Why I’m Voting Remain

Haddenham Village Green, June 2016, No Murders As Yet
Haddenham Village Green, June 2016, No Murders As Yet

In some ways the novel featured in this blog could be interpreted as a love letter to this country. Much of it is set in the England of shady country lanes lined with cottage gardens and of thatched pubs on village greens serving real ale under indomitable oak trees.

If you have a strange feeling you’ve seen the village idyll in the photo above somewhere before then it’s because you probably have. I took it on Haddenham village green a couple of weeks ago. It’s a village a few miles from where I live which is frequently used for film and TV. It’s a staple location for Midsomer Murders, which is phenomenally popular abroad – apparently the most popular TV programme in Sweden.

This is the vision of this country we export to the world. It’s peaceful, gentle and tolerant. It’s the inspiration for The Shire in The Lord of the Rings, Constable paintings and Thomas Hardy novels. Generations have treasured the romance of the British landscape and the values it represents. And it still exists.

Alongside that bucolic version of England, the novel also celebrates the vital, ever changing cosmopolitan buzz of London and our other major cities – the likes of Shoreditch, Hackney Wick and Digbeth. These are places where the fabric of the area is transformed into a permanent arts festival (see the photo I recently took just off Brick Lane below – the artist who painted the famous crane is Roa – a Belgian).

Artists at Work, Hanbury Street, Brick Lane, May 2016
Artists at Work, Hanbury Street, Brick Lane, May 2016

This type of amazing street art, which is renewed on an almost daily basis, is merely the visible manifestation of a culture that attracts young, creative innovators from around the world. They bring an amazing energy that powers initiatives from web start-ups and craft beer breweries. One industry where Britain punches way above its weight is the creative industry.

Both contrasting visions of Britain complement each other – in fact, they depend on each other. Creativity benefits from a bedrock of tolerance and stability. Traditional Britain is prevented from becoming stale, insular and inward-looking.

Similarly, the two principal characters in the novel view Britain from these different perspectives.  Despite his flair for cooking inventive, internationally inspired food, James is as solidly British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Kim views the country through the eyes of an outsider. A passionately Anglophile German, she is more fluent and accurate in English than most native speakers. In common with other young Europeans she views the Second World War as something out of her school history books but nevertheless she immensely respects Britain’s pivotal role in creating the peaceful, civilised Europe of the post-war era.

She adores English eccentricity, humour and imagination — and she falls deeply in love with an Englishman who symbolises all the values she admires about this country – values that were celebrated with such unforgettable verve during the London 2012 Olympics (about which there are many posts on this blog).

While remaining a proud German, she sees views herself principally as a European and a Londoner. One of the questions asked in the novel is where will she decide to call home.

The country in my novel is something to be immensely proud of. However, I’m fearful that after this week’s EU referendum, my novel might need to be re-categorised as historical fiction – as the start of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between famously says: ‘The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’

if you want only to read about writing and the novel and itself then stop here – or possibly skip to the final paragraph or two.

Ewan Mitchell Remain Poster
Ewan Mitchell Remain Poster (http://www.strongerin.co.uk/art)

However, as the setting and characters demonstrate, questions of national identity thrown up by the referendum strike at fundamental themes in the novel.

I rarely comment on politics on this blog, nor in normal circumstance would I want to bang on about my views. I’m extremely interested in politics but my views aren’t extreme. However, aspects of the way this referendum campaign has been conducted have made me angry enough to write the following long blog post. And if you have the patience to wade through it you might discover, if you’re interested, something about the life experiences on which I’ve partly based my views on the referendum.

My sole previous political blog post was written way back in January 2013 on the same EU referendum subject. My views on the referendum itself have barely changed from those I expressed in that entry, which was prompted by David Cameron’s announcement of what must have seemed at the time to be a clever wheeze to give him an easy life in parliament. Read it here. Much of it has turned out to be quite prescient, particularly when I anticipated the tone of the debate.

However, I don’t think I expected to be so depressed by the shrill and personal tone of this EU referendum debate. Most fundamentally, it seems very un-British. Lying, mud-slinging, personally insulting opponents rather than discussing arguments have no place in the Britain that I’ve grown up in and written about with fondness.  The repugnant tone, which seems to have its roots in the poisonous atmosphere of US politics, is hopefully an aberration – a mass neurosis like the 2011 riots that will pass and be buried in history.

Cameron has gambled badly, trying to present himself as both a Euro sceptic and a pragmatic Europhile and has allowed the Leave campaign the opportunity to present the EU as the source of virtually every problem the country faces.

Meanwhile, the Remain campaign has pushed a negative narrow economic message about the risks of leaving, rather than the benefits of staying, which has allowed its opponents to label genuine concerns as ‘Project Fear’.  Jeremy Corbyn could have done a much better job of explaining the benefits that the EU has introduced for employees (holiday pay for one thing).

While the EU is by no means perfect, it’s not responsible for the extraordinary catalogue of misery that its detractors claim.

If this was a referendum with a question that would allow us to opt out from the brutal, economic insecurity caused by globalisation and the capricious power of global capital then I would certainly be campaigning to leave. The novel starts with James rejecting the pointlessness of his job, which merely seems to shift vast sums of money from account to account in a multi-national bank.

Several years after the economic turmoil of 2007-8, many in this country people still justifiably feel disenfranchised and disadvantaged. And I’ve been one of them. I suffered redundancy as a result of the credit crunch and I know what it feels like to have dependants to support and a mortgage to pay – and no foreseeable source of income.

Perhaps it’s this experience but I wouldn’t want my vote to increase the likelihood of putting anyone else in that position (if that’s what I judged the consequences might be).

Tacita Dean Remain Poster
Tacita Dean Remain Poster (http://www.strongerin.co.uk/art)

I respect and share many of the genuine concerns that have attracted people to some of the arguments put forward by the Leave camp. But in almost all of these cases I have not seen any convincing plans or evidence that walking out of the EU into the unknown will do anything to solve these concerns. In fact, the likelihood is that the UK would be in a worse position after leaving the EU with respect to most of them.

Even the issue of immigration, which I agree that mainstream political parties have ineffectively addressed, is unlikely to be addressed by leaving the EU. We can’t change the geography that places us twenty miles across the channel. As for the idea we have open borders with the EU, the last few times I’ve driven to Europe (I last went in April), I’ve had my car searched inside and out for stowaways and the passport checks on the UK side have been extremely thorough.

Although I have an MBA, which means I’ve had some education in economics, finance and the way businesses operate, I wouldn’t claim to know much at all about the workings of international trade deals and negotiations. But because I don’t, I’ve read extensively about the pros and cons of EU membership.

I would particularly recommend The Economist’s very balanced coverage. They have a free downloadable 20-page PDF guide on their website which contains a wealth of impartial data. Unlike most of the national papers that have come out on the Leave side, The Economist is independent of any influence from a proprietor.

Nevertheless, despite the magazine’s editorial stance usually being sympathetic to the liberal, free-trade wing of the Tories who are campaigning for Brexit, they are unequivocal that the UK should remain.  One of their columnists predicts the consequences of implementing the many contradictory claims made by the Leave campaign would be disastrous both for Boris Johnson and company and the country:

“It will be fatal for their careers, and for the reputation of British politics in general, if they follow the economically sensible course only to face a huge outcry from nativist voters who feel that all those promises on immigration have been betrayed again. Even aside from the economic consequences of a Leave vote (and read this LSE demolition of the Brexit case), the immediate future for Britain could be very ugly indeed.”

I could write hundreds of blog posts further expanding on my views on the referendum and the conduct of the campaign – and I may well do in the next few weeks. However, I want to present a largely positive case for why I believe Remain is by far the most desirable outcome.

In my previous blog post I described how I worked for many years travelling extensively in Europe representing the interests of the UK division of a large multi-national company to its German owners and I describe the often tortuous process involved.

The Germans may have been autocratic and slow to make decisions but their business made more money than the UK’s and German profits probably kept the UK division in business in certain years. And it’s my experience of negotiating with Germans that makes me sceptical that they’d make the UK a generous leaving settlement. But we cooperated and made it work. I couldn’t have done that job if I’d needed to apply for a visa for every 19-hour long day I worked when I flew on a day trip to Europe.

Despite our many differences, I made some great friends of decent, friendly Europeans of all nationalities. And we shouldn’t underestimate the importance and influence of the English as the business language of Europe. It gives us a natural advantage as mediators and conciliators.

I love travelling to Europe. I love experiencing European culture. As a British tourist, I also like the convenience of the Euro. However, I was sceptical about the UK joining the single currency (as I believe that financial and political policy are too inextricably linked). But we’re out of the Euro and can never be forced to be part of it. Fact. (Ironically, the most plausible way that the UK would end up in the Euro would be to leave the EU and then to be forced to accept the currency as price of being readmitted if everything went disastrously wrong.)

