As you can imagine, I spent my childhood surrounded by books. I had a shelf of my mum’s hardbacks from the forties and fifties, with titles like Amelia Goes to the Seaside, or Doris Of Buttercup Farm. I got my older cousins’ Bunty annuals and Enid Blyton boarding school books. I borrowed books from the local library and the school library. There were family trips to library sales, charity shops and secondhand bookshops on Saturdays to stock up, and for a few years my dad worked near a secondhand bookshop and would regularly come home bearing his lunchtime haul and dish them out among us. I won books as school prizes and I had fond relatives (and the family friends known as auntie and uncle) who gave me books or book tokens for Christmas and birthday.
I can still remember the thrill of a five pound book token, stuck like a hinged stamp on the inside of a greetings card. So much more exciting than its modern credit-card-alike equivalent. I would clutch it tightly as I prowled the children’s room of the New Bookshop in Cockermouth, terrified that it would somehow come adrift and be rendered void before I found the perfect reading material. Then as now I had an unvoiced fear of wasting it on a book I wouldn’t enjoy. I don’t remember ever doing so, but I wonder if that’s down to my dad’s guidance. I was often steered by him towards books or authors I might enjoy (who am I kidding? I still am), and I remember him reading the blurbs on books I’d picked up because of their attractive covers to check they were my sort of thing.
What with the paternal steering, hand-me-downs and secondhand purchases I ended up with an odd mix, some of them still (or still in the 1980s) considered children’s classics and others plain old-fashioned. I read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven, Billy Bunter, Biggles, Bulldog Drummond, BB’s Little Grey Men and the Pat Smythe books beloved of my horse-mad mum (Pat Smythe was a famous showjumper in the 1950s). Most of them my contemporaries hadn’t even heard of, let alone read, but at least that prepared me for being completely out of step with them musically later on, when I bypassed Take That for The Clash thanks to Big Brother’s record collection.
B could also easily have been for baking, bacon butties, bread. If you enjoyed this one, you can always buy me a cuppa…
Despite being a curmudgeonly cynic I have in recent years come to appreciate the rom com film genre. OneMonkey is an unrepentant romantic and through my existing love of Fred Astaire and Cary Grant films he’s gradually introduced me to such cinematic delights as How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Notting Hill, and Music and Lyrics. Lockdown, and the subsequent self-imposed lockdown-light, hit my reading hard: lack of concentration, lack of enthusiasm, lack of empathy. I’d caught part of a session on the romantic comedy novel, at the Stay-at-Home litfest and I wondered if that might be part of the answer. Perhaps a novel of light-hearted fluff would let me zip through, enjoying the ride, without having to conjure up strong emotions for fictional characters when I felt wrung-out due to too many strong emotions at home.
I had the remnants of a kobo voucher to spend so I bought a couple of e-books: The Split by Laura Kay which was one of the books featured at that Stay-at-Home litfest session, and The Cornish Cream Tea Bus by Cressida McLaughlin which OneMonkey picked for me.
The Cornish Cream Tea Bus is the first of a series set in the fictional village of Porthgolow in North Cornwall, each featuring different main characters, though I believe Charlie Quilter is in all of them somewhere. Charlie’s beloved uncle Hal has died and left her his vintage Routemaster bus, on which he used to do guided tours of the Cotswolds. Although Charlie can drive the bus, she’s a baker by trade and neither wants to give up the work she loves nor neglect her inheritance. Maybe if she can just take some time out to think, away from the messy split with her cheating partner Stuart, she can figure out how to combine the two. Luckily, her best friend has moved to Cornwall and has a spare room and endless patience. Certainly more patience than me.
Naturally, Charlie has love interests, that’s kind of what you expect with this genre, but a lot of it left me baffled. I don’t see the attraction of wide-shouldered, heavily-muscled arrogant men who wear suits and run their own business. I don’t really see my life reflected in designer dog-owning emotional women who wear high heels (and find said buff, arrogant men attractive), whose best friends are in marketing or ex-boyfriends are investment bankers. Perhaps it’s easier to be detached when it’s on screen or maybe it’s as simple as I literally can’t imagine these people, and when I’m reading about them that’s what I have to do.
Having said that, most of the fiction I read probably presents me with main characters whose backgrounds and motivations are different from my own, but I rarely have this problem. I wonder if certain types of realist fiction (by which I mean set now, in our world, portraying lives and events that could happen and are in some sense common) assume a certain viewpoint and feel they don’t have to go into details, so I’m never invited in. If the novel was about a serial killer, motivation would need to be set out and explored, if it was historical there would have to be context, but presumably everyone reading The Cornish Cream Tea Bus should understand exactly why some particular conversation calls for a bottle of wine, or why an otherwise capable person would go to pieces because a man had muscles visible beneath his shirt.
