writing

Writing is rewriting, some evidence

Instead of doing NaNoWriMo this year (and I bet you’re all glad you’ve been spared the wordcount updates) I decided to edit the novel I was partway through this time last year. Except, as we all know, editing isn’t as much fun as writing. You don’t get the feelgood factor of watching the wordcount build, ticking off the chapter list in your outline or moving closer to that crucial scene. What you do get is self-doubt, the dispiriting task of deleting the only bit of dialogue you were completely happy with (but you’ve changed the plot and it no longer makes sense), and the dreadful feeling of finishing the session with fewer pages than you started out with. Keep going like that and you’ll have nothing left, right? And everyone else manages to get it pretty much spot on first time, right?

Well, just to cheer us up Eddie Robson has written a fabulously useful article on the BBC Writersroom blog, about the various drafts his script for Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully went through before it was recorded (as I write this, there’s a few episodes available on the iplayer – it’s a sitcom about an alien observation of a small village as they try to decide whether to invade. It’s got Peter Davison in). Not only is there an explanation of how he went from one draft to the next, but they’re all available to download so you can study the differences. He also points out all the problems with the scripts as the drafts progress, which is encouraging to say the least – this reminded me of David Almond’s comment at the Ilkley Literature Festival last month that finished books are an illusion to make you think the author has a perfect mind (read my review of his visit here).

Obviously I was in no way procrastinating by reading all of this stuff. The fact that I haven’t done as much editing as planned is just my usual lack of organisation.

Proustian cassettes and former glory

Some people never liked the audio cassette, but I was (and still am) disproportionately fond of them. Wondering what was on an unlabelled one this morning, and assuming it belonged to OneMonkey (I am an obsessive labeller. I bet you never could have guessed that) a wave of memories crashed in as it turned out to be the final programme in the 2007 edition of BBC7’s listener-written sci-fi chain-story (Picture This), plus the accompanying interview with Robert Shearman who wrote the first and last episodes. Steph May, author of alternative ending 2, got a mention in the interview but sadly I didn’t – never mind, you can still read my alternative ending on the archived BBC webpage.

As I listened I was transported right back to the kitchen (2 houses ago) with the cassette player and DAB radio next to each other on the table so I could tape it for posterity. Not long after that I got this package through the post, containing the whole thing on one of those new-fangled CDs, and my excitement levels reached danger-point. I think it was the fact that this was from the BBC – blame Douglas Adams for that feeling, I guess (among other things).

Doctor Who CD, Chain Gang Picture This CD, BBC compliments slipThe next unlabelled tape did turn out to belong to OneMonkey, and the whole of side 2 was snippets of Tommy Vance’s Radio 1 Rock Show, probably from around the start of 1993 (Bruce had announced he was leaving Maiden at the end of the tour, and Tommy Vance hadn’t yet defected to Virgin 1215 – these are the things I measure the passage of time by). A few years before I even met OneMonkey, and yet it brought back such vivid memories because I’d been listening too, in a different county. This is what I love about cassettes; even when it’s an album I’d taped off vinyl to listen to on the move, I can often still remember what I was doing at the time, and the ones with bad editing and the odd word from Mark Goodier or Bruno Brookes just add to that scene-setting. Don’t expect me to get rid of my tape shelves any time soon.

Nova Swing by M John Harrison

cover of Nova Swing by M John HarrisonAward-winning SF noir novel from 2006, the resolution (or lack thereof) perhaps unworthy of the set-up, but worth reading if it’s one of your sub-genres of choice.

Vic Serotonin is a tour guide, leading wealthy tourists to the unstable edges of Saudade, where reality isn’t as real as it could be and no-one knows what you might find. In between clients he hangs out at Liv Hula’s bar with Fat Antoyne, who only wants a chance to fit in. Together they watch the cats stream past twice a day, and the ships taking off and landing in the city, largely minding their own business. Sure, Vic smuggles the odd artefact out of the event site for collectors and the mildly eccentric Detective Aschemann keeps half an eye on him, but it’s not such a big deal. Until it is, and Vic really finds out who his friends aren’t.

