workshops and events.

I went for a run past the Royal Festival Hall a day later and the Poetry Ambulance had arrived on the scene — no photos of this unfortunately — but it’s 60s vintage ambulance of the type you see on TV programmes like Heartbeat. It’s manned by poetic paramedics who will perform life-saving emergency treatment to sick poems — so any blocked bards should get along to the South Bank.

Poetry Parnassus finishes tomorrow on the 1st July — I’d recommend anyone with an interest to go along and join in. If the rest of the cultural Olympiad events are as innovative and humorous as the Poetry Takeaway then we should be in for a good summer (culturally at least, if not meteorologically).

Poems on the Underground
New Temporary Tube Train Drafted in for the Olympics? Or Poems on the Underground?

The Great Big Fabergé Egg Hunt

Faberge Easter Eggs at Covent Garden 2012

Selected Fabergé Easter Eggs at Covent Garden

Anyone who’s walked around certain areas of London — such as the South Bank, Carnaby Street or Canary Wharf — during Lent this year might have been puzzled by seeing giant eggs dotted around on plinths. I discovered them on a lunchtime stroll in St. James’s Park which, like Green Park, was home to about a dozen of these mysterious objects.

What made the eggs fascinating was that each was uniquely created by an artist, jeweller, designer or, even, architect — many of whom were household names like Bruce Oldfield, Sir Peter Blake or Sir Nicholas Grimshaw. (The architects’ designs were unsurprisingly elaborate and spectacular — see this article.)

Faberge Eggs Covent Garden
Fabergé Eggs Hanging from the Roof in Covent Garden Market

The eggs collectively formed The Fabergé Big Egg  Hunt — a brilliant initiative devised in aid of two charities — Elephant Family and Action for Children and based on the famous luxurious, jewelled eggs created by Fabergé at the turn of the 20th century.

210 of the eggs were distributed across London in 12 zones (some mentioned above) for enthusiasts to hunt down using Facebook or SMS to text donations to the charities using the egg’s number. I intended to track down them all but ran out of time before I spotted too many — although I did spot a few spectacular eggs in shop windows around Sloane Square and a few hanging from the underside of the Royal Festival Hall as well as those in the parks.

In the week before Easter all the eggs were brought to ‘nest’ at Covent Garden and hours before they were all due removed to be auctioned off I managed to make a visit. I was very glad I did.

I liked the idea of the egg hunt but seeing the eggs altogether around the piazza — some in shops, others hung from the roof, most arranged in rows on the cobbles — showed what  extraordinary breadth of innovation and imagination had been devoted to the eggs’ conception. There were eggs that were quirky, eccentric, clever, beautiful, funny, witty, sensual, extravagant and thought-provoking — and all were completely individual. So it was appropriate they’d been dotted around London — a city that also well deserves that list of adjectives.  The tourists in Covent Garden were definitely enjoying the surprise eggstravaganza (I finally succumbed to ovoid-linguistic temptation).

I took a few photos (arranged in the collage above) of some of my favourites, although I didn’t photograph the one that’s made the most lasting impression on me, which was Egg 5 Around the world before bedtime, (which is covered in wistful flying childhood dream silhouttes against a beautiful graded brown background) by Miss Dee (who’s apparently a Brighton-based wall mural artist).

As a bit of character development I was wondering which of the eggs Kim, the artist in my novel, might have created. I guess the proper answer is none — like all the artists and designers she’d create something unique — but I saw a few that would seem to appeal to her personality. The black egg with randomly flashing lights (Chicken by Jason Bruges Studio) might be appropriate for her hip Shoreditch nightlife; the elaborate decoration of Charm by Spina Designs ties in with her body jewellery (and she’d probably be interested in  passementerie too); but probably the most apt for spiky Kim would be Harriet Mead’s Ambush — a plain egg climbed by two lizards about to devour a cricket.  (Her artistic style might be reflected by Eggsquisite London, The Power of Plants and Sad Happy Frog Egg in the photos above.)

The eggs in the photos at the top (clockwise from the top left) are: 14, Ascension by Caio Locke and 3D Eye; 169, Egg Letter Box by Benjamin Shine; 130, Eggsquisite London by Paul Kenton;  179, My Generation by Vincent McEvoy;  159, The Power of Plants by Susan Entwistle; 113, Sad Happy Frog Egg by Gary Card; 55, Metropolis by Rob and Nick Carter; 196 On/Oeuf by Oliver Clegg; and the other side of Eggsquisite London.

