Friday, 30 November 2007

Whose Point of View?

Today, in a rainy, windy Canterbury, I’ve been working on a really crucial scene in my new book. It’s one of those scenes that a book absolutely turns on. But, despite the fact that I’ve known it was coming since I started the book, it’s been excruciating to try and get into. Industrial quantities of tea has been consumed, much creative thinking has been done whilst ironing shirts has been (does anybody else think about their writing whilst ironing – seems to free something up in me…) and many false starts have fallen to the delete button.

Why all this angst? Because I’ve had to decide whose point of view it’s going to be told in. As I think I’ve mentioned here before, the new book has three narrators. As each has a very different voice and outlook on the unfolding story, the decision as to who gets to tell this central scene is really important. Because they share the same story but their take on it is very different.

The book I’m reading at the moment – Ben Elton’s High Society – also has many narrators, but they’re all telling their own interweaving stories. Not sure whether that’s easier or more difficult but it looks easier from where I’m sitting.

High Society is about the legalisation of drugs. I’m fascinated by the way Ben Elton approaches the idea through the personal stories of an MP throwing the hat of his career into the legalisation-ring, a drug-addicted teenage prostitute with a history of abuse, a pop-star with all the substance abuses of a Pete Doherty and a policeman with a family to protect. I haven’t worked out yet where Elton stands on the subject of drug legalisation (just as it was difficult to work out his stance on film violence in Popcorn) as all his characters speak with such conviction from their various standpoints, but I’ll be interested to see how he navigates towards the end of the book and who tells which bits!

Thursday, 29 November 2007

City Cycling and Richard's Famous Bicycle Book

I gather, from my perusal of the Crockatt and Powell archive, that Richard Ballantine has brought out a book called ‘City Cycling’. Is this the same Richard Ballantine who wrote Richard's Bicyle Book which the ex-h and I owned years and years ago when we were v. young, v. poor and cycled everywhere?

If so, hooray! and I must get a copy. Without RBB we would never have survived – we would not have been able to maintain our bikes and I would not have known how to cycle in London.
As it was, in those days, I could strip a bike down to its component washers and ball-bearings, dismantle (and re-mantle) a derailleur gear-set, break, clean and reassemble a chain (you need a special tool which, thanks to Ballantine and his BB, we did) and even mend a puncture without removing the wheel from the bike. This last skill saved me being late for lectures on many occasions and I vividly remember squatting on the pavement on Vauxhall bridge on one occasion, mending a puncture in ten minutes flat and getting to the Centre for the Disorders of Human Communication, part of City University in Islington, on time.
We were living in Southampton and, every day I arrived at Waterloo at roughly the same time as one of my classmates who lived in Petersfield, also in Hampshire. She got on the tube to Islington, I cycled (we were very broke, did I mention that?) and I was always there before her. What’s more I arrived feeling green, virtuous and - amazingly, given the industrial quantities of fumes I was breathing in - healthy. She arrived feeling grumpy and still not entirely awake.

Cycling in London is not for the faint hearted and was no different then. In fact, it was probably worse twenty years ago as the traffic congestion wasn’t quite so acute and the cars were able to go faster. It would have been very easy to be squeezed into the gutter on a daily basis and I think, without Ballantine’s advice, I might have been. But he was very firm about a bike’s place on the road. Ride ‘high side’ was his advice – ie well into the road, avoiding all the pavement-side obstacles - drain covers, potholes and pedestrians side-stepping into the road without looking. Behave like traffic – keep up a good speed and make cars respect you. And, if they disrespect you or try to push you around, give them the finger! An author, in a book, giving you permission - nay expressly telling you - to give somebody the finger! Heady stuff when you're young and callow.

He was, I recall, even more strident about cars that overtook bikes without giving sufficient space. Bang on the roof as they go past, he said, that’ll give them something to think about. I didn't dare – too scared of road rage or whatever we called it then - but I certainly did all the other stuff, including shouting and the finger.

But ‘behave like traffic’ also entailed not doing some of the stuff which routinely gives cyclists a bad name – weaving in and out of stationary cars, nipping on and off pavements, cycling down the inside of slow-moving traffic. Don’t do it, he warned, you’ll get hurt and you can’t expect them to give you space if you don’t show you’ve earned it.

All good advice. I cycled from Waterloo to Islington daily for two years and the most scary thing that happened to me was getting caught in rain full of Chernobyl fall-out. I never got hit, forced off the road or even nudged by a taxi.

Mind you I did make myself visible – I was lit like a Christmas tree and festooned like one too, though in fluorescent belts and strips rather than tinsel. From helmet to ankle-bands I was a walking advert for being seen on your bike. I had a heavy-duty, dynamo-charged halogen front light which lit up traffic signs and must have confused car drivers on the road from Eastleigh into Southampton (‘Why is that motorbike going so slowly?’) When I see cyclists in Canterbury cycling around with neither lights nor reflectors I routinely shout at them. ‘Get a light - nobody can see you!’

It probably scares the living daylights out of them but, then again, it might save their life.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

I see what you mean...

Which sense would you be most reluctant to lose? For me, it would be sight, I think, though I have heard it said that losing your hearing makes you more socially isolated.

One of the three narrators of the book I'm working on at the moment, Deb, is deaf. Don’t ask me why. Also, don’t ask me why I’m choosing to have three narrators. There they were – thirteen-year-old triplets - just waiting when I started to plan the book. I may have thought it was their father’s story but, they implied, he’d be hopeless at telling it properly. They’d do it so much better.

They are the voices of my story: the boy, the bossy one and the deaf one. Here we are, they seemed to say, this is us.One of us just happens to be deaf.
I’ll let her explain that bit.

‘I am not just ‘hearing impaired’, I do not wear a hearing aid or have implants, I am profoundly deaf. I do not hear anything. I have no concept of what it would be like to hear, have no more concept of the condition than a person who has been blind from birth has of colour. People ask me if it is silent inside my head but that is a question that has no meaning. What is silence? What is noise? Obviously, I am aware that there is a physical sensation that I do not register and others do and that its absence represents silence but that is the beginning and end of my understanding.’

But there’s a problem with one of your characters deciding to be deaf. You have to learn about what it’s like to be deaf. I don’t have any friends or relations who can’t hear (beyond those who are getting on a bit but don’t want to admit that the reason they have the telly on at 100 decibels is not so that they can hear it in any room of the house…). I am a speech and language therapist (if you’re remotely interested in this you can find out more at my website in the
Profile and Questions sections) so I do know some stuff but I’m still running to catch up with Deb. Books have started to arrive from Amazon with titles like ‘The Linguistics of British Sign Language’ and there are new forums on my webpage favourites list where I can lurk and learn or, if I’m feeling brave, ask newbie questions.

And, writing through the words of a deaf person makes you realise how much even our written language is based on speech. When I’m reporting things Deb has conveyed to others in British Sign Language (BSL) do I say ‘she said’ or ‘she signed’? It feels a bit pedantic always to go for ‘signed’ but the whole point is that Deb can’t say things. That’s one of the things which defines her life. And you don’t listen while somebody’s communicating in BSL, you watch. It’s fascinating how it changes the way you describe things. People can’t catch your attention by clearing their throat, they have to step into your line of sight, you don’t overhear conversations, you have to be told everything. And so on.

There’s also the whole issue of how Deb tells the reader what people are saying to her in BSL. It’s a language entirely unlike English – it has a totally different word order, uses the area in space where you make the sign to denote tense, and is sometimes able to convey concepts which in English would be whole phrases in just one portmanteau sign. So, should I attempt to convey any of that difference when Deb is reporting BSL conversations, or is it easier to just cop out and get her to ‘translate’ into English for the benefit of her readers? At the moment I’m translating but maybe I’m wrong to do that. Maybe that misrepresents the experience of using BSL too much.

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Titles and what they tell us

I’ve been thinking about titles today. I know we’re told not to judge a book by its cover but, given that most of us see books spine-on in bookshops what we’re most likely to judge a book by is its title. (I’m on a mission to eschew the ‘buy me I’m on a table by the door’ books at the moment in the hope that the trend will catch on and, by January 4th, everybody will be scouring the shelves for books there are only one or two of, exclaiming delightedly ‘Oh, not in a promotion, an as yet undiscovered gem!’ and suchlike).

