Le Grand Départ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spot the Beefeater
Spot the Beefeater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Sad Demolition of the King’s Head, Old Vine and Windmill

The Angel  is partly set in an outwardly idyllic English country pub — thatched roof, low beams, flagstoned floors and looking out through its mullioned windows on to the village green with its cricket pitch and duck pond. It’s a slightly idealised amalgam of several pubs I know but all the constituent elements can be found in about half a dozen pubs I know well within about a ten mile radius.

The Crown, Cuddington
The Crown, Cuddington

If my descriptions of the pubs are adequate then it may not be too difficult to evoke visual images in readers as most of these pubs have been used several times over for dramas like Inspector Morse and Midsomer Murders.

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

The image of the Olde English Pub is curious because, while it’s something of a stereotype, it’s not an exaggeration of reality. These iconic places still exist (thrive might be too strong a verb in the current economic climate) and, in weather such as the current heatwave, we’re reminded what a fundamental element of the British national identity the village pub evokes. (And a village pub doesn’t have to be in the countryside — there are plenty of old pubs subsumed into urban areas that still retain that bucolic character. The White Swan in Twickenham is a good example as are some pubs in the most unlikely areas of London and other large cities.)

In terms of visual iconography, I was fascinated to discover how the promoters of British Summer Time interpreted the English village pub. This was the series of concerts in Hyde Park which featured the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi amongst others. It replaced Hard Rock Calling after the infamous incident last year when the plug was pulled on Bruce Springsteen duetting with Paul McCartney as at 10.30pm they were disturbing the tranquility of Mayfair — on the other side of the six-lane inner-ring road that is Park Lane.

I don’t have too much sympathy, having had to endure student house parties with hundreds of ‘guests’, drugged, drunk and very loud at 3am in the morning when living in London myself.

Rather than the standard festival back-of-a-trailer bar, British Summer Time had themed areas for its catering and drinks. When I visited last week between concerts (when the British Summer Time compound, for want of a better word, was free to enter) the Spanish themed area was a dusty and deserted assortment of hastily-erected restaurants and bars — so not that different to contemporary Spain in the Euro crisis then?

The Lions of Bledlow -- One of Inspector Barnaby's Favourite Haunts
The King’s Head, Hyde Park

In the Village Green area I found three adjacent ‘pubs’ — the Old Vine, the King’s Head (with Henry VIII naturally on the sign) and the Windmil . Given that these catering outlets, oops, I mean pubs were operational for only nine days and had been constructed on a patch of grass in the middle of Hyde Park then historical authenticity was a little too much to ask for.

King's Head and Windmill, Hyde Park
King’s Head and Windmill, Hyde Park

I was fairly impressed with the way the architectural styles had been repesented, particularly the Windmill, which was quite imaginative and stresses the historical link between windmills and pubs. If  you want to experience the inns of Tolkien’s Shire then visit the Pheasant in Brill, Buckinghamshire while we still have light nights. The village was apparently the model for Bree — it’s not too far from Oxford — and has a marvelously restored windmill by the pub on the top of the hill.

Inside the King's Head
Inside the King’s Head

The interior of the King’s Head looked pretty authentic — despite being a prefabricated box its fixtures and fittings and decor were surprisingly genuine.

What wasn’t usual was the way the ‘pubs’ served from a bar on their exterior walls. Occasionally some pubs do this in the summer — the White Cross in Richmond used to. However, the demands of serving 60,000 people in an interval are probably not quite the same as the village local at tea-time in a cricket match.

And sadly, while the ‘pubs’ made efforts to be surprisingly authentic in appearance, they didn’t serve the traditional drink of the British pub — cask-conditioned real ale — at least not in its most genuine form. There was Fuller’s London Pride and Theakston’s Bitter plus Seafarer on offer but I’m fairly sure it was pasteurised — although it was served at a appropriately cool temperature unlike some genuine pubs try to get away with in this weather with real ale — which tastes ghastly if warm.

Old Vine, Hyde Park
Old Vine, Hyde Park

But at £5.50 a pint the pricing strategy of these pubs was only suited to the sort of captive market that spends hundred on tickets for the Rolling Stones. Having had our wallets lightened somewhat I moved on with my drinking companions to the slightly more gritty reality of the Carpenters Arms on Seymour Place.

It’s probably too late to get on to CAMRA head office about the closure of three adjacent pubs in Central London. While we can’t really complain about the demolition of  the King’s Head, Old Vine and Windmill — I noted the lorries in there this week removing all trace of their presence — but their appearance was culturally reassuring, if a little personally expensive.

Alexis Cole — Transcendence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surf and Microshines
Surf and Microshines

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

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

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

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

Three Pictures by Alexis Cole
Three Pictures by Alexis Cole

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

How artists measure their own success?

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s Nothing Quite Like A Flaming Pudding

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

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

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

The Bible
The Bible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flaming Pudding
The Flaming Pudding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London 2012 Big Ben
Big Ben Olympic Ready

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London 2012 Soldiers on Whitehall
Not Helmand Province

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

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

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

London 2012 Cenotaph
Two Contrasting Examples of Nation Against Nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

London 2012 Triathlon Finish
The Triathlon Stadium on the Serpentine

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

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

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

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

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

Tower Bridge Olympic Rings 110712
Tower Bridge with the Olympic Rings

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

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

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

London 2012 Time Out
Time Out Welcome to London

Time Out With London’s Lucky Kunsts

When I started writing the novel there were certain themes that I thought I was fairly knowledgeable about: pubs, for example — I knew a lot about those. And food. And London geography and the pleasures of the Chilterns. And Germany and Germans. AND the tortures of corporate life as a ‘senior manager in a FTSE-100 company’, as my CV likes to mention (though not the torture part).

(With so many themes, it’s no surprise the novel is on the long side.)

