London Book Fair virgin #LBF10

In which I describe losing my London Book Fair virginity. Quick, embarrassing, and not eked out to make it value for money. No change there, then.

It was all fine while I was reading Private Eye on the tube. It was all fine while I was walking around to the pleb’s entrance. It was all fine while they conspicuously failed to scan me on my way in (ooh, what larks I could have got up to in my ‘not-really-here’ way). But then I was in and on my own, in a very, very big shed. The London International Book Fair – a trade show, and not just any trade show – the biggest publishing event in the UK, and one made memorable this year for the various and increasingly expensive Fogg-like tales of ingenuity in the face of Le Manche. And Eyjafjallajokull.

Apparently exhibitors are down by a fifth – and it was certainly painful to walk around the non-UK stands and see the number of deserted stands and the odd rather lonely looking rep staring balefully at their laptop, cardboard boxes half-heartedly ripped open behind them.

DIY publicity - Mantel on stage, and top-middle right, man fixing DIY posters to the wall

But first and foremost I had no real reason to be there – the events for prospective authors are sales pitches for companies I hold in varying degrees of fondness (the Arvon Foundation changed my life, Author House is unlikely to ever feature on my Christmas card list. I was considering using The Literary Consultancy until I attended their event). And because of this I felt very much the outsider. I’ve been to oodles of trade shows before – indeed, one of my first jobs was helping to assemble the stand for a disco light manufacturer for PLASA, and I’ve presented and attended lots of digital / web conferences. But always the primary focus was my job – picking up trends, new suppliers, a day larking about, or simply out of the office.

I didn’t have that context for this show. I wandered around a bit aimlessly, gawping at the big trade publisher stands, pausing briefly outside the academic publishers that I’ve worked for in the past, and half-heartedly talking to a couple of folk I know from Twitter who were manning the Bookseller stand.

But I felt very much like a fish out of water. It’s a serious business, and none of mine (yet). I felt a little deflated – I had hoped to chat to a few people and – not necessarily network per se – but just talk to people I don’t usually talk to. But I had a fit of the shy-boys, and slunk off to the PEN Literary Cafe, to wait for Kate Adie to interview Hilary Mantel (got to justify the ticket price somehow, right). And then something clicked. Watching, listening, observing. I have at least two stories worth just from overhearing my elbow-neighbours.

And Mantel was great value (and Adie is a great interviewer), but while they spoke I couldn’t help but notice the suited man in the empty stand behind. He’d hand-written some headings on sheets of A4 and was busy pinning them up on the wall. Presumably the publicity materials for the stand had never arrived, or were stuck in a warehouse somewhere waiting for a volcano and wind patterns to behave. The signs were for digital services – and the wonky, hand-drawn lettering just seemed to make the little scene even more pathetic.

Then, just to further make the gentleman’s day, a trio of ‘other’ suits came and sat on his spare table, and began passing around and stroking an iPad as if it were a newborn baby. Or a puppy. A4 sheets of paper just isn’t going to cut it, son. Personally, I’d have gone down the pub, but manfully he didn’t. He sat there and made some posters on his Toshiba. And then somewhat bizarrely didn’t take down the handwritten ones, but put the printed ones next to them. I wish him and his company well.

And all the while, Mantel’s voice, elaborating on the politics of Tudor England, and the very non-digital process and workflow she uses (giant pinboards, and index cards). Talking about an ‘unsellable book’ that has racked up more sales and awards than I could ever hope to achieve.

All very poignant, somehow.

I then had an impromptu meeting with someone researching collaborative writing tools, had a blander-than-bland sandwich, and trooped around again – trying not to stare at the graphic novels, Harper Fiction heels or the strange man dressed as a wizard. By then I’d decided my time was better spent at home, doing something more likely to get me on to the business end of the Fair. I’ll be back tomorrow, to hear Ian Rankin do his thing, and I will again be too shy to say that I listen to Mogwai while I write because he said he’s done this in the past, and that my scotch of choice is Highland Park, a la Rebus.

Because that would be fanboy behaviour. And this is serious business.

Refocus – London Book Fair Masterclass #lbf10masterclass

Brief report from the London Book Fair Masterclass today for aspiring authors – entitled ‘How to get published.’

I attended the London Book Fair Masterclass today for aspiring authors – entitled ‘How to get published.’  In my particular case it should have been called ‘how not to get lost in a two elevator system’, or ‘how to tell two people next to you to STFU if they just came to hiss and tut and make sarcastic comments to each other’.

Anyhoo – an interesting experience – as it usually is when listening to professionals in the industry (the supply side (authors) are always full of doom and gloom, while being pleased as punch to be in front of an audience) and the demand side try hard to keep a straight face in front of the occasionally insane things the authors say, and the absurd things the attendees get bees in their bonnets about).

