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

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

The Tree That Once Belonged to Bob Hoskins (and Other Odd Connections)

The last post loosely took the E.M.Forster quotation ‘only connect’ and asked if this might be at the basis of some of the creative process — can originality be fostered by stuffing your subconscious full of stimulating ideas and experiences which could stew away unsupervised like a warming winter casserole or, alternatively, blast into each other like a psychological Hadron collider.

Bearing this out, I’ve realised there’s a loosely recurring theme of odd and unusual connections in many of the experiences I’ve enjoyed or places I’ve visited over the past few months — locations which are on the margins between conflicted forces or genres where conventionally opposing styles or materials have been placed in opposition.

Shoreditch is the classic example of an area that has been transformed by the influence of artists, with the Village Underground tube train carriages providing a landmark juxtaposition.

Village Underground from Shoreditch
Village Underground from Shoreditch

It’s arguable that Shoreditch has become so ironically commercialised that it’s developing into a caricature of itself. For several years, artists have been priced out of the area (as is Kim in my novel), not just by the geek-cool spillover from David Cameron’s beloved ‘Tech City’ in Old Street but by speculative apartment-buying business types (even more beloved of Cameron). 

The warehouse-squatting, loft-dwelling artists have been dispersed to Peckham (mentioned in Time Out virtually every week), Hackney Wick (whose artists ‘took over’ the V&A at the end of February) and rather bizarrely, as I discovered a few weeks ago, to suburbs like High Barnet.

I climbed four storeys up an external fire-escape with my friends from Love Art London way out in the hipster-there-be-dragons territory of zone 6 to visit the artist, David Shillinglaw. He was a thoroughly generous and entertaining host, welcoming us into his loft studio which was located in an old false-teeth making factory (if it was in a novel this detail would seem way too far-fetched!). The studio was an amazing jumble of finished artworks, pieces in progress, plants (the tree apparently belonged once to Bob Hoskins!), huge rubber balls, artists materials and cats plus everyday objects (I think he lived there too — David Shillinglaw, not Bob Hoskins).

Inside David Shillinglaw's High Barnet Loft Studio
Inside David Shillinglaw’s High Barnet Loft Studio

While the artists move to the likes of Stoke Newington, Deptford and, er, High Barnet, property developers haven’t been slow to make the connection between exploiting the lingering aura of edgy cool and the large plots of under-exploited land in Shoreditch. Schemes that have been approved are in the pipeline that will transform the area irreparably: a 40 storey tower is to be built almost opposite Village Underground with a new shopping centre on the other side.

I may have written a partially historical novel by accident as I have scenes in my novel set in Holywell Street, which will be completely transformed within the next couple of years. (The scene is set in the road between the Village Underground tube trains and the new high rise building in the centre left in the developer’s projected image below.) 

The Planned 'Shoreditch Village' on the Existing Surface Car Park Opposiite Village Underground (Below Left)
The Planned ‘Shoreditch Village’ Either Side of the Railway Viaduct on the Existing Surface Car Park Opposite Village Underground (Below Left) — from  www.ellis-miller.com

Speaking of developers trying to muscle-in (and, in so doing, destroy)  on ‘cool’, ‘gritty’ urban locations, I took the photograph below just before Christmas of one of the most bizarre connections in London — the South Bank’s Bavarian Christmas market set opposite the graffiti-plastered undercroft of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, adopted as London’s skateboarders’ spiritual home.

Drinking steaming glühwein while watching skateboard jumps in a reclaimed space of brutalist architecture is the type of accidentally cosmopolitan experience only London can offer. Unlike some of the most favoured spots for Shoreditch street artists, the undercroft has been reprieved from development into shops.

Bavarian Christmas Market Meets Graffiti Covered Skateboard Undercroft
Bavarian Christmas Market Meets Graffiti Covered Skateboard Undercroft

There are a quite a few posts on this blog that mention street art: in the novel Kim brings her graffiti artist skills to places that haven’t traditionally welcomed them. Perhaps its appeal is partly because of another unusual combination — the traditionally reverential and formal world of fine art and the constantly changing, chaotic, almost anarchic urban spaces that foster street art culture.

My friend Sabina Andron, who runs the I Know What I Like Meetup Group in London, is studying street art for a PhD at University College, London. Over a period of 100 days last year she conducted an intriguing initiative, photographing the same stretches of wall on Leake Street (a virtual tunnel underneath Waterloo station) every day over a month and recording the organic, rapid changes in the artwork.

One of Sabina Andron's Leake Street Photos -- Click on the links in the blog text for the full animation
One of Sabina Andron’s Leake Street Photos — Click on the links in the blog text for the full animation

Sabina won the UCL Graduate School research poster competition for a poster featuring 100 images of one wall. Her website has a page which has time-lapse animations of all the walls. Its well worth viewing and may change your view of street art if you’re sceptical of its artistic value.

Writing, art and geography are, of course, not the only areas in which ‘only connect’ produces exciting  and unusual innovations. Musicians often cross-fertilise, with many whole new genres created from the fusion of apparently unrelated styles. In my local pub the recent English graduate cellarman often exposes the village regulars to his eclectic musical tastes, gained from working at music festivals across Europe. It’s a bizarre experience to walk into a rural English pub and hear dub reggae by the likes of King Tubby flowing from the speakers.

I was having a drink in the pub recently and began to recognise a song I knew very well but was also simultaneously unfamiliar. I worked out it was a track from Dark Side of the Moon. The skanky,offbeat rhythms meant it definitely wasn’t Pink Floyd but it was surprisingly  good — like any good, radical cover version, making the song sound written as if it was specifically for the other genre.

The track was Time and the album was the brilliant Dub Side of the Moon (see above) by the Easy All Stars. I bought it straight away and now listen to it interchangeably with the Pink Floyd original.

And foodies can give musicians a run for their money in terms of matching up bizarre combinations. Food is a major feature of the novel (including the odd matches inspired by the likes of Heston Blumenthal — liquorice ice-cream, snail porridge, mango and douglas-fir puree and the rest). So, wanting to see something of the cutting edge for myself, at the end of last year I visited the Experimental Food Society Spectacular at the Truman Brewery in Brick Lane.

This was an event run by people who like to do weird things with food. Some exhibits were immersive experiences — exploring how story-telling could influence flavours or how different senses interacted with each other. Some were just a bit, well, bonkers. Let’s connect Italian food with an Italian evocation of place by building a model of Rialto Bridge in Venice purely out of dried pasta and crackers (it can be done — see below — although I’m not sure whether an arrabbiata or puttanesca sauce would go best with the balustrades or portico).

Experimental Food -- Top and bottom right: The Rialto Bridge made of pasta and crackers; Bottom left: Vapourised tea.
Experimental Food — Top and bottom right: The Rialto Bridge made of pasta and crackers; Bottom left: Vapourised tea.

The flasks in the photo above left are of different types of tea but you don’t drink it. You inhale it (with a straw) after the people from Camellia’s Tea House put the brew through some clever vaporisation process. The vapour actually condenses on the back of your tongue, which gives a different taste sensation but one I doubt will be replacing the English cuppa very soon. (The breathable tea was so odd the story even made it into the New York Post.)

I’m not sure my fictional pub will go as far as serving its drinks in gaseous form, however intriguing the idea. But with an artist on the premises it could offer something for breakfast similar to the work of another Experimental Food Spectacular exhibitor — Dermot Flynn — Toast Artist.