So, there are all those quirky titles at the moment that simulaneously do and don’t tell you what the book is actually about. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (fantastically original website – do visit if you’re a website conoisseur) A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, etc.

Then there are the titles which basically tell you ‘I’m a thriller’ – Lockdown, Snapshut – that kind of word. You’d never mistake ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’ for a thriller – not if you were going by the title. Mind you, I’m not sure what you would mistake it for if you were going by the title alone. A revisionist view of the lupine species? The texture of meat you never thought you’d eat? (Don’t let this gentle mocking mislead you – I really liked the book and think Stef Penney has done an amazing job writing so convincincly about somewhere she’s never been. They always say ‘write about what you know’ but, come on people, we’re novelists, we’re good at imagining stuff!)

Then there are the titles which tell you you’re into chick-lit territory. (That is if you hadn’t spotted that the cover is pink and covered in shoes, lipsticks or some other supposedly ironic symbol of post-feminist femininity.) I’ve just enjoyed Getting Rid of Matthew, for instance. Now, you’d think that with a title like that you might be forgiven for thinking that the central character would be in the business of offing the said Matthew. No. Nobody who reads crime fiction would think that. Seriously, nobody. No crime fiction tells you who’s getting murdered, even if it happens on the first page. Kill Bill is not a novel, be quiet.
Crime titles are always much more allusive and often adopt the The Adjective Noun pattern - The Scold’s Bridle – or just Adjective Noun – Cross Bones - or even Verb Adjective – Cut Short (actually maybe that’s an adjectival phrase…can the Grammar Police help?)

At the moment, I’m reading Sepulchre by Kate Mosse. Sepulchre’s an interesting name for a book. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines it as

a stone tomb or monument in which a dead person is laid or buried.

Would you call a book Tomb? Or Grave? You just might call it Monument. Somehow polysyllabic names are much more interesting and attractive than monosyllables. Tomb would definitely indicate horror and would probably have a definite article before it. You can see it now – The Tomb. By Stephen King.
Actually, I’ve just checked. There is a novel called The Tomb but it’s not by SK – it’s by a guy called F. Paul Wilson and is the first volume in a series of Repairman Jack books. OK, Repairman Jack sounds ultra-sinister. Unless he was the star of a kids’ animation in which case he’d look like a cross between Fireman Sam and Bob the Builder.

Actually, Sepulchre isn’t an odd name for the book once you get into it and meet the eponymous construction. It’s basically doing the same job as Labyrinth did on the cover of Mosse’s earlier bestseller. In fact, Labyrinth and Sepulchre share more than you’d think. They’re both one-word titles describing a physical structure. So far so obvious. But they’re both also three syllables long and share the same stress-pattern (spot the Speech and Language Therapist….) DAH-dah-dah. It’s a dactyl. As in 'Merrily, merrily shall I live now'. It gets it punch in there early and then trips off the tongue quite sweetly.

My novel, Testament, could be the third in the trilogy, in terms of word-structure.

Testament was a title a long time in the deciding. All the way through the novel’s long gestation and birth (see my website for just how long this took!) it was called Toby. And, like Labyrinth and Sepulchre, once you’ve got into the book you know why. The name ties together both halves strands of the book – the fourteenth century strand and the contemporary strand. It’s a good and fitting title. But only when you’ve read the book. Nobody, one of my ‘focus group’ (ahem, my friends) assured me in the nicest possible way, is going to pick up a book called Toby. It’s just not a title which does anything.

My editor, Will, agreed. So we went through various options. Favourite for a while was 'The Master Mason’s Son' – but that’s only half of the book. I quite favoured 'Steadfast Like the Crane'but, like 'Toby', you have to have read the book to get it and people might think crane as in building machine rather than crane as in long-necked bird. There, see, you did.

So, Testament it is. I think we’re going for the Labyrinth/Sepulchre market because, like those two, it’s a split time novel. Except, as I put it to the manager at a local bookshop the other day ‘don’t think France and the twelfth century (Labyrinth), think England and the fourteenth. Not grails and trails, colleges and statues.’
You should be in marketing’ he told me.

Blast! I quite wanted to be in novel-writing.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Blog Tag

OK, I have been ‘tagged’ by another blogger. This means that, if I am going to play by the rules I have to:

1. Link to
the person that tagged me and post the rules on my blog.

2. Share seven random or weird things about myself.

3. Tag seven random people at the end of my blog.

4. Let each person know they've been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog.

So, I’m OK on number one because the person who tagged me is already linked to my blog on ‘My Favourite blogs’ so tick that one. And I’m posting the rules here, so tick number two.

I don’t mind sharing severn random or slightly weird things about myself, so here we go:

Random fact No 1 – ‘Alis’ isn’t a Welsh variant as people logically assume (given that’s where I come from) I was just christened Alison and don’t like it as much.

RF No 2 - Hawkins Bizarre is a pun on the toy shop Hawkin’s Bazaar, thought up by my Other Half when the name I wanted for my blog – Peoplewatcher – already proved to have been taken in all its many permutations. Given the strapline about 'strange but interesting' it seemed appropriate.

Slightly weird thing No 1 - I have a thing about rucksacks. (‘A thing?’ I can already hear my family crying, ‘You’re obsessed, woman. Obsessed! You can’t pass Black’s without your tongue hanging out! It’s a rucksack fetish!’) I possess about a dozen, ranging from a handbag sized one to the full 65 litre hike-around-the-world thing.
I think they will definitely have to come in for a blog of their own at some stage.

SWT No 2 – I have a very weak form of synaesthesia which means that I see the days of the week as colours. Monday = bluey-grey, Tuesday = liverish purple/brown, Wednesday = Sherwood green, Thursday = dark green, Friday = brown, Saturday = yellow, Sunday = white. Occasional words have vague shapes associated with them (eg ‘group’ = spherical) but these only come up occasionally. I wish I were more synaesthetic, it would bring in a whole new dimension to the way I think about words.

RF No 3 – I am afraid of the dark. Seriously. Have to have v. thin curtains or, if it’s horribly dark outside, like when on holiday in the countryside, leave the landing light on. Sign of too much imagination...

SWT No 3 – When I was a teenager I used to want to be a shepherd. Though I abandoned that when I developed a social conscience at university, it probably showed more insight into the kind of profession which would suit me (solitary, few time-pressure demands, lots of control over my own work, having to be resourceful) than I showed in ending up in the health service where I was constantly at people’s beck and call and had very little control over my own working life. Tchah!!

RF No 4 (or maybe it’s SWT No 4 depending on your view of the subject) I used to be a HUGE Waltons fan. Recently got really into Brothers and Sisters on Channel 4 with The Ultimate Frisbee Freak and The Bassist and, though Bs&Ss was a different kettle of fish to the Ws it had a similar attraction for me. Did I want to be one of a large family? Strangely, absolutely not!

OK, there’s my seven weird or random facts. I’m not sure I want to tag anybody else because I don’t want them to have to link me if they don’t want to.
I know, I’m a wimp…

What does everybody else think of tagging? Is it a good way to join the dots in the blogosphere or is it a bit like a chain letter?

All thoughts gratefully received.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

The Golden Compass, Crossover Novels and Harry Potter

I had great fun yesterday following a link provided by dovegreyreader to the promo-website for The Golden Compass, the film of Philip Pullman’s book Northern Lights. I identified my daemon (a tiger called Alephon which I thought was very lovely) and watched the trailer for the film which looks AMAZING but then trailers always make films look amazing, frequently showing you the best bits of the film and leaving nothing else. Seen the trailer, don’t need to see the film.
Except I do want to see this film, in the same way that I wanted to see the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, all of which were, I thought, fab.