However, I realised the more that I wrote about Kim, the contemporary, urban artist, the more I was relying on supposition and less on experience. I realised that it might be a valid reason for rejection of my novel if I got my depiction of life as an edgy artist horribly wrong (allowing of course for artistic licence — no pun intended — and exaggeration for comedic purposes).

So I started taking I more active interest in things art-related, as previous blog posts have illustrated…at the end of last week I managed to develop that interest to the point where I was standing outside a pub in Shoreditch drinking with a few of the most fêted young artists working in this country (although this story will be concluded in the next blog post).

To go back a little, I’d started to go to events like, earlier this year, the London Art Fair at the Business Design Centre in Islington. I wanted to see how art is sold at the sharp, commercial end – and I went on a tour of some of the stands set up by the younger, lesser-known artists in the artprojects area.

It was at the London Art Fair that I signed up as a member of the Art Fund, which is a brilliant scheme for anyone interested in art. It’s philanthropic – your membership fee is used to procure art for the public benefit and the Art Fund awards an annual prize for artists – and you get a magazine. But the main attraction is very good discounts off entrance prices to the best art galleries in the country — in the case of those that are free, like the Tates and National, the discount applies to special exhibitions that have an extra charge.

Damien Hirst's Shark
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - Damien Hirst

I’ve made reasonably good use of my membership, although I was sadly too slow off the mark to book for the Hockney and Leonardo exhibitions at the Royal Academy and National Gallery respectively. I made sure, therefore, that I got in early to see the Tate’s Damien Hirst retrospective. So now I’ve seen for myself the sharks (see sneaked photo), sheep, rotting cows head, pills, sliced cows, bling and so on.

I’m not sure what I think about Damien Hirst. I found the exhibition quite entertaining — but that’s possibly because it contained so many works that have become modern icons. There was certainly a progression that reflected his ability to now create art from obscenely expensive materials — the later gold pill cabinets and the diamond encrusted skull ‘For the Love of God’ (which is on display for free in a separate display in the turbine hall).

A Damien Hirst Butterly Picture
A Damien Hirst Butterly Picture

Perhaps it’s the British animal lover in me but I feel somewhat uneasy about creating from of the dead bodies of previously living creatures — be it butterflies, sharks or cows — even the flies zapped in real-time after feasting on the decomposing cow’s head or the picture made entirely from black dead flies.

But I guess that’s how the artist might say he wants the viewer to feel — to think about how art can be created from death — especially in the case of the butterfly pictures (see photo) — which, to me, were the most impressive part of the show.

Given Hirst’s controversial reputation and persona perhaps the most illuminating thing that I took away from the exhibition was physical — Gregor Muir’s book Lucky Kunst.

Lucky Kunst
Lucky Kunst -- Gregor Muir

(For those unfamiliar with German, Kunst is the German word for art. I’m not sure what the technical reason is for using Kunst in the title of a book subtitled ‘The Rise and Fall of Young British Art’ beyond the punning homophonic aspect that might seem appropriate for Hirst’s inversion of the artist-in-a-starving-garret stereotype.)

The book has been very useful research for the novel in describing the origins of the artistic colonisation of Shoreditch in the mid 90s — where you were more likely to see a rat in the street than a Pizza Express or Crowne Plaza or pop-up container-shop mall as you might these days — a place where it was apparently easier to buy drugs than a pint of milk (that probably changed when the Tesco Metro opened).

The Art Fund pass got me reduced entry into the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition at Tate Britain, where, because I’d done little research in advance, I was surprised to come face-to-Cubist-face with what was at the time (it was superseded earlier this month by a version of Munch’s The Scream) the most expensive painting ever sold at auction: Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust — with its suggestions of black bondage straps — which sold for over $100m.

It’s interesting that a Picasso should have sold for so much because it seems to flout one of the basic principles of economics — scarcity value. Even that single Tate exhibition was crammed full of his works — much more so than I realised from the title — I’d wondered if there would be any Picasso’s in there at all or just works inspired by him. From reading the documentary material provided in the exhibition, it’s obvious that Picasso was an extraordinarily very prolific — and fast-working — artist. Compare the near 2,000 paintings that Picasso made with the 15 that it’s thought Leonardo started (some he never completed).

My Time Out subscription has been invaluable for listing the shows worth seeing in London and I had to rush to catch the last couple of days of their highly recommended Jeremy Deller and David Shrigley joint exhibition.

Neither are what the layman would describe as conventional artists. (A layman might argue that Leonardo’s Anatomical drawings from 500 years ago, which I saw at the Queen’s Gallery yesterday, show more technical accomplishment.)

I didn’t really ‘get’  Shrigley’s Brain Activity — which seemed to work at the level of Baldrick humour from Blackadder or Terry Jones’s historical inquests — trying to generate searching questions from positions of faux naivety. Interesting and diverting — but, as a reviewer said, ‘so what’?

By contrast some of Jeremy Deller’s work in ‘Joy in People’ captivated me in a way I can’t fully rationalise. Deller is a specialist in performance art — creating events and ‘happenings’ rather than enduring artefacts (like paintings or photographs).

Some of his work I found too pointed and obvious — such as the wreck of an Iraqi car bomb that he towed across the United States. But I found some of his other work connected with me profoundly.

While Deller is a Londoner (a recreation of his teenage suburban bedroom opened the exhibition) he has an attachment to the north, particularly my home city of Manchester — and the ‘otherness’ that Manchester and the north represent. This includes Deller’s homage to ‘Madchester’ and the 90s acid-house culture, such as the Fairey brass band

Deller -- Procession
Jeremy Deller -- Banner from Procession

playing the KLF (Fairey engineering was a well-known employer in the north-west, I remember my uncle’s first job being at Faireys).  Sadly most of the visitors to the exhibition probably had no clue where the towns on the Procession banner (see photo) were located, nor really cared. It’s probably the first time in years, if ever, that Manchester’s unglamorous satellite boroughs, such as Rochdale, Oldham, Tameside, Bury and Stockport have been celebrated in a London gallery.

