2016 Wasn’t All Bad — If You Picture It Like This

On top of everything else that happened in 2016, it wasn’t a great year for my blog posts. I’ve managed to update the blog at least once a month for the past few years but since my post on the EU referendum at the end of June, I’ve only managed one more — an overdue review of Isabel Costello’s debut novel (albeit a long one).

Looking back, despite my best intentions, I’m still not exactly sure why I’ve not managed to keep up the previously modest level of posting activity. It’s probably prioritisation by default as I’m still writing and doing just as much interesting stuff in between. There’s also been various developments with the novel that I’m not really able to publicly blog about on here.

But one thing I’ve kept  doing, mainly because it’s nowhere near as time-consuming as blogging, is taking lots of photos.

So in the spirit of a picture telling a thousand words here’s a photographic run through 2016 with a bit of commentary along the way

Perhaps one reason for being distracted from blogging is that I’ve spent the past year working in Soho. For example this place is just around the corner…

Beer Porn @ Brewdog Soho
Beer Porn @ Brewdog Soho

…and even though it’s no longer the groovy Swinging Sixties, there are enough spontaneous ‘happenings’ around where I work for me to have grabbed the odd evocative photo, like this one…

Swinging Soho July 2016
Swinging Soho July 2016

I walk past this iconic place almost daily (it was interesting to see it featured in The Apprentice this year)…

Liberty at Night
Liberty at Night

…and along here often too (and at the moment it’s worth walking to the end of Carnaby Street to the pop up shop set up by the V&A Museum in association with their You Say You Want A Revolution Exhibition).

Carnaby Street
Carnaby Street

And there’s plenty of things to be distracted by nearby — like the amazing Christmas angels in Regent Street…

Regent Street Angel, Christmas 2016
Regent Street Angel, Christmas 2016

…or just weird London scenes like this.

Oxford Street, Summer 2016
Oxford Street, Summer 2016

Sometimes it’s been restorative to occasionally get away from it all and lie (albeit briefly) under a tree on a patch of grass in one of those rare summer lunchtimes.

The Best View of London on a Summer Lunchtime
The Best View of London on a Summer Lunchtime

I don’t say much here about the ‘day job’. Until late 2015 that was partly because I might have been taken out and shot if I said too much! OK. That was meant to be a gross exaggeration about working in a government ministry but the way Theresa May’s government is treating its civil servants then perhaps it’s not. Nevertheless, I have a hazy recollection that I may have signed the Official Secrets Act, not that I had access to much secret stuff but I did work almost literally at the heart of government. I walked daily through the doors of a large ministry — one that was often on the front page of the newspapers — and shared lifts with cabinet ministers.

While I wasn’t exactly Sir Humphrey, I was given invaluable direct experience of the the way government works.

And in terms of writing benefit, I gained insider knowledge of the criminal justice system, through working with the police, HM Courts and Tribunals system ( even doing some work for those seditionary “enemies of the people” in the UK Supreme Court).

It’s all fantastic material should any of my future novels head in the direction of crime or politics.

The organisation where I now spend most of my nine-to-five working hours couldn’t be more different.  I won’t go into specific detail but it’s a media-tech company (hence the Soho base) and uses a lot of clever technology to encourage people to pay money to look as absurd as the people below…

The Future of Entertainment?
The Future of Entertainment?

(Apparently the gun isn’t on sale yet.) Actually, the VR (Virtual Reality) experience is so immersive that these people won’t care how they look from the outside. I’ve tried VR and it’s convincing. I predict that the technology could be on the cusp of going mainstream. And don’t take my word for it — creating a VR game was another activity to be featured on this season’s Apprentice.

2016 produced some unexpected recognition for my writing — non-fiction this time.

I was elected (or admitted or whatever they do) to full membership of the British Guild of Beer Writers. It might seem surprising to some that this organisation even exists but it has a few hundred members, including household names and virtually every author of a book on beer or pubs or contributor on the subject to any broadsheet newspaper or TV or radio broadcast.

I was elected to full membership on the basis of published examples of my writing (which I don’t tend to talk about much on this blog) so it’s a huge honour to be in the company of so many illustrious and expert writers in that field.

Here’s the image that adorns my entry in the BGBW website directory.I’m hard at work at the beer tasting side of the job!

British Guild of Beer Writers Profile Picture
British Guild of Beer Writers Profile Picture

Being a member of the guild let me rub shoulders with the movers and shakers of the beer writing world at their awards ceremony, including the odd, hairy beer-loving celebrity.

Two Hairy People
Two Hairy People

But even though my blog posts may have slipped off the radar, I’m still writing a lot of fiction, even on holiday in France (see below).

Writing by the River Dronne in France
Writing by the River Dronne in France

I could get used to that lifestyle.

With various things happening with The Angel (which, as it’s a book, have been invariably slow moving, I’ve been hard at work on another novel. A heavily adapted version of the new novel’s opening even won a prize in the Winchester Writers’ Festival Writing Can Be Murder crime writing awards this year.

I’ve kept in touch with many writing friends, enjoying their successes, for example, with winning stories at Liars’ League and other writing -related developments that can’t be blogged about. I’ve also kept up my involvement with the RNA (see previous post) and received another great critique from their New Writers’ Scheme.

By providing a series of non-negotiable deadlines every few weeks, my membership of a writing group in London has proved invaluable. I’ve propped myself up and carried on writing well into the early hours on several occasions by working on a piece from the new novel. In the summer I carried on once or twice for the whole night — going to bed (briefly) once that sun had risen.

The standard of my fellow writing group members is generally excellent (one reason why I burn the midnight oil to try to make my submissions at least presentable) and we’re very fortunate that the group is run by someone who’s a professional writing tutor at City University and novelist.

The group’s feedback is excellent — both illuminating and honest — although not usually as brutally frank as the comment below.

Honest Feedback
Honest Feedback

I’ll save details of the current work-in-progress for another post. However,  the next few photos might give a clue about some some of the things I’ve been doing that could act as background research for the world of the novel.

Here’s a shot of a pile of books waiting to be read…

Books for Research 1
Books for Research 1

…and below is another example of my methodical approach to shelving books (Owl Song At Dawn is an excellent novel published this year by my old City University creative writing tutor, Emma Claire Sweeney, who organises Something Rhymed — see earlier post).

Research 2
Research 2

I’ve not been to any music concerts quite as jaw-dropping at Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn (whose recording of the shows was released a few weeks ago and allowed me to relive sitting right in front of the spectacle — and the sonic battering of Omar Hakim’s drums — listen to the extended version of King of the Mountain on the CD and you’ll know what I mean).

But during the year I’ve been to see a couple of other giants of music from the past thirty or so years. Most recently I saw Nile Rodgers, also at the Hammersmith Apollo, who performed an incredibly energetic set of hits by Chic, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and others (several of which I heard a few days later being played from loudspeakers in Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland) and he also played an obscure favourite of mine, Spacer, originally by French singer, Sheila B.

Nile Rodgers, Hammersmith Apollo, 23rd December 2016
Nile Rodgers, Hammersmith Apollo, 23rd December 2016

Seeing Bruce Springsteen live has been one of those bucket list items I’ve always wanted to experience so I took my opportunity when he played Wembley Stadium in June along with 80,000 or so others. Elsewhere in the stadium were Bruce fans and writing acquaintances (and tweeters) Louise Walters (whose second novel is published imminently) and Pete Domican.

Springsteen’s stamina and his rapport with a stadium audience are awesome. He played from around 6.30pm to just before 10pm, non-stop. The sound where I was sitting in the south stand was fairly ropy but I was more dumbfounded by the behaviour of the people in the (not very cheap) seats around me. As can be seen from one of the earlier photos, I like a pint of beer, but many of the mostly middle-aged, middle-class audience seemed to treat the Springsteen show like a visit to a very expensive pub — possibly reliving their rose-tinted memories of some student bar. They constantly shuttled to and from the very expensive Wembley bar and then, inevitably, to the toilets. While loudly declaring their devotion to ‘The Boss’, some dedicated fans danced with their backs to the stage and got so drunk they either had to leave before the end. Some wouldn’t have remembered it anyway.

Springsteen,Wembley, June 2016
Springsteen,Wembley, June 2016

I was a little dubious in advance about another music-related experience in the summer — visiting the Latitude Festival in Suffolk in July. I wanted to go mainly to see Grimes: who’s nothing to do with the music genre grime, but a hugely innovative and original musician from Canada whose music defies any easy description — being both catchy and experimental — and mainly, but not exclusively, electronic.

It was described as one critic as being simultaneously like everything you’ve ever heard reassembled and remixed in a way which sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before. That strikes me as something interesting to aspire towards in writing.

What massively impresses me about Grimes is that, with the exception of a couple of guest vocalists, she writes, sings, plays all the instruments, produces and engineers her recordings. I never get bored listening to her most recent album, the brilliant Art Angels . ‘Don’t be boring’ is another great rule of thumb.

Her live performance was equally original and self-reliant, accompanied by only a couple of dancers and her recent collaborator, Hana, on guitar (on left in photo below).

Grimes at Latitude, July 2016
Grimes at Latitude, July 2016

While waiting for Grimes, I had an unexpected opportunity to see Slaves, a two man guitar and drum modern-punk group. While the group themselves would be unlikely to dispute that their music is the opposite of subtle, their performance was amazingly good humoured (with songs about commuting like Cheer Up London or fat-cat bankers ‘Rich man, 
I’m not your bitch man‘) and created such an engagement with the audience that the FT reviewer described it as ‘life affirming’.

Before Slaves I was blown away by an electrifying performance by Christine and the Queens. Along with Art Angels, I must have listened to Chaleur Humaine (Christine and the Queen’s debut album) more than any others this year. I went to one of their two shows at Brixton Academy in November for a repeat of the live experience.


I’ve always had a fondness for French electronic music (Air are another of my favourites). When Héloïse Letissier (Christine is her alter-ego) announced ‘Welcome to the French disco!’ at the start of Science Fiction, one of my favourite tracks, it seemed an appropriate riposte to the narrow-minded bigotry and xenophobia that has scarred other aspects of 2016 which far too many despicable politicians and newspaper editors  spent much the year cultivating.

Christine and the Queens are inclined to do unexpected cover versions live and I had the spine-tingling moment of serendipity when they covered Good Life by Inner City, at the time of its release in the late 1980’s a much-underrated track, but one of those tracks everyone seems to know — maybe because of the almost improvised vocal line that wanders where it’s least expected? But I guess Christine and the Queens may have picked it as an antidote to all 2016’s other shit?

At the other end of the socio-political spectrum to Slaves’ music, I’d been wary of Latitude’s reputation as the Waitrose of music festivals — with rehabilitated hippies regressing to the behaviours they liked to say they indulged in their youths. And, indeed, during the day there was indeed a scattering of baby-boomer types trying to press-gang their extended families into enjoying the festival in a conspicuously worthy way.

Boomer grandchildren were transported around in flower-garlanded trolleys like this one…

Starting Them Young at Latitude
Starting Them Young at Latitude

…and as it got later the place became more like a pop-up Center Parcs, except the vegetal aromas in the forest weren’t coming from wood burning fires. Eventually as the night wore on and the older people retired to their luxury tents the sound-systems and DJ sets attracted large, bouncing swathes of  younger people, like moths to the flashing lights.

Wandering through the woods I came across a series of artists’ nstallations — and immediately recognised the brightly-coloured faces of David Shillinglaw’s work (whose studio I visited a couple of years ago with Love Art London). He’s an exceptionally friendly person and showed me around his unmistakable collection of positively painted sheds, which transformed into a music sound-system after dark.

David Shillinglaw at Latitude 2016
David Shillinglaw’s Exhortation at Latitude 2016

I’d visited Latitude for the music but was most impressed by the festival’s showcasing of all types of art. When I first arrived I stopped off at the the literary arena to listen to an author interview with the Bailey’s Prize winner, Lisa McInery. It was a nice touch to have a bookshop on site.

Coming a few weeks after the EU referendum result, Latitude was a refreshing distraction that emphasised the pleasures found away from the poisonous and vindictive political atmosphere. Ironically, the industries represented by Latitude — art, music , comedy, dance, theatre and literature — are those in which the UK is an undisputed world leader (reflected in much of the content of this blog over the past few years) but seem undervalued by the closed-minded, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, expert-dismissing philistinism of the pro-leave bigots.

The opposite of a huge festival like Latitude is the proverbial gig in the back of a pub. I spent a fascinating evening in July on the Camden Rock’n’Roll Walking Tour, led by Alison Wise. Covering the amazing musical heritage of a relatively small part of London between Camden Town tube station and the Roundhouse near Chalk Farm.

I was especially pleased that we stopped off in several pubs on the way. Each pub had a strong association with one of Camden’s music scenes through the last few decades. The Hawley Arms was Amy Winehouse’s local (with the likes of the Libertines as regulars), The Good Mixer was where the leading Britpop bands hung out, the areas around Dingwalls and Camden Lock have many punk associations and the Dublin Castle in Parkway launched the careers of Madness and many other early eighties bands.