One of the great things, of course, is the amount of disagreement that there is between them. Which just goes to show what a highly subjective and personal experience-driven occupation publishing is….

Anyhoo, it’s left me re-energised, and more determined than ever to get both the editing and the pitching of Tom or whatever it ends up being called, better.

A good day.

*Update* So the day itself wasn’t earth shattering. The agent, publisher, self-publisher and the two authors all said intelligent, anecdotal – ie not ‘follow this snake-oil formula for succes’ but ‘this is what I’ve found/observed’ –  mostly relevant stuff (there was a brief hiatus for a discussion about book covers which had me reaching for the refund button, but it got back on track soon enough). Interestingly, Carole Blake said she’d already sealed 3 or 4 seven figure deals for established authors, and three first-time writer deals this year, both statements being hugely encouraging. Siobhan Custer, the self-publisher, said all the sort of things I thought she would, and I hope it works out for her. But it’s not for me.

I’ve already got Blake’s book, and while Lionel Shriver and Meg Rosoff were interesting (and perhaps suprisingly, funny) so it was Mark Booth’s talkette that I probably got the most out of – even if it is nothing more than thinking about the title of my novel more carefully.

The quote of the day belonged to Rosoff – ‘just write a fucking great book’ – in response to one of several disappointing questions from the audience (although to be fair, I guess there is no magic bullet question to ask either – I’ve done a lot of research and worried about loads of stuff, so the two questions that came to mind:

(1) What do professionals think is the role or potential usefulness of peer-review sites like authonomy or completelynovel?

(2) The agent I’ve wanted to work with all my adult career has not responded to my query. Two others have rejected it, presumably having failed something basic in the submission package – and partly based on this I want to resubmit to my ‘preferred’ agent. However, I don’t know if I should mention the previous submission, or just pretend the whole thing never happened (as I haven’t had a reply and it was sent on the same date, with the same SAE as the other two – getting on for three months ago now).

But I suspect I know the answer to (1) – as it was staring me in the face looking around the attendees (my heart sank, slightly, but then this is partly because it reminds me how much time I’ve ‘wasted’ trying to get the life experience to have something to say….)

And as for (2) – well, if nothing else comes out of today, I am going to re-edit the novel, refocus on one specific element. Blake said the most impressive query she’d had was one that persuaded her to read outside of a subject area she normally read in, because the author had ‘written a book he wanted to read’. The more I think about my first book, the more I realise it’s a book I wanted to write, and I need to put some more thought into making it something I, and others, would want to read.

And, fortunately for my sanity, I’ve realised since that this isn’t so hard. That sometimes the problem is sitting in this study and staring out my internet window and feeling too scared by all the fireworks and bigger dogs and IP and e-books and self-publishing blither blather to remember that I can write. I just need to focus on the reader more, whether that’s me or you, or whoever.

Have something to say. And say it as best you can. Even if the end result is ‘I wish I’d read this kind of book when I was going through what I’m writing about’. It’s valid, and true – and might just help me write something more… universal.

So, despite the embarassment of attempting to wander round an empty first floor, the neighbours who seemed intent on adding their own soundtrack to what was being said, the annoying sound problems and the cringeworthy questions, I really enjoyed my day – although perversely I don’t think I’d recommend it to others.One attendee stormed out because the panel were being too negative, or not specific enough. Wel… as the whole panel repeated, time and time again – it’s persistence, passion and professionalism. Which means accepting the odds are highly stacked against us first-timers, and you know, it’s not personal.

It’s not us, it’s Rupert Murdoch. Or whoever runs Walmart. Ok, ok. It wasn’t said. But you weren’t there, man – you don’t know how tough it was in bookselling ‘Nam.

I jest. Of course it’s Murdoch’s fault. Without him BA Barracus would never have got on that plane.

Ok, ok. The real advice – follow agents, publishers and authors on twitter – read their blogs and websites. Absorb – without prejudice. And one day you’ll be up there, among the followed, and not just among the followers.

I hope.

Muscle memory

Homicidal thoughts on the towpath, out for a run in the sun. Disturbed by Transition, by Iain Banks.

One of the nice things about Fetcheveryone, the running community and perfomance recording website I belong to,  is the certainty it can bring to specific statements – like ‘Prague is a minor city in Wimbleshire’, ‘*Username deleted*  (who I have still to meet) is, or at least was, a twat’, or ‘I ran my fastest marathon at a faster pace than 90% of all my other runs in 2008’ and that kind of thing.