For plot reasons, Charlie jumped to a couple of conclusions no sane person would jump to. She also entirely failed to put two and two together and solve a mystery that was blindingly obvious (mind you, nobody else in the village did either). However, I read the whole novel so on some level it even worked its magic on me. I suspect that if you’re more comfortable with the wine, the buff men, the thirty-something professionals, this will be an excellent example of its type. It was surprisingly chaste, definitely no sex scenes and even the smouldering kisses were few and far between. The scenery was beautifully evoked and was very much part of the book, it almost made me want to visit Cornwall. There were some lovely moments involving pods of dolphins, and tense moments of both the romantic and plain old dramatic variety. There are many imaginative cakes, pastries, and decorated biscuits described, and I wouldn’t recommend reading it before a trip to the supermarket unless you want to come home with half the cream cake aisle.
I haven’t read The Split yet, having been lured away by epic fantasy, but when I do I’ll let you know what I thought.
If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…
You don’t get many J’s in a packet of Alphabites and as for a Y, well – forget it. Or at least that was the case in the late 80s when my family first encountered these letter-shaped frozen mashed potato pieces. Back then we still had a deep fat fryer so chips at home meant the proper fried variety. At the static caravan, however (probably the subject of C is for…) we had oven chips, skinny and over-cooked. We were thrilled, therefore, when Walter Willson started stocking Birds Eye waffles and eventually Alphabites. For a slow eater (and bookworm) like me, a plate of moveable type is too distracting to eat. Of course I started to see what I could spell, as though this was an edible version of Scrabble. But before I got onto the proper words I needed my initials: JYS.
I already knew that Y was hard to come by as an initial letter. Souvenir key-rings, pen-pots, mugs at seaside towns rarely came with a Y on them and never an Yvette. J should have been easier but it didn’t seem to be, and Jacqueline certainly wasn’t a name you often saw on bedroom door plaques or novelty pencils. Which meant that alongside the natural egotism of the baby of the family, I had this constant quest for rarities so whenever I did see a Jacqueline or a Y (I never did see an Yvette) I had to have it. I’d like to say I’ve grown out of it, but I saw a huge wooden J on a market stall a few years ago and OneMonkey knew he’d never hear the end of it if he didn’t buy it for me (in my defence, I’d like to point out that friend T has a flat full of T’s of various sizes, styles and colours).
Back in the caravan c1988, the meal was halted while everyone searched their plates for a J or a Y. I already had an S. My dad dutifully handed over his J. Nobody had spotted a Y. Everyone looked again but a Y had not magically materialised, the Alphabites were now cold and I was disappointed. I don’t recall us having them again.
Other A’s I could have written about include: Animal biscuits, almonds (both sugared and paste), AA Milne, and Auntie Ann Tin Can Copper Kettle Brass Pan. If you enjoyed this one, you can always buy me a cuppa…
Memory is fallible. Revisit the scene of a treasured childhood memory and you might realise it can’t have happened the way you remember: the garden’s too small for it to have taken more than three seconds to cross, you couldn’t have seen the crossroads from the gate, and the tree you’re thinking of is next to the library not the primary school anyway. Memory is also selective. Ask a couple about their last anniversary meal and one remembers everything they ate but not what music was playing in the restaurant, the other recalls the waiter’s Brummie accent but not what they had for dessert.
My degrees are in physics and maths. Every day-job I’ve had since 2007 has involved returning university data to the government or its nominated agencies. It’s safe to say that I have been trained and conditioned to be as accurate as possible. With fiction I picture a scene and do my best to describe it. Creative non-fiction on the other hand, specifically anything involving memories, is way more tricky. Or is it? I still picture a scene and do my best to describe it, the bit that’s different is the other potential witnesses. A fictional creation that exists only in my head can’t be challenged by anyone else, no-one but me has seen it. My words might not capture it fully or do it justice but only I know that. A real event, unless I was the only one there, has other perspectives. Even if the people I shared the moment with have died, there’s always the possibility of someone stepping up and saying, ‘That’s not how I heard it’.
I value precision but I also recognise where it isn’t feasible – it’s no good recording a measurement to two decimal places when your instrument’s not capable of that fine a grain. I have finally recognised that precision in memoir-based writing is not feasible. You won’t remember everything accurately even if some aspects are so sharp they could have happened this morning. You will remember it from a different perspective, using different prioritising filters, from your parents or siblings, your date that night, the guy sat behind you on the bus. You may have misinterpreted motives or causes at the time. You will certainly bring your own history, upbringing, fears and biases into the mix as you do whenever you read, watch or listen. You probably cull some details and emphasise others every time you recount an anecdote, perhaps you also truncate time or distance to make the narrative clearer, more focused, punchier. It doesn’t make it untrue.