The biggest exhibit in the gallery was a working recreation of a greasy-spoon café from Bury indoor market — Valerie’s Snack Bar. Many would question whether this was art at all but I think Deller explores a fundamentally British sense of irony in this work: it’s impossible to accuse an artwork of pretentiousness and intellectual sophistry if you can sit down inside it and be served a nice cup of tea. What bathos — and a northern riposte worthy of Wallace and Grommit.

Deller - Valerie's Snack Bar
Jeremy Deller -- Valerie's Snack Bar in the Heyward Gallery

Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave also touched me. He staged a recreation, almost 20 years later, of the infamous conflict in the 1984-5 miners’ strike. The exhibit is a documentary of the event and various artefacts associated with the recreation. As with the snack bar, the unpretentious dignity of the ex-miners and police is disarming and justifies the title of the exhibition of Joy in People. The Battle of Orgreave is also symbolically important from the perspective of the current wreckage of worship and pursuit of global capital that followed Thatcher’s defeat of collectivised labour. I’d argue it was the defining moment when the power of the state was used to literally bludgeon away any impediment to its Faustian pact with stateless global capital heralded by Big Bang in the City the year after the miners were defeated, 1986.

Twenty five years on, with most Western economies running dire deficits largely caused by indebtedness to the countries to which we outsourced our industrial base (principally China), the argument that manufacturing doesn’t matter compared to financial services seems about to be exploded finally in the turmoil that the consequent indebtedness has caused in the Euro zone. (However, the Euro crisis is interesting from my novel’s point-of-view in highlighting the elephant in the Euro that is Germany).

It can be argued that the miners contributed to their own downfall and that some change to the unaccountable unionised self-interest of the 70s was necessary but The Battle of Orgreave demonstrates the amount of spite and violence that was deliberately used to settle political and social class-based scores. I’d argue the polarisation of social and political attitudes that arose out of support of the miners still persists and is at the root of many attitudes today — in the light of what later happened, it’s instructive to remember the sense of celebration in the country when Blair was elected in 1997 — A Joy in People event if ever there was one? Nearly thirty years on, the antipathy of much of the cultural establishment to the current government is rooted in the miners’ strike, especially the hostility directed towards Nick Clegg for propping up the hated Tories.

Deller is right to treat Orgreave like a battle in a civil war because its scars are still evident and, while not art in the traditional sense, when his work succeeds it does so in a way that art should — to provoke recognition and resonances within the viewer so that it creates a lasting impression much greater than the physical work itself.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Christmas Bestsellers 2011
Christmas Bestsellers 2011

There’s a lot of discussion in creative writing courses about how authors can find their voice. It’s quite a difficult concept to articulate — most simplistically it’s what defines the distinctiveness of an author’s style. This may, depending on the author, be generic to all their output or restricted to a subset of their work. Also there is debate about how some authors use a consistent voice whereas others vary their narrative voice according to the tone of different parts of a book. In this post I’m mainly concerned with the sort of authorial voice that suffuses most of a writer’s work.

Maybe one of the best ways of capturing an author’s voice was to do what we did in the most recent term of the MMU MA course — when every week a couple of us would contribute a short piece of original writing ‘in the style of’ whichever author we’d discussed the previous week in the Reading Novels module.

So I contributed short pieces inspired by Vladmir Nabokov, Margaret Drabble and John Banville (in the guise of Benjamin Black). I couldn’t help my examples of writing go beyond even pastiche and into the territory of parody — but with different degrees of subtlety they seemed to work.

It was fascinating to see how the other students tackled the exercises too. Who were the literary chameleons who could identify the elements that made another writer’s work distinctive and impose these on their pieces — and who were the types who would nod in the direction of the writer’s style but still make the piece recognisably theirs. Sometimes there were students who alchemically combined the two — both embracing the writer who inspired the piece and also making it unerringly their own.

Writing parodies or pastiches is an incredibly useful exercise — according to one of my friends at Metroland Poets, W.H.Auden said that if he was to teach poetry then he’d restrict it to parodies only.

But imitating other writers, even if it gives a fascinating insight into their techniques, isn’t going to establish a new writer with an unmistakeable voice – the sort of semi-mythical, startling new voice that agents say leaps off the slush pile and transfixes their attention for hours. I guess agents spend enough time reading submissions that they’re the experts at spotting voice leaping from the written page. I tend towards the romantic notion that your writing personality is like a fingerprint or indelible watermark: uncontrollably unique like your spoken voice and the result of hundreds of thousands of experiences and encounters as well as reflecting your genetic personality. How it’s formed must be the subject of many literary PhDs –also witness the popularity of books like Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens.

The spoken voice analogy is where the horribly blurry photo comes in at the top of this post. It shows books on promotion as Christmas presents at a local W.H.Smith branch.  It’s a collection mainly of celebrity memoirs and TV cookery tie-ins — which as the Guardian’s round up of Nielsen’s Bookscan sales figures shows comprised the bulk of the top sellers this year (apart from David Nicholls’s ‘One Day‘).

My wife was reading the Michael McIntyre book and said ‘You can imagine him speaking every single line of this’  and then I realised the stunningly obvious fact about the whole selection: the common factor shared by virtually every single one of these books is that they are purportedly written by (or about) people whose spoken voices are very familiar to the reading public — clearly McIntyre, the Hairy Bikers, James Corden, Lee Evans, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall but also, in the collective memory, Steve Jobs and Jonny Wilkinson.

Knowing the public persona of the (supposed) author immediately changes the way a book is read. There’s no discovery process about the author (or the voice of the author) — if the author’s meant to be a celebrity then it immediately contextualises the words on the page for the reader.

