Least Used Station in Buckinghamshire

It was my birthday a few weeks ago and my old school friend, David Wilkinson, sent me a most unusual and interesting present. It was a link to the YouTube video below.


It’s part of a series of videos uploaded by Geoff Marshall (who seems to the main presenter) in which he visits the least used railway station in an increasing number of counties.

And in this instalment, the seventh, he visits Buckinghamshire’s least used station, which happens to be the one that I use most frequently — Little Kimble.

He travels to Little Kimble from Marylebone, changing at Princes Risborough on to the famous (to train spotters, anyway) bubble car train that runs on the single track branch line to Little Kimble — and that I regularly use.

It’s worth watching the video to get a realistic impression this tiny train and the one platform station with zero facilities (it’s not even got a ticket machine) that I currently use virtually every day.

Geoff and his local guide from Aylesbury have a few interesting anecdotes about the station too, although they seem stumped for anything to do once they arrive there. An even more local guide, like me, would be able to point out that there’s a pub within about 15 minutes walk, although at the time of day they visited, they’d have to wait about three hours before it opened. There’s no shops or anywhere to get coffees, etc.

In the summer, the pub would be less than ten minutes walk away over a field, several stiles and a few footpaths. It’s similar with my shortest route to and from the station, which is now (and for the next two or three months) ankle-deep in mud in places.

That it’s so easy to reach this tiny country station in under an hour from Marylebone station (there are erratically timed direct trains using slightly more modern rolling stock too) shows the contrast between rural and urban that is a significant driver of conflict in the novel.

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

Fish, Chips and A Pint of Ale

I caught the start of one of those property ogling TV programmes yesterday. A pair of high-flying lawyers wanted to move out of their flat overlooking St. Paul’s to live a life of bucolic bliss in the New Forest. While the female of the couple wanted a huge kitchen and reception rooms to entertain friends in (i.e. show off their house), the male partner wistfully imagined a life where he’d grow a few vegetables in the garden, stroll down to the village shop on a Saturday morning for a paper and occasionally visit the village pub for a Sunday lunch.

It was all perfectly achievable for their property budget of £1.5m. It’s ironic that the local businesses that they imagine happily serving them with their Telegraph and roast beef probably need a lot more custom than the occasional weekend visit to continue their effect on buttressing property prices. Properties in villages with shops and pubs will have a significantly higher value than those in dead, commuter dormitories — but the people who can afford those prices often work during the week elsewhere.

Nevertheless, this is another demonstration of the way the local pub is so ingrained into the country’s collective consciousness. Even people who barely venture inside a pub (and the busiest pubs are the likes of cavernous Wetherspoons these days) cherish the idea of the welcoming, thatched local on the village green with its lovable eccentrics at the bar.

In fact, as David Cameron recently proved, the idyll of the English pub and its pint of foaming brown ale extends well beyond these shores. It’s often reported that foreign tourists put the experience of visiting a pub near the top of their to-do lists when visiting this country. And one of the most high profile overseas visitors of them all got his wish last month visiting a pub just up the road from me.

As was widely reported, Chinese President Xi was taken on a brief visit by our Prime Minister to the Plough in Cadsden.

Cadsden -- Haunt of Chinese Presidents and Forgotten Prime-Ministerial Children
The Plough At Cadsden — Haunt of Chinese Presidents and Forgotten Prime-Ministerial Children

The Plough gained some notoriety a few years ago as the pub where David Cameron left his daughter behind in the toilets after a lunchtime visit from his nearby country house retreat, Chequers.

This autumn the Plough can justifiably lay claim to the title of most famous pub in the world given the brief visit’s huge coverage in the Chinese media — and also in many other countries.

It seems the Chinese leader had been determined to sample what must be known in China as two of Britain’s great traditions — fish and chips and a drink in a pub. Of course the traditional way of eating fish and chips is out of newspaper with the grease soaking into your palms so perhaps it was diplomatic to combine the two in the pub visit. However, it’s certainly not a British tradition to eat a tiny portion out of a wire basket at the bar.

Nevertheless, the starter-sized portion of President Xi’s fish and chips has now gone on the menu permanently in the Plough. In the weeks after his visit, coach parties of Chinese visitors pitched up at the pub to sample this rather non-traditional method of serving the national speciality.

Equally significantly, the visit has led to British real ale becoming a much sought after drink in China, with demand for Greene King IPA after the Chinese leader drank a pint in the pub. (A regular beer at the pub is local brewery Rebellion’s IPA — perhaps David Cameron steered clear of that particular brew given his company?)

Inspector Barnaby's Favourite Haunt -- The Lions of Bledlow
Inspector Barnaby’s Favourite Haunt — The Lions of Bledlow

Like many other pubs in the Chilterns, the Plough has featured as a picture-postcard hostelry in many different television programmes, notably Midsomer Murders. In fact, what’s probably Inspector Barnaby’s most frequently visited pub, The Lions of Bledlow, is only a few mies down the road, also nestling against the foothills of the Chilterns.

Midsomer Murders is an exceptionally popular programme internationally, particularly in Scandinavia, and is another example of how the rest of the world is fascinated by the British pub.

And it’s not surprising why anyone with even a passing interest in the culture of this country should be interested in experiencing life in the pub. Other countries have their wonderful cafes, restaurants, bars and other meeting places but with the possible exception of Ireland, where pubs still seem to provide a subtly different function, it’s difficult to think of an institution quite as casually inclusive, socially democratic and (usually) community focused as the pub.

It’s not even a pre-requisite to drink alcohol — I’ve gone into Wetherspoons during the day and had a cup of coffee and, at the other end of the scale, the likes of Tom Kerridge (whose pubs in Marlow are not that far away from The Plough and Lions of Bledlow above) have made pub food a Michelin starred but (by most accounts) without throwing out the pub experience completely.