Too much lemon septus

So today I can say with satisfaction that I ran further than I have since Oct 3rd last year. I even ran an extra mile because I found that the towpath remains shut on the other side of the Thames (I suspect the Barnes Socialist Muddyfunster Front is enjoying it’s splending isolation from those orrible Mortlakeians and Kewiaianianians and so they have extended the ‘none shall pass, not even reading Vogon poetry’ period until after the election. I don’t believe their ‘it was wet’ excuse.). So I had to run an extra mile doubling back on myself

I was passed by at least two V50s, out for their Saturday constitutionals. One of them waved after he ambled past. Cheerio, he waved, without realising the homicidal maelstrom in my head at that moment. I was listening to an audiobook – Transition by Iain Banks. It contains scenes of extrreme torture and gratuitious fornication. It is about the banking meltdown, morality, and responsibility. I have to take my headphones off when ‘The philosopher’ bits come on, and listen out for the change of accent that signifies a new narrator. To say it’s grim is putting it mildly. It’s a brilliant book, and brilliant concept, it’s just that for a remarkably mellow man, Mr Banks has a really nasty streak.

Really. Nasty.

But despite this extreme provocation, I did not string the V50s up by the goolies, and cover them in paper cuts and lemon juice. Or attach electrodes anywhere. Funny that if it were a film or a game, this story would almost certainly be banned.

Anyhoo, running. It’s a beautiful day, and it’s my first proper week back running for a long time – five times this week. Each time I stop I forget in my head, and each time I start I remember in my muscles. I love plodding longer distances. I love the ups and downs of the endorphins and glucose in my system – the odd, almost orgasmic highs where your whole body tingles and currents wash up and down your nervous system, followed inevitably a mile or so later by a sugar low and feeling like death. And then realising your not going to die, and building up to another, smaller, peak of exhilaration, until again, that fades, and you’re sinking again.

It’s funny to be aware that your head’s not in control of this. Neither is your heart, or your lungs. It’s muscles and nerves – fibres twitching away inside whatever skin bubble you inhabit. Twitch, twitch, twitch. And the connections that form, again and again, no matter how many times you’ve done it before, or how long since the last time.

A memory – a muscle memory. Euphoria, followed by pain. Addictive, and destructive.

Bliss. Ballardian, Banksian, bliss.

Wallander – plot tactics and formations

On dynamics within plot, and how Mankell’s Wallander is a superior crime drama.

I’ve been spending a little too much time on Zonal Marking of late, so it’s not entirely coincidental that I’ve been thinking about 4-4-2 and christmas tree formations when indulging in a spot of literary criticism. Well, not strictly literary – I’m referring in this post to Yellow Bird’s adapatation of Wallander, which in my view is massively superior to the more lauded BBC/Branagh Wallander (our Ken seems to play Kurt Wallander as a cross between Rebus and Hamlet, who drives noiselessly through the Swedish vastness, disturbed only by a ring-tone and the ghosts of his failed family relationships. He also has the demeanour of someone who is simultaneously being forced to eat pickled herring and can’t hear a word anyone’s saying. Which is obviously why people phone him so often).

Krister Henriksson as Wallander

Anyway. The most recent episode I’ve seen is ‘Skulden’ (Guilt) – and while it may not reveal anything particularly deep or novel about the human condition, it’s an enormously satisfying piece of drama to watch. I’ve only read one of Mankell’s originals, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it (Firewall – I didn’t enjoy it on screen, either).

If you’re not familiar with the Yellow Bird series, which Mankell developed but others write, the focus is much more on the ensemble – perhaps a little less so in Series 2, which lacks the bleakness of Series 1, presumably due to the departure (and suicide, sadly) of Kurt’s on-screen daughter, and the other intra-generational conflict (Stefan, an on-screen suicide to further confuse things). In my head , the Ystad police team has clear ranks – a 4-1-4-1 formation – Wallander on point, the Prosecutor, Martinsson, Nyberg and the ME in behind, Svartmann as a defensive shield and the Polis drones in defence. I guess that puts the dog in goal. Or the receptionist, whose name escapes me at the moment.

Ok – seriously, this episode shows some really well crafted relationship dynamics; the theme – ‘guilt’ echoes around the cast and plot; and this being Wallander, no-one emerges unscarred. There are three mother-son couples, the three ‘romantic’ couples (more if you include the paedophile subtext), the competitive man syndrome (the two brothers, the estranged husband, Kurt and Martinsson) – all set against Kurt’s desire to start again, to literally be cleansed (as per the beginning of the episode) and impress his new neighbour and boss.

The chains of guilt are established and detonated in sequence, each with unfavourable effects. Like all Wallander episodes, the team does the solving, not the individual. And what appears to be a red herring is usually not – it is simply an extension of the theme, a separate arc – counterpoint or reinforcement. While Kurt still gets to do the heroic parts – the breaking down of lies, and doors – it is a collective will and redemptive power of maternal love that ultimately win the day.