With any kind of noir it’s the details that make it, and when you’re weaving some sci-fi world-building in, doubly so. The details in Nova Swing really make it work. There’s a musical theme which I liked, as well (playing it, listening to it, watching performers in bars).

Nova Swing is described as the sequel to Harrison’s earlier novel Light, which I haven’t read but I understand it to be set in the same place with completely different main characters. I didn’t feel like there was a gaping hole in my understanding as a consequence, it just felt like I’d been dropped into a complete world where life went on before I started observing the place, and will continue (after a fashion) after I’ve gone. That should be the case with any well-written fiction, anyway.

I didn’t feel completely satisfied by the time I closed the back cover, one too many loose ends perhaps. Nevertheless I’d enjoyed my time in Saudade and I was left with a dreamy feeling of enlightenment being just beyond the grasp of my sluggish brain. If you don’t mind having some questions remain unanswered as long as you’ve absorbed the atmosphere of the place during the investigation, then this might be just the SF noir for you.

A love affair with libraries

Libraries are in the news a lot lately, rarely for the right reasons, though the Liverpool branches reprieve this week was a moment for celebration. Belatedly (though not too late, I hope) the Great British Public are remembering why they love libraries so much, and telling anyone who’ll listen. BBC 6Music (my station of choice, at least in rooms where Planet Rock reception is bad) are in the middle of a fortnight of library celebration, not all to do with borrowing albums. The Guardian are promoting the love letters to libraries campaign from Book Week Scotland. Regular visitors will recall that I’m quite fond of libraries, often have to be dragged away from them (this morning, for instance) or overload myself with books. Thus, while I’m not about to write a love letter as such (far too uptightly English for that) I will share some of my library experiences, in the hope that some of you out there might share back.

In the dim past that was the 1980s I vaguely remember a basement children’s library. I remember wooden cubes full of large-format books you could flick through, and my dad’s legs towering above me in corduroy. I remember Big Brother in the record department at Bradford City Library in his parka, and the LPs he’d borrow and carefully take home in the library-issue carrier bag (which finally broke in about 1996). There were the walks to the local library with my grandad (never without a stack of library books in the house) and the friendly librarian at Cockermouth (a library I spent many a Saturday morning in, from early childhood to leaving home). I first read Anne of Green Gables from Cockermouth library, and Raffles and Maigret. Later on I borrowed Aerosmith and Alice Cooper tapes, Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld novels, and chocolate-themed baking books I never seemed to bake anything from.

Through the 1990s I stopped joining libraries but still made plenty of use of them. My dad borrowed Little Angels and Metallica CDs on my behalf in his lunch-hour (yes, Metallica – this is the beauty of libraries, you can try things without blowing all your pocket money), OneMonkey borrowed my choices from the fabulous Newcastle Central Library (not as fabulous last time I went, most of the books seemed to be missing). When my parents moved to a North Yorkshire village while I was at university, Big Brother and I would take my dad’s library tickets (still the brown card pouches – technology arrived there rather slowly) up the main street to the tiny library in the holidays and load up for our reading and listening pleasure.

Come the new decade I was in Scotland, loving the old-fashioned grandeur of Edinburgh Central Library and marvelling at the Carnegie library in his home town of Dunfermline, with stock a much bigger town would be proud of. OneMonkey and I somehow borrowed an AC/DC boxed set for the cost of borrowing a single CD, and went mad at a library book sale where we filled a couple of cardboard boxes for The Nephew (still in single figures at the time). By the turn of the following decade I wasn’t far from where I’d started out and I’m still using the local library constantly. I even borrowed the books I reviewed for the Ilkley Literature Festival this year from there.