I don’t love the EU as an institution. Some of its officials appear almost as insufferably arrogant as the UK politicians who have been most vocal in the referendum debate. The EU should have made far more of a positive case about how it values the UK as a member (but then it would have been shouted down for ‘interference’).

Germany’s economic dominance is also a potential concern. Chancellor Merkel didn’t consider the consequences for other EU countries in last year’s asylum seeker crisis. But the UK is an essential counterweight to Germany inside the EU.

The decision making process may be sclerotic and opaque. The ability of national parliaments to veto major decisions makes the process slow but it also means that the UK can veto the Leave campaign’s apocalyptic visions of a European army or Turkey’s accession.

The EU is far from perfect. But they’re our neighbours. We will need to live alongside Europe whatever the referendum decision. Having suffered from inconsiderate neighbours myself, I know how preferable it is to compromise in order to coexist peacefully. As A.A. Gill’s brilliant article in last week’s Sunday Times magazine said, leaving the EU on the unrealistically rosy terms painted by the Leave campaign would be like trying to negotiate a divorce with your ex that still entitled you to have sex every weekend.

I’ve worked in central government and have seen the EU’s influence for myself. For three years in the last government I worked in the HQ of the Ministry of Justice in Petty France, Westminster. I shared lifts with Ken Clarke and listened to Chris Grayling’s droning staff addresses. I worked alongside senior civil servants. I was involved with prisons, H.M. Courts and Tribunal Service and electronic tagging among other areas – exactly the things the tabloids say we’ve lost control over.

I visited the UK Supreme Court, the Royal Courts of Justice, the Law Commission and met the people who literally write the laws of the land (they have special software to do it).

How much meddling by unelected EU bureaucrats did I encounter? None. My work was seen by ministers and senior judges. No one from the EU had any involvement whatsoever. In a department of maybe a hundred people, one person did a part-time role in which she travelled to Brussels occasionally to inform them about what we were doing. That was it.

Perhaps there are other areas of the Ministry and the legal system where there’s more EU influence but of the areas where I have first-hand experience, the EU influence was negligible. Don’t believe what you read in the papers.

A decade or two ago, claims of an incipient European super-state might have been more credible. But the UK has opted out of the two most fundamental aspects of EU integration.

We’re not in the Euro and we’re not part of the Schengen passport-free agreement. The UK hasn’t been ordered around and humiliated. It’s achieved extremely significant concessions and I’d anticipate this is the way the EU will evolve – an inner core of the Eurozone with the remainder in a looser federation. If the debate was more honest, I believe many Leave voters would realise we don’t need to “take back control” because we never lost it in the first place. Nor is there any prospect of doing so.

Unlike the majority of voters, I’ve also lived outside the EU. I’ve spent almost a year each living in both Australia and the US. There was a huge amount of red tape involved in obtaining visas, social security numbers, driving licences and so on to live in the US. California was a wonderful place to live but you wouldn’t want to be ill there without any health insurance. One of the many underrated virtues of EU membership is the reciprocal free health cover in all member states.

One of the many unknowns about leaving the EU would be what happens to such benefits enjoyed by ex-pats. The NHS would be faced with the biggest crisis in its history if hundreds of thousands of pensioners returned from Spain because they were no longer entitled to free Spanish health care at exactly the same time the EU nationals who form a large part of the NHS work force would be leaving — voluntarily or not. The Spanish prime minister has said ending reciprocal healthcare is a possibility. It’s certainly something that would have to be negotiated.

While I’ve had considerable experience of other countries and cultures, I’ve always had a deep-seated, possibly irrational belief, that this country is the best place in the world to live and that to call yourself British is something to be proud of – that, on balance, we’ve contributed hugely to what’s good in the world – culturally, diplomatically, scientifically, artistically and in so many other spheres. When I hear the opening of Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, which is based on timeless British folk melodies, I feel a connection with the country deep in my core that seems to reach back centuries (listen below).

I was born and brought up in the north-west. Some of my family has roots in the north-east. I went to university in Birmingham. I live in the south-east and work in London. I’ve experienced the incredible diversity of people and culture in this country.

And most of all I’ve valued the country’s tolerance, the people’s politeness and their fundamental sense of justice and fairness. This is a place that has always welcomed others and I’m disgusted that some immigrants who make a positive contribution to society have been made to feel unwelcome just by the tone of the referendum debate. Imagine how they’d feel if we voted to leave. The electorate can’t pick and choose the immigrants we want to avoid offending (“oh, we didn’t mean you“). Put it this way, if I lived in Europe and all I heard in the media was about whether they wanted to “take back control” from foreigners I think I’d start looking at my options. And, as always, the people with the most skills will have the most options.

Large parts of the country – London and the labour intensive farming businesses in the east of England – depend on EU migrants as their workforce. Imagine the red tape and bureaucratic interference involved in forcing companies to get government approval (to count the Australian-style points) to employ EU nationals – businesses already complain the process for non-EU nationals is holding them back.

It’s been said that the EU referendum is as more a vote about how what kind of a country the UK wants to be and how it sees its place in the world rather than the specifics of the relationship with the EU.

If so, I desperately hope that the country doesn’t opt to change into a place that nurtures the small-minded, vindictive, divisive nastiness we’ve witnessed in the last few weeks. It would undermines all that’s good about British values.

I don’t think a Leave vote would be an apocalyptic disaster. In fact, I suspect we’d end up with some messy compromise that gave us single market access without any say in it and still needing to pay the EU and accept free movement of labour. It would be a worse deal than we have at the moment, achieved through a period of needless divisiveness. It’s the subtle, insidious damage that would be done to the character of the country I’ve set my novel in that most concerns me.

Both campaigns have been culpable by exaggerating. This has obscured the fact that are honourable people with great integrity on both sides. Nevertheless, I believe any objective observer would judge the majority of the self-serving, spiteful vitriol to have originated from certain dark parts of the Leave campaign. Allied to a reluctance to engage with objective facts, this coarsens the whole debate. Once the touch paper is lit all sides get angry. I’ve seen the most appalling abusive trolling on Facebook and Twitter of people who are merely expressing their opinion.

There’s such a weight of opinion, ranging from all twenty Premier League clubs through to J.K. Rowling (who wrote a good piece today about how she recognises the techniques she uses to create fictional villains being employed by Leave), all major UK car manufacturers, the Governor of the Bank of England and the President of the United States on one side of the argument. All the other side can do is dismiss the judgements as those of ‘experts’ (as if that discredits them) or to retort ‘they would say that anyway’. To me that suggests the rational, logical argument doesn’t seem that finely balanced. Desperate people resort to desperate measures.

In a general election the voters are usually remarkably effective at working out which party represents their best interests. This referendum is unprecedented. People have no historical reference points.

When it’s a battle between ‘the grass is greener’ and ‘better the devil you know’, it’s a conflict between emotion and reason. And having apparently failed on the economic argument, the Leave campaign has chosen to inflame the basest of emotional responses with its inflammatory rhetoric on immigration.

I’m scared that good people are being manipulated and deceived by cynical opportunists into voting for something that will undermine what’s great about this country. Everyone is entitled to vote according to their conscience and without intimidation – it’s what a democratic society is founded upon. Equally, however, democracy fails when voters are blatantly misled and when an extremely complex question is twisted into a debate that merely sets one group of people against another.

Returning to writing, which is what this blog is meant to be about, I’ve been considering alternative titles for the novel. I’m undecided at the moment so won’t reveal my favourite here. However, it relates to accidentally inflicting an injury on yourself due to a lack of concentration in a domestic setting (how’s that for a crossword clue?) – and dealing with the painful consequences. Not a bad metaphor for the EU referendum, although with that decision the damage would last decades rather than hours.

Boris Johnson once said his view on cake was that he was ‘pro-having it and pro-eating it’. That seems to sum up his failure to address any of the difficult choices the country would need to make to fulfil the incoherent and contradictory claims made by the Leave camp.

If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t be fooled. We might not have a chance to be fooled again.

Dog and Rabbit Remain Poster
Dog and Rabbit Remain Poster (http://www.strongerin.co.uk/art)


A Bit of Sex on the Literary Sofa

I didn’t intend to write this post but I was making a comment on Isabel Costello’s blog On The Literary Sofa and it became so long that I thought it would be an imposition to post on her blog in its entirety – hence it’s mutated into a rather long post of its own on this site instead.

Isabel’s blog posts are thought-provoking and well-researched and long enough to develop an interesting argument, which I like (though not quite as long as some of my posts). The title of On the Literary Sofa’s centenary post published this week is Sex Scenes in Fiction and it’s well worth a few minutes of any literary-minded person’s time — as is the rest of the blog, which has barely mentioned the subject of sex before now. (And I should add that I know Isabel — mainly via Twitter although we’ve met a couple of times. I haven’t hit on her blog at random.) Reading Isabel’s original post may also put my arguments below into context: many of the points are direct responses to quotations or points made On The Literary Sofa. I also revisit some views I’ve previously blogged about myself.