I liked Northern Lights. Good book, worthy crossover to an adult readership. I liked the second in the trilogy - the Subtle Knife - a lot less and the final book - The Amber Spyglass - not at all. In my opinion the Amber Spyglass wasn’t really a crossover book because he’d stopped writing for children and written a book for adults which just happened to be about children. Too dark, too metaphysical – and that ending…

I felt the same about William Nicholson’s Wind on Fire trilogy. I really rated The Wind Singer – a really good, thought-provoking book which both adults and children really liked. Slaves of the Mastery was almost as good but in Firesong, I felt he got way too interested in ideas about the relationship between human beings and matter and the fact that – for example – solid objects aren’t really solid if you imagine all the spaces in their atoms. Hence the scene where a wooden table-top is stirred like custard. It all got a bit too rareified and neither the Ultimate Frisbee Freak nor the Bassist – who were both, by then, teenagers – finished reading it.

So, do crossovers always end up being written more for the lucrative adult market than for the children’s market they were originally aimed at? Dunno mate, but there’s one gigantic NO out there and that’s Harry Potter. [Reading through this, I realised I hadn't put a link in - that's how well-known Harry Potter is - everybody knows about the books even if they haven't read them!] I don’t think Rowling’s approach to her subject matter changed throughout the seven books and, although Harry and the others grow up, I think there’s still enough in there to ensure that they would never be picked up and assumed to be adult books. Joanna Rowling restrains herself admirably from letting adults give ‘let me tell you what the world is really like’ speeches and doggedly and brilliantly allows us to see everything through the viewpoint of the main characters who are not adults but children, then adolescents, despite the fact that witches and wizards come of age at seventeen.

I think this is one of the things I admire most about J K Rowling. She never stopped letting the books and the characters speak for themselves. She didn’t think ‘crikey, I’m a publishing phenomenon, I can say anything I like in these books now and people will buy them and read it.’ Given the subject matter of the HP series, she could have got totally up herself about the whole allegorical possibilities of good vs evil in our 21st century world, but she didn’t. She remained true to the vision.

Which is why, for me, brilliant as Northern Lights and The Wind Singer are, the Harry Potter books will always be THE crossover novels for me.

The Golden Compass is an excellent website though. Go and see what your daemon is… go on, I dare you!

Friday, 23 November 2007

Jane Austen and the Missing War

When I was studying Jane Austen for ‘A’ Level, I remember reading some crass comment which criticised her for not reflecting any of the ‘big picture’ concerns of her time. From Austen’s novels, this person sniffily concluded, you would never have guessed that Britain was at war at the time.
Which seems to me pretty much like saying that Father Christmas doesn’t work on his tan enough.

Well, possibly ‘twas ever thus because you can look in vain for any mention of the current conflict in the Gulf in most novels published since we went to war in Iraq. Maybe, as with Jane Austen, authors fight shy of mentioning it because they don’t feel qualified to do so. Maybe it’s a case of 'out of sight out of mind', it’s a war that’s happening far away in another country, despite daily news updates on pretty much any medium you care to mention. It doesn’t actually impact much on us, here in Britain. In fact, it probably impacts less on us than the Napoleonic wars did on Jane Austen’s contemporaries. Think of her novels – half the men seem to be in the army and if there were no officers, who would all the silly women simper at?

Minette Walters’ recent novels have bucked this ignore-the-war trend. Both The Devil’s Feather and The Chameleon’s Shadow bring the effects of war right into lives lived here in England. And not just war in the Gulf. The Devil’s Feather concerns itself with current continental African conflicts as well as those in Iraq and the continuing effects of war on men who served in the Falklands comes up in the Chameleon’s Shadow. Chalky, a homeless Falklands veteran, provokes all sorts of unpleasant thoughts in the mind of the Chameleon’s main character, Charles Acland, recently invalided out of the army himself.

In both The Devil’s Feather and Tthe Chameleon’s Shadow, war both damages and attracts the damaged to it and the incursion of the brutality and damage of war into apparently ‘normal’ life back home is one of the fascinating things about the books.

The effects of the past – whether it be war or damaging family dynamics – is a theme which runs deep in all Walters’s books. And, when you know her back-catalogue it’s hard to read ‘The Chameleon’s Shadow’ and not feel a suspicion that Charles Acland will turn out to have been a very damaged personality before he was blown up by an Iraqui roadside bomb.

His anti-social personality – pre-existent or not - doesn’t necessarily mean he is a sociopath, or that he is responsible for a series of apparently homophobic murders. Or does it?
Walters teases us right to the end - is he guilty or isn’t he - asking us to search our souls and see if we would exonerate Charles of responsibility for his actions, given what has been done to him. Has his responsibility been diminished? If so, what diminished it, war or childhood? And would one provide more excuse for the commission of murder than the other?


Thursday, 22 November 2007

Book signings

OK, today I feel like a real published writer – I’ve had my first signing gig confirmed. It’s at Heffer’s in Cambridge on the 10th of January, almost a week after Testament is published.
Sophie, MNW’s publicist has arranged for myself and two other MNW writers – Aliya Whiteley and Faye L. Booth – to meet the Heffer’s reading group for lunch and then sign some books. I say all this as if it’s an everyday thing but, clearly, it’s not. I get excited when I go to get a book signed by somebody so quite what I’m going to be like when I’m the one doing the signing, is anybody’s guess.

The last signing I went to was a Waterstone’s evening event at which the author spoke about his book and then stayed around afterwards chatting and signing. The author in question – Daniel Tammet - has Asperger’s Syndrome. He is also a mathematical savant and holds the European record for reciting pi to 22,514 decimal places. Committing this many digits to memory took him three months and reciting them took 5 hours and 9 minutes.
The thought of being able simply to read that many digits without error would be next to impossible for me (I hate numbers) and I have to stand back in simple awe at the thought of Daniel’s achievement.

One of the reasons he managed to do it is that he has synaesthesia – ie his brain processes information in terms of more than one sense at a time. His book is called Born on a Blue Day and Daniel begins his memoir with the words

‘I was born on 31 January 1979 – a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number nine or the sound of loud voices arguing.’

For Daniel, as a synaesthete, the thousands of numbers he recited to break the European record were like a landscape in his mind:

‘ I recited I could feel myself becoming absorbed within the visual flow of colours and shapes, textures and motion, until I was surrounded by my numerical landscapes.’

Daniel was, in some sense, travelling through a country filled with numbers, a country he had travelled through numous times in the three months which he spent learning the twenty two and a half thousand digits and – in a way I find it almost impossible even to imagine– he was revisiting this landscape as he reeled off the numbers.

But for me, Daniel’s feat of memory is even more remarkable because of his Asperger’s syndrome. He did not sit in a room all by himself, watched by a monitor whilst he broke the European record. He did it for a charity – The National Society for Epilepsy – in public, with people wandering in and out of the hall the organisation was using for the event throughout the five hours of his recitation. Most people with Asperger’s syndrome dislike being watched and Daniel is no exception:

‘Though I had worried most of all about reciting pi in front of so mnay people, in the end I almost did not notice them as all of my thoughts were absorbed in the rhythmic and continuous flow of numbers.’

But he voluntarily put himself on the line for the charity and because, as Born on a Blue Day demonstrates chapter after chapter, Daniel Tammet has never let the fact that he has Asperger’s syndrome stop him from setting himself challenges (like learning Icelandic in a week and then going on national television to be interviewed in that language) and overcoming them.

He is clearly and amazing man and Born on a Blue Day is a moving and extremely readable book.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Straw bale houses and a fornicators' charter

Research – for me it’s one of the most fun bits of the writing life, getting to find out about stuff you wouldn’t otherwise come across. Today, I have been looking into buildings made of straw bales and the ‘New’ Poor Law of 1834.

I’ve come across some lovely buildings, not least this one in West Wales, not far from where my current book is set. It is a dream harboured very dearly by the Other Half and I that we might, one day, be able to build our own house and, I must say, straw bales look as if they might be a strong candidate for our material. Incredibly green in all respects and producing highly original looking buildings which people like Amazonails and Chug at Strawbale building will help you build yourself, what’s not to like?

Judging from the websites Google pointed me to today, there is a spate of this kind of building breaking out in my home area of West Wales but I’m not sure that the climate is going to draw me back there, however many like-minded people the green hills might be harbouring. I need more sunshine than that. Or at least less rain.