Dermot Flynn -- Toast Artist
Dermot Flynn — Toast Artist

A little like a street artist, Dermot Flynn, connects art with unusual surfaces — in his case toast (a look at his website shows that he works by no means exclusively in toast but it’s one of the more unusual way he earns a crust).  Love it or hate it, the genre of edible art means it’s unpalatable to use conventional paint, so he uses Marmite instead.

Apparently if the Marmite is applied to white bread (presumably the more manufactured and sterile the better) to create an image which is subsequently put into a toaster, the desiccation process means the picture (or toast) will last for an indefinite period. If you can resist eating your artwork, Dermot told me that it’s perfectly possible to frame it.

For £10, I couldn’t resist the offer of having my portrait created in this unusual medium but I’ve taken the precaution of photographing it in case of unexpected nibbling.

Me in Marmite on Toast
Love Me or Hate Me? 

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.

A Bit of Sex on the Literary Sofa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was It Worth It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Tyler at the Oxford Literary Festival

Along with 850 other fans, I was lucky enough to have a ticket to this morning’s Oxford Literary Festival interview with Anne Tyler at the Sheldonian Theatre.

It was an absorbing event – the first public appearance of its type, I believe, that Anne Tyler has ever done.  Before this year she hadn’t done an interview in the last forty. As she is a Pulitzer Prize winner with 19 novels published, this lived up to its billing as a unique event. There were apparently many writers amongst the audience, including, apparently, Nick Hornby, who was being quoted on Twitter as saying the interview was the best literary event he’d ever witnessed.

I didn’t take any notes down and, not having read as many of her novels as many in the audience, some of the discussions on individual novels only served to whet my interest for future reading (I was recommended to read Anne Tyler’s work by Emily on the City University course who said that I might learn a lot from her novels because of the style of my own writing). However, there was still a huge amount of detail about how this outstanding novelist practices her craft. The whole interview is apparently available in the public domain on the Sunday Times website for download but I found the points below of particular interest if I remember correctly.

For someone who’s gained a reputation as a recluse, Anne Tyler was a remarkably engaging interviewee – attentive, humorous, concise and self-deprecating in her answers, which, through being delivered free from any famous author egotism, gave a fascinating insight into the way she crafts her work.

Work was a word Anne Tyler returned to frequently. When asked about how she began a novel, she didn’t talk about waiting for any precious bolt of inspiration. In fact, starting a novel was something she didn’t enjoy, saying she much preferred to be in the middle of writing a novel – drafting and revising – because that was when she felt busy and productive.

The process of writing a novel started with sitting down for a month or so with a blank sheet of paper and looking through a store of index cards she keeps with ideas for the genesis of stories or characters, often based on real-life events. Some of her cards are over 30 years old but still may end up in the latest novel.

After a month or so she often experiences a moment of revelation when a character’s voice suddenly enters her head — and that’s the point when she guesses her subconscious has absorbed the prompts and has started to create an organic, dynamic novel. She then writes longhand drafts before entering it all into a computer. She then prints off the hard copy and rewrites it – then dictates the revised draft into a recorder and then uses a transcriber’s pedal to play the spoken draft back while she updates the draft on the computer.

She described this process as having started accidentally but she recommended the speaking aloud part of the process as being particularly important – especially for dialogue – which may explain why the dialogue in her novels is so good. (Or, more likely, an innate ear for dialogue probably demands that speaking aloud forms this vital part of the writing process.)

By the time she starts writing the drafts, she said she has the characters and the plot planned (although she claimed that she ‘doesn’t do plot’ and that time passing is often a plotting device in itself and may be the only momentum necessary in her novels of family and relationships).  She did say she starts out writing always knowing the ending of the novel ‘and about fifty per cent of the time it turns out I’m right.’

With such a meticulous approach to creating the final draft, it wasn’t surprising that Anne Tyler’s editor (who’s worked on all 19 books before retiring with the latest one) is not an interventionist type. She described her initial reaction to an editor’s change as one of ‘what the hell does she know about it?’ but then came round to usually seeing the merit in her suggestions – for example for extra exposition.

One aspect where Anne Tyler said she was most often over-ruled was titles – many of her favourite working titles have been changed by the editor or publisher. This surprised the audience because her novels’ titles are often intriguing and paradoxical – e.g. The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons.

Peter Kemp, the Sunday Times chief fiction reviewer, who was the interviewer, drew attention to her extraordinary attention to detail and said that he didn’t know of another writer who illustrated character and emotion by detailed reference to gestures and objects. She replied that she thought that was a reflection of how she saw the world herself – noticing the detail while sometimes missing out on the more general picture.

This may be a modest way of answering but this eye for the specific, allied to an ability to pick precisely the right diction, elevates her prose above the danger of providing too much detail (or ‘clutter’ as one of my creative writing tutors described this style when it may not be expertly executed).

I was reading Breathing Lessons before going to the event and I was in awe of some of the language of detail she used. Referring to the detritus in the back of a car she writes ‘The floor was cobbled with cloudy plastic lids from soft drink cups’ and that Maggie ‘carried a fistful of lids around to the rear of the house and dropped them in a crumpled garbage can. The cover was only a token cover, a battered metal beret that she replaced crookedly on top.’ The verb ‘cobbled’ is so unexpected and apt and its contrast with ‘cloudy’ is brilliant and the image of the metal beret is simultaneously obvious and extraordinary. And I’m glad that a writer of her calibre is not afraid to use an adverb like ‘crookedly’ so brazenly.

Such rich diction using adjectives and adverbs that enhance already strong verbs and nouns reminds me of Nabokov – and it was interesting to find out that Anne Tyler majored in Russian at university and cites Russian literature as a big influence.

Her precision with language may explain one answer that I thought might be controversial. Her novels are written very successfully in both first and third person and she was asked if she preferred either style. She replied that she always started off novels in the third person and that she thought ‘first person was a bit of a cheat’. I can’t remember whether she justified this comment as she then went on to talk about when it became technically necessary to convert a narrative into the first person – when a closeness to a character becomes an over-riding factor.

However, I feel I understand exactly what she means. A third person narrator is closer to being an authorial construct and, perhaps, is more accountable to the reader. A first person narrative can be viewed as a kind of extended monologue — any imperfection, unreliability or idiosyncrasy in that voice can always be explained and excused away as being part of the fiction (e.g. when analysed in creative writing workshops). It’s the question of whether an effect was intentional or not – and I have the impression that Anne Tyler is such a meticulous writer that she’d ideally like to demarcate the characters voices with dialogue and develop a more flexible, independent narrator. But, as she said, it all depends on context – first person is sometimes the only way to tell the story.

There were a huge number of questions from the audience and the event stretched on way past its billed hour duration. Many people prefaced their questions with profuse thanks to the author for having written something that had had a profound effect on their own lives – and sounded very sincere, perhaps not surprising bearing in mind Anne Tyler’s subject matter, which includes families, relationships, bereavement, ageing, etc.

One question I found particularly interesting was asked by a man (the female-male ratio in the audience and with the questions was about 4 or 5 to 1). He asked Anne Tyler how she created such plausible male characters – successfully articulating a man’s perspective on the world.  Her answer was commendably straightforward in saying that she’d been fortunate to get to know many men who’d been ‘fixed’ (I think that was the word) in her life (such as father, husband, other family members). (Her attitude to men in that answer reminded me of Graeme A. Thomson’s description of Kate Bush’s.) She added that, in her opinion, men had less freedom than women emotionally and, when writing male characters, she had to be more indirect, substituting a gesture or oblique comment for expressions of feeling.

