Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Terry Pratchett: Wintersmith

Tonight is Halloween, a time which is often misunderstood and misinterpreted by the media, and hence by the populace -- but more of that shortly. Halloween is also, in some cultures, the beginning of winter. For those reasons, today seems a suitable day to discuss a book about both witches and winter.

Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith is one of his Discworld series of fantasy novels. Unlike most of the others, this one is technically classified as a Young Adult book. My guess is that the target audience is 13-year-old girls, but I read it happily enough.

You can tell that this book is aimed at a younger audience by the layout of the text, if nothing else. The text is set in 12.5 on 16 pt Meridien, which suits my old eyes just as well as it does the young uns'.

Wintersmith is the third in a series of books dealing with the life and adventures of Tiffany Aching, who is training to be a witch. In the first book Tiffany was 9, then she was 11, and now she's 13; well, almost.

In this book the problem is the Wintersmith. He is an elemental, or one of the many gods of the Discworld, and his job, naturally enough, is to bring winter: frost, snow, and all associated hardship. At one point Tiffany made the mistake of dancing with him, and he kind of fell for her, and now he wants to turn himself into a human so that he can, well, you know, do some kissing and that.

And we go from there. The problem that develops is that, unless Tiffany can somehow solve the Wintersmith problem, winter will descend upon the Discworld for ever, and there will be never be another springtime.

In addition to Tiffany, the novel features a number of characters who have often appeared previously. There's Granny Weatherwax, for example; and Nanny Ogg. Witches both, naturally. Several other witches join in too, such as Miss Treason, who is 113 and is both deaf and blind, but who can use other creatures to act as her ears and eyes.

I was pleased to come across Nanny Ogg's cat Greebo again. Though he turns out to be a terrible cowardy custard; I expected more of Greebo. And I was disappointed that Nanny Ogg didn't sing the Hedgehog Song; though given that this is a book for children/young adults, I suppose that's understandable. (A small prize is offered, by the way, to anyone able to supply the full lyrics of the Hedgehog Song.)

Heavily featured too, as in the first two Tiffany books, are the Nac Mac Feegles, a clan of very small blue men (fairies, actually, but don't try calling them that) who hail from somewhere very similar to Scotland. At any rate they speak in a form of Scots, as if they had been taught English by the cast of Trainspotting. The Nac Mac Feegles are aka the Wee Free Men, which was the title of the first Tiffany Aching book, and as such they are, I regret to say, a huge joke at the expense of various desperately earnest religious groups in Scotland.

Another old Discworld stalwart, who reappears here, is Death; he, of course, is the original hoodie, and the only character in fiction (so far as I am aware) who SPEAKS IN SMALL CAPS. Which Blogger doesn't do very well, but we'll let that pass.

Readers who have read all the Discworld novels won't need to know much more about Wintersmith. And if you haven't read all those Pratchett books yet, it's high time you did. True, they don't appeal to everyone. But if you start with this one I don't think you will go far wrong, and you will probably be inspired to go on from there.

Some further consideration of the book and its contents may, however, be useful to those who are not quite so familiar with the Discworld in general and Tiffany Aching in particular. Let us start with the cover of Wintersmith.

Personally I was put off reading some of the very first Discworld books, because I didn't like the covers, and the Wintersmith UK cover may, I feel, have the same effect. The Americans, I see, have sensibly gone for a different one. My advice: ignore the cover and concentrate on the contents.

There is a patch, somewhere around about pages 300 to 350, where Wintersmith goes a bit woolly, but on the whole this is the work of a master craftsman, and a pleasure to read. Apart from his wonderful imagination, one of Pratchett's great virtues is that he is funny. He is, or began as, a satirist, though he declares on his web site that he doesn't now know what he is. In any event, there is a very good theological joke about Limbo, on page 361, and many others besides. Some of them, I fear, will be well above the heads of teenage readers. But never mind.

There are some wonderfully well written passages, such as the death of Miss Treason. And I particularly enjoyed the description of the Nac Mac Feegles going into the Underworld.

Speaking of which, I suppose it is worth making the fairly obvious point here that this is a totally pagan novel. The Discworld is a parallel universe in which Jesus Christ was never born. And if this book is not banned in Boise, Idaho, and a dozen other similar places, then it can only be because the good citizens of those burghs are not paying attention.

The Discworld is not monotheistic. Far from it. There are many gods, big and small. In this book, for example, we get to meet Anoia, the goddess of Things That Stick in Drawers. The next time you can't get a drawer open, don't just stand there heaving and cursing. Have a quiet word, under your breath, with the goddess Anoia, and politely ask for her help. And then the drawer will open like... well, like magic.

Specifically, this book is about witches. And in the Discworld the witches are precisely what the witches of the past were in the real world. That is to say, they are the midwives and healers, the wise women of the village, the layers-out of the dead, and the arbitrators in disputes. They are the guardians of the accumulated knowledge of the community.

In the real world it was, of course, Christianity which gave the witches a bad name. The priests just couldn't take the competition -- and from women, too! Intolerable. So they accused them of every sort and kind of wickedness and vice, and blamed them for everything that ever went wrong. From time to time, they burnt them at the stake, or drowned them in ponds. They blackened their name in fairy tales.

And so the witches stepped back into the shadows. They never died out, of course. They just adopted a low profile.

Fifty years ago, my mother was going through a period of great personal difficulty, and she was taken to see a witch by a friend. The witch wasn't called that, mind you. She wasn't called anything. She was just an old woman who was known to help people in trouble. But she looked into your palm, and looked into your face, and told you things that you probably knew already, really, but you just hadn't quite been able to face up to them. And she didn't tell you what to do, but she helped you to work out what you needed to decide. And then you left her a small gift, perhaps, and you went away feeling so much better.

In recent years the real-world witches have begun to feel more comfortable about making themselves known, and now they are around in considerable numbers if you care to take the trouble to look for them. A few years ago I did a great deal of research in this area so that I could write a book about a witch myself (under the pen-name Anne Moore). It's still in print, and I will say more about it in a minute. And at one time I even had the telephone number of my local coven, because someone had kindly written it in the back of a library book.

But, for the moment, back to Wintersmith.

All in all, Wintersmith is a marvellous feelgood book for which I am deeply grateful. And somewhere out there, you know, there is a small Discworld god whose job it is to take care of Mr Pratchett, and to protect him from harm. I don't know exactly where this small god has his shrine -- somewhere, I would guess, at the downtown end of Grub Street -- but if you should come across it, do, I entreat you, put a euro or two in his tin, or a flower in his vase, or make whatever tribute seems appropriate. We have to keep this small god happy, otherwise next year will come around, and there will be no new Pratchett book to look forward to. And then where shall we be?

Finally, a few more words about Halloween and my own novel which dealt with pagan matters.

Halloween is also known, in some neopagan circles, as Samhain. It is traditionally the time for remembering the dead, a time when the veil between this world and the other world is thin.

When I came to write Scrooge and the Widow of Pewsey, the novel referred to above, I had Mr Scrooge marry a white witch called Charlotte, a woman who observed all the pagan ceremonies of the year. And on Halloween this is what I described them as doing:

Charlotte regarded Halloween as the festival of the dead, and in Scrooge’s nineteenth year at Tanway she reminded him of this.

‘I want you to remember, Ebenezer,’ she said, ‘that Halloween is the time when the veil between the worlds of life and death stands open, and the dead can return, if they wish, to meet with their family.’

‘But my dear,’ said Scrooge gently, ‘you know that I don’t believe that the dead are anywhere. They are gone from us for ever, dissolved back into the ashes and dust from whence they came.’

‘And yet,’ said Charlotte, ‘on this very night, each year, you always have an extra place laid at dinner. For young Billy.’

Scrooge glanced at the empty chair, and the unused knives and forks. For a moment, the silver seemed to blur in his vision.

‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘But that is just a little conceit of mine. A sop to my sentimental nature.’

Charlotte smiled. ‘Which rather proves my point. If they are nowhere else, Ebenezer, the dead are inside your head. They live on in your memory.’

She rose from the table and prepared to leave. Later the witches' circle would be meeting, and she had things to do. She came round and kissed Scrooge on his cheek.

‘I want you to remember tonight that it will not be long now before you and I join all those who have gone before. And you will live longer, and easier in your mind, if you have made your peace with the past. Let go all ancient hurts and wrongs, real or imaginary. Let them shrivel and crumble like the leaves in the fire.’

When Charlotte had gone out, Scrooge went up to his study. From here he could look out over the avenue of beeches. Tonight, of course, the night was dark, but if he stood close to the window he could just see the outlines of the trees, running away into the distance.

He sat down at his desk and thought about what Charlotte had said. He thought about his father and mother, and his sister; he thought about Marley, and Billy; and many others.