I was flicking through Alison Baverstock’s ‘Marketing Your Book’ and noted another glaringly obvious (but revelatory) point she made: unlike repeatable commodities such as bread or milk or shoes, books aren’t bought more than once (except on occasion for presents and the like). That’s why publishers must love franchises. Readers might spend ages deliberating and prevaricating about trying something new but once they know they like an author then they’re hopeful of the same pleasurable experience again and will repeat purchase — part of the reason why book series are so attractive to publishers. It’s also inherent in the behaviour of book buyers — people go out to get the new Terry Pratchett, Lee Child, Sophie Kinsella and so on because they know they’ll encounter something familiar — if not the same characters then certainly the authorial voice.

Perhaps what’s most terrifying for putative writers who aren’t celebrities is the question of whether theirs is a voice that people want to hear? For a comedian or celebrity chef their written voice is something they don’t need to worry about making their own — the cover page and their TV appearance should see to that. But if it’s a first novel then the authorial voice will be new and unfamiliar (unless it’s an attempt at bandwagon-jumping and imitating someone else). That’s why activities that promote new writers, such as literary prizes and competitions, are so important. (Speaking of which, one of my ex-City coursemates — Bren Gosling whose blog is linked in the sidebar — has had the great news that the manuscript of his recently finished novel — ‘Sweeping Up the Village’ has been put on the longlist for the Harry Bowling prize 2011.)

A final point on the W.H.Smith display is to note how little fiction it contains — only the Martina Cole and the Christopher Paolini — and the Wimpy Kid book (if that counts). Perhaps that’s a little unfair as next to the shelves was a rack containing Richard and Judy’s latest seasonal selections — all recently-published fiction. What’s also startling is the predominance of books about sportsmen, comedians and cookery.

I guess a humorous novel about an ex-rugby-playing, TV cookery show contestant who leaves an IT job to run a gastropub might have a bit of appeal to a publisher’s marketing department at least. Let’s hope 2012 at least sees it finished.

Happy new year everyone — I’m hoping the next 12 months will see the publication of some of the great writing that’s been produced by my coursemates and other writing friends.

What Happens in Vegas…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vegas at Nightfall
Nightfall on the Strip, Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

The Eiffel Tower, Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

New York, Las Vegas
New York, Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gondoliers in Vegas
Gondoliers in Vegas

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 Duchamps's Urinal

Duchamps’s R. Mutt Urinal

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

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

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

Fields Inspired by Eric Ravilious

One of my favourite paintings — and one that is very germane to The Angel’s setting is John Nash’s The Cornfield, which I’ve blogged about previously. It’s relatively well-known, providing a motif for David Dimbleby’s BBC series on landscape painting a couple of years ago and can be viewed here on a link to the Tate Britain website.

Clearly the painting captures a specific moment in the agricultural year — the bringing in of the harvest — and as it was painted in 1918 it predates any mechanisation. The Nash painting depicts a line of wheatsheaves (amazingly the word ‘wheatsheaf’ isn’t in my wrist-sapping Oxford Dictionary of English). They’re portrayed almost anthropomorphically as semi-human figures (a little like monks with hassocks tied around their waists) and they look tired, weary and irregular, but still form a semblance of a line, much as one might imagine was the mood of the country at the end of the First World War.

I took the photograph below at 6.30am on the 15th July (St. Swithin’s Day — as immortalised by David Nicholls) on the way to get the train. (This is my bucolic route to the local station, which is wonderful on a July morning but awful on a rainy, muddy January evening). I’d walked the opposite direction the previous night about 6pm, when the grass had been cut but not baled. One point about the reduction in the number of farmers is that when the remaining farmers are busy, then they’re really busy. When the wheat is ready to bring in the combine harvesters work through the night. So it’s not surprising that the cut grass had been baled over the course of the previous evening.

Modern Cornfield?
A 21st Century Cornfield?

Although these bales are of meadow hay and not corn (which meant wheat when Nash painted his picture) I later realised that there was something of a parallel. Rather than sheaves that are designed to be gathered in the arms, these cylindrical bales are so huge they can only be moved by a fork-lift truck (or its tractor equivalent) — there are no more than a dozen of them in the field, which must be a good three or four acres. So my photo, with its long shadows,  is similar in spirit to Nash’s painting but also shows the differences.

I was reminded of Nash because I paid a brief visit today to Tate Britain in Millbank, which is where The Cornfield is on display. I didn’t have time to go into their current Watercolour exhibition but I saw a few reproductions of the pictures elsewhere in the gallery. I was particularly struck by Eric Ravilious’s The Vale of the White Horse, featuring the genuinely ancient prehistoric monument which is just off the Ridgeway in Oxfordshire.

If you were to follow the Ridgeway from the Uffington White Horse north-east for about fifty miles, you’d end up at The Angel (in fact I might use a bit of artistic licence and have the Ridgeway go past the front door, as it does at The Plough at Cadsden). And Kim will be wonderfully excited about the connection between the land and  the art — she’s going to take the Nashes and Revilious as inspiration.

There’s also a profound irony about Kim’s interest in Ravilious — like the Nashes he was a war artist — but unlike them he died in action. He was killed in an air-sea rescue mission in 1942 off Iceland.

Another serendipitous connection is that there is a brewery named after the White Horse.Their beers include two that are well-known to me — Wayland Smithy and, er, Village Idiot.

Art for Art’s Sake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Other Magnum Opus

Apart from the two novels in progress I’ve also authored a more prosaic volume over the past fifteen months or so. And — spit on me now — I’ve decided to self-publish it. I don’t have much capital so it’s only a print run of two — but it’s available in both hardback and softback binding (see photo below).

My MSc Dissertation
Available in Both Hardback and Softback -- My MSc Dissertation

At 17,000 words (not including appendices) it’s a slightly shorter read than the creative works in progress but at least it is finished, although it’s not yet been marked.

