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)


Three Years Later

Around this time of year, back in 2012, I wrote a number of blog posts that were tangentially-related to my writing, celebrated that London felt like it was the centre of the world due to hosting the Olympics and Paralympics. (Imho London carried this off so successfully that in the intervening three years, the city seems to have consolidated, if anything, its hold on the title of global capital.)

One of the least successful aspects of the Olympics was the disastrous system of ticket allocation (something the coming Rugby World Cup appears not to have learned lessons from). Although I made it to the Olympic Park, I didn’t get inside the stadium itself.

I’ve visited the local area many times since access to the Queen Elizabeth Park (as the old Olympic Park is  now called) has allowed public access — mostly because it’s a pleasant walk between two excellent brewpubs, Tap East in the Westfield shopping centre and the Crate Brewing Company in the White Building by the Regent’s Canal in Hackney Wick.

This weekend I finally managed to get inside — in one one of the first events since the stadium’s post-Olympic reconstruction.

Olympic Stadium -- 29th August 2015
Olympic Stadium — 29th August 2015

The occasion was a friendly rugby game between the Barbarians and Samoa (one of the latter’s warm-up games before the World Cup). We have to hope a few teething problems are ironed out before the start of the tournament — the sprinkling system was unexpectedly deployed during the match on my visit, much to the embarrassment of the ground staff.

Sprinklers Make a Surprise Appearance
Sprinklers Make a Surprise Appearance

The stadium has been remodelled for a smaller capacity, down from 80,000 to 54,000, and there have been some substantial changes, particularly in expanding the roof and retaining the distinctive, original, triangular floodlight structures but inverting them below roof level.

The Famous Floodlights Turned Upside Down
The Famous Floodlights Turned Upside Down

I’ve visited most of the comparable new stadiums — Wembley, Old Trafford, the O2 — and the Olympic Stadium (or The Stadium, Queen Elizabeth Park as it’s officially known — are they waiting for sponsorship?) proved a more pleasant experience with less claustrophobic concrete and, because the pitch area is a sunken bowl, the access and hospitality areas seem lighter and less congested.

The Stadium from the Concourse
The Stadium from the Concourse

However, with West Ham going to make the stadium their home in under a year and the Rugby World Cup approaching, I wonder (as would James in my novel) where the fans are going to congregate around this area of idealistic, futuristic design when they want a few drinks. There are a couple of chain pubs in Westfield in addition to the marvellous (but small) Tap East — nothing likely to satiate up to 58,000 tribal drinkers.

Plenty of Toilets but Not Many Pubs
Plenty of Toilets but Not Many Pubs


Le Grand Départ

A Suitably British Place to Watch the Tour de France
A Suitably British Place to Watch the Tour de France

My novel is set partly in London (the City and über cool Shoreditch) where you only have to walk down the street or take a bus to realise there’s an abundance of non-native inhabitants.

And it doesn’t need a UKIP party political broadcast to point out that the recent changes in the population of London and the consequent changes in its character are particularly linked to rights of free movement within the European Union and its expansion eastwards.

One of my main characters, Kim, is a proud German but also an equally proud Londoner and thorough Anglophile — and she’s happy to live in cosmopolitan London indefinitely. It’s the hub of her world as an artist — but the price of living at the centre is the huge expense.

Kim goes to live in the countryside and her adjustment to life outside London — in a symbolic ‘green and pleasant land’ — unfolds as a significant element of the novel’s narrative.  Unlike London, with its diverse neighbourhoods and coexisting communities, Kim has to gradually assimilate into a more closed, conservative and less fragmented community, which nonetheless already hosts a large number of immigrants.

The storyline may resonate with the inevitable debate about Britain’s relationship with Europe which will rumble on for the next few years — as whatever the outcome of the election Europe is bound to be a very hot topic.

Given that I’m rather sceptical about the supposed mood of Euroscepticism in the country, I was intrigued by the reception given to Le Grand Départ — the start of that most continental of events. Over the last weekend the Tour de France staged what was effectively a takeover of large parts of Yorkshire and it rode into London on Monday.