It’s a very balanced piece, asking whether it’s desirable (or even feasible) to effectively write good fiction about sex. It covers positions (and I will resist the temptation to highlight double entendres throughout this post or it will be even longer than it currently stands) from the ‘when the bedroom door closes everything should be left to the imagination’ advocates to those who prefer naturalistic no-holds-barred action with explicit vocabulary to match. However, I absolutely agree with Isabel’s observation that ‘it would be to the detriment of literature if nobody wrote sex scenes’.

I find the term ‘sex scene’ a little troubling when it comes to fiction as it echoes the vocabulary of film and television (or even art). The term scene is always coupled with sex but it’s not often used to describe other passages of fiction. It also suggests the visual – that depictions of sex are about what you see – whereas the power of words extends directly into thoughts, emotions and the other senses.

There’s an argument that writers should self-censor because, as these scenes are difficult to write, there’s a lot of bad writing about sex. This view is perpetuated by the likes of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards. I’m sure the Literary Review could find plenty of examples of bad writing about other situations but people wouldn’t find them as amusing, which is probably a symptom of British embarrassment when the subject is discussed in public.

In itself, I can’t believe that sex is an impossible subject to write about. Just because it’s perceived as difficult to get right that’s not an argument to stop trying – more the opposite. If writers retreated from the hidden and potentially uncomfortable then novels would become terribly banal.

Isabel quotes Irish author John Banville on the reason he thinks sex in fiction is so difficult: ‘What people feel they are doing is so discontinuous with what they are actually doing.’

This seems to be a cop out. The differences between a person’s perceptions and the ‘reality’ of what they’re actually doing are a staple of fiction. There are plenty of instances in other fictional situations where feelings are disconnected from actuality – grisly murders, for example.

Discussing Banville, the On The Literary Sofa post argues that  ‘sex, which [is described] as this extraordinary act, is one of the few aspects of life to remain private, even in an age when we are surrounded by sexual imagery and so many are hooked on “sharing”‘.

There’s much truth and insight to this argument. It’s a paradox that a behaviour which (for most of us) is private is referenced so heavily in all varieties of culture. A quick glance at the shelves of W.H. Smith also illustrates an insatiable curiosity (for both sexes) in what other people are doing (‘Am I normal?).

Perhaps another interpretation of Banville’s words is that is that sex is much less likely to be an activity to which the author has been a third-party observer (at least at first hand). Although this point is not limited to sex – any fantasy or historical novelist has never witnessed or experienced their topic – it might be unique in that it’s an activity that is so universally practised, albeit in private. However, this should surely make it a much more compelling subject to write about.

I suspect the argument that sex is too hard to write about is a canard used by authors who are simply shy and embarrassed. There’s no reason why writers should write on subjects they’re uncomfortable with but it’s disingenuous to justify that by asserting that it’s impossible for anyone else to succeed.

I’m sure that much of the reason many writers avoid writing about sex (particularly in creative writing classes where they may have to read it out or discuss it in person) is because of the fear that readers will blur the distinction between writer and character/narrator (i.e. if someone writes about being spanked or having sex in a public place or so on then they feel that readers will somehow snigger away, having inferred it must all be autobiographical).

Why? Anyone reader who automatically conflated the author with the protagonists in other genres would be considered unable to understand the basic principles of fiction (‘it’s made up’). Countless thriller writers come up with depraved ideas, the vast majority of whom aren’t considered sick-minded individuals.

Similarly, some writers say they’d be embarrassed on behalf of their partners/parents/children if their sex scenes entered the public domain. Again, that’s their personal call, but readers won’t assume that this writing is any more autobiographical than anything else in a novel. And it’s most likely, as with less sensitive topics, that a writer’s experience will be used to create composites of characters or plot events. (In the novel I’m writing, the sex scenes are more likely to draw on university experiences than anything more recent).

Published writers , no matter how high profile, seem to deal easily with any prurient questioning – take E.L. James’s frank but hardly salacious comments. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn easily deflected questions in an interview in last weekend’s Sunday Times – stating how happy her own marriage was and that her husband encouraged her to push the boundaries in her writing as far as she felt necessary.

Most creative writing classes and workshops therefore tiptoe around sex scenes at least until participants know each other better (I think the Open University officially cautions against them). But because (rather than in spite) of the difficulty and potential embarrassment I was determined to workshop a sex scene by the end of my City University course. I’m glad I did that as I’m happy to submit my writing about sex to MA tutors, coursemates and anyone else who’ll read it in a mature way (although I sometimes give a polite warning).

Because it was difficult to push myself for the first workshop I’m a fan of the approach that Isabel describes in her blog post about when she attended a creative writing workshop about sex (a Word Factory Masterclass) that was led by literary novelist Michèle Roberts. She asked the writers to ‘asked us to write a sex scene involving something we’d never done. Cue nervous laughter. Twenty minutes later we were listening to some engaging and hilarious stories about threesomes, dogging and a decadent practice someone had just dreamed up.’

It’s an ingenious approach – deliberately avoiding any autobiographical speculation by instructing writers specifically not to use direct experience. It puts everyone in the same position and it sounds like it was very funny. Sex can be a tremendous source of humour in real life but intentionally amusing sex scenes are arguably relatively rare in fiction. Not all funny sex has to be bad sex either.  Good humorous writing about sex – as with any subject – means laughing with the characters and the writing, rather than at it.

I suspect there’s also a similar issue with readers. One’s private reaction to an erotic scene in a novel might be much more awkward to admit to others than pretending it’s hilariously funny or marginalising its importance — the reaction ‘less is more’ seems to be useful code for saying ‘Of course I’m not a prude but I’d rather die than admit I got sexually aroused’.

It seems to be motivated from the same discomfort that inspires the Bad Sex Awards – the notion that there’s writing about sex can be classified into either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I’m sure there are many occasions when less detail is preferable but it shouldn’t be misapplied into a general rule that says all such writing should be brief. In some contexts whole chapters in the bedroom could be necessary or appropriate.

(As an aside, I usually find ‘less is more’ to be a particularly unhelpful comment if used generally in feedback. Without pointing out which of the ‘more’ should be discarded and which of the ‘less’ should be retained, it’s really a cryptic way of saying ‘be more concise’, which is a principle that all writers should use anyway. It’s similar to another bête noire of mine – ‘murder your darlings’. Some misguided people interpret this as advising all writers to delete any writing that they think is good – one of the stupidest pieces of advice ever. What it should mean is ‘don’t be self-indulgent’ but even that apparently sound advice is difficult to apply – one reader’s self-indulgence is another’s literary masterpiece.)

It’s good that someone who writes a popular literary blog that, as is pointed out in the post has hardly mentioned the subject in past, is brave enough to avoid the easy route of trivialising and ridiculing of writing about sex.

It’s not being depraved or perverted or unusual to be aroused (mentally or physically) by well-written writing — it touches what it is to be human and good writing can also evoke physical reactions in other ways — raising heartbeat with suspense stories and so on.

Anyone reading this far might think my novel is stuffed with sex scenes. It’s not — but it’s a modern novel with a male-female relationship at its core and the attraction between the characters is key to driving the plot.

As it stands, the first sex scene is well over a third into the novel and there’s probably no more than half a dozen in total and the narrative is only in flagrante delicto two or three times. It’s much more likely that the writing sets the scene or explores the consequences, particularly through dialogue.

Using all the feedback patiently offered me by my coursemates and writing friends, I’ve worked out the parameters that I feel I’m comfortable with and competent in writing. I find there’s a problem with diction — it’s difficult to tread the line between medical terminology and euphemism (or the overblown imagery that earns a Bad Sex Award).

While words like cock seem to do the job (so to speak) for the male anatomy there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory word for the female equivalent.  (I get puzzled when some writers substitute the abstract noun ‘sex’ for the concrete – as in ‘he touched her sex’.) But words like ‘pussy’ seem either too American-porno (or Mrs Slocombe) and the c word sets off a debate that would take another blog post to discuss.

Similarly with the actual act of sexual intercourse itself — there’s a limit to how much language can enhance the mechanics. But while most sex could be represented as a basic biological transaction, its immediate context could reveal much about the relationship between characters. For example, even in relatively ‘vanilla’ sex, characters might use more anonymising positions in which they don’t see each other’s faces.

While there might be limits to the variety of description of sex itself, assuming the novel or story isn’t purely for titillation, there’s a huge role for fiction to illuminate its anticipation, desires and consequences.

If it’s true to life, it should reflect that it’s part of the human condition to understand that we’re not always motivated by rational, intellectual choices.  I’m fascinated by the subconscious, subliminal, instinctive, inexplicable desires that are drivers of our behaviour.  And these are universal. While it might be more socially conventional for men to be portrayed as being more driven by sex, it would be an unfortunate (and perhaps incompetent) man who’d never experienced in private the formidably pleasurable force of female sexual desire.

