Archive | March, 2014

Strange Events at the Bookshop…

26 Mar

The last two times that I’ve been into my local book store, the shelves have assailed my eyes with unsettling apparitions.

The first strange phenomenon was a notebook. As with many writers, notebooks are of great importance to me and I’m never found without one. There’s been a vogue recently for notebooks dressed up to look like vintage paperbacks. My children bought me one packaged within the original Penguin Books cover to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which I planned out most of my current work-in-progress. And now here was another one in its orange Penguin cover. Nothing so strange about that. Except that it was from a novel by Rex Warner. Rex Warner? I’ve mentioned before that Warner is one of my favourite writers. Most people that I meet have never heard of him let alone read any of his books. It’s their loss. But then that’s the random nature of what’s be found in print and what isn’t… The Aerodrome is his best known novel. But this notebook utilised the cover from The Professor. In the quarter of a century or so since I first read it, I haven’t met anyone else who’s done so. I’m willing to bet that I was the only person in the bookshop – perhaps even the whole town – who’d read it. Before the Internet ruined things by making it too easy, I used to enjoy collecting Warner’s books, all of which barring The Aerodrome were out of print. Covers from my collection were even borrowed by Book Collector magazine for use in an article about him. And yet there it was on the bookshop shelf. How odd.

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The original 1940s cover of the Penguin version, as seen on the notebook

The second strange phenomenon that I encountered was in the non-fiction section. Prominently displayed was a biography of one of my favourite musicians. I already own a biography of him so I looked to see who had written this new one. And it was my erstwhile bosom buddy. We used to share a publisher. Our bands used to support each other. We even had a joint musical project for a few years. While I’ve ploughed my furrow toward obscurity and relative poverty, he has become relatively wealthy and well known. I don’t resent him his success – he’s worked hard for it. These days, though, we’re estranged. He took exception over the break-up of my first long-term relationship and never really forgave me. I love the guy but there are only so many times that you can be rebuffed. Seeing his book there felt odd. I find myself wondering what I shall discover in that book store, the next time that I visit…

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A later, 1980s reprint from Lawrence and Wishart

It so happens that I’m planning a third strange bookshop phenomenon of my own but it’ll have to remain strictly under wraps for the time being… All will be revealed in time.

All text © PSR 2014, images photographed by me and © the publishers

80,000 Words

19 Mar

Today, I reached the 80,000-word mark of my work-in-progress. That’s a milestone of sorts, I think. Something resembling a book is beginning to emerge. The question remains, though – will it be any good?

My memory is hopeless. I think that it was Alain de Botton who wrote about the frustrations of a year spent working on a novel and not knowing whether it’ll be any good until all of that effort has been expended. He used a great metaphor to explain it, which I’ve forgotten, of course… Clearly this anecdote would work a little better if I could remember any of its details, but you get the picture. And when writing has to fit in around working to pay the bills and being a single dad, you can multiply the length of the process by a factor of three or four. That’s a long time to wait until finding out if your pistol was firing blanks.

The bitter experience of seven years spent on a manuscript that didn’t work out, time taken up by music journalism and writing a biography, the birth of my children – all of these things and more meant that I abandoned long form fiction for the better part of half a decade. Regular readers will know that my last novel took me six years to complete. And so it feels good to be this far advanced on another full-length project.

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One of the images featured in the manuscript

I’ve placed a few short extracts on this blog. There are two extracts in Jamboree Bag, the sampler of my work available in paperback on Lulu. Other than that, I’ve not shown a word to anyone over the year and a half that I’ve been working on it. That is until a few weeks ago when I gave my friend, Rachel some 60,000 words to read. At the weekend, she got back to me about it. She’d enjoyed what she read but wasn’t keen on the way that the manuscript jumped between narratives. That just seems to be the way that I write these days. It’s how my last novel was structured. I enjoy the jumble of tumbling narrative streams. It feels to me a truer reflection of the real world, somehow. And Rachel coined a new term, for which I’m truly grateful.

So I now have 80,000 words and no real idea yet as to whether they’ve been wasted or not. In a sense, I know that they’ll not have been. Everything that you write adds experience and if you reflect properly on what worked and what didn’t, you’ll move forward as a writer. Still, it’s scant compensation for having spent years on what has turned out to be one big writing exercise. Ah, well… In the meantime, I’m going to leave you with the offending passage about a group of warrior-monks, origin of the term, ‘characteristic Paulisms’.