There were a couple of encouraging comments for new novelists. One was that her first published novel had to do the rounds before it found a publisher. The other was that she said she particularly looked out for novels by new writers – believing that the standard of first novels nowadays was much higher than when she started writing – bearing out the reality that writers now appear to have less time to grow into their career (that last part is not so good, I suppose).

And maybe the surprise of the day was it turned out that Anne Tyler is a huge fan of the TV series ‘The Wire’ – the epitome of urban realism. Maybe that’s not quite as big a surprise considering it’s set in Baltimore and that the series is lauded for its taut, lean writing – both qualities shared by her novels (although there are some set elsewhere).

Apart from the great writing and emotional depth, Anne Tyler’s writing is suffused with subtle humour and parts of my own experience at the event were almost like something out of a novel. I was one of the first into the Sheldonian Theatre and sat with an eccentric woman who started off having a blazing row with the ushers about where they’d let us sit (although she made a big point of apologising to them later on) and then she mumbled comments through the event. Also, the first ‘question’ must have lasted several minutes during which we had the irony of hundreds of fans sat waiting for the first utterances from one of the greatest living novelists while all she could do was nod her head in agreement. Fortunately, as the session extended beyond its scheduled end time, there were plenty of fascinating answers once she started speaking.

Chilling Out with Kim

I’m currently sitting opposite the Pacific Ocean in one of the most pleasant and laid-back places in the world — Santa Barbara’s beachfront. However, I’m not doing a touristy travelogue and my enjoyment of the relaxed atmosphere is interspersed with virtual panic-attacks about the amount of money it costs to be here.

But I’m here because this place (as very attentive readers of this blog may have realised)  is somewhere that’s ingrained in my psyche as I spent an academic year here as part of my undergraduate degree course — although it wasn’t here in chic downtown Santa Barbara (see photo below — taken from my hotel balcony) but the more rough-and-ready student ghetto of Isla Vista.

Cabrillo Boulevard, Santa Barbara
Cabrillo Boulevard, Santa Barbara

Isla Vista is a community of at least 10,000 students (possibly many more) and very few other people. I ended up living almost in the middle of it — in an apartment that bordered on its central business district (if that’s what various student bookshops, liquor stores, fast food businesses and so on can be called).

While this sounds quite anarchic and hedonistic, I probably reacted against it all to a large extent when I arrived — for one thing I was so young that it was illegal for me to buy alcohol, which was something very constricting for someone on the third year of a British university course.

I’m quite astounded now at how I managed to cope — aged 20 — being deposited on the other side of the globe in the days before the internet and e-mail. This was when phone calls home were so expensive you made them once a month and when national news came via the reading room of the university library’s periodical collection rather than a few clicks on a computer.

Perhaps, if anything, this experience of being transplanted between cultures has given me an appreciation of what British culture looks like from the outside — which is perhaps a theme of the novel.

Moreover, while it sits at odds with my northern English upbringing and redbrick (British) university roots, there’s always going to be something in me of the chilled-out Californian. I spent the best part of a year with the TV stations I watched most being the local KEYT Santa Barbara ABC franchise but also the local Los Angeles stations — while the names of suburbs in LA might seem a little random to many with a superficial knowledge of the area, I’ve gained mine from effectively being a local for a year.

Not that this has much to do at all with the profoundly English themes in my novel but hopefully the work I did here in Santa Barbara (especially the screenwriting courses) will seep subconsciously into the novel — or perhaps more overtly as I’m wondering about converting a character into a Californian.

Santa Barbara from Stearn's Wharf at Nightfall
Santa Barbara from Stearn's Wharf at Nightfall

And Santa Barbara (or Montecito — the other end of town to the university) is home to large numbers of movie, and other, stars. In a very tenuous Kim connection apparently the second biggest celebrity wedding of the year took place a mile or so up the road — Kim Kardashian who’s apparently very famous for being famous married a basketball player. This is all the sort of stuff that Emma disdains interest in but by which she’s actually fascinated.

So, appropriately, it’s on to Hollywood and Beverly Hills today (where, ridiculously, the internet costs extra in the hotel so I may be quiet a while).

And I’ve been very slow in picking this up but perhaps the biggest subconscious influence of all is how my novel’s title is an almost literal translation of the biggest city in California — Los Angeles — the Angels.


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

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

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

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

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

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

 Duchamps's Urinal

Duchamps’s R. Mutt Urinal

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

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

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

Behind Closed Doors

In W.H.Smiths in Marylebone Station I recently spotted a new novel by Lucy Kellaway, the FT’s management correspondent, whose debunking of management theory codswallop is always entertaining. Her last novel ‘Martin Lukes: Who Moved My Blackberry’ was my holiday reading a few years ago (if you don’t understand the joke in the title then you’re happily innocent of one of the more ludicrous management bestsellers of the past few years).

However, it was in the ‘Buy 1 Get 1 Half Price’ offer and, of course, the fallibility of my mind to marketing psychology meant I scanned around for the ‘bargain’ book to accompany ”In Office Hours‘ and succumbed to the temptation of a book I’d seen partially serialised in The Times a few weeks ago: ‘The Sex Diaries Project’ edited by Arianne Cohen.

(Curiously, this book has a relatively high sales ranking on Amazon and is number one in its niche category in the health, family and lifestyle section but no-one has posted a review so far — which is odd.)

The book is formed of around fifty diaries kept by British people in which the diarists recorded their sexual activities and thoughts — although most diaries spend more time reflecting on relationships than recording the mechanics of sex. Perhaps calling the book ‘The Relationships Diaries Project’ would have been less commercial but a third of the diarists record no sex at all (for various reasons) during their week. The diaries aren’t, of course, a representative survey of the population — there are probably a few too many ‘unusual’ diaries for that — but there’s a very varied spread of gender, age and sexual orientation.

It’s not particularly salacious or erotic — it’s tame enough to have been discussed on ‘Woman’s Hour’ on Radio 4 — I found an interview with Arianne Cohen on the BBC website. (It was quite amusing to hear Jenni Murray finely navigate the line between being over-euphemistic and speaking too frankly.)

I’d argue (honestly!) that this book is a very valuable resource for anyone writing a novel which emphasises the development of any intimate relationship between its characters. These are frank accounts of behaviour between real people written in the language they genuinely use. Almost by definition these activities are private — they’re not the kind of things a novelist can sit and wryly observe from a coffee shop. The diaries are published anonymously (although Cohen does a lot of checking to ensure they are not hoaxes) and, like diaries of the more conventional sort, the writers commit to paper much that they would never speak out loud to anyone else.

One assertion that Arianne Cohen makes in the interview, which is re-assuring to writers but also perhaps surprising given the tone of much of the debate on gender, is she believes that the male and female diarists ‘experience relationships in a very similar way’ and in terms of ‘minute-by-minute thoughts men and women are quite similar’.

Where the difference lies is that men express this experience somewhat differently — usually in a more explicitly sexual way. However, the female diarists are certainly just as capable of commenting explicitly on the sexual attractiveness of others. Maybe to emphasise the point, the gender of each diarist is printed in very small type. It’s sometimes easy to forget whether it’s a man or woman writing the diary.

Jenni Murray said she detected an undercurrent of misogyny in some of the male entries and Arianne Cohen agreed that around 15% of the male diaries showed a disturbing objectification of women. This might be summed up by the serial adulterer who also visited a prostitute almost every week and who seemed to believe his attitude to women was shared by most men. (It isn’t.)

On the other hand, it’s misleading and self-deluding to assume (as was possibly implied in the Woman’s Hour discussion) that infidelity is automatically linked to misogyny. In anything but the shortest flings, there are usually two people involved in the deception — in the case of (straight) male  infidelity it’s the despised ‘other woman’.  While the man may indeed be objectifying and using both women in a shallow way, it’s also equally true that his actions may be driven by passion and emotion — not a dislike of women at all.