I’m not a huge fan of the straight line in architecture – I love old buildings whose roofs have sagged until they take on the shape of the ‘in the round’ rafters beneath, and walls which have settled and ‘skirted’ down on the ground on which they sit. The house I was brought up in, being almost four hundred years old, did not have a true right-angle in the place which made wallpapering a nightmare but added to the visual charm of the place. Strawbale building (or s/b as I’m going to have to get used to calling it if I aspire to move in these circles) looks like providing the ultimate non-rectilinear building. One of the lovely things you can do is shape your bales with a hedge-cutter so you can round off edges and cut away window recesses.
Definitely a thought to keep on the front-burner, and not just for the book, where there will definitely be one.

And the Poor Law of 1834? Well, deeply fascinating to someone as interested in social history as me. The New Poor Law was the infamous one which turned the relief of the impecunious from a charitable duty of the parish (usually done in kind) to a statutory duty of the Union – ie a number of parishes combined – via the dreaded workhouse. Following implementation of the Act, people had to pay parish rates to fund the workhouse and couldn’t give people clothing or food in discharge of their charitable duty any more. No wonder workhouses were hated – you couldn’t be ‘relieved’ in your own home and you couldn’t relieve people directly, you had to hand over your cash (which you probably had little enough of if you were working class) to a faceless bureaucracy which relieved them for you.
And yet… in the area and time I’m dealing with – West Wales in the 1840s - the elderly people whose poverty was relieved by sending them into the workhouse felt that they were more generously dealt with than under the old system, where some quid pro quo was expected from the impecunious by the parish.

But, for me, the worst thing about this poor law was the way it dealt with unmarried mothers. Prior to 1834 if a pregnant girl swore on oath as to the paternity of her child, the man responsible could be committed by a magistrate until he either paid up to support the child or appeared before a quarter sessions to dispute paternity. Under the new law, the poor girls were out on their own. The report of Edwin Chadwick, upon which the law was mostly based, stated that ‘a bastard will be what Providence appears to have ordained that it should be, a burden on its mother, and where she cannot maintain it on her parents.’ From then on, as you can imagine, errant fathers mostly escaped scot-free. It was a fornicators’ charter. There’ll be one of those in the book, too. And I'm not talking about a charter.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Grammar Rant

Stuck in a Book’s blog today was about grammar. He’s a fan of accuracy and so one of his friends has started making references to the Grammar Police... Hmmm… and he seemed such a nice boy.

Grammar is one of those subjects which, as an English graduate, daily practitioner for many years of a profession involving the nitty gritty of language (speech and language therapy) and, now, as a writer, intrigues, fascinates and irritates me.

It intrigues me because of what you can do with it. The wonder of English with its delicate nuances – the subtle difference between ‘I would have been thinking’ and ‘I would have thought’ or ‘their misreading’ and ‘they’re misreading’.

It fascinates me because, as a working language, it has been given such a hard time by what you might call professional language people. All those eighteenth century grammarians, for instance, who thought English was only acceptable as a serious language insofar as it accorded with the rules of Latin. Well - hello Messers Grammarian! - English is a long way from Latin. It is an uninflected language for a start – we do not add bits to the root verb, as Latin does (amo, amas, amat), we use pronouns and auxilliaries (I love, you love, he, she or it loves – ok, we add ‘s’ to the third person singular. It’s an anachronism, live with it.).

And it irritates me. Because people mistake the point of grammar. Let me say this loud and clear. Grammar is not the same as good style. It is not to make things sound nice, to roll off the tongue sweetly. Grammar is there to make things clear and unambiguous.
Take all that huffing and puffing about prepositions at the end of sentences. It’s something you’re not supposed to go along with. But I can do no better than quote Winston Churchill – ‘that is the kind of pedantry up with which I will not put.’ Am I supposed to say ‘It’s something along with which you are not supposed to go?’ For goodness sake!

The fact is, a lot of what people claim is good grammar is actually pedantry. For instance, the ‘rule’ which says you shouldn’t separate the two bits of an intransitive verb – ie don’t say ‘to boldly go’ but say ‘to go boldly’. Why aren’t you supposed to separate these two? Because it leads to a lack of clarity? No, because some twerp of an eighteenth century Latinate grammarian had a bee in his bonnet about the way it sounded and decided that it couldn’t be allowed.

Grammar should be there to make our communications unambiguous. To ensure that we don’t stand about saying things like ‘did you mean she did it or you did it?’ As it stands at the moment, grammar seems to be ignored as a concept by one section of the population (the half which doesn’t know what an apostrophe is supposed to be for) and endlessly banged on about by another (the section which insists on ‘It is I’ when they are on the phone instead of ‘it’s me’.
Why is ‘it is I’ better according to them? Because it’s the right case. ‘I’ is the subject of the sentence (which could be written ‘It is I who am speaking’) not the object. Though I think an equally persuasive argument could be made out that you are the object of the sentence – you could re-write it ‘It is me that you are speaking to’…

But, apply the one and only rule of grammar – does it make things clearer? No. You just irritate the hell out of people like me if you insist on saying it. Because, basically, English does not need cases any more. Once upon a time, when we were turning from Anglo Saxon via Middle English into Modern English, we may have done. Anglo Saxon was an inflected language in which there was a considerable difference between ‘me’ and ‘I’ – only by using the right one could the person listening to you tell whether you were the doer of the action or the person unto whom (whom? – another case fright) the action was being done. But you don’t need that distinction in modern English – it’s obvious from the verbal context – word order and the use of verbs do not allow for I/me ambiguity. Or we/us. I mean, take the phrase ‘what are you saying to we?’ which would be perfectly acceptable in some world versions of English. We don’t like it because British English doesn’t phrase it that way – we use ‘us’ in that context, not ‘we’. But does it make a difference to the meaning? No.

My Mum has a habit of grinding her teeth if any of us say (as my children’s generation constantly does, and I find myself dropping into) ‘me and so and so went…’ instead of ‘so and so and I went..’. She just hates it. Why? Because, as the rule says, you wouldn’t say ‘me went’ so you don’t say ‘me and so and so went’ and you don’t put yourself first because that’s discourteous. Hence you end up with ‘so and so and I’ And it sounds nicer, even I have to admit that. But then that’s probably because when I used that version, I didn’t get disapproved of – it has pleasanter associations.

So, are we supposed to ignore apostrophe misuse?
I say it loud and proud. Yes! Unless it makes things unclear. But when you see ‘potato’s’ in the greengrocer’s you’d be a very unreasonable person if you thought ‘potato’s what?’

The point is, what something looks like in writing is almost irrelevant to how it sounds when we speak and, believe it or not, O literate nation, grammar arises from the spoken word. People can misspell or misuse ‘their’ ‘there’ and ‘they’re’ in written communications because there will be no misunderstanding! Contextually, you will know what the person means. You may be irritated. You may think the person writing is an illiterate cretin. But you will not be confused. Why? Because languages only allow homophones (words which sound the same but mean different things) to remain if they don’t cause confusion. The minute confusion arises, one of them will begin to be pronounced differently or dropped altogether. Written communication is different. We can see they’re different and so we don’t need to use context to work out which one of them the writer means. Until they use the grammatically wrong one.

So, do I have no grammar pride? No, not really. English is an evolving language. Soon, apostrophes will become irrelevant; infer will mean the same as imply and nobody will say ‘secretary’ in any other way than ‘sekitry’.

New words will emerge, new grammatical constructions to express new concepts, new relationships, new ways of thinking. Because otherwise, brethren, we would all still be speaking like G. Chaucer Esq. and I don’t know the last time you checked out the Canterbury Tales in the original but we SO don’t speak like that any more, innit?

Monday, 19 November 2007

The Birthday Books

This is the birthday book-haul – all except for Maya Slater’s Mr Darcy’s Diary which we are reading for book group this month along with another book of the same name by Amanda Grange.