Sometimes we do things we know are wrong and may have catastrophic consequences that are purely based on physical impulses that might come from dark places we don’t understand. That’s surely an incredibly fruitful subject for fiction.

And cultural values change as I was reminded when I visited the Pompeii and Hurculaneum exhibition at the British Museum at the weekend. The Romans would be puzzled that we were having this debate at all. They thought nothing of murals of people having sex or ubiquitous representations of phalluses (wind chimes were a favourite!). And the statue of what Pan was doing with the goat probably was beyond the imaginations of anyone at Isabel’s Word Factory Masterclass.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blog That Wouldn’t Crunch

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.

Is It True What They Say, the Better the Devil You Know?

I had one of those metaphorical comic-book light bulb moments the other day while walking to the station. I realised what my novel, The Angel, is really 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 the 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  (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’s 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  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 Kylie Minogue 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.  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 towards Maslow’s self-actualisation while having to service the bills. In common with the fictional adulterer we’re almost illicitly wining and dining the seductive new partner and experiencing all the uncertainty, guilt, anxiety about being found out but also, perhaps, the thrill involved in juggling the two contrasting partners. Ultimately, like my character James, I don’t want to be a cheat.

Apologies to Tamara Watts

The user name below, found on an office ‘multi-function device’ (i.e. printer), appealed to my puerile streak.

Office Print Jobs
Are You Sure About Allocating That User Name?

I guess I shouldn’t laugh — maybe Mr Timothy or Ms Tamara Watts has had to deal with such sniggering throughout their lives — although the way computer user names are constructed to an unbending formula might prevent subtle ways of avoiding the construction. At least there’s a bit of ambiguity in the plural, I guess it’s even worse for someone with the surname Watt.

That particular piece of Anglo-Saxon vocabulary intrigues me as I was once pulled-up by an Open University Creative Writing student for using it in a screenplay writing assignment (and I suspect she deducted marks from the assignment in question). The objection wasn’t to the word itself — it was because I’d dared to put it in the mouth of a female character (in fact a prototype Kim).

She actually said that something along the lines of ‘a woman would never say that word’. (It might be an unwelcome consequence of feminism that many women — and I do think this is far more true of women than it is of men — seem to feel qualified to make sweeping statements on behalf of their whole gender group. It brings to mind Harriet Harman’s periodically facile assertions about women running organisations more effectively and compassionately — and in the next breath she denounces the uncaring destruction wreaked on the country by Margaret Thatcher.)

Every other woman who read that use of the word had no problem at all with it — so I don’t think it’s a gender issue — more of a generational one. Female baby-boomers, especially middle-class ones, have probably been conditioned by parents and peer-pressure not to swear in company but this doesn’t hold true for Generation X and Y — and especially not the generation who come after Y — whatever they’re called. (I’m a Generation Xer, by the way.)

‘The Angel’s’ characters straddle the boundary period between Generation X and Generation Y. (I’m using the most common definitions, according to Wikipedia, of X starting in 1964 and Y starting in 1982.) James and Emma are the tail end of the Xers, while Kim’s an early Y…and to some extent James will look at Kim as an example of a new, exciting generation (even though she’s not much younger).

But both the female Xs and Ys will swear a lot (I’m also going to have a woman Baby Boomer character too, who won’t). In fact the dialogue in the novel is so full of swearing that it breaks one of the cardinal Rules of Creative Writing that you tend to find in books — readers don’t like reading lots of profanities.

I’m not really sure about this rule on a couple of counts.

  1. I can see dialogue in which every other word is effing and blinding will be tedious but some of the most captivating speakers I’ve listened to in real life use frequent swearing in an expertly oratorical way — to contribute to the rhythm of a phrase or for comic timing — think of some of the most popular stand-up comedians.
  2. As with their reactions to sexual content, or something similarly taboo, what people say they think about a book/film/play/artwork is not necessarily what they think privately about it. I’ve blogged before about this issue might prevent honest discussion of a piece of writing in a workshopping situation — where it’s human nature for participants to use their feedback to reveal or conceal aspects of their own characters or experiences to the other participants.
  3. The advice might be sound in that it points out the costs of alienating a significant portion of a writer’s potential readership. However, if you worry too much about offending people as you’re writing then you may end up with a story as inoffensive, uninteresting and utterly bland as if it had been written by a focus group.
Mind you, having expounded about how my professional and arty middle-class characters indulge in the joy of swearing, I’ve realised that I didn’t hear a single profanity (aside from a few ribald songs) in a location that I visited today (see photo below) that, perhaps 20, 30 or 40 years ago, would have been a bastion of male working-class culture — and which is now going-on for half female and with a very cosmopolitan mix of ethnicities (I particularly liked the personalised ‘Van Der Singh’ shirt I saw someone wearing).
Old Trafford
Old Trafford Half an Hour Before Kick Off
I’m currently writing James and Kim’s initial restaurant conversation chapter and she teases him by suggesting everything about him says he’s an Arsenal fan.
Inside 'The Theatre of Dreams' (And No Swearing)

So Man Utd 2 Norwich 0 is my excuse for not getting that much writing done today.

What Happens in Vegas…

…ends up in my novel. This may be something of a surprise seeing as most of it is set in an English country pub which, apart from the copious amounts of booze drunk, is probably one of the places least like Las Vegas in the world.

However, as has happened throughout the writing of this novel, what I’ve ended up doing in real life tends to have muscled its way into the narrative. The problem is that I’m taking so long to write the thing that the danger is that the plot I started out with will be crowded out with bizarre and incidental links to what else I was up to over the two years that it will have taken to finish (I have to be optimistic that it will be completed by Christmas — well, first draft, maybe?).

I’d like to say that the horribly long period between this post (written on a slow, stopping Chiltern Railways train in the dark) and the last (completed on a balcony in Santa Barbara overlooking the Pacific) was due to many words being committed to Microsoft Word but the time has mainly been spent enjoying the rest of the holiday (of which more later), getting back to work with the commute made more grinding by Chiltern Railways’ horrible new timetable – improved only for people north of Leamington Spa it seems – and doing all the tedious stuff that normally arrives in September.

But, as mentioned in my comments on the last post in response to Bren Gosling’s enquiries, I’ve come up with a whole load of new ideas for the novel. Some are wholly extraneous, irrelevant and (quite possibly) completely gratuitous but others serve to provide some missing context and backstory and to provide a bit of extra complexity to some characters.

And so to Las Vegas. This was the last stop on the holiday and I’m probably one of the last of my friends to have visited the place.

We arrived by car from Arizona and the Grand Canyon and, as I got the first view from the freeway about 10 miles away, I was quite prepared to dislike the peculiar cluster of high-rise buildings on the Strip, completely out of scale with the low-rise sprawl beneath.

Through a combination of special offers and me haggling at the reception desk for a pair of rooms with a connecting door, we ended up with a suite and adjoining king size room on the 39th floor of the brand new Cosmopolitan hotel. The combined floor space was probably bigger than my house. Whereas the view from my house is of green fields and the rolling hills of the Chilterns behind, the view from the three (!) balconies we had in Las Vegas was of the Eiffel Tower (at the Paris casino), Caesar’s Palace, the Flamingo, a glimpse of the campanile tower at the Venetian and the amazing Bellagio fountains. We were too high up to hear the music (maybe a blessing) but the synchronised show was a spectacle nevertheless.

Vegas at Nightfall
Nightfall on the Strip, Las Vegas

As well as being very well appointed and luxurious, the hotel room had some unexpected bonuses – a washing machine and tumble dryer were very useful for people who’d been living out of suitcases for two weeks. So rather than a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket and some caviar blinis, room service delivered us a free packet of washing powder!

This was all very serendipitous research for the novel. As some of my ex-City friends might remember a piece I workshopped with Alison last autumn where Kim and James end up in a penthouse suite in a luxury hotel in London. If anything, the Cosmopolitan was larger and better appointed than the almost surreally sumptuous suite I imagined my characters stumbling into — it even had several plasma screens that controlled the music, lights, door locks and so on as well as being TVs.

I walked around photographing the suite and then also video recording it to keep for research (even the three toilets).

I’ll resist the temptation to make art follow life too slavishly and avoid writing into my novel a scene where Kim makes use of the facilities and puts her smalls in for an overnight wash and dry cycle (although, at that point in the story, she’s not changed for 36 hours so she probably ought to).

The Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas

Another Las Vegas experience that may make its presence felt in the novel is the Beatles/Cirque du Soleil Love show at the Mirage. This is something I’d wanted to see since its inception about six years ago but never really thought I would – bar a transfer to the UK. Some of the remixes in the soundtrack album ‘blew my mind’ (to paraphrase one of the songs featured) when I first heard them.