For anyone who’s interested in the title it’s:

IT Governance Design: An Application of Problem Oriented Engineering to Enterprise Architecture, TOGAF and SOA Development

When I did the literature search I didn’t find much other work in this general field and my supervisor has raised the possibility of presenting my findings as an academic paper at a conference in Barcelona in the autumn — and now they’re suggesting I consider carrying on my study with a PhD. If this is a hint that my dissertation has earned me a pass then I’m on course to end up by 2013 with three Master’s degrees — an MBA, this MSc and an MA in Creative Writing (although there’s a long way to go with that one yet). Continuing studying seems a bit like overkill but they say learning is lifelong these days — and maybe it will entitle me still to a discounted subscription to The Economist — so there may be some plus points.

The printing and binding process does show how relatively simple it is now to get work into print — I found a specialist thesis printer online and submitted a pdf through their website — although the economics aren’t very good for short-runs — it cost me a lot more than a typical Amazon purchase. Maybe I should produce a Kindle version?

There are some interesting comparisons between the MSc dissertation and creative writing. Enterprise Architecture, the specialist area of IT that I concentrated on, is all about being able to sift through the detail of business process and IT systems and then to arrive at an abstracted, high-level view of the ‘big-picture’ of how everything connects and interacts (if, indeed, it does). It seems a relatively simple discipline but, the literature and evidence suggests, that not many people are able to do it — it’s all about pattern recognition.

In many ways a novel writer needs similar skills — to sustain plot, theme, consistent characters that interact together and so on — but a novel is harder because all the underlying structure is then hidden again under descriptions and dialogue (assuming that the author approaches it in anything like a methodical way).

I was also lucky with my dissertation as I had a lot of guidance from my supervisor and my specialist advisor. My supervisor was a very conscientious and dedicated Italian woman whose fluent but distinctive way of speaking English has helped me along with Kim’s dialogue. (One thing I’ve learned from having had conversations in English with probably hundreds of Germans and other Europeans is that there really isn’t much that marks out a fluent English second language speaker from a native English speaker — except that the second language speaker is usually more precise.) If you have a good supervisor as a mentor and follow their instructions and put the work in then you’ll probably do OK in a dissertation. The same can’t be said for a novel, which is a far more risky and speculative undertaking.

Happy Valley

Stile Above Happy Valley
Stile Above Happy Valley

When it’s dry enough I go running up the steep northern slopes of the Chilterns and along the top of the escarpment — and the ground is so dry at the moment I have no excuse not to.

I’d like to allude to these glorious views in the novel and probably the best (maybe only) way to do so is to have my characters walk or run up there. I wonder whether the metaphorical associations of looking out and surveying a view or of running along pathways might be too obvious for the points I might want to use in the plot. I might need to adjust my chronology a little as well if I refer to the swathes of fragrant bluebells that are flowering at the moment or the distant views of the yellow oilseed rape fields (although the colour yellow is a metaphor I’ve already used).

The photograph above is of a stile on the Ridgeway above the curiously-named Happy Valley. It’s my favourite point on that particular route as the only way is down. It’s on the Chequers Estate and not far from the house itself — quite often there’s a herd of state cows in the field. The distant field of oilseed rape is one very close to where I live and which has deposited yellow pollen everywhere (perhaps another country detail for the novel).

I ran up Coombe Hill on the same run, which is not quite the highest point in the Chilterns (beaten by a forested undulation in Wendover Woods) but with its recently restored monument is the de facto peak. A couple of days ago two huge guns were dragged up there from RAF Halton and a 21-gun salute was fired to celebrate the Royal Wedding.

I tried, as best I could, having run up most of the 150m or so climb, to take a set of photos of the panoramic view from the top of the hill on a nice day. This is going to become one of Kim’s favourite places — as an artist would appreciate.

View from Coombe Hill to the South West
View from Coombe Hill to the South West

That way there be the mysterious circles of Avebury at the end of the Ridgeway, Wittenham Clumps and Cowley too (subjects of Paul Nash paintings).

View from Coombe Hill to the West
View from Coombe Hill to the West

The Cotswolds are in the distance — looking across the heart of England here. This is also approximately where the anciently-named Three Hundreds of Aylesbury are located — going back to the Domesday book but still marked on Ordnance Survey maps.

View from Coombe Hill to the North West
View from Coombe Hill to the North West

The Vale of Aylesbury — the resolution isn’t good enough (fortunately) to pick out Fred’s Folly (the monstrous office block in the centre of the town). Waddesdon Manor, Bicester and Banbury are in the distance.

View from Coombe Hill to the North
View from Coombe Hill to the North

Wendover and, in the far distance, Milton Keynes and Leighton Buzzard. Such a lovely view that it could only be improved by having a 250mph railway line blasted through it. The proposed HS2 high-speed rail line is planned to go right through the centre of this photograph — essentially through the green fields in the middle. It will be on a big, obstrusive viaduct as it emerges into the Vale of Aylesbury. Construction is meant to start in about five years so this aspect of the view may be destroyed forever.

In keeping with my research on the roles of pubs in the community, our village had a Royal Wedding party on the green next to the pub and I spent about 8 hours there solidly drinking. I was told that I’d sat at the same table for four hours. I didn’t feel too wonderful the next day and decided to test the efficacy of ‘sweating it out’ by going for a short run and avoiding steep slopes with viewpoints (although the hills can be seen in the background). Even my hungover spirits were raised by the incredible block of yellow in the field I ran around — the field is enormous, nearly a mile long and a third of a mile wide and takes going on for 20 minutes for me to run round. The white of the hawthorn blossom and cow parsley offset the green of the vegetation and deep blue of the sky.

I’m trying to write a part of the novel in which Kim tries to decide whether she wants to live in London or the countryside. Maybe this might swing it for her?

Hawthorn Hedge and Oilseed Rape
Hawthorn Hedge and Oilseed Rape

One Day I Went to Listen To David Nicholls

I’m rather late in posting about this but last week I went along to the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival at Christ Church College, Oxford. I was hoping to spend the best part of a day there but one session that I was hoping to attend — an interactive culinary lecture in the college’s kitchen had been booked up before I arrived.