One thing I particularly like about it as television is the way the camera steps aside once the point is made – the difficult conversation with the little boy when they find the body; the suicide; the murder itself. It allows for imprecision – and involving the viewer, making them complicit, eg the setup of the ‘flashes’ in the shed is particularly good – it is the viewer that interprets this as the convicted paedophile using a flash camera – and while it’s hardly unusual to trick a reader/viewer like this, it was an exemplary way of literally showing how your own prejudices affect what you see – we are all guilty, sometimes).

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a work of staggering genius, but what it is, is really good storytelling. The reader/viewer is given two options at each main decision point – is the young teacher complicit? is the ex-con re-offending? does the mother lie? all the way through to husband or wife? and ultimately husband or son? It’s clear, logical, clever and most of all (returning to my theme from yesterday) believable.

If you haven’t seen any of them yet, and you can get BBC4, I strongly recommend watching them.

Au revoir mes enfants, bonjour les grotesques

Musing on characterisation, and getting the right blend of child/adult and monster/alien in my fiction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about voice recently. I get criticised, when anyone cares to make any observation at all, when I write things that aren’t ‘Ivan’. Like my last post, which I had intended as an exercise, and was supposed to be about the fear that was crippling me from writing anything new, but instead turned into something darker and more reptilian. But at the same time, it became more wordy, more showy… less me.

I've got sweeties for you

And I’ve been called out for it. I understand that. I get it. There’s something self-indulgent about bringing attention to your word choices. Oddly, I think it’s not so obvious if I make words up, rather than choose an ivory-enamelled one.I need to put that toy back in the box. Or find a different game to play – by using more points of view, or introducing more than one narrator per story.

Most of my writing for the past year has been very strongly first-person narrative, with a lot of interior monologue. The thing that has most affected me as a writer recently, is Daniel Day Lewis’s monologues from There Will Be Blood. I haven’t felt such a – ooh, I don’t know, visceral is such a stupid word – but it’s a rumbly feeling in your stomach when the bass hits just right and your inner cat wants to purr while your head is trying it’s damnedest to warn the heart for lies. I didn’t explain that well, but listen to Plainview speak again when you get a chance. It’s simply brilliant characterisation, and a highly distinctive voice. Larger than life, grotesque, even, but totally believable.

Most of my stories feature a child, or child-like, narrator. Often they are around the 8-10 year old mark. I don’t really know why – perhaps I’m working something out in my head. They rarely have a nice story to tell.  And when they’re not physically young, they are emotionally immature. But if I get away with it with a child, so far, adult readers are  finding it harder to ‘forgive’ an adult character’s flaws, which they are happier to do for a child’s. Or at least, that’s what I’ve found. You can use a word that’s too old for a child, or they can be too astute or even too mute, but when I write a ‘flawed’ adult, I’m finding that my readers are much more judgemental.

I wonder why that is? Is it simply not writing believable enough scenarios or characters? Hmm. Perhaps I am asking the reader to suspend too much disbelief, to ignore too much of their own experience. I’ve never really thought about it that way, but I guess I ‘read’ crime, SF and other genre fiction with different expectations from when I read literary or commercial fiction. Is it as simple as observing more conventions?

I frequently use naivety, ignorance or plain self-absorption as the catalyst for plot and character interaction. Usually, my characters grow or learn something – become less flawed – but sometimes the reader doesn’t see them as flawed, they see them as caricatures, or stereotypes. Or doesn’t understand how such a character functions in a ‘normal’ setting. I’m writing too many aliens, and not enough monsters.Monsters can be credible, no matter how grotesque – but the reader needs to believe in them for the effect to work. Aliens are just that – alien.

And an adult who behaves like a child, after a point, becomes an alien.

Not really sure where I’m going with this thought, but maybe I need to do a little less playing with words and character, and do a little more ‘work’. If I get the believability right, then the reader doesn’t need to decide whether to come to ‘play’ or not – they’re simply there in the room with Tom, and his choices.

Did any of that make sense?

The fear #1

A fictionalised account of a powercut, and the thoughts that might, or might not, go through a neurotic writer’s head. He was probably reading Saramago’s ‘Blindness’ or some sociopathic rant on the future of publishing at the time or perhaps had simply spent too long on Facebook. You decide.

Snakebite and black, mixed by Scaramago and Darwin

*A fictional response to a powercut.*

Light. Then, nothing. An electrical snap and darkness folds around me. Instantaneous, uniform, enveloping… punishing, the light snatched away in a…what is the opposite of a flash? A sump? An implosion? A thwuck?

My senses strain. To touch, to feel, to smell, to see… to hear.  Yet there is nothing. There is only absence. An unnatural stillness. A silence where the body plays the lead part in the orchestra. Breathing, too loud. Blood fizzing and popping through my ears. The rustle of fabric as I struggle to control my urge to twitch. To freak out.

The silence closes in on me like a predator.  The darkness does nothing. It merely is. Smug, all-powerful, crushing. A bully to beat all bullies. Together, they are nothing personified. No – bigger than that – geomorphic, catacylsmic, universal. Yes, that’s it – they are the universal nothing. A nothingness. The nothingness.