How would the supposedly Eurosceptic British react to an invasion of foreigners spearheaded by the oldest enemy of them all? We loved it.

The French Advance on Buckingham Palace
The French Advance on Buckingham Palace

The road that connects Buckingham Palace with the Houses of Parliament — the axis of British government — was invaded on Monday by all things French — French TV cameras, banners in French, adverts for French supermarkets that we don’t even have in this country, the gendarmerie riding around London and even commentary in French relayed around the Mall and St. James’s Park. Surely this kind of thing would give Nigel Farage palpitations?

And the French invasion went right through London and beyond with the road to Tower Bridge sealed off because the French invasion procession was coming right past the Tower of London — look out for the crown jewels — and, as my photo shows, it caused huge disruption to the daily operation of the City of London.

Spot the Beefeater
Spot the Beefeater

Were those entire Cities financial types w ho deserted their offices en masse at 3.15pm on a busy Monday heading to the barricades to remonstrate with meddlesome Europeans whose garlic-fuelled bike ride was interfering with the pinnacle of human endeavour — swapping money from one account to the next at the speed of light?

Perhaps Nigel preferred the Tour de France to the tur din România (and if you thought I Google translated that you’d be dead right) and the little Englanders might be relieved the whole moving carnival would soon be back in the land of hundreds of fromages (hang on, isn’t that us too these days?) .

But actually the hordes of City evacuees — and the many spectators from office windows — weren’t objecting to the French incursion — they were celebrating. Because, as the Olympics also showed two years ago, there’s nothing more the British like than to welcome the rest of the world and lay on a rather good party.

Not Exactly Trooping the Colour on Birdcage Walk
Not Exactly Trooping the Colour on Birdcage Walk

London often provides the backdrop to the historic and exotic but this Tour de France was inspired because it also visited one of the most diehard conservative realms of the national consciousness — Yorkshire. ‘There’s nowt about thy fancy foreign ways that impresses me.’ And I can say that without much fear of being accused of regional stereotyping because I was brought up about three miles from the route of Stage 2.

On Sunday the cyclists pedalled through the landscape of my formative years — the foothills of the Pennines. I used to frequently walk on the bleak moors that mark the Lancashire-Yorkshire border (the landscape that inspired the Brontës, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath amongst others) and the aerial views of the hills, valleys and reservoirs between Haworth, Hebden Bridge and Ripponden looked forbiddingly beautiful on television.

I would have loved to have travelled up north for the race. The atmosphere amongst the 10,000 people who lined the route in the mile or so of the race where the route crossed on to the Lancashire side looked incredible – and what might not have been obvious from the television pictures was that, as the main roads were closed all day, the vast majority of the spectators in this section had to walk or cycle three miles, involving a near thousand feet vertical climb from the valley below.

I came across some amazing photographs on Facebook of Carrefour floats and French motorcycling gendarmes passing flag-waving crowds on roads in places so inhospitable that there are no houses for several miles (and these photos had bikes on them unlike mine — which failed to capture any cyclists due to various camera disasters). The crowds gathered only a couple of miles away from some of the most notoriously desolate peat bogs on the Pennine Way.

The landlady of the White House Inn, on Blackstone Edge — one of only two dwellings along a five mile stretch of the A58, remarked that the visit of the Tour de France ‘made me proud to be British‘.

This isn’t as bizarrely contradictory as it sounds – welcoming visitors is something the British take pride in – and is at odds with the rhetoric of the isolationists and Eurosceptics.

My fictional idyllic village has made many foreign residents feel very welcome — American art lecturers, Polish cooks, Indian techies and so on — and they play a full part in English country life.

While the Tour de France was a novelty and a spectacle it still showed a desire to engage with Europe – and even better if it was also an exercise in the indulgence of another typical British trait — celebrating an excuse to get drunk.

The caravan that travelled through Yorkshire and into the heart of London was a peculiar celebration of French and Yorkshire promotions — big Visit Yorkshire floats, motorised Fruit Shoots and a speeding Carrefour mountain.

The whole spectacle showed how the British embraced a temporarily transplanted icon of Europe in a way that Jeremy Deller might describe as celebrating ‘Joy in People’ — even if they were mostly French and on bikes.