I did get to see the main event I’d planned to see — a conversation between the Sunday Times literary editor, Andrew Holgate and David Nicholls, the author of the phenomenally successful novel One Day, which I’ve mentioned a few times before on the blog.

I arrived in plenty of time and got a good seat in the marquee in the grounds of the college. I was interested to see the size of the audience, which probably numbered at least a couple of hundred and its composition, which was probably 70-80% female, as was the gender of the questioners at the end of the session. While it’s true that women read the majority of books, it seemed from the interest in the author and the nature of some of the questions that Nicholls has done something fairly unusual in being a man writing a book about relationships that has a broadened appeal beyond conventional genre boundaries.

This seems to send some commentators into confusion, such as in this article on the Orange Prize on the Guardian website by Jean Hannah Edelstein that states: ‘Then there’s the fact that David Nicholls’s One Day has been such a runaway success among both men and women, despite the fact that it succeeds as a novel because of its careful adherence to the tropes of so-called women’s commercial fiction (but, hey, it has a manly orange cover).’ After reading this many times I still don’t understand this sentence because I’m not sure which qualifiers apply to which phrases and its internal contradictions (e.g. despite it succeeding, tropes that are so-called). I’m still not sure whether she approves of men writing books that appeal to women — women who can be marketed to by the ‘tropes’ of this ‘so-called’ genre (obviously not Guardian readers or columnists). And if it doesn’t really matter to the argument about whether there should be an Orange Prize then why has she thrown it in — maybe to say that here’s a man invading traditional women’s genre-gender territory so that perhaps justifies a prize that excludes men? And ‘manly orange cover’ — what does that say about the Orange Prize?

Perhaps the answer to why Nicholls works so naturally in this genre is explained by his unusual background for a novelist. The discussion spent rather a long time, a bit too much for my liking, on Nicholls’s biography rather than his novels. He studied English and Drama at Bristol and tried to make a career as an actor — which has supplied him with a library full of self-deprecating anecdotes. Through working with friends and colleagues he branched out into drama writing, eventually giving up acting altogether and working mainly on film and television, including the third series of Cold Feet, which has a demographic of principal characters and audience that’s very similar, I imagine, to One Day.

A few critics, and Amazon reviewers, have said that One Day is a visual novel to the point that they think it’s half-way, if not more, to being ‘a screenplay in disguise’ (Nicholls’s own quotation). The author refutes this — he’s written screenplays and deliberately used fiction as a form when he realised that it was more suitable for the idea he was developing into what became his first novel (Starter for Ten). One Day is his third novel and the first one he wrote in third person — a narratorial style that he found almost like cheating because ‘you can tell the reader things’ rather than have to carefully choreograph exposition using action, as in drama.

While the novel certainly uses the tropes of fiction generally, it’s probably true to say that a lot of its commercial appeal is because it is reminiscent of film and TV drama — partly in theme, style and structure. Perhaps the duality of the characterisation borrows from drama more than fiction — it’s both Emma and Dexter’s story — neither really predominates, although I do think Emma is his real favourite. This goes against a lot of creative writing course advice — ‘a novel must be one character’s story above all others’. Hmm.

The clever premise — of revisiting characters on the same day of the year for twenty years — definitely has the air of the dramatic set piece. I didn’t realise how autobiographical the novel was — all the locations where the action is set on those 15th Julys were places (apart from the one in Goa) where David Nicholls actually was at the time — Edinburgh, a Greek island, a tawdry London fast-food restaurant, Paris and so on. The device of using the same day of the year also allowed some of the biggest life-events, weddings, for example, to happen ‘off-stage’ — another effective dramatic technique where sometimes it’s more powerful to relate important moments in a plot via the reactions of characters rather than depict them literally.

It was interesting to listen to how the idea for the novel developed and, then, to see in hindsight what universal themes Nicholls had tapped into. If I remember rightly, he started thinking about the novel as a reaction to the prospect of becoming a father himself (parenthood features in the novel but not as a major factor in the plot) and also reaching the wrong side of forty — what happened to my life? He said he looked back in eternal regret that he’d been at university a couple of years too early and had missed out on the party and rave culture of the early 90s, unlike many of his friends and Dexter in the novel.

Looking back through the lens of impending parenthood also made Nicholls reflect on the changing nature of friendships — in your twenties you feel you had intense relationships with friends for whom you felt you’d sacrifice anything but by your forties, while you were still perhaps good friends, the relationships were more measured and different. It was this maturing process that he was interested in capturing in the book.

He also said, relating back to the hedonism he felt he missed out on, that some of his male friends had behaved like complete idiots, ostensibly self-centred, egotistical and destroying relationships in their twenties and this may have been related to circumstances —  and that monstrous as they may have become, these people weren’t actually bad.

The hero of One Day, Dexter fits this mould and Nicholls said he used two techniques to humanise him. Firstly, he is given a foil in Emma — the woman who comes from a contrasting background and who sees the germ of decency and attraction in someone who becomes a New Laddish oaf. Secondly, he said he was able to use the odd piece of interior dialogue to signal that Dexter had a twinge of regret when behaving badly and that redeemed him to many readers in a work of fiction — something that would be more challenging in drama. It also fits an archetype of a misguided man being put on the straight by a good woman.

Nicholls also said something interesting about romance as a genre that he’d learned through writing drama — romances are only really interesting if there are obstacles in the way of the lovers. And many of the traditional obstacles that provided sport for writers in the past were no longer relevant — particularly sexually. Class is also much less of an obstacle, although it features in One Day to some degree. I realised that I must have unconsciously realised this myself with my own plot because it hinges on an obstacle that is still problematic enough to create conflict — adultery and the lure of another.

I also got an interesting insight into the work involved in being a writer. David Nicholls said his biggest frustration at his novel’s success was that he’d spent two years not having time to write a follow-up — being involved in promotion and the book’s film adaptation. I also felt sorry for his arm as a long line of people queued in the marquee afterwards for book signing. I tagged along right at the end of the queue so saw that he was genuinely keen to engage with his readers, given the time constraints.