It’s little wonder that the pub is a central feature in many dramas — the Bull in Ambridge, the Rover’s Return, the Queen Vic are central to their respective soaps — but there’s many other examples of pubs of all varieties in sit-coms and other dramas  in — the Nag’s Head in Only Fools and Horses and the period seventies The Railway Arms in Life on Mars come to mind — both as far away from the bucolic Lions of Bledlow as it’s possible to imagine.

There’s an equally long tradition of pubs in literature — stretching back to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — although many pubs are better known for authors’ real-life drinking than their fictional representations. Possibly the most famous modern fictional pub is the Moon Under Water — George Orwell’s description in an article for the Evening Standard of the elusive ideal pub.

In novel writing terms, a pub offers countless opportunities for characters to meet, information to be passed on and conflict to arise. It can also introduce the community in which the protagonists exist — and also make a large contribution to establishing the culture and ethos of that fictional world.

And anyone who’s spent some time around the pubs of London and other large British cities — or has opened a weekend newspaper food and drink or travel supplement — can’t fail to have noticed the new-found fashionability of ‘craft beer’ and the trendy pubs that serve (and often brew) it.

Sweet Potato and Goats Cheese Pizza at Crate Brewery
Sweet Potato and Goats Cheese Pizza at Crate Brewery, Hackney Wick

The craft beer phenomenon has been building for a few years but craft or artisanal beer has become so popular that Time Out devoted most of a recent issue to London’s breweries — which are often located in hipster hotspots like Hackney Wick, Cambridge Heath or Bethnal Green (see photos of the Crate Brewery on the canal in Hackney Wick).

With the likes of Brewdog opening bars across London and elsewhere (I visited the new one in Soho last week), pubs are no longer best known for their links to tradition and the past but for being as much part of the cultural Zeitgeist as street art and thickets of facial hair.

Enjoy the Street (or is it Canal?) Art With Your Pint
Enjoy the Street (or is it Canal?) Art With Your Pint

And as plenty of the new breweries and pubs are producing excellent beer then this popularity is likely to continue. However, I can’t say my ‘unfiltered’ pint from the Crate Brewery pictured below is one of the best examples I’ve drunk recently.

I Don't Fancy Yours Much: a Pint of Crate Brewery's Unfiltered Craft Beer.
I Don’t Fancy Yours Much: a Pint of Crate Brewery’s Unfiltered Craft Beer.

When I started writing The Angel it may have seemed odd that Kim, an uber-hip street artist (and uber is a word that’s recently taken on a new meaning) would be an expert in beer, working in a pub and having an intimate knowledge of how beer is brewed.  Now it’s clear Kim’ was ahead of the trend, being into beer and brewing before the typical Shoreditch hipster — not that she’d care about being the height of uber-cool.

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


Three Years Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sprinklers Make a Surprise Appearance
Sprinklers Make a Surprise Appearance

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

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

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

The Stadium from the Concourse
The Stadium from the Concourse

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

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


Shoreditch and the City — Killing the Hipster Goose?

The first part of my novel — and some of the later action — is set in Shoreditch. I first got to know the area when I was taking the City University Certificate in Novel Writing (now the Novel Studio). Although City University itself is about a mile or so west of Shoreditch (I know this as I walked the exact journey last week), it led me to start looking around adjacent areas of London.

I can’t remember whether I’d decided to write a novel with an artist as a main protagonist before I came across Village Underground (and its rooftop tube trains) in the Secret London guidebook. However, very shortly after reading about this artistic community space with an events venue underneath, I’d been up on the roof to visit for myself and had the start of a novel set in what was then, despite some creeping commercialism, a part of London that had a genuine alternative and bohemian feel.

Graffiti Art on Rooftop Tube Carriages
On the Roof at Village Underground

What’s most fascinated about Shoreditch, as opposed to further flung artistic enclaves like Hackney Wick, is its location right on the edge of the City of London — in the novel this geographical closeness enables the two characters from completely different world to meet.

Avant Garde Tower Bethnal Green Road 2015
Avant Garde Tower, Bethnal Green Road 2015

Apart from one residential block, the very unironically named Avant Garde tower at the corner of Brick Lane and Bethnal Green Road, there’s been surprisingly little encroachment by property developers exploiting Shoreditch’s position on the City’s northern fringes.

The Broadgate Tower Seen from Village Underground 2011
The Broadgate Tower Seen from Village Underground 2011

The Broadgate development (seen above) was completed in 2008 and, since then, the City seems to have grown upwards with the likes of the Walkie Talkie, Heron Tower, Cheesegrater and Shard (albeit on the other side of the river).

Holywell Street, Shoreditch
Holywell Street, Shoreditch, March 2011

While the character of Shoreditch has undoubtedly changed with the arrival of the Overground and Shoreditch High Street station plus associated developments like Boxpark, the physical environment has changed little from when I first got to know the area (and probably hasn’t changed that much since the area was first industrialised).

I put this hiatus in development down to the delayed effects of the 2008 credit crunch and its consequences.

Village Underground Viewed from the new London Overground
Village Underground Viewed from the Shoreditch Overground Viaduct, March 2011

This is all about to change and, sadly for the Shoreditch I’ve come to know, I feel that the last few years will come to be seen as a stay of execution for one of London’s most characterful areas. As an example, since the New Year, the car park on waste ground opposite Village Underground seen in the photo above has seen construction activity begin — and it’s deep piling work that’s being carried out — of the type required for the foundations of very tall buildings.

Those who have been on street art tours of Shoreditch will know this car park as one of the areas that featured the most frequently changing graffiti art. Now it’s fenced off and will soon be transformed into a ‘mixed use’ development called Shoreditch Village — the first part of which will be a ten storey Citizen M boutique hotel, due to open by this time next year. For an artist’s impression of the finished site, click on this story.