Dublin Castle, Camden
Dublin Castle, Camden

And here’s me with Molly from Minnesota (the only time I’ve ever met her) inside the Dublin Castle in a photo taken by Alison at the end of the tour.

A Pint with Molly from Minnesota in the Dublin Castle
A Pint with Molly from Minnesota in the Dublin Castle

It’s surprising how many of Alison’s tours round Camden and elsewhere are filled by tourists from overseas rather than native Brits or Londoners. Even though I’d worked in Camden for five years a while ago I still learned a lot from the tour — all relevant for writing purposes too. Alison also does Bowie Soho tours and album cover pub crawls which I’m sure are excellent.

I’ve read a lot of books over the year, although nowhere near as many as I’d intended. I’ve worked my way through a lot of musical biographies and autobiographies, including Chrissie Hynde’s frank Reckless, the bizarre Paul Morley prose of Grace Jones’s I’ll Never Write My Memoirs and the beautifully written (and non-ghosted) Boys In The Trees by the wonderful Carly Simon.

A few Sunday Times bestselling blockbusters have also made it on to my reading list, mostly out of curiosity to understand the reasons for their success. After having read them, in most cases, I’m not much the wiser.

So I’ve been busy, enjoying lots of new experiences and taking many more photos than those above. It’s even more worthwhile then those experiences to settle into the subconscious, interact and collide and spark off little bits of unexpected inspiration I can later use in my writing. And to help the process, there’s nothing like  taking a bit of time out and reflect.

So the last photo in the post was taken on a long walk between Christmas and New Year s the sun was setting over the Chilterns — a hopefully prescient, peaceful image to usher in 2017.

Deer Against the Chilterns Sunset
Deer Against the Chilterns Sunset

Cereal Offenders

Shoreditch was in the news last weekend when the organisers of the ‘Fuck Parade’ pelted the Cereal Killer Café at the hipster end of Brick Lane with ‘paint and cereal’. This must be one of the first times that Cornflakes and Rice Krispies have been drafted in as ammunition in a class war protest against gentrification and the reach of global capitalism!

For those who don’t know, Cereal Killer Café attracted notoriety in the media when it opened at the end of last year. Its unique selling proposition is simple: choose a cereal, put milk (or alternative on it) and an optional ‘topping’. Then hand over a fiver. (To be fair it’s not quite that expensive and there are some imported American cereals along with the Weetabix and Krave.)

Do I Get A Michelin Star in One of these Boxes?
Do I Get A Michelin Star With One of these Boxes?

The concept was seized upon as an example of the hubris of ironic artiness (quite possibly, even meta-irony where those responsible are making an ironic response to an ironic concept — otherwise known as ‘who’s actually taking the piss out of whom?’). ‘A bowl of Weetos? You’re havin’ a larf mate?’

It didn’t help that the two twin brothers who set up the café had the Shoreditch hipster image nailed: with their bushy beards and tattoos they looked like the archetypical ‘Shoreditch twat’ squared.

The protest’s organisers (if indeed, the protest is organised — this was Shoreditch) have been widely condemned for attacking an independent business that is, at worst, a gimmicky tourist-trap for those with more money than nutritional sense.

The real irony is that, for those who say they want to rally against gentrification and the change in the area’s character, there’s something to properly protest about within fifty yards of Cereal Killer’s doors.

Diggers Arrive in Sclater Street September 2015
Diggers Arrive in Sclater Street September 2015

I took the photograph above last week on Sclater Street, which leads from Shoreditch High Street station to Brick Lane — Cereal Killer is in the block behind the mechanical digger. Despite the street art on the hoardings, this space is being turned into a development called The Fusion. The cheapest apartment in The Fusion is a mere £757,500 (you get all of one bedroom for that plus a fitted Smeg fridge). The hipsters in Cereal Killer would need to sell a lot of Frosties to afford to move into one of those.

Not that the developers are targeting the Shoreditch arty set who have created the ‘buzz’ that makes these new apartment blocks so lucrative — if the flats are inhabited at all (rather than kept as empty investments by overseas buyers) their occupants will no doubt be making the 10 minute commute to the heart of the City rather than to some loft studio. (See previous post for more details of developments in the pipeline.)

Deep Foundations for All Those Luxury Cars?
Deep Foundations for All Those Luxury Cars?

The very deep excavations that can be viewed through the security fence show the scale of the development — is this for a garage or maybe an underground gym or swimming pool?

It’s this development and the many others like it that represent the threat to the character of the area. As soon as they’re completed, they will radically change Shoreditch in ways that go way beyond gentrification. The developers’ marketing material even contains the following: ‘Shoreditch is becoming more and more affluent and even being labelled as the ‘New Bond Street,’ plus it is a great location for City commuters’. 

I took the photo below in May last year on a street art tour. We’re standing on the old car park that has been excavated in the image above — the London Clay that has been the foundation of the area dug up and dumped somewhere else, replaced with an empty void.

The walls of the adjoining building were a popular site for street artists — they’re just about visible now through the security fences but will soon be obscured by steel and concrete. The Shoreditch of my novel is fast becoming history.

Sclater Street Car Park/Art Gallery May 2014
Sclater Street Car Park/Art Gallery May 2014


December is for Displacement Activity

No wonder NaNoWriMo (see last post) is held in November. Getting 5,000 words down, let alone 50,000, in December would be a challenge for me. I wonder whether all writers regard December as a  month to (apologies for the pun) write-off.

Writers are notorious for finding displacement activities as a way of putting off sitting down at a desk and starting the hard work of putting words on the page. Suddenly tasks like ironing, filling in your tax return or going to the supermarket all acquire an attractive urgency compared with doing what you supposedly aspire to make your vocation. (I’m told this affects all writers — probably more so for those who make their livings writing as then writing equals the dreaded four letter word that begins with W.)

But December is something else again — all that precious time you normally manage to find by clearing time at weekends, grabbing the odd couple of hours on a weekday evening or even a little scribbling on the train is mercilessly elbowed aside by the extra demands of the festive season.

Like most people I’ve been up to my eyes in shopping, putting up decorations and, of course, lots of socialising. I’ve tried to convince myself that some of that socialising counts as writing-related, such as the excellent Word Factory Christmas party that I attended with Guy from the City course.

Unlike most Word Factory events, where I’ve listened to writers as diverse as Alexei Sayle, A.L. Kennedy and my own second year MA tutor, Nicholas Royle, the floor is open at the Christmas party for readings from the Word Factory audience and there were some excellent short stories read at the event by their authors, including those from friends Isabel Costello and Pete Domican (who were much braver than me by putting their names into the hat — maybe next year for me).

From This Fruity Mess at the end of November...
From This Fruity Mess at the end of November…


I’ve also tried to convince myself that, because food plays a large part in the novel, that all the time I’ve spent preparing mountains of home-cooked food for Christmas will contribute

To This Beauty on Christmas Day
…To This Beauty on Christmas Day

as research time — that I’m connecting myself to the tastes, aromas and textures of food preparation. Perhaps there’s a case for this when I’m kneading out the dough for stollen, spicing some slow-cooked red cabbage or getting my hands up to my elbows in a mixing bowl of herby stuffing mixture but there doesn’t seem much inspiration to be found in peeling King Edwards at one in the morning (writers’ block would need to be rather severe for that to be a displacement activity).

Picking Sloes October 2014
Picking Sloes October 2014

The novel also follows the rhythms of the English countryside’s changing seasons of the best part of a year — the principal characters meet in late summer,  experience a few chills and blasts over winter and then burst into new life in the spring. So it’s surely for research purposes that I made my own version of the bottled essence of summer that is traditional sloe gin. The prickly business of picking over a hedgerow on a fine, early October day, gathering a couple of kilos of

Bottled Sloe Gin December 2014
Bottled Sloe Gin December 2014

the tiny purple fruits certainly gives time to meditate on the shortening days and ripening of the harvest. And the periodic shaking of the steeped liquid through early winter heightens the anticipation of its eventual bottling at the end of the year when it takes on a gorgeous deep red hue. It certainly warms you up inside when you drink it so it’s best drunk in small quantities– mine lasted until the start of Lent last year.  Maybe a small slug of the 2014 vintage will kick off my writing at the start of 2015?

December is also a time for visiting family and most of mine are quite a distance away. I may have mentioned on the blog previously that I originally come from the Lancashire side South Pennines in a town hemmed in by hills. Virtually every upward glance would take in the ‘wily, windy moors’ that provided inspiration for a surprising number of great writers and poets, the most local being Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath and, of course, the Brontë sisters. My theory is that the wild and desolate landscape represents forces of nature that can’t be conquered or subjugated by civilisation and they’re also a potent metaphor for the subconscious.

Bronte Parsonage Museum
Bronte Parsonage Museum

While visiting the north a few days ago I took the opportunity to revisit the Brontë Parsonage Museum (bizarrely driving about fifteen miles of the route of this summer’s Tour de France — the roads are still marked with slogans encouraging Wiggo and company). It’s a fascinating museum cataloguing the family’s life. But for me the highlight was standing in the dining room.

Maybe it’s something innately writerly but I felt transfixed in an almost religious experience when I read that this was the room where both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights were written, probably side-by-side at the dining table. I know Jane Eyre intimately, having studied it at school and written a dissertation on the novel and early feminism in the first year at university. To witness where the books were created (and the room is largely preserved as it was at the time) helps develop an understanding of the process of writing.

Stockholm Waterfront  in December
Stockholm Waterfront in December

But perhaps my most tenuous piece of research was to investigate setting up a possibly lucrative sideline in Scandi-noir. At the start of December I spent the weekend in Stockholm. It was a bit crazy really — flying out first thing on Saturday and returning

Yes, It Might Be Juvenile But This Still Cracked Me Up
Yes, It Might Be Juvenile But This Still Cracked Me Up

Sunday night — spending about 34 hours in the city. I’d been there a few times before in my previous job (and got to know a few Swedes quite well) but a visit in December, when the light starts to fail about two in the afternoon and doesn’t return until about nine the next morning, helps to explain why the Scandinavians are particularly good at the dark side of fiction.

The northern Europeans have a reputation of doing Christmas ‘properly’ — with Germany’s Christmas markets being so popular that they’re popping up all over London — and the

Guess Who's the English Tourist with the Boots Carrier Bag
Guess Who’s the English Tourist with the Boots Carrier Bag

Frankfurt market that takes over Birmingham city centre is phenomenally successful. (This welcoming of other countries’ customs is another reason why I believe the British aren’t Eurosceptics at heart.)

Sweden celebrates Christmas in a way that doesn’t appear brashly commercialised — with its own traditions such as baking saffron bread and celebrating St. Lucia’s day around a

fortnight before Christmas. I visited the most famous Christmas market in Stockholm, at the Skansen open air museum, which was a relatively rustic affair with open log fires and arts and crafts and reindeer meat stalls.

Stockholm itself is a beautiful city and would provide plenty of inspiration for writers. The Vasa, an incredibly well-preserved 17th century battleship that was lifted from Stockholm harbour, is jaw-dropping when first sighted in its museum and would provide all kinds of period inspiration for historical and nautical sagas.

Another theme of the novel is looking at this country (and London, which is arguably a unique place in itself) through the eyes of a European. There’s immense insight to be gained in seeing how other countries celebrate festivals — the better to understand the unique aspects of our own.

Kim in the novel is a devoted anglophile who thinks her excellence at spoken English and several years living in London means she understands the country completely but her German logic is occasionally confounded by the sheer eccentricity of the British.

Owlswick Morris with their female Father Christmas and cross-dressing St. George
Owlswick Morris with their female Father Christmas and cross-dressing St. George

While I witnessed it much too late to go into the novel, I’d have

The Doctor Arrives
The Doctor Arrives

loved to write Kim’s fictional reaction to a traditional mummers’ play performed by local morris side, the Owlswick Morris, in my local pub on Boxing Day.

Mummers’ plays date back to the middle-ages as they are very

loosely based on the crusades. When I was at school we performed a Lancashire version at Easter called the Pace-Egg play. I was the Prince of Paladine and had to have a swordfight with St. Andrew, as I remember.

The version performed by Owlswick Morris gave a few more nods to contemporary sensibilities and featured, among others, Father Christmas (not principally known for crusading through the Levant) who was played by a woman and a cross-dressing St. George.

Redchurch Brewery Shoreditch Blonde
Redchurch Brewery Shoreditch Blonde

The top-hatted doctor, whose resurrection skills make him one of the most recurring characters, fortunately made an appearance to revive slain Slasher. (Who knows, he might be an early precursor of Doctor Who?).

I can see the slapstick elements of the mummers’ play appealing to Kim’s German sense of humour but I imagine she’d still be puzzling out how to interpret it several days later.