Then he picked up his pen and began to write a letter to his father. He set out all the wrongs which he felt his father had done him, and he listed all those slights and insults and thoughtless troubles which he had given to his father. He weighed them up and balanced them out, and decided that the score was about even. It was, he suggested, time to regard all those matters as closed; finished and done with – best forgotten and cast out into the darkness.

When he had finished the letter, Scrooge read it through.

Yes, he thought, that will do.

Then he placed the letter in an envelope, and took it over to the fire. He placed it on top of a crackling log and held it in place with a poker.

He watched as the paper blackened and twisted. It burnt with a yellow flame, consuming itself, and with it went all Scrooge’s anger about the past.

A little later, he went down into the cellars and prepared a dozen lanterns. Then he loaded them into a wheelbarrow and set off into the darkness.

He pushed the barrow up the avenue of beeches, and beside each tree, left and right, he placed a lantern. There was one for his father, one for his mother, one for his sister, one for Marley, and one for Billy. There were others.

The lanterns in place, he went back inside to his study. There, with a screen in front of the fire to hide its light, he placed a chair before the window.

Now, when he looked out on to the avenue, he could see a remembrance of all those he had known and loved.

Scrooge poured himself a large brandy and sat by the window for a long time. Sometimes the lights below became blurred with his tears, and sometimes they flickered in the wind and struggled to stay alight.

Eventually, they all went out.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Monday miscellany

These notes are not, I fear, in any logical order.

The shared economy

Two and a half years ago, Lawrence Lessig was identified here as a man who was worth reading for ideas about the use and development of the internet. He was already one of the driving forces behind the whole Creative Commons (CC) movement. (If you know nothing about CC then I recommend that you find out soonest.)

On the CC blog, Lessig currently has a piece about what was once called the gift economy, and which he now refers to as the shared economy. This blog (the GOB), for example, is part of the shared economy, and I described it as such in the introduction to the printed book version of the GOB. Whether you regard this blog as any of value or not, it's free -- shared with you for nothing. And in return I certainly get stuff from other bloggers, and other internet sources, such as Wikipedia, which I definitely regard as valuable.

I particularly recommend the Lessig article, and the pieces of his which will follow, to anyone who is involved in creative writing (so called). For example:

This sharing economy is not meant to displace the commercial economy. Its purpose is not to force Madonna to sing for free. Its aim instead is to enable the millions of other people around the world who are also creative, but who want to create in a different kind of community. The editors who make Wikipedia sing are not people who couldn't get a job at Encyclopedia Britannica. They instead create for a different reason, within a very different community of creators.
The shared economy, Lessig adds, is the world of 'amateur' creators -- amateur not in the sense that their work is amateurish, but that they do what they do for the love of what they do, and not for the money. This ties in, some of you may recall, with the ideas expressed towards the end of my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.

Lost Girls have definitely got lost

I was wondering, not so long ago, what had happened to my copy of Lost Girls, and now I have the answer. Several sources (e.g. Galleycat) report that UK publication has been delayed by a copyright claim from Great Ormond Street. The publisher, Top Shelf, is not accepting the claim, but has agreed to delay publication for eighteen months or so.



If you're a writer, and what you really, really want is to be famous, then you're in the wrong business. Consider the case of Peter Morgan. Who? My point exactly.

Peter Morgan is as hot as you can get just now. He wrote the script for The Queen, in which attention has focused mainly on Helen Mirren. Then he wrote the stage hit Frost/Nixon, which is reportedly to go to Broadway. And there was Longford, on Channel 4 last Thursday; and the movie The Last King of Scotland, which opens next January.

But mention Peter Morgan's name in the pub and you'll get some very blank looks. Who's he play for, Aston Villa?

To find out who he really plays for, read Bryan Appleyard's interview with him in the Sunday Times.

Unsolicited unmasked

If you ever followed up the links from here, and took a look at the Unsolicited side of Gawker, you may wish to know that the author of Unsolicited has been unmasked. Or whatever. Galleycat again has the details.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor

Last Friday's Times carried excerpts from King's Counsellor: Abdication and War: The Diaries of Sir Alan Lascelles. Edited by Duff Hart-Davis, the diaries are to be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on October 30 at £25.

The story we have here is the regrettably familiar one, of a nasty selfish little man (the then Prince of Wales, soon to be King Edward VIII, and subsequently the Duke of Windsor), and his even nastier beloved, Mrs Simpson, eventually Duchess of Windsor. But there are one or two new wrinkles on this horrible old tale.

Winston Churchill was largely a supporter of the Prince/King, but years later he was asked whether he had ever been prepared to accept Mrs Simpson as his queen. Winston, after a slight pause, replied: 'Never for one moment did I contemplate such a dreadful possibility.'

Winston, of course, was big pals with Max Beaverbrook, the Canadian newspaper owner who had settled in the UK. Winston and Max both decided early in the Abdication crisis that Cutie, as they called Mrs S, must be persuaded to leave the UK immediately. She was encouraged to do so by bricks being thrown through her window and by the threat of personal violence. 'Max,' said Winston with a chuckle, 'arranged all that.' And Max, when asked about his part, said that he thought it was all great fun.

Dirty tricks, it seems, were not unknown even in the 1930s.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor both feature heavily in my thriller Beautiful Lady, published under the pen-name Patrick Read. I did a lot of research for that book, and nothing that I learnt about that unholy pair left me with any sympathy for either of them.

The Rap Sheet

The Rap Sheet is a blog dedicated principally to crime, and it has a number of eminent suspects as contributors. Definitely the place to go if crime is your thing.

Does the body lie?

Regular readers may recall that a while back I reviewed Daniel Scott Buck's The Greatest Show on Earth, a novel which featured a self-obsessed wannabe who discovered that claiming that your parents had abused you as a child was a quick way to get public attention on TV.

Now Daniel tells me of an example of a book by the high priestess of the repressed-memory-of-child-abuse syndrome. The Times Literary Supplement reviews The Body Never Lies by Alice Miller, and systematically takes it apart, revealing its shortcomings in precise scholarly detail.

Miller, it seems, has had a long career as a psychologist, in the course of which she has become immensely famous and popular. Wikipedia provides a handy summary of her life, including rather more detail of her background and education than is available on her own web site.

On the latter site, for instance, I was interested to know what kind of a university would award a PhD in philosophy, psychology, and sociology, and it turns out to be Basel in 1953. Awarding a PhD in such a broad spread of subjects would not, I assure you, have been the practice in any British university at that time. In fact, apart from the Politics, Philosophy and Economics degree at Oxford, I doubt whether many first degrees attempted to cover such a wide field.

The TLS tells us that, in the 1980s, an earlier book of Miller's became 'one of the bibles of the parent-blaming, recovered-memory culture of victimization. Are you fat, do you have headaches, do you have intestinal difficulties, are you unmotivated, do you smoke too much? Has it taken you nearly half a century to get out your paintbrushes? Poor child, you were not loved enough; you were too gifted and unappreciated. You can't remember being abused? Your body does.'

And so forth.

Needless to say, the online review in the TLS has been greeted by a commenter thus: 'Seems to me the critic is in serious denial. Makes me wonder what her own personal demons and issues are.'

These are murky waters, Watson. You dive into them at your peril.

More misery

By the way, if you are at all interested in the Kathy O'Beirne child-abuse saga, you might like to look at the comments on my post of 20 September 2006, where a number of readers, deeply affected by reading the book, have recently expressed their faith in her.

And yet more misery; with knobs on

Then there's WanderingScribe, who was referred to here on 12 May 2006. This particular scribe, you may recall, was allegedly homeless, and was blogging about it, but not all the commenters on my post, and elsewhere, were convinced that she was genuine. There was further discussion of WanderingScribe's book deal with HarperCollins on 27 June.

Now a correspondent (thanks to Natasha Wilson) alerts me to the fact that Anya Peters's forthcoming book is listed on a HarperCollins UK web site. And here we learn all sorts of fascinating things. E.g.:

  • Anya Peters's blog gets 11,000 readers a week.
  • Her book is to be called Abandoned, and a major publicity campaign will target Abandoned at the 'extensive inspirational memoir market'. (So that's what it's called. Officially. Unofficially these things are known as misery memoirs.)
  • In her childhood, Anya was verbally and sexually abused for years (see the link to the Advanced Information Sheet).
  • Abandoned will also be supported with 'an extensive marketing campaign including key title in Closer magazine book club advertorial, online awareness driving initiatives (eg: using Anya's blog) to generate strong word of mouth hype and targeting the numerous homeless charities and the Big Issue magazine to promote, market and distribute the book.' (Doncha just love that 'strong word of mouth hype'?)
And -- this one is the real killer -- the HarperCollins web site has the gall to tell us that this book is 'written with Andrew Crofts, the ghostwriter who crafted three No. 1 bestselling memoirs, including Just a Boy and Little Prisoner.' Number one bestsellers? On whose list, I wonder? Evidence, anyone?

