Look to the sidebar on the right and see an exciting development — something that this blog’s been missing that I’ve now hopefully remedied. It’s a ‘follow this blog’ mailing list.
To be alerted whenever a new post is added to this blog (and that’s not something that happens with a frequency that’s ever going to threaten to clog up your inbox) then type your chosen e-mail address into the box and press the button.
You’ll be redirected to a service called Feedburner (which is apparently owned by Google) that will do one of those annoying Capcha things to defeat the spammers and then, if all goes well, you should be sent an e-mail on the infrequent occasions when I have something new to say on here. If it works as it should, you’ll also only get a maximum of one mail per day and only when a new post is added (which has sadly been about once a fortnight over the last few months.)
It’s been a fiddle to get to work properly (I do all this web admin stuff myself) but I’ve managed to test it out with some success.
When you receive an update e-mail (see example above) it has a link to the new post. It also has the normal options to unsubscribe so you can always opt out. Feedburner also promises not to send spam.
Sounds like some kind of Skyfall clone doesn’t it, but Agent Hunter is a new source of information that might be almost as valuable to aspiring authors as state secrets to 007. It’s a new website that has collated a huge amount of information on literary agents, agencies and publishers together in an online database. It also comes with a search facility that’s ingeniously configurable.
Agent Hunter is from the Writers’ Workshop — the people behind the very enjoyable York Festival of Writing that I attended last September. (I posted about the Festival here –and an edited version of the post has been included by Debi Alper in the book of the festival along with many entertaining accounts by other delegates — available for purchase for Kindle on Amazon.)
I ought to declare an interest in Agent Hunter before going on to review it. Harry Bingham, of the Writers’ Workshop, has given me (and other bloggers) a free year’s subscription to the site, in return for a review on the blog but there are no conditions attached on what I write — the comments below are entirely my honest opinion.
Now I’ve mentioned that it’s a subscription site, I’d better mention the cost upfront — £12 per year. You can get on the site to have a look around for free (accessing the database is what you need the subscription for) and also get a try-before-you-buy 7 day period before you get charged.
So, is it worth it?
To answer this question, you need to consider both the quality and organisation of information on the site compared to that available elsewhere on the web — and the value you place on being able to easily access it.
The traditional (pre-internet) method of finding agents’ and publishers’ details was to use a directory like The Writers and Artists’ Yearbook. Harry Bingham hasn’t set up Agent Hunter in competition to the W&A YB as he’s the author of two branded companion volumes — The W&A YB Guide to Getting Published and theirHow to Writeguide. Also, the W&A YB takes a broader and shallower sweep across many creative industries (including journalism, photography and artists’ markets – as the name suggests).
Most crucially, the book is an annual publication (coming out in the summer before the year in its title) and, for prospective authors, only deals with agencies rather than individual agents. As hard-copy submissions (including that infamous SAE requirement) appear to be almost universally being replaced by online alternatives of some form, most writers now probably use the yearbook as a starting point to research agencies’ websites.
Largely being small enterprises (with a few big exceptions), agencies don’t tend to operate whizzy interactive websites full of bells and whistles (and some do have pretty basic sites) but most will at least list their submission guidelines — occasionally with automated ‘click here to attach’ links to make it easy for authors to submit to a central submission clearing system.
As well as lists of their clients, most agencies will also usually provide details of individual agents, maybe with a bit of a bio, along with the genres they’re interested in representing. When speaking to writers at events like conferences or talks to students, agents tend to stress how doing a bit of research on individual agents’ preferences is usually time well spent.
Often agencies are staffed by a mixture of senior agents with relatively full client lists and more junior associate agents who are much keener to trawl through the slush pile to find the Next Big Thing. If the agency’s guidelines allow it, these hungry agents appreciate being treated as individuals and contacted directly.
Conversely, a staggering proportion of agents’ rejections are for material sent to the wrong place — short stories, scripts, poetry, memoirs, sci-fi and fantasy (to a large extent) and so on tend to be handled by specialists and won’t be read by an agent who’s advertised a preference for, say, general fiction or romance.
So with all this information available on agency websites, what’s the advantage of using Agent Hunter? It largely depends on how much you value what else you could be doing with your time. Would you rather be writing your book than compiling a list of agencies and then trawling through the uneven content on agency websites? In monetary terms, the annual subscription, comes to just under two hours work at national minimum wage rates (sadly that’s quite a lot higher than the return on their time many writers achieve).
Agent Hunter also has an advantage that its information is potentially much more up-to-date than traditionally published sources. The database can also be more extensive and personal than the brief corporate CVs that often appear on agency websites. For example, extra biographical information can be added, Twitter names may be included, preferences such as whether agents appear at conferences and so on — see screenshots accompanying this post. (I think this line has convinced me that this particular agent might like my novel: ‘She likes the store Liberty, taxidermy and skulls’!)
Some advice on what an agent would like to see submitted (or not submitted) is also included on some entries, although it can be rather terrifyingly blunt. ‘Whilst we welcome genre fiction…we aren’t fond of writers who do nothing new with the established tropes of their chosen [genre]…We certainly don’t want to see books that we could have, essentially, read already.’
Or ‘Enjoys…stories with an emphasis on plot instead of endless pages of metaphor’. Damn, there I was, ready to submit my manuscript with its endless pages of metaphor until I read that!
There’s also some useful practical tips: ‘Slush Tip: Don’t send fresh produce with your submission. Currently reading a teen fiction manuscript splattered with exploded passion fruit.’
Another bonus is the uniformity of the data — making information from different agents much more easily comparable than with an online search. The database search is handy, for example, if you want to filter out agents who aren’t currently building their list or aren’t interested in your genre. There are many different ways the search can be configured — it’s almost like online dating for writers!
And, perhaps like online dating, the amount of material fluctuates wildly that’s supplied by agents into the public domain to interest possible suitors . Some may as well have written ‘bugger off’ and be done with it, while others have offered information that’s actually quite helpful.
On the other hand, social media may lead to knowing rather too much about an individual. In the few years since large parts of the writing community became some of the most enthusiastic Twitter users, it’s been possible to find out more than it’s probably advisable to know about some agents’ personal likes and dislikes. While it’s often very entertaining, and certainly diverting, to read about what meal an agent is eating, how their football team is doing, what outfit they’re wearing that day or to follow a Twitter gallery of photos of sleeping kittens, this information is likely to be filtered out in the Agent Hunter database.
Agents hate being pitched to on Twitter and some no doubt enjoy a bit of online interaction with potential clients. However, others are probably rightly cynical about the intentions of those who try to build up relationships via Twitter in the hope it might sway representation. At a talk I was at last month, one agent baldly stated that trying to cultivate any sort of relationship with a prospective agent was a waste of time — all they’d be interested in was the quality of a client’s writing, not the quality of their Twitter banter.
Interrogating the database to find an agent who’s right for you (at least theoretically) as an individual writer is a little empowering in a modest way — a welcome change from the ‘I absolutely, really, really must get an agent but how on earth will even one agent possibly read let alone like my writing out of the millions of others on the slush pile’ anxiety of the un-agented author.
As discussed in my MMU Text assignment, agents are now regarded, albeit at times unfairly, as gatekeepers to the traditional publishing word and, while I’ve met plenty of writers with agents who’ve yet to be published, for most types of book, having the representation of an agent is normally a prerequisite to getting a publication deal.
As part of an MBA several years ago, I studied corporate strategy for much less interesting industries than publishing. But publishing isn’t a normal industry. I sometimes try to reconcile the way publishing works with classic models of business theory — like Porter’s Value Chain where the raw material gets shoved in at the start and then everyone involved adds a bit of value and gets a cut of the profit. But at least the acquisition part of publishing (the research and development bit) works so counter to this that I risk getting bewildered into a brain meltdown — and need to remind myself (in the words of Mel and Kim ‘that’s the way it is, that’s just the way it is’).
But it’s interesting theoretically to compare different industry sectors’ attitude to research and development. A pharmaceutical company or IT software company might spend 15-20% of its turnover on research and development (R&D) — on the intellectual property to keep new and innovative products appearing in the future.
The publishing industry arguably has a negative spend on R&D if one includes the market for ‘how-to’ books, literary events, self-publishing fees, courses run by publishers and agencies (and more in the educational institutions that also run courses and the like). The industry (in a broad sense) makes money from people wanting to do its R&D for it, as well as inundating agents and publishers with so much unsolicited material that it’s referred to by terms like ‘the slush pile’.
Publishers and agents may well counter argue that the majority of published books, as well as investment in new authors, should be regarded as R&D or speculative marketing costs because so few sell enough to make a decent return — with the industry kept solvent by bankable blockbuster authors and the rare unknown titles that suddenly take off (either out of the blue or with the support of a prize or similar publicity).