And thinking of Kim, whom my RNA reader described as a ‘great character and an unusual and original heroine’, I came across the beer in Utobeer in Borough Market that I mentioned a year or so ago on the blog was presciently appropriate for her — Redchurch Brewery‘s Shoreditch Blonde. (Not so much for the hair colour but because at the start of the novel she works in a pub near Shoreditch and her expertise with beer puts her at the vanguard of the recent popularity of craft beer. Redchurch Street in Shoreditch is also a place where she’d get out her spray cans and create her street art.)

I didn’t have a choice but to buy a bottle to open on a special occasion (like Kim, it’s sophisticated and not cheap). So what better time than New Year’s Eve?

Here’s a toast to Kim, and all my other characters, and to hope they help make 2015 a very special year. And a happy New Year to all my blog readers and best wishes for all your plans and endeavours (writing or otherwise) in the year ahead. Let’s hope it’s a good one.

Toasting the Shoreditch Blonde
Toasting the Shoreditch Blonde, New Year’s Eve 2014

Eurovision, Bowie and Homogeneity

It’s been so long since the last post I’ve taken inspiration from the chiller at the end of the aisle in my local Tesco and have produced three posts for the price of one.

Last Saturday night, primed after a few pints from the local pub, I joined the annual British tradition of watching the Eurovision Song Contest.

Nowadays this appears to be a ‘game of two halves’ affair. When the performers gamely take the stage, we indulge in the finest British tradition of thoroughly taking the piss, especially of the self-deluded countries that appear to take the competition seriously. But we’re often dumbstruck when some of the acts are so bizarre they rise above irony.

Among the general cheesiness this year was an apparent theme of giants — including a towering vampire giant from Romania — and a bizarre song from Greece called Alcohol is Free if true then then it sounds great place for a couple of weeks in the summer. (Perhaps it’s to try and convince the Germans of the merits of their economic model?)

The second half of the show is like a hangover. All our European friends get their own back on all our withering sarcasm by apparently voting in concerted geo-political alliances which have the ultimate aim of making sure the Royaume Uni comes last – although this year, reflecting Euro tensions maybe, the Germans received the same kicking.

Like most parties, it’s a good idea to leave well before the end.

And we’re not just limited to using our own sparkling wit to complement Graham Norton’s (who maintains the peculiarly British Eurovision tradition of having an Irishman to cheer-lead the devastating put-downs). In the age of social media we can exchange our banter real-time in cyberspace in real time in a national Twitter bitchathon. Some academic could probably establish a correlation between retweeting and favouriting and the flow of booze as the night wears on.

Once, like some of the newer European countries, we seemed take the Eurovision Song Contest seriously – or maybe it’s just that I was child (just about) when the likes of Bucks Fizz and, earlier, the Brotherhood of Man actually won the thing.

Could it be that the Tory party’s neurosis over Europe can be directly traced to when the foreign Johnnies spurned Cliff Richard’s Congratulations — and, even worse, when we gave them a chance of atonement when he tried again with Power to All Our Friends?

And suspicions over our continental cousins would have been kindled when they failed to be seduced by the charms of our own Olivia Newton John. So what if she actually came from Australia? Before her fall from grace as Sandy in Grease and her raunchy Physical phase Olivia was very much the kind of girl next door beloved by the swivel-eyed loon community, albeit from 10,000 miles away.

My Cheesy Olivia Newton John Collection
My Cheesy Olivia Newton John Collection

For a period its popularity seemed to be waning – you can’t imagine the Britpop types of the 90s giving Eurovision more than a post-ironic ‘f*** off’ – but Eurovision has undergone the same renaissance as many other re-invented guilty pleasures. Who’d have ever thought ELO would become über cool?

Is it because, to the annoyance of some, that we’re far more integrated into Europe and the British lifestyle has become more comfortably continental?

Or, does the Eurovision Song Contest, amongst the uncool crooners and ubiquitous camp dancing, offer rare nuggets of unbridled eccentricity and uninhibited spontaneity – exactly the type of entertainment that’s normally lacking from prime-time Saturday night schedules?

I don’t watch vast amounts of the likes of the X-Factor, The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent (the novel-writing takes care of that) but I’ve seen enough to know that ‘success’ (at least in the first two of those programmes) is dependent on conformance to rigid stereotypes.

Simon Cowell and his ilk have condensed the music market into reliably marketable categories: the soul diva; the guy next door with that twinkle in his eye; the sassy girl-power group or the boy band with cheeky/smouldering/six-packing members (clichéd descriptions, I know, but that’s the point).

While it’s true that most music is marketed using less overt but equally cynically derivative formula, these stereotypes are particularly fail-safe. The distinction between successive years’ talent show winners are often of a similar magnitude to the great technological innovations that are emblazoned on the packaging of toothpaste or dishwasher tablets – a load of powerballs.

Nor do The X-Factor’s less manufactured rivals provide a feast of musical originality. The likes of Emili Sandé or Adele produce very competent and well-crafted albums and the bands like Coldplay can work a stadium along with the best of them (who are probably still the ancient Rolling Stones). But none of their work is likely to confound the expectations of their fans.

(This isn’t to say I dislike any of these above artists as I’ve bought CDs by all of them – yes, CDs show I’m old-fashioned enough to actually still buy music).

What tends not to succeed with these formulae are the qualities of imagination, eccentricity inventiveness and experimentation, the lack of which may explain the phenomenal popularity of the current David Bowie Is exhibition at the V&A Museum. Bowie’s even on the cover of next week’s Radio Times. (There’s a programme about Bowie’s most significant five years on BBC2 tonight (25th May) – which I’ll probably watch after exchanging messages with my German friend Thomas about the all-German Champions League final at Wembley.)


Radio Times 25th May 2013
Radio Times 25th May 2013

I’m not a mega Bowie fan but I learned my lesson from failing to get a ticket to the V&A’s recent Hollywood exhibition so booked early (tickets went very quickly) and managed to spend a lunchtime there last month.

It wasn’t nearly long enough – it would be easy to spend an hour or so just watching the concert footage. I compensated by buying the big, heavy show catalogue – for which my groaning bookshelves won’t forgive me.

From the point of view of plugging away for years at my own creative endeavour, it was reassuring that the exhibition started with the efforts of Bowie and his record companies to persist in trying to breakthrough commercially in the late 60s – something often forgotten in career retrospectives.

Bowie spent around five years on the fringes of Swinging London (from the famous 1964 BBC Tonight long-hair interview) until Space Oddity established his reputation, commercially timed to coincide with the Apollo moon landings.  (Oddly, I didn’t see any references whatsoever to The Laughing Gnome throughout the exhibition.)

That so much of the material came from his personal archive also showed how assiduously Bowie has curated his own artistic legacy.

The V&A show displays many Bowie stage costumes. Viewed close up, some of the outfits look less like iconic images than home-made fancy dress costumes. But these were an essential part of Bowie’s distinctive appeal as he underwent style makeovers at a dizzying pace, especially in the early 70s, changing from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane and so on. That’s one era that I’m fortunately too young to remember properly, although I do recall my uncle, a student at the time, showing my dad the cover of Diamond Dogs – to which the response was something like ‘What the bloody hell is that?’

Worth the entrance fee alone, particularly as a piece of social history in the week when a gay marriage bill has gone through the Commons, is the hilariously caustic Bernard Falk film for BBC Nationwide which is played on a loop in the exhibition. Dating back to 1973 it spits studied disgust at Bowie’s androgynous gender role-play. It’s well worth clicking the link to watch it on YouTube.

‘David Bowie spends two hours before his show caressing his body with paint…a bizarre, self-constructed freak…it is a sign of our times that a man with a painted face and carefully adjusted lipstick should inspire adoration from an audience of girls aged between fourteen and twenty…he will earn around half-a-million pounds this year [so] he can afford a personal make-up artist to cover his nails in silver.’

Being too young to follow Bowie’s reinventions at the time and his withdrawal (literally from drugs — his cocaine spoon is in the exhibition) and renewal in his Low period and the Berlin years, I found this an interesting section of the exhibition, especially as I like the city myself.

The first Bowie record I bought was, I think, Ashes to Ashes (that video is very peculiar), followed by Catpeople (both versions are brilliant), the weird Baal EP and the commercial Let’s Dance (I love Nile Rogers’ work from the late 70s to the mid 80s).

The videos for some of Bowie’s greatest tracks can be viewed alongside the original costumes and his own handwritten lyrics. These fascinate me. It’s an amazing experience to read lines like ‘Sailors fighting on the dancefloor, Oh man, look at those cavemen go,’ in the writer’s own hand, hearing the words sung simultaneously. Maybe it’s because I have the mind-set of a writer but I venerate these pieces of handwriting like religious artefacts (as I did viewing handwritten drafts by the likes of Jane Austen, Hardy, Eliot and J.G. Ballard at the British Library last year).

Reading Bowie’s own handwriting I realised this was the first time I’d actually fully understood many of his lyrics – especially lines like ‘strung out on heaven’s high’.

The strange juxtapositions that are a feature of Bowie’s lyrics were partially explained by an exhibit about the ‘Verbasizer’: a computer program he commissioned to randomly assemble fragments of sentences that had been fed into it . Bowie trawled the output for interesting combinations that he could develop further – maybe a useful tool for a poet or fiction writer?

I can’t agree with those who say Bowie was the most significant popular musician of the late twentieth century. However, his creation of enough artefacts to sustain a show at the V&A demonstrates, perhaps, his approach of constant re-invention and challenging of the audience through playing with the persona of the pop star meant that he was uniquely pivotal in developing the interaction between popular music and visual art.

In doing so, he created some beautiful music – I always think the ending of Ashes to Ashes is one of the most exquisite passages of popular music. Bowie was also shrewd in working with some great collaborators. They contributed hugely to the sound of the Zeitgeist of the time– for example Rick Wakeman’s haunting piano on Life On Mars and the work of Mick Ronson (who worked as a council gardener in Hull immediately prior to being one of the Spiders from Mars), Iggy Pop, Tony Visconti and many others.

David Bowie Is Inside
David Bowie Is Inside

The contrast between the Bowie’s rip-it-up-and-start-again approach and the industrialisation of the X Factor wannabees is also perhaps applicable to the experience of the aspiring writer. The goal is similar – to impress the judges – agents, publishers, booksellers – who can metaphorically allow their work to proceed to the next round, etc.

While some are happy to write for themselves and a limited audience, the majority of writers seek their work to be read by as widely as possible. The motivation might be very similar, in a quiet bookish way, to the attention-seekers on TV talent shows – having your name on the cover of a book on sale in a shop must be immensely gratifying, even more so after the long, lonely slog of writing a novel. On a more personal level, I’m sure most writers get an ego buzz when someone says they’ve enjoyed reading their work – why workshopping writing can be stressful – will you get a high of approbation or a low of ‘this didn’t really work for me’?

It’s likely there are more people who aspire to be novelists than join the next One Direction. While it probably wouldn’t be very televisual to film a show with hopeful writers auditioning their prose, which would probably vary between execrable or surprisingly good, it would still be compelling, competitive drama.

In the meantime, there’s no shortage of writing competitions or other forums in which writers can offer up their work for the judgement of others (writing groups, creative writing courses, etc.). Having taken many writing courses and kept in touch with quite a wide network of writer friends, both physically and online, I’ve had plenty of experience of having my own writing critiqued. I’ve also critiqued a lot of other people’s writing in return.

I like to think that I try to offer feedback by suspending, as much as possible, my own preferences and to assess whether the writing achieves the objectives with which its author set out (as far as these can be discerned). But I had an experience last week that made me wonder if I’d been swallowed up by the great ‘rules of creative writing’ homogenising machine.

A new friend who’s a writer sent me the opening of a book she was working on. It was very compelling, although I’d annotated the manuscript with quite a few notes for feedback. She’d also read the work to a writers’ group she’d recently joined and had sought the opinions of other writing friends.

We met up for a chat and when I mentioned various points that had occurred to me about the writing – like the narrative arc, scene-setting/chronology, point-of-view, intertwining of detail and back story – she invariably said ‘That’s really useful as the writers’ group said that too’ or ‘That’s exactly what my friend said’.

This was quite reassuring for her – and in some ways for me – because if my suggestions were similar to those of other people I’ve never met then my comments weren’t the ramblings of a lone, self-opinionated eccentric.

It’s likely that these other reviewers were influenced by the same courses, books/magazines on writing, conferences, agent talks, blogs, Twitter, etc. And this means that our collective perspective probably largely coincides with the general views of the professional ‘judges’ of writing: agents, publishers, editors and so on.

But, to return to the previous musical comparisons, do these universal truths mean that following these collectively-held writing axioms is more likely to shape a literary Joe McElderry than a David Bowie?

While conscientiously workshopping one’s writing is likely to purge the equivalent of cheesy, lame Eurovision entries, the tendency for writing groups to search for consensus might also dismiss the mad, off-the-wall eccentricities that are comparable to what makes the song contest’s unique appeal.

My Twitter friend, Pete Domican, makes some good points on his recent update to his blog entry about his decision to avoid buying from Amazon, which is well worth a read.