It was a superb show but, being along time worshipper of the Beatles music, I was most interested in the surround sound – having Paul McCartney’s harmonies on Come Together come out from speakers behind your ears is a memorable experience.

The Beatles have some very strong German connections: John Lennon is often quoted as saying ‘I was born in Liverpool but I grew up in Hamburg’. This German influence on the outlook of one of the best-known Englishmen and shapers of popular culture in the 20th century won’t be lost on Kim – who’s a devout Anglophile but also has the patriotic fervour of the ex-pat.

Caesar's Palace
Caesar's Palace on the Strip, Las Vegas

Las Vegas – or the Las Vegas of the Strip – is such a ridiculously OTT monument to artifice that, a little like my reaction to Disneyland, the place couldn’t be viewed ironically – it ridiculed itself. I was awed by the scale and audacity of the place – a pyramid, a recreation of the New York skyline, a casino with an erupting volcano outside it and, perhaps most bizarrely, a monorail system of all things.

New York, Las Vegas
New York, Las Vegas

The whole place is a fiction – an attempt to paint audacious, and convincing, narratives to disguise the low-level, slot-machine routine gambling that provides the casinos with the cashflow that is the life-blood of the city.

But, ironically, it’s a fiction that isn’t executed in a tacky way. A lot of money is spent on exactly sourcing the right sort of materials to create a pyramid or the Manhattan skyline or similar.

Kim would know that one of the key figures behind much of the extravagant architecture on the Strip is Steve Wynn, who’s used his fortune to buy a lot of valuable modern art (though one of his acquisitions lost much of its value when he put his elbow through the canvas).

The all-you-can-eat buffets in the hotels also emphasise how Las Vegas is built on human fallibilities – greed being one, but also (obviously) gambling and  sex is suffused throughout the city. It never seemed to be far from the surface in Las Vegas – whether the organised touts on the Strip with their ‘Girls To Your Room in 20 Minutes’ T-Shirts (incredibly I saw someone wearing one of these as a souvenir at the airport), the risqué shows (including one Cirque du Soleil one) or the general atmosphere of a perpetual stag or hen party – thronged with gangs of hardly-clothed young people, although no-one is going to be comfortable completely covering up in the 40C temperatures we experienced.

It’s no wonder, despite the Strip’s relatively recent transformation in the 1990s, that Las Vegas has come to occupy its own niche in the pantheon of popular culture — many novels and films mine use it as a shorthand to access fallibility and excess.

But despite the hedonism, there’s also an appreciation of real beauty and culture – as in the opulent setting of the Venetian with its ‘real’ gondolas — its artifice is a step up from the fibreglass reconstructions in theme parks. The first time I walked into the recreation of St. Mark’s Square I gasped at the incredibly lifelike blue sky. It’s such a ridiculous conceit to reconstruct a water-bound jewel of the Renaissance in an American desert that it’s completely seductive — and you’re soon on the water being serenaded past Dolce and Gabbana and Louis Vuitton. I can see how Emma would fall in love with this place in a second.

Gondoliers in Vegas
Gondoliers in Vegas

It’s a fiction writers’ dream – a fantastical place that is motivated by, and appeals to, all the human desires that are normally kept hidden by the inhibitions of  society. I was so fascinated by the place I bought a couple of books when I got back on the development and history of the Strip — and I’m fascinated by the psychology of manipulation that is used in casino design.

It’s almost a cliche that there are no clocks or windows in casinos (although there are big windows at the new Cosmopolitan) but there are many other subtle triggers that are used to manipulate customers’ behaviour (perhaps no more than in a supermarket but it’s better to end up with too many buy-one-get-one-frees than to have your bank account cleared out). There must certainly be parallels with fiction writing and narrative.

So, despite, or perhaps because, my novel is largely set in such a supposedly staid and traditional place, some of the characters will be seduced by the idea of Las Vegas – it would be the sort of destination that both James and Emma would visit on their own stag/hen dos and probably go out for a long weekend in the winter.

And if anyone goes on holiday to Las Vegas during the course of my novel then you know that something interesting is going to happen — and what happens in Vegas isn’t necessarily going to stay there.


Having written a post about what a vibrant, international city London is — and having written a significant number of words for my novel that use London as a setting — I’ve been feeling physically sickened by the events over the past few days.

Many of the locations for the looting and arson (the criminal behaviour doesn’t even deserve to be termed rioting, let alone protesting or demonstrating) are places I know reasonably well, having worked there for a while (like Croydon) or been there recently to enjoy a drink (Clapham Junction and Hackney). (I was also in the Bull Ring shopping centre a couple of weeks ago which has also been broken into and looted.)

Pembury Tavern
Pembury Tavern, Hackney

As mentioned in a post below (with the bike photo) I was in Hackney around six weeks ago and started off an afternoon pub crawl at the Pembury Tavern.  This pub is apparently very close to the Pembury Estate which was a trouble spot last night.

The main flashpoint was apparently in Mare Street, which I travelled along on the number 30 bus a few weeks before and is very close to the Globe in Morning Lane, which was our next stop after the Pembury.

I won’t offer any in-depth opinion on the reasons behind the disturbances here except to observe, in the context of this novel and blog, that I’d been surprised that Hackney seemed to be nowhere near as intimidating a place as some people like to portray it and I enjoyed going there. But I’m also glad that I’ve already done that piece of research. Given the difficulties of throwing off a reputation for being insalubrious, it’s deplorable that the actions of a very few idiots will have so damaged the areas where they live — the physical damage can be rebuilt but the reputational and psychological damage will live on for decades. Areas like Ealing and Enfield are suburban enough to withstand the damage but the more deprived areas like Hackney and Tottenham will suffer more and a lot of the good that the Olympics promised to bring to these areas in terms of regeneration will have been outweighed.

Ironically, at the same time these events have unfolded I’ve been working on a couple of parts of the novel that discuss the living in the city versus the countryside question. I’ve been asked in feedback sessions why Kim, an artist living in Hackney and working in Shoreditch (thankfully spared from the trouble), would ever contemplate leaving those places to set up in bucolic Buckinghamshire.

This is a tension that runs through the novel but I do think it’s credible that she would want to move — and the causes of the recent disorder give some reasons why. As with elections in the 1980s, when everyone said publicly they despised the Tories but enough secretly voted for them out of self-interest (not me by the way), the debate about housing location is similar. Lots of people like to claim they like living in an ‘edgy’ area and few declare a love for the suburbs. Yet it’s an established demographic phenomenon that middle-class, university-educated people tend to leave London in large numbers in their thirties — particularly when they’ve had a family.

Also, while I recently read an article in the Sunday Times magazine (that I can’t link to because it’s a pay-site) about how some of today’s well-connected modern artists are doing quite well financially, I doubt if Kim would ever be able to come close to be able to afford to live in the sort of village where The Angel is the local. Such ridiculous property prices are a problem in the countryside where the preponderance of commuters and the retired creates demographic problems of another sort. But if Kim is given a cost-effective way of getting out of London, then I think she’d certainly consider it — which also gives the opportunity to leave behind problems of other sorts.

What’s most unnerving about the anarchy on the streets is it affects people’s sense of personal security — and, while, in

Pembury Tavern Handpumps
Pembury Tavern Handpumps

reality, the number of people causing trouble is very small, the psychological repercussions are profound. I’ve also been asked in workshops what attracts Kim to James.  One of the main reasons is, apart from his indefatigable admiration of her work, is that he boosts her own sense of security — something she doesn’t admit even to herself for much of the novel. A sense of one’s own personal security and physical vulnerability probably isn’t anything that’s going to be very honestly discussed in workshops but it’s something that, I suspect, deeply connects with a reader in the one-to-one situation that engages reader with a text.

I got too depressed about events to carry on watching rolling news on the television (which I think must examine its own role in the spread of copycat criminality) but have seen some hopeful reports about communities cleaning up and reclaiming the public spaces so here’s a photo of the Pembury Tavern’s line up of beers on its bars. I hope to go back soon.

Art for Art’s Sake?

I’m not sure about Kim’s personal taste in modern art but with her training she’d be sure to be able to hold forth about Cy Twombly, the American painter who died last week, and was the subject of some posts on this blog from around 18 months ago when I first saw some of his work in the Tate Modern. Here’s a link to the Deutsche Welle website report on his death to show his influence in Germany.

Cy Twombly's Work -- From the Telegraph web-site
Cy Twombly's Work -- From the Telegraph web-site

I guess she’d quite admire the scale and audacity of the work as I did — and the vivid colours. Yet work like Twombly’s certainly encourages those who see modern, abstract art of displaying as much technical skill as a child’s painting and of suggesting those who proclaim themselves the arbiters of its undoubted quality are those who would insist that the emperor was fully clothed — as this blog entry on the Telegraph website by Harry Mount makes clear.