This leads to the question of whether women can easily be categorised, as maybe they are in soap operas,  into the likes of predatory husband-snatchers or faithful home-makers. I’d guess it’s not so simple and there’s a continuum of behaviour that suggests, depending on circumstances and many other factors, that the majority of people could end up being either the ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ party in an episode of unfaithfulness.  I hope so as this is one of the main dilemmas for the characters in my novel.

The honesty and accuracy of the diary entries is perhaps vouched for by the frequency of the occasions where the diarists record masturbation. There really isn’t much kudos to be gained by an individual to record that they’ve masturbated — the nature of the activity itself means that anyone can do it and independently of any relationship. That people masturbate such a lot might be simultaneously the most enlightening and least surprising finding in the whole book — precisely because it’s an activity that is very rarely discussed or written about and only often in abstract, de-personalised, self-help terms.

But it’s the near ubiquity of the activity which is quite striking: it’s recorded at a similar sort of intensity by men and women, people who are single or in relationships, young or old (although not the very oldest). There are a couple of oddly touching anecdotes on the subject — one the man in his 60s who is unhappily resigned to the physiological challenges involved at his age and the pregnant woman who debates whether her unborn baby is technically a witness — and, if so, what does this mean ethically (she decides it’s OK).

The last point also stresses the privacy (usually) required. If the diarist is in a relationship, almost every incidence of what  is euphemistically called ‘self-love’ is kept hidden: people are aware that their partners probably do masturbate but the where and the when aren’t really considered, apart from one particular entry that stood out as the exception that proved the rule. (I was startled to read of some of the diarists nipping away from their work desks for the purpose.)

This revelation of the inevitable must be interesting to fiction writers — this is something your characters are pretty likely to do and it may reveal something of their inner-lives, unlike involuntary bodily functions that everyone does but don’t normally appear in novels. On the other hand, a solitary act of (another euphemism coming up — no pun intended) self-relief is almost, by definition, lacking in the drama that occurs when a sexual act is part of a relationship. I can see why masturbation is not a common event in fiction but the candour with which these diarists record it makes me wonder whether writers tend to shying away from using a fairly universal experience.

If every aspect of the book that’s fascinating to writers was discussed in detail  then this would be an even longer post than it already is (and I think it’s already the longest one on the blog — more of an essay than a posting). There follows a list of a few points that were particularly thought-provoking. Some are seemingly obvious and intuitive but that may lend credibility to the implication that the more apparently deviant attitudes are more common than might be generally supposed. Again, there’s no science to this list — it’s what struck me while reading the selection of  diaries.

  1. Ex-lovers feature a lot — both in people’s thoughts and in physical encounters. Many, many diarists long for a previous partner — and sadly many of these people are in other relationships with people they prefer less. This is often in spite (or because) of a recognition that any lasting relationship with that person is emotionally impossible (such as the newly-divorced woman pining for her ex-husband). Many report that sexual encounters with ex-partners continued on a sporadic basis long after the relationship finished. The ability to impulsively hook up with an ex has become much easier with new technology: mobile phone ‘sexting’ is another example of the greater intimacy and audacity people use with the written word. (I’m convinced that people tend to favour texting due to its privacy and asynchronous nature. There are a number of examples of where the utter simplicity of a text saying something like ‘Come over — I want to fuck you’ works very effectively for all parties and this brevity and directness is a lesson to writers.) The internet is another obvious tool (and Facebook is mentioned a lot in the book) for ex-partners to keep in casual contact. People tend not to talk about exes to their current partner — so again this is good, private, fertile ground for the writer.
  2. Many of the straight women describe an aspiration for sexual experimentation with another woman. This seems to be borne out of inquisitiveness and curiosity about whether this would be a different, maybe more sympathetic, sort of sensual experience than with a man. This was often acknowledged to be something that would remain in the realm of private fantasy although some expressed regret at having lost the opportunity to try it.  Straight male diarists seemed to have no interest in other men (except perhaps as an unavoidable consequence of group sex).
  3. When the respondents were interested in sex then there was little gender difference in the levels of desire recorded. However, it seemed in committed relationships that men were more likely view other people in terms of sexual attraction. Women, by contrast, tended to comment on others mainly when they were dissatisfied with their current partner.
  4. Traditional (or even stereotypical) roles seem to be preferred. To use a parallel from the dancing world (is it just tango?): it’s expected that the man takes the lead. This shouldn’t be misinterpreted as a green light for blatant sexism. It’s not — women want caring relationships with people who pull their weight domestically. However, effete ‘metrosexuals’ aren’t popular (there are various approving references to men behaving ‘like men’). Passive, indecisive, wimpy men appear to be held in almost universal contempt. (One woman complains she always ends up with docile partners which means that she ‘always seems to be the man’ in relationships.)
  5. Self-esteem is very closely linked to behaviour in relationships — sometimes directly when a person is suspicious of anyone treating him or her well because they don’t feel they have earned it or deserve it and sometimes people enjoy an inversion of status and control during which all their choice and self-determination is denied — something they curiously find empowering. The most bizarre entries are ‘dom/subs’ where the word ‘I’ is symbolically written in lower case by the submissives with their ‘Masters’ or ‘Mistresses’ referred to as He or She.
  6. Physical intimacy (feelings being safe, wanted, cared for) is perhaps more valuable to people than sex — particularly to those who have lost a partner through death or a traumatic split. However, there is powerful evidence of the beneficial effects to relationships of hormones like oxytoxcin or dopamine released during sex. Some diarists report deep frustration at their partner’s perceived withholding of sex over periods of days which ultimately comes across as near-loathing. Yet when they’re put out of their misery and have sex it’s a joyous experience and suddenly they record they love their partner very much. How long this effect lasts is questionable — I’d guess that anyone who internalises that their partner is using the restriction of affection perhaps as a power game is going to remain unhappy most of the time and that the humiliation of sexual rejection, whether deliberately or accidentally inflicted, probably contributes more to infidelity than any inherent predisposition.
  7. Availability often outweighs attractiveness: as the diarists are anonymous and there are no photos there’s no way of gaining an impression of their physical attractiveness but people’s own perceptions are hinted at widely, unsurprisingly women being self-critical about their weight and so on. While stunningly attractive people are often remarked on, sometimes people are far less selective about the choice of  the level of attractiveness of a potential partner than might be imagined — and this is not just men wearing ‘beer goggles’. One young woman, who would appear to consider herself attractive, describes her frustration that men appear to be wary of approaching her for fear of rejection. She correlates the increasing acceptability of potential partners with the length of time it was since she was last in a relationship and even makes an explicit plea via the diary for men to to be less reticent — saying that they would be shocked at the extent that ‘we can sometimes lower our standards’. This relates back to the point about exes and there are also plenty of examples where diarists describe incidents in their past when sex has often occurred spontaneously with an unexpected person.
  8. Volatility: people’s attitudes towards their partners are incredibly volatile. Two diary entries a few minutes apart can swing between radiant optimism and black despair or switch between profound love and vituperation — often as a result of a text, e-mail, casual remark or, sometimes, just personal contemplation. I’m not sure this comes across in a lot of fiction. Much creative writing workshop discussion focuses on rationally trying to examine the credibility of characters’ motives and actions — almost as if constructing some sort of probability decision tree. In reality people do not act impassively and deliberately — particularly not in emotional matters.
  9. There are more instances of  agreed ‘open’ relationships than I’d expected — both in the traditional ‘swinger’ style and those where partners were happy to allow each other to have independent sexual relationships (both casual and regular) with other people. Sometimes these were to accommodate bisexuality. This is the area where the editor says she was most surprised — and is happy to say she has reflected her discoveries in her own private life. However, I do suspect whether this is an area where the selection of the diarists has been a little skewed — but then I might be viewing this through my own moral conditioning?