So, just because I'm awkward like that, I did a search of WanderingScribe's blog for mention of Andrew Crofts. I did it two ways.

First, because WanderingScribe is, like the GOB, a Blogger blog, I searched using the Blogger search tool (top left on this and every other Blogger blog). I searched for "Andrew Crofts". Result: nothing. Nada. Nul points.

Then I did a more sophisticated search, using a method which was kindly described to me by Dave Lull some months ago. You go to the main Google page, type in the search term you want (again I used "Andrew Crofts"), and then add site:name of blog. In this case, of course, I used site:wanderingscribe.blogspot.com. Result: again zero.

Anya Peters, it seems, prefers us to think that she is doing all the work on her book herself. Take for example, these entries on her blog:

October 21: Just checking in to say hello and to let everyone know I am still here and well and scribbling away furiously.

August 26: ...I am determined to throw myself back into the writing of this book. Mostly so that I get it out of me and finished and can be over and done with it one last time. It's not easy writing about things you don't even usually want to remember, not easy at all.

August 17: ...the writing is tough going -- as I should have known it would be -- but hopefully I am tougher; and this won't last forever.

As for Andrew Crofts, he has been around for ever, and is very well known as a ghost writer. He has his own web site, and he's actually written a book about ghosting (2004). And compare what Anya says, about all her hard work, with Andrew's description of his typical working method, on this occasion in relation to his book about the 'child-bride' Zana Muhsen: 'To get her story on tape Zana and I spent three days together in a hotel suite in Birmingham and I then spent between two and three months writing.'

Finally, just for fun, I searched Google for "andrew crofts" and "anya peters" together. This yields three results: an Amazon page which is clearly irrelevant, the HarperCollins page already referred to, and a post on the Wanderingego blog. This latter was set up by an anonymous someone who -- and this is really hard to credit, I know -- began to doubt that Anya Peters was quite what she appeared to be. Let's call this someone The Doubter.

And The Doubter, my dears, has done a lot more research on the veracity and reliability of Anya Peters than I have. In an October 24 post, The Doubter has also picked up the news that Anya has a ghost. And on October 22, The Doubter revealed that Wikipedia have been taking a close interest in the WanderingScribe entry, and m'learned friends have been involved. All in all, The Doubter's research makes interesting reading.

And you thought I was cynical.

Mind you, there's some way to go yet. The HC publication date is 8 May 2007. One just can't wait, can one?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Entertaining Angels

I think it is fair to say that theatre struggles to survive in England today. But there are still, despite all the difficulties, a handful of big (c. 1,000-seater) theatres in some of the larger towns and cities: for example, Bath, Guildford, York, Brighton, and so forth.

These theatres survive by taking in touring productions of plays which are either already well known, or are judged to be on their way to the West End. Judged, that is, by their publicists, if not by anyone else.

Stand at the back of the stalls in any of these theatres, on an average night, and you are faced with an ocean of grey hair; plus some bald heads. The average age of this audience is about sixty. It is middle class to the core.

In other words, there is a certain well defined type of theatre audience which can cough up £20 or £25 a ticket without too much complaint. And it is an audience with fairly well defined tastes. It quite likes funny, and familiar, and eccentric. It can do serious once in a while: Shakespeare and so forth. It can even do foreign. But it is not at all keen on the shocking, the challenging, and the downright disgusting. Faced with such, the interval will be used as a departure point.

Bear all this in mind, if you kindly will, in the discussion of Richard Everett's (relatively) new play Entertaining Angels, which Mrs GOB and I saw at the Theatre Royal, Bath, yesterevening.

The play stars Penelope Keith, who is yet another Michael Barrymore-type name: i.e. huge in the UK but largely unknown elsewhere. Keith made her name in a TV sitcom, The Good Life, some thirty years ago. Then she was in another TV success, To the Manor Born. In both these she played an archetypal upper-class English lady, eccentric but loveable with it. Yes, Penelope Keith is a pretty good actress when she wants to be; but she made her name playing a certain kind of character, something not too far, one suspects, from her own real-life persona, and she has gone on playing that character ever since.

It is absolutely no surprise, therefore, that in Entertaining Angels Penelope Keith plays the 60-ish widow of a Church of England clergyman. She lives in (but, being widowed, is soon to move out of) a Georgian vicarage in some bucolic English village of the kind which barely exists any longer, at least outside the media.

The play is about the Keith character's adjustment to widowhood. She has a daughter, and a sister, and she talks to the ghost of her dead husband. Also hovering are the new Vicar (a woman! Intolerable!) and her husband.

This being the kind of play it is, there are Revelations. And Reconciliations. And Resolution. There is humour (Keith is good at spiky but funny), and there are tears. And quite a lot of talk about God and the Meaning of Life.

It is all absolutely tailor-made for Penelope Keith and her audience. The latter have come to see Keith do her star thing, and she does her star thing, and everyone is happy.

Except, of course, me. I found it all quite exceptionally tedious.

Now there is no reason at all why you should care about that. I hardly care myself, since it is yesterday's entertainment, and I hope for better next week. But there might, just conceivably, be something to be learnt from this situation/experience which is relevant to the art of writing -- an art about which I have been known to pontificate from time to time.

I am no enemy, as countless posts on this blog testify, to commercial anything: commercial fiction, TV, films, music, you name it. But there is, in my view, commercial and commercial. If the commercial becomes too blatant, too ruthless in its approach, then it becomes exploitation, and I do not care to be exploited. I do not care, either, to have my emotions manipulated in thoroughly unsubtle manners. And, on the whole, I prefer to read and see things which have at least some claim to freshness and originality.

The problem with Entertaining Angels, at least as far as I was concerned, was that, apart from a few references to mobile phones and the like, it could have been written in 1934 by Terence Rattigan. Nobody actually came on and said Anyone for tennis? But they could have done. And the audience would have continued to sit there, grinning inanely.

No, no. It was all just a little too obvious for me.

The TRB web site claims that this production is touring 'Prior to West End'. This is a common claim, designed to impress the punters with the idea that they are going to see a quality product. But I really find it very difficult to believe that anyone would have the steely nerve which would be required to expose this stuff to a West End audience -- not to mention critics. I really do.

The set, however, was pretty good. Designed by the experienced Paul Farnsworth, it provided a convincing backdrop to some far from convincing drama.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Book thief gets medal

Well goodness me. Or words to that effect.

At breakfast this morning, I very nearly spilt me coffee, not only over the Times but also on to a nice clean tablecoth. And that, I can assure you, would have been seriously bad news. I still have some way to go to overcome the bad feeling generated (months ago) by the incident of the red wine and the crisp white bed sheets. (They were our best sheets; and brand new; and it doesn't come out.)

But let us return to the Times. If you were here in August, you may recall that Clive Keeble, an independent bookseller with remarkable levels of energy and optimism, succeeded in unmasking a book thief of considerable proportions. Manchester Central Library had lost more than 400 valuable antiquarian books (estimated value £250,000) before an American bookdealer asked Clive's advice about buying some of them on eBay; whereupon Clive spent a whole day doing Inspector Knacker's work for him, and at the end of that time was able to give Knacker the name, address, and no doubt inside-leg measurement of the offender. The story, complete with a copy of Clive's statement to the Manchester police, was reported here on 1 August.

The book thief turned out to be one Norman Buckley, employed as a librarian by the Manchester city council. On 25 August we noted that Buckley was due to be sentenced that day. But then he wasn't. And now he has been.

And here's the bit from today's Times that made me cough and splutter. Mr Buckley, says the Times, walked free.

The court was told that Mr Buckley turned to theft after becoming depressed when his girlfriend left him for another man. They'd been together nine years. And it was Christmas time, too. Enough to make any chap start nicking things, as I am sure you will agree.

So the motive for the thefts was not financial at all. Goodnesss me no. (True, he had, halfheartedly, sold a few books for £11,000, but mostly he just liked to have them.)

No, the true motive for the thefts was quite different. And very human. Mr Buckley's lawyer, a perfectly lovely girl called Denise Fitzpatrick -- a lady who possesses, it seems, a smile which can melt the heart of the stoniest Judge -- told the court that stealing the books provided Buckley with an 'emotional release from the turmoil he found himself in', and that he was now 'filled with remorse'.

Result: the Judge sentenced Buckley to 65 weeks in prison, suspended for two years. What this means is that he doesn't go to prison at all. The sentence is only activated if he commits another offence within two years. Oh, and he also has to join Boy George in doing 250 hours of community service.