This is probably the case for most of the creative industries — there are legions of musicians, actors, artists, dancers (even chefs, bakers and the like these days) who, like writers, are toiling away for the love of it but also hoping that their talent is validated and recognised (and necessarily risking the investment of that very fragile part of their ego in the judgement of others which is bound up in the endeavour of publicly exposing a creative project).
Even so, those lucky enough to get a lucky break also realistically know that even landing a good part or a recording deal won’t, on the balance of probability, lead to fame and fortune and giving up the day job. As with writers and literary agents, most equivalent creative types are represented by managers or agents who take a percentage of their income as payment.
However, it’s arguably unusual that in publishing the intermediaries that are funded by a cut of the artists’ income also perform the function as gatekeepers for those who risk capital in the enterprise (i.e. the publishers). In other aspects of their job, agents will have a potentially adversarial relationship with a publisher (negotiating a good deal) but, in sifting new talent, they perform a function on the publisher’s behalf.
Actors will audition for directors, musicians will be send in demos to A&R departments or be spotted at concerts or online by record companies — the representation by the agent or manager tends (at least to my incomplete knowledge) to come at the point where the artist has already been offered a commercial deal. Maybe there’s something particularly time consuming about the assessment of a manuscript compared with walking into a bar and hearing next year’s headliners at Glastonbury. (However, agents and publishers often say they can make a decision on the vast majority of submissions by the end of the first paragraph.)
Are actors turned down for audition because they don’t have agents or bands not signed because they don’t have managers (real bands, not ones put together by the likes of Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh)?
Bearing this model in mind, and knowing how most agents, even those who work closely editing their clients’ work, thrive on the deal-making side of their business, it’s perhaps not surprising that some agents are a little ambivalent about the talent-spotting role that publishers seem to have thrust upon them. This may be why agents are now quite enthusiastic about taking on authors who have a decent self-publishing track record — they’ve proved there’s a demand for their work and the agent can maximise the commercials. There’s a growing body of opinion that argues that a track record of self-publishing may replace the slush pile as a means of identifying new authors.
Certainly online communities that feature new writing (such as Novelicious) are attracting a lot of agent attention. I met a writer recently who was signed up by an agent on the basis of a serialised novel that she’d published for free on her blog (Emily Benet Spray Painted Bananas). And agents also keep a close an eye on other, more traditional, avenues, such as short story competitions.
But will I use Agent Hunter? Certainly. Although I have a good idea of the first few I’ll approach alreadyIt will be one of the resources I’ll use to draw up a list of likely targets once I’m finally there with a decent draft of the novel — and I’m not too far off — today I got some encouraging feedback from my MA supervisor on one of the last sections I decided to completely rewrite. Watch this space for details.
I was walking to the station a few days ago — the long way round because the footpath over the fields is too muddy (see the melting snow in the photo) and noticed a wonderful sunrise emerging over the tops of the Chiltern Hills, specifically Beacon Hill and Pulpit Hill (to the left and right respectively). I took a quick couple of photos with my phone and thought no more about them until I came to download some other photos to my laptop — and then was blown away by the way the camera had captured the moment. (The photo above hasn’t been altered in colour by any photo-editing software).
The beaming, beacon-like sun means I like this photo in a slightly superstitious, borderline-karmic way too because in my mind, the imaginary village where much of the novel is located approximately under where the sun is breaking through the clouds — just on over the scarp of Chilterns. In reality, there is already a steaming hot-bed of scandal and highly-secret political intrigue nestling on the other side of those hills. It’s called Chequers — and while what goes on in there is no doubt stranger than fiction, its stories are subject to the hundred years rule.
There’s something also a little Turner-like about the yellow blast of light spilling over so much of the sky between the hills, which also ties in with the novel. One of the reasons Kim considers leaving London for the countryside is that she wants to paint landscapes — something there’s limited scope to do in Shoreditch and Hackney. A German artist coming to Britain also draws on a strong tradition for landscape painting common to both countries — and a subject I’ve been learning about as I’ve been writing the novel.
Caspar David Friedrich is a dominant figure in early nineteenth century German art and his landscape paintings depict a romantic melancholy that, it could be argued, reflects a strand of the German character – certainly a phlegmatic love of the open-air. I recently went to a lunchtime lecture at the National Gallery titled Caspar David Friedrich and the Tragedy of the Landscape, which rattled through slides of dozens of his paintings, accompanied by an illuminating commentary. Kim will know Friedrich inside out.
Friedrich was a contemporary of the great British Romantic landscape artists, notably Constable and Turner, whose most famous paintings, such as The Hay Wainor The Fighting Temeraire, hang in the likes of the National Gallery. I went to the last weekend of the current Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday and saw a few of the lesser known paintings by the famous three in the exhibition’s title, as well as examples by many of their lesser known predecessors. Turner’s fishing rod was also exhibited!
However, the National Gallery’s Room 34, in which those two painting hang either side of the entrance door, always awes me. Unlike writers, whose physical works are interesting curiosities but lose nothing in reproduction, painters’ original works are fascinating in person because of their physicality. It’s fascinating to stand close to the Turners, in particular, and see the brush strokes and the varying thicknesses of paint on the canvas — there’s a direct connection between artist and viewer that’s unique in painting.
I had the chance at the Tate Britain’s newLooking at the View landscape exhibition to see the original of a print that hangs on the wall above my computer at home — John Nash’s wonderful The Cornfield(sadly the Tate’s website doesn’t show an image of the painting but instead suggests his The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble, which is of a landscape less half a mile away from where I’m currently typing).
I’d looked before for The Cornfield in the Tate and found it not on display so was very pleased to see it hung in the exhibition. I spent several minutes looking carefully at the way Nash had created the authentic, yet modernist, representation of wheatsheaves and summer foliage in the original. It was also fascinating to stand back from the painting in the gallery and observe the way Nash had cast the low sunlight and lengthening shadows across the painting. Painted in the last summer of the First World War in 1918 in the Chilterns near Chalfont St. Giles, it’s such a beautifully understated painting that both nods back to the Romantic tradition and anticipates the disruptions of the early twentieth century that it features on the cover of the book of the David Dimbleby A Picture of Britainseries of a few years ago.
The Looking at the View exhibition displays many classic works but chooses to display these alongside more modern works — often photographic — and so seeks to show that landscape painting is a vibrant part of the contemporary art scene — and not just about haystacks and water mills. For example, there’s a series of 56 photos called Concorde Gridby Wolfgang Tillman. They’re all taken around Heathrow Airport’s perimeter, in Hatton Cross, Cranford and Hounslow West in 1997 and, in addition to Concorde passing over , they feature things like the BA maintenance base (inside which I worked for four years and close by for an additional eight), the road sign on the A30 and what seems like a scrapyard on Hatton Road.
As the Tate exhibition shows (it runs until June), landscape is something that still holds a fascination for both artist and viewer and there’s plenty of scope for Kim to move to the landscape of the photo above and start to paint her own unique synthesis of Germanic melancholy, English pastoral, Berlin reinvention and Shoreditch cool.
And, in doing so, she’s almost retracing the journey of another famous (real) German artist — Kurt Schwitters — co-incidentally also the subject of a major current exhibition at Tate Britain, Schwitters in Britain, which I’ve also seen. Schwitters is most known for his collages, the lasting effect of which can be seen even now in most graphic art (e.g. magazines), inspired by his concept of Merz.
Like Kim, Schwitters came from Hanover, where much of his work is now curated in the Sprengel Museum. I used to go to Hanover at least a dozen times a year over a period of eight or nine years so I may have picked up Schwitters’s story without realising it. (I certainly remember the Sprengel Museum itself — it was near the Machsee, location for a wonderful beer and bratwurst festival in the summer.) But Schwitters being an entartete Kunst, he sensibly fled to Norway and then to Britain. He was interned for a while in the Isle of Man and the Tate exhibition has his original application, made whilst interned, to remain in the UK. It is typed in faltering English, describing himself being ‘called by the Nazis’ for being ‘a degenerated artist’.
The form is humbling and heartbreaking to read but also hugely uplifting, because the application was eventually successful and Schwitters was released to live freely in London. He subsequently moved to Ambleside in the Lake District, where he made a living by painting portraits and also made many paintings of the dramatic local landscapes. In 1948 Schwitters learned he’d been granted British citizenship — on the day before he died .
Last night I went to my first book launch — Claire King, author of The Night Rainbow (published today by Bloomsbury) was kind enough to invite me to Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street for the event.
Unlike many of the people at the launch who’d read preview copies, I bought my copy of The Night Rainbow (plus a gift copy) at Daunt’s on the night (see photos) so I can’t yet give my verdict on Claire’s novel. However, as can be seen on the cover, the book is endorsed by quotations from some very well known authors and every review I’ve read of the novel has been very complimentary, as were people I spoke to last night who’d read The Night Rainbow in advance.