Something Else That’s Nearly There

Shard 220312
The Shard from the Millennium Bridge 22nd March 2012

The post below said that I’d been given good advice that one final push should see completion of a decent draft of the novel. Co-incidentally, that’s similar to the progress of something else that’s been featured in this blog occasionally (and pictures of which seem to get a fair number of hits).

The Shard is due to be finished by May this year. However, it’s still got a small way to go. I can see its progress most days from the office where I’ve been working (although, by definition, it can probably be seen from more offices than any other building now). The spire at the top is apparently complete but the uppermost floors aren’t yet finished.

I’ll be fascinated to see how the crane is removed. There’s a similar type of crane right next to where I usually work and I was really interested to see how that was erected. But that’s not 72 storeys up in the air.

So here’s a photo I took on a run last Thursday — there won’t be many more opportunities to photograph the building’s construction. Seeing as my novel features a lot of London, although its timescales predate the rapid rising of the Shard on the skyline, it would be a nice bit of karma (as a couple of my characters like to talk about) for both to be completed at the same time.

UPDATE: On the same day I posted this, the BBC website reported that the last pieces of the steel spire on top of the Shard had been lifted into place. They say the construction will be finished in June (does that I mean I give myself an extra month with the novel?)

Dickensian London

I took this photo while on the pub crawl described below. The large lamp hangs outside Ye Old Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. The street posts show it’s in the City of London while floodlit St.Paul’s almost hangs in the sky like a spectral moon.

A Dickensian View of Fleet Street

As mentioned elsewhere, the slope of Fleet Street downwards is one side of the valley where the hidden river Fleet runs underground. When you realise there’s a river there the geography of London seems quite different and it’s almost possible to imagine what it would be like without any buildings.

There are suggestions that this route had some sort of mythical significance for prehistoric settlers in the area — that a ley line runs towards St.Paul’s along Fleet Street and that Ludgate Circus (at the bottom of the valley half way between where the photo was taken and St.Paul’s) was the site of a stone circle and megalith.

A Dickens of a Pub Crawl

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 a humorist 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 Literature 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.

Nabokov 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) – The Cittie of York is on the site of Gray’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,  145 Fleet Street, EC4A 2BU — the current building dating to a rebuild in 1667, Ye Old Cheshire Cheese was one of Charles Dickens’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 – 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.

Some of the historical information was gathered from Time Out’s recent Dickens edition and some from the interesting Digital Dickens site.

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.  (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.

Broad Beans and Sea Urchins

Writing-in-Situ---Tate-Modern
Writing in the Field -- Tate Modern Espresso Bar

I was in London today and took the time to do a bit of novel-related research. I’m planning on setting a small part of my novel in the Tate Modern and so thought it might be in the spirit of the novel to actually write some of it there.

So, as the picture shows to the left, my netbook is out next to my Tate cappuccino while I wrote a few hundred words about what my characters were doing in the same place — I’m not sure if that does anything for the authenticity of the words on the page but it probably helps me feel that I have some sort of credibility in attempting to use this as a location.

I guess the photo is a bit symbolic in showing the subject of the writing along with the means by which it’s intended to be captured — the Word 2007 screenshot.

The floor where I was sitting is home to the current Gerhard Richter exhibition. This is an incredibly well-reviewed exhibition featuring the works of one of the world’s leading artists, who happens to be German, which fits a little with my novel.

I went to see the exhibition (it’s one of those you have to pay to go in) about five or six weeks ago and was actually very impressed with it. Richter is an incredibly versatile artist who’s created abstract art as well as fascinating landscapes and portraits and still lives — two of his works are exceptionally well known: one of his daughter turning her head and another of a candle that was used on a Sonic Youth album cover .

The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia
The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia at Christ Church Greyfriars

I then had a look around Daunt Books’ new Cheapside shop.

Nowadays I have to enter bookshops with a resolution of steel — I WILL NOT BUY MORE BOOKS (because I haven’t even got room for all those I currently have — let alone time to read them all). But as soon as I set foot over the threshold I’m ready to be seduced.

And seduction was on the menu for the book I found on one of the tables in the store was The Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia by Mark Douglas Hill. And seeing as my novel has lots of food in it and relationships then it immediately attracted my interest.

Co-incidentally I was pleased to see this book as I’ve spent an amount of time on the web trying to see if I could get any more seriously foodie information on this subject myself and oddly enough the range of websites that come up tend to be a bit gimmicky or commercial.

I won’t reveal exactly what my intentions are for purchasing this particular volume of literature to peruse but I think some of the more unusual combinations might give me a bit of fun.