Thus is justice served in the England of today.

Personally I would have sentenced Buckley to the bastinado at best; and, if my ulcer had been playing up after that breakfast kipper, I would probably have had him burnt at the stake. But then I am a mediaevalist at heart, and quite out of place in the modern world.

There is no sign, by the way, that Buckley has lost his job with the Manchester library service. In all probability he has not only kept it but been given a promotion. And, of course, he will be offered counselling; from the public purse. He deserves nothing less.

Perhaps his girlfriend will come back in time for this Christmas. Who knows. If only for the sake of good order among the bookshelves of Manchester Central Library, one must earnestly hope so.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Tuesday stuff

Big money elsewhere

I was saying last week that the idea of there being big money in books is more illusory than real, and here's a reminder.

Jonathan Ross -- a strictly UK-famous media person -- recently negotiated an £18 million contract with the BBC. And he isn't worth it, says Anita Land, a leading show-business and media agent.

Anita gets a bit of a spread in the Times. But there is, reportedly, more provocative stuff along the same lines in Shooting Stars: A Collection of Essays, Rants and Musings on Talent and TV . I'd like to give you a link to that book, which the Times says is published by UKTV, but I find it absolutely untraceable -- at any rate within the time that I'm prepared to devote to it.

Ghosting is the life for me

Back in June, I wrote a piece pointing out the many advantages of being a ghostwriter -- always provided you have the skills required. And now the Scotsman proves the point, with some success stories and details of the income earned. (Link from booktrade.info.)

Does Amazon need books?

The Sunday Times -- in an article about booming online sales in the UK -- quotes Brian McBride, managing director of Amazon.co.uk, to the effect that the market in watches and jewellery is worth $50 billion (£26.5 billion) in America, which is twice the size of the book market. And now Amazon.co.uk have started to sell watches.

True talent will out

John Banville won the Booker prize last year with a novel called The Sea. I've never even seen a copy, much less read it, but it was, I think it is fair to say, widely regarded as a rather dull read. Even one reviewer who liked it was forced to admit that 'Critics, from the established media and the blogosphere alike, seemed united in their distaste for this novel, deeming it unworthy (and in some cases unreadable) for the UK's most prestigious literary award.' The Amazon reader reviews were also far from totally enthusiastic.

When asked what he would spend the Booker money on, Banville replied, 'Good work and strong drink.' Well, it appears he's done the former.

It's not a secret that John Banville is the writer behind the Benjamin Black pseudonym, and under that name Banville has written a crime novel called Christine Falls. According to Marcel Berlins in last Saturday's Times, this 'succeeds sensationally'. The online link to the review doesn't seem to work, so you'll just have to take my word for it. But the publisher tells you quite a lot about the book, with a link to some other reviews.

A present for a very blokey sort of bloke

It's well known that many men have a taste for mechanical things, cars, cameras, and all like that. So here's news of a suitable Christmas present for one such bloke. It's a bit pricey, but if he's special, why not? If he isn't special, the usual two bottles of beer will have to do.

The Quantuck Lane Press, founded by an ex-W.W. Norton man, has just published American Genius, which is a generously illustrated book about nineteenth-century bank locks and time locks. And, what's more, if you live within reach of New York, you can visit an associated exhibition at the gallery of the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen.

The asking price, in the UK, is £55, which is a bit steep, but you could always haggle with your friendly neighbourhood independent bookseller. Mention the Amazon price (£36.30) and see if he will compromise. If he doesn't actually come at you with a knife, you might strike lucky. Position yourself between him and the door before you start, though.

Half term

This is half-term week in a lot of the UK, and I may be absent tomorrow, dealing with number-one grandson.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Barrymore revisited

Michael Barrymore is described by his publisher as 'one of Britain's favourite entertainers'. Well, he certainly was, once. In the early 1990s he could pull in a Saturday night TV audience of 13 million. Which in the UK is close to a quarter of the population.

Barrymore's career ran into trouble in the mid 1990s, with drug problems, and later when he finally admitted that, despite being married for many years, he was really gay. That was survivable, but then a young man called Stuart Lubbock died in mysterious circumstances during a party at Barrymore's home, and that totally closed things down.

On 2 October this year, Barrymore published a new autobiography. It's entitled Awight Now: Setting the Record Straight, and I think we can reasonably say that the new book is an attempt to revive public interest in Barrymore as an entertainer.

Well, I can't say that the attempt has been wildly successful, so far. The new book doesn't appear in the Times's list of the top 50 sellers for the week ending 14 October, and Google reveals relatively little by way of press coverage. It has not been serialised anywhere.

There's quite a good interview in the Scotsman, which explains Barrymore's problems rather clearly. It also provides some useful information about the autopsy on Stuart Lubbock.

But the real stunner, in journalistic terms, is the interview in the Observer, with Chrissy Iley, who found the book 'riveting'. She had to go to Bahrein to get this interview, but it is, I promise you, is a first-class piece of journalism. No great revelations, but classic stuff.

Chrissy gives a graphic description of how the media sharks tore Barrymore to pieces. Let us not forget, of course, that the death of a young man is a matter to be taken very seriously. But even so, there is something profoundly unattractive, and not a little worrying, about the way in which Barrymore was publicly tried, as if for murder, and found guilty.

The truth is, the press loved him because he could sell papers. The murkier the business got, or could be made, the more they liked it. Now, however -- well, Barrymore seems to be history, at least as far as the tabloids are concerned. Though he is going to star in a Bill Kenwright stage production of Scrooge, later this year.

And what, you may be wondering, of that other book. We noted here, back in August, that Stuart Lubbock's father was putting out a book entitled Not Awight, Getting Away with Murder: Uncovering How Stuart Lubbock Was Killed at Michael Barrymore's Home.

According to the Telegraph, Mr Lubbock turned up at a Barrymore book signing a couple of weeks ago, and made a few unflattering comments before being moved on by security staff. And according to Mr Lubbock's local paper, his book is going to be serialised in the Daily Mail. What in fact happened, I think, is that the Mail just gave prominence to the book-signing incident. In fact, given that they know so much about it, they may have had advance warning. The Mail doesn't like Barrymore. Their columnist Lynda Lee Potter once said that she would rather stick pins in her eyes than watch him on TV again.

Finally, you might like to look at an extremely interesting post on the blog of Mark Simpson. This gives a further fascinating insight into the mores of the UK's popular press.

Mark reveals that, when Barrymore suddenly proved to be a bit more popular on Celebrity Big Brother than the tabloids had expected, the Sun dropped the 'Barrymore is an anal-rapist murderer' line and 'revealed' the results of a 'special investigation'.

This special investigation, so called, drew upon material contained in an article written three years earlier by Mark Simpson. And how had Mark obtained his information? He had got much of it via 'the fiendishly clever stratagem of simply reading the transcripts of the public inquest into Lubbock's death. The same inquest at which all the major newspapers - including the Sun - had staff reporters.'

If there is one thing that I admire in life, and which gives me pleasure, it is professionalism. I like to see someone do a job well, whatever it is. Michael Barrymore the performer was never my cup of tea, but that he was (and presumably still is) a polished, skilled professional is surely beyond doubt. And ditto some of the journalists who have written about him, and who have been mentioned above.

Well, there you go. I had intended this Barrymore thing to be a two-minute piece. But, as is often the case, it turns out that it took most of the morning.

Friday, October 20, 2006

John Baker: Poet in the Gutter

I'm not sure now how and why I came to be reading John Baker's Poet in the Gutter. But I expect it was because someone had recommended John's Sam Turner private-eye novels, and I decided to start with the first one in the series: of which there are six so far, Poet in the Gutter having come out in 1995.

Well, yes, I can see why the series was recommended. John Baker is an Englishman, born in 1942, and he's knocked around a bit, in the usual (well, often usual for a writer) series of peculiar jobs: social worker, milkman, IT person, et cetera. This sort of thing tends to be useful if you ever write private-eye books.

Poet in the Gutter is set in York, and before long our hero (Sam Turner) resorts to Betty's tea-rooms, thus proving that he is a man of excellent taste (though I prefer the one in Harrogate myself). He gets a job keeping an eye on a man's wife, which is what tends to happen in private-eye books. Actually it's his first job as a private eye, because he hadn't really quite got started until someone asked him what he did and he kind of made it up. And from there Sam picks up various assistants and helpers and finds himself running a business. Of sorts.

This novel is not really a whodunit, because we are pretty clear whodunit from early on. But it's engrossing, none the less. There were one or two points where I thought the book was going to get unrealistically sentimental, but then the author drags us back to reality before it's too late.

Overall, entertaining crime fiction. John Baker has attracted loads of favourable reviews, and his publisher, Orion, seem to think highly of him, because the books have all been issued with standard covers.