The novel is set where Claire lives, in the south-west of France and tells the story of five year old Pea and her sister Margot. Bloomsbury have produced a charming trailer that also builds on the cover’s distinctive artwork, which can be found here.
I’m very much looking forward to reading my copy.
There was a healthy turnout at Daunt’s for the launch and all evening Claire herself was surrounded by a scrum of people waiting patiently for her to sign their copies. But what was fascinating about many of the guests was that it was the first time that they’d met Claire in person (me included), as the event was a huge literary tweet-up.
I’ve exchanged tweets and comments on Claire’s excellent blog (I can’t remember which came first now) for quite a while now and have gradually come to know many people online who were also invited to the launch. Even though I’d come to know several guests’ virtual selves very well, I’d only actually met one other guest in person before last night — Debi Alper, whom I’d had a chat with at the York Festival of Writing gala dinner.
By the end of the evening, I’d managed to say hello to a number of my most regular Twitter friends — who, in turn, introduced me to several fascinating new people I’m now following. I had a very enjoyable conversation with Isabel Costello, writer of the wonderfully titled Literary Sofa blog. And all evening I’d been hoping to bump into Pete Domican, a fellow Lancastrian, football fan and writer, whom I eventually met when we were both getting our books signed by Claire at the same time.
So thanks again to Claire for inviting me and giving me the opportunity not only to eventually meet her in person but also so many other Twitter friends — and, as we all said to each other, we all seemed to get on just as well in person as online. And it was a pleasure to share in Claire’s obvious pride and pleasure about the book’s publication — clearly the culmination of much perseverance and hard work — and a great example to those of us currently toiling away ourselves.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
A sense of height is also given by the way the railway lines from London Bridge stretch out into the distance.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Künstlerinshe’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.’
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.
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).
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.
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.
I wrote in a post over three and a half months ago about the MMU MA Creative Writing ‘Transmission Project’. That’s the second largest piece of assessed work on the course, which was due to be submitted in September.
As with all Masters’ degrees (at least in common with my fairly recent OU MSc in Software Development), the course is structured into 180 credits. The largest component is the dissertation or project — in our case a novel of at least 60,000 words — which is worth a third of the marks (60 credits).
The MMU course then weights the Transmission Project and the two Reading Novels units at 40 credits each (the latter split across years one and two, which are assessed by essays). I found both the Reading Novels units that I did to be the best parts of the course — with very good tutors in Jenny Mayhew (who’s since left MMU and has published a novel of her own — see this interview on the Waterstones blog) and Andrew Biswell.
The Text Assignment (the publishing industry strand for which I wrote an essay on literary agents) makes up 20 credits and, interestingly, the Writing Novels workshops make up the remaining 20 credits, split over the two years, quite a small weighting considering that this is the part of the course where creative writing is taught in earnest. I’d guess it could be argued that the novel, to which the third year is devoted, is also the end product of these sessions, which means 80 of the 180 credits are devoted to the novel (and the extra 40 for the Transmission project specifically non-novel).
Anyway, I had an e-mail a few days ago with the welcome news that I’d passed the Transmission Project with a mark that I wasn’t displeased with, given that I’d pulled it all together in something of a mad scramble, post York Festival of Writing, whereas some of my coursemates had been sensible and started well in advance. This may have been reflected by the marker’s comments that the accompanying essay rather let down the screenplay with which it was submitted, in terms of the scores.
Most of the comments were quite positive — it was noted that the characters and their situations came across strongly. That’s important in a dramatic form such as a screenplay, which is all ‘show’ with very limited options to ‘tell’ — so you can put a few, brief notes in the script about a character (INT. JAMES’S OFFICE. DAY. JAMES, mid30s, is staring at a computer screen) that’s about it. You can’t spend half a page of exposition describing how James came to be in his office that day or, most crucially, how he feels about it (more than a stage direction like ‘bored expression’). It all has to be told by action and dialogue. So it’s an achievement that my two main characters’ predicaments came over to the marker very clearly.
It’s amazing to be reminded how much readers can infer from a very limited amount of words. I once converted into a poem a piece of prose description that set the scene for a chapter in the novel. I guess it probably wasn’t a great poem if it was born of a piece of prose — it wasn’t that long, possibly a sonnet structure –but I took it to the Metroland Poets workshop and a couple of the poets who listened to me read it completely nailed what it alluded to. I’d attempted to describe a barbecue outside a pub held on the day England played Germany in the 2010 football World Cup (the infamous ‘Fat’ Frank Lampard disallowed goal game) using only 70 or 80 fairly oblique words (and without calling the poem England v Germany or similar) but they identified it exactly — probably more of a testament to their poetry interpretation skills than mine as a poet.
(As an aside, I’ve just purchased Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, this year’s T.S.Eliot prize winning poetry book. As widely reported, it’s a very personal collection themed around the break-up of her 32-year marriage around 15 years ago. I’m currently revising a section of the novel that deals with related themes and I’d like to read her poetry to gain some additional insight into these situations.)
As with poetry, screenplays are a medium where brevity is paramount. My Transmission Project was more like Spooks than Ingmar Bergman — I had about half a dozen scene changes per page on a couple of pages (and a page in screenplay time is meant to equate to about a minute). I’d say that was quite conservative compared with many modern films but the feedback suggested I’d have earned slightly more marks with less slicing and dicing. Possibly so, but it’s all good practice for injecting some of that pace into the novel itself.
So, to use an athletic analogy, I’m on the home straight with the MA with everything completed and, even more importantly, passed apart from the submission of the novel itself. However, the somewhat ridiculous mismatch between the course deadlines and the annual sitting of the examination committee means that we’ll have to wait eight months after finishing in October to hear our results. Unless I submit early, in March, then I won’t graduate until 2014.
What’s worse, we won’t even get our student entitlements during the wait. I think I’m due at least one visit to the student bar to get the cheap beer which is part of my student human rights. I might even bump into the sort of characters from Fresh Meat who’ve been my virtual, fictional colleagues over the past two and a half years.
As a post-script to the posting on the blog technical problems, I reported to my wonderful internet hosting provider that they’d managed to corrupt the historical content of the blog by interspersing it with peculiar characters seemingly at random. According to various Google searches, there are ways of fixing this automatically but I’m not sure I’d trust either the hosting provider or my own PHP and mySQL skills to implement these without cocking the whole lot up even more — so I may have to work my way through and manually remove the extraneous characters. I’ve done a couple of posts already and there’s loads more to do — but it’s a good displacement activity.
I couldn’t end 2012 without something for my Shardenfreude followers. I’ve had a fair number of hits on the blog over the past couple of years looking for photos of its construction and now it’s finished and shining like a, well, shard.
And in the spirit of London 2012, here’s a few more night time photos of landmarks old and new.
It’s so apt that London’s most well known modern landmark (or is it now the Shard?) is an inclusive circle — or in the year of the Olympics — a ring.
As anyone reading the posts on this blog over the summer will realise, I think this was an extraordinary year to spend time in London — and it was a privilege for me to be here in 2012 to witness how the city, probably already the most international and cosmopolitan on earth, became a place that literally, with the extraordinary army of games-makers, welcomed the world — and incredibly efficiently too.
I’m still awed by the Danny Boyle Opening Ceremony. I’ve watched the start a few times since — and I now have my Olympic DVD — and in places I still have that spine-tingling feeling of watching a piece of genius unfolding — and a peculiarly eccentric English genius. I’d almost forgotten that the official speeches were made from that bizarre interpretation of Glastonbury Tor — that spewed out industrial workers. Perhaps it’s because Danny Boyle comes from the fringes of Manchester, as I do, that the Pandemonium section with the rising mill chimneys had such resonance. But, as I’ve blogged already, the narrative of that sequence was brilliant — obscuring the denouement of the unification of the five rings, except for that wonderful moment when the audience suddenly realises what’s about to happen, and then has a final surprise payoff at the end with the raining fire.
In retrospect, it’s easy to forget the doubts we all had about London even having a tolerably good games and avoiding something disastrous. It’s not surprising in retrospect that the Olympics and Paralympics put on a great show. London routinely handles huge sporting events — with the likes of Wembley, Twickenham and Lords being some of the best stadiums in the world (I know Twickenham wasn’t used but, having lived nearby for several years it shows how 80,000 people can be processed in and out of a suburban stadium). London, and the country in general, put on huge cultural events, like Glastonbury and the Hyde Park concerts, every summer and the country is able to put on spectacular state events, like the Royal Wedding and this year’s Jubilee celebrations (though we can’t control the weather). And, here’s a slightly tenuous connection to the novel, London and the rest of the country has probably the most thriving cultural industry of any city (or country) in the world — punching way above its weight in music, art, theatre, television, writing — almost any branch of culture you can think of. And the government, for a change, didn’t cut the budget. Of course we should have put on a good show but it’s a reassuringly diffident British characteristic to think that we wouldn’t.