Breaking the Ground for Shoreditch Village, 20th February 2015
Breaking the Ground for Shoreditch Village, 20th February 2015

This development is relatively modest but it will still tower over all the buildings in the immediate area — and will change the character of Village Underground. It used to be a quirk that the tube trains were, ironically, the highest point in the local area and, counter-intuitively, looked down on everything below. Soon all the trendy guests in the hotel will spy on them from above.

Iranian Artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo Painting A Mural At Village Undergroun, 20th February 2015
Iranian Artist Mehdi Ghadyanloo Painting A Mural At Village Underground, 20th February 2015 (for finished picture see this Guardian article)

For a taste of what the area around Village Underground may look like in a year or two, then take a walk a mile or so to the area to the north and west of Old Street/’Silicon Roundabout’ (known also in the media as the risibly-named Tech City).

The area around the City Road Basin on the Regent’s Canal is undergoing a dramatic change with several huge, upmarket apartment blocks currently being constructed. This is  a huge change for an area that, even when I was doing the City University novel-writing course, in 2009-10, was still genuinely down-at-heel and post-industrial, unlike Shoreditch. There’s even a drive-through McDonald’s there — which would be unimaginable down the road in Shoreditch.

Skyscrapers on City Road, February 2015
Skyscrapers on City Road, February 2015

Construction on one or two of the tower blocks was started, and then paused, during the recession and, like Shoreditch, the areas of derelict land and waste ground were likely to have been earmarked for development that was put on hold. But no longer. The construction has restarted and the place will soon change forever.

There’s a scene in the novel based in the City Road area, near the canal, as at the start of the book Kim works in a pub that’s based on the Wenlock Arms, which has near-legendary status amongst serious beer drinkers for being one of the very few basic, spit-and-sawdust, unreconstructed back-street boozer that wasn’t too far from a central tube station. in a  location.

The Reopened Wenlock Arms, February 2015
The Reopened Wenlock Arms, February 2015

The Wenlock itself was victim to the gentrification of the area. It was closed a few years ago and was threatened with development into flats. After a landmark local campaign to get the pub protected by Hackney council (of which I was a supporter) it has now been included in a conservation area and has since been rescued and sympathetically refurbished. The holes in floorboards and barely functioning toilets have gone to be replaced by craft beers and trendy square hand-basins but it’s now thriving again.

Shoreditch Village is nothing compared with some new developments that are either in the pipeline or currently going through the planning process. Plans for the Bishopsgate Goods Yard site around Shoreditch High Street station are so dramatic that Hackney’s mayor (Shoreditch is on the fringes of both Hackney and Tower Hamlets) has started a petition on Change.org to protest to Boris Johnson about his decision in principle to approve them.

Prime Real Estate: Shoreditch Old Goods Yard Site, early 2015
Prime Real Estate: Shoreditch Old Goods Yard Site, early 2015

This is a massive development site, derelict for over fifty years after a fire destroyed the old railways goods yard that previously occupied the site. Shoreditch High Street station has been built on some of the area — and the reason why the railway is enclosed in a concrete box in the station is to allow building work to commence without disrupting the railway that runs through the site.

But the developers plans are equally huge — they include seven tower blocks, with two forty-six storeys high (much bigger than those pictured on City Road above). A little of this will be affordable housing but it’s inconceivable that the character of Shoreditch (and the Brick Lane area to the east) will remain unchanged with development of such scale encroaching almost into the heart of the area.

The likes of Pret a Manger and Pizza Express are one thing but, if the development is anything like One New Change, Cardinal Place in Victoria or the many in Canary Wharf, then there will be less galleries, oddball clothes shops and organic cafes in Shoreditch and many more familiar names from any high street.

It would be somewhere that my artist character Kim would never contemplate living or working in. And so my novel might, perhaps, have captured a particular moment in the development of Shoreditch — when it had established itself as quirky, creative and fascinating and when the hipsters could enjoy the place in almost suspended animation for a few years. Now it’s in danger of the City speculators moved in to kill the goose that laid their golden egg. Let’s hope not. Sign the petition.

Killing the Goose: Trendy Shoreditch AND 11 Storey Apartment Blocks?
Killing the Goose: Trendy Shoreditch AND 11 Storey Apartment Blocks?

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

Le Grand Départ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spot the Beefeater
Spot the Beefeater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Stops on the Monday Blog Hop

As mentioned in my Blog Hop post from last week, the relay has continued this Monday with three writers from my MA Creative Writing course taking up the baton. All are great posts about three fascinating novels.

I’ve seen drafts of Kerry Hadley’s novel The Black Country while workshopping on the Manchester Metropolitan University course. She describes it very well in her post — a story that skilfully reveals a very dark core from an ostensibly everyday suburban situation. And the narrator plays an intriguing role that’s still a mystery to me, having not had the chance to read the complete novel. Kerry’s blog is at: http://kerryhadley.weebly.com/kerrys-blog/another-blog-hop

Anne is working on a new piece of writing, House of Scars, which is in the science fiction and/or fantasy genres, as was her work on the MA course. In her previous work, Anne showed her talent at creating a credible , dystopian world — inhabited by characters the reader can immediately relate to. To do this in an alternative reality seems a lot harder task to me than placing a novel in the contemporary world where the reader can bring their own points of reference to the writing. Anne originally comes from Denmark but the quality of her writing is so fluent you’d never suspect she comes from the trendy land of Scandi-noir and this year’s Eurovision. Anne’s blog is at: http://annekirstinejensen.wordpress.com/

Matt Cresswell, who’s based in Manchester. In addition to his writing he runs Glitterwolf magazine which is described on its website as ‘a UK-based literary and arts magazine that publishes the best poetry, fiction, art and photography by contributors identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.’ Matt is also working on a new project since workshopping with me on the MMU course. From the blog post it sounds like a highly imaginative story —Tintwistle & Co., which is set in ‘a sort of steampunked London’ and featuring ‘a short, sharp, opera-singing detective’. Matt’s blog can be found here: http://mcresswell.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/blog-hop-monday-the-return/

And next week the blog continues (and goes international too) with contributions from:

Kip Jankowski:  http://avadakipdavra.wordpress.com/2014/05/25/there-is-never-enough-time-never/

Eygló Daða Karlsdóttir: http://moonsith.wordpress.com/

Leonie M. Smith: who Anne will be hosting on her site: http://annekirstinejensen.wordpress.com/

Emma Yates-Badley: http://emmawritinganovel.wordpress.com/

I look forward to reading their Blog Hops on 2nd June and thanks very much to Kerry, Anne and Matt for their great contributions.