And very pleased I am with my bibliophilic stash , too. Since taking this picture over the weekend, The Chameleon’s Shadow has already been polished off (great characters, totally didn’t see the end coming) and Sepulchre is now underway. Except, I can’t read it in bed as it’s too heavy, so David Baldacci’s Absolute Power is still going strong at night (had to leave DB on one side in favour of Minette for a day or two) and Sepulchre is the new lightbox book. As that means it sits on the kitchen table it’s also the making a cup of tea book, the wandering through to sort the washing out book and the oh dear I appear to be in the kitchen reading Sepulchre again book…

Scott Pack (who appears to share my birthday, lucky him) had an interesting thing on his blog today about the possible end of hardback fiction and I, both as writer and reader would be glad of same. I don’t usually buy books in hardback, too expensive. But Ms Walters is an exception – I must have hers as soon as a new one comes out. Terry Pratchett and the Other Half, ditto. And, though I probably would have waited for Sepulchre in paperback, somebody else was kind enough to buy it for me in hardback. And Peter Ho Davies's The Welsh Girl? Well, I was sufficiently intrigued by Dovegrayreader’s review when she was doing her Bookerthon to buy it. And who knows, it may not appear in paperback…

One thing which did occur to me when spending my book tokens was the disparity of advertising on the hardbacks. Ms Mosse seems to me to have been guaranteed massive sales of Sepulchre given that Labyrinth sold over a million copies in paperback, so why did her publisher feel it necessary to buy her such a lot of prominent shelf-space in Waterstones? It seems to me that this would be better given over to authors like Peter Ho Davies (and me, come January) whose careers need to be launched and whose lovely books need to be given publicity. But there he was, tucked away in Fiction under D. And I bought the only copy. I hope they’ll replace it.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

The sick-list

Blogging about reading when unwell yesterday reminded me that, when I was in my teens, I had a particular book which I always went back to when I was ill in bed. It became a ritual that I would read it before I got stuck into anything else. And, as I was rarely ill for more than a day (tendency to rude health in our farming family) I often ended up reading no more than this one book.
This is it, The Outsiders, by S E Hinton.

Nothing could have been further away from my farming childhood than this, the story of American teenage gangs and a divided city in which the young of the social underclass – the greasers – stick together for protection, while the young, upper class ‘socs’ (short for socials) stick together because they think everybody else is beneath them. And yet I loved it. The character through whom the story is told – Ponyboy Curtis – is such a real character I felt I was taking part in the tragic events of his family and his world. When I reached the part where his friend Johnny dies (last words ‘I’m just gonna miss you guys’ – see, I can still remember them even though it’s over twenty years since I read the book!) I always cried. Maybe that’s why it was my sick-book. I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself and sympathising with Ponyboy and his friends did the trick.

Does anybody else have books they come back to and read again and again in particular circumstances?

Friday, 16 November 2007

Sick-bed reading and thrillers that really thrill

No post yesterday as I was unwell. Pause for sympathy. Thank you.

The Other Half knew I really wasn’t well when she got home and saw that the laptop hadn’t been switched on all day. Never mind not posting a blog, I hadn’t even read any of the blogs I am addicted to. Still, it was nice to have a double dose this morning.

I spent nearly all day reading Val McDermid’s The Distant Echo and a very satisfying day it was too, curled up on the settee under a blanket with Ms McDermid and her characters. The ending was satisfyingly climactic but also – given the work that had been done in shaping plot around characters – very believable. And you could have worked out who dunnit before the end, I just didn't. I blame being unwell...

A very recommendable read.

Then, I started David Baldacci’s Absolute Power. Mr Baldacci seems to be everywhere at the moment. He arrived in our house when the OH came home with Absolute Power which she had nipped out and bought one lunchtime as she had nothing to read with her sarnies. He’s also featured on Scott Pack’s blog Me and My Big Mouth and today on Dovegrayreader Scribbles. So…

Thrillers for me fall into two classes – the adventure kind (Tom Clancy et al, plot-driven, starring strong-jawed heroes who can’t be killed, women either hotly fanciable or don’t even go there) and the more thinking kind (populated by real people who feel things even (do I mean especially?) when they kill others and who are shaped and changed by events rather than just confronting them). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticising Mr Clancy and writers like him, what they do they do supremely well - look at the sales figures – and I have page-turned with the best of them when in the mood. But for a book to really grab me I have to be able to relate to the characters and what they feel; I have to be swept up with them but also by them into the events they take part in, not sit passively watching, knowing that it will all come right in the end, at least for the strong-jawed hero.

I don’t know how Absolute Power is going to turn out but its characters have got me hooked already and I’m less than a quarter of the way through. And Mr Baldacci toys with his reader and with conventions very nicely. For instance, the first character we meet at the beginning of the book is a burglar. Often with this kind of set up on page one you know that this character is destined to die by about page twenty-five just to illustrate how ruthless one of the main protagonists is. Not so here, though we do see, through the eyes of said burglar, just how nasty the book’s fictitious President of the United States is.

Gradually, it becomes clear how this burglar is related to others – probably destined to be more major players – in the book. Given that one of these is a lawyer, when the burglar realises that he needs legal advice we suspect that an introduction to his old friend is being set up for us, and that he is going to unburden himself about the Presidential goings-on that he has witnessed. But no, that rug of assumption is pulled out from under us again; the burglar is making his will and goes to see a bottom-end attorney, worlds away from the high-finance corporate law his friend practises.

In fiction, I like it when I’m wrong. It makes me think I’m dealing with somebody cleverer than me, which makes the whole act of reading even more pleasurable than usual.

Good start, Mr Baldacci.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Happy Birthday to the Bassist!

It’s the Bassist’s birthday – sixteen today! To be honest, it feels as if the poor chap’s been sixteen for ages. He is tall and dark with a beautiful baritone voice and feels as much of a man to me as his seventeen-year-old brother does. I suspect that this is because, ever since he was a tiny boy he has run to keep up with his big brother. When they were pre-schoolers, people often took them for twins, despite the 21-month age difference.

I have to say that the twin-mistake was attributable as much to the big-brotherliness of the Ultimate Frisbee Freak as to the Bassist’s precocity. Virtually the first thing I remember the UFF saying about his new little sib was ‘Baby crying! Pick him up, cuddle him, make him happy again!’ And this has been pretty much the attitude ever since. They are inseparable, play in bands together (the UFF on lead guitar, I hope I don’t have to tell you what the Bassist plays), play for Kent Open ultimate frisbee team together and are, generally speaking, lost without each other when one goes away.

So, happy birthday to The Bassist! Thanks for sixteen years of motherly pride. I feel - I’m glad to say - a lot more comfortable today than I did sixteen years ago when I was at the stage of sitting down very gingerly…

By the way, the B was born in a birthing pool, water-births being very much the thing then. He loves a bath to this day!

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Murder by Numbers, Murder by Boredom?

Murder By Numbers. Put it in the DVD player and realised, as the opening pre-credit scenes rolled, that we’d seen it before. Pshah!! I am a twit.

But the fact that I remembered it as soon as it started playing speaks volumes. My memory is so rubbish that I’m often to be heard saying, at the end of a film, ‘haven’t we seen that before?’ The Bassist and the Ultimate Frisbee Freak find it hilarious that neither I nor the Other Half are reliable in our memory of films we’ve seen. For instance:
‘You know that film – the one with Will Ferrell as a racing driver?‘
‘No, never seen it. You must have seen it at Dad’s.’
‘No, we saw it with you.’
‘No, you can’t have done. I’ve never seen a film where Will Ferrell is a racing driver.’
Other half is appealed to by both sides and confirms that the boys are right, we have seen it. But, when the plot is described to me I have no memory – not even a little tiny snippet – of ever having seen this film. When something finally rings the tiniest of tiny bells I ask a question, only to be told, with slightly irritated disbelief, that ‘No, Mum, you’re thinking of Cars!’
Cars is an animated movie. For little children.
Oh dear.

Anyway, Murder by Numbers. The point is that I did remember pretty much everything about this film because it was so good. I’ll confess now that I will watch anything with Sandra Bullock in it because I think she’s brilliant. And yes, that does include the Miss Congeniality films. But only once.

The main thrust of Murder by Numbers is that two bored, intelligent but amoral teenagers commit The Perfect Murder. It is then Sandra Bullock’s job as homicide detective to nab them for it.

But the underlying psychology of this is never explored. Why do they do it? Yes, they’re bored and it’s a challenge, but that’s not enough surely?
Is it really just as simple as that old saying ‘The Devil makes work for idle hands to do’? The boys are portrayed as having indulgent but emotionally uninvolved parents. So, blame the parents?
Does that mean that the Bassist and the Ultimate Frisbee Freak be inclined to go round offing people if they weren’t busy respectively trying to learn everything that Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers has ever done and attempting to get in to the GB Junior UF team? (This latter ambition currently sees the UFF getting up at 6.30 every morning to go for a run. If I did that my body would go on strike. But he’s young I suppose… And a morning person by nature.)