Apologies for repeating myself but we’re not going to get another event like it for a long time and, although the Olympics knocked my writing schedule way behind during the summer, it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed.
So maybe another few photos from the landmark that will explode in a huge circle of fire in a few hours to celebrate the end of such a great year for the city.
There’s been so much else I’ve done in London in 2012 that I’ve not even had change to blog about — exhibitions seen, events I’ve attended, walks I’ve taken — the Shoreditch graffiti walk and previously mentioned Abbey Road Studio Two visit being but two of the highlights.
I’ve also met so many wonderful new friends, particularly associated with the arts in London. Maybe I’ll do a proper round up post in the New Year?
And between the Olympics and Paralympics I belatedly discovered Tuscany and Venice for the first time, which would have been the highlight of most years.
I do have a finished novel, although it’s not yet quite polished enough yet, which is a little frustrating, but I think it’s benefited from being in progress during the year — especially if I can manage to capture a little of the headiness of this past year in the city.
So 2013 is only a few hours away — the year when I finally hope the finished novel is going to gain me that MA in Creative Writing after three years of study (after all the OU, Lancaster and City courses as well). So, in novel writing terms, perhaps a little like the Olympic hopefuls this time last year, but in a more modest, literary way, my New Year’s Resolution is pretty straightforward — do my best, work hard, accept any criticism and setbacks as constructive feedback and then see how my efforts measure up — finish the novel to best of my ability, send it out and then start on the next one…but also carry on enjoying myself as much with the next as I have with this one.
(And my other New Year’s Resolution is to clean out all the crappy extraneous characters in the old blog posts that appear to have arrived with the database copying problems.)
My novel has a lot of food in it — and probably one of the most consistent pieces of feedback that I’ve received from the many and varied people who’ve been kind enough to read parts of the manuscript (or have been forced to endure it as part of a course) is that they enjoy the writing about food — the sensory appeal and so on. (Maybe it might not be thought a Good Thing by readers if I make them hungry?)
As a follow up question, people often ask if I like cooking or if I’m much good at it. I was even asked by an agent who read the first chapter if I’d actually been on a TV cookery programme. (She was reading the chapter for one-to-one feedback at York Festival of Writing — I’ve yet to submit it properly to her.)
Interestingly, the novel has various other ingredients too — a liberal seasoning of sex, for one thing — but no-one asks me the same kind of questions about that. So, partly to celebrate the newly-allocated extra database space which allows me to put even more photos on here, I’m going to use this blog post to demonstrate with lots of salacious photos that, despite the novel writing’s effect on the frequency with which I’m able to manage it, I still work enough on keeping my hand in to participate enthusiastically in the annual orgy
of gastronomy that is preparing Christmas dinner — a labour of love that started a whole month before the climax (beat that, Sting).
I’m not making any extreme claims of epicurean expertise. After all this is Christmas dinner — Sunday dinner on steroids — although some of the supermarket advertising on TV this year has stirred up controversy by suggesting this is beyond anyone but ‘mum’. My culinary achievements are much overshadowed by my old secondary school friend, David Wilkinson, who puts mouthwatering photos of his ambitious creations (such as Kale Chips and Fruit Kimchi — not together, though) on Facebook pages and his blog Nothing But Onions.
(He’s a better photographer than me too — as an aside, we both visited Abbey Road Studio Two together earlier this year — where the Beatles recorded almost all their songs and a fantastic experience I’ve yet to blog about.)
But now to my cooking. It would be interesting to see if my style of cooking has any parallels with the way I write. Perhaps there’s a parallel with my Christmas Pudding and Christmas Cake making — a sensory profusion of fruity ingredients, loads of booze involved, it takes ages to get to the table and I made so much mixture that there’s still a bit left over in the fridge that I’m reluctant to throw away?
Looks rather unpromising in the bowl — mind you, the beer looks tempting — but on the day it will become the pièce de résistance.
Being a mild Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall type, especially when overdue for a haircut, I sourced my turkey from a relatively local farm (look out for the flooded River Thame in the background.)
Driving down the narrow lane to the farm I had several close encounters with other ethical turkey customers, many somewhat weakening their eco-credentials by driving tank-like 4x4s (probably using their vehicles for the only time in the year on the sort of road they were designed for).
In an even more River Cottage touch I had to drive through this on Christmas Eve — makes negotiating the Waitrose car park in Thame look slightly less of a perilous hazard by comparison (although it’s a mean middle-class battlefield when people stampede for the red sprouts and Heston puddings).
Turkey collected, it’s time to do all the boring, necessary stuff like chop all the veg. But being Christmas (and actually also because it’s miles cheaper than buying the stuff pre-made in the supermarket) I also made my own breadcrumbs.
These were destined for both the bacon-wrapped stuffing balls and, possibly my favourite dish of the whole meal, bread sauce.
I possess the basic cookery knowledge that chopped onion and garlic sweated a long time in a pan gives savoury dishes the flavour equivalent of a satisfying bass note — a subtle depth that’s usually only noticeable by its absence. A chopping board of alliums was given the sauna treatment.
I can’t say all this chopping and preparing is much fun but the exception is creating the clove studded onion that’s used to infuse the bread sauce. I always think it’s like a tiny alien space ship that’s landed in the pan of milk — or a mine, but that’s not very Christmassy.
The turkey giblets go into making proper stock — this precious home-made liquid that’s so much more nutritious and worthy than the cubed or powdered stuff but that still never seems to get used beyond the Christmas gravy.
While the preparations were underway, sustenance was needed for dinner on Christmas Eve so I baked some salmon in foil, marinaded in plenty of white wine, naturally. And, as Delia instructs, mince pies have to be baked to the strains of carols from King’s (or was it sausage rolls?). I also got ahead with the bread sauce, which looks far better in the pan that it eventually did in the serving dish but its savoury clove taste is appropriately divine.
Salmon, of the smoked variety cooked with scrambled egg also goes well with a glass of nice fizz on Christmas morning — something I first made after that Denis Healey ‘puts the top hat on it’ advert from the days when Sainsbury’s was almost as Waitrose as Waitrose. I don’t think Denis did it but marinading the salmon in cream overnight doesn’t seem to do any harm — nor adding a little flat-leaved parsley.
Refuelled by the Champagne Socialist scrambed eggs on toast, it was then to the main business of cooking the turkey and, most crucially, getting everything ready to serve with it. This is the aspect of Christmas dinner which I think is more like project management than cooking (and if my dinner had been delivered like some of the projects in the organisation where I do my day-job I think it would have been lucky to be on the table by New Year’s Day or Easter or, more likely be frazzled and cancelled altogether with the diners sent a huge bill).
Those roasties are pure foodie p&rn — ampersand to discourage spammers and perverts who I’m sure will be very disappointed to find only a well-greased King Edward. Even so, they’re enough to set my heart racing (although the accumulations of duck fat might slow it down a bit).
I guess this is also where cooking at home starts to slightly take on the stresses of a professional kitchen. Although they will be co-ordinating many dishes to many different times, it’s still quite gratifying to get the roast potatoes, pigs-in-blankets, sprouts, carrots and so on to the table before everything else goes cold.
Then there’s the Christmas tradition of being paranoid about whether the turkey is properly cooked or not. I looked through several different books, magazines and websites to find a consensus about how long to cook it and at what temperature — but they were all different. No wonder people get confused.
I probably cook mine longer than necessary but to stop it drying out I put some flavoursome things in the cavity — lemons, onions, herbs, garlic — but not too many to stop the air circulating. Instead of putting the stuffing inside the turkey, I use a method which isn’t for the squeamish (and for which it helps to have had a glass or two of early morning fizz) that involves pushing the stuffing into the neck and then between the skin of the breast and the meat underneath. It looks good when the turkey’s carved if it’s been worked through well enough under the skin.
That’s a rice, mushroom, apricot and pistachio stuffing, by the way. The breadcrumbs went into the ‘other stuffing’ with sausagemeat.
Of course, after a huge meal with unnecessary accompaniments like devils on horseback and homemade cranberry and orange sauce as well as all the above, it’s utter madness to follow it with even more calories but that’s what tradition — and Delia — insists on.
As well as Delia’s cake, I made a dessert that Delia may well have approved of but isn’t in her Christmas bible — a jelly made from almost 100% port — just a little added lemon juice. Next time I may add a bit of sugar to sweeten it but the jelly did its job of making everyone jolly — as did the cake, fed on a diet of brandy and calvados.