A Stop on the Blog Hop (or a Quick Introduction to My Novel)

I’d like to say thank you very much to Lisa Goll for inviting me to take part in this ‘blog hop’. Lisa is organiser of the extremely successful London Writers Café Meetup Group — her entry on this Blog Hop was published last Monday.

I’ll answer the three vital Blog Hop questions below but, as an aside,  I’d recommend anyone in the London area who’s interested in writing to go along to one of the London Writers’ Café events — I’ve been to some great agent and author talks and also to the convivial Christmas party at the BFI on the Southbank.

The answers below are about my ‘just-about-to-be-almost-finished’ novel The Angel but, for a short taster of my writing, I’d invite anyone who’s interested to read the previous post on this blog — that’s directly below this one. It tells how one of my short stories was read at an event last week by the amazing Liars League London. Or just check out the Liars’ League website directly (after reading my answers, of course) where the text of the story can be found, along with a video of a great performance by actor Sarah Feathers. There’s another story of mine in the March section too.

1. When and where is the story set?

My novel is set in the recent past in the aftermath of the credit crunch. In retrospect, I think this will be a fascinating time for people to reflect back on — a time where economic ‘certainties’ evaporated and many people’s lives were thrown into turmoil unimaginable a short time earlier.

Where is it set? In the pub!

The Angel is an idyllic village pub that gives the novel its title. Although plenty of boozy action happens in and around the pub but there’s actually much more to the novel’s setting. There are two principal locations:  the early action mainly happens in Shoreditch and the City of London, then the story moves to the bucolic Chiltern village where The Angel stands next to the green. While it’s less than forty miles from Shoreditch, the many contrasts between the two locations echo the conflict between the main characters which brings me to…

2. What can you say about the main characters?

…James, Kim and Emma.

I could talk all day about my main characters (and the minor ones) — in fact sometimes I feel like I’ve been talking all day to the characters. I’ve become so involved with them while developing the novel that they seem like old friends. I occasionally see people in public and think ‘Yes, the way her hair is cut is just like Kim or she stands exactly like Emma would’.

With an Oxford degree, well-paid City job, beautiful wife and enviable house in the country, James ought to feel like life’s served him up a banquet. But, a fanatical home cook, he nurtures a frustrated ambition to set up his own restaurant and hopes his appearance on a TV cooking show contest will kick-start his gastro-career.

Kim is a German abstract artist with a studio in Shoreditch and an unscrupulous art-dealer boyfriend who’s manipulated her into a few dodgy commissions that she might come to regret. She abuses her body, is steeped in debt but determined to succeed as an artist — publicising her work by climbing East End buildings to painting street art.

Emma, James’s wife, is a senior human resources manager for one of Britain’s biggest supermarkets and is extremely ambitious and aspires to the lifestyle of a director of a FTSE-100 company, with all its luxurious trappings. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly — and this often includes James.

3. What is the main conflict?

At its heart, The Angel is a romance and the principal conflict occurs when James buys one of Kim’s paintings and becomes intrigued by her — she represents everything he feels he’s constrained from becoming himself. And although she’s far from conventionally beautiful — she’s studded with piercings and wears fetish gear — he finds himself unaccountably attracted to her. How prepared is he to risk his marriage to Emma to get close to this quirky artist?

There’s plenty of psychological conflict within each character too — James is struggling to assert his own ambitions against the expectations of others, Kim is fighting to keep faith in her destiny as an artist, despite continual setbacks. Emma is coming to the realisation that her husband may not share her dreams.

The novel also highlights the conflicts between a life in the City, über-hipster, post-industrial Shoreditch and the timeless villages of rural England — between the traditional British identity and the cool perspective of modern Europeans.

So there’s a whistlestop tour of the background to my novel and its main characters. There’s plenty more about The Angel and how it’s evolved if you dip into the blog.

So who’s next on the Blog Hop? The three people who’ve kindly accepted to take the baton from me in this blog tour are all ex-coursemates from my Manchester Metropolitan University MA in Creative Writing — and three marvellous and very different writers and their work kept me gripped throughout the course. They will be publishing their answers to the three big questions on their own blogs on 26th May (see below for details).

Matt Cresswell

Matt Cresswell is a writer and editor from Manchester. His fiction has appeared in Icarus, Southpaw, PIYE, Iris, Hearing Voices and Shenanigans (Obverse). He is the co-creator of End of the Rainbow webcomic, with the omnibus due out from Lethe Press any day now and the editor of Glitterwolf Magazine, a literary and arts magazine showcasing lgbt contributors.

His blog is at www.mattcresswell.com

Kerry Hadley

Kerry Hadley is author of an anthology of short fiction called Fifty-One Ways to Leave your Lover,which available from Amazon. All proceeds from its sale go to the charity Platform 51, which helps girls and women in challenging circumstances. Kerry has an MA in Creative Writing and her novel will, hopefully, be published by spring next year.