When it was my turn, I had a brief chat with him in which I mentioned I’d e-mailed him last year through the book’s website to comment on his compilation tape playlists (which I’ve mentioned on the blog before). He remembered my e-mail (as he mentioned The Smiths before I’d had a chance to prompt him). I mentioned my creative writing courses and he was interested enough to ask where I was studying, asked after the progress of my novel and wished me luck in pushing on with completing it. And if someone who’s just sold 600,000 copies of his book in this country wishes me luck then I really ought to get on with it.

My Signed Copy of One Day

Here’s my signed copy of One Day — David Nicholls’s signature really isn’t that messy — I just obscured it a bit in photoshop so it can’t be copied.

The Zeitgeist of the Segnits

I wandered into Waterstone’s in Staines (of past Ali G fame) a couple of weeks ago and was magnetically drawn to a book called Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit, which had the good fortune for a debut novel, to be on the 3 for 2 pile.

It had quite an attention grabbing cover adorned by various pubs signs, which immediately attracted my interest. I had a look through, partly out of dread that the subject matter would be very similar to my work-in-progress, which has a big pub theme. Fortunately it wasn’t — the novel uses a very clever device of parodying the sort of country rambling guides that balance the virtuousness of walking with the promise of indulging in a pint or two at completion and are published in mind-boggling permutations (e.g. Best Walks from Pubs in Bucks, Bucks Country Pub Rambles, 20 Pub Walks in Bucks, etc.).

I always flick through the local editions of these books when I find them, mainly to see check if there’s any that guide walkers through my village — and there’s usually at least one walk that does. Unlike many people, I’m always keen that people do come and visit my local area because it is extraordinarily beautiful in its understated way — if it wasn’t so accessible to London then the scenery might be more valued than it appears to be.

I’ve also written quite a number of pub walks myself, which have been published locally. I was quite surprised to find out that people had actually followed my routes — a local pub landlord took about 15 of his friends on one walk. They’re quite tricky to write as there are only so many variations to make on ‘cross over the field, climb a stile, go through the gate’ and so on.

I can see why it might be real fun for an author to take a character who writes these guides and slip in some personal digressions to this very restricted literary genre and weave a narrative out of this — which is the premise of the book.

My dad is a huge Alfred Wainwright fan and I’ve seen plenty of his idiosyncratic guidebooks and I’ve also seen quite a few Wainwright-inspired programmes, often featuring Julia Bradbury in some shape or form (before she got the Wanderlust and headed off to Germany). Wainwright had something of a curmudgeonly reputation and I seem to remember seeing a documentary about him years ago which suggested his attitudes towards the role of women in society, for one thing, did not share much in common with militant feminism. It’s a very clever idea to make a novel out of the conventions of the walking book genre.

I can see it’s also a very fertile subject to write about — recreational walking is incredibly popular. I saw plenty of hikers this morning as I went for a run that took me (via a bloody big hill) on a short section of the Ridgeway and they were all up there with their Nordic walking sticks. Underhill country isn’t the Chilterns but is apparently around the Malverns somewhere.

I was quite interested in Nat Segnit and Googled him and, strangely, in this era of authors and their social media platforms found very little — no blog or twitter — just some reviews, a couple of interviews and a brief biography on his agent’s page which tells us where he was born and went to university but not much else.

But he does have quite an unusual surname that I was reminded of when I flicked through a book that I’d been meaning to read in the detail it deserves since I bought it as a Christmas present for my sister and then thought was so good that I decided to buy a second copy for myself — The Flavour Thesaurus — by another person called Segnit — Niki Segnit.

I was looking through the acknowledgement page in The Flavour Thesaurus as I now tend to with books I like to try and find out who the agents and editors and so on are. The first person she thanked was her husband Nat who helped with her book ‘while he had his own to get one with’.  Ah, so these two authorial Segnits were fairly likely to be married to each other.

This might not have seemed a particularly remarkable co-incidence — I guess that writing can be such an anti-social activity that if  some people end up with a partner who’s a writer, especially a debut author who’s writing in time off from the day job, then perhaps a case of ‘if you can’t beat them’ may be the most harmonious solution. But it’s the subjects of the two books that I found particularly fascinating as both are very relevant to themes in my novel. As mentioned above, Nat Segnit’s book alludes to pubs and deals with the escape of the great outdoors. Niki Segnit’s book is a marvellously inventive variation of the endless popularity of all things foodie.

I may even have James in my novel getting hold of The Flavour Thesaurus and treating it like a bible which will give a bit of theoretical grounding to some bizarrely elaborate concoctions he’ll try and put on the menu. The book works a bit like one of those food-and-wine matching guides (I remember a classic line in a Hugh Johnson guide that suggested a two and three-quarter year old Italian Merlot was required to partner sausages — ‘or a red anyway’). But it’s food-with-food combinations that provide the books’ framework.

There’s a flavour wheel with 16 flavour categories (sulphurous, woodland, etc.) and which contain in total 99 ingredients or food components (onion, walnut, etc.). (The flavour wheel is very similar in principle to a painter’s colour wheel — again another connection with the themes in my novel.) The book is then structured into pairings of the these components — so you look up something you like the taste of — say horseradish — and the book lists some interesting ingredients to pair with horseradish — oysters or beetroot, for example. There are some very interesting pairings indeed but I won’t spill the metaphorical beans by listing them here.

This structure is also remarkably clever as it accommodates a serendipitous mix of scientific research on flavour of the sort Heston Blumenthal is a fan (Niki Segnit has a background working for big food companies), impromptu recipes and, my favourites, her own anecdotes and opinions. There’s a great story about her driving through Italy with a boyfriend with whom her relationship was souring which comes under the unlikely heading ‘Globe Artichoke and Bacon’. She may even have convinced me that the peanut, like its friend, the single kernel of sweet corn, is an ingredient that has some culinary merit and not just a cheap product of the American agro-industrial machine.