But to finish almost where this post started — the end result of that unpromising sludgy-stuff in the mixing bowl was repacked into its mould (again looking so much like an alien craft I wonder if it was made in Roswell), steamed for a couple of hours and then soaked in hot brandy and ritually immolated (a process bound to kill off any extra-terrestrial life-forms, just in case).
So, yes, I do cook but, like a few other interests, it’s something I’ve cut back on the time I spend doing while I’ve been writing this novel — although I do cook a lot more often than once a year, it’s the Christmas dinner that is the most intensive burst of activity so, given the general lack of other evidence of my foodie interests, hopefully this post has redressed the balance rather than been self-indulgent.
I suppose cooking a big meal is a bit like writing in that you put in a lot of preparation, transforming your ingredients into an something that you enjoy yourself but also hope that others will appreciate too. And hopefully both the writing and the Christmas dinner will leave a final impression that’s a little memorable and entertaining — there’s nothing quite like a flaming pudding.
This blog has been a bit quiet recently — and for a change it’s not down to my indolence or procrastination. Over Christmas I had a serious technical problem. When I tried to upload photos, processing (oddly called ‘crunching’) never completed, which was puzzling. Then I was exasperated to find WordPress wouldn’t allow me to create new blog posts at all.
I dangle my techie toes in the water by using the open source version of WordPress on my own webhosting space (rather than the WordPress hosted version). This means I’m very thankful to all my fellow geeks who produce this software for the benefit of the community and little monetary reward but it also means I’m my own tech support. Or, more accurately, it’s a case of furiously trying to type the right terms into a search engine to get a vaguely relevant answer.
Sometimes this yields nuggets of pure and practical wisdom. Other times, like on Christmas Eve, I end up proving that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing.
In a time-pressured panic that became increasingly desperate, I found myself breaking every methodical techie rule in the book — the main rule being that whatever you try, it’s more likely to further screw things up than fix them. So the first law is to make sure you can undo your mistakes.
I cut and pasted little snippets of PHP (that’s the scripting language WordPress is written in — but that’s largely the extent of my knowledge) between my computer and my FTP transfer program and opening up the control panels on the mySQL databases.
I deleted something on the WordPress settings page that I had the awful feeling afterwards that I shouldn’t and I thought I’d wrecked the whole thing.
I gave up trying to fix it to finish off preparations for Christmas dinner (see next post). I also noticed amid all the self-inflicted errors that on one control screen the database size for the blog had been exceeded and was showing at -47% of its capacity (apparently that means way too big). I made a mental note that this would probably need sorting out — but at least the site was still online.
Come Boxing Day I decided to ring the hosting provider to ask about the database size. Yes, I’d exceeded the maximum and wouldn’t be able to add any more content to the blog — which wasn’t very good news.
Fortunately I could move the blog to a new database that I could create which was ten times bigger — 1Gb rather than 100Mb, which is still only 0.3% of the size of the hard drive of the natty little netbook that I just bought for under £200. 1Mb still seems pretty stingy but I guess no-one wants to be loading up vast amounts of data from web sites so it’s probably good discipline. The database itself was too large for me to upload using the hosting provider’s tools so they had to do it for me.
So eventually, with the blog’s content all copied over, I updated my WordPress files to point to the new database and prepared myself to work through all the other problems — but, amazingly, everything worked. I could upload files AND create new posts — so my fiddling hadn’t done anything terribly disastrous. In fact the last post that I made, on the Shoreditch Blonde beer, was largely to check out whether the site could still be updated. All the problems were not of mine or WordPress’s making but because I’d exceeded my database limit.
This illustrates another law of technology that contradicts the statements above about screwing things up — that the biggest problems are often caused by something quite simple but which is hidden (or not looked for) at the time (usually down to the software’s terrible usability). And the big things can be relatively easy to fix. I still managed to break Google Analytics, though.
So that’s a very techie explanation of why the blog’s been a little quiet recently. When I thought I couldn’t add any more content and started thinking about the perils of trying to export the content elsewhere I suddenly realised how much investment in time (and a not inconsiderable amount of money in IT costs) I’d put into creating this blog and how I’d be very despondent for it to be somehow broken, especially with the novel nearly ready (as I’ve perpetually said during 2012).
The two works are virtually intertwined and I’m hoping that this blog might be a useful and perhaps entertaining resource for anyone who shows interest in the novel.
And seeing as I earn my ‘day job’ crust from things that are IT related, I was pleased I managed to blunder through and fix my problems (and blunder and trial and error is the way most IT professionals work to fix things). It’s the sort of job that James in the novel would take in his stride, although there would be a lot of swearing on the way. (Maybe I should have him dabble in Kim’s site? But that would be another 1,000 words I don’t have room for.)
I suspect that I’ve run into problems by loading so many pictures on the blog recently — such as all those of the Olympics, London and the Shard. But now my space has been increased I can stop worrying for a while about my multimedia excesses.
So stand by — the next couple of postings will be photographic banquets.
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.
…but hopefully not with a paddle. I spotted this in W.H.Smith at Northampton services on the M1 last weekend.
I’d realised my novel’s title is a bit of a hostage to fortune. I like it because it works in conjunction with the content of the novel in several different ways — and I like the definite article usage that’s so associated with pub names. But it obviously has many associations that aren’t lost on the publishers of erotica and similar. Therefore I wasn’t too surprised to see one of the heavily promoted titles in the erotica section in the motorway services used the same title — it’s one of the Mills and Boon Spice series. Interestingly, this is the only The Angel I could find on Amazon, although there are loads of Angel and Angels out there — Marian Keyes used the title and Katie Price has ‘written’ one too. As I’m so familiar with this title, I don’t know what I’d think if an agent or publisher wanted me to change it.
Book titles are a bit like song titles — there aren’t enough original ones to go round. At least mine wouldn’t sit on the same section of the bookshelves — barring a commercially focused rewrite and a foxy sounding pen name. Although the novel doesn’t shy away from the characters’ sexual lives, I think anyone looking for a bit of mass-market sado-masochism will be disappointed. Currently there’s no sex until almost half way through — but, of course, that may yet change.
Speaking of sex scenes in novels, I’ve been ‘enjoying’ excerpts from the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards (see previous post). Now the shortlist is out, short 140-character bursts have been tweeted using the hashtag #LRBadSex2012.
I’ve had a few Twitter conversations with whoever tweets as @Lit_Review about some of this year’s incredible bunch of finalists — and they’re from largely well-known writers (one of the authors, Nicola Barker, wrote a set text for last year’s MMU second year MA course).
It’s not the flowery, purply-prose passages that I find particularly funny — sometimes you can see what the writer is trying to aim for — but the ones which are the opposite of lyrical. For example: ‘He ejaculates voluminously and with very great force indeed. In fact, he keeps on ejaculating, there’s loads of the stuff’, ‘he began to massage her with a kind of dry pumping action, which reminded her of someone blowing up a lilo’ or, my favourite, ‘his penis was jerking around wildly in her hand now and she began yelping to encourage his flow of thought’. The Literary Review doesn’t officially identify the authors of the tweets but let’s say my flow of thought is never going to be quite the same again when I’m watching a report on the nation’s stagnant GDP on Newsnight.
As an aside, and nothing to do with bad sex or erotica, I went to the Made In Germany exhibition in Shoreditch on Thursday — a show by six young or emerging German artists. I’d unreservedly recommend anyone else to visit — except that it finished last Friday (another show with different artists is probably planned). I particularly liked the young people nightlife pieces by Nadine Wölk (the only solo female artist) and the odd landscapes by duo Mike MacKeldey & Ellen DeElaine (possibly the same sort of landscapes Kim might paint).
I chatted with the representative from the German gallery who’d organised the show — and told him about my novel. Although I think he’d rather I wanted to buy one of the pictures, he told me a fair amount about how German artists trained and where they tended to live and work (mostly Berlin, as I’d imagined). Kim’s backstory in the novel is fortunately quite plausible — she trained at theUniversität der Künste. And it would be quite feasible that she’d come to London, although as the chap from the gallery said he though that Shoreditch High Street was starting to look like Kensington, that she’d find it hard going financially.
On another tangential note, I listened to Dustin Hoffman on Desert Island Discs this morning and the section where he talked about being a young, unknown actor, trying to get parts at auditions was fascinating. His life at that time was all about coping with almost continual rejection.
He still seems to feel the pain in some ways and made a very telling point about how people in the acting industry judge talent. It’s his view that the worst actors often got hired, mentioning that his friend Gene Hackman, also then unknown, was such a good, naturalistic actor that it didn’t look like he was acting when he auditioned — which is what directors at that time wanted to see.
It’s Hoffman’s theory that casting directors are terrified of making a mistake and this leads them into usually preferring someone who’s derivative — who reminds them of a known quantity. Because of this, the original talents are often overlooked.