John runs a highly professional web site, with masses of information about himself, the books, and a few other things besides. He also provides info on the Murder Squad, which is a group of crime writers, based in the north of England, who have gathered together for the mutual plugging and exploitation of their books. Actually they look like a gang who would more cheerfully commit murder than write about it.

John Baker also has a very well established blog, by the way. This too has a professional appearance and lots of worthwhile content. You might compare, for instance, John Baker's thoughts on the public executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, with my own.

So far as I am aware, there is no sign yet that Sam Turner is going to transfer to the TV screen. That thought came to mind because ITV have just started broadcasting the second series of Vincent, a private-eye drama set in Manchester. And Vincent, so far as I am aware, doesn't have any literary antecedents.

Odd that, isn't it? I often wonder how these decisions get made: no, we won't use a set of novels as the basis for our drama, we'll make it all up from scratch instead; cheaper.

Probably it's all random and it would be foolish to lie awake at night pondering these things. A bit like wondering why Mr Bush decided to go into Iraq.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Thursday thoughts

The great American novel Part II

Void magazine has been considering follow-ups to some of the most famous American novels. You might be amused.

At home with Miss Vanesa

The Tindal Street Press is holding a launch for At Home with Miss Vanesa, by E.A. 'Archie' Markham. This book is a collection of Caribbean tales with 'a saucy French twist'.

Actually there are two launches. The London launch is on Friday 20 October, from 6.30 p.m. in the Gallery on the 2nd floor of Foyles bookshop, 113-119 Charing Cross Road. Anyone can go.

The Birmingham launch is on 23 October at Island House, Eastside, Birmingham City Centre. Details from 0121 773 8157 or info@tindalstreet.co.uk.

Thoroughly grumpy

Oh dear, dear me. You may have thought that I was occasionally less than enchanted with the book trade, but I am a warm-hearted ray of sunshine as compared with some.

Take, for instance, Mark Farley, aka Bookseller to the Stars. On Wednesday 11 October he was seriously unimpressed with the Booker Prize, and said so at some length. And a couple of days earlier he was muttering darkly, in a most unrestrained manner, about the use of contacts in getting your book published. Whatever next? And professionals love him (irony) -- see what anonymous editors and agents have to say in the right-hand panel.

One thing I did learn from this blog is that Victoria Hislop is the wife of Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye. How could I have missed knowing that? Victoria's The Island was heavily featured on Richard & Judy's TV show, and rose rapidly to the number one slot on the bestseller charts. It's not a common name, so how come I didn't link up Victoria and Ian? Am I really slow-witted, or what? That's a rhetorical question, by the way. And the proper answer is no, I'm not slow-witted. Just very, very naive.

Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie

The Bookplate Junkie remains just as hooked as ever, but I have recommended The Priory.

Ergo Press

The Ergo Press is an independent publishing house based in rural Northumberland. It was established in January 2006 by Julia and Alan Grint to produce books of fine quality and originality. One can only salute such reckless courage. Makes the average VC look easy.

Latest publication is An Alphabet of Alluring Words, which looks to me as if it might make a good Christmas present for the texters in your family. It's got pictures too.

Charles Clark

Today's Times carries an obituary of publisher Charles Clark. He was chiefly famous, in later years, as the author of the standard UK text book on publishing contracts. Entitled Publishing Agreements, it is now in its sixth edition, though I bought a copy of the fourth edition of 1993.

Clark's book has long been the bible on the legal side of UK publishing. Yet I once found, to my dismay, that when I mentioned the book, casually, to a leading UK literary agent, she had never heard of it. Though doubtless her solicitor had. One hopes.

Waving the magic wand

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal published on article discussing the 'big books' of the early autumn, and why some of them were bought by the public in big numbers and some of them weren't. This link to the article may work (via Galleycat), or then again it may not. The WSJ often requires you to sign in, and frankly I wouldn't bother.

If you do get to read it, however, the WSJ piece constitutes a useful guide to the 'winner-takes-all' mentality, and phenomenon, in modern publishing. Both Jeb Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder and Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale received huge advances for the author and were granted massive publicity budgets. But the latter took off and the former didn't. Why?

The guy who published the Rubenfeld (relative) flop (John Sterling) says that book publishing remains a roll of the dice. 'I still marvel that despite everything we do, we just don't know,' he says.

Now here's the interesting bit. On M.J. Rose's Buzz, Balls & Hype, there are two discussions of this article. One by guest blogger Jason Pinter (Between the covers, 17 October), and one by M.J. herself (Bad news to die for, 16 October).

In her own take on the matter, M.J. takes issue with John Sterling.

And here’s the killer quote from John Sterling, who published the book: “Mr. Sterling says he agrees that book publishing, for all its planning, remains a roll of the dice. "I still marvel that despite everything we do, we just don't know," he says. "It's the wonderful thing and the agonizing thing about the business."

Readers of this column know how I feel about quotes like this. The industry doesn’t know because it doesn’t spend the money to find out. Sure there will always be some dice throwing involved. But there are a lot of sophisticated methods of marketing that would help the powers who be make smarter, more educated decisions.

For one thing, did you see the ads for The Interpretation of Murder? They were fine. But fine doesn’t cut it. They need to be innovative. You don’t need to market test the book – but market test the ads. See if they will pull or not.

Guesswork as a marketing plan. There's got to be a better solution.

Now, I agree with a lot of that. But the killer quote in the M.J. bit is this: 'The industry doesn’t know because it doesn’t spend the money to find out.'

I think that's the answer, or part of it. The plain fact is, there isn't any money in publishing. Not trade publishing anyway. Wannabe writers and occasional book buyers are dazzled by press reports of the 'huge' sums which are (or so it is claimed) paid to authors. But experienced businessmen who have taken a hard look at trade publishing usually end up weeping tears of laughter.

Book publishing has been described by such men as a barely viable business, with unattractive cash-flow characteristics. It's some years since I worked up the comparisons, but the last time I did, UK trade publishing was about the same size as the market in men's aftershaves or bagged salad. In commercial terms, it's a piddling little business. In many publishing houses the average salary is hardly higher than the starting salary for UK graduates in their first job.

Yes, I dare say there is a lot of marketing ignorance in publishing houses. (That's the result of an almost complete absence of training.) But even if they wanted to do some serious marketing research, my guess is that there just isn't the cash.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lucilla Andrews

Regular readers may recall that, in August, Mrs GOB and I attended a lunch in Edinburgh. The lunch was given by the UK Romantic Novelists' Association, and its purpose was to honour the lifetime achievements of three senior members of the Association: Lucilla Andrews, Rosamunde Pilcher, and Mary Stewart.

Lucilla Andrews was unable to attend the lunch because she was in hospital, and now, sadly, she has died, at the age of 86.

Jenny Haddon, Chairman of the RNA, has sent me a link to an fascinating obituary of Lucilla in the Guardian. It is written by Julia Langdon, a long-standing friend of Lucilla's daughter, Victoria Crichton, who predeceased her mother.

Lucilla Andrews was the leading exponent of the 'hospital romance', a genre which is at best sniggered at but which has provided vast numbers of readers with a great deal of harmless pleasure and interest, often at difficult times in their own lives. And for my part I regard that as an achievement to be proud of.

The hospital background was provided largely by Lucilla's World War II experience as a nurse at St Thomas's Hospital, London, during the Blitz. This she also described in her autobiographical memoir, No Time for Romance. I learn from the Guardian obituary that No time for Romance was the primary source for the background of Ian McEwan's literary novel Atonement, and was declared as such in his acknowledgements. (Atonement was shortlisted for the Booker.)

I must say that Julia Langdon's obituary is an inspiring read, and I commend it to you. There is no sign that Lucilla was the complaining sort, but her life was far from smooth. She was sent to a boarding school at the age of three, and her own married life was a long way short of romantic expectation. But despite it all she carved out a career for herself as a writer. In addition to her memoir she published 35 novels and an academic biography of a Roman Catholic theologian, Monsignor Ronald Knox.

It was certainly a life worthy of recognition, and I know that the members of the RNA are pleased that they were able to honour Lucilla Andrews formally while she was still alive.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Ian R. MacLeod: The Summer Isles

Ian R. MacLeod's The Summer Isles is as fine a novel as I've read for a long time. But I hesitate to recommend it unreservedly. In order to enjoy it, the reader needs, I think, a certain background; what you might even call a set of qualifications. But first, some background on the book.

The author has his own web site, fortunately, and it's an unusually informative one. From his biography, for instance, you will learn that Ian R. MacLeod (despite his Scottish name) is an Englishman; he married a solicitor, and was thus able to become a full-time house-husband and writer. You will also learn -- a cautionary tale -- that prior to that break with work, the strain of trying to be both a writer and a civil servant brought him to the edge of a breakdown.