I somehow can’t imagine them being so bored and unchallenged that they would take to plotting perfect crimes. But what do I know?
I’m only their mother.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Johnny Depp in Secret Window

Novels hardly ever translate well into films. But short stories seem ideally suited to reinterpretation on the big screen. Stephen King’s Secret Window, Secret Garden which was filmed as Secret Window is a case in point.

Mort Rainey is a writer whose life is beginning to let him down. His marriage has failed and his writing is blocked. And now, as if those things weren’t making him miserable enough, a man calling himself John Shooter appears, accusing Mort of plagiarism.

It soon becomes clear that Mr Shooter is not all he seems; threats begin to mount and murders start to happen. Mort becomes more and more troubled and manages to do less and less writing. Instead he sleeps. And sleeps.

As a psychological thriller, Secret Window is good. As a psychological exploration of the disintegration of a creative mind, it is excellent. I won’t spoil your fun by telling you what happens but you can watch this film in the full expectation of twists, turns and a satisfying ending.

But I think I must go back and read the original story because I’m slightly confused as to what exactly it is which unhinges Mort. Is it the breakdown of his marriage? Is it the fact that he has previously been guilty of plagiarism? Or is there something else going on? I didn’t feel I knew at the end of the film. Can anybody who’s read the story tell me whether it’s any clearer from the original?

While we’re still on the subject, Secret Window reminded me slightly of King’s novel The Dark Half in which writer Thad Beaumone is taken over by one of his own characters; or is it the anatomical remnant of his prenatally dead twin which lives inside him? Obviously, the ‘dark half’ of the title is a metaphor for the way in which all writers, at some time or another, feel that they are beholden to some force beyond their control for their books, but it is a very darkly interesting twist on that metaphor.

I’ ve never read Stephen King before because I’d pigeonholed him as a ‘horror’ writer, largely due to the way he is marketed. I think this does him a great disservice. He is actually a very accomplished writer of psychological thrillers - why aren't his books ever described as such?

Sunday, 11 November 2007

My new friend Stphen King

I have a couple of writing friends who are both keen Stephen King fans and one of them recently lent me On Writing after I had mentioned reading about it here.
I’m not a great one for ‘how to’ books, generally. I tend to find that if I try to do things the way somebody else does, it doesn’t work for me. That’s not to say ‘how to’ books are a bad idea, they just don’t work for me. A bit like ballroom dancing (can’t remember patterns of movement) and opera (in my opinion, the singing holds up the action, but that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother blog).

The friend who leant me On Writing said it was a really good read even if you didn’t listen to the writing advice as it was also a kind of autobiography, so I decided to give it a try. It has become my breakfast reading – the reading I do with the Bassist in front of our light box.

And I’m really enjoying it. I’m not an automatic fan of autobiography but I like the way King has approached his early life.
He tells us early on not to expect a blow-by-blow account as his memory is patchy (I sympathise) and, therefore, we get treated to a series of illuminating windows into bits of the King childhood and youth. It’s as if he’s sitting in the room swapping ‘remember when?’ yarns with a friend – delightful and engaging. And very self-deprecating. He’s particularly good on his own drug and alcohol addiction, making it very clear that he doesn’t want any writerly special pleading.

Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull a finer sensibilty are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim…’

Anybody who can stand up and say I ‘drank because it’s what alkies are wired up to do’ is the kind of honest person I wouldn’t mind sharing dinner with. I feel I would like him if I met him, which means that, as I outlined here, I’m probably going to start badgering my King-obsessed friends to lend me whole arms’-worth of his writing.

One of yesterday’s films – Secret Window – turns out to have been based on a Stephen King story. I’ll tell you what I thought tomorrow.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Crime fiction - why don't I write it?

Just been to Blockbuster (Blockie to us and probably also to you) and come back with three thrillers. OK, I was in that kind of mood, but it is probably the genre we watch most, despite the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and his friends trying to educate us with all his A Level film studies stuff.

In terms of books, I suppose my taste is similar. They say you should write the kind of books you enjoy reading, in which case I should probably be writing crime fiction. A quick look along our bookshelves (and anywhere else books can be crammed in lest they have to be recycled via the local Oxfam bookshop) reveals that at least a third of both my and the Other Half’s reading matter involves murder and mayhem. Well, mostly murder to be honest.

So why have I never written a crime fiction novel?
Well the quick answer is ‘Give me time, I’ve only written four novels altogether!’ The slower answer is that my first attempt was a kind of crime novel, though it was based on theft, not murder. When I sent it to an agent, she was complimentary enough about it but said that she didn’t think that was where my heart was. Hmmm…

Maybe my writing self is a bit like one of my own characters (see yesterday’s blog) my rational, planning self can’t make it do what it doesn’t want to do.

I blogged recently about the like/admire split in my reading matter. Maybe that’s at the heart of all this. I don’t want just to write the kind of book I like, I want to produce something which, if I read it, I would admire as well as like. And, though I admire as well as like Minette Walters (hopefully getting her new book, the Chameleon's Shadow, for my birthday – in expensive hardback!!! – if the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Bassist have got their act together) I think my writing self is quite well aware that I’d never be able to produce anything as good as her books. I mean, have you read Disordered Minds? It’s a tour de force. A literary novel which also happens to have a strong narrative drive.

Want to know what’s on the Blockbuster list of cheapies from tonight? OK.
Amnesia – John Hannah and Jemma Redgrave
Secret Window – Johnny Depp (there doesn’t need to be anybody else, does there?)
Murder by Numbers – Sandra Bullock (ditto)

I’ll let you know whether they were like, admire, or both.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Characters in search of an Author

To return to things that are better not said to an author, started here, I think the second most irritating (apart from questions about money and fame) is ‘do you base your characters on real people?’

This is such a common question that people obviously think it’s sensible but, really, it’s not.

Firstly, if you were any good, people would recognise themselves and be miffed if they weren’t presented as absolute saints. And who wants saints in any book they’re reading – as we’re always told, goodness is very hard to make engaging.

Secondly, it’s almost impossible to know anybody but your nearest and dearest as well as you need to know people you’re writing about. You need to know all sorts of arcane little details about them, even if those details never appear in the book. Who was their first kiss with? What food do they like best? How would they cope on a desert island? Which music would they take and why? If you don’t know them that well, they’ll only ever be cardboard characters, people you’ve put in the book to move the action forward.

So why the very prevalent belief that we all base our characters on people we know? Maybe it’s because readers see similarities between characters in books and individuals they know and therefore assume that they must also be similar to people the author knows.
Or maybe it’s because people who don’t write simply cannot imagine a scenario in which people who have no objective existence would start saying and doing things inside their own head.
But that is what happens!
Characters have a physical and emotional reality which, sometimes, feels more real than that associated with actual, living people. My characters don’t ‘take on’ a life – that would imply that at some stage they were lifeless – they simply spring, fully formed, into my mind. Ta-dah! Here I am! It doesn’t feel as if I’m making them up, or making up things about them (though, to retain any vestige of credibility, I must acknowledge that that must be what actually happens) – my perception is that I spend time finding out what they’re like.

So, far from basing my characters on real people and making them behave accordingly, I let them be who they are and watch what they’ll do. Because, sure as eggs is eggs, if I try and make them do something they didn’t want to do, they’ll only sulk.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Ben Elton and WW1 lit

Yesterday, at book group, the question was inevitbly asked – have you read Birdsong? Everyone had but me.
It’s the whole First World War thing – I’ve found it all horribly emotional ever since I became a bit obsessed with Wilfred Owen in my mid-teens.
Now, I can’t bear to go near literature about the Great War. I feel as if I did all my outraged grieving for it in my adolescence and I don’t really want to go back.