I am scared. I no longer trust my body. All it tells me is that it is neither cool nor hot. My muscles refuse to move, locked. There is nothing to taste but the salt in my saliva, and as for smell, well, whatever that is, logic dictates that it must be me. Perhaps the signals from the senses are somehow  trapped between nerve ending and brain.

I wonder if I am paralysed. I wonder if I am still attached to my body at all. I wonder if I am dead. If I am part of the nothing.

But is it really nothing? I feel stupid even asking the question. Of course it’s nothing, Listen. Even the voice in my head is nothing. Tiny, insignificant, too small and feeble to ever reach an echo of another thought. There, it drifts off into infinity….

The nothingness does nothing. Says nothing.

I am, by nature, inquisitive. Imaginative, sensitive, impatient…  melodramatic, even. Yet I cannot imagine this nothing. And then I realise… this nothingness – perhaps it is only nothing  because I do not want it to be Something. I try not to want. And yet. There. It starts. A thought hatches and starts to uncoil like a snake in a basket. The nothingness starts to change. Subtly, almost imperceptibly. But enough for my new pair of snake eyes to see. To taste on my tongue. To hear in the pressure behind my ears. The nothingness is evolving, forming patterns. And yes, there is something, maybe, hidden – or cloaked – in the world outside my head.

Shh-hssh-shh-hss. I am confused as to whether it is the snake in my head or the nothingness outside that starts to hiss. I hesitate. The world – for I am convinced it still exists – indeed, I must believe, or I will fall into basket and never climb out, of this I am sure, is not silent. It is the sound of static, of electro-magnetic pulses. Of rhythyms and organisms beyond my understanding. White noise against a wall of black. An impenetrable tangle of noises and frequencies.

The noise triggers something in my vision, and I see snow. And floating orbs of purple and green and yellow and red. It is magical – no longer scary.

But then I imagine the source of these sounds. I imagine the insects and moulds and bacteria, inexorably destroying my body, my room, my house, my world, from the inside out. I imagine the radiation soup my brain is frying in – my bedroom, like most, a living, bleeping faraday cage of information, ubiquity and always-onness. The static shriek of earth as billions of machines screech at each other the desires and emotions of standardised instruction sets of bone and muscle, encased in fat and pressurised just so, so that we cannot escape to the stars or the depths, but spread ourselves and our ideas like a virus across the blue and green and white and red. All tending to brown. To dirt.

The dancing field of colour becomes outlines of tickboxes and thumbs and faces and logos and avatars and photos. And all the things I will never see, never own, never feel, never think. I try to blink, but the icons are inside my head, not out there.

I find myself longing for the darkness again. I cannot find my ‘off’ button. I do not want my brain to be always on. Always connected. Always in the way of a thousand billion streams of information, lies, likes and dislikes. My snake turns on me, dancing to someone else’s tune.

I am lost. An explorer across the stars, marooned in a human hell that they could not wait to die to build. And I am afraid. So afraid.

I try to remember childhood platitudes. ‘The only thing to fear is fear itself’. And ‘that which does not kill me, makes me stronger’. And I understand with a heart-crushing certainty, that I am alive – that I must fight.

And I realise that the answers are in me. I am programmed for this. I am a biological machine with almost endless capacity for self-deception, but my prime directive, my reason, my soul, my will, is in my genes. In my instinct for survival. I must find shelter. Or build one. I must find food. I must find others like me.

So I will build my hut, my cave, my island. I will learn to walk in the dark, or in the chaos of the light. And I will eat the static, and learn to like it. I will eat the bugs and the waves and the science and the fiction. I will find my blind and deaf companions. And I will teach them to read again.

And I will not fear.

Tio Carlos

Art, life and duende.

Carlos Salcedo Peré - artista y genio

I got a little bored of the design of the blog, so I’ve tinkered a little. Hopefully I haven’t broken anything. I’m also going to try to change what I post about, as I struggle to entertain myself, let alone anyone reading this, some days. The endless angst of an unpublished writer is hardly edifying stuff. And I’ve changed the background to remind me of what I aspire to be – an artist – and the reason why I want to write – to entertain, amuse, and one day hopefully, inspire.

The picture in the background is a black and white copy of a painting my uncle gave me in 1991. You can’t see all of it, but it’s a snake wrapped round a frame. I was going through a tough time at university, emotionally, physically and financially. He was living with my dad at the time, having finished one adventure and sqaubbling with my dad while he scrimped the money and energy together to embark on his next craziness (he was working as a forest ranger for half of the year, and artist-cum-cigarmaker for the other half).

He also gave me a tape of Polynesian music, and the two weeks I spent observing my dad and his brother squabbling furnish several anecdotes that feature in Tom’s Universe – both in Monk Quixote and the forthcoming Tamaduste.