Tower of London and the Shard Wait for the Tour de France
Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and the Shard Wait for the Tour de France

Do you think the Tour de France confounded the Eurosceptic stereotypes — I’d love to read any comments below.

London: Thank You For 2012

I couldn’t end 2012 without something for my Shardenfreude followers. I’ve had a fair number of hits on the blog over the past couple of years looking for photos of its construction and now it’s finished and shining like a, well, shard.

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

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


It’s so apt that London’s most well known modern landmark (or is it now the Shard?) is an inclusive circle — or in the year of the Olympics — a ring.

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

As anyone reading the posts on this blog over the summer will realise, I think this was an extraordinary year to spend time in London — and it was a privilege for me to be here in 2012 to witness how the city, probably already the most international and cosmopolitan on earth, became a place that literally, with the extraordinary army of games-makers, welcomed the world — and incredibly efficiently too.

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

I’m still awed by the Danny Boyle Opening Ceremony. I’ve watched the start a few times since — and I now have my Olympic DVD — and in places I still have that spine-tingling feeling of watching a piece of genius unfolding — and a peculiarly eccentric English genius. I’d almost forgotten that the official speeches were made from that bizarre interpretation of Glastonbury Tor — that spewed out industrial workers. Perhaps it’s because Danny Boyle comes from the fringes of Manchester, as I do, that the Pandemonium section with the rising mill chimneys had such resonance. But, as I’ve blogged already, the narrative of that sequence was brilliant — obscuring the denouement of the unification of the five rings, except for that wonderful moment when the audience suddenly realises what’s about to happen, and then has a final surprise payoff at the end with the raining fire.

In retrospect, it’s easy to forget the doubts we all had about London even having a tolerably good games and avoiding something disastrous. It’s not surprising in retrospect that the Olympics and Paralympics put on a great show. London routinely handles huge sporting events — with the likes of Wembley, Twickenham and Lords being some of the best stadiums in the world (I know Twickenham wasn’t used but, having lived nearby for several years it shows how 80,000 people can be processed in and out of a suburban stadium). London, and the country in general, put on huge cultural events, like Glastonbury and the Hyde Park concerts, every summer and the country is able to put on spectacular state events, like the Royal Wedding and this year’s Jubilee celebrations (though we can’t control the weather). And, here’s a slightly tenuous connection to the novel, London and the rest of the country has probably the most thriving cultural industry of any city (or country) in the world — punching way above its weight in music, art, theatre, television, writing — almost any branch of culture you can think of. And the government, for a change, didn’t cut the budget. Of course we should have put on a good show but it’s a reassuringly diffident British characteristic to think that we wouldn’t.

Apologies for repeating myself but we’re not going to get another event like it for a long time and, although the Olympics knocked my writing schedule way behind during the summer, it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed.

So maybe another few photos from the landmark that will explode in a huge circle of fire in a few hours to celebrate the end of such a great year for the city.

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


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


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



There’s been so much else I’ve done in London in 2012 that I’ve not even had change to blog about — exhibitions seen, events I’ve attended, walks I’ve taken — the Shoreditch graffiti walk and previously mentioned Abbey Road Studio Two visit being but two of the highlights.

I’ve also met so many wonderful new friends, particularly associated with the arts in London. Maybe I’ll do a proper round up post in the New Year?

And between the Olympics and Paralympics I belatedly discovered Tuscany and Venice for the first time, which would have been the highlight of most years.

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

I do have a finished novel, although it’s not yet quite polished enough yet, which is a little frustrating, but I think it’s benefited from being in progress during the year — especially if I can manage to capture a little of the headiness of this past year in the city.

So 2013 is only a few hours away — the year when I finally hope the finished novel is going to gain me that MA in Creative Writing after three years of study (after all the OU, Lancaster and City courses as well).  So, in novel writing terms, perhaps a little like the Olympic hopefuls this time last year, but in a more modest, literary way, my New Year’s Resolution is pretty straightforward — do my best, work hard, accept any criticism and setbacks as constructive feedback and then see how my efforts measure up — finish the novel to best of my ability, send it out and then start on the next one…but also carry on enjoying myself as much with the next as I have with this one.