And yet…
I read Ben Elton’s book set in the 1914-1918 horror, The First Casualty and enjoyed it very much. Admired it and liked it, even. I remember being struck by the way he managed to convey the horrors (and it felt as if he’d really done his research in this one, from the pips on the generals’ shoulders to the privates’ conerns as to where their next decent opportunity for a crap was going to occur) in a way which managed to leave you at one remove from the action and didn’t twist your guts or your heartstrings.
Maybe it’s because The First Casualty is more a detective story than a first world war story and the central character – a conscientious objector - ends up in France almost by accident. Truth, as I’m sure everybody out there knows, is supposed to be the first casualty of war. In Elton’s book, the truth is that somebody has used the carnage of war to kill somebody on their own side. Except, clearly, not quite on their side enough.

Some people (clearly not the millions who make him a best seller) are very sniffy about Ben Elton’s books. As if, just because he had a successful career as a stand-up comedian and actor, he couldn’t possibly be a good novelist as well.
But why not? It’s all writing, all communication with the audience and I would imagine that you learn pretty quickly how to pitch your material to your audience when you’re standing in front of a couple of hundred drunken students, or belligerent men in northern working men’s clubs. No point being precious and sticking to your clever modish, avant-garde material in those circumstances. The sort of death you’d die, theatrically speaking, would be one you couldn’t possibly resurrect a career from.

What Ben Elton is good at, it seems to me, is understanding how people see certain kinds of situation - the First World War (The First Casualty), being infertile (Inconceivable), being stalked (Blast from the Past) – and portraying it in a way which subverts all the emotional assumptions we make about it. Inconceivable, for instance, far from being a heart-breaking misery memoir of infertility is hilarious and made a great film, without ever betraying its subject.

Reading Human Traces which has its very own little slice of WW1, and being challenged about Birdsong, made me wonder whether I should overcome my adolescent hang-overs and have a little foray into First World War lit.
But refreshing my memory on The First Casualty and realising how much of the Elton oeuvre I have yet to read, looks set to send me on a much more fun journey. With my birthday coming up and the inevitable book tokens, I think there may be a run on Monsieur Elton in my local Waterstone’s.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

A novel of big ideas

There are books you like and books you admire. Occasionally, if you’re lucky, they are the same book. Far more usually, they aren’t.
For the last ten days I’ve been reading Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks. It wouldn’t have been my choice – it’s a book group read – but I am glad I’ve read it. Not one of the rare ‘both like and admire’ ones but definitely an admire.

Why not like too? It’s a book of ideas and - for me at least - big ideas rarely sit entirely happily in a novel. The novels I enjoy are about people, their emotions and the actions which provoke those emotions. In my ideal novel, ideas are there but are used sparingly.
In Human Traces, they’re present in industrial quantities.
Actually, having said that, it’s not the number of ideas which is huge but the page space given to those ideas.

In no particular order, some of the main ideas are:

What are we to make of the human condition in the post-Darwinian era? Are we animals biologically driven, or has our evolution raised us up to a sphere where biology is no longer destiny?

In the context of the above, was the First World War a biological inevitability, the human animal just being nasty, brutish and the most selfish bunch of bastards that ever lived? Or was it the result of human-dictated circumstances which could have been avoided had the same humans only been a little more humane?

Is madness the price we pay for being human? Has evolution gifted us with intelligence and language only to exact insanity as the terrible cost of those gifts?

Did our evolutionary path mean that everybody heard voices once upon a time? At this evolutionary stage did we externalise our own moral thoughts and call them God? Are schizophrenics the last human vestige of the evolutionary tendency to hear voices when stress provokes their brain chemistry to action?

Is madness a result of our animal nature – a merely physical disease caused by malfunctions in our neurology, chemistry or endocrinology? Or is it a problem entirely brought about by the use of freewill – ie do we bring madness on ourselves or inflict it on others by the things we choose to do?

These ideas and questions are explored through the lives of two men as they experience the development of psychiatry in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth; Frenchman Jacques Rebiere and Englishman Thomas Midwinter.

Thomas is solidly English middle class, whilst Jacques is the son of a Breton farm steward. Whilst Thomas’s adolescence is spent reading and being odd, Jacques’ is spent doing manual labour and being the sane one whilst his brother Olivier quietly descends into madness.
Both men become doctors, though we do not see the process of Jacques transformation from village savant to medical student, this difficulty being skimmed over by a leap of several years in the narrative.

Life as a medical student in Cambridge (at the dissecting room called, graphically, Meaters) and the Salpetriere hospital in Paris is very well conveyed. I could have done with less of it all and still got the point – about, I think, humans being very definitely composed of animal parts, though transcending them via the mind – but Mr Faulks is nothing if not thorough.

Jacques and Thomas meet on holiday in Deauville when they are sixteen and form a passionate alliance (no, not that kind of passionate alliance) which sustains them both through the rigours of medical training and sees them setting up ‘shop’ together - along with Thomas’s sister who has become Jacques’ wife - in a specialist neurological institute in Carinthia (which is in the mountains around borders of modern Austria, Italy and Slovenia – thank you Google).

Though their lives and loves are beautifully portrayed, though there are excursions to America and Africa, though we see the horrors of the First World War, I was not really emotionally engaged by the activities of Messieurs Rebiere and Midwinter.
Perhaps because I knew how the psychiatric bit of the story would unfold. I used to be married to a psychiatrist and so have a passing acquaintance with the history of the profession.
Perhaps because their emotional lives are strangely dispassionately conveyed. Perhaps because there was too much intellectual cogitation and not enough emotion. Whatever. It was a fascinating book but, for me, not an engaging one.

There were moments where I was touched, though. When Thomas is on a cartographical expedition to Africa (as medical officer and all round good egg) he encounters the footprints of prehistoric humans and realises that he is looking at a family group. The proximity and pattern of the footprints indicate that mother and child were hand in hand. The past may be a different country but maybe they don’t do things so very differently there.

At the book’s end, when Thomas is looking back on a life in psychiatry and concluding that he has done no good whatsoever as a doctor, his former patient and friend, Daisy, tells him not to be so silly. He has touched her life and that of her friend Mary and made them unbelievably better. ‘You gave us a life’ she says. He meant that he had not made any great breakthroughs, he had cured no one of the diseases we now know as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. What Daisy saw was a hugely compassionate man who could not help making a difference just be being there.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s one of the big things to take away from this hugely thought-provoking book. That we may be caught up in the great moments of history, we may aspire to extraordinary things, bend our every sinew to achieving them but that what we are actually remembered for is the acts of human kindness we have done those around us.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Manifesto for life

Yesterday I reviewed Meg Harper’s new book, Piper and I mentioned her blog about the part her mum played in inspiring the book. At the risk of looking like a Meg groupie, today I’m going to quote some stuff she said about her Mum because I was quite struck by it.

These things, Meg says, my mother taught me:

If you think you haven’t got any friends, look round for someone who needs one.

Don’t criticize something if you can’t put something better in its place.

If you don’t understand, ask. It’s amazing how often other people want to ask the same question.

Speak out. Stand up for what you believe in.

It is better to create something than to buy it.

If you work hard for something rather than it falling into your lap, you will value it more.

Sayings which ring with a kind of flinty truth, like a blueprint for a moral life.
Don’t waste your life being self-indulgent, self-obsessed or selfish.
Be honest - more, be truthful.
Effort, craftsmanship, work honestly undertaken, is valuable.

Not a bad manifesto for life. Not least, the writing life.

Monday, 5 November 2007

Not Just a Dystopian Fairy Tale

Piper, my friend Meg Harper’s latest book for children came out last week and I immediately pounced on it in the Waterstone's ‘Recommended New Books’ section and carried it home to promote it to the top of the ‘to be read’ pile. Well, what’s the point of having writerly friends if you can’t show them rank preference in reading chronology?

The book’s central character, Tanith, is very much a child of our troubled times. With parents dead of ‘the sickness’ (a malaise which pervades the book but is never explained, it hovers over the narrative like a symbol of all the sicknesses of our world) she has been brought up by her grandmother. Now, with the old lady dead in their cold little cottage, Tanith is escaping the dubious care of the system by fleeing to ‘the city’. So far so twenty-first century gritty realism.