Kerry’s blog can be found at: http://kerryhadley.weebly.com/kerrys-blog.html

Anne Jensen

Anne Jensen was born in Denmark – she moved to England in 1995. Having recently completed an MA in Creative Writing, she is now currently working on her second novel, House of Scars. She lives and writes in Salisbury.

Anne’s blog can be found via: http://annekirstinejensen.wordpress.com/

Only Connect

My English teacher in the sixth form introduced me to ‘only connect’ — the famous E.M.Forster quotation — not the addictive BBC4 quiz show with Victoria Coren (although the latter is inspired by the former). The implications of those two words have made a lasting impression on me.

Actually, the quotation (from Howard’s End) is elaborated into a longer phrase that has a more specific literary meaning than the more common interpretations of its first two words: ‘Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest.’

However, I prefer to apply the phrase to connections in the more general sense — specifically creating or uncovering connections between often surprising subjects, which is what the quiz programme is all about. It’s also how the brain works at the most fundamental level — thoughts being the result of connections between synapses and neurons (yes, I did have to check that on Wikipedia).

Consequently, there’s a large school of thought that suggests creativity and innovation are largely the product of making connections between unlikely ideas — and that the more original the idea the more unusual and hidden is the connection between the two.

Only Connect -- the Miners' Strike with Acid House. Detail from Jeremy Deller's Acid Brass
Only Connect — the Miners’ Strike with Acid House. Detail from Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass

Much narrative is driven by the dissonance (and consequent creation of connections) between two (or more) ostensibly opposing situations or premises — vampires or wizards exist in the modern world, what if historical events had turned out differently, someone new comes to town (especially if it’s an alien or werewolf) and so on. Metaphor and simile, which are ways of making surprising connections, are the wellspring of imaginative writing.

And all love stories are fundamentally about creating of connections between two people — and the more unlikely the better. This is the premise of my novel: two people from very different backgrounds and who thought they wanted very different things happen to meet and they connect — although how intimately and lastingly is for the reader to discover.

The novel also connects the conflicting lifestyles of City financiers and bohemian artists, inner-city London and the bucolic English countryside and the aesthetic pleasures of art with the sensual satisfaction of food.

I also like to think Forster’s maxim works at the subconscious level too — that all the experiences you have and the information you absorb get filed away in your memory somewhere and start to connect and form new ideas without any conscious effort.

This might be why a common piece of writing advice is to put a notepad by the bed to capture the seemingly random pieces of imagination or association that sometimes surface in the transition between sleep and wakefulness. I’ve almost trained myself to slumber into this semi-conscious state when commuting on the train — and I’ve often emailed myself ideas or phrases that seemed worth noting and might have been forgotten otherwise.

It’s not ‘write what you know’  but I’m of the belief that the more experience and information you use to fertilise your mind then the more chance there is of all those neurons and synapses bearing fruit with some connections that are really interesting.

Old London Connects with the New: the City from Deptford
Old London Connects with the New: the City from Deptford

By contrast, I sometimes wonder what the sort of writer who lives like a hermit finds to write about — are they constantly drawing on childhood experiences or perhaps they find enough inspiration from secondary sources?

However, having had a ‘day job’ that’s delivered me into central London for a few years, I’ve tried to take the opportunity to load up my own brain cells. I’ve tried to do something new every day if work time and the weather have allowed. (On a warm summer day I’ve taken advantage of the nearby park and laid out on the grass for half an hour — rationalising I’m letting ideas subconsciously ferment!)

Of course, it’s not necessary to go to London to load up your brain cells but there’s so much (often free) access to huge sources of cultural stimulation that it’s very easy to do so. When the weather’s not been kind enough for sunbathing — oops I mean meditating — then I’ve met up with friends or taken myself off on walks or lunchtime visits to of museums and galleries.

I recently discovered the charming Geffrye museum in Hoxton, which is particularly atmospheric when its living rooms through the ages are decorated for Christmas.  Only last week I viewed the National Gallery’s side-by-side Van Gogh’s Sunflowers exhibition and it cost nothing to do so. (Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass, mentioned above, is also free as part of the Tate Britain’s Walk Through British Art exhibition).

There are also the many special exhibitions held at the various galleries — I visited the Richard Hamilton exhibition at the Tate Modern last week in its first couple of days and before any reviews had been published, which made them all the more interesting when I read them.

I should make particular mention of the brilliant Only in England photographic exhibition in its last few weeks at the Science Museum. It features Tony Ray-Jones’s spontaneous pictures of English eccentricity (I’m desperate to find a print of the Whitstable Bay lovers on the boat trip) along with Martin Parr’s poignant photographs of isolated 1970s Yorkshire communities (actually near Hebden Bridge — not far from where I was brought up).

St. Paul's and the Millennium Bridge
St. Paul’s and the Millennium Bridge

And with two thousand years of recorded history, London itself is full of connections between old and new, especially in the areas around the City and the East-End and docklands — with possibly the best example the fabulous Millennium Bridge creating a spectacular connection between St. Paul’s Cathedral (which occupies a very ancient site) with the Tate Modern building, an icon of post-industrial transformation and one of the largest-scale examples of how artists have taken over what were once resolutely functional and non-decorative buildings and neighbourhoods (see forthcoming post).

While I like the serendipity of walking aimlessly around the city, I’ve also used various books of guided walks to explore areas I’d never routinely visit. Steven Millar’s two volumes of London’s Hidden Walks have been particularly inspiring. I’ve wandered with his books in hand around Soho, St. James’s, Marylebone, Clerkenwell, the City, Temple, Westminster, Chelsea and Covent Garden.

I’ve also explored areas further off the beaten track like Whitechapel, Lambeth and Vauxhall (where I discovered the fascinating enclave around Bonnington Square Garden), Rotherhithe and Deptford (see the spectacular view in the photograph above).