The Knights went to great lengths, then, to protect their rkn knowledge, to keep outsiders in darkness, knowing that otherwise it must prove the death knell for their order, consigning it to the knacker. The Brothers subscribed to a branch of Gnosticism, known to them as ‘Knostikismis’.  Others are known to have knelt down with them (King Knut and Joseph Knecht, Evel Kneivel and K-9, among others). A tightly-knit brotherhood, then, kneeling before the altar, wielding the ceremonial knives. 

Know and Zen, knaves travelled forth seeking knowingness, dressed in knickerbockers, hailing from Knightsbridge and Kniigsbørg. Resting a while upon a knoll, taking knick-knacks from their knapsacks, until trembling, knock-kneed, approaching at last the Knights’ temple. Rapping upon the knocker. Know answer. Twisting uselessly the great brass knob (there’s a knack to it). Go away, knidiot. Knocking on the door now with knotted knuckles. Get knotted, knasshole. 

Knot a word, then, to lighten this blackness. Knothing. Knot even in knine-hundred-and kninety-knine years. Knever.  

All text and images © PSR 2014

Have We Reached the Final Page?

13 Mar

Over the past week, a couple of news items about books have caught my eye. Putting the two together, they didn’t make good reading. Might the book have reached its final page? The items seemed to suggest so. If this turns out to be true then I fear that civilisation might well have reached its final page too. Welcome to the Age of the Yahoo.

I remarked in a recent post about how incredibly narrow the UK literary scene has become, largely concerned with the lives and interests of the London-based metropolitan elite. Novelist and creative writing professor,  A L Kennedy is well placed to comment. The newspaper, i reported on a talk that she gave about the state of UK publishing. Although Kennedy’s writing has never really captured my imagination, when I heard her speak at a city library a few years ago I was enormously taken with her wit and intelligence. The article quoted her as saying that the novel here is “bland, dull and repetitive”. It’s hard to disagree. The industry, she suggested, is telling readers that “you want the novel about thirty-something people in Kensal Green, again… for the twelfth time.” Kennedy is, of course, the woman who won the Costa Prize with her novel about a World War Two bomber crew while I’m the man whose novel about a World War Two bomber crew can’t find a publisher, but we shan’t hold that against her…

And then there was the survey carried out by Booktrust and reported by the BBC that found that 45% of Britons prefer watching TV or a DVD to reading a book. 36% of respondents started books but got bored and didn’t finish them. 64% of 18-30 year old Britons think that the Internet will have replaced books within twenty years. Hmm… cheerio, then, civilisation. It seems that in the UK, at least, we’re dividing into readers on the one hand and watchers and surfers on the other. I can’t say that I’m greatly surprised. Most of the graduates with whom I work seem to talk about TV much of the time. The reading groups to which belonged had a preference for chick-lit and graphic novels. Their members proclaimed the novels of Italo Calvino and William Golding to be trash. Okay, then…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly no Luddite. I enjoy looking at Wikipedia and the BBC website and my friends’ blogs. I own a Kindle and I write a blog, after all. But surfing the Internet can in no way be considered an experience comparable with reading a carefully crafted novel. The immersion in a fully realised world, the depth of characterisation, the joyous use of language, the ideas that can be explored… skipping from one flippant article on the web to the next provides none of these things. Nor does the passive experience of watching TV. The programmes that I see generally resemble a series of edited highlights. Just watch this trailer, they seem to say. There’s no longer any need to make properly thought out programmes. Read the blurb, flick through the pages and you’ve read the book. Job done. It’s that same inability to stick with anything requiring more than a moment’s focus that ends with the idea of the novel written in thirty days. It seems that we’re growing ever smarter and yet immensely more facile too. It’s okay, though, because we have 140 characters to say what we want to say, a sentence to provide our status update. And who could be bored by that?