But wait, there are other layers here. Archetypes are abroad. The Mentor, aka wise old woman, grandmother, may die as the story begins but the moral influence of her goodness - not to mention the horrifying story she tells Tanith - suffuses the story.
Then there’s Tanith herself. She may be fleeing the system but she is also the Hero (in this case, obviously, heroine) on a quest. Not only must she retain her independence and not disappear into the system of drudgery which awaits her if she is captured but she must, somehow, do something with the awful information her grandmother has given her.

As Tanith makes her way under cover of darkness towards the city, we meet the Shapeshifter – the person who cannot readily be understood or trusted. In Piper he is Crow, the beautiful, charismatic boy who seems to be morally good and altruistic but whom Tanith suspects is not what he appears. After all, did he not try, at their first meeting, to steal her dog?

Wulfie, Tanith’s wolfhound, stands for all that is good, pure and loyal in the book. He will die for her if necessary and she goes to great lengths to protect him, even having to make a decision, at one crucial point in the book as to whether she will put his life above human lives.

As tension mounts in Tanith’s quest, we meet the last archetype - the Shadow – the representative of all that is bad in our lives. In Piper, he calls himself The Boss and is, if you like, the ‘villain’ of the book. But to call him that does the book a total disservice because Piper is much darker, richer and more complex than a simple hero/villain tale. There is no sense in this story that if The Boss is vanquished all will be well. This is not Harry Potter’s world where, once Voldemort is defeated, all reverts to sunshine and light. (And, I may point out, I say this as a major HP fan, having read all the books at least twice, four times in the case of the Goblet of Fire.)

The sense of evil in Piper is much more pervasive than anything attached to a single character could ever be. The Boss is a symptom of the moral decay and social collapse in the book. Take him out of the equation and there would still be a thousand more like him. He and his henchmen are not the architects of the awful situation in which the privileged Cratz and the underclass Citz live their disparate lives, they are the ugly, immoral consequences of it.

Because, just as at the heart of the Pied Piper story there is the awful image of a town overrun with rats (and there is a skin-crawlingly realistic passage in the book depicting exactly that) at the heart of Piper there is a world gone horribly wrong. And it is our world. A world where street children are shot like vermin. A world where children who should be in kindergarten work adult hours. A world in which the earth is beginning to refuse to grow things. A world of division where the Cratz sit in their ‘suburban enclaves’ (read gated communities, private hospitals, fee-paying schools, black-windowed 4 x 4s, anything which keeps the privileged out of the grubby reach of the underprivileged) while the Citz eke out their squalid, amoral existence in the gutter, turning on each other in a desperate desire simply to survive.

Piper is many things – a reworking of an old fairy tale, a modern dystopian fantasy, a love story, an elegy for Meg Harper’s late mother amongst others – but it is also very satisfying. Though the battle is won (though in a fashion arrived at only by the moral compromises necessitated by the society in which the characters live) the war rages on and we wonder whether we will see Tanith and Crow again.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Winter, season of mulled wine.

It’s winter. Generally I’m not in favour of it as a season due to the SAD mentioned last week but there are compensations and mulled wine is a major one. We did the first batch today and, sad to relate, it was only a qualified success. We had bought cheap plonk in a box but had neglected to read the fine print – made from grape juice concentrate, 8% alcohol. Hmmm. Not really enough to get you zinging, especially when you consider (as I tell people all the time) that most of the alcohol boils off in the mulling…

But sitting reading the paper and catching up with the blogs I haven’t read over the weekend because we’ve been busy erasing all trace of the builders from house and garden has been pleasant. The house is now springcleaned, shined, beeswaxed and vacuumed to within an inch of its life. You know how, in a certain kind of book, well-looked after houses always smell of beeswax? Well ours does now after the dresser has had its annual going over. The rest of the year it has to survive on the odd cursory wipe and whatever dust is disturbed when we remove things we want to use. From this you can deduce that it’s not a decorative dresser, it’s a functional one and jolly fine it is too. I’m not going to include a picture here because it’ll look like I’m trying to sell it on ebay but suffice it to say that it is about ten feet long and crammed with all of the stuff which there isn’t room for in the kitchen due to my obsessive insistence that we have a table and armchairs in there, thus limiting the number of cupboards we can have.

It’s worth it. working less than ten feet from kettle and tea is a luxury beyond imagining. And it’s not just me who appreciates a comfy chair in the kitchen. Our old ginger cat, Fingal, loves the chair next to the radiator and will sit and stare up at me accusingly if, by mistake, I’ve sat on that one instead of my more ususal one on the other side of the table. She’s on it now, lying all neatly curled up, only opening an eye, if one of us goes past, to make sure we haven’t come to turf her off.

She doesn’t like the winters either, too cold for her old bones, but radiators, like mulled wine, are a definite compensation.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Ideas and where they come from...

There are things that are better not said to an author. Lots of things. Like ‘Will we be seeing it on the bestseller list?’ or ‘Is it going to be made into a film? Any writer will immediately recognise those as two of the first three things anybody says to them as soon as the words ‘I write novels’ leave their mouth.

The third of course, is ‘Where do you get all your ideas from?’

I hate that question. It makes me want to grind my teeth, or possibly the teeth of the person doing the asking.
Naturally, I do not grind anybody’s teeth. I am a nice person. I smile and tell the truth. Which is that you don’t actually need all that many ideas – one really good one per book will amply suffice as everything else is just organic development. Or something like that.

I don’t know about other writers but ideas appear inside my head all the time. The sad truth is that startlingly few of them are worth having.
The occasional one will, however, lodge in my subconscious and accrete bits of stuff to it, like a hermit crab. Chunks of memory, slivers of dialogue, things you remember from some book somewhere… or was it the radio...?
As time goes on, you are aware of something growing, but you ignore it and let it take form in the dark. Then, when it becomes clear that it’s getting quite big, you poke it into the light to see what it looks like. If it turns out to be not too grotesque you let it sidle back into the dark to grow and accrete some more. An indeterminate time later (probably defined by the state of your current book) you go back to it and poke it again and see what kind of thing emerges. Only then do you decide whether it can be tamed and bent to your will or should be consigned to the nether pit where all the stupid ideas for books go. Or should be..

The trouble is, if you describe the process in those terms, people tend to look at you rather nervously and start talking about the weather.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Testament of Lost Youth

I spent most of breakfast time this morning fighting back tears as I read Libby Purves’s article in yesterday’s Times 2 about her late son, Nicholas Heiny. There is a beautiful picture of him on the front of the T2 section, a young man in his early twenties with long, corkscrew-curling hair and a delicate, sensitive face. He committed suicide last year at the age of 23 whilst in the grip of an overwhelming depression.
After his death, Nicholas' family discovered that, throughout his late teens and twenties, Nicholas had written extensively about his life, his thoughts and his feelings. In journals, poems and throwaway writings he revealed a person of mystic romanticism, a soul which saw more than the common in everyday things and happenings. The poems quoted in the article are beautiful and technically accomplished, the writings – paraticularly about sailing on a square-rigger – luminous in their lyricism. But, at the same time, his writings are always grounded in how these experiences impacted on him, personally. And he could be funny too, like the way in which he describes the people whom he saw at the hotel where he was working as a waiter to raise money for his gap year travels. One couple is ‘two half-lobsters dressed in pink’ another is ‘an old, stout poached pear'.

I cried again and again, not specifically at the thought that the world had proved too much for this rare and beautiful soul but at his mother’s enduring love and her commitment to his memory. Also the mother of beautiful young men, I found it almost unbearably poignant to hear his mother defending him, assuring us that though a poem was called ‘Bad Trip’ ‘it should be stressed that drugs wer no part of his life. He was all too aware, after a bad reaction to a prescription medicine, that he belonged to the group who should not take risks with recreational drugs: his mind found wild enough territory already.’ I was reminded very strongly of something his mother had said about herself in her own autobiography ‘Holy Smoke’. I can’t quote it because I can’t remember where my copy of the book is and I need to get this posted, but do read it, it’s a wonderful, unselfconscious read by a woman who is more remarkable than she is prepared to admit.

Nicholas Heiny’s book - The Silence at the Song's End - is being published by those who loved him and who could not bear to pass his writings to those who ‘with an eye on sales might inflict too much intrusion on all of us.’
It is available here.