Looking through the table of contents, I initially wondered what wasn’t an aphrosidiac — there were quite a few foodstuffs that are pleasant to eat but perhaps not best known for their aphrodisiac qualities — e.g. steak, honey, caviar, chocolate (although I guess a lot depends on how one might use the last three on that list).

Then there are the sensual or symbolic foods that would go on any Valentine’s night menu — oysters, asparagus, truffles, figs and maybe a few others.

I was quite puzzled over the aphrodisiac qualities of some of the book’s contents — watermelon, celery, pine nuts, quince, anchovies, cheese (which sort — presumably not Stinking Bishop, which I bought recently from Neal’s Yard). Having read some of the foods’ entries these less erotic inclusions appear to made on the strength of their vitamin and mineral content — zinc being a favourite plus various amino acids or similar, like trpytophan, which apparently triggers the release of the feel-good hormone dopamine. Apparently, the book says, eating a banana mimics in a presumably more muted way the taking of ecstasy.

The book gives a recipe (for two, obviously) for each of the ingredients — and some look rather nice. I’d guess most lovers would appreciate a well-cooked meal, even if the ingredients were fairly commonly eaten anyway — like eggs or pineapple. However, some choices seemed utterly bizarre — such as broad beans. How a food so unavoidably associated with flatulence can be considered at all sexually alluring is something of a mystery — apparently it’s all something to do with the ancient Greeks and Pythagoras and the supposed similarity in the bean’s shape to the male gonad (and it also produces dopamine, apparently — better tell the ravers).

At least broad beans are quite familiar unlike some of the aphrodisiacs. The most unusual include pufferfish, sea urchin and iguana. I’d probably rather breakfast on cold pizza in the morning or a leftover kebab heated in the microwave than eat sea urchin. But, then again, in the words of 10cc, eating pufferfish might be one of the things we do for love.

As for iguana, I don’t think even the characters in my novel would go so far as serving that up in pursuit of seduction. (Apparently iguanas have some powerful glands in their inner thighs that produce powerful sex pheromones, which causes them to be turned into an aphrodisiac stew in their Native Nicaragua.) It’s a shame as the book has a recipe for ‘Roast Iguana with Chipotle and Oregano Marinade’, which would have been an interesting dish to feature in my novel. Maybe I’ll go instead for symbolism and have a character with a pet iguana which the cognoscenti will know is a symbol of their hidden, raging sexual passion.

Of course, the Aphrodisiac Encyclopaedia doesn’t take itself very seriously (see the link to the author bio above). This is a point that seems to be missed in a rather humourless and contradictory review of the book in the Observer — stating that the way to spot a mediocre novelist is the inevitable use of a meal as a metaphor for sensuality but then goes on to equate eating with sex and states that an intimate meal involves ‘wearing your elemental self on your sleeve’ (maybe it’s OK to use the metaphor in a review but not a novel or maybe I’ve missed some self-reflexive irony?).

Of course  there’s not much science behind the claims for most aphrodisiacs — although the social and cultural associations of some of the better known foods in the book are enough to make the consumption of these foods in the right context a suggestive and potentially innuendo laden act. I’m sure I can put the research to good effect.

And on the way between the Tate Modern and Daunt Books where I was seduced by this volume, I walked over the Millennium Bridge, which gave me the opportunity to monitor the progress of the Shard again. This time I’ve got a smeary-lensed, city scape with what my blogging acquaintance Female PTSD describes as a giant Issey Miyake perfume bottle (that’s an analogy as a male I never would have got).

The Shard 6th December 2011
The Shard Nearly Finished -- 6th December 2011

When I Grow Rich…

…ring the bells of Shoreditch in Oranges and Lemons, Shoreditch being where mos of the start of my novel is set, although I very much doubt the bells of St. Leonard’s are going to help me get rich by writing it.  (The church is apparently features on current BBC series Rev, which is also set in Shoreditch.)

I’ve visited Shoreditch many times while I’ve been writing the novel, particularly recently, and I think I’ve noticed the most recent stages in its metamorphosis from run-down, working class area to the predominantly cool artists’ neighbourhood that it is today — although you don’t need to wander too far away from the Rivington Road/Shoreditch High Street area to find yourself in some very unartistic-looking, grim housing estates.

Bishopsgate
Bishopsgate from the Edge of the City

Perhaps the opening of Shoreditch High Street overground station about 18 months ago has been a catalyst as now the area is linked directly to south London and the North London Line at Dalston.

Shoreditch is surprisingly close to the City of London and its concentration of wealthy financial services workers. The photo below is taken from Shoreditch  — the marker post on the right side of the photo shows the City of London boundary marker.