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

(And my other New Year’s Resolution is to clean out all the crappy extraneous characters in the old blog posts that appear to have arrived with the database copying problems.)

A Flying View of London

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

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

The Shard Rising
The Shard Rises Between the Canary Wharf Towers

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Emirates Skyline Cable Cars
The Emirates Skyline Cable Cars

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

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

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

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

Tap East
Tap East, Stratford Westfield

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


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

Canary Whard Lights at Night
Canary Wharf, Illuminated

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Olympic Legacy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mad Men in the Serpentine
Mad Men in the Serpentine


The Hottest Ticket in Town
The Hottest Ticket in Town

While ‘unbelievable’ seemed to be the word applied an unbelievable number of times to British sporting achievements, ‘bonkers’ seems the  most appropriate description to apply to the cultural and social impact of the Olympics – especially after that closing ceremony. Its astonishingly uninhibited chaos mixed flashes of genius with the heroically tacky and cheesy – and slightly sadly probably showed a more accurate reflection of British popular culture than the mesmerising Opening Ceremony.

It feels a world away now but the Opening Ceremony set the tone for what appeared to me to be a staggering transformation in the collective mood – certainly in London.

London 2012 -- Doubters
What We Were Warned About.

What seemed to make the change in mood of the last couple of weeks genuine — and profoundly touching — was the collective astonishment – we couldn’t believe that we were pulling it off.

Beyond the worries about crowding and traffic there were at least a couple of major problems that could have occurred at this Olympics: terrorism and rioting. Fortunately neither the events of July 2005 or August 2011 were repeated. But we all collectively held our breath and by the end of the games all the doubts, warnings and cynicism were forgotten. Instead we all went bonkers.

Walking around LondonI was reminded of the title of the Jeremy Deller retrospective earlier this year at the Heyward Gallery – Joy in People. And very serendipitously I came across Sacrilege, Deller’s bouncy castle Stonehenge in Victoria Park, Hackney (it only stayed a day in any one place inLondon on its cultural Olympiad tour). I also saw another piece of British bonkerness in Victoria Park – the eccentric Universal Tea Machine.

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

Back to the Opening Ceremony, the first point when I realised that I was watching something really spectacular was an overhead shot of the molten iron circle being symbolically beaten by foundry workers. I thought ‘Hold on that looks a bit familiar’ and the shot cut to two glowing objects moving overhead from the edges of the stadium. Then the molten ring lifted and everyone knows what happened next — the Olympic Rings of Fire were assembled above the stadium.

(I haven’t heard it mentioned elsewhere but I picked up a definite nod to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with the green and pleasant land turning into a furnace of fire-beaten rings.)

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

More anything else, for me,  in the incredible show, it summed up the essence of creativity — taking a symbol as familiar as the Olympic rings and presenting it in an entirely new, innovative way. It was as masterful as reading the denouement of a brilliantly plotted novel — a moment of unexpected, revelatory insight into what came before.

The Opening Ceremony drew on skills in which it was generally acknowledged that Britain was almost uniquely good at – creativity, innovation, contemporary music and design. Although with Britain third in the medal table (and writing just after the closing ceremony) perhaps we should put sport higher on our list of national strengths.

Skills in which Britain leads the world – such as advertising and television – both based on the creative manipulation of imagery – and this has been transferred to the games. It’s amazing to consider the attention to detail involved in London 2012’s branding. The presentation of the venue has been amazing.

The colour scheming of the games has been meticulous – and brilliantly successful in an understated way. The largely restrained palate of colours used for the games was clever: an aqua blue, orange, yellow and the two most prominent – the bright pink and deep purple. These colours don’t clash with many, if any, flags and they simultaneously convey both excitement and informality (the pink) with a stately  self-assured competence (purple).

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

No venue has used design to appear as stunning as the unlikely temporary beach volleyball arena on Horse Guards Parade, which I was lucky enough to get tickets for on the first Sunday of the games. It’s a shame the security fences mean that it’s been difficult for non-ticket holders to get a view of the stadium.