The diaries encourage people to reflect on their lives in ways that are sometimes quite self-revelatory — re-appraising relationships. There’s also some speculation that’s quite thought-provoking about how one’s sexual experiences may affects one’s wider perception of the world.  A woman in her 20s who describes herself as bisexual and a masochist says: ‘I have a pet theory that much of the way men and women relate to each other, and hence how society is structured, comes from the psychological difference between penetrating and being penetrated.’ It might be physically fundamental but this may be at the root of many attitudes: I’d suggest that the vast majority of straight men aren’t able to even imagine the physical or psychological experience of being penetrated. This might make the fact that the experience can be extremely pleasurable for women quite mysterious and fascinating.

This relates, albeit anatomically rather than psychologically, back to an earlier post I wrote based on Graeme A. Thomson’s perceptive interpretation of Kate Bush’s work — the perhaps impossible desire to understand and experience what it is to be the other person in a relationship. Maybe a way for a woman to appreciate what her partner feels in being with her is to imagine how she herself might be touched by another woman?  Maybe? Who knows what goes on in other people’s heads and it’s why this book is so illuminating — revealing a few glimpses, albeit perhaps unrepresentative ones.

From a practical writing perspective, fiction writers would do well to study the diction used in the diaries. These are real people choosing their own words to describe their sexual experience. The editor believes that her British diarists are far more creatively verbose than their US equivalents — something that any reader would pick up from the styles of two publications I regularly read: Time and The Economist. (It’s also another reason why Stephen King’s views on brevity and adverbs don’t necessarily transfer without some refinement across the Atlantic.)

Nevertheless, there’s a refreshing absence of the sort of convoluted, obfuscatory prose that many writers might be tempted to use. People overwhelmingly describe their experiences as ‘we had sex’ (naughty passive voice there) or simply ‘we fucked’. Again, this is instructive for a novelist because, while people in polite conversation (for example at creative writing workshops) don’t generally talk in terms of ‘fucking’, these diaries show that’s the term that people most frequently commit to the page and, by extension, it probably indicates way that most people use in the privacy of their own minds. And, after all, filled also with all its hidden lusts and insecurities, one’s mind and imagination are the places where readers also engage with novels.

Strictly No Sex Please in the British Literary Novel?

After the Facebook campaign that led Tony Blair’s ‘A Journey’ to be involuntarily moved within bookshops to the war or crime sections, there’s much excitement that a passage from the book has been urged for short-listing in the Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex Awards’.  (Technically it isn’t eligible as it’s not fiction, but the organisers may alter the rules to include it.)

This was mentioned in an article by Susanna Rustin in The Guardian’s book section yesterday in which she advanced the argument (and also voiced some opposing views) that the modern British novel now shies away from anything like explicit descriptions of sex. This probably applies to a certain more literary strata of novels as the article cited the Man Booker Shortlist — there’s plenty of racy action still to be found in other genres of novel, as I found when skimming through a Freya North sort-of-chick-lit book recently.

Andrew Motion was quoted, apparently semi-facetiously, as saying that perhaps authors were scared of being nominated for the Bad Sex Award and the Literary Review’s entry on Wikipedia lists many previous winners as stars of the literary firmament: Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer — and John Updike got a lifetime achievement award.

I wonder if all the people who would wish Tony Blair to join this company realise that the Bad Sex Award was invented by Auberon Waugh — whose conservative views were so detested by Polly Toynbee that she wrote a hostile article about Waugh three days after his death. (I would guess Waugh would also have detested the Blair government but for different reasons than most critics of ‘A Journey’.)

The article also had a very interesting Martin Amis quotation which, perhaps, sums up why many people (like me) find his technical ability to be sometimes quite spellbinding but are unmoved, or even repelled in some way, by the tone and attitude of his novels. He’s reported as saying at a literary festival ‘it’s “impossible” for a novelist to write about real, as opposed to pornographic, sex anyway. “Sex is irreducibly personal, therefore not universal,”‘ [he added later]'”It’s not that surprising. Of all human activities this is the one that peoples the world. With that tonnage of emotion on it, if there is going to be one thing you can’t write about then that would be it.’

I can see his argument — that he can write about sex in an ironically, pseudo-pornographic way because the formulaic narrative of most porn is something that is widely, perhaps not universally, recognised. But that seems to suggest a specific intent for a novel — that it exists to provide an ironic, maybe subversive, commentary on society’s mores or literature and other art forms themselves.

I think that’s a valid purpose for a novel, at least in part, but it appears to ignore one of the key differentiators about fiction as opposed to many other art forms. A novel is an entirely personal dialogue between an author and reader. It’s unlike more social forms of storytelling, like plays, films and television — which also provide visual and auditory representations. The personal nature of this dialogue also makes me query whether a public reading of a part of a novel can ever properly represent private, individual readings of a novel — apart from being influenced by irrelevancies like the reader’s public speaking skills, the audience reaction will influence one’s perception of the words and, unlike the private reading experience, one can’t pause to reflect, re-read a sentence and so on.

It seems the form’s ability to connect directly at a one-to-one level gives a novel’s author a unique opportunity to explore the personal rather than the universal. A novel can give its characters experiences that are beyond the knowledge of most, if not all, readers but by building connections between the personal and universal can create understanding and empathy for the most extraordinary characters and scenarios.

Therefore, because emotional experience is often the most personal and, often, least rational of human nature, I would think this is where the novel can explore in a way that is more intense and more insightful than other narrative forms. And there’s nothing that illuminates characters’  most inner emotions than their sexual motivations, attractions and behaviour.

The Guardian article suggests that it might not be the sniggering-behind-the-bike-sheds tone of the Bad Sex Award that’s preventing the literary authors from writing about sexual relationships but because it’s actually very hard to do. ‘But plenty of authors share the view that writing about sex is difficult, and presents particular challenges – and that sex that might be described as ordinary, or even enjoyable, is hardest of all.’  Hilary Mantel says ‘In good sex the individual personality kind of gets lost, people transcend themselves in a way. In bad sex people become hyper-aware of their bodies, the isolation of their bodies, of shame and humiliation.’

Of course, everything depends on the context but, if there’s a traditional ‘romantic’ narrative where two characters are attracted to each other and have a good and satisfying sexual experience I’d argue it’s as necessary to show this (principally as character development) as it would be to describe some sterile or comical failure — although the latter has more potential for dramatic conflict.

On how graphic a writer wants to make their depiction of sex, I think that all depends on the situation, the characters, the tone of the book (is it inclined towards metaphor and imagery), narrative viewpoint  (how would he/she/they/it view the scene?). I’m reminded of Graeme A. Thomson’s interpretation of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ (see previous post) for how a male and female point-of-view might retell the same sexual experience.

In many cases novels probably work well enough to take the Hilary Mantel and Andrew Motion view that readers can do a bit of work and use their imagination — using hints and implications and ‘closing the bedroom door’. However, if interpreted as writing advice, it seems something of a cop-out. There’s a whole range of behaviour that can only be witnessed, by definition, behind the privacy of the bedroom door — characters may act in a completely different, surprising and uninhibited way. This might not always be relevant to the later narrative but it could be — many an otherwise odd coupling might be held together by what goes on in the bedroom and, conversely, it might doom ostensibly compatible pairings.