MacLeod writes chiefly in the science-fiction cum fantasy genre, and since 1990 he has won a number of of awards: these occupy a whole page on his web site, but include Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards.

The Summer Isles is a piece of alternative history. Which is the correct term for it, and one that MacLeod uses himself (at least part of the time), though the publisher speaks of 'alternate history'. For a discussion of this alternate/alternative terminology, see my post of 11 November 2004.

An alternative history is a novel or short story which supposes that, at a certain point in time past, the world took a slightly different path from that which we know from our history books. (For a discussion of the history of such 'counterfactuals', 'uchronias' or 'what-ifs', see SF If You Like This.)

In The Summer Isles, the essential proposition is that England lost the First World War. It was England, therefore, rather than Germany, which had large parts of its Empire confiscated, suffered runaway inflation in the twenties, and which saw the rise to power, in the 1930s, of a fascist dictator by the name of John Arthur. (King Edward VIII, you may be relieved to hear, remains on the throne; together with Queen Wallis, which may not be quite such good news.)

The story covers the period from 1914 to 1940, and it is narrated in the first person by a man who once knew John Arthur. And it is this man who decides, now that he is dying, that the world will be a better place with John Arthur dead.

And now perhaps will be a good time to mention the background that a reader should ideally have if he is to find this book enjoyable.

First, I think it is essential that the reader should know a great deal about European history in the first half of the twentieth century. Within that context, he should be familiar with the course of English history.

Second, the reader needs to be at least sympathetic towards homosexual men. Our narrator is gay (queer would have been the term then), and the book is, at least in part, the story of a lifelong passion. There is no direct description of man-on-man activity (beyond a passing reference), but if all things homosexual offend you, then this is not for you.

The publisher (of whom more shortly) is American, and the Library of Congress cataloguing data, in the preliminary pages, classifies the book as: 1. Gay men - fiction; 2. Closeted gays - fiction; 3. National Socialism - fiction; 4. Great Britain - fiction. The emphasis is, I think, misplaced. Four to one might usefully be reversed.

Since the narrator is a teacher cum academic, an acquaintance with Oxford University will come in useful to the reader. In this alternative history, Oxford has fallen into the hands of second-rate pseudo-academics, of whom our hero is one, and knows it. Most intellectuals, it seems, have been dismissed or have disappeared.

The novel moves at a leisurely pace, and in patches might even be thought dull. But for the most part it is quite exceptionally well written without being self-consciously stylish or arty. Geoffrey Brook, the narrator, is 65 in 1940, and he has been told he has terminal lung cancer. This causes him to review his own history over the 1914-1940 period, and to make certain decisions about what to do with his life in the short time that remains. In the course of the book, we discover, unsurprisingly, given what we know of dictators, that John Arthur is not quite what he appears to be.

The Summer Isles is published by the Aio Publishing Company in the United States. This is a small company, in terms of its output, but it operates to high standards in design. The Summer Isles is far more attractive to look at and handle than any book that I've seen published in England for decades. I might have wished for slightly shorter lines and a slightly bigger font, and the proof-reading is not perfect; but overall, a design worthy of congratulation.

The book seems to have been published in a limited edition of 500 copies, each one signed by the author. Mine is numbered 492. According to MacLeod's web site, the Aio edition is for sale in the USA only, so I bought mine from Wrigley Cross Books, who are clearly a pair of quietly deranged booksellers who manage to make a living (one hopes) out of obscure enthusiasms.

The Summer Isles has been garlanded with honours. But you won't be surprised to hear that MacLeod had trouble getting it into print. Writers, he says, 'must learn to exist in lands of confusion.'

Monday, October 16, 2006

Morning assembly

Gather round, children. And all you Muslims can take your veils off. Especially you, Abdul.

W.H. Smith

Oh woe, and again I say woe. Various news reports say that W.H. Smith, the UK's leading bookseller -- give or take a bit -- saw a rise in annual profits but a fall in sales. Book sales were down 5%.

Kate Swann, the boss lady, for whom my regard rises (admittedly from a lowish base), says that spending on books remains subdued. Christmas will be hard this year -- employees will be forced to dine on supermarket chicken rather than turkey. (Links from booktrade.info.)

Publishers Lunch says that UK bookselling still looks grim.

Hot type

Nicolas Clee's Hot Type column in the Saturday Times is usually good for an entertaining snippet or two, and this week was no exception.

First, be glad you're not German. Translations from English into German normally add, it seems, one third to the length of a book. So Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games (crime fiction, it is said), which is 900 pages in English, becomes a total of 1350 in German, and is to be issued in two volumes.

Then there's the question of big advances. Agent Andre Wylie, known as The Jackal on account of his charm and co-operative manner, claims that he once sold a book for $2 million and the editor 'entirely abandoned' it. Presumably just got bored. And who can blame him? Lots of $2 million books have the same effect on me.

Cowboy Kate

In the 1960s there was a famous book called Cowboy Kate. It was a collection of photographs, mainly young ladies, dressed -- in so far as they were dressed at all -- as cowboys. And it should have been right up my street, because I was interested in photography in general and decorative young ladies in particular. But I just couldn't warm to it: it was pretentious, in my view, and the girls weren't even particularly attractive. And my personal opinion was that the photography was very run of the mill. An early example of hype, I thought, though I'd never heard the word then.

Even in 1965, however, there was for some reason a lot of weight behind the book, and it was hailed as original, exciting, groundbreaking, and all like that. This publicity drive was so successful that the 1965 edition of Cowboy Kate is currently selling on abebooks for about £175 to £850.

But now we have a new edition of Cowboy Kate, labelled the 'director's cut'. Issued by Rizzoli in the USA, in the current month, its list price is $45. The publisher again refers to it as a 'groundbreaking publication', though quite what that means I am not sure. Reminds me of digging graves somehow. Haskins is also said to have 'reinvented the genre of the nude', which is pure drivel.

What is happening here, you see, is that various parties, for their own good reasons, are trying to drive up the price of Haskins's work. The giveaway is the name of Philippe Garner as author of the foreword.

Philippe is a director of Christie's, and whenever you see his name associated with an artist, photographer, or trend, you know that Christie's have decided, or sensed, that this is to be The Next Big Thing, thus driving up prices in the saleroom and increasing Christie's commission.

Some twenty or more years ago, Philippe Garner was host to the single most paralysingly alcoholic lunch that I have ever attended. I was taken to it by Charles Robertson (of Robertson's jam), who was a wealthy collector in his own right, and a man with excellent taste. He was also Chairman of the Trustees of the Holburne Museum in Bath, and we were there to discuss possible co-operation between the two bodies. I don't recall that anything much ever resulted: apart from an afternoon spent drinking black coffee.

Amanda Craig on the new Peter Pan

In J.M. Barrie's will, he left the copyright of his famous story Peter Pan to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. Not surprisingly, the Hospital is seeking ways to generate the maximum income from this gift before the copyright expires, and one recent project was the commissioning of a sequel to the original Barrie book.

Geraldine McCaughrean was the winner of a competition involving 200 writers, and got to produce an official sequel, just published, called Peter Pan in Scarlet. Amanda Craig has reviewed it in the Saturday Times.

Amanda says the Barrie's original tale struck her as 'terrifying', which is exactly the word that I scribbled in the back of my copy when I re-read it a few years ago.

The McCaughrean book doesn't get a full five stars in the Times, but enough to convince me that I ought to read it. After all, as mentioned here before, I myself once wrote a prequel to Peter Pan (by agreement with the Hospital). It was in the form of a stage play, and it featured Captain Hook. Producers keen to make me offers for the rights should form an orderly queue outside my door.

Science fiction wins Nobel Prize

Good grief! Can this be true? A man who wrote science fiction (plus other work) won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Martin Rundkvist has the story. OK, so it was SF in the form of a poem (103 cantos), but even so.

Entartete Musik

On Saturday night to the Ustinov Theatre, in Bath, to see Entartete Musik, written and directed by Jude Alderson (a woman, it turns out). Entartete means degenerate, and it's what Hitler called all radical music, cabaret songs, jazz, and so forth.

The show consists mainly of Berlin cabaret songs from the time of the Weimar Republic, 1919-1933. Interweaved are a few snapshots of what life was like in Germany at the time, particularly for the Jews.

This particular show was performed by three attractive and talented young women, plus a ditto pianist, and it has been around for a while so doubtless will continue to tour. Very much worth seeing.

I couldn't help pondering, as I watched this performance, on parallels between the Jews in 1930s Germany and the Muslims in today's England. In the 1930s, were there, I wondered, any mad rabbis going around encouraging young men to kill, maim, and generally attack the people of the country in which they lived? Not so far as I know. And yet look what happened to the Jews.