Kim will produce mainly abstract works — partly because it will be amusing to see James struggle to make head or tail of what they mean — but she’s be technically trained to a very high standard, something which will hold James in awe of her talent and provide a reason for his attraction to her — which is an engine of the plot. James won’t ‘get’ the likes of Cy Twombly but Kim will try and explain to him why Twomby’s work sells for millions — but perhaps she’ll question why it is that his does but her own doesn’t.

Speaking of silly money paid for art, BBC1 on Sunday featured a programme called‘The World’s Most Expensive Paintings’ in which Alistair Sooke, an art critic, did an Alan Freeman style reverse countdown of the Top Ten. As all were in the tens of millions of dollars bracket and the most expensive — one of the Picassos (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust) — was $135m then it was no surprise that super-rich collectors were the owners of these amazingly valuable artefacts. Sooke’s analysis of the painting, pointing out subtle expressions of eroticism, sadism and the painter’s own hidden initials, was persuasive in asserting its value as a work of art — but $135m?

The painting is currently on display in Tate Modern, having been loaned by its Georgian owner — perhaps I’ve walked past it? The gallery would no doubt try to avoid the vulgarity of drawing attention to the value of the work. However, many of the top ten are hidden in private collections or, according to rumour, may even have been burnt.

The programme raised many of the questions about the relationship between art and money that crop up in The Angel — almost all the art works were produced when the artists were relatively penniless — although the likes of Picasso made money later on his reputation. The artworks are valuable because they are scarce and in demand as much as anything intrinsic about their artistic quality. Often a painting is purchased because it had been part of the previous famous collection — its value being acquired through provenance. There’s an interesting paradox that art, which by definition is created for the intellect or to pleasure the senses, has such a close relationship with money to the extent that at the very high end, art is potentially only appreciated because it’s expensive.

While Kim’s art work doesn’t sell for very much, she’s still chasing the moneyed-rich for what income she does get: the proximity of Shoreditch to the City underlines the symbiotic relationship between the two. James, unlike most City types, actually tries to look at art for its aesthetic, rather than monetary value — and this will be a welcome change for Kim.

The BBC1 programme had a real-life story worthy of any novel about a Picasso, La Rêve, about to be sold for an eight figure sum in dollars by its Las Vegas casino owner, Steve Wynn, who then accidentally stuck his elbow through the canvas, reducing its value by many millions. He said the good thing about the damage was that he did it himself, not anyone else — one wonders what might have happened if it had been a cleaner or security guard.

The Shard Rises

I was in London yesterday around Oxford Circus then went to St.Paul’s and Southwark to have a walk around the settings I’m using for the first few chapters of The Angel — including the Tate Modern again where it was amazing to hear the number of French and German speakers.

Walking across the Millennium Bridge I was impressed again by the height of the internal core of concrete core of the Shard, which I think I heard became the tallest building in London in the last week or so.

Here’s a photo I took from the Millennium Bridge and the scale of the Shard can be seen in comparison with Tower Bridge and One London Bridge (the square building at the foot of the Shard).

The Shard Rising -- 18th February 2011
The Shard Rising -- 18th February 2011

The literary agent Carole Blake  (who I follow on Twitter) tweeted about this interesting article on the Shard’s construction from today’s FT which is currently available for free.

It does present a conundrum for my novel though as when I started it the Shard was a hole in the ground and by the time it’s finished then the Shard will be an unmissable landmark. However, although my novel is set in the present the time elapsed in the plot will be shorter than the time I’ve taken to write it. I suppose it might be a nice little touch at the end to mention the erection of the tall, central shaft (also adding in a bit of the rest of the book’s symbolism there too!).

I also solved a slight problem I had in the early chapters where I have James and Kim around St.Paul’s but doing something that would probably need a bit more privacy than they could find in the piazza around the cathedral. I think I’ve found an ideal replacement location on the way between St.Paul’s and the Viaduct Tavern — Christchurch Greyfriars. This, like the Aegidienkirche in Hanover, is a bombed out shell and has a rose garden where the nave of the church used to be — although it currently is closed off for some sort of refurbishment. It will be a very suitable place for the two of them to sit and I won’t need to be too heavy with symbolism — the location will do it on its own. I read on Wikipedia that the church, before the war, had a huge angel on its spire, which now sits in the entrance of a nearby (non-ruined) church.

It’s also opposite the Boots pharmacy where Kim will later go — my research for this section is pretty anal!

Also to get to Christchurch Greyfriars they will walk through Paternoster Square and there’s quite a curious sculpture there that marks its ancient use as a livestock market. It’s by Elisabeth Frink, a sculptor who liked to specialise in the human male nude form — and perhaps there’s something quite symbolic for the book about that sculpture as there are plenty of sheep where the two will end up. Despite the German sounding name, Frink was English but I read on Wikipedia that she was taught by an Austrian refugee from the Anschluss. Amazing how it all comes together.

Shepherd and Sheep - Elisabeth Frink - Paternoster Square
Shepherd and Sheep - Elisabeth Frink - Paternoster Square

Cardboard Megaliths

Those from the City course who’ve carried on with the monthly workshopping read an extract of mine in the last session where James is struggling to build an IKEA wardrobe.

The piece is intended to cast light on the state of James and Emma’s relationship — both by using the wardrobe as metaphor and also flashing back to his recollections of their trip to the Milton Keynes branch (the new city being somewhere that Emma instinctively detests as she doesn’t like its appropriate of the Celtic mysticism that she has a great interest in herself.)

IKEA also reflects James’s fairly half-hearted attempt at fiscal belt-tightening — he tried to persuade Emma to buy a wardrobe that was a cheap piece of MDF crap but instead they settle for something fairly decent made out of solid wood (that nearly kills him to lug upstairs) — but it’s still not the Heal’s wardrobe she really wanted (see post below — ‘A Solid Piece of Research‘).

I did a bit of quick research in Milton Keynes IKEA after I visited the nearby Open University a few weeks ago but this week I had cause to go there again for the purposes of actually thinking about buying some of their furniture.

IKEA Milton Keynes
Inside IKEA Milton Keynes

I took a few photos on the way round. Here’s a montage of a few — showing the curious juxtaposition of the nicely-staged rooms upstairs compared to the functional warehouses where you have to get the flat-pack stuff.

The bizarre names of IKEA furniture are staple jokes — see Dave the Laptop Table and Gilbert the furry brown placemat above.

IKEA Kolon
Who Says IKEA products Are Crap?

However, I noticed a floor protector thing with one of the most bizarre names. As it’s a medical term I think the word spelled with a ‘c’ must be the same in Swedish.

IKEA's Rats
The Welcoming Rats

I also thought it quite surreal that customers were greeted on entering the showroom with a crateful of furry-rats.

I had another opportunity to inspect the wardrobe that I had in mind for James to build for Emma. In the novel it’s not exactly like this one — I think it may have its drawers inside the doors — but it’s fairly similar.

Emma's Wardrobe
Emma's Wardrobe

It’s pictured here in a trendy looking bedroom that Emma may not even have turned up her nose at.

In the end, I had my own cardboard megalith experience as the furniture that I wanted to buy (including two wardrobes as luck would have it) was in such huge cardboard packages that they wouldn’t have fitted in the car.

In fact, probably they were so heavy (two boxes weighing about 50kg for each wardrobe) that perhaps the easiest way to have got them home might have been to put them on rafts and float them down the Grand Union Canal — in the same way as Stonehenge’s builders transported their rectangular megaliths all the way from Wales?

(And perhaps it might make Emma feel better to know that I bumped into the Minister for Europe’s wife in the IKEA café and said hello — if it’s good enough for ministers of state? Or maybe they’re being mindful of expenses?)


I wrote the following in the middle of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world – looking out into the sea as our ferry weaves between the courses of various huge container ships and tankers. (I’d actually typing into a Word document to post later on but I could have blogged fromt here if I’d been prepared to pay £4 for an hour’s wi-fi – bit steep I thought).

It’s nearly a 9 hour journey from St. Malo to Portsmouth – and would be quite pleasant if it wasn’t one of the busiest days of the year (a Saturday in August) which means all the reclining chairs and seats in the cafe have been marked by the massed middle-class British on holiday with the same sort of territorial ferocity that I learnt at Trégomeur Zoo Park that tigers display when they urinate to mark their patch. I’m typing from up on the sun deck.

I was a very frequent visitor to Europe until the end of the last year, flying on average on a fortnightly basis – mainly Germany but also plenty of trips to Sweden, Spain, France, Portugal, Belgium, Portugal and even Croatia. These trips have tended to be for two or three days and to cities and hotels where English is pretty much the universal language.

I’ve spent longer in Europe on holiday but, most recently, these trips have been to Gozo (off Malta) where English is an official language and to the Algarve, where, like the Costa del Sol,  it may as well be. I’d probably need to go back over ten years to previous long holidays in France to experience anything like the ‘foreignness’ of the past week.