His story sounds reminiscent of the struggle for recognition of many writers — and how it’s easier to market work that fits a known niche. The photo above of all the Fifty Shades derivatives on the shelves at Northampton services makes the point. Twelve Shades of Submission even re-uses the s word in addition to the ‘number of [insert your kink here]’ formula.
But Dustin Hoffman is a salutary example of persistence. He kept on auditioning, got his break and he’s now received the ultimate honour even in this country — Desert Island Discs.
I’ve recently been writing a new scene for the novel involving street art. As readers of the blog will know,Â I’ve spent plenty of time recently learning about street art and observing it around Shoreditch (on Thursday this week I was looking at some recent street art in the car park opposite Village Underground, under the new Overground viaduct, with Jamie and Sabina fromÂ I Know What I Like).
What I didn’t know that much about was how the artists actually created their work — I’d seen artists at work, like Amanda Marie (seeÂ previous posting) but I wasn’t aware of basic information like where they got their materials, how much they cost and the fundamental experience of what it was like to press your finger on the nozzle of a spraycan and to try and do something creative, especially in an outdoor environment and possibly looking over your shoulder to avoid being arrested.
So I decided to try for myself. Last weekend I became ‘macnovel’ the street artist.
First of all, I had to buy the paint — and I wanted the proper stuff that serious artists use, not Halford’s car bodywork cans. An online search produced plenty of websites that would supply aerosol paint cans for delivery but I couldn’t find many bricks and mortar outlets, even in central London. Â The best place I could find wasÂ Chrome and BlackÂ on Bethnal Green Road in Shoreditch, located, perhaps notÂ coincidentally, just round the corner from Redchurch Street.
Chrome and Black is a supplier (I’dÂ hesitateÂ to call it a shop) dedicated toÂ graffitiÂ and street art. It reminded me vaguely of one of those old Swedish government owned liquor stores or the hardware shop in the famous Two Ronnies’ Four Candles sketch, as all the merchandise was locked away behind metal screens or glass cases — and the spraycans and markers came in a bewildering variety of colours. It’s not the sort of place where customers go to casually browse.
Dressed for work and carrying myÂ Evening Standard, there was no way I was going to pretend I was some kind of coolÂ graffitiÂ artist (although from what I overheard I think there may have been a genuine street artist ‘name’ in the place at the time). So I asked the bloke behind the counter for something I could play around and experiment with. He recommended me the Montana Gold range and I took a red and black can of each (they were about Â£3.99 each, by the way).
Having a couple of cans of graffiti paint stuffed in my work rucksack made the journey back on Chiltern Railways feel faintly subversive. I’d guess a fair number of my fellow passengers would like to bring back hanging for anyone caught inÂ possessionÂ of spraycans.
I had the cans but where the hell was I going to use them? Even if I was inclined to do my experimentation in public places there are hardly the post-industrial walls of Brick Lane near where I live. The most readily available blank canvasses would probably be sheep in the fields.
But I remembered the materials used byÂ Adam NeateÂ when he was unknown — he’sÂ now one of the world’s most famous street artists. (The story goes, which is a little romanticised, that heÂ literallyÂ left his works in the street for anyone to keep who found them.)
Neate painted his early work — and still sometimes does — on cardboard. He’s now an exceptionally collectible artist which is ironic as the base material for his work is potentially the potentially the contents of a typical recycling bin (he got his cardboard from charity shops I believe). His spray painting has an effect almost like alchemy on this otherwise base material,Â transformingÂ it into something that art collectors will pay tens of thousands of pounds for.
Having a backlog of cardboard waiting to go to the tip, I decided to use it as my artist’s medium –Â as it happens,Â mainly packaging from a John Lewis fold-up bed. But I didn’t want to be ‘just’ an aerosol artist. I wanted to have a go at stencilling too. So I found what I thought was suitable — a thin piece of Amazon card packaging — and cutÂ outÂ a few shapes Â with a Stanley knife.
I went out into the garden with a willing helper, my spraycans, stencils and cardboard and had a go. And some of my efforts can be seen in the photos here.
Any thoughts on the artwork? I’m actually quite attached to it. I thought I’d throw it away instantly but I’ve hung on to it as I quite like it. Anyone who reads my manuscript will be able to spot exactly which part of the novel I was writing at the time by the stencilling I’ve attempted to do in the picture below.
Clearly they’re just practice efforts but I really enjoyed it –and it was valuable for the writing. There are aspects of the experience that can’t be imagined that easily — or gleaned from a Google search — like the way it’s easy to over-apply the paint so that it starts to dribble and the way the paint coats your fingers. And then there’s the smell — it reeks of solvent. My novel’s graffiti painting scene takes place in an enclosed space and there’s no way that, having had a go at this myself, I could write the piece in the novel without mentioning the smell.
Becoming a temporary street artist might be the most extreme example of how I may have become a ‘method writer’. I don’t know whether there is such a thing but, if there is, I’d imagine it to be a little like the method school of acting which, to simplify greatly, means the actor prepares for the performance by trying to experience the world of the character.
According to theÂ Lee Strasberg Institute websiteÂ (he’s credited with inventing the technique) it uses ‘the creative play of the affective memory in the actorâ€™s imagination’ to Â ‘[create] performances grounded in the human truth of the moment’ — which I take to mean the actor tries to do the same stuff as the character — so these may be drawn upon in performance. So if the character is a dustman, perhaps the actor goes out on a dustcart a few mornings. I’m not sure how it works if a character is something like a serial killer, though.
Even so, method actingÂ reinforces Aristotle’s belief that ‘the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself’ — and this must also be true with writing. If the writer doesn’t care about a character, why should the reader? If the writer wants a scene to evoke emotions that create physical reactions in the reader, maybe of danger, peril, grief, anticipation or anger in the reader, then these ought to be more vivid or genuine if the writer also experienced these feelings at the time of putting the words on the page.
The same must also be true for the physical reactions triggered by effective sex scenes. If you’re writing about two characters who are so attracted to each other then it must be a mark of effective writing to engender a sympathetic reaction in the reader — which is probably why they’re so difficult to write that many writers avoid them altogether. Â And if they’re difficult to write then it’s a step further to workshop the stuff with your writing course friends, although that’s a pretty good deterrent against going too far along the path of purple prose.
I suspect most of the candidates for the Literary Review’sÂ Bad Sex Awards, due to be announced fairly soon, ended up on the list by obfuscating the fundamental, but discomforting, truths of writing about sex behind over-elaborate prose or strained metaphors.
My MMU Creative Writing tutor last year had the good grace to admit to our class that he won this dubious prize for a passage in novel of his in the 1990s, which used a sewing machine analogy. I have actually read the passage in question and I don’t think it’s particularly cringeworthy, more taken out of context. He must have been unlucky — or lucky, if you think that sort of publicity is the good sort.
Sadly, my method writing hasn’t involved sex and sewing machines but the experience of writing the novel has influenced my life in plenty of other ways. Ironically I’m finding the normal advice of ‘write what you know’ could be better phrased in my case,Â as ‘know what you write’.
The novel’s themes include business, food and pubs (of which I have a fair amount of practical experience, particularly of the latter) and also art, which is something I’ve learned a lot about while writing the novel. As well as a number of viewings I’ve been to with I Know What I Like, I’ve also taken advantage of working in London to visit many of the high profile art exhibitions and events this summer.
Most recently, I’ve been to see the Turner Prize show and the Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain, Richard Hamilton and the Titian exhibition at the National, British Design at the V&A, the Bauhaus Exhibition (and another I can’t remember) at the Barbican, Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern, the Invisible Art show at the Hayward Gallery, the Lazaridis Bedlam exhibition at the Old Vic Tunnels (used as MI6’s bunker in Skyfall),Â theÂ Moniker Art Fair at Village Underground and various others.
I doubt I’d have gone to a single event had I not started writing the novel — although going to so many events reduces the time I have available to complete the novel. I sometimes beat myself up about this but, on the other hand, I started writing the novel when working in the cultural wasteland that was an office park on the wrong side of Luton Airport, where the most exciting way of spending a lunchtime was to browse the aisles of the local Asda (although it’s an ambition of mine to write a novel that’s successful and mainstream enough to be put on the shelves there).
ButÂ bingingÂ on art and cultural events begs the fascinating question of which came first — did I start to write a novel about an artist because I wanted to discover more about art — or is it purely secondary?
And then there’s the access I’ve had to artists via the brilliant Love Art London — about whom I’veÂ blogged before. How did I know that Adam Neate painted on cardboard? Because I heard him tell me himself at the Love Art London viewing of his show atÂ Elms Lester’s Painting RoomsÂ in St. Giles. I asked the gallery owner how much Adam Neate’s work was priced (as there were no figures on display next to the works on display). I was told they were in the region of Â£25-30k per piece (and one of his works was recently sold for Â£80k at auction). The bloke seriously thought I might buy one. Well, maybe, but probably only if this novel gets to the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list one day.