It has seated an incredible 15,000 people and was constructed in the few weeks between Trooping the Colour and the Olympics – and I can say from personal experience it was no ramshackle affair. It had to be solidly built to cope with the energies of the crazed, conga-dancing crowd.

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

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

I’m normally someone who would run a mile from an event with cheerleaders and similarly mandatory jollity. But faced with the rather un-British beach and tan culture. Londonreacted in the best of British traditions – it took the piss out of it. The staging of the event was staged with such exuberantly over-the-top genius that it even used the Benny Hill theme tune – not to accompany the knowingly camp dancers but for the volunteers who levelled the sand – ‘The Rakers’ (who sounds like an American college basketball team).

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

The atmosphere was infectiously surreal – four second blasts of music accompanying the action and absurd crowd participation (a bizarrely eclectic mix of Blur, LMFAO, the Beach Boys and, of course, Dizzee Rascal himself), I doubt many London audiences would jump out of their seats as readily to perform a huge conga around the stadium and when Madness’s One Step Beyond boomed around the seat of British government at 11pm on a Sunday night there were 15,000 pairs of arms moving up and down in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

Sitting in the ‘Downing Street End’ of the stadium I wondered what other country would site a beach volleyball stadium within 50 yards of its government’s centre of executive power? Only one that was bonkers. And that sums up the genius of these Olympic games: I had one of the most enjoyable nights of entertainment I can remember in a long time.

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

And Were We Ready?

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

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

And it did. It bloody well did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London 2012 Big Ben
Big Ben Olympic Ready

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London 2012 Soldiers on Whitehall
Not Helmand Province

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

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

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

London 2012 Cenotaph
Two Contrasting Examples of Nation Against Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

London 2012 Triathlon Finish
The Triathlon Stadium on the Serpentine

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

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

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

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

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

Tower Bridge Olympic Rings 110712
Tower Bridge with the Olympic Rings

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

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

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

London 2012 Time Out
Time Out Welcome to London

Was It Worth It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wenlock and Mandeville — How’s About That Then?

Yesterday London 2012 introduced its two mascots, partly created by Michael Morpugo, who are called Wenlock and Mandeville. They look like metallic teletubbies.

Given that our City University group is based right in the centre of London, it’s quite interesting that not too many of us have set our novels in the city — it’s only the main setting for three people, if I remember rightly. There are two more of us who will use London as a partial setting, including me. Of those five, two people are setting their novels fifteen or twenty years in the past. Only three of us are writing about relatively contemporary London. This may be quite relevant as we look ahead a couple of years as the Olympics are going to make this country, and London in particular, a real focus of attention throughout the world. This has its good and bad aspects but there could be a big cultural knock-on effect as we’re already starting to see to a lesser extent with South Africa and the World Cup.

I’ve already written a passing reference in The Angel to the 2012 Olympic logo but I’m again quite intrigued by the serendipitous names that these mascots have been given in the context of my novel. Wenlock is apparently based on the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock. However, it’s also the name of a spit-and-sawdust real ale pub on the fringes of Hoxton and Islington that I’ve used as a setting — the Wenlock Arms. It’s the pub where Kim works — and I’ve just written a scene where she and James turn up there. I’ve slightly changed the pub name in the novel.

And Mandeville? It’s derived from the village of Stoke Mandeville, just up the road from me, which gives its name to Stoke Mandeville Hospital (strictly speaking that’s in Aylesbury) which was made famous for its spinal injuries by Jimmy Saville in the 70s. It’s apparently the biggest hospital site in Europe, although the Medizinischen Hochschule Hannover which is opposite the offices I frequently visited seems pretty huge to me (Kim was born there!). However, Stoke Mandeville is no doubt the only hospital that has a huge sports stadium. This is used for paralympic events — it was where they started — and has to be seen to be believed. It’s bigger than many football league grounds. I had a wander round the hospital buildings a couple of months ago when I had to find my way from A&E to the pharmacy, which are at opposite ends.

Stoke Mandeville is also the nearest hospital to where The Angel pub is set so I’m sure that one or two of the characters will find reason to end up there — I’ve already got a good plot opportunity for poor old Kim to be taken there.