The biggest argument against writing explictly about sex is perhaps the range of language available. Colm Toibin is quoted in the article as saying: ‘If you give in to any simile, any metaphor, any set of feelings, any flowery language, the modern reader’s irony will come to the fore.’  So if similes and metaphors are out and you also exclude the sort of vocabulary that would remind you of a doctor’s surgery, you’re left with not many words left — and if you avoid the Anglo-Saxon then there’s even less.

Toibin praises Ian McEwan’s ‘On Chesil Beach’ as the ‘perfect example. “There isn’t one single piece of language that describes anything other than what occurred.”‘ However, I know from discussing this book personally that it’s exactly that clinical tone to the prose that has made some readers detest that final section of the book — as it’s a story of sexual failure and miscommunication perhaps the language is appropriate but it’s not, in Hilary Mantel’s words, about people ‘transcending themselves’.

Oddly enough, while literary authors are (if you accept this article’s argument) backing away from the representation of sex and some concluding it’s perhaps impossible to do properly, BBC1 is now presenting an hour and a half of some of the most sexualised entertainment for Saturday tea-time viewing.

While the likes of Anne Widdecombe and Paul Daniels are about as asexual as one can imagine, some of the more accomplished dance partnerships move in a way that might cause some of the literary novelists to shy away — ‘he put his hand on her what?’ and so on. I’m no expert of the various dances but clearly many have highly eroticised Latin roots. Many of these dances, with their close physical contact and outfits that are more bare skin than material, are actually transcendent representations of people having the sort of good, enjoyable sex (with hints occasionally of some less wholesome variations) that Mantel and Motion believe is difficult for the novelist to represent.

I know a number of writers who enjoy dancing — either something like Tango or other types as well as getting into ‘Strictly’ — so I think there’s something quite deep-seated in this between dancing and uninhibited self-expression.  It’s also interesting that so few professionals on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ are British (less than a third, I think, with the rest being Italian, Australian, Russian, American and Eastern European’) — perhaps the Guardian article’s concerns are very specific to the British novelist — it does seem that one might learn more about genuine sexual attraction by watching Bruce Forsyth’s programme than reading the Man Booker shortlist.

John Nash in Meadle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Totes Meer

I’m finding it quite tricky to write a section of ‘The Angel’ in which Kim is in transition between London and the rural countryside. Part of the reason is that she’s currently making a journey alone, which isn’t a great source of dramatic conflict, except if the conflict is played out within her own mind — and the ideas that I want her to grapple with are difficult to convey without becoming a pretentious candidate for pseuds corner in Private Eye.

I’m tempted to bin, or severely edit, what I’ve written but as I’ve ploughed on I discovered some very surprising connections that suggest that certain themes in the novel are coming from deep in my subconscious.

I have Kim standing at a viewpoint and being blown away (almost literally) by the view. This sets off a series of associations as she spots that the view towards a place called Wittenham Clumps is signposted. This is a series of hills near Wallingford in Oxfordshire and my friend Kathy finds it a beautiful, meditative place and has sent me photos. It has the mystical appearance of the many of the chain of ancient locations that lie on the northern slopes of the Chilterns and the Berkshire Downs  — such as Avebury, Silbury Hill, Barbury Castle, the Uffington White Horse, Whiteleaf Cross, Beacon Hill (near Chequers) and Ivinghoe Beacon. Most of these are linked by the Ridgeway.

Wittenham Clumps was also a location frequently painted by Paul Nash — who is sometimes described as one of the most important British artists of the 20th century. He admired Wittenham Clumps in the same way he revered the standing stones of Avebury which he described as ‘wonderful and disquieting’. Nash’s paintings examine the English landscape in an intuitive, slightly surrealist way that conveys as much about the interior thoughts of the painter as much as the physical landscape. The effect was described by Jonathan Jones in ‘The Guardian’ as being ‘in a distinctive, painted world that is part William Blake, part JRR Tolkien and all England. Red suns rise over chalk hills, grey breakers hit coastal defences. The landscapes of Kent keep recurring, along with unfamiliar views of London…[Nash] paint[ed] his dreams, and mix[ed] up homely landscapes with personal myth in a way comparable to Dalì’s mythologising of Catalonia…his sensibility is as ­knotted as an English oak.’

The quotation above was from a review of an exhibition of Nash’s work in Dulwich earlier this year which was widely reported so I don’t think I really need to stretch artistic licence too much for Kim to have known about Nash and even attended the exhibition. What’s also striking is that, before I found that review, I’d written a description of what Kim sees in the landscape and alluded to both Middle Earth (Brill Hill can be seen from the same view, on which Tolkien based the village of Bree) and the ‘feet in ancient times’ from Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’.

I knew that what was also notable about Paul Nash was that he was an artist in both the World Wars. However, I learned a lot more from watching a fascinating programme on BBC2 this week about the art of the second world war. One of Nash’s most famous paintings is ‘The Battle of Britain’ and perhaps his best known work, which is owned by the Tate, but doesn’t appear to be on display, is ‘Totes Meer‘. This is German for ‘Dead Sea’ and is a depiction of a scrapyard near Cowley (also visible — and referred to frequently in ‘Burying Bad News’) full of fighter aircraft wreckage which he paints to look like a moonlit sea.

I’d enjoyed the David Dimbleby landscape art series ‘A Picture of Britain’ a few years ago and bought the accompanying book as it has some reproductions of some beautiful paintings. I liked the painting featured on the cover of the book so much that I bought a canvas print reproduction from the Tate — it’s called ‘The Cornfield’ and is a late afternoon view of an unmechanised harvest just after the first world war in the rolling Chilterns somewhere near Chalfont St.Giles. I’ve had it hanging on the wall of my study all the time I’ve been writing this novel. The artist is John Nash — who I didn’t realise was Paul Nash’s older brother.

The connections are almost spine-tingling: ‘The Cornfield’, Cowley, the Ridgeway, ‘Totes Meer’, ‘Battle of Britain’, Blake, Tolkien — it’s no surprise I’ve ended up writing about a modern-day German artist marvelling at the history of the English landscape.

Churning Through the Mud

Autumn seems to have crept upon us — it’s grey, drizzly and windy outside — and I’m facing the realisation  that I’ve not written half as much as I hoped over the summer. I made some amends last week by bashing out about 15,000 words. I deliberately just sat down and wrote and didn’t go back and revise anything methodically — and I know some of it is very bad.

I’ve developed a pattern of writing a first draft, printing it out and making corrections on the paper (they seem easier to spot), then printing it again and reading the whole piece out loud (not just the dialogue). After that process I’m usually reasonably happy with it but if I give it someone else to read I then tend to identify a whole slew of other mistakes. I guess this is the basis of the ‘put it in a drawer for a couple of weeks (or months) before looking at it again’ school of advice. This is all very time consuming — but necessary.

I found some sections quite easy and enjoyable to write and I’m still struggling on others. In fact, I may try writing some poetry to describe some of the natural features of the Chiltern landscape I’ve been trying to portray and then cannibalise it.

One good thing about grinding out the words is that I can suddenly take off in unexpected directions and I’ve come up with more ideas for plot and character later in the novel than if I’d just considered them in my head. But that also has the disadvantage of bringing in diversions and new directions in the material I’d originally intended to write.