Compare that with some of the Muslim mouth-frothing that goes on here today. (We will allow, for the sake of argument, that this comes from a tiny minority of Muslims; though the allowance is open to question*.) And yet what do the English do? A few outraged articles appear in the Daily Mail, and, er... well, that's about it. Can this situation last for ever, I ask myself.

But not for very long, because this blog does not do politics and religion.

*See Madame Arcati's note on Rupert Murdoch's take on this issue.

Sue Townsend returns

Sue Townsend has another book out soon. You can read about it in the Sunday Times. She has returned, this time, to dealing with the Royal family, who were the subject of an earlier novel and stage play entitled The Queen and I.

The new book (Queen Camilla) is a sequel to the earlier work, which had the Royal family kicked out of Buck House and reduced to living on a council estate. They're still there, but now Camilla is among them.

The Conservative party intends to restore the monarchy, but the Queen herself can't face it. So she sends Charles a letter.

Dearest Charles,

At 9.30 this morning I abdicated my position as Queen of Britain, the Commonwealth etc. etc. etc.

PS It's wheelie bin day today.

PPS Give my love to Queen Camilla.

Well it all sounds like fun, doesn't it?

The news about Sue Townsend's diabetes is not good. It is now robbing her, at age 60, of her balance, kidney function, and, of course, eyesight. Moral: if you're able to breathe and walk around, stop complaining. As my grandmother used to say, there's always somebody worse off than yourself.

The shape of things to come

The Sunday Times also contains a cracking good article by Bryan Appleyard about how the book trade in general, and bookselling in particular, are going to change over the next few years.

Appleyard is a very distinguished journalist (three times feature writer of the year). He is also the author of a number of books.

His current ST piece is entitled 'A novel use of technology', and it is a lucid account of the impact which print-on-demand technology will shortly have on the huge high-street bookshops, and on publishing in general.

There is, in truth, not much that is new here -- at least if you've been paying attention. Unfortunately, many people in the book trade are not paying attention. Proof? Well, anecdote. Back in 2001, when Jason Epstein's Book Business came out, it said all the things that Appleyard is now saying. I bought and read the book immediately, and whenever I bumped into a book-trade participant that year (and I bumped into quite a few) I asked them if they had read it. I never met anyone who had.

Interestingly, Appleyard's prophecies exactly mirror some of my own (and mine aren't original either), even down to the suggestion that many bookshops will soon shrink 'roughly to the size of a branch of Snappy Snaps.' Only the other day I was asked by another blogger for my favourite prediction. Here is part of what I said:

My prediction is that, within ten years, and probably a lot less, many of us will be buying our books from a new kind of bookshop. This 'bookshop' will be small - very similar to a one-hour photo shop - and it will not hold stock. Instead, it will print out books from a digital file, and these books will be indistinguishable from the factory-made paperbacks of today. Instead of being printed in a run of, say, 10,000 copies, these books will be printed one at a time, as and when a customer in a particular shop wants a copy.
I'm not suggesting, of course, that Appleyard got his ideas from me (though he does list the GOB as one of the blogs to read to keep up with things). We probably both picked up most of our ideas from Epstein and similar sources. What I am saying is that, both to Appleyard and to me, all of this seems perfectly obvious. But we might be wrong, I suppose.

(See also my note about Jason Epstein on 5 October.)

Archer blogs

Jeffrey Archer has a blog. Yes, I do realise that you don't wish to know that, but I thought you ought to be told. For the good of your soul. You have Bryan Appleyard to thank for the info.

The Archer blog looks suspiciously literate to me, for a man who is rumoured to be crap at spelling and punctuation. Perhaps he dictates it to his secretary.

Gangsters' wives?

Ali Karim, of Shots magazine, tells me that he has heard a rumour that the No Exit Press is going to publish a novel called Gangsters Wives. This will be written by 'a very well known British crime writer', but will be published under a pseudonym. It is apparently a full-on erotic gangster novel.

Hmm. Presumably this will be some sort of spoof on the UK down-market hit TV series, Footballers' Wives. Plus a dash of Readers' Wives. But so far Amazon haven't heard of it, which means -- last I heard -- that it isn't on the Nielsen Bookdata database. And it isn't on the No Exit web site either.

If the story is true, we can all start to play the game of whodunit. My candidate is Maxim Jakubowski. Although, come to think of it, he probably wouldn't bother with a pseudonym; unless it was for contractual reasons.

More fact and fiction

David Lodge discusses an another reason for not using living people in your novel (or TV play, film, et cetera). It is, he says, an unacceptable invasion of privacy. Story in today's Times. It's OK if they're dead, though.

Friday, October 13, 2006

An alarming discovery

This week I made an alarming discovery. It came about as follows:

From time to time I have been known to write a short story. Once, and only once, I sat down at the keyboard, with nothing more in my head than a first line, and I wrote a short story in one session. I made it all up as I went along, characters, plot, the lot.

Usually, however, I am a careful planner. Perhaps over-careful. Sometimes you can lose spontaneity that way.

Anyway, about three years ago, at least, I found myself with an idea for a short story about a woman aged around sixty, confined to a wheelchair, who tells a visitor how, years earlier, she had murdered a man with a shotgun, and got away with it.

Quite how and why I ever had this idea I shall never know. It is clear evidence, you may think, of a disturbed mind, doubtless the result of some traumatic (and long-repressed) incident in childhood.

But there it was: the kernel of an idea in my mind. The narrator/murderer even had a name: Clarrie.

Time passed, and I would think about this story occasionally, while shaving, or driving from A to B. And after a while Clarrie turned into a man, by name of Lucius. Lucius would not be confined to a wheelchair, but he would be crippled, as a result of being born with a club foot. And Lucius would also murder somebody with a shotgun, and get away with it.

Further time passed, until, in the early summer of this year, I decided that it was high time I got on with writing the damn thing. So I did some structural work on the story, as distinct from just letting it ferment at the back of my mind. And it became, for better or worse, a fairly major project, in the sense that it required some serious thinking.

Anyone who commits a murder had better have a credible motive. So I worked on the motive. And then I thought, well, yes, this is all very well, but just describing how one man kills another isn't very interesting; in fact it's rather sordid. So what can we introduce by way of twists, or surprises, ironies, misunderstandings, and so forth.

About a month ago, I began to actually write the story. I had imagined that it would run to 5,000 words or so. But by the time I'd finished it, it was over twice that length. This was made necessary, I thought, by the need to provide the leading characters with enough backstory to make what they did not only credible but justifiable.

At last it was finished. It had turned out to be much more of an effort than I had ever imagined, so I was glad to get it out of the way.

While writing this short story, and even before I wrote it, it had occurred to me that, since the story was related in the first person, it could easily become a one-man play for the stage. Now you know, and I know even better than you, that the likelihood of such a one-man play ever being produced is very low indeed. Nevertheless, it was worth, I thought, preparing a version in script form, and seeing if I could find an actor aged 60 or so who might be willing to do it at, say, Edinburgh.

So I sat down to do the stage version. Wouldn't take long, I thought.

The first problem was that, at 10,500 words or so, the story was too long for a one-man play. I wanted it to be about 7,000 words, so that it would run for perhaps 50 minutes on stage. (These calculations are, by the way, preliminary; don't take them as infallible.)

So I set to work to trim the story by about one third.

Now I had imagined, as I wrote the short-story version, that it had swollen to 10,500 words simply because it was necessary to introduce lots of backstory in order to make the characters' actions convincing. But what I found, when I started to trim, was that there was masses of fat in the damn thing. It was prolix; repetitious. It was, to my dismay, flabby.

OK, to some extent I could justify this by the fact that the story is told in the first person. And a man who tells a story to a friend may well repeat himself occasionally, digress a bit here and there, go forward and backwards in time in a slightly disorganised manner. So, some of this repetition and vagueness was understandable and legitimate. But much of it was... well, unintended.

At which point I gave a deep sigh.

Here I am, with more than fifty years of experience in writing fiction behind me. I must have written, what, two million words of it? I have also devoted thousands of hours to studying the art of fiction. And this is the result? A story, which, when examined closely, turns out to be flabby.

And so my alarming discovery of the week is this: as the years go by, writing doesn't get any easier. Or, by the look of it, any better.

I find this rather depressing.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Thursday digest

Blogger was being awkward again today....

More Booker

Further to yesterday's post: I advise all readers of the ensuing discussion of the winning book, in every newspaper, magazine and blog in the known universe, to bear in mind the wise words of the founder of the prize. People love the Booker, he declared, 'because it is so unfair.'