When the artist is able to sell work to serious collectors for so much money, it’s great credit to both Adam Neate and Love Art London that he attended our viewing to talk about the work — and even more impressive that he came to the pub with us afterwards — the appropriately namedÂ Angel.
Adam Neate was an incredibly nice, modest bloke — and I know because I ended up chatting to him for about fifteen minutes — even bought him a pint of Sam Smith’s. We talked about Berlin, as he was going there the next day for a weekend break. I told him a bit about the novel — as Berlin is where Kim was trained in the novel — and I’d guess that Berlin and London are the two main centres of urban art, certainly in Europe.
Not a bad journey in terms of method writing — starting by conceiving a character who’s aÂ street artist, then trying to have a practical go at what she does and then talking about the fictional character with someone who’s achieved in reality what my character is striving for in the novel.
I could have spent the time revising the novel rather than going out and validating my portrayal of the artist. Instead I might have a finished novel by now but would it be genuine and informed enough to move readers, particularly those who are interested in art?
It’s worth making a note about the fascinating space at Elms Lesters. The gallery was originally built for huge scale painting for West End theatres. It still has an incredible space about forty feet high and much less wide that was constructed for painting theatrical backdrops — and is now used for filming things like music videos as much as for anything else. It’s quite an extraordinary building.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 AngelÂ is surveyed in the two photos below:
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.
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.
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 ofÂ The Angel.
This weekend is one of the biggest in the London art world with the huge Frieze exhibitions in Regent’s Park and many associated events. In 2010 Village Underground started to host the Moniker art fair, which is a showcase for leading urban, street and contemporary artists timed to coincide with the Frieze festivities.
The Moniker fair attracts a number of well-known artists from all over the world and one of the highlights of this year’s schedule is a new work by Ben Eine (see post about his other work in Shoreditch), who has a long association with Village Underground (he painted the ‘Let’s Adore and Endure Each Other’ message high up on the Great Eastern Street wall.
InÂ The AngelÂ Kim has her studio in one of the tube carriages on the roof of Village Underground in Shoreditch. I’ve been there quite a few times (up in the carriages and in the venue space below). I paid a flying visit to the fair (which unlike Frieze at Â£20+ is free to enter) yesterday evening and on my way up towards Old Street (where I also paid a flying visit to the National Academy of Writing fair) I noticed the lower part of the wall on Great Eastern Street was being painted.
Unusually, it was a female artist at work and her style was distinctly different to much of the street art that normally covers the walls around Shoreditch — lots of yellow and pink — Â not monochromatic blacks and greys or electrifying primary colours. She also used some intricate stencilling work to apply small coloured stars, crosses and lines to the mural. Â And featuring figures of children in the work is fairly radical for street art.
I’d not seen a street artist at work and I was intrigued by the stencilling before so I asked if I could take a few pictures and we had a short chat. She told me that she was Amanda Marie from Colorado (website here), who’d come over from the US for the fair, and she had work on show inside the exhibition. The Moniker website describes it as ‘storybook imagery [that] can feel edgy cute, but it is washed with mischief,Â and can be a bit spooky. Â Her work is Child-Like, but not Childish. Â The paintings areÂ allegorical and proverbial.’ The project on the Village Underground walls is calledÂ â€˜Gravity Gardenâ€™ (sponsored by a gallery in Amsterdam) and it’s of ‘children gently falling through wonderfully endless skies painted directly on the walls. Â It will be a spooky oasis.’
When I got home I thought the photos looked quite interesting so I posted one on Village Underground’s Facebook page and said I had a few more if they were interested. They were and I e-mailed the photos over and they appear to have liked them so much that they’ve not only put all of them on their Facebook and Flickr pages (and giving me the credit) but one is currently Village Underground’s cover page (see photos) — as liked by over 10,000 people. The photos themselves have got nearly 100 ‘likes’ in a few hours. I’m feeling quite impressed that I’ve promoted the London street art scene, even if only in a small, accidental way.
As a quick aside, the most interesting thing that came out of the panel discussion I went on to see at the National Academy of Writing creative fair was the comment by Andrew Cowan (who runs the famous UEA MA programme) that most of their alumni who achieved distinctions did not go on to become published writers. It was those whose writing was less lauded by the academics who tended to make up their impressive list of students who went on to later success when the course ended. I was quite encouraged by that.
Update on the photo on Sunday 14th Oct: the artist herself has shared my photo on her Facebook page with my credit (see below).
(If I get so excited about having a photo of mine shared around the web, I can’t imagine what I’d be like if the novel was to be published.)
I had one of those metaphorical comic-book light bulb moments the other day while walking to the station. I realised what my novel,Â The Angel,Â isÂ reallyÂ about. That might seem odd as I’ve been working on it for so long but, perhaps, it’s because I’ve stood a back a little recently from the novel and possibly the Transmission project made me think more objectively about its structure (see lots about structure in theÂ post below).
It won’t be a spoiler to discuss the basic plot premise of the novel to any of the growing band of readers who’ve become familiar with the draft in some shape or form or, in fact, to any reasonably long-standing readers of the blog Â (I love all of you!). However, if you do really harbour aspirations that, come the hopefully glorious day, you’d like to approach the novel completely fresh then stop reading here.
The engine of The Angel’sÂ plot is a triangular relationship. James and Emma are married and, outwardly, are a successful, attractive, high-achieving couple who ‘have it all’. Then James meets Kim, a German artist. Superficially, Kim is as alternative as James is conventional.
The dilemma that James faces in the novel is choosing between the two. He’s already embarked on a safe, traditional, reasonably satisfying but ultimately stultifying relationship with Emma, largely based around materialism and consumerism that reflects their professional status. Kim is a catalyst who makes James confront his latent dissatisfaction with his existing relationship.
James has to consider whether he opts to make a risky choice and pursue Kim. While he loves her unconventionality, he’s aware of some difficult baggage from her past. He thinks he feels instinctively Â closer to Kim but doesn’t know if that’s a case of the grass being greener. And, of course, there are no guarantees. Even if he was to hedge his bets and try and engineer an affair with Kim (and that makes the huge assumption she’d be willing to) he runs the danger that he’d destroy his reasonably tolerable marriage for something that might only turn out to be a brief fling. This dilemma may be more complicated if James isn’t aware of the full picture — can he be so sure about Emma’s commitment and the enduring stability of his marriage?
Perhaps this situation reflects the sort of universal dilemma about risk and reward that most people have faced at some time — why Mephistopheles is required to broker a Faustian pact on one hand or as KylieÂ MinogueÂ sang Better the Devil You Know on the other? Also, this kind of choice is certainly not exclusive to relationships — one might argue the current economic crisis is because the entire worldwide financial sector chose reckless thrill-seeking over stolid domesticity. However, when these choices involve human relationships, emotional responses are heightened. I deliberately chose adultery as a subject because it’s one of the few remaining conflicts within established relationships that triggers strong feelings.
The appeal of the story notwithstanding, it’s been something of a puzzle to me how I’ve come to write a novel and sustain my interest in it so long that has, in this respect, no direct parallel experience in my own personal life (the triangle dynamic is definitely not a case of ‘write what you know’). Ironically,if I’d been consumed by the emotional stress of prevaricating between two romantic partners then I doubt I’d have had the time to write a novel about it. Â Yet the novel has felt very personal and it’s finally dawned on me that James’s situation and much else in the novel directly relates to the situation I’ve found myself in while writing it with the difference that James’s dilemma is a metaphor.
For me, the dilemma is between the ‘day job’ (Emma) — a career that probably looks quite planned and reasonably successful from the outside, not badly rewarded, fits my (technical) skills but is something that maybe I’ve fallen into doing. Kim is the writing — risky, economically a basket case, but a choice that I appear to be irresistibly and instinctively drawn towards. And at this stage it’s only a flirtation — a few encouraging responses but nothing approaching any substantial relationship and definitely no guarantee of commitment in return.
I suspect that the same is true for many writers in a similar position to me — striving to establish ourselves on the path towardsÂ Maslow’s self-actualisationÂ while having to serviceÂ the bills. In common with the fictional adulterer we’re almostÂ illicitlyÂ wining and dining the seductive new partner and experiencing all the uncertainty, guilt, anxiety about being found out but also, perhaps, the thrill involved inÂ juggling the two contrasting partners. Ultimately, like my character James, I don’t want to be a cheat.
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.)
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.