So while it’s gratifying to have 15,000 more words (probably a sixth of a novel) more than I had ten days ago, I’m also a little exasperated that it’s going to need maybe twice or three times as much time again to revise and that, as with my opening chapters, not a lot seems to have happened in a large number of words. However, my intention was in this section to deliberately slow the pace almost to the point where the reader becomes impatient for fireworks to start exploding and I’ve tried to weave a lot of plot background and backstory into these sections.

Overall I think what I’ve written is good and that I definitely believe in it — and I often surprise myself at how much the novel reflects me personally — which shows that at a deep psychological level I’m probably impelled on an irreversible course to write this. However, I’m probably both a bit of a ‘needy’ writer and one who tends to write for an audience rather than just please myself so that’s why it’s a good thing that in less than four weeks I’ll be workshopping some of this material with the majority of the City novel-writing group. We’re meeting monthly on an extra-curricular basis.

Penny Rudge, when she visited the course, said that virtually every chapter of ‘Foolish Lessons in Life and Love’ had been through a post-course workshopping process with her peers. I tend to want to make use of peer feedback to a similar extent – while I could plough on independently  it will be fascinating to meet up with everyone to see how people are getting on.

As mentioned in a previous post we have at least one person whose work on the course has led to being signed by an agent and I know that a few people sent work out to agents after the reading, although I know of only the person who’s actually finished the novel — and he’s now redrafting. In my case it would probably instill some discipline by having an agent’s validation, encouragement and deadline setting. Yet agents can only make active progress when they have a full novel manuscript to work with and I don’t have anything yet in a shape I’d be happy to send out. The way I write means it’s not going to be a quick process for me to get the material into the shape that most advice tends to emphasise before one’s work goes near an agent or publisher – for it to be ‘the best it can possibly be’.  My tendency, mentioned above, to branch off tangentially in a random or arbitrary direction as I’ve been writing is sometimes good and serendipitous but means everything will need to be looked at again i.e. once I get to the end of the novel then I’ll want to make some significant changes to the start.

As an example, I had some very useful feedback from Guy and Charlotte on the course to chapters six and seven and, even though I’d spent a lot of time writing the chapters, Guy pointed out lots of ‘noise words’ like ‘just’, ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, ‘a little’ and so on that seem to become invisible on the page if you’ve stared at it too long in one session.

I also posted a reference to a recently written part of the novel a fellow student’s wall on Facebook and the brief exchange of comments that followed opened up a new aspect to Kim and James’ long, drawn-out first day that I’d failed to explore. That accounted for the rather meagre 300 words I managed on holiday.

There will also be a need to maintain consistency, particularly in dialogue. As mentioned in previous postings, Kim will be fluent in English but will perhaps have some transatlantic turns of phrase plus perhaps a tendency to construct sentences grammatically as they would be in German.  I think I’ve largely achieved this as I’ve gone along and she speaks little phrases in her first language from time to time. I’ve been dropping these in with increasing frequency making use of my limited German.  Kim’s English is described by another character (I’m told that this is grammatically correct, which surprised me): ‘Dein Englisch ist sehr flüssig, aber Sie sprechen mit einem leichten deutschen Akzent – sehr Hochdeutsche.’

Any suggestions?

Running Up That Hill

It’s quite a surprise to have  what seems an innate appreciation of an artist (in the general sense of the word) explained by reading some analysis that explains possible reasons behind a latent, unconscious bonding  – or at least have light cast upon it. On holiday I read Graeme Thomson’s recent biography of Kate Bush – ‘Under the Ivy’  (Omnibus Press) – which bills itself as ‘the first ever in-depth study of one of the world’s most enigmatic artists’.

It’s a curious book – mostly biography gleaned from interviews with figures relatively peripheral to Kate Bush’s life and from press interviews with Kate Bush herself. She’s certainly a fascinating and enigmatic subject but what lifts the book above the levels of most music biographies is Thomson’s critical interpretation of her music, somewhat in the vein of Ian MacDonald’s classic about The Beatles, ‘Revolution in the Head’.

There were a few passages of analysis in the book which suddenly grabbed me and made me think ‘that concept is similar to what I’ve been trying to get over in my writing’.

One trait I have is to tend to throw in all sorts of cultural references and allusions, which is what Kate Bush tended to do in her lyrics – almost to the level of self-parody in ‘Them Heavy People’ but there’s far more – think of Molly Bloom’s speech from ‘Ulysses’ in ‘The Sensual World’ (my favourite Kate Bush track of the lot), or the obvious ‘Wuthering Heights’.

Yet Thomson points out that these cultural references are a paradox and something of a deliberate obfuscation because her work is impossible to fully appreciate solely by academic analysis:

‘Bush’s music takes us somewhere else, somewhere deeper…It’s a very inquisitive, giving quixotic thing…there is no need to join every dot, or explain every reference. That is a game for those who can’t trust their own responses without first looking for an intellectual hook on which to hang it. Kate Bush is all about emotion: the things she uses to get to those emotions aren’t necessarily important. You either hear it and feel it – and trust what you’re hearing or feeling – or you don’t.’

I particularly like the last sentence: you’re either the sort of person who trusts your emotional reaction or you aren’t. This ties in with some current debate about writing, especially of the more literary genre – does it work on an emotional level or does it solely exist to perform intellectual gymnastics?

No-one who’s seriously listened to Kate Bush’s music can underestimate its sensuality. The candid attitude towards sex, even in songs released in the 1970s, is quite revelatory and far more insightful than many of her female successors (think of the relatively crude shock-tactics of the likes of Madonna or Lady GaGa). However, even knowing the song for 25 years I hadn’t fully realised (shows how closely I read the lyrics) what she was trying to suggest in one of her most well known singles, ‘Running Up That Hill’. To quote Thomson:

‘Originally called “A Deal With God”, the song spoke passionately of Bush’s impossible wish to become her lover, and he her, in order that they could finally know what the other felt and desired. It was a sobering comment on misfiring communication and the impossibility of men and women ever really understanding one another, and yet – in capturing the basic human need to strive for compatibility – it was not without hope nor optimism.’

I’d say that many novelists also try to set out to achieve this ‘impossible’ ambition (trying to fully understand the experience of the other gender) – to know ‘what the other felt and desired’. It’s certainly something I’m fascinated with – as I have a novel that switches between male and female POVs in a putative relationship.

It’s pretty evident that these songs have lodged themselves quite deep in my psyche and bits of them seem to come out when I’m writing. I had a playlist of ‘quiet stuff’ on my laptop which featured a lot of Kate Bush songs and I have listened to this over the past few years at very low volume as I fell asleep in work trips in various hotel rooms around Europe.

There’s another aspect to Kate Bush’s work that makes it more approachable from a male point of view which I’d never realised until reading this book – and yet it’s so obvious. She likes men. Thomson says of one of Kate Bush’s most touching songs:

‘Aside from its luminous melody and swooping chorus, “The Man With the Child In His Eyes” is one of the first example of the extraordinarily positive ways in which Bush views men. She is surely unique among female songwriters in that her canon contains not a single song that puts down, castigates or generally gives men the brush off. She has been feminist in the bluntest sense – she wants to preserve and embrace the differences between the sexes and understand the male of the species. Many songs display a desire to experience fully what it is to be a man; she invests them with a power, beauty and a kind of mystical attraction which is incredibly generous. “It’s not such an open thing for a woman to be physically attracted to the male body and fantasise about it” she once said. “I can’t understand that because to me the male body is absolutely beautiful.”’

I knew that Kate Bush had a large gay (male) following but it was only after reading the above interview quotation that I the penny finally dropped. On a similar vein I’m wondering about buying ‘Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory’ which is full of analysis (as it says in the publisher’s press release) ‘written by a queer woman in her late 20s, its answers are delivered in a unique way…showing that theory can be sordid, funny and irreverent’. I wouldn’t mind too much if those three adjectives were applied to my novel, at least in part.