The Cross Bones Graveyard, Southwark
The Cross Bones Graveyard, Southwark

One of the most poignant sites I’ve discovered while walking around London was on the walk around the South Bank and Southwark. The site of the Crossbones Graveyard contains the unmarked graves of 15,000 children and prostitutes — those who for hundreds of years until the mid-nineteenth century weren’t considered worthy of a burial inside the boundaries of the grounds of the Winchester Palace and Southwark Cathedral . The graveyard’s existence was only discovered when the Jubilee Line was constructed in the 1990s. It has now become a shrine for modern day sex workers — with memorial ribbons tied to the gates. It’s still a derelict site owned by London Transport and campaigners are trying to resist development plans and preserve the area as a memorial.

In common with others I’ve found wandering London, it’s a touching and surprising story and will lodge in my mind for a long time. In years to come, might the memory of this walk randomly cross-fertilise with some snatch of conversation, a recalled art exhibition or museum exhibit — and out of my subconscious might emerge some original idea or compelling concept might bubble its way out of my subconscious? Who knows? In any case, it’s great reward in itself to cram all this material in my mind in the first place.

UPDATE 9th March 2014: A photographer I met at The Other Art Fair last year, Maria Konstanse Bruun (who’s from Norway but based in the UK) posted this article on her Facebook page. It’s from the Huffington Post and is a list of the 18 behaviours that apparently mark out creative people from others. I certainly recognise many in myself: daydreaming, observing people, liking solitude, seeking out new experiences (see the above post), losing track of time and, of course, ‘connecting the dots’. It’s well worth a read.

Nailing It

As well as being the title of the novel, The Angel is also the name of the pub at the centre of the narrative. It’s a fictional village local somewhere in the Chilterns and, is a little like George Orwell’s famous Moon Under Water as it’s something of an idealised English country pub (at least in its appearance — thatched, whitewashed, low-beams, inglenooks, flagstoned floors). As mentioned previously, it’s not based on one particular pub but everything in it is an amalgam of real characteristics of about a dozen pubs in the Chilterns that I know very well.

Of course, the physical appearance of a pub is only part of its appeal — the set where personal dramas are played out.  As anyone who’s visited more than a few pubs knows (in the country or city), it’s doesn’t take that much searching to come across some very idiosyncratic features — or strange activities that occur in otherwise ‘normal’ pubs.

Only a few days ago I visited a pub I’ve known for a while called England’s Rose in Postcombe, which isn’t that far from M40 junction 6. I’d naively assumed that the pub had borne that name for centuries but no — it was renamed from The Feathers almost exactly 16 years ago in 1997 after — you’ve guessed it — Elton John’s reworking of Candle in the Wind at Diana, Princess of Wales’s funeral. The pub had been converted into a shrine to Lady Di.

We were given a tour by the licensees. There was a whole bookcase of Diana-related literature in the main bar but the restaurant extension was where the Diana memorabilia had been most concentrated. Sadly quite a lot of the souvenirs had been thinned out in recent years but there are still rare photographs on the wall apparently presented by Mohammed Al Fayed.

In a similar vein, although there is more of a geographical connection, the Red Lion in Knotty Green near Beaconsfield has celebrated the life of probably its most successful writer — the phenomenal Enid Blyton.

From the Imagination of Probably Beaconsfield's Biggest Selling Author
From the Imagination of Probably Beaconsfield’s Biggest Selling Author

I say ‘probably’ because Terry Pratchett is said to have been brought up in the area, although he may have lived closer to the spectacularly ancient Royal Standard of England in nearby Forty Green. Huge though Terry Pratchett’s sales are, I’m not sure if he’s yet eclipsed the figures for the Secret Seven, the Famous Five and the rest of her vast backlist.

Framed Photos of Enid Blyton in the Red Lion, Knotty Green
Framed Photos of Enid Blyton in the Red Lion, Knotty Green

Fortunately, perhaps, at least for adult drinkers, the pub hasn’t themed itself around Noddy, Big Ears and friends. When I last visited a few years ago, it was more a collection of soft toys, books and a few photos framed on the wall. But it’s an example of how pubs can mark unexpected associations with their local communities.

The Brooke Bar, Prince and Lily
The Brooke Bar, Prince and Lily

On a more seriously literary note, the Pink and Lily pub on the scarp of the Chilterns near Princes Risborough, has a wonderfully atmospheric room devoted to war poet Rupert Brooke which is preserved almost exactly as Brooke would have drunk in it himself almost exactly a hundred years ago. Brooke does have a personal connection with the Pink and Lily, having written a poem about it and spending a lot of time in the area whereas I’m not sure if Diana ever drank in England’s Rose  or Enid Blyton in the Red Lion.

Combine the oddity of pubs with their role as venues where the local community comes to mix and things can get very strange indeed. It’s always been an ambition of mine to visit some of the inexplicably weird traditions in some of the remoter parts of the country. The tar barrels of Ottery St. Mary are near the top of my list, although not strictly pub related, but I’m most curious to visit the completely bonkers Straw Bear Festival of Whittlesea  — which seems to be the most surreal pub crawl imaginable.

But very peculiar entertainment is laid on in pubs closer to home. Below is a YouTube video I took at the Swan in Great Kimble during its recent beer festival (or Oktoberfest — which explains Mick, the landlord’s rather incongruous Lederhosen). No expense was spared in the provision of scintillating entertainment for the patrons — there was a nail driving competition.

For anyone unfamiliar with the idea (as I was) it is a stunningly straightforward contest. Two people with two hammers and two nails — and the fastest to knock their nail into the stump wins. Who needs 3D films, karaoke or even television when we can entertain ourselves like this?

But, in this clip, entertaining it definitely was. The two contestants are my friends Carl (on the left) and Simon. There are two separate contests but Simon is trounced in each one. The scepticism and bewilderment that Simon displays through movement and body language in checking Carl’s nail has indeed been driven in faster is pure physical comedy.