The snake is actually fire red, the frame is a golden yellow, and the picture within the frame is an unpenetrable royal blue. Is it the sea? The mind? Is the snake benign, or evil? Is the frame saying something about life? Or is it simply a brightly coloured doodle to amuse a depressed nephew? It is without a doubt the most posession I treasure most. And that’s because as well as being beautiful, he wrote a little dedication, which I’ll translate from the Spanish:

To Iván with the hope that he finds an answer to his troubles, now and in the future – and balance, harmony and happiness.

Which is a lovely thing to receive – even more so in the winter of my 19th year. The Polynesian music, taped over an old C&W compilation, I was less enamoured of. Although he’d drawn a parody of Lucky Luke on the cover, so it was still pretty amazing. Sadly, I threw all my tapes away at the end of one house move too many in the middle of the last decade.

He’s an interesting and talented man, who should have made a lot more of his gifts, but like most of the Salcedo family, his duende got the better of him on many occasions – seeming to prefer a life of conflict, passion and isolation over conforming. He’d paint the most amazing things, on all sorts of surfaces – driftwood, cardboard boxes, rocks. His style ranged from fauvist to miro, usually with a strong political bent.

I haven’t spoken to him for years, but thanks to the internet I can see that he’s made some tentative steps online. Here’s a portfolio of some of his digital work (vastly inferior to his paintings):


Anyway, for me, this change is a signal of intent. More art, less internal noise. I hope you like the change.

On crafting

Musing on craft and influences.

I’ve been watching, reading and listening to a lot of craftsmen and women recently, in a – so far successful – attempt to remind myself what it is I want to achieve with my writing, why it matters to me, and why it might potentially matter to others.

I’ve finished reading both DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. Both, as far as I know are first novels, and both have a lot of personal history in them – although it’s far more hidden away in the latter. Pierre creates a wonderfully evocative place inside the hero’s head, and you can ‘hear’ the care and love that he’s put into every paragraph. Some of the lyrical and stylistic tics are simply brilliant, and there’s a real sense of an author having fun with what they’re doing – the important lesson for me is that it rarely spills over into self-indulgence, and while the plot is more than a little far-fetched, I think you’d have to be a pretty soulless reader not to want to find out what happens.

Mitchell’s work is very different, effectively a series of short stories with common threads and echoes running through them. I loved the differences in the voices (something I’m not very good at – I tend to write ‘me’ or sociopaths), although I felt a little let down by the ending. It felt like a ‘clever’ book, rather than an enjoyable book. But again, it gives me something to aspire to.

PS Is it just me or are those Google Books links just plain scary for anyone who wants to earn a living from copyright material?

Musically, I’ve taken advantage of Dada’s (the shop that took over Fopp in Chiswick) absurd pricing policies (double albums by jazz greats for £3) and I now have over a day’s worth of Brubeck, Basie, Coltrane, Ellington, Art Blakey, Compay Segundo and all manner of other compilations. It makes a pleasant change from the white noise or madrigals that I usually listen to while writing or working. And the craft in there, the joy in performance, the bloody-mindedness of the time signatures, riffs, fills and breaks – all of it is deeply inspiring. The only problem with the music is divorcing the experience from the only context I’ve ever really experienced this form of jazz in before – black and white film noir or screwball comedies. Although the idea of screwball noir is quite appealling.

BBC4 recently screened ‘Kings of Pastry (website is a bit poor, but never mind)’, which is a superb exploration of obsession, desire and craft – in this case, French patisserie chefs aiming to be recognised by their peers as the best in France in a competition that only runs every four years. The level of dedication, preparation and skill displayed is extraordinary… I like to think of myself as a good cook, but the things that these chefs create out of flour, eggs, sugar and chocolate is just astonishing. And the moment that one of the chefs breaks his six-foot sugar sculpture after three days of competition is just heartbreaking. The only downsides of the film is that most of this lovely calorie-fest gets thrown away at the end, and that smell-o-vision still hasn’t been invented.

I’ve also enjoyed watching the ‘Mastercrafts‘ series on BBC2 (well, actually, on iPlayer), where various enthusiasts are trained for six weeks in traditional crafts such as green-wood turning, stonecarving, thatching, smithing etc,. While not all of the skills are as telegenic, or appealling, as each other, the format, and voyage of discovery that the participants went through was similar for all the programmes. I guess part of this is down to presentation, and editing, but it was a joy to see the masters at work, and a genuine pleasure to see people – particularly those who struggled at the beginning of the training – producing a beautiful object – and most importantly, a functional object too.

Again, this has resonance for my writing. And it’s probably no coincidence that after a few weeks of feeling thoroughly miserable about my prospects, and contemplating going back to full-time employment, the creative juices have started flowing again. Which unfortunately manifested themselves in the usual way (awake at 2am as reams of dialogue are enacted in my head) so I am now far too tired to think.