The Power of Dreams?

I’m currently trying to write the part of the novel that follows on from what I submitted at the end of the City course. I’ve approached it in an odd way as I’ve written mainly dialogue for about six different scenes — all on in the afternoon and evening continuing on from the same day as the first five chapters. I’m already up to about 4,500 words so, once I’ve added in more description and context I guess I’m going to get at least two chapters of 3,500-4,000 words out of the material — but at the moment it’s slow going and without a deadline for workshopping I’m able to flit from one scene to the next adding a bit in here and there.

I would like to get this finished asap though as I’d like to send it out to get a couple of well-respected opinions on it — but I’m also up against a deadline in just over a week to do a literature review for my MSc project.

Perhaps all this is churning round in my subconscious as I had a rather strange dream. I dreamt for some reason I had gone back to our old house in Twickenham and the postman arrived with some ridiculously huge parcels — I think one may have been a bed all wrapped up. Among these pieces of post was an envelope with my marked assignments from the last term at City University (which I’m yet to receive) — chapters 3 to 5 in my case and a commentary and blurb.

As well as the marked assignments the package from City also contained a pepperoni pizza (rectangular shape like the envelope) and two garlic baguettes.

I had great difficulty reading the marked assignments for some reason — perhaps my contact lenses wouldn’t focus?. They were covered in remarks written in large green felt tip pen. Somehow I ended up trying to read the feedback in a car near my old dentists in the terraced houses on the edge of Rochdale town centre. Eventually I made out the words ‘poor’ and I turned over a page of my writing to see that the marker had written ‘KILL’ in huge great letters right across the whole page — the letters were filled in with fluorescent stripes from different coloured highlighter pens and were rounded — rather like psychedelic worms. Obviously that passage of description hadn’t gone down well.

I saw on a cover sheet that I’d been given 60% — and that’s when I started to wake up a realise it a dream as we’re not given any quantitative marking like that on the course.

If anyone is good at dream interpretation I’d be intrigued to know what this might mean — especially the pizza and the odd locations.

The Narrative Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I’ve yet again been amazed by how all these weird connections come tumbling out while I’m writing — things I don’t realise until perhaps a day or two afterwards. 

I don’t know whether the digression into cultural references would make it into a finished novel but I’ve put a few things in for my own amusement. 

In a part I’ve just written, James and Kim are walking through an uninspiring part of Hoxton towards City Road and they see a view of the City through a gap created by a building site. The heat on the concrete shimmers and Kim thinks of Avalon — or, more specifically, an image based on Glastonbury Tor rising up over the flooded Somerset levels (as they would have been in Arthurian times).

What James associates with Avalon is the Roxy Music album from 1982 which Kim knows too, with its wonderfully mythological cover. James, being on his way to being half cut, starts humming and singing tracks from the album while Kim is mulling over the imagery of the City as a citadel. The song he ends up singing is “Take A Chance With Me” (not to be confused with the Abba song of a similar title). This is a non-too-subtle portent for what both of them choose to do later.

But what was so strange is that Kim has just asked James what he did at work and he responds that he ‘made money out of nothing’. Now a very similar quotation has always stuck in my mind by a musician — that the concept behind a particular album was ‘making music out of nothing’, which I’ve always thought was a great description of the music. The musician was Bryan Ferry and the album, of course, ‘Avalon’.

Many critics have described Avalon as one of the most romantic albums ever made and it was interesting that it came to mind while I was writing this scene (they’re just an odd, platonic couple at the moment). At the start of the chapter the two walk past the plaque marking the location of Burbage’s ‘The Theatre’ — where the first Shakespeare plays were performed — and Kim tells James that he’s standing right where Romeo and Juliet was first performed. Star cross’d lovers indeed.

Here’s a performance of ‘Take a Chance With Me’ that I found on You Tube.

Wenlock and Mandeville — How’s About That Then?

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

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

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

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

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

Penthouse and Pavement

We ran on past our finishing time last night in our workshop — so late that the university building was locked up before Guy and I had our tutorials with Alison. These then took place on an amenable table outside the Queen Boadicea pub on St. John Street (quite apt for my novel). More of the consequences of the tutorial in a later post. This meant I missed a meeting I was hoping to pop into in High Wycombe (also in a pub) and got home quite late. However, I stayed up to watch a fascinating documentary on Heaven 17’s 1981 album ‘Penthouse and Pavement’.

This came out around the time I did my ‘O’ levels and, while I loved the Human League and Soft Cell and others, I wasn’t quite old and trendy enough to have bought ‘Penthouse and Pavement’, although I think I knew of its existence. When I went to university I got to know the album pretty well. I even think I played tracks off it, like ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ when I did the Friday night disco a couple of times at the student union. (It’s hard to believe, I know, but I did a bit of DJ-ing when I was 18 and then did a weekly show with my friend Hog Head on the student campus radio station when I was at UC Santa Barbara.)

Watching the documentary made me realise how much of a subconscious influence it must have been on me as many elements seems to have already turned up in my novel so far. It was said on the programme that ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ was actually a concept album for the 80s — obviously contrasting the disparity of wealth in the Thatcherite early 80s of the penthouse dwellers with those living on the pavement: the vinyl LP had a ‘Penthouse’ side and a ‘Pavement’ side. The brilliant cover, ‘like a cheesy company annual report’  as I think someone commented, was an ironic, arty comment on capitalism with the suited, pony-tailed band members striking yuppie poses — handshaking, on the phone doing a deal — which anticipated the Loadsamoney culture by five or six years.

The part of ‘The Angel’ that I’ve written so far has remarkable similarities — James starts high up in a gleaming office block, coming down to street level to meet grimy, struggling Kim. A stretch of pavement also plays a big part in one chapter. Thematically the characters represent the tension between penthouse (James) and pavement (Kim). The vocals on the title track, my favourite, are also an interplay between Glenn Gregory’s world-weary, deep male tones and sparky, soulful female vocals on the chorus (someone called Josie James, who’s not the woman on the video). That’s similar to the exchange of points-of-view I have so far in the novel. I’d also like to achieve a similar effect (for the City part of the novel anyway) with the prose as Heaven 17 achieve with the music — quite fast, sparse, sly, unpredictable — but not taking itself too seriously.

I guess I could elaborate further and speculate that the first track off Heaven 17’s next album, ‘The Luxury Gap’, becomes the next theme of the novel — ‘Temptation’. This track has been released in several different edits — and often turns up on compilations. My favourite is when Carol Kenyon’s ooh-oohing is allowed to run its full length (just before ‘step by step, day by day’). This is another track with a male-female dynamic and is relevant to the next part of The Angel — particularly the lines taken from the Lord’s Prayer ‘Lead us not into temptation’. In fact the next two singles off The Luxury Gap also fit my story — ‘Come Live With Me’ and ‘Crushed By The Wheels of Industry’ — this is now starting to get worrying.

I looked up the video of Penthouse and Pavement on Youtube after the programme, which I vaguely remembered — and in another stroke of perhaps unconscious serendipity the actress who plays the spying secretary is almost the spitting image that I hold my mind of Kim — once she’s got herself healthy in the countryside — she’s even got green(ish) eyes. (The actress is called Emma Relph — who was in the 1981 Day of the Triffids and is now apparently an astrologer.) The video is embedded below — take a look at the typewriter and photocopier — yet other artefacts don’t seem to have changed too much in 29 years.