It’s an extraordinary transition point with the Broadgate development on the right along Bishopsgate and the Gherkin in the distance. The street where I stood to take the photo is a very short length of road called Norton Folgate which connects Bishopsgate with Shoreditch High Street. It’s probably no more than one or two hundred yards in length but the contrast in urban landscape between its two ends is striking.

Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch
Great Eastern Street, Shoreditch
Slightly further up the road, looking away from the City is Great Eastern Street. This very ordinary looking street is actually London’s inner ring road — connecting the end of the dual carriageway at King’s Cross with Tower Bridge via Angel and Old Street. Village Underground with its tube trains on the roof can be spotted in the middle-distance.
After our first workshopping session of the autumn at Mike B’s in Old Street, I visited Village Underground’s large warehouse space (what the trains sit on top of) for the Moniker Art Exhibition in October , which was timed to co-incide with the big London Frieze event in Regent’s Park (at £27 a ticket that was a bit steep for me). But there was a lot of really good at the Moniker Event — and the space at Village Underground was a good venue for it.
It’s surprising that hundreds of years after the Roman and medieval walls of London fell into disrepair that it feels as if there’s still some psychological separation between inside and outside their boundaries.
Shakespeare Acted Here
Not the Globe Theatre but Noisy, Dirty, Anonymous Curtain Road, Shoreditch

All types of disreputable activities occurred in areas like Shoreditch, just outside the City walls and, in the late sixteenth century, this included actors and playwrights, along with all the other undesirables cast outside the City walls like thieves and prostitutes. Just around the corner from Village Underground is this plaque in Curtain Road, which is a very understated memorial to the Curtain Theatre – a predecessor of the Rose and Globe Theatres in much more historically celebrated Bankside.

London’s first theatre (called The Theatre) was located somewhere around the area between Curtain Road, Village Underground and Shoreditch High Street which has had the track for the new

Rivington Street, Shoreditch
Rivington Street, Shoreditch

overground station laid right through it. It’s incredible to think that this area of Victorian warehouses, 60s office blocks and surface car parks was a crucible of the English language — where Shakespeare started his writing career.

Very close to the Shakespeare plaque is the Old Blue Last — a live-music venue described by NME on its website as  ‘the world’s coolest pub’ and continuing Shoreditch’s history of alternative entertainment. A roll-call of the ‘coolest’ acts of the 2000s have appeared at the pub including Amy Winehouse, Florence and the Machine, (Gordon Brown’s favourites) the Arctic Monkeys, the Vaccines and many more.
Old Blue Last, Shoreditch
Old Blue Last, Shoreditch

Places like the Old Blue Last won’t have deterred the arrival of trendy artist types in the area and I thought the photo below shows an appropriate clash of old and new — über-cool American Apparel (apparently the shop where Ruta Gedmintas bought her outfits for Frankie in Lip Service) has opened up next to a pub improbably called the Barley Mow.

Old and New on Curtain Road
Old and New on Curtain Road

Actually the Barley Mow is only a traditional looking boozer from the outside, as I found when I organised a pub crawl starting at the pub, and found that the price of a pint of their Fuller’s ale was a far from working-class £3.70.

A group of us did 8 pubs in all in a route from Shoreditch to Islington via Old Street and the Regent’s Canal. Second on the list was the also archaically named

Bricklayer's Arms Shoreditch
Probably Not Many Bricklayers in Here Any More -- Bricklayer's Arms, Shoreditch

Bricklayer’s Arms (thought the punctuation of the name suggests there was only one tradesman).

On the crawl was the ultimate down-at-heel boozer that’s been the unlikely beneficiary of being turned into a nationally famous ale drinkers’ destination — the Wenlock Arms on the borders of Old Street and Hoxton.

It’s in a very mixed area with new apartments being developed around the Wenlock Basin on the Regent’s Canal but also being situated in the middle of the sprawl of forbidding-looking council estates that border the trendy centres of Shoreditch and Hoxton.

Wenlock Arms, Hoxton
Wenlock Arms, Hoxton

It’s an almost stereotypically ‘unspoiled’ pub — almost falling to pieces in places — but it’s got a thriving clientele of ale drinkers (some of whom I know seek this place out from the USA) but it has been under threat recently of being redeveloped into a five storey block of flats.

It’s the sort of authentic place deserves to be preserved and, as an example of one aspect of pub culture, a pub very like it might find its way into my novel. And any inquisitive barmaid who might work in this sort of pub would certainly know how to keep and serve great beer.