Niki Segnit is extraordinarily well read on her subject — with a huge bibliography of cookbooks and other food reference books. She references quite a few authors that are on my shelves, from salad and vegetable guru, Joy Larkcom to domestic goddess, Nigella Lawson. However, what infuses the the book, despite its lack of illustrations or sexy photographs of styled food, is a genuine love of food and the sensual pleasures it offers and, as such, a dog-eared copy would certainly merit a place in my fictional character’s kitchen.

Schumpeter on the Art of Management

My ex-City coursemate Michael Braga shares with me a love of The Economist newspaper that must be very unusual among writers — many of whom probably consider its readers as the evil spawn of the global capital machine. I must admit I often disagree with its often over-opinionated editorial stance but it’s an unfailingly fascinating publication. Almost every time I pick it up I find half a dozen immensely fascinating articles — not just on current affairs or business but it has superbly concise science section (where Dr Olivia Judson used to write some superb articles on evolutionary biology that might have started my interest in this subject) and a similarly focused arts sections which features some great book reviews (including novels).

The Economist is also exceptionally well-written — much better than any daily newspaper or other weekly magazine, publishing its own style guide. It ought to be a good example to fiction writers.

So when I came across an article in last week’s edition, written by the business columnist, Schumpeter (no bylines are allowed), titled ‘The art of management: why business has a lot to learn from the arts’, I was intrigued.  It starts by complaining that the liberal arts world really doesn’t understand business and often misrepresents it by caricature (e.g. ‘Wall Street’). However, it soon moves on to castigate the philistinism and macho-aggression of the corporate world — there’s even a popular management book called ‘A Good Hard Kick in the Ass: the Real Rules for Business‘ — written, naturally, by an ex-marine.

Schumpeter argues that this culture results in poor communication, dysfunctional attitudes to risk and the stifling of creativity — failings that corporations are constantly trying to argue they have overcome (partly through spending vast amounts of money on snake-oil management training programmes — the kind of ‘put on a blue hat and you’ll be creative’ or if you ban people from frowning then the workplace will become more productive). Instead of wasting money on pseudo-scientific brainwashing the article sensibly suggests that a study or appreciation of the arts might suggest better solutions to these issues.

The article concludes by saying that, if business can learn from the arts, then in return perhaps artists should also take business more seriously and calls for writers, among others, to be more subtle in their examination of commerce — which it calls a central part of human experience.

I thought that sounded quite reasonable and while this might be a potential gap in the market for fiction that might be readily identifiable, it’s uncanny how I might have unconsciously constructed myself a CV that qualifies me to write in this sort of genre. As I wrote in a comment on the article on the web site, I’m originally an arts graduate but also have an MBA and I’ve often thought there are many parallels between the arts (communication, motivation, psychology and so on) and business than the syllabuses of business schools care to admit (perhaps to boost their pseudo-scientific credentials).

I realised that I’ve also tended to gravitate towards roles in business that have played to my ability to put a few half-decent paragraphs down on paper or a word-processor — and it’s a constant source of amazement how poor are many of the most successful business types at expressing themselves with the written word. (An interesting hypothesis about business’s uneasy relationship with the arts might explore whether this is borne out of personal frustration and resentment at individuals’ own shortcomings.)

So it’s almost a logical extension that I’m now taking this a step further and have now spent more time on creative writing courses than I did on my MBA — which is now in the process of being complemented by an MA in Creative Writing.

And, Schumpeter would be pleased to learn, that this is exactly what I’ve been doing myself with The Angel which starts with exactly the premise that’s explored in the article — as it takes a City trader and explores his latent ambition to learn more from the arts. Its central premise is the relationship between business and the arts — both in the background of the two central characters and in the plot, one strand of which is all about the pair or them setting up and running a business. While it’s a comedy, hopefully I can make this a subtle enough examination on the page to redress the current balance a little.

Good Night on BBC2

A couple of novel-related programmes on BBC2 tonight.

The Great Outdoors is a short series that was on BBC4 last year. It’s about a group of ramblers enjoying the countryside and features Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame and who’s shortly to star as Hattie Jacques — who, in turn, I remember well from Sykes along with Derek ‘Corky’ Guyler and his washboard — if this means zilch to you then congratulations on being young — as well as the Carry On films.

I watched a few odd bits of when it was on BBC4 — mainly on the prompting of local newspaper The Bucks Herald which said it was written by local writers and was filmed largely on the Ridgeway locally around the Chilterns. While I’m not exactly sure where the embedded clip below was filmed, the beautiful landscape shots are very typical of the local area where The Angel is set and it’s quite  incredible to think these areas are within forty miles of the centre of London. The beauty of the countryside is one thing that Kim will fall in love with.

Earlier is Michel Roux’s Service. I caught the last half of the programme last night. It’s a series a bit like The Apprentice and Masterchef (without the cooking) whereby the eponymous restaurateur will train some young people (for whom the term ‘rough diamond’ may have been invented) into developing the service skills required for a Michelin starred restaurant. Needless to say, in the first episode they were hopeless in a pizza restaurant and we’re now promised they’ll go back to basics in a greasy spoon and curry house.

I’ll watch this quite carefully as my novel has a restaurant customer service angle — it won’t be the main focus but it will provide some incidental materials. I’m also quite intrigued by the systems that are used to manage restaurant service delivery. As with making a Christmas dinner at home, it seems simple because lots of people do it but it’s very difficult to get right.

I’ve not often eaten in Michelin starred restaurants but I did once have a wedding anniversary spectacular at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aux Quatre Saisonspushing the boat out with a surprise bouquet of roses waiting on the table after the champagne in the garden before we got started on the however many course meal it was. Of course it cost more than the monthly shopping budget but demonstrated how excellent customer service makes you think it’s all worth it — until the credit card bill turns up.