One of the points he makes in favour of using specialist bookshops is the serendipity of finding the unexpected: ‘I want to find books on a shelf that I’d have never discovered otherwise… I want to have conversations with writers who write ‘weird’ stuff…’

There’s so much advice aimed at making writers’ work stand out in the slush pile that its truisms are almost ubiquitous – and the focus is usually on trying to reduce the risk of making mistakes. It’s tempting to think that this might encourage a general shift towards the formulaic although there are certainly plenty of books published that don’t follow The Rules (probably by writers lucky enough to attract attention who have either avoided the traditional sources of advice (or deliberately contradicted them). And established writers potentially may feel freer to experiment.

Given last Saturday’s reaction from my ex-City university writing group friends to the latest section of my novel, I probably don’t have to worry too much about my own writing being over-homogenised. I was asked ‘Do you put these things in to deliberately get a reaction out of us?’ The answer is that I don’t (although I did slip in one line for that purpose in last week’s extract). It appears my novel is quite capable of setting off lively debates and reaction without any pre-meditated intervention – which I think is probably a good thing, on balance.

While I read a great deal and try to do more if possible, the necessity of grabbing bits of spare time to write my own novel means I don’t get time to get through nearly as many contemporary novels as I’d like – I’d love to get through a fraction of the number of new novels as does another Twitter writer friend, Isabel Costello.

Isabel’s blog, On the Literary Sofa, features many of her reviews of recent and forthcoming novels. The latest post lists her top ‘10’ summer reads (worth visiting, not least for the chance of winning one of the books).  I noted that the majority of the titles, which on first impression seem to sit around the ‘sweet spot’ between genre and literary fiction, were set overseas, particularly in North America and South Africa.

The interesting location of the novels reflects the importance of setting to a reader – using a novel to imagine oneself transported into another world is a fundamental attraction of fiction. What Isabel’s list doesn’t appear to feature heavily is the ‘high concept’ novel.

‘High concept’ is about trying to make a novel sound completely unique – particularly when reduced to a one or two sentence ‘elevator pitch’ – and according to a lot of advice I’ve read or heard, the more quirky or intriguing the concept the better – they often involve devices like memory loss, manipulation of time, improbable challenges and so on. But, paradoxically, when an increasing number of successful novels are evidently constructed around some kind of attention-grabbing concept then the need for a similar hook starts to become another essential item on the how-to-get-published checklist.

I’m currently reading a novel in which the prose is wonderful, the main character is sympathetic and credible and the author is adept at using difficult technical skills, such as dropping in backstory that anticipates readers’ questions that have been subtly raised. It’s also constructed around an obviously whimsical, quirky concept. While the concept works as a device in giving momentum to the narrative arc, I’m already becoming quite exasperated because it also seems to stretch the plot’s credibility past breaking point. It also requires the author to address otherwise unnecessary details that result from trying to sustain the central premise.

The book has clearly worked commercially and I’m sure I’m particularly curious about the techniques used to structure a narrative. However, I wondered if it had started as a ‘quiet’ book, concentrating on character-related development, and had the concept reverse-engineered into it. I may be completely wrong – the hook may have sprung into the writer’s mind before the rest of the novel but I it will be interesting to see the approach the author takes with her next book.

Like most such fashions, hopefully the primacy of high concept ideas will pass as, while it helps make a great pitch to a Waterstones buyer, ultimately the reader will suffer if writers of sympathetic and intelligent books feel the incorporation of some over-arching novelty is a pre-requisite for publication.

Having cited David Bowie as an example of rule-breaking and diversity, some might argue his approach to showmanship is in the spirit of high concept. In the case of Bowie as an individual artist, this is probably true. However, a truer analogy with writing advice would have resulted in every aspiring singer in the mid-70s to be told the way to success was to ape Bowie and re-invent elaborate personas for each album. To some extent this happened with prog-rock (remember Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower?) but what swiftly followed was a huge two-fingers being given to this prevailing orthodoxy: punk.

I recently read John Lanchester’s Capital, partly because it has some genre similarities with my own writing. I had high expectations for the novel. These weren’t wholly fulfilled but I admired the book’s ambition and the way it contradicted much of the received writing wisdom.

The ‘ultimate question’ asked in courses and workshops about a novel is usually ‘whose story is it?’. Capital can’t answer this – there are well over half-a-dozen characters who share equal prominence. And it’s not the story of Pepys Road (in south London, nominally where it’s set) either because there’s no real connection between the characters apart from vague demographics – some don’t even live there. There are also many sudden POV shifts, a large amount of exposition by ‘telling’ and there isn’t much of a narrative ‘chain of causality’.

Some of Capital’s characters work better than others but, as a reader, I’d rather Lanchester attempted the diversity of writing from the perspective of a female Zimbabwean parking attendant or a character innocently caught on the fringes of religious extremism than to stick with what seems the safer, more comedic territory of the disillusioned banker or football club fixer.

The book similarly varies in tone – ranging from terminal illness through the sexual motivation of Polish builders to the topical humour of an irredeemably consumerist banker’s wife. But I can imagine a writer being given advice on pitching a similar novel ‘but what is it – a romance, a comedy, social commentary’?

Like Eurovision and Bowie, Capital defies easy categorisation, and should be admired for that because if a ‘rules of the X-Factor’  approach is over-rigorously applied then we’re in danger of losing the serendipity and variety of the eccentric and individual that provide genuine surprise and delight.

Alexis Cole — Transcendence

One of the questions that recurs in my novel is the importance of  location — especially for artists.In my novel Kim is a German artist who has arrived to London from Berlin in the expectation that it’s the place to be to make her name in the world of modern art. During the novel she also experiences the bucolic joys of the rural England that can still can be found, surprisingly, less than forty miles from grungy Shoreditch.

While it could be argued that Dalston, Stoke Newington, Hackney Wick or further flung places are where the artistic action is now happening, the spiritual homeland of contemporary urban art in London (if not the world) is still the Shoreditch/Hoxton/Brick Lane area. It’s been deserted by the Young British Artists (YBAs) of the late 90s (the group that included Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst and the subject of the interestingly titled Lucky Kunsts by Gregor Muir (although there’s a big Hirst formaldehyde thing apparently in the new Tramshed restaurant on Rivington Street). However, the place is becoming more corporatised with the arrival of the likes of Google in ‘Tech City’ at Old Street Roundabout — and endorsements by the likes of Boris Johnson and David Cameron.

As an aside, I met Mat Collishaw (apparently Emin’s ex) in person at a Love Art London event a few weeks ago at Blaine Southern in Hanover Square at his most recent exhibition — where his painting were going for £110,000 a piece.

Nevertheless, the locality still attracts the most infamous graffiti artists and is stuffed with galleries. I recently followed a walk from Hoxton Overground station via Shoreditch to Old Street in Stephen Millar’s London’s Hidden Walks 2 and found plenty of urban grittiness only a street or two away from where the hipsters hang out — at the top of Hoxton Street, for example.

The association of artists with the Shoreditch area suggests that location is an important factor for artists to attract attention from dealers, critics and buyers. It has a long historical precedent: some of the best known painters often made long journeys to their best markets. In Beak Street in Soho a plaque marks the location where Canaletto stayed for two years in the eighteenth century. He came to London to sell his pictures to patrons who liked reminders of the Grand Tour. Appropriately enough, the building now houses the Venetian-inspired restaurant, Polpo.

So having written about an artist who comes from Shoreditch and spends time in the Chilterns, I was fascinated to read a story on my local newspaper’s website about an artist who was was, in a way, doing the opposite.

Alexis Cole is an artist who works from home in Thame (which is a picturesque Oxfordshire market town with a huge main street with many good pubs about 45 miles out of London). Co-incidentally, like Kim, she comes from Europe — Croatia in Alexis’s case, although, when you meet her, it’s obvious she’s lived in this country for a while (she went to university here).

Alexis Cole in Brick Lane Gallery Annexe
Alexis Cole in Brick Lane Gallery Annexe

This was the first time Alexis  had exhibited her work at a gallery and she chose to do so not in rural Thame but in the heart of the London contemporary art scene — at the  Brick Lane Gallery Annexe (on Sclater Street, which connects Brick Lane with Shoreditch High Street Overground station). It’s a location that’s bang in the middle of the arty fringes of the City — close to Redchurch Street.

Alexis exhibited work in three broad genres: papier mache flowers (which were very popular); pastel pictures, generally of animals or geographical destinations; and abstract acrylic paintings that often had objects embedded in the surface. The last style reminded me of a cross between the abstract squares of colour of Mark Rothko and the collages of Kurt Schwitters — the German artist  whose work can currently be seen in an an exhibition at Tate Britain (and mentioned previously in this blog post).

Surf and Microshines
Surf and Microshines

I got in touch with Alexis, explaining my interest, and visited her show, Transcendence, at the gallery the day after it opened in March. (It’s probably not giving away any spoilers about the novel to say that it wouldn’t be much of a story involving an artist if she didn’t put on any exhibitions.)

And I was impressed by Alexis’s artwork — as were other visitors. I’ve included a few photos of my favourite examples of Alexis’s artwork with this blog post, along with a photo of the artist herself, although as they were taken with a phone camera, they don’t do justice to the exhibition.

Alexis’s website (click here for the link) has much better photographs of the paintings and I’d recommend visiting it, although the three-dimensional works, like the collages and flowers need to be seen properly in person.

As this blog shows, I’ve tried to learn over the past couple of year more about how book publishing  operates and I’m also interested how it compares with the market for art — an issue that’s close to the heart of my character, Kim.

Three Pictures by Alexis Cole
Three Pictures by Alexis Cole

As far as I can tell, the art market appears to work in a less structured way because artworks are individual entities (or scarce copies in the case of numbered prints). This means they’re far more expensive to buy than books. For example the Battersea Affordable Art Fair which I attended recently with Love Art London defines ‘affordable’ as anything under £4,000.

By contrast, the written word is, in essence, intangible: like recorded music, once the work has been created it can be copied an infinite number of times. However, in the physical world, the fixed costs of printing a book are high. Aside from editing and marketing a book, publishers provide the large amounts of capital that funds book printing and distribution — a formidable barrier to entry for new writers.

On the other hand, an artist has to spend money on materials, whereas all a novelist needs is, arguably, paper and ink. (A Windows 95 spec computer with a prehistoric version of Word is good enough to write a manuscript — and, as for a fast internet connection, the likes of Twitter probably erodes any of potential productivity gain.)

Yet the artist creates an object that can immediately be sold (unless it’s performance or conceptual art) whereas the writer’s work results in a file on the computer or, without efficient printing technology, a heavy wad of A4 paper wrapped with an elastic band.


Given that, in all but the most extreme cases, a book takes longer to create than a piece of art, the writer needs to sell a substantial number of copies of a work just to cover the cost of its production (let alone make any income from the time spent writing it). Conversely an artist will sell a lesser number of works but they’ll usually be individually created (hence the controversy over the value of works that are very similar, like Damien Hirst’s spot paintings).

To market their work, an artist needs an exhibition space and then a means of attracting potential customers to it. Commercial galleries will often provide these functions in exchange for a substantial cut of the selling price of an artwork (many represent artists exclusively).

However, there are many other ways for artists to engage directly with their customers — it could be as simple as hiring a gallery space, hanging the art on the wall with a price tag and creating as much publicity as possible or maybe just hope for word of mouth to take off.  There are also plenty of routes to market outside the traditional gallery channels for artists — for example, I know of a number of pubs that have dedicated art gallery spaces or are keen to showcase local artists’ work for sale.

No one opens a pop-up bookshop to sell their self-published novel — books have tended to be sold through a relatively limited number of outlets. Because of the small absolute profit made on books, they need to be sold in quantity — and in a place where they’re in competition with many other alternative titles.

Amazon is arguably even more dominant of the ebook market than Waterstones or the supermarkets are over the printed book. However, the marginal cost of reproducing ebooks is tiny and it is easy to list an ebook for sale on their site (albeit along with millions of anonymous titles) — and these factors may start to make the book market start to take on more similarities with the art market. For example, intermediaries (publishers, agents, booksellers) might be circumvented by those who can raise their visibility in the market by other means.

How artists measure their own success?

Certainly, as with writers, one substantial achievement would be to make a living from their artwork. Surprisingly few writers are able to survive on income from book royalties alone but there is a fairly well-defined progression of levels through which writers progress — a bit like a computer game. For example, being represented by an agent, getting a publishing deal are daunting hurdles to clear. And once published there are many stark metrics by which publishing is analysed — Nielsen Bookscan figures, Amazon ratings, etc.

It’s true that the art world has many prizes that are keenly contested, as does the literary world. However, there’s no equivalent of the Sunday Times Top Bestseller list for artists — which raises fundamental issues about how much of a commodity books are, as opposed to examples of creative art that can’t be ranked by sales figures.