I’ve also watched a shedload of good films recently – Alice in Wonderland, 21 Grams, in the Loop, The Changeling, Hurt Locker, Wendy and Lucy (ok, ok, not Wendy and Lucy) and also seen Ghost Stories at the Lyric – which is thoroughly recommended, although it is a horror show more than a play about ghosts, I’d argue.

So. A veritable smorgasbord of influences. Let’s see if I can turn all this ‘art’ and ‘craft’ into something productive. And yes, I’m late on a short story submission. Because I haven’t crafted it enough, why did you ask…

Noises off

Three real-life aural scenes exploring the impact of sound on what we see.

Scene 1: The 237 bus on the way back from Westfield-bloody-Westfield.

The speaker is younger than he sounds – a weary edge to his voice that his face doesn’t match. His skin is clear and smooth, his beard the right kind of straggly. He wears a plain black rasta hat that covers his dreads and ‘smart casual’ clothes – they’re smarter than what I’m wearing, at any rate. He is wearing a tan leather bomber jacket and smart jeans. An orange plastic bag dangles from his wrist with the word ‘Dazed’ printed on it in black. I try not to assume it’s a vinyl record. In truth, I have no idea, but it looks like it might be a shirt. He clumps up and down and then up the stairwell again. He groans at the number of the people on the bus and and peers over the top of people’s heads into the traffic outside. The overstuffed bus caterpillars forward in a roadwork-choreographed slow dance. He phones his friend – gender unclear – and proceeds to have a fifteen minute conversation that repeats on a loop:
‘Ya mon. Ima ona two tree sebben. The two tree sebben to Ounslow Eat. Issa totally serious mon. I never seen nuttin like it. The bus issa totally full of peepul. And the driver is doing crazy ting. It done gone right where it no spose to. T’traffic is something fierce mon.’

I try not to think of the Lilt advert, and remind myself that it’s ok to laugh at people sometimes, as long as it’s for the right reasons. Part of me wonders whether his performance is part of an elaborate wind-up.

He wanders around the same few phrases and I try to tune him out. And then he says:
‘Ya babe. I got a red one and a green one already. Leave the pink ones to the battyboys.’

Or at least that’s what I think I heard. I experience a familiar feeling of paranoia, as I debate the rights and wrongs of listening in to someone in public, and whether or not I’m judging him by what he wears, or the colour of his skin. But ultimately, I’m judging him by what he says. Or rather, repeats. When the person on the other end of the call says something, he sucks his teeth and clicks his tongue. Perhaps this is a reinforcement ritual – some kind of aural language mirroring. Involuntarily, I find myself mumbling something and making an ‘un huh’ noise of my own. Am I reminding myself of who I am? What my cultural noise is?

He shouts at the driver when someone makes a break for it – abandoning the top deck with little or no hope of making it to the exit before the bus should pull out. The rest of us ignore this display of civic-mindedness, and resume our attempts to ignore the inch by inch report of the progress of the bus we’re all on together. Eventually he repeats himself to a standstill, and he brings his call to a close. He scans the night traffic for clues as to the driver’s right or wrongness, but he doesn’t seem any more at ease.

A space opens up and he walks past me. He is wearing camel-coloured work boots – Timberlands, I think. They look nice. I’d like boots like those. For some reason, the cleanliness of his boots matters to me. My stop arrives and I inch down the stairs. As I reach the bottom of the stair well, three words ring out again… ‘two tree sebben…’

Scene 2: an afternoon screening of The Hurt Locker at Brentford Watermans, cashing in on its success at the Oscars. Although ‘cashing in’ is somewhat moot, as there are only five other people in the screening.

I am confused by a table full of cups and biscuits and coffee jugs as I enter the arts complex. It feels like a meeting. But I am not invited. I admire the dedication of the man on the box office who asks me to pick my seat from an empty cinema. He mishears me, and gives me the seat he wants to give me anyway. I feel vaguely unhappy I do not have a seat-selection system for situations like this. Perhaps he senses this.

Downstairs there is the familiar smell of curry and an appalling blend of bhangra house or something blaring over the PA. Three men, who look like refugees from the Irish bar down the road, drink tea and make themselves scarce when I arrive. Perhaps they ran out of free wifi. Perhaps they don’t like company.

I console myself with a bag of stale popcorn and some alcohol free lager, although it takes three attempts to make my words ‘salted popcorn please’ produce the desired result. I am early, and I eat most of the bag in the foyer. I try to make a joke with the usher as I say I’ll hold back the crowds as I gave him my ticket. He ignores me.