I haven’t mentioned all the university libraries I’ve been in, the school library friend T and I spent our lunchtimes in (much more civilised than having to hang around outdoors in the drizzle), Bradford Local Studies Library or the decorative tiles in Leeds. I could go on for hours (pages) more but I’ll spare you. Instead I’ll make a cup of tea and wallow in warm memories of libraries I have loved; I can only recommend that you do the same, and if you can’t think of any you need to go find yourself a good library, fast.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier

This 2013 novel of displacement and tested principles set in 1850s Ohio sees Tracy Chevalier back on top form. The unobtrusive detail translated into a supremely believable setting, and the naturalistic characters were of the right muddy quality to illustrate the compromises and contradictions inherent in the situation.

Honor is a Quaker from a town in Dorset. She’s grown up in a happy family within a close community, but for reasons not always clear even to herself she decides to accompany her older sister as she emigrates to semi-rural Ohio in 1850. The rest of the novel is, in part, about the overthrowing of everything Honor has known, the feeling of dislocation, of not belonging, and her attempts to make a new place for herself among people she doesn’t understand.

Quakers believe everyone is equal before God, and in Dorset where there are no black slaves, it’s always been easy to stick to that principle. Honor is shocked to find segregated pews in a Quaker meeting house on her way across America, and when she reaches Ohio -sandwiched between slave states and the Canadian border, and therefore regularly crossed by fugitive slaves – she finds that principles sometimes bend under the weight of reality, even among her religious community. The new Fugitive Slave Law imposing fines on those who refuse when asked to help recapture fugitives only makes things worse.

I thought the little differences were picked up on brilliantly, the constant subtle reminders that Honor is not at home. There are different words for common items, the same words for different flowers or trees. The birds and animals so common to the locals are exotic to Honor, and for a town girl the self-sufficiency and isolation are disturbing. Even the quilts Honor spends so much time sewing use different techniques and patterns on the other side of the Atlantic.

This could so easily have been a depressing novel, but although it has its dark moments there is a thread of hope, and the characters laugh and love like normal people. The Last Runaway makes you examine slavery and abolition, equality and altruism via people – not abstract concepts or amorphous groups (slaves, slave-hunters, Quakers, women) but individual characters with different motivations. In particular circumstances how many of us would stick firmly to what we believe in and stand up for weaker neighbours? Would we at least waver a bit, even if we acted for the greater good in the end?

If you’ve ever enjoyed a Tracy Chevalier novel before, you’ll probably love this one. Or if you like a hint of romance and adventure with your political history, give it a try.

Calling Westminster, can you find The North on a map?

On my Twitter profile I summarise myself as ‘Writer. Reader. Northerner. Rocker.’ and anyone who’s been around this blog a while can testify that most of my ramblings and rantings fall into one (sometimes several) of those four categories. Today’s rant will mainly be about the north (like the one I had back in 2010 about the BBC programme about northern culture. This one involves the BBC too, tangentially); southern or overseas visitors may prefer to leave now.

Last week the Deputy PM launched a thing called TechNorth, which apparently is going to result in a ‘northern tech hub’ like the one in East London (TechCity), only incorporating Leeds, Newcastle, Sunderland, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and the Tees Valley. So far, so what? Well ordinarily I’d shrug and ignore it, but it’s not the thing itself that’s riled me so much as the way it’s been put across (and indeed, reported by the BBC). It’s a bit like those chaps down in Westminster think The North is a culturally uniform, tightly-compressed area with everything in common and no diversity of problems at all. As if Leeds isn’t already doing really quite well thank you, and The North East isn’t suffering from years of under-investment and the collapse of traditional industries that will take more than a token tech hub to put right.
Map of mainland UK