Alexis was very happy with the exhibition — e-mailing me afterwards to say she was thrilled about how it had gone. She received some useful feedback from viewers of her work, sold several paintings and received some commissions. With a steady stream of inquisitive visitors to the gallery, the Brick Lane location seems to have worked well for Alexis.


Looking At The View

Sunrise Over Beacon Hill
Sunrise Over Beacon Hill

I was walking to the station a few days ago — the long way round because the footpath over the fields is too muddy (see the melting snow in the photo) and noticed a wonderful sunrise emerging over the tops of the Chiltern Hills, specifically Beacon Hill and Pulpit Hill (to the left and right respectively). I took a quick couple of photos with my phone and thought no more about them until I came to download some other photos to my laptop — and then was blown away by the way the camera had captured the moment. (The photo above hasn’t been altered in colour by any photo-editing software).

The beaming, beacon-like sun means I like this photo in a slightly superstitious, borderline-karmic way too because in my mind, the imaginary village where much of the novel is located approximately under where the sun is breaking through the clouds — just on over the scarp of Chilterns. In reality, there is already a steaming hot-bed of scandal and highly-secret political intrigue nestling on the other side of those hills. It’s called Chequers — and while what goes on in there is no doubt stranger than fiction, its stories are subject to the hundred years rule.

There’s something also a little Turner-like about the yellow blast of light spilling over so much of the sky between the hills, which also ties in with the novel. One of the reasons Kim considers leaving London for the countryside is that she wants to paint landscapes — something there’s limited scope to do in Shoreditch and Hackney. A German artist coming to Britain also draws on a strong tradition for landscape painting common to both countries — and a subject I’ve been learning about as I’ve been writing the novel.

Caspar David Friedrich is a dominant figure in early nineteenth century German art and his  landscape paintings depict a romantic melancholy that, it could be argued, reflects a strand of the German character – certainly a phlegmatic love of the open-air. I recently went to a lunchtime lecture at the National Gallery titled Caspar David Friedrich and the Tragedy of the Landscapewhich rattled through slides of dozens of his paintings, accompanied by an illuminating commentary. Kim will know Friedrich inside out.

Friedrich was a contemporary of the great British Romantic landscape artists, notably Constable and Turner, whose most famous paintings, such as The Hay Wain or The Fighting Temeraire, hang in the likes of the National Gallery. I went to the last weekend of the current Constable, Gainsborough, Turner and the Making of Landscape exhibition at the Royal Academy yesterday and saw a few of the lesser known paintings by the famous three in the exhibition’s title, as well as examples by many of their lesser known predecessors. Turner’s fishing rod was also exhibited!

However, the National Gallery’s Room 34, in which those two painting hang either side of the entrance door, always awes me. Unlike writers, whose physical works are interesting curiosities but lose nothing in reproduction, painters’ original works are fascinating in person because of their physicality. It’s fascinating to stand close to the Turners, in particular, and see the brush strokes and the varying thicknesses of paint on the canvas — there’s a direct connection between artist and viewer that’s unique in painting.

I had the chance at the Tate Britain’s new Looking at the View landscape exhibition to see the original of a print that hangs on the wall above my computer at home — John Nash’s wonderful The Cornfield (sadly the Tate’s website doesn’t show an image of the painting but instead suggests his The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimblewhich is of a landscape less half a mile away from where I’m currently typing).

I’d looked before for The Cornfield in the Tate and found it not on display so was very pleased to see it hung in the exhibition. I spent several minutes looking carefully at the way Nash had created the authentic, yet modernist,  representation of wheatsheaves and summer foliage in the original. It was also fascinating to stand back from the painting in the gallery and observe the way Nash had cast the low sunlight and lengthening shadows across the painting. Painted in the last summer of the First World War in 1918 in the Chilterns near Chalfont St. Giles, it’s such a beautifully understated painting that both nods back to the Romantic tradition and anticipates the disruptions of the early twentieth century that it features on the cover of the book of the David Dimbleby A Picture of Britain series of a few years ago.

The Looking at the View exhibition displays many classic works but chooses to display these alongside more modern works — often photographic — and so seeks to show that landscape painting is a vibrant part of the contemporary art scene — and not just about haystacks and water mills. For example, there’s a series of 56 photos called Concorde Grid by Wolfgang Tillman. They’re all taken around Heathrow Airport’s perimeter, in Hatton Cross, Cranford and Hounslow West in 1997 and, in addition to Concorde passing over , they feature things like the BA maintenance base (inside which I worked for four years and close by for an additional eight), the road sign on the A30 and what seems like a scrapyard on Hatton Road.

As the Tate exhibition shows (it runs until June), landscape is something that still holds a fascination for both artist and viewer and there’s plenty of scope for Kim to move to the landscape of the photo above and start to paint her own unique synthesis of Germanic melancholy, English pastoral, Berlin reinvention and Shoreditch cool.

And, in doing so, she’s almost retracing the journey of another famous (real) German artist — Kurt Schwitters — co-incidentally also the subject of a major current exhibition at Tate Britain,  Schwitters in Britainwhich I’ve also seen. Schwitters is most known for his collages, the lasting effect of which can be seen even now in most graphic art (e.g. magazines), inspired by his concept of Merz.

Like Kim, Schwitters came from Hanover, where much of his work is now curated in the Sprengel Museum. I used to go to Hanover at least a dozen times a year over a period of eight or nine years so I may have picked up Schwitters’s story without realising it. (I certainly remember the Sprengel Museum itself — it was near the Machsee, location for a wonderful beer and bratwurst festival in the summer.) But Schwitters being an entartete Kunst,  he sensibly fled to Norway and then to Britain.  He was interned for a while in the Isle of Man and the Tate exhibition has his original application, made whilst interned, to remain in the UK. It is typed in faltering English, describing himself being ‘called by the Nazis’ for being ‘a degenerated artist’.

The form is humbling and heartbreaking to read but also hugely uplifting, because the application was eventually successful and Schwitters was released to live freely in London. He subsequently moved to Ambleside in the Lake District, where he made a living by painting portraits and also made many paintings of the dramatic local landscapes. In 1948 Schwitters learned he’d been granted British citizenship — on the day before he died .

Sunset Across The Chilterns 20th February 2013
Sunset Across The Chilterns 20th February 2013

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s Nothing Quite Like A Flaming Pudding

My novel has a lot of food in it — and probably one of the most consistent pieces of feedback that I’ve received from the many and varied people who’ve been kind enough to read parts of the manuscript (or have been forced to endure it as part of a course) is that they enjoy the writing about food — the sensory appeal and so on. (Maybe it might not be thought a Good Thing by readers if I make them hungry?)

As a follow up question, people often ask if I like cooking or if I’m much good at it. I was even asked by an agent who read the first chapter if I’d actually been on a TV cookery programme. (She was reading the chapter for one-to-one feedback at York Festival of Writing — I’ve yet to submit it properly to her.)

Interestingly, the novel has various other ingredients too — a liberal seasoning of sex, for one thing — but no-one asks me the same kind of questions about that. So, partly to celebrate the newly-allocated extra database space which allows me to put even more photos on here, I’m going to use this blog post to demonstrate with lots of salacious photos that, despite the novel writing’s effect on the frequency with which I’m able to manage it,  I still work enough on keeping my hand in to participate enthusiastically in the annual orgy

The Bible
The Bible

of gastronomy that is preparing Christmas dinner — a labour of love that started a whole month before the climax (beat that, Sting).

I’m not making any extreme claims of epicurean expertise. After all this is Christmas dinner — Sunday dinner on steroids — although some of the supermarket advertising on TV this year has stirred up controversy by suggesting this is beyond anyone but ‘mum’.  My culinary achievements are much overshadowed by my old secondary school friend, David Wilkinson, who puts mouthwatering photos of his ambitious creations (such as Kale Chips and Fruit Kimchi — not together, though) on Facebook pages and his blog Nothing But Onions.

(He’s a better photographer than me too — as an aside, we both visited Abbey Road Studio Two together earlier this year — where the Beatles recorded almost all their songs and a fantastic experience I’ve yet to blog about.)

But now to my cooking. It would be interesting to see if my style of cooking has any parallels with the way I write. Perhaps there’s a parallel with my Christmas Pudding and Christmas Cake making — a sensory profusion of fruity ingredients, loads of booze involved, it takes ages to get to the table and I made so much mixture that there’s still a bit left over in the fridge that I’m reluctant to throw away?

Christmas Pudding Mixture -- Three Weeks Ahead
Christmas Pudding Mixture — Three Weeks Ahead

Looks rather unpromising in the bowl — mind you, the beer looks tempting — but on the day it will become the pièce de résistance.

Being a mild Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall type, especially when overdue for a haircut, I sourced my turkey from a relatively local farm (look out for the flooded River Thame in the background.)

Driving down the narrow lane to the farm I had several close encounters with other ethical turkey customers, many somewhat weakening their eco-credentials by driving tank-like 4x4s (probably using their vehicles for the only time in the year on the sort of road they were designed for).

The Turkey Farm and the Flood
The Turkey Farm and the Flood

In an even more River Cottage touch I had to drive through this on Christmas Eve — makes negotiating the Waitrose car park in Thame look slightly less of a perilous hazard by comparison (although it’s a mean middle-class battlefield when people stampede for the red sprouts and Heston puddings).

Turkey collected, it’s time to do all the boring, necessary stuff like chop all the veg. But being Christmas (and actually also because it’s miles cheaper than buying the stuff pre-made in the supermarket) I also made my own breadcrumbs.

These were destined for both the bacon-wrapped stuffing balls and, possibly my favourite dish of the whole meal, bread sauce.

Breadcrumbs Blasted, Onions Chopped and Sweated
Breadcrumbs Blasted, Onions Chopped and Sweated

I possess the basic cookery knowledge that chopped onion and garlic sweated a long time in a pan gives savoury dishes the flavour equivalent of a satisfying bass note — a subtle depth that’s usually only noticeable by its absence. A chopping board of alliums was given the sauna treatment.

I can’t say all this chopping and preparing is much fun but the exception is creating the clove studded onion that’s used to infuse the bread sauce. I always think it’s like a tiny alien space ship that’s landed in the pan of milk — or a mine, but that’s not very Christmassy.

The Alien in the Milk Pan, the Undressed Turkey and a Stock Photo
The Alien in the Milk Pan, the Undressed Turkey and a Stock Photo

The turkey giblets go into making proper stock — this precious home-made liquid that’s so much more nutritious and worthy than the cubed or powdered stuff but that still never seems to get used beyond the Christmas gravy.

While the preparations were underway, sustenance was needed for dinner on Christmas Eve so I baked some salmon in foil, marinaded in plenty of white wine, naturally. And, as Delia instructs, mince pies have to be baked to the strains of carols from King’s (or was it sausage rolls?). I also got ahead with the bread sauce, which looks far better in the pan that it eventually did in the serving dish but its savoury clove taste is appropriately divine.

Christmas Eve Sustenance and the Bread Sauce
Christmas Eve Sustenance and the Bread Sauce

Salmon, of the smoked variety cooked with scrambled egg also goes well with a glass of nice fizz on Christmas morning — something I first made after that Denis Healey ‘puts the top hat on it’ advert from the days when Sainsbury’s was almost as Waitrose as Waitrose. I don’t think Denis did it but marinading the salmon in cream overnight doesn’t seem to do any harm — nor adding a little flat-leaved parsley.

Puts the Top Hat On It
Puts the Top Hat On It

Refuelled by the Champagne Socialist scrambed eggs on toast, it was then to the main business of cooking the turkey and, most crucially, getting everything ready to serve with it. This is the aspect of Christmas dinner which I think is more like project management than cooking (and if my dinner had been delivered like some of the projects in the organisation where I do my day-job I think it would have been lucky to be on the table by New Year’s Day or Easter or, more likely be frazzled and cancelled altogether with the diners sent a huge bill).

The Supporting Cast (btw the sprouts are supposed to be 'red')
The Supporting Cast (btw the sprouts are supposed to be ‘red’)

Those roasties are pure foodie p&rn  — ampersand to discourage spammers and perverts who I’m sure will be very disappointed to find only a well-greased King Edward. Even so, they’re enough to set my heart racing (although the accumulations of duck fat might slow it down a bit).

I guess this is also where cooking at home starts to slightly take on the stresses of a professional kitchen. Although they will be co-ordinating many dishes to many different times, it’s still quite gratifying to get the roast potatoes, pigs-in-blankets, sprouts, carrots and so on to the table before everything else goes cold.

Then there’s the Christmas tradition of being paranoid about whether the turkey is properly cooked or not. I looked through several different books, magazines and websites to find a consensus about how long to cook it and at what temperature — but they were all different. No wonder people get confused.

I probably cook mine longer than necessary but to stop it drying out I put some flavoursome things in the cavity — lemons, onions, herbs, garlic — but not too many to stop the air circulating. Instead of putting the stuffing inside the turkey, I use a method which isn’t for the squeamish (and for which it helps to have had a glass or two of early morning fizz) that involves pushing the stuffing into the neck and then between the skin of the breast and the meat underneath. It looks good when the turkey’s carved if it’s been worked through well enough under the skin.