It’s a priceless little nugget that shows how British eccentricity still thrives if you know where to look for it.

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

Point of View


The Shadow of Shadows
A Shadow Amongst Shadows

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the Shard rising in 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Millennium Bridge from the Shard
Millennium Bridge from the Shard

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gherkin from The Shard
The Gherkin from The Shard

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

Cheesegrater and Walkie Talkie
Cheesegrater and Walkie Talkie Under Construction

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

Tower 42
Tower 42

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

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

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

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

London Bridge Railway Lines
London Bridge Railway Lines

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

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

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

East End and Olympic Park
East End and Olympic Park

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

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

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

Shard -- Looking Up
Shard — Looking Up

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

Panaroma from the Shard

Panorama from the Shard

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London: Thank You For 2012

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know What You Write

I’ve recently been writing a new scene for the novel involving street art. As readers of the blog will know, I’ve spent plenty of time recently learning about street art and observing it around Shoreditch (on Thursday this week I was looking at some recent street art in the car park opposite Village Underground, under the new Overground viaduct, with Jamie and Sabina from I Know What I Like).

What I didn’t know that much about was how the artists actually created their work — I’d seen artists at work, like Amanda Marie (see previous posting) but I wasn’t aware of basic information like where they got their materials, how much they cost and the fundamental experience of what it was like to press your finger on the nozzle of a spraycan and to try and do something creative, especially in an outdoor environment and possibly looking over your shoulder to avoid being arrested.

So I decided to try for myself. Last weekend I became ‘macnovel’ the street artist.

The New Tag on the Block
The New Tag on the Block

First of all, I had to buy the paint — and I wanted the proper stuff that serious artists use, not Halford’s car bodywork cans. An online search produced plenty of websites that would supply aerosol paint cans for delivery but I couldn’t find many bricks and mortar outlets, even in central London.  The best place I could find was Chrome and Black on Bethnal Green Road in Shoreditch, located, perhaps not coincidentally, just round the corner from Redchurch Street.

Montana Gold
My Montana Gold Cans Ready for Action

Chrome and Black is a supplier (I’d hesitate to call it a shop) dedicated to graffiti and street art. It reminded me vaguely of one of those old Swedish government owned liquor stores or the hardware shop in the famous Two Ronnies’ Four Candles sketch, as all the merchandise was locked away behind metal screens or glass cases — and the spraycans and markers came in a bewildering variety of colours. It’s not the sort of place where customers go to casually browse.

Dressed for work and carrying my Evening Standard, there was no way I was going to pretend I was some kind of cool graffiti artist (although from what I overheard I think there may have been a genuine street artist ‘name’ in the place at the time). So I asked the bloke behind the counter for something I could play around and experiment with. He recommended me the Montana Gold range and I took a red and black can of each (they were about £3.99 each, by the way).

Having a couple of cans of graffiti paint stuffed in my work rucksack made the journey back on Chiltern Railways feel faintly subversive. I’d guess a fair number of my fellow passengers would like to bring back hanging for anyone caught in possession of spraycans.

The First Attempt -- Signed Too
The First Attempt — Signed Too

I had the cans but where the hell was I going to use them? Even if I was inclined to do my experimentation in public places there are hardly the post-industrial walls of Brick Lane near where I live. The most readily available blank canvasses would probably be sheep in the fields.

But I remembered the materials used by Adam Neate when he was unknown — he’s now one of the world’s most famous street artists. (The story goes, which is a little romanticised, that he literally left his works in the street for anyone to keep who found them.)

Neate painted his early work — and still sometimes does — on cardboard. He’s now an exceptionally collectible artist which is ironic as the base material for his work is potentially the potentially the contents of a typical recycling bin (he got his cardboard from charity shops I believe). His spray painting has an effect almost like alchemy on this otherwise base material, transforming it into something that art collectors will pay tens of thousands of pounds for.

Having a backlog of cardboard waiting to go to the tip, I decided to use it as my artist’s medium – as it happens, mainly packaging from a John Lewis fold-up bed. But I didn’t want to be ‘just’ an aerosol artist. I wanted to have a go at stencilling too. So I found what I thought was suitable — a thin piece of Amazon card packaging — and cut out a few shapes  with a Stanley knife.

Cans, Stencil and Finished 'Artwork'
Cans, Stencil and Finished ‘Artwork’

I went out into the garden with a willing helper, my spraycans, stencils and cardboard and had a go. And some of my efforts can be seen in the photos here.

Any thoughts on the artwork? I’m actually quite attached to it. I thought I’d throw it away instantly but I’ve hung on to it as I quite like it. Anyone who reads my manuscript will be able to spot exactly which part of the novel I was writing at the time by the stencilling I’ve attempted to do in the picture below.

Can You Guess What It Is Yet?
Can You Guess What It Is Yet?

Clearly they’re just practice efforts but I really enjoyed it –and it was valuable for the writing. There are aspects of the experience that can’t be imagined that easily — or gleaned from a Google search — like the way it’s easy to over-apply the paint so that it starts to dribble and the way the paint coats your fingers. And then there’s the smell — it reeks of solvent. My novel’s graffiti painting scene takes place in an enclosed space and there’s no way that, having had a go at this myself, I could write the piece in the novel without mentioning the smell.

Becoming a temporary street artist might be the most extreme example of how I may have become a ‘method writer’. I don’t know whether there is such a thing but, if there is, I’d imagine it to be a little like the method school of acting which, to simplify greatly, means the actor prepares for the performance by trying to experience the world of the character.

According to the Lee Strasberg Institute website (he’s credited with inventing the technique) it uses ‘the creative play of the affective memory in the actor’s imagination’ to  ‘[create] performances grounded in the human truth of the moment’ — which I take to mean the actor tries to do the same stuff as the character — so these may be drawn upon in performance. So if the character is a dustman, perhaps the actor goes out on a dustcart a few mornings. I’m not sure how it works if a character is something like a serial killer, though.