Let’s start with a brief Geography lesson (and it’s not like I know this stuff, I looked it up on a map the same way a policy wonk could). How far apart do you reckon Liverpool and Newcastle are, as the crow flies? Would you refer to a world-class tech ‘cluster’ if it included both Edinburgh and Aberdeen? Actually that may be a bad example because Scotland also seems to suffer from the undifferentiated lump syndrome in Westminster so let’s try this: how about if it included Bristol and Nottingham? To put it another way, according to the AA distance calculator Liverpool is closer to Oxford than it is to Newcastle, Sheffield is closer to Cambridge than to Sunderland, Newcastle is closer to Edinburgh than to Sheffield, and Manchester is closer to Aberystwyth than to Newcastle.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, the quote on the government website claims TechNorth will be “a world-class tech cluster spanning 5 cities in the North” then mentions six northern cities and a cluster of towns (Tees Valley). The BBC goes one better and ignores Sunderland and the Tees Valley altogether, mentioning only Leeds, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle in the article I read.

OK, so it looks like they’re not sure where these places are or which ones we’re talking about, but what about comparisons to TechCity? “The government says it will spend the same amount on TechNorth as it has on Tech City” says the BBC article that admittedly I’ve just claimed isn’t perfectly accurate. However, let’s assume it got that bit right. A bit of poking around on the internet has failed to provide me with a figure, but that’s not necessarily important. TechCity is based in Shoreditch, East London (and this is where I confess that my knowledge of London is about as solid as Westminster knowledge of The North, but I’ll do my best) which I gather is part of the borough of Hackney, population c.214,000 and an area of 7.4 sq miles. If I point out that Sunderland, the least populous of the 6 cities, has a population of 276,000 can you see where this is going? They’re going to invest the same amount of money in a population of 3.74 million spread over c.940 sq miles as they did in one small part of London. This is The North, of course, and things are cheaper up here (though probably not at Harvey Nichols in Leeds) so perhaps I’m being unfair.

Grumbling quietly to myself (and OneMonkey) for a few days, it was almost as if Number Ten was listening, because before I’d finished writing the foregoing rant, our esteemed leader had taken himself off to Leeds to announce HS3. Apparently it doesn’t matter that The North is a rather large area because the government are going to connect it all up with high-speed rail and make it feel like everywhere’s practically next door. Except of course they aren’t, and I’m not sure it would be a good idea if they did. What they actually seem to be proposing is knocking a small amount of time off some of the intercity journeys, so that Manchester to Newcastle would still take longer than Leeds to London.

What no-one (except most of the people commenting on the BBC article) seems to have spotted is that in the modern world it shouldn’t be necessary to physically travel to a different city to work there. In fact from an environmental (and city overcrowding) point of view it might be good to move away from that idea. Perhaps it’s simply that the Westminster crowd can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to live and work in a city, in the same way that I just don’t get why anyone would want to live or work in London, but I know I wouldn’t be alone in rejoicing if I could be set free from commuting into a city every working day. Give us rural broadband, spend a bit of money maintaining the existing train lines and reopening a few stations that fell under the Beeching axe. The current proposals are patronising, badly thought through and have an air of ‘Crumbs! There’s an election soon – when did we last take any notice of The North?’. Such is my opinion, anyway, but as those outside the M25 might have spotted, northerners are a varied bunch.

A collection of recent reviews

Now that the Ilkley Literature Festival is over for another year, and just about all the reviews seem to be up at The Pickled Egg, it seems like a good time to list the ones I wrote in one handy place (though they are of course linked to from my About page, along with anything else of mine you might want to read). Before anyone decides this is a bit parochial, 3 of them are book reviews so not location specific at all, and even the 2 event reviews involve authors that (at least for UK readers) are likely to come your way at some point.

So here they are, book reviews of Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera (linked short stories set in Sri Lanka), Bricks & Mortals by Tom Wilkinson (meanderings through the history of architecture), The Tightrope Walkers by David Almond (novel set in 1950s/60s Tyneside), plus the review of David Almond’s talk about The Tightrope Walkers, and the review of Bryan and Mary Talbot talking about their new graphic novel Sally Heathcote: Suffragette.

And while I’m here, this is a lovely review of the Ilkley Writers event that I took part in, by Nikki Mason. She wasn’t a member of the group at the time…