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A random selection from the author’s bookshelves…

The more I see of where things are headed, the more I find my mind returning to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. For those who don’t know, in this splendid novel of ideas, a group of outsiders have each committed  to memory a book in its entirety in order to save it for posterity and from the flame-throwers of book-burning ‘firemen’. Could it really be that in the near-future, only a few of us will remember the value of books? Certainly, in my country, if the gatekeepers continue to allow through only the smug outpourings of a distant elite, it may well turn out to be so. My way of passing books onto the next generation has been to nurture a love of books in my children. We visit the library often and I’ve bought them countless books. As mentioned in my post last week, I always read to them at bedtime. And so far, so good since they’re both avid readers. As far as my own stories are concerned, I can’t find anyone to publish them let alone to burn them… Ho hum. I shall leave you with a short passage from my work-in-progress, which touches upon the barbarity of a world without books:

Some centuries ago – texts differ as to when – a warlord and his horde arrived from the north on horseback and lay siege to much of our country. Little has been written down about the period. Our invaders had no use for writing. Books were an impediment to their nomadic lifestyle.  And so they piled up all of the volumes from our libraries and abbeys and erected giant spits above them. It is said that the goat curry that night had an especial piquancy, its ingredients having been smoked over parchment. Consequently, accounts are confused.  Some say that the great warrior marched in accompanied by two tame white tigers. Others tell of the warlord’s personal guards, riding in the van of his army, mounted on the backs of armour-plated mammoths. Their chargers were said to be scions of the wild horses that roamed the steppes. They were remarkable beasts. Most remarkable of all were their muzzles. Rising above the flared nostrils – from which smoke was said to issue – was a distinct hump.  Some saw in this the stump left behind when a rhino’s horn has been hewn off for use as an aphrodisiac. And in their abnormally high shoulder blades they saw further vestigial remains. Had these steeds, then, formerly possessed the power of flight?  

All text and images © PSR 2014

Time for a little Jamboree…

8 Mar

Mari recently interviewed me for her excellent blog. I had fun answering her questions.

This week I have the great pleasure of welcoming my special guest Paul Sutton Reeves, who’s kindly agreed to have a chat about his new book Jamboree Bag, available here. I’ve read the book in draft version and can recommend it wholeheartedly; Paul is a superb writer, though he in his modesty would probably never say so himself. In the meantime, if you want to sample some of his writing for free, head over to his blog. But anyway, on with the interview…

Paul Sutton Reeves Paul Sutton Reeves

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Leaving Moominvalley

6 Mar

I’ve mentioned before my fondness for the writing of Tove Jansson. As a child, I loved the Moomin books with their strange characters and evocative landscapes. They played a large part in igniting my passion for reading. Later on, I discovered the memoir and fiction that she’d written for adults. Initially, there were only two books in translation, both of which I tracked down in second hand book stores. Since then, Sort Of Books has been publishing her back catalogue and I’ve been buying and reading them with a great sense of anticipation. Only once have I been even vaguely disappointed. The True Deceiver, for example, is a superb novel, dealing in part with the disappointment experienced by the author as a serious artist dismissed as a ‘mere’ children’s writer. At its best, Janssons’s adult fiction is the equal of her stories for children.

I’ve reached a milestone of sorts (sort of?). Having read all of the Moomin books several times over as a child, I’ve had the pleasure of reading them again as an adult to my children at bedtime. There are only one or two evenings a week when I’m able to read to them, so we get through books slowly. Our journey through Moominland seems to have been an ever-present feature of their childhood. We started reading Comet in Moominland, the first of the eight Moomin books widely available in English, way back in 2010. As we came to the final pages of Moominvalley in November last week, I was overcome by a sense of melancholy (Jansson loved that word). Like the Moomins themselves, we’ve left Moominvalley behind. I no longer have an excuse for partaking in the Moomins’ world and I’ve been forced to recognise how quickly my children are growing up. Now we have to decide what we’re going to read next. And then the day will come when they don’t want to be read to any more.

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This photo has nothing whatsoever to do with Moominland except that it’s taken in Scandanavia with my two great friends from university days

Aside from any indirect effect Jansson’s crystalline prose may have had on my own writing, I’ve previously managed to sneak reference to the Moomins into my work (follow this link for an excerpt). And then there’s the epic poem posted on this site. I’ve made some obscure allusions to them in my work-in-progress. But the question of what to read next to my children still remains. We’ve considered the Narnia books, but having been read a couple at their mother’s house, they weren’t convinced. Oz is also a possibility. Which magical world to visit next, then? I may just have to write something for them myself…

All text and images © PSR 2014