Foreignness is a relative term somewhere like Brittany. It’s stating the obvious to say it’s very easy, even with a barely scraped GCE in French, to drive, shop (especially in their vast hypermarkets), have a meal and do touristy things. Not only is there a lot of standardisation of laws and regulations (traffic, for example) through EU membership but also because all Western European countries are subject to the same sort of globalisation as we suffer in the UK – though perhaps not as extreme – not just the French love of McDonald’s but all the consumerist brand goods that are now imported from China.

Much popular culture is converging too. I spent most of a Thursday night watching the French version of ‘Masterchef’ on TF1 – a bit more of an X-Factor style audition with three celebrity judges, including an odd Johnny Depp lookalike, than our shouty version with an artificial bit of suspense over who’s the last one through. Very useful research though for me as I want to construct a fictional cookery programme in ‘The Angel’  in which James was a contestant.

It seems that many of the fundamentals of life in the EU are homogenising – and perhaps this is a theme that I have in the novel — evidently by having a European leading character but maybe exploring this cultural assimilation more subtly by having Kim first move to cosmopolitan, multi-cultural London as a staging post, then breaking through into areas of life that are considered sacredly British (or even English) – like the pub.

It’s probably the social customs and decisions made on a local level (and perhaps influenced by – relative – unchangeable like the climate) such as architecture that mark the countries out as culturally different – even eating habits are converging – I saw ready meals and pre-prepared salads in the Super U and Carrefours.

And, of course,  language is still the most striking and difficult cultural factor that makes cultures different. It’s not too difficult to visit for a week and order a meal – but a far tougher prospect to get to a level where one can communicate on a serious level. I know the length of time it’s taken for a friend of mine who’s bought a place in Spain to achieve ‘A’ level Spanish.

I’m thinking of having Kim get quite frustrated when she realises she has the vocabulary to deal with metropolitan life but she’ll realise in the countryside that she’s back at schoolchild level English in certain fields — although maybe many of the natives won’t know how to describe certain things either.

Reviewing the Literature

There are two reasons why the blog has been a little quieter than usual recently. One is that an element of my ‘other life’ intruded – hopefully the side that will continue to pay the bills in future.  I had to submit an assignment for my Open University MSc in Software Development. I’d set aside a fortnight or so to concentrate on this but I ended also producing going on for 7,000 words of ‘The Angel’, which diluted my efforts somewhat.

I ended up sitting at the laptop in the end from 6am one day until 2am the next morning to try and complete the assignment before the deadline.  The way this OU course works is to build up the final dissertation of about 15,000 words in incremental assignments so you start off with a proposal and then add the literature review and the draft research before submitting the whole thing at the end all polished up and with a conclusion.

What I had to complete was the literature review – which isn’t an enjoyable account of a few choice novels read recently but an attempt to track down academic literature relevant to your subject and assess its contribution to the body of knowledge. My topic is Enterprise Architecture, which is basically how one organises the many IT systems within an organisation to work effectively rather than, as usually happens in practice, allowing IT to re-inforce the warring sectarianism and factionalism within any large organisation.  The term ‘architecture’ has been appropriated by the IT industry to the annoyance of some of the building variety but the analogy transfers quite well. (And I believe that the same sort of skills used in this line of IT work transfer well into novel writing — being able to see the underlying structure of plot, pace, character and so on which lie beneath the surface detail and complexity — I think some of the feedback I gave in the City course owed something to these skills.)

In this area, where IT interacts deals with the corporate strategy of an organisation, it’s quite difficult to find any contemporary academic literature in the first place. This is probably because, despite IT all being based on the work of very clever people in universities, many contemporary practitioners are militantly anti-academic – wanting to prove) how macho, hands-on and problem solving they can be to ‘the business’ (a meaningless and self-loathing term that is used to elevates the status of anyone in a company NOT in IT the IT department as doing the real work).

In ‘The Angel’ James is motivated to leave his City job by this sort of philistinism. Despite his outward gaucheness  and blokey good nature, he’s actually a very bright chap – he has some Masters degree in Finance – his (ex-)job is in the application of clever computer systems which few people (including Will, his boss) can understand. He wants to learn – except now about art and cookery – and he’s pretty appalled by the crass anti-intellectualism of those around him.

So I’ve been finding recent academic papers in my area from places as diverse as Venezuela and Taiwan and I’m a little guilty of not really reading them properly – just finding a quotation which illustrates a point I’ve wanted to make. Doing the novel writing course has made me aware of the main criticism I’m likely to get from my supervisor for what I submitted – the narrative coherence could be improved.

There are a reasonable amount of references and it’s all pretty much on-topic but there’s probably far more work require to relate these to my own argument and research question (and the vagueness of exactly what it is what I’m meant to be analysing in my own research is another bigger flaw).

Even so, this is exactly why the OU structures these dissertations as it does — so when you make a cock-up of the first attempt you have plenty of time to improve it before the eventual submission deadline. Hopefully!

It’s an interesting time management challenge to juggle a serious MSc project and trying to complete the novel started on the City course — a distillation of the question about what I need to do to make a living against what I think I’d like to do.  However, I read a few writing magazines on holiday which gave some information about average published novelists’ earnings suggests that no matter how successful the writing goes, the day-job is likely to be needed for a while yet.

Addressing Deficiencies

Getting back to ideas for The Angel, I think I may have plugged a bit of a hole in the plot and balanced out the characters a bit by considering introducing a male admirer of Kim when she moves to The Angel. This chap will be actively sought out and encouraged by Emma (in some matchmaking activity reminiscent of her Austen namesake). Emma won’t rest until she’s paired Kim off with someone. Of course, the person she tries to pair Kim off with will be totally unsuitable, although the relationship will develop to an extent which will make James terribly jealous — and when James thinks they’ve slept together then he’ll be extremely agitated. It will be something of a dip in their relationship when he sees Kim having some sort of a relationship with someone who he used to think of as a friend but, in this context, sees as something of an arsehole. He’ll realise how trapped he his himself.

This person will probably have been a friend of James’ but they’ll fall out — and, because James is ostensibly a happily married man — he’ll have to find some other reason to vent his fury. Emma will try and coach the relationship on regardless — she’s the sort of person who thinks any outcome is possible, given the right sort of motivation.

Kim will confide a few things to James about how this chap is an utter philistine but that she’s initially flattered by his attention. Then Kim will start to notice a few suspicious danger signs that maybe the new boyfriend’s attention is beginning to wander — perhaps to someone who’s more receptive of his charms?

I’ll need to flesh this chap out — any suggestions as to his name and other personality features would be gratefully received. Perhaps with this character another piece of the jigsaw is falling into place?

Top Bombing

A friend of mine sent me a YouTube link to the new John Smiths’ Peter Kay advert. His observation in sending it was that it picks up a subtle difference between the sexes in that often women try to guess which other women men find attractive — glamorous celebrities often being cited. This advert shows that this view is often very wide of the mark.

The advert is a model of economy but crams an awful lot about a relationship into its thirty seconds. It’s very much a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ in terms of being honest with a partner (‘I won’t get upset. It’s only a game.’) Peter Kay’s character is very well behaved ‘There’s only one lady in my life’ until he’s pushed three times by his partner.

The setting is also quite subtle — some upmarket restaurant pub and the other couple’s presence, although they don’t speak, is essential to the drama. It also cleverly bridges the gap between the fantasy of showbusiness and celebrity (Kelly Brook, Tess Daly) and people’s own lives: ‘Clare from work’. (Great choice of name to bring out the northern vowels — Peter Kay’s from Bolton, not too far from where I come from — Rochdale.)  The shot at the end with the photocopier is one of the truest representations of interior characterisation I’ve seen for a long time. ‘Oh aye’.

Some of the books that examine men’s and women’s different behaviours in relationships from an evolutionary psychology perspective make the point that availability and proximity are  often more prescient factors in a typically male assessment of a mate than the attractiveness. (And this tendency is amplified by alcohol — the infamous ‘beer goggles’).

It’s very much in the vein of James’ point of view in The Angel in the scenes I’ve written with Emma and Kim. These promoted one coursemate to suggest that the log line for my novel should end ‘can James keep his mind off sex for long enough to stop the business falling apart’ — a line that everyone found rather hilarious though I’m not sure if poor old James would.


There’s another story on the BBC website about the benefits of the ‘cuddle hormone’ — oxytocin. I referred to James’ view that human attraction was based on a whole mix of chemicals in the reading I did before Easter — and there was a quite a lot of feedback on whether the various things I’d referred to were hormones or not.