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 â€“ Iâ€™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 enigmaticÂ 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 itâ€™s just a case of completing The Big OneÂ â€“ handing in a 60,000 word minimum manuscript of a novel. Â Regular followers of this blog will know that hitting that word limit isnâ€™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 itâ€™s ready to submit to anyone â€“ a tutor for assessment for an MA or an agent or publisher. Itâ€™s frustrating but thatâ€™s where I am, even though back in March, I wrote a post with great expectation that the professional feedback Iâ€™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 thatâ€™s two weeksâ€™ worth of extra time in this Olympic summer when Iâ€™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 Iâ€™m much more productive in the darker months â€“ 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 perfectlyâ€“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, Iâ€™d be able to immediately hand my over my burnished tome or send it speeding within minutes into the lucky agent’s inbox.Â After all the Festival was in September â€“ six months in the future.
Unfortunately, September sneaked up on me much more quickly than anticipated â€“ immediately after my spontaneous sabbatical over the late summer â€“ 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 â€˜the endâ€™ Iâ€™d also done a fair bit of work on a submissions package (a polishing the first three chapters, writing a synopsis and covering letter). Itâ€™s just that Iâ€™ve finished knocking the rest of the manuscript into similar shape â€“ and Iâ€™d learned enough about agents to know that if theyâ€™re interested in a novel that they immediately want to read the manuscript in its entirety â€“ not several months later. (That didnâ€™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 didnâ€™t really think about York (itâ€™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 thereâ€™s a germ of an idea for a novel in that? Maybe not!
So I arrived late at the conference, almost at lunchtime on the Saturday, not in Â the most positive frame of mind: why have I driven 200 miles north to spend the my weekend with a bunch of people Iâ€™ve never met â€“ and I haven’t even finished the novel? Shouldnâ€™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 kickâ€“started out of my summer writing hiatus. Iâ€™d not been able to pitch a completed novel but Iâ€™d come away uplifted by all the other benefits of spending the best part of a weekend in a community of writers.
For anyone whoâ€™s curious about the York Festival of Writing, itâ€™s organised by theÂ 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 dayâ€“job related conferences Iâ€™ve been on). Sadly the traffic trouble meant I missed the Jojo Moyes keynote on Saturday morning).
But, as with most worthwhile conferences, itâ€™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 â€“ most with very similar shared ambitions, interests, questions and anxieties â€“ 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 â€“ that your aspiration to become a published writer isnâ€™t futile self-delusion because so many other people are working towards the same â€“ and agents and editors have made efforts to come and meet us all.
Thereâ€™s camaraderie in numbers but the number of people there (at least a couple of hundred Iâ€™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 heâ€™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 wasnâ€™t in the slightest cutâ€“throat and competitive â€“ 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 wasnâ€™t the chestâ€“beating atmosphere of a sales conference â€“ 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 introvertâ€“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 â€˜damagedâ€™ in some way â€“ creating a compulsion to write â€“ 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 â€˜day jobâ€™ is currently bang in the centre of London and one of the consolations of toiling away there is a feeling that Iâ€™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,Â as well as being convenient for too many cultural distractions to complete a novel).Â Itâ€™s not very logical but Iâ€™ve recently quite enjoyed walking past Random House’s HQ onÂ Vauxhall Bridge Road on the way to work meetings. And Iâ€™ve idled away the odd lunchtime following literary walks past Londonâ€™s numerous writerâ€“inspired blue plaques.
At the conference I met writers from places like Durham, Lincoln, Doncaster, Nottingham and quite a contingent few from York itself â€“ all places where it doesnâ€™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 itâ€™s easy to believe the outer limits of the publishing world coincide with the Zone Two and Three boundary. So credit to the Writersâ€™ 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. Iâ€™m aiming to blog, eventually, about visitingÂ Writing Britain: Wastelands to WonderlandÂ but, in the meantime, Iâ€™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 BrontÃ« and countless others. And, speaking of the wily, windy moors, thereâ€™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 doesnâ€™t mean theyâ€™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 â€“ another reason why my manuscript still isnâ€™t quiteÂ ready to set before an agent.Â 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.
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. Iâ€™d certainly come across some of the agents attending and some very helpful blogging book doctors via Twitter â€“ and one of my objectives was to hunt these down, in the nicest possible way, so I could say â€˜helloâ€™ 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. Theyâ€™re both successful authors and had a long day bookâ€“doctoring (as well as running workshops, about which other delegates were very complimentary) but they were both very friendly and approachable. Emmaâ€™s blog,Â This Itch of WritingÂ (see sidebar) is an antidote to all the â€˜Follow My Ten Rules and Write a Bestsellerâ€™ sites and, Â now having met Emma in person, I can understand why it’s one of the most intelligent and practical resources on writing that Iâ€™ve found on the web.
The role of literary agents in the traditional publishing process is often described as that of gatekeepers â€“ itâ€™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 Artistsâ€™ Yearbook entries, one might imagine agents to seem as unyielding as doctorsâ€™ receptionists from hell.
The great benefit of a conference like the Festival of Writing is to allow writers to discover that theyâ€™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 halfâ€“aâ€“dozen writers backâ€“toâ€“back for the intensive ten minute oneâ€“toâ€“one sessions must be exhausting work â€“ like speed-dating with reams of A4). Beyond the scheduled oneâ€“toâ€“one sessions most agents seemed perfectly approachable although the Festival Handbook reminds overâ€“zealous delegates of protocol â€“ donâ€™t try to subject your selected agent/victim to your carefully honed threeâ€“hour elevator pitch over dinner or try and open (and close) a deal in the queue for the toilets.
Given the unagented, aspiring writerâ€™s curiosity about agents and how best to make an approach, it doesnâ€™t take much of a leap of imagination to imagine a David Attenboroughâ€“style whispered commentary: â€˜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.â€™
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), laidâ€“back â€˜regular guyâ€™ types and one who, oddly, reminded me of Malcolm Tucker fromÂ The Thick of It.
Writers who desperately want to get â€˜an agentâ€™ are sometimes advised that itâ€™s not â€˜an agentâ€™ 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, theyâ€™re all so different that not all are going to like your book â€“ but you hope that, with so many different personalities, eventually one will. That is unless you happen to have selfâ€“published and have sold tens of thousands of eâ€“books already, in which case, itâ€™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 â€“ a topic noâ€“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 selfâ€“publish, if itâ€™s done properly.Â David Gaughran, a selfâ€“published writer whoâ€™s also written about the subject, stressed in response to a concern about the overall quality of selfâ€“published books, that he has access to the same freelance copy editors as used by large publishing houses.Â Similarly, selfâ€“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 â€˜money flows to the writerâ€™ itâ€™s argued that the much higher royalty rate on selfâ€“published eâ€“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 authorâ€™s journey for publication is a search for people prepared to invest money and time (and a professionalâ€™s time means money) in editing, printing, distributing and publicising your work. Each link in the chain is like a pitch fromÂ Dragonâ€™s Den to persuade someone to commit resources: author to agent; agent to commissioning editor; publisher to bookseller and so on.
Thatâ€™s why I found one of the most informative workshops at the Festival was The Acquisitions MeetingÂ 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 nonâ€“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. Itâ€™s the antithesis of the literary agent’s unquantifiable ‘I just loved it’ reaction to a text â€“ where calculations about breakâ€“even print runs in a spreadsheet determine the final publication decision.
Forecasts of sales are much more rigorous than fingerâ€“inâ€“theâ€“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 authorâ€™s lack of a track-record can paradoxically work in their favour.
Iâ€™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 Iâ€™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 theyâ€™d be wasted opportunities? (You submit the first chapter and an â€˜introductionâ€™ 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. Â (Itâ€™s always really valuable to get a readerâ€™s initial reaction to the novel â€“ 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 writersâ€™ 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 â€“ it would be interesting to find out what theyâ€™d think about themes in later chapters).
Iâ€™m told that agents, while being polite people, donâ€™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 theyâ€™d never represent anyway. So I guess it must be encouraging that both agents said theyâ€™d like to read more of my novel when itâ€™s all ready.
The agents also, perhaps most importantly, seemed to have thought carefully about whether there was a market for the novel â€“ and they both thought that there was, although admittedly from reading only that rather foodie first chapter. Â I was also asked by one agent if Iâ€™d had direct experience of the dramatic predicament that opens the novel. Apparently sheâ€™d had approaches from a couple of people whoâ€™d been in that situation in real life and she found my description (which Iâ€™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 whoâ€™d read some of my novelâ€™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 Iâ€™d said the novel wasnâ€™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 itâ€™s still a good piece of motivation to have a literary agent say goodbye to you with the words ‘Iâ€™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.
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 Â photos and discussions about the Olympics have for blog about writing a novel. Fair question — but I’d reply ‘everything’.
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
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.
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
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.Â 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.
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.
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 ofÂ 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.
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 ofÂ perseverance, determinationÂ and self-belief that can apply to writers as much as athletes.
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?