That’s a rice, mushroom, apricot and pistachio stuffing, by the way. The breadcrumbs went into the ‘other stuffing’ with sausagemeat.

Of course, after a huge meal with unnecessary accompaniments like devils on horseback and homemade cranberry and orange sauce as well as all the above, it’s utter madness to follow it with even more calories but that’s what tradition — and Delia — insists on.

As well as Delia’s cake, I made a dessert that Delia may well have approved of but isn’t in her Christmas bible — a jelly made from almost 100% port — just a little added lemon juice. Next time I may add a bit of sugar to sweeten it but the jelly did its job of making everyone jolly — as did the cake, fed on a diet of brandy and calvados.

Lethal Port Jelly and Boozy Cake
Lethal Port Jelly and Boozy Cake

But to finish almost where this post started — the end result of that unpromising sludgy-stuff in the mixing bowl was repacked into its mould (again looking so much like an alien craft I wonder if it was made in Roswell), steamed for a couple of hours and then soaked in hot brandy and ritually immolated (a process bound to kill off any extra-terrestrial life-forms, just in case).

An Alien Craft or a Pocket Magnox Reactor?
An Alien Craft or a Pocket Magnox Reactor?

So, yes, I do cook but, like a few other interests, it’s something I’ve cut back on the time I spend doing while I’ve been writing this novel — although I do cook a lot more often than once a year, it’s the Christmas dinner that is the most intensive burst of activity so, given the general lack of other evidence of my foodie interests, hopefully this post has redressed the balance rather than been self-indulgent.

I suppose cooking a big meal is a bit like writing in that you put in a lot of preparation, transforming your ingredients into an something that you enjoy yourself but also hope that others will appreciate too. And hopefully both the writing and the Christmas dinner will leave a final impression that’s a little memorable and entertaining — there’s nothing quite like a flaming pudding.

The Flaming Pudding
The Flaming Pudding

Love Art London and the Catlin Prize

The last post dwelt on art at the celebrity and ‘major gallery spaces’ level  (as Time Out describes them). But my novel is about an artist trying to make a living, someone who doesn’t have the reputation of Picasso or Hirst nor has the resources or the inclination to re-stage the battle of Orgreave. To get an appreciation of how art is produced and sold at the more accessible end of the market I went along to the Affordable Art Fair in Battersea Park in March (handily getting a discount on entry with my Art Fund card!).

The Affordable Art Fair differs from the London Art Fair by maintaining a price ceiling of £4,000 on all works for sale (although I was shown an under-the-counter £20k picture by Billy Childish), which means that those of us who don’t run hedge funds might have a prospect of picking up a decent piece of work for an amount that’s, well, affordable.

I only had a lunch-hour to look around the huge pavilion with hundreds of stands from galleries all over the country so I was intrigued by the ‘Egg Timer Tour’ offered by Love Art London. This was a free tour of ten of the most interesting stands which was guaranteed to take no more than an hour — and to ensure punctuality Chris Pensa, who ran the trip, took along a clockwork egg timer. When it buzzed, it was time to move on, at pace, to the next stand.

(One of the stands we visited had miniature figures within glass containers created by Jimmy Cauty, ex-of the KLF — which is an interesting connection with the Jeremy Deller exhibition mentioned in the previous post.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the tour — it was a fast-moving (literally) and very approachable introduction to the contemporary art world. After the tour I learned more about Love Art London — they organise events approximately once a week, for people interested in art, often visiting galleries for private tours, having Q&A sessions with artists in their own studios and so on — ideal for my writing research purposes. Chris sold membership to me instantly when he said the whole thing was so friendly and informal that they usually end each event in the pub — often drinking with the artists. This organisation could have been created specifically for me!

The first event I went to — a private viewing of Glasweigian duo littlewhitehead ‘s installations in the Sumaria Lunn gallery near Bond Street — was fascinating from my perspective of learning how artists interact with their galleries and collectors. Unfortunately, with the gallery being close to the Mayfair hedge fund types, the pub afterwards was so packed with suited chinless wonders five-deep ordering Roederer Cristal at the bar that I didn’t have time to order myself a drink before I needed to get my train home.

Fortunately, at the next event, I was successfully able to pop into the pub — the Owl and Pussycat in Shoreditch, just round the corner from Kim’s fictional studio in my novel — with fellow Love Art London members and Chris Pensa himself. He told me that he’d set up Love Art London after working for a while at Sotheby’s and he found it very rewarding to provide this sociable and fun way of becoming familiar with the London art world — he also provides a similar service for corporate clients — a different sort of experience than the normal team away-day.

We were in Shoreditch after having had a private viewing of work exhibited by the shortlisted artists for the Catlin Prize. Art Catlin curator, Justin Hammond visits shows by students graduating from British art schools and picks forty artists to feature in a publication — the Catlin Guide — which has become known as an overview of new British art.

Ten of the artists were selected to exhibit in a gallery in Londonewcastle, which appeared to be a warehouse currently undergoing conversion in Shoreditch (I know this as I had to be sneaked round the rest of the building to go to the toilet, having had a very quick couple of pints near Monument on the way) and four of these artists gave us a short talk about the work they had on show, which was fascinating for me in trying to improve my understanding of the way young artists work in London.

Jonny Briggs‘s works were mainly in what was probably the most conventional form — photography — but his photographs had a very surreal quality. He explained that he explores themes related to his awakening as an adult in his teenage years — and rather than alienate his parents as is the stereotype — he involves them in his art. His father appeared in several works — sometimes wearing a latex mask of himself — and providing a bronze cast of a toe for one non-photographic piece.

Max Dovey’s work as a performance artist earned him a place in the Catlin prize shortlist — and he exhibited something that resembled a fixed monument both to an event he’d organised and to mark the passing of the technology that event had marked — the ceasing of analogue television broadcasts. Final Broadcast, a short online video, records a party Max had organised to celebrate the last night of analogue television transmission in the London region (the last in the country). The Last Day of TV, his Catlin exhibit, was a series of five sets of five boxed videotapes which were recordings of the last hours of the type of transmission that had first started about 75 years ago. The videocassettes, which are an almost archaic item themselves, were set on a wall like an apt combination of library books and tombstones.

Julia Vogl, who was named as the overall winner of the Catlin prize last week, designed a very clever participatory exhibit — Let’s Hang Out. She constructed a Mondrian-style grid of black and white, both on the floor and against the wall, like three sides of a cube. This was surrounded by carpet tiles, stacked in about half-a-dozen different colours.

A slogan on the wall challenged viewers to declare what they’d do in a spare ten minutes by tossing a square carpet tile into the grid. A key on the wall assigned colours to activities, which included: ‘Tweet’, ‘Call Mum’, ‘Daydream’ and, the only activity whose colour I remember, ‘Masturbate’ (a yellowy-gold).  I think these gold tiles were winning when we saw the installation, which says something about the visitors to the exhibition — probably their honesty.

On her website, Julia Vogl categorises Let’s Hang Out  as a social sculpture and it captures the Zeitgeist of the times – with its physical, participatory interaction encouraging viewers to share their ‘status’. And the use of such familiar and (literally) workaday material as office carpet tiles also emphasises the democratised perspective of the work (apparently the artist used to work in political polling). Let’s Hang Out was last week declared the winner of the Catlin Prize 2012 — by judges who included the art critics of The Times and Time Out.

But there was another prize, awarded to the artist who polled highest in a public vote — entries were either submitted online or in a ballot box at the entrance to the exhibition. This was won by Adeline de Monseignat. Her work Mother HEB/Loleta also explored touch and texture. The work comprised several glass spheres partially buried in sand — exploring the connection between the smoothness and solidity of glass and the graininess and liquidity of its component material. Most of the spheres were small, set around a much larger glass ball about 70 cms in diameter. Pushed against the inside surface of the bigger globe was something with an organic, furry texture which was folded in irregular ridges like the surface of a brain — and if one looked at the sculpture for long enough, this inner material could be seen to move up and down almost imperceptibly — as if it were alive.

The sculpture had a surreal but soothing other-worldly quality, as if some alien life-form had descended into a desert-scape. With Adeline’s permission, I’ve linked through to a photo of a similar installation on her blog — Emerging.

 Adeline de Monseignat - Emerging

Adeline de Monseignat – ‘Emerging’ © Adeline de Monseignat http://adelinedemonseignat.com/

Adeline gave us a very illuminating talk about how she constructed these unique objects — which I referred to as furry orbs. The material inside was old fur coats, picked up from charity shops and the large glass sphere was custom made by a glassblower and was likely the largest of its kind in the country (any other large transparent sphere would usually be made out of perspex for weight and resilience purposes).

With its understated ‘breathing’, juxtaposition of the sensuality of fur on the inside of the sphere and the sterility of glass on the outside, and the spheres’ resemblance to eggs scattered in a barren desert, the work raises questions about some of the most fundamental issues — such as fertility and the creation of life.

From my novel’s perspective, it was interesting that the two prizewinners were both young women artists who’ve moved from abroad to work in London — Julia Vogl is from the US and Adeline is from Monaco — so it’s a relief that my character is credible in that respect. However, I’m probably never going to a character in a novel written by me that can come up with the sort of innovation and insight that any of these real-life young artists have shown — Kim mainly works in painting with an interesting side-line in photography.

But one thing that’s great fun about writing about art is trying to give enough of a description so the reader can then imagine the work — creating imaginary artworks that exist in the individuals’ minds but that have never actually been physically created — a concept that’s reminiscent of Keats’s famous lines in Ode to A Grecian Urn: ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.’ (Later recycled in the 1980s by ABC as ‘The sweetest melodies are an unheard refrain‘.) Both basically mean that the conception of an artwork is always more perfect than any eventual physical realisation — something also very true of writing.

And so I ended up drinking with the Love Art London people and a few of the Catlin Prize artists outside the Owl and the Pussycat pub. I’m back in Shoreditch again on Friday for Love Art London’s graffiti tour, which I’m looking forward to enormously — again it will be excellent research for the novel. As I prepared to walk back to Old Street station, Chris pointed out some work immediately around the Londonewcastle Gallery — including a stickman by Stick — who’s apparently something of a mysterious celebrity.

I’m not sure if Redchurch Street, Shoreditch is the land where the Bong-tree grows’ but it’s where, for the next few days until 25th May, the works by all ten of the Catlin Prize shortlisted artists can still be seen — and I believe it’s free to get in.


The title of this post is a German word that’s been adopted into English usage in the art world and translates roughly as total artwork — which I suppose is similar to the concept of total football as played by the Brazilian team of 1970 — as the ideal and ultimate, all-embracing example of a skill (so the defenders could dribble like strikers and vice versa). In aesthetics Gesamtkunstwerk is similarly ‘a synthesising of different art forms into one, all-embracing, unique genre’.

The quotation above comes from the catalogue of an exhibition called Gesamtkunstwerk currently running at the Saatchi Gallery just off the King’s Road in London. It’s a collection of work subtitled ‘New Art from Germany’ — so writing about a contemporary German artist in my novel I thought I’d better visit.

I’m not much of an art expert, particularly on sculptures and installations, but I found the quick visit I had around the gallery in my lunch hour to be quite fascinating. There was a fair amount of what most people would find quite bizarre — bits of cloth threaded on to sticks and so on — but even the more abstract sculptures seemed to have something of a theme about materialism and post-industrial society. Scrap metal and other discarded objects were often used as materials.

Similarly, there were a fair number of collages formed out of pictures taken from popular culture. I’m a bit ambivalent about ‘real’ artists creating collages — it seems like cheating to me to chop up existing images (presumably the copyright of someone else) and just re-arrange them in a different pattern. But that’s all related to the debate about artist as craftsperson and creator or artist as an interpreter and re-imaginer. One artist whose collages made an impression on me was Kirstine Roepstorff, who’s actually a Dane working in Germany. She had an impressive collage that looked like it had been set in Center Parcs called ‘You Are Being Lied To’ (by men apparently — it’s a feminist statement) but I marginally preferred a science-fiction flavoured work called ‘All Possible Experiences’ which I’ve linked to below via the Saatchi Gallery website.

All Possible Experiences -- Kirstine Roepstorff -- from Saatchi Gallery
All Possible Experiences -- Kirstine Roepstorff -- from Saatchi Gallery

I also liked Stefan Kürten’s architecturally inspired paintings, which reminded me of all the solidly-built, brutalistic office blocks that I’ve worked in myself in Germany over the last 10 years or so.

I was impressed by Georg Herold’s two sculptures (both called ‘Untitled’). These were both of female figures created out of wooden battens and canvass and finished off in red or purple lacquer. The catalogue points out the paradox that the figures appear in poses that are sexualised and festishistic yet they are made using very dehumanised materials (not the smooth marble, bronze or plaster that one might normally associate with representations of the human form).