A Studio Too Messy Even to be in My Novel
A Studio Too Messy Even to be in My Novel

Even so, method acting reinforces Aristotle’s belief that ‘the secret to moving the passions in others is to be moved oneself’ — and this must also be true with writing. If the writer doesn’t care about a character, why should the reader? If the writer wants a scene to evoke emotions that create physical reactions in the reader, maybe of danger, peril, grief, anticipation or anger in the reader, then these ought to be more vivid or genuine if the writer also experienced these feelings at the time of putting the words on the page.

The same must also be true for the physical reactions triggered by effective sex scenes. If you’re writing about two characters who are so attracted to each other then it must be a mark of effective writing to engender a sympathetic reaction in the reader — which is probably why they’re so difficult to write that many writers avoid them altogether.  And if they’re difficult to write then it’s a step further to workshop the stuff with your writing course friends, although that’s a pretty good deterrent against going too far along the path of purple prose.

I suspect most of the candidates for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards, due to be announced fairly soon, ended up on the list by obfuscating the fundamental, but discomforting, truths of writing about sex behind over-elaborate prose or strained metaphors.

My MMU Creative Writing tutor last year had the good grace to admit to our class that he won this dubious prize for a passage in novel of his in the 1990s, which used a sewing machine analogy. I have actually read the passage in question and I don’t think it’s particularly cringeworthy, more taken out of context. He must have been unlucky — or lucky, if you think that sort of publicity is the good sort.

Sadly, my method writing hasn’t involved sex and sewing machines but the experience of writing the novel has influenced my life in plenty of other ways. Ironically I’m finding the normal advice of ‘write what you know’ could be better phrased in my case, as ‘know what you write’.

The novel’s themes include business, food and pubs (of which I have a fair amount of practical experience, particularly of the latter) and also art, which is something I’ve learned a lot about while writing the novel. As well as a number of viewings I’ve been to with I Know What I Like, I’ve also taken advantage of working in London to visit many of the high profile art exhibitions and events this summer.

Most recently, I’ve been to see the Turner Prize show and the Pre-Raphaelites at Tate Britain, Richard Hamilton and the Titian exhibition at the National, British Design at the V&A, the Bauhaus Exhibition (and another I can’t remember) at the Barbican, Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern, the Invisible Art show at the Hayward Gallery, the Lazaridis Bedlam exhibition at the Old Vic Tunnels (used as MI6’s bunker in Skyfall), the Moniker Art Fair at Village Underground and various others.

I doubt I’d have gone to a single event had I not started writing the novel — although going to so many events reduces the time I have available to complete the novel. I sometimes beat myself up about this but, on the other hand, I started writing the novel when working in the cultural wasteland that was an office park on the wrong side of Luton Airport, where the most exciting way of spending a lunchtime was to browse the aisles of the local Asda (although it’s an ambition of mine to write a novel that’s successful and mainstream enough to be put on the shelves there).

But binging on art and cultural events begs the fascinating question of which came first — did I start to write a novel about an artist because I wanted to discover more about art — or is it purely secondary?

That's Adam Neate's Hand Ready to Sign Posters
That’s Adam Neate’s Hand Ready to Sign Posters

And then there’s the access I’ve had to artists via the brilliant Love Art London — about whom I’ve blogged before. How did I know that Adam Neate painted on cardboard? Because I heard him tell me himself at the Love Art London viewing of his show at Elms Lester’s Painting Rooms in St. Giles. I asked the gallery owner how much Adam Neate’s work was priced (as there were no figures on display next to the works on display). I was told they were in the region of £25-30k per piece (and one of his works was recently sold for £80k at auction). The bloke seriously thought I might buy one. Well, maybe, but probably only if this novel gets to the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list one day.

When the artist is able to sell work to serious collectors for so much money, it’s great credit to both Adam Neate and Love Art London that he attended our viewing to talk about the work — and even more impressive that he came to the pub with us afterwards — the appropriately named Angel.

Adam Neate was an incredibly nice, modest bloke — and I know because I ended up chatting to him for about fifteen minutes — even bought him a pint of Sam Smith’s. We talked about Berlin, as he was going there the next day for a weekend break. I told him a bit about the novel — as Berlin is where Kim was trained in the novel — and I’d guess that Berlin and London are the two main centres of urban art, certainly in Europe.

Not a bad journey in terms of method writing — starting by conceiving a character who’s a street artist, then trying to have a practical go at what she does and then talking about the fictional character with someone who’s achieved in reality what my character is striving for in the novel.

The Huge Studio for Scenery Painting at Elms Lester Painting Rooms
The Huge Studio for Scenery Painting at Elms Lester Painting Rooms

I could have spent the time revising the novel rather than going out and validating my portrayal of the artist. Instead I might have a finished novel by now but would it be genuine and informed enough to move readers, particularly those who are interested in art?

It’s worth making a note about the fascinating space at Elms Lesters. The gallery was originally built for huge scale painting for West End theatres. It still has an incredible space about forty feet high and much less wide that was constructed for painting theatrical backdrops — and is now used for filming things like music videos as much as for anything else. It’s quite an extraordinary building.

A Flying View of London

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

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

The Shard Rising
The Shard Rises Between the Canary Wharf Towers

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Emirates Skyline Cable Cars
The Emirates Skyline Cable Cars

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

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

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

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

Tap East
Tap East, Stratford Westfield

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


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

Canary Whard Lights at Night
Canary Wharf, Illuminated

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

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

York Festival Of Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bronte Birthplace Plaque
Bronte Birthplace Plaque, Thornton, West Yorkshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

York Minster
York Minster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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