Unacknowledged, I feel rebellion stir within me, and I do not sit in my dedicated seat. I try not to compare the tiny size of the screen and comfortable hearing level with the behemoth that had presented itself as ‘Westfield Vue 7 Extreme Screen’ the other day. I muse that there are probably the same number of staff on duty. It’s just the two thousand other patrons and smell of hotdogs that’s missing.

They arrive after me and sit about four rows behind me. An old couple, I can’t make them out in the gloom, but one is male and the other female. I’d like to think that they’re on a date. Or making the most of publicly funded art venues while there still are some for them to enjoy. Little bit of politics. Well, it is The Hurt Locker. I can only hear her – his responses get lost in the carpet and the chairs and the ‘ta da da da dadadududas’ in front of me.

‘Oh. I thought some of those people having lunch would be coming in,’ she says, in a ‘my brain freezes if I do not speak’ kind of voice that describes the weather, the behaviour of cats, the state of the neighbours garden, the timeliness of buses and the occupancy rate of local civic amenities.


‘Well, there’s not a lot of us in, that’s all I’m saying. And you’d have thought with it winning those Oscars and everything…’

She has a London twang and my shoulders will tense up over the next two hours as various plot-related stage whispers bounce back and forth between them. There is particular confusion over the mis-identification of a boy (a booby trap sewn into the body of a dead young Iraqi – as grim as it sounds). They do not appear to understand that the mis-identification is part of the you know, ‘thing’.

Despite the annoyances, I’m glad they’re here. I hope to think I’ll still be going to the cinema, or whatever takes its place, in forty years time. And I hope I’m annoying young’uns. Or aliens. Or young aliens.

I do not see their shoes.

Scene 3: recycling lorry screeching down our road this morning.

I swear I hear the distant sounds of girls screaming at a pop concert. And then I hear the breaking of glass and slamming of bins and boxes on pavements. A mechanical, melodramatic sigh is followed by the guttural throb of a diesel engine rumbling forward a few yards, followed by more girls screaming.

It’s a recycling truck. Its brakes sound exactly like a pop concert. Or, more likely, I have rather odd hearing. I imagine a throng of screaming girls following the truck around and throwing knickers and other non-recyclable items at the workmen as they dig their way down suburbia, reliving endless dinner parties, Saturday morning paperfests and kid’s own choice cereal boxes. I absent-mindedly wonder what other irritating noises could be improved by similar mis-direction, until most everyday noises I can think of are replaced either by clown car klaxons and the gentle phut of a smoke machine. And then I remind myself that if the truck’s brakes were properly maintained there wouldnt’t be a noise at all – so this pop concert aural hallucination is in fact a sign of the decline of Western civilisation as we all know it. Which brings out the clown car klaxons again.

Clowns wear big shoes. I’ve not met a real clown since 1976. He scared the bejaysus out of me.

What did you hear today that spoke to you in some way?

Nutch content

Nonsense to clear the maths-based sinuses of consultancy work.

I’ve been swimming in a sea of numbers for the last few days – which makes a pleasant change from staring at words and willing them to coalesce into something interesting. The upside is I get to make graphs, and I’m experimenting with new forms of data visualisation (I blame the Grauniad, myself) although for the most part I am sat in my uncomfortable ‘exectutive’ chair, scratching my head Laurel-style and squeaking ‘yes, but what does it all mean?’.

I know I was enjoying myself because I lost track of time (and *polite cough* I started talking to myself, compared myself to a maths-nut-eating squirrel, and took on the voice of Dr Staticon – the infamous serial graphulator of Olde Numbers Towne, Des Moines (Alabama). You haven’t heard of him? You should have – he left a square root sign on all his victims and only ever ate Pi. Ok, that last bit was a little predictable, but what do you expect? Matrices and catalytic converters, I mean quadratic… hydramatic…systematic equations?

In other news, the sun’s been out. No, it hasn’t gone to my head. It’s been covered in numbers. It’s well known that numbers are better than hats. Especially the number three. I also had a dream that I was in a meeting with Boris Johnson, current Mayor of BoTown and quite possibly the only Tory I wouldn’t mind having a chat with, mainly because I’d imagine he’d stand a round. Although on that basis, I should probably focus my drink-with-a-tory musings to 15 pint Hague.

In non-sun, three or Dr Staticon news, I have still to hear from my #1 preference agent. But I have booked a trip to the location of novel number three (sorry, I didn’t realise the numbers would repeat like that), which I’m quite looking forward to. But not as much as I’m looking forward to Friday, when I hope to finally get a new short story down (called ‘Geordie’ for now).

Anyhoo. Wibbled on about nothing, and cleared my head of graphs, bubbles, columns and all thoughts of consultancy, suntan-seas, squirrels, nuts and square roots, square balls and square pegs. It’s like a carriage return for my brain. And apologies if anyone actually reads any of this. But you can make the noise now, if you like – if you remember manual typewriters that is.

And so to bed.