Georg Herold Untitled 2010 -- in Gestamtkunstwerk at the Saatchi Gallery
Georg Herold Untitled 2010 -- in Gestamtkunstwerk at the Saatchi Gallery

While all the artwork is new, the artists themselves are a mixture of ages. (I bought the catalogue as it has CVs of all the artists and I’ll use it to construct a more credible apprenticeship for Kim.) There are some young artists but there also some éminences grise. Isa Genzken had several peculiar assemblages of objects on show — according to the Time Out preview she has been more influential in the German art scene than Gerhard Richter. I’ve not blogged about it but I went to see the Tate Modern’s exhibition of Richter’s work (Panorama) last year and I think I’d rather part with money to see a retrospective of his work than Genzken’s – but then what do I know? (Well I suppose I know quite a bit more about German art than I did a couple of years ago.)

I’d not been to the Saatchi Gallery before so the highlight of my visit wasn’t the art from Germany but the fascinating Richard Wilson work 20: 50. This is a huge tank of used sump oil with a mirror smooth surface that is viewed from a platform slightly above. It’s amazing — a black void that’s also invisible and reflective.

We had another workshop session with Emily today and I took the opportunity of being up in the general area to visit the London Art Fair at the Business Design Centre in Islington. Not having the financial means myself to set up as a dabbler in art collection, I realised that I’m fairly ignorant about the business of art — how galleries and dealers interact with artists and collectors. I was a little reluctant to pay well over £10 for a ticket to an event which seemed to be geared around selling things but I was incredibly glad that I did. I only spent about two and a half hours there but could easily have spent twice as long. The effect of walking around the exhibition with so much art on display was visually intoxicating — and mixing with that arty type of person will hopefully inform my writing of Kim.

While most of the artwork was up for sale, there was plenty of work from well known artists that could be viewed as it would be in a gallery. I didn’t have time to track down the Damien Hirst and David Hockney pieces (and if the gallery owners had looked at my shoes then I doubt they’d have given me the time of day) but I did come across a couple of Beryl Cook pictures quite unexpectedly.

From my fairly random strolling around the stalls I noted the following artists (and their exhibiting galleries) as those I particularly liked. Pamela Stretton’s  mosaic-like works at the Mark Jason Gallery were intriguing (rewarding both close up and distant viewing). I also liked the abstract cityscapes painted by Alicia Dubnyckj and Jenny Pocket at Sarah Myerscough Fine Art. On a similarly geographical theme I also enjoyed Tobias Till and Susan Stockwell’s work at TAG Fine Arts. (Susan Stockwell’s ‘China Gold’ is about the most eloquent commentary on globalisation and the credit crunch that I’ve yet seen — if I had £3,500 to spare I’d buy one of the 5 copies.)

For research purposes I was less interested in the famous artists and more in those who made a living at their art but have yet to hit the heights — which is the position the novel finds Kim to be in. Because of this interest, I managed to get a place on a guided tour of the Art Projects section of the fair which is dedicated to new and emerging artists.

The tour was given by Art Projects’ curator Pryle Behrman who explained the recurrent themes that appeared to be common in much of the work. Unsurprisingly a lot of art commented on the economic situation but he said there was also an emergence of playfulness and a rejection of the concept of artists as a profound commentator. He said that many artists realised that art fairs where work was sold to speculators at inflated prices (like the one we were at) were part of the problem with the naked greed strain of capitalism — so artists as a whole could hardly be holier-than-thou about it.

To emphasise the point, one of the most striking exhibits was the corbettPROJECTS ‘Ghost of a Dream’ by Adam Ekstrom and Lauren Was. They create spectacular but fragile displays decorated with used lottery scratch cards and covers of romantic novels.

Perhaps the most bizarre, but also thought provoking, was the work of Jenny Keane who sketches stills from horror movies in black and white line drawings. She then licks the most horrific part of the picture (such as where a vampire might strike on the neck) and does so with such intensity and endurance that she not only scrapes a hole in the paper but makes her tongue bleed in the process (see photo here). The blood and saliva seep into the paper around the hole — and are listed as artistic materials when the works are sold — see here.

The boundary between physical and intellectual, which Jenny Keane is breaking down by embedding her bodily fluids into the artwork, is something that probably polarises the ‘artistic’ community and the respectable bourgeoisie who might like to collect their works. I briefly mentioned about 3 months ago that I went to see the Pipilotti Rist show ‘Eyeball Massage’ when it was on at the Hayward Gallery. Rist is not shy of using her own body to make her point as an artist. Although it’s never titillating or prurient, she appears naked in some of her works and one of the best known, Mutaflor, features shots from a camera that appears to emerge out of her anus — which is fleetingly shown in close-up.

This was all shown at a flagship exhibition at one of  Britain’s leading visual art galleries so it’s understandable that in the novel this is the metropolitan attitude than Kim blithely takes with her into the Home Counties sticks — but will her very liberal attitudes go down well with the respectable commuting and country types?

What Happens in Vegas…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vegas at Nightfall
Nightfall on the Strip, Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

The Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

New York, Las Vegas
New York, Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gondoliers in Vegas
Gondoliers in Vegas

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

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

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

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


It’s not some sort of weird business school acronym but the local shorthand for one of the best art galleries in the US — the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

It’s a little confusing as, according to the guidebooks, a very similar acronym — SoMa — is used to refer to the district of the city (South of Market [Street]) where the modern art museum is located.

The entrance fee for SFMoMA is $18 — which should make us based in around London very grateful for the free entrance to Tate Modern — the SFMoMA’s equivalent. I used a ticket that had been bought for a package of attractions — like cable cars and the Fisherman’s Wharf aquarium — so had about half an hour to look around the San Francisco collection of 2oth century artistry.

The museum has an example of one of the most seminal exhibits in modern art history — Duchamps’ Fountain. This is the famous urinal that was meant to be submitted to the New York Society of Independent Artists show in 1917 (although it actually wasn’t exhibited) as an example of how virtually anything could be considered modern art.

I was quite excited to see it in the San Francisco museum but apparently it’s not the original but one of eight replicas made by Duchamp in the 1960s, which are all on show at prestigious modern art museums (including the Tate).

So it’s a pretty iconic piece — the original piece of shock-value modern art that provoked millions of ‘I could do better than that’ comments over the last century…and it would obviously be well known to Kim.

 Duchamps's Urinal

Duchamps’s R. Mutt Urinal

A definite original in the gallery — and one that Kim would enjoy — is a Mark Rothko painting — Number 14.  It seems that Rothko painted a few different works with the same title. This one is from 1960 and is in red and purple. I was persuaded of the significance of these Rothko blocks of colour by the Simon Scharma BBC documentary and, as this blog I’ve found online quotes of the artist, it’s easy to see that the paintings have an effect of  “serenity about to explode.”

Mark Rothko -- Number 14
Mark Rothko -- Number 14

Serenity about to explode — that would be an apt description to work to for the first part of my novel.

Art for Art’s Sake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shard Rises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Oak and the Book Club

I went to three pubs in Aston Clinton tonight (a village about 4 miles south-east of Aylesbury).  The last one we went to, The Oak, is probably about as similar to The Angel as any pub could be. It was even struggling and rumoured to be on the point of closure at the end of last year. However, Fuller’s (the brewery owners) spruced it up a bit and brought in an entrepreneurial landlord called Steve who, with a partner called Joolz in the kitchen who handles the food, has turned the place around. I’m not surprised as the bar staff were extraordinarily attentive.

Oak, Aston Clinton
Oak, Aston Clinton (from Fuller's Website)

The place was buzzing tonight — the public bar area was absolutely jam-packed and a bunch of locals were sitting around the bar — two of whom I was introduced to by a mutual friend.

One of the tables was occupied by about eight or nine women and when I saw the distinctive orange and white of the cover of David Nicholls’s ‘One Day’ I realised they were holding some sort of book club or reading group there. I saw other books being handed round the table but couldn’t identify the titles.

I thought this was all good research for the novel but also thought that there might be a wonderfully circular scenario here to aspire towards — if I was to have the novel published and then it be discussed in the book group of a pub it was partly based in — and then perhaps I could write about that? Maybe that’s too much circularity?

Elegy for the Pub?

The Economist’s Christmas-New Year double issue had a fantastic article on the current challenges facing British pubs — both economic (recession and the rise in energy costs), legislative (smoking ban, ratcheting up alcohol duty and being paranoid about upsetting the supermarkets) and social (rise of many alternative forms of entertainment and the general trend towards eating out rather than drinking — last year saw the biggest drop in alcohol consumption for a long time — see this BBC News report).

The whole article is happily available for free here on the Economist website (most articles there are subscription only and this may eventually go the same way).

However, despite being a good read, the original article is over 2,000 words long so I’ll try and summarise some of the arguments it makes that are most pertinent to the themes in ‘The Angel’.

Many pubs, particularly in lovely villages such as the as-yet-unnamed fictional community that will be home to The Angel, are worth far more developed as private houses than they are as businesses that generate cash. Within five miles of where I live I can think of at least three very desirable private houses that were pubs not so long ago — I’ve visited one on several occasions that still has its sign outside — The White Star I think it used to be.

Similarly, pubs often sit on valuable plots of land and many are bulldozed to be replaced with infeasible numbers of new-build houses all jammed together where the beer garden used to be. Sometimes the developers have the nerve to allude to the land’s former use by naming a new development ‘Innkeepers Court’ or ‘Red Lion Mews’. (Often developers will demolish a pub without planning permission for any other use — they smash the pub to pieces to prevent anyone else taking it over and making a better go of running it.)

And no planning permission is needed at all to change a pub into a businesses that the government and planning departments (but no-one else) regards as similar to a pub — usually restaurants. That’s why so many pubs have metamorphosised into the Olde Village Tandoori. Not that there’s anything wrong with a curry every so often but a restaurant performs a fundamentally different social function than a pub — where people interact casually at the bar and pop in and out.

As the Economist’s correspondent says (they don’t have names in the magazine, except for very special reports): ‘the vanishing of a pub means, by common consent, the loss of the beating heart of a community, in town or countryside. A pub can become a sort of encapsulation of place, containing some small turning’s grainy photographs, its dog-eared posters for last year’s fete, its snoozing cats, its prettiest girls behind the bar and its strangest characters in front of it.’

Some of the comments made on the website about the piece compare it to George Orwell’s famous ‘Moon Under Water’ essay that appeared in the London Evening Standard in 1946. I love the imagery of the snoozing cats and the prettiest girls behind the bar. The latter comment, predictably, drew accusations of sexism. I’d argue that the ‘pretty girls’ are more metaphorical than literal (although Nick at the Whip Inn in the village of Lacey Green seems to consistently deliver this attribute in practice as well as keeping some excellent beer).

Tim Martin was so inspired by the essay that he named many of his early Wetherspoon pubs after it — while Orwell might not have been too impressed with Wetherspoons barn-like interiors and supermarket type promotions, he might have seen some merit in its offering of staggeringly cheap food (£1.99 for ham, egg and chips in some) and reasonably priced real ale.

Whatever their merits, Wetherspoons don’t represent the profound continuity with the past of traditional pubs. As the Economist writes: ‘pubs are meant to preserve [history]. They hold ghosts, myths, the memory of kings; Green Men live on in them, White Horses carry Saxon echoes, Royal Oaks keep the drama of civil war and restoration. The world before the hunting ban still thrives in the Hare and Hounds and the Tally-Ho; old trades survive in the Compasses, the Woolpack and the Wheatsheaf.’

The pub is also a democratic institution and social leveller: ‘the origins of pubs [were] in the kitchens of wayside farmhouses, where a man exchanged his own hearth for another. He was not, however, alone there. In the pub he met his fellow men and, with them, formed a society of musers and drinkers. He mingled with people he might not otherwise meet, had words with them, was obliged to take stock of their opinions. In a highly stratified society of worker, merchant and lord, the pub was open to everyone.’

This may seem slightly exaggerated but in her excellent book, Watching the English, social anthropologist Kate Fox devotes a chapter to pub etiquette in which she explains how this democratic social interaction usually occurs only at the bar — and there’s a tacit understanding that the further one sits from the bar in a pub,  the more privacy one is granted.

As the Economist says ‘Most pubs retain a peculiarly English blend of socialising and privacy’. Fox makes many other fascinating observations which support her claim that  ‘it would be impossible to even attempt to understand Englishness without spending a lot of time in pubs’. (Download the magazine from this link and scroll to pages 20 and 21 to read a review of the book I wrote in 2005).

Writing a novel about a pub I was pleased that the Economist agrees that ‘drama suits pubs. They are places for pushing limits, and not just in the sense of jars and fists…In pubs normal wariness is suspended in favour of live and let live, of free speech and free space… Americans have their guns; but the Briton has always had pubs, liberty glowing in thousands of small corners, as his weapon to beat back tyranny. John Bull lives there. When pubs are swallowed up, or die, something very much more than a beer-shop perishes with them.’

And the last paragraph is probably the most impassioned that I’ve ever read in the Economist — an exhortation, almost, that some things are more important than mere economics: ‘Time slows; company gathers; speech is freed; beer flows, like the very lifeblood of the land. Pubs are needed, even when every social and economic indicator is running hard against them.’