Meanwhile, Publishers Lunch highlights some words of wisdom from Richard Charkin, the bossman at Macmillan:

I should have known that this particular title would win when, earlier in the evening, I was asked whether Macmillan was committed to publishing literary books. I asked what is meant by a literary book. Apparently it is a work of fiction which loses money. It seemed rather an odd definition and I tried to argue that publishing companies tend to do a better job when they are solvent. In addition I'm not quite sure why literary publishing should deserve more support than, say, educational publishing in Zimbabwe.... But I should not want to leave future publishers at Macmillan with an inheritance of loss whatever the definition of literature.
Belated thanks

It was, of course, Clive Keeble who alerted me to the Susan Hill point about Cheltenham, mentioned on Tuesday.


Published.com is 'a free directory of writers and artists'. You can offer your stuff to the world, and see what the world has to offer you. Not a lot there as yet, but the art books section suggests that Lulu is now being used to publish, in ebook form, some material which would never be economic in the print world. (Link from Nadine Laman.)

Gender rivalry

Petrona took exception to David Montgomery's list of the ten 'best' detective novels because the authors were all male. So she's started to collect her own list of women writers.

Stephen King again

Stephen King is not my favourite author, but by golly he works hard. His new book is apparently somewhat different from the usual recipe, and he has some interesting things to say to the New York Times, not least in reference to critics who 'made their ignorance of their own popular culture a virtue.' (Link from Merisi, who blogs [visually] from Vienna.)

Stephen King by the way, is coming to England. And he doesn't do that very often. There is to be (I am told) an 'exclusive event', presented by The Times, Hodder & Stoughton and Waterstone's. It will take place at Battersea park Events Arena on November 7th at 7.00pm. Tickets cost £15.00 each. Book yours now: 08708 303 488. Or not, according to taste.

Tonto Press blog

Tonto Press is a relatively new UK-based small press, and the two guys in charge have started a blog which relates how they deal with some of the problems. In their most recent post they deal with the knotty question of how to sell books. (And you thought writing them was the difficult part.)

Not so smart

In recent days I have twice mentioned that writing a novel based directly on personal experience is not such a smart move. It is much more dangerous, from a legal point of view, than is generally realised, especially by writers who are new to the fiction business. Now here's a case which rather proves my point.

Joyce Dudley, in real life, is a Santa Barbara prosecutor, and she recently self-published (through Infinity) her second crime novel, Intoxicating Agent. This features a heroine who is also a female prosecutor and 'has the poise and sexiness of a dancer, the brains of a scholar', and so forth. Said fictional prosecutor takes on a case in which a seriously nasty piece of work is accused of raping an intoxicated victim.

Sadly, one of Ms Dudley's real-life defendants argued that this fictional case was far too much like his own. And the California Court of Appeal agreed. Ms Dudley has been barred from prosecuting the real-life case because of a disabling conflict of interest. (Story in the Times.)

Meanwhile, Galleycat reveals that the too-close-to-reality syndrome is not confined to younger writers. Joyce Carol Oates, author of more novels than you can easily count, published a new short story this year, and now wishes that it wasn't quite so closely related to a real-life incident.

'If I had to do it all over again, I certainly would have changed some details,' she says. And Galleycat thinks that this does 'speak to the larger question of how much fact is appropriate in fiction.'

Make it all up, is what I say. Every damned word.

Ansible 231

Dave Langford's monthly newsletter, Ansible, is out again. This deals mainly with science fiction, but you really don't need to be an SF fan to find it amusing. Thog's Masterclass, for example, constitutes a monthly warning to writers of all kinds that it is all too easy to put your foot in your mouth. So to speak.


Before offering anything to Aultbea, be sure to check my post of 18 July 2006 to see if there are any relevant comments.


Albert Ellis is a name I first became aware of back in the early 1960s. In those days, there were a mass of men's magazines in the US, aimed mainly I suspect at the college boys' market. They featured intelligent articles and some pretty good short stories, plus lots of pictures of young women without any clothes on. Since there was absolutely no UK equivalent at the time, any unsold copies of the print-run were shipped to the UK, where they found an eager readership.

Anyway, Albert Ellis used to write for some of those magazines. He was trained as a psychologist and psychoanalyst, and Wikipedia now refers to him as a cognital behavioral therapist. He was, incidentally, unsuccessful in early attempts to write fiction.

Now a correspondent rightly reminds me that anyone interested in emotions would do well to take a look at Ellis's work. The Wikipedia article has a useful list of his publications.

Bomb bunkers

Speaking of the bomb, which we were recently, both in relation to the weather and North Korea, bookseller Steerforth gives us an extremely interesting tour of a cold-war nuclear bunker. This would, he said, have been the home of the British government in the event of nuclear conflict. And he wonders if something similar was built elsewhere.

Well, that's quite certain. Within ten miles of my home there is a pretty well documented network of tunnels, bunkers, and so forth. There are bunker spotters just as there are train spotters. A few years ago the Monkton Farleigh bunker was open to the public, and it was an extraordinary place.

These places were never all that much of a secret, even when they were supposed to be.


Ephemera are bits of old paper, booklets, catalogues, and so forth. People collect them, buy and sell them, swap them, and so forth. And there is, needless to say, a blog about it.

Ain't it awful

Philip F. Harris writes to say that he has commented on the unhappy state of publishing -- unhappy from a tyro writer's point of view, that is -- in the American Chronicle. 'Everyone seems to agree with my message,' he says, 'but no one knows what to do.'

Pass, as they say on quiz shows here in England.

Philip himself, however, does not seem to be too discouraged. Having co-authored a novel called Waking God (a natural, one might think, for the Da Vinci hard-core fans), he is about to publish A Maine Christmas Carol.

Lonely as a cloud

Poor old Paul Burrell. He who authored a book which, in the States, was sold without a title, author, or any details, as the big smash hit (allegedly) of the autumn season, was at a book signing in Waterstone's, Glasgow, and five people turned up. Clive Keeble spotted the story in the Sun, which is famous for its excellent book coverage -- always provided you can get past page 3.

The book, by the way, proved to be a rehash of the Princess Diana story.

The editor's revenge

Publishers Lunch has one or twice pointed to the Unsolicited page of Gawker, and it's certainly worth a look. On October 4, for example, we had an editor sounding off about authors, which certainly makes a change from the constant stream of vice versa. Sample: 'With a few glowing exceptions, authors are the craziest, meanest, strangest, cluelessest people you've ever met.'

This week, October 11, we appear at first sight to be back to the same old same old, i.e. writers complaining bitterly about editors who are too stupid to recognise their genius. But it ain't quite like that. It's an editor again, one with an almost saintly degree of patience.

More free stuff

From time to time, even in 2004, and again in 2005 and 2006, this blog has pointed to a handful of eccentrics who take the view that giving stuff away free on the web is good business and helps to sell books. Now there is an addition to the tiny number of publishers who hold the same view.

From the end of October, the Friday Project will be making its entire back catalogue available online for free. There isn't a lot about it on their web site yet, but they put out a press release to that effect on 5 October. The Friday Project site also provides a route to Scott Pack's 'uncensored' blog about the state of UK publishing.

The current Friday Project plug is Blood, Sweat and Tea, Tom Reynolds's book about life in the London ambulance service. And this one already is available for free in pdf format. Furthermore, you can copy it, send it to friends, or do almost any other damn thing with it for non-commercial purposes.

More than 10,000 pdf copies of the book were downloaded in the first two weeks. As for the print version, Scott Pack says that the initial print run of 20,000 is almost sold out, and they have another 15,000 on order.


Popular art

If you are interested in popular fiction, you might, perhaps, be interested in popular art. If so, the Photogold gallery offers lots of info -- not to mention prints et cetera -- on Jack Vettriano and Beryl Cook.

Nobel news

Orhan Pamuk has won the Nobel prize for Literature, but Martin Rundkvist isn't any too impressed by the procedure for selecting the winner.


A new web site aimed at hard-core book readers has just opened for business. Called Shelfari, it seems to be designed for those like to chat online about what they've read, pick up tips on suitable books for reading groups, et cetera.

Book Standard blog

The Book Standard has launched a blog which will concentrate on book-related video content, including book trailers, author interviews and so forth. And they even give some space to those who are sceptical about videos for promoting books. Such heresy. Though I must say that one or two of those on offer do give one pause.

The Riot Lit blog

The Riot Lit lot have also started a blog. Since there are quite a few of them it is not likely to be short of material. Jeremy Robert Johnson, I see, has offered to marry Poddy Girl, aka Girl on Demand. And Daniel Scott Buck writes about getting his book reviewed by bloggers. I was the first, it seems, and Poddy Girl was keen on it too.

As I have been known to say, all you can do is put it out there and see what happens. And they won't find it, in my opinion, unless it's free to begin with.