The story had links to an old web page from 2006 which caught my attention because it promoted something that was guaranteed to prevent fear of public speaking — which would be very handy for our reading evening on 30th June. It was titled ‘Sex “cuts public speaking stress”‘. It goes on to say ‘Forget learning lines or polishing jokes – having sex may be the best way to prepare for giving a speech. New Scientist magazine reports that Stuart Brody, a psychologist at the University of Paisley, found having sex can help keep stress at bay.  However, only penetrative intercourse did the trick – other forms of sex had no impact on stress levels at all.’ It’s all to do with something called the vagal nerve, as well as oxytocin apparently. (Maybe James can do some reading up on it?)

It doesn’t say how far in advance of the speech you have to engage in this therapy to make it most effective, though.

Three Universities in Two Days

I seem to be visiting a lot of universities recently. On Monday I went up to the Open University, where I met my MSc. supervisor and my ‘specialist advisor’ — both are a married couple of academics who work on the same area of research. My supervisor is Italian but has obviously lived here a long time so listening to her speech, which I tend to do on a weekly basis, is quite good practice for writing Kim’s dialogue. Strangely I was one of the few students (perhaps the only one) on the Milton Keynes campus because, despite having perhaps millions of students, none of them actually attend the OU itself on a regular basis — it’s all done at a distance (or in summer schools and the like).

Then it was straight down the M1 and A1 to City University on Monday.

Last night I went to the Wheatley campus of Oxford Brookes University. This was to go to an Association of MBAs networking event on creating a cv. Most of the other people there were students on the Brookes Business School MBA, most of them full time. It was quite interesting to chat to some of them afterwards about why they were doing the course — quite a few had enrolled due to redundancy and were looking to do something completely different (a little like James).

While I was there principally for non-writing purposes, it was also good background as the speaker, Corinne Mills, is a careers specialist. According to her consultancy’s website she’s been the careers expert on Chris Evans’ Radio Two show, Nicky Campbell’s Radio Five, on the Six O’ Clock News and in all sorts of print media. Unsurprisingly, she has an human resources background so I got myself re-familiarised with HR speak. I talked afterwards with someone who was MD of a leadership development consultancy (employing 18 people) whose business is to work with these terribly (self) important executives with massive egos — the world from which James has just been removed.

As it turns out, my existing cv seems to tick all the boxes already — probably linked to my ‘excellent written communication skills’ (as it no doubt claims dispensing with any modesty — as it must). Apparently 80% of cvs have spelling mistakes and 13% are seriously flawed in written content or presentation. There were a few classic, true-life errors quoted that passed the spell checker level of proof reading. One could apply to James though I might have to invent something original along the same lines if I wanted to use it in the novel: ‘My hobbies include cooking dogs and interesting people’.

The Eve of St. Agnes

I bought a copy of the latest Magma poetry magazine when I was in London last week. Its cover article was ‘Favourite Erotic Poetry’. I was interested to see how I poem I took along to the March meeting of Metroland poets was selected by a couple of the poets making their selection, including Blake Morrison. It was ‘They Flee From Me’ by Sir Thomas Wyatt, a 16th century poet who allegedly had an affair with Ann Boleyn.

One of the choices of the other poets was Keats’ ‘The Eve of St. Agnes’. The erotic element of this poem comes with the legend of the Eve of St.Agnes — a time when apparently young virgins would dream of the man who was going to sweep them off their feet in later life if they lay naked on their beds on that night (or some other tradition approximating to this). Keats is one of the most sensuous poets — I remember having ‘purple stained mouth’ from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ being explained to me when I was doing him for A-level.

It was quite a revelation to come back to the poem after years — for some reason its phrase ‘a dwarfish Hildebrand’ has popped into mind quite regularly in the intervening time although I didn’t realise where it came from. In the poem Keats uses a couple of star-crossed lovers  — Madeleine and Porphyro. Madeleine is some sort of aristocratic girl, whose chambers are guarded by old nurses. The eroticism happens when Porphyro manages to wheedle his way past Madeleine’s protectors and hides unseen in her room while she strips off and prepares herself for the St.Agnes ritual.

Perhaps it was latent all along but I’d been toying with the idea of something similar at the start of The Angel. The idea is that Kim and James end up together in a similar sort of situation (except facilitated by the after effects of a drunken night out). I think I’ve worked out plot devices for both to be in the same situation. I won’t add more, partly because I need to think it through a bit further, and partly to keep a bit of suspense.

On a related subject, one of my coursemates — whose blog (Bren Gosling’s ‘Evolution of My Novel’ is referenced from the sidebar — wondered whether I was giving out too much of the plot of the novel on this blog. If anyone has any comment on that I’d be interested to hear it. I don’t think I give out enough information for my ideas to be copied and ripped off but it might be possible that anyone be following instalments of the novel (or even just waiting to read it when it’s finished in its entirety) might find some plot spoilers in here. (I’ve probably given the biggest plot spoiler to people on the course already with my short fire scene from last term.)

Here are a couple of stanzas of Keats’ ‘Eve of St.Agnes’ that allude to what might happen later in The Angel:

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,

And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,

As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon;

Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,

And on her silver cross soft amethyst,

And on her hair a glory, like a saint:

She seem’d a splendid angel, newly drest,

Save wings, for heaven: – Porphyro grew faint:

She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.

Anon his heart revives: her vespers done,

Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;

Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;

Loosens her fragrant bodice; by degrees

Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:

Half-hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,

Pensive awhile she dreams awake, and sees,

In fancy, fair St Agnes in her bed,

But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.

‘Sweat Me Garlicky’

We had to take along a published poem (by someone else) to Metroland Poets last night on the theme of ‘Poems to Read Aloud’. There was a very varied and entertaining selection ranging from ballads by Walter Scott to Edwin Morgan’s famous ‘Loch Ness Monster’s Song’.

I made a choice in about five minutes flat but was quite pleased with the poem that came to mind. It’s ‘Cooking with Blood’ by Linda France, which is featured, along with an interview with the poet, in the Open University’s ‘Creative Writing’ course (A215). Click on this link for the poem and an opportunity to hear her read it out.

Again there’s a link with The Angel as it’s all about cooking (in the section I’m workshopping on Monday James tells Kim about his passion for food). It’s also dedicated to Delia Smith in a way. Delia is someone I’ve loved even more since her famously tired and emotional appearance on the pitch at half time at a Norwich City game.

I get the feeling she’s far less prim and proper than supposed ‘edgier’ cooks like Nigella and Jamie Oliver (who I think, to use Kim’s vocabulary, is a bit of a tw*t).

‘Cooking with Blood’ was inspired when Linda France was looking through the index of a cookery book, probably Delia’s, and found all kinds of exotic names for dishes and techniques. What people found quite remarkable when I read the poem was the amazing use of these names as verbs in the poem. ‘Wouldn’t we sausage lots of little quichelets’, ‘She played en papilotte/for just long enough to sweat me garlicky’, ‘I’ve stroganoffed with too many of them’, ‘[I] triped
myself into a carcass’.

Making imaginative use of verbs (and, in fact creating new verbs like this) is something that I don’t really do enough of in my own writing — probably because I do it too quickly. I’ve got the opportunity to experiment a little in this way in my next chapter when I get James and Kim completely plastered. I’d like to try and hint at their altered states of consciousness by attempting to play with language in the same sort of way.

The poem also appeals to me as it’s very sensual. There’s clearly a link between food and sex in the poem (even as far as talking about procreation) but it’s amusing and thought-provoking: ‘After I’d peppered her liver, stuffed her goose/
and dogfished her tender loins, she was paté/in my hands’ and ‘We danced the ossobuco;/her belly kedgeree, her breasts prosciutto.’ I think this poem must have tapped into my subconscious quite deeply as I tend to return to similar elements in my writing: people say it’s quite physical. I tend to write a lot about what people do with their hands and their body appearance.On Monday in the workshop I’m sure it will be noted that James is something of a compulsive breast watcher (well, he’s done it twice once with each of the women). I’ve played this up deliberately for mild amusement but I’m starting on the journey to finding my writing ‘voice’ and I think I’m always going to have a theme of the physical and sensuous. I’ve done the same in ‘Burying Bad News’ with Frances imagining herself and other people with physical attributes of grape varities. It’s interesting as I’m not a touchy-feely type person in normal life at all — I just seem to write about it.

One of the women poets was surprised that ‘Cooking with Blood’ was written by a woman as she thought its tone was quite male. Perhaps that’s down to the physicality of its approach as opposed to the more metaphysical, spiritual tone she might have expected in a poem with a similar message written from a more conventionally ‘female’ point of view. I’m not so sure there really is such a gender bias in reality between male and female writers. At least three of the male novelists on the course are writing from female points of view and Eileen writes in a very convincingly masculine voice in her novel extracts. However, there’s no doubt that many readers form expectations about reading a novel just by reading the gender of the author. That, famously, is why J.K.Rowling is known by her initials — the publishers didn’t think their initial market of teen boys would want to read a book written by someone called Joanne.


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

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

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

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

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