The ‘very lifeblood of the land’, indeed.

The German Fourth Plinth 2013

Here’s me for various complicated, meandering reasons, writing a novel about a German artist in London, which seems a bit esoteric but, come 2013, almost every visitor to London is going to see a memorable work by a German artist — in the form of a huge blue cock. German sculptor Katherina Fritsch has been chosen to fill the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square for the whole year — see photo below from the Fourth Plinth website.

Katharina Fritsch's Blue Cockerel
Katharina Fritsch's Blue Cockerel

It seems there’s something of a Zeitgeist at the moment for finding out more about Germany. One of the biggest selling non-fiction books at the moment is Simon Winder’s Germania, which I’ve bought but only dipped into — hopefully I can blog about it when I’ve finished it. In the introduction to the book, he suggests that it’s only now, with the passage of more than sixty years since the last war, that preconceptions and prejudices are being dropped and the rest of the world now realises that, unlike, say, France or Italy, that Germany is relatively little known.

In fact the most read and commented on post on this blog recently has been the one on the BBC4 Germany series where I comment on the Al Murray documentary and the art and walking programmes.

So, bizarrely enough and certainly without any specific intention, I might have stumbled on to some themes in the novel that people are suddenly getting more interested in. I’d better hurry up and finish writing the thing.

Spooked at City University

I was watching Spooks last night and jumped up off the sofa, not at any cliff-hanging drama, but because the terrorist from ‘Azakstan’ who was after a deadly nerve agent that could kill everyone in London in a week, was walking up the stairs at the entrance of City University in Northampton Square. He wandered off down the long corridor towards the small snack bar in the direction of the lecture room in the Drysdale Building we used with Emily in the spring term!

Then the Section D cavalry charged in after him and the action had transferred to the Tait building where I’d had my Intermediate Fiction class with Heidi James in summer 2009. A shootout then followed around the long corridors that we had to walk around to find the toilets when we turned up on alternate Saturdays between January and March this year for our workshops with Alison. In fact, in one scene Sophia Myles looks like she’s about to burst through the door of the gents, which would have been interesting. The bad guy eventually finds the scientist he’s looking for in the actual room where we had our tutorials — or at least an identical one on a lower floor!

City University provided a good 5 or 10 minutes of locations for the programme, including a number of sinister looking stairwells and fire escapes (that are normally used to access the library!). In the end the suspect climbs out on to the university roof.  It was quite a novel experience to see such familiar surroundings used in a plot that involved Russians, chemical weapons, separatists and as much else as is normally crammed in. It can be seen on the iPlayer for the time being. The City University locations appear at just over 22 minutes in.

It underlines the point in an earlier post that fast-paced editing can make almost any location appear intriguing or exciting.

I thought the episode used a few devices which were the wrong side of implausible. The power of the resident computer geek to rescue the plot from impractical dead-ends and to keep it speeding along has often been pretty unbelievable but a separatist from a ex-Soviet state got off a Eurostar unnoticed (of course French intelligence were far too slow off the mark) and all Tariq needed to do find him in central London was to run some sort of ‘probabilty algorithm’ and then some face-recognition software against hundreds of live CCTV cameras to locate him within a few seconds.

This begs the question that if it’s so easy to identify and locate the bad guys then why do they keep popping up and threatening world civilisation in episode after episode — surely they could run a few algorithms and feed a few intelligence photos into their face recognition software and they’d be able to pick them all of the streets at will?

I doubt whether there’s enough computing power in the world to carry out the identification that tracked down the suspect immediately to Charing Cross tube station — which apparently has 6 platforms. I thought this was an error because it only two lines serve the station (Bakerloo and Northern) but I forgot about the disused Jubilee Line that terminated there until the extension was routed via Westminster in 2000. However, seeing as they’re closed off from the public (and you’d guess from Azakstani terrorists too) then it seems likely that this line in the script was probably just thrown in from a tube reference book without much thought.

According to Wikipedia these very platforms are likely to have been the ones used in this episode for filming the tube train scenes (quite handy as they wouldn’t have even needed to alter the signs!).

John Nash in Meadle

An update to the post on ‘Totes Meer’ below. I was in Tesco’s and they’ve started to do a small selection of ‘local’ books. One was a walks in Buckinghamshire guide. I like to flick through these as they usually have at least one walk that passes within about half a mile of where I live — and it reminds me not to take for granted the fact that in a ten minute stroll (or five minute run) I can be in some of the best walking country in England. (And I was brought up within a few miles of the Pennine Way.) A national trail, the Ridgeway, is less than a mile away and I can see  two long-distance paths (the North Bucks Way and the Midshires Way) out of the front of the house and a local long-distance route (the Aylesbury Ring) out of the back.

Quite often these walking books have nuggets of interesting information interspersed with the directions. I was reading a circular walk in the book with a route that passes very close to me and saw it had a reference to John Nash (the painter of The Cornfield). It said he’d written the ‘Shell Guide to Buckinghamshire’ in 1936 in a village (hamlet really) called Meadle, which is about a mile and a half away, a dead-end off a road in the middle of nowhere that I sometimes run past — the place seems to be dominated by stud farms and stables. (The Shell guides were much more ‘arty’ than normal 1930s tourist guides — those the Nashes did were described as surrealist.  John Betjeman wrote the guide to Cornwall.)

I did a Google search on Meadle and John Nash and found a useful Chilterns AONB page giving a detailed biography. Nash lived in Meadle from 1922 until 1939, when he again served in the military. The website says ‘the location, on the edge of the Chilterns, provided great inspiration for him. The escarpment with its beechwoods and the farmed landscape with its daily activities became the subject of many of his paintings.’

I then found that another of his most famous works, which is in the Tate Collection, is ‘The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble‘ , painted in 1922. According to Wikipedia this is a classic use of the landscape to represent reflections on the human condition — using a brooding claustrophobia that refers back to the war. I can see Grange Farm from my window and have walked past it several times (it’s on the North Bucks Way).

While ‘The Cornfield’ has an obvious appeal to me because it’s a painting of the region where I live, I find it fascinating that, unknown to me in the years since I bought the print, that the artist could almost have been my neighbour, having chosen to live for 17 years literally down the road.

Also, the work of both the Nash brothers fits incredibly well as a theme to my novel. Quite early in the novel I’ve written something about Kim and her attitude to the second world war. It’s debatable whether a German of that age really thinks about it too much and were that to be the only reference it would probably be read as fairly gratuitous. However, as the Nashes were artists who painted both world wars and also drew and/or lived in the area where the novel is set and also appreciated its much older, almost spiritual ancestry then the historical aspect could be developed.  (Also, it’s interesting that the Tate owns most of these picture — shame they don’t seem to be on display — as I’m setting some significant scenes from the novel in The Tate Gallery.)

The process of developing what appears to be a soapy story of people running a pub is actually dredging all kinds of connections out of my subconscious. It’s producing a unification of character, setting and theme that’s very specific to me personally.

The Narrative Center

As mentioned in the last post, I just spent a very long weekend in Center Parcs (staying until late Monday afternoon. trying to get most value for money).

I’ve been to all the Center Parcs in the country although the one at Elveden in Suffolk the most often (about four times) — and would go more often if it wasn’t so ludicrously expensive. This is quite odd as I normally like holidays to be as independent and away from hordes of other people as possible — I much prefer self-catering cottages in the wilds of Wales or Gozitian villas to big hotel complexes.

The concept of entering a fenced-off compound, surrendering your ability to ‘escape’ because your car is parked (as in my case) literally a mile away and spending three or four days there with over 4,000 other people hell bent on a good time would normally be an anathema to me. And yet…

Like Disneyland or well-run theme parks like Alton Towers, there seems to be something quite re-assuring about these closed, contained, managed worlds. I can pretty cynical about most forms of entertainment and yet I found myself happily paying out extortionate prices — like £10 for 30 minutes on a pedalo (although I saved £96 for a weekend hiring 5 bikes by strapping our own precariously on the car and spent more time looking in the mirror to check they hadn’t fallen off than I did looking forwards down the A11).

As far as I could tell, almost everyone else that I’ve ever encountered there has a similarly good time — again something that seems to happen at Disneyland, even to the most embittered sceptic. I was prompted to wonder why. It goes beyond the obvious factors like things generally working properly and having good staff who are well trained in customer service (they’re in the company of John Lewis and Waitrose in surveys and have recently undergone a whole company training programme ‘Making Memorable Moments’ similar to the ones I used to do at BA when that company actually had good customer service). (It might be possible to spot my MBA training in the interest in customer service and operations management there — I’d love to write a thesis on how these places work.)

But what does this have to do with novel writing? On a psychological level, I think there are some startling similarities. A comment I wrote up on the blog a few months ago that Francesca Main made  (commissioning editor at Simon and Schuster) seems very relevant. She said of reading the opening of a novel that ‘you must feel you are in good hands’ as a reader — and this is exactly what places like Center Parcs do. Well-written fiction has an authorial assurance (distinct from the narrator) that, ultimately, makes the reader feel safe — part of a contract in the reader suspending disbelief and also a guarantee that the time invested in reading will result in a satisfying experience.

Note that the words ‘author’ and ‘authority’ have the same etymological root. And so this is at Center Parcs and Disneyland — there’s an invisible sort of authority that derives from the exclusivity of the community — everyone’s paid a lot to be there so that’s a social leveller and they are literally gated communities where causes of social anxiety can be excluded. In Center Parcs case various design features ameliorate the fact that thousands of other people are also on the site: the accommodation is cleverly laid out so neighbours don’t overlook each other; the forest setting deadens the noise levels (and mobile phone signals!); and the absence of cars eliminates a source of status and also creates an environment which is a bit otherworldly (a bit like that created in fiction).

Center Parcs is also interesting when considered against Maslow’s hierarchy of needs . The safe and exclusive environment is important as it addresses the knows that physiological and safety needs need to be covered before the higher needs are fulfilled. It brings to mind an interesting quotation that I read recently in the Economist Blighty blog about wider society:  ‘the ultimate purpose of politics and the state [is]: the protection of people from each other.’ I’d argue that the attraction of novels to many readers, especially but by no means exclusively in non-realistic genres, is the sense of escape from anxieties about other people’s actions in the disordered ‘real world’.

Belonging/social needs are generally covered as people are on holiday with family or friends. However, the popularity of activities, like my doing archery or the tree-climbing that I blogged about below, is certainly associated with achieving self-esteem (overcoming fears, demonstrating ability). Some of the activities even inch towards self-actualisation — having a massage in the spa is very nice and I even got up at 6.30am on a Sunday to be educated by a wildlife ranger — going round looking for deer and birds (we spotted a little owl — which is apparently good going).

Also, as mentioned in a previous post in the context of rollercoasters, much of what we choose to do in our leisure time fits a classic narrative structure, which separates the experience from the inertia and continuity of real life — films, plays, music all tend to have beginnings and ends with middles arranged into some sort of anticipated structure. The same applies to holidays — there’s travel there and back and packing and unpacking, acclimatisation and so forth — although holiday companies seem to have been slow to realise the narrative. A subsidiary of my ex-employer, Thomson Holidays, has stumbled in its current TV advertising on the parallels between drama (films/plays) and a perfect holiday experience ‘authored’ by an expertly directed cast.

One re-assuring facet of holidays, planned activities and instances of fiction is that there is a planned end — in real life we never know when the end is.

A need for narrative structure must be somehow hard-wired into the human brain and is no doubt exploited intuitively by effective fiction writers. As a novel has an all encompassing narrative arc and many smaller arcs within that structure, so does the holiday experience. Even such basic events as a meal in a restaurant follow a set structure — and the more satisfying and memorable a meal the more likely it is to have an expectation setting opening and a satisfying resolution.

The more complex activities that I did at Center Parcs are similarly organised. A well-delivered massage certainly follows a pattern that ends with a rewarding, relaxing denouement. The tree-trekking starts with a briefing then has a series of 9 ‘acts’ of rope obstacles to be negotiated between trees (a place to pause) — tension is gradually built up as the obstacles rise higher above the ground. Then there’s the climax of suddenly descending at speed down the zip wire. You negotiate the course yourself (as you would read a book) but there’s always the re-assurance of the authority of the instructors in the background — like a safe, authorial presence — as with reading a book, it can be thrilling and feels perilous but you know it’s ultimately safe.

The Center Parcs Aerial Adventure could be quite an effective, if unorthodox, model for the plotting of a novel as it seems to tap into the same basic human psychology.

Also, many of these participatory activities are a little like a performance and perhaps it’s not surprising that I mentioned in the last post that I was struck that one of the climbing instructors reminded me of my character Kim — both are acting, to an extent, in some sort of artifice. It reminds me of the surreal line in ‘Penny Lane’ (that Ian MacDonald thought was one of the most truly avant garde lines The Beatles ever wrote) — ‘and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway’.