What matters, I think, is intent and potential consequences. Does it matter if I really wore my new wool coat with the blue velvet collar to an aunt’s funeral in 1985? Maybe I’m conflating two family gatherings and I wore the wool coat to someone’s 90th birthday the following month. Maybe I never had a wool coat with a velvet collar, I just saw it in Lewis’s in Leeds and wished I owned it, and I’ve superimposed it on my memories from that year. It’s a nice detail, it helps a reader picture the scene the way I’m picturing it, and if I went back in a time machine and realised it was a warm autumn day and I was in a cardigan I wouldn’t care that much. It would, however, matter if I said her younger sister wasn’t at the funeral when I know I can’t be definitive, because that would make readers think badly of her (she didn’t attend her own sister’s funeral!). Even worse if I said it deliberately to make people think badly of her. Better to say that I don’t remember her being there, or I remember it as though it was only my siblings, my mum and her cousin but it can’t have been (my Nana would have been there, for a start).
Thus I feel able to present an A-Z of my childhood, every two weeks for a year, starting next week. I will still be blogging about writing and books, but every other week you’ll get something short prompted by my formative years. It might be funny, poignant, or plain odd, but I hope it’ll be enjoyable. There will be no malicious intent but I am guaranteed to present a unique version so if you were there and remember it differently please feel free to respond in the comments. I mean, feel free to respond in the comments even if you’ve never met me, that’s what the facility is there for. Some of the pieces were written in response to the Mslexia quarterly alphabet prompt, I even sent a couple of them in (never selected, sadly) so thanks to Mslexia for kicking this off, and thanks to my family for giving me plenty to write about.
If you enjoy any of my ramblings you can always buy me a cuppa…
Last summer when lockdown had apparently made everyone in the UK appreciate nature more, I wrote a light essay about the birds in my garden. I wanted to braid past and present together and show that, almost by accident, I now knew far more than I thought about birds. I forget exactly why, but I’d started listing things I’d learnt from nearly a decade of watching our wildlife garden from an upstairs window, and I kept remembering another thing, and another and finally realised the list was longer than I expected. It made me think of the Monty Python sketch about the Spanish Inquisition, where Michael Palin starts listing their weapons, remembering another, and has to settle for a vague statement (‘Our chief weapon is surprise, fear and surprise…Our two weapons are fear and surprise, and…Amongst our weaponry…I’ll come in again’). Hence I called it ‘Among the things I know about birds’.
I couldn’t quite get the form of it right last summer and I put it away for a while then had another go after I’d read the admirably accessible An Indifference of Birds by Richard Smyth. When I’d finally got it in a state I was happy with, I sent it out to a couple of magazines. It was accepted almost immediately by ThereAfter, and finally appeared online this week. Richard Smyth’s read it and he liked my descriptions, if that’s an incentive.
I saw a woodpigeon on its too-small nest in the yew tree last Spring, looking like a parent with a well-cushioned backside trying to sit on a primary school chair, and I didn’t have to look it up. The beefier, more consistently-coloured cousin of the city centre pigeon, I’ve watched its kind crash onto the bird table, snap flimsy sapling branches and make its clod-hopping way around our garden for years. I could no more mistake it now for the elegant mushroom-coloured collared dove with its black torque than I could mistake a magpie for a jay.
I partly wrote this essay in wonder at my accidental education, but also as encouragement to other suburban (or even urban, if there’s any greenery nearby) nature enthusiasts who consider themselves clueless about the wildlife around them. You probably know more than you think you do. And if you don’t yet, then you can almost certainly learn gradually and painlessly by watching, with occasional looking things up in books or online. Ultimately, it’s not a race and it’s about enjoyment and appreciation rather than accumulating knowledge. I learnt recently that the sound like a rusty pump handle that I’ve noticed for the last few years is the call of a great tit, but I can’t recognise any other birdsong. Except the cloth-tearing sound of a jay, of course. And the squabbling jackdaws. And the tawny owl that sits on the roof sometimes. Hang on, let me come in again.
Outside London, it’s pretty rare to find English sci-fi set in a real place. I can think of one or two set in Manchester, and Peter F Hamilton’s Greg Mandel series set in and around Rutland, but beyond that I’m struggling. It’s fair to say I was intrigued when I spotted one of the first novels from new crime publisher Northodox Press was ‘a near-future thriller’ set in a place I used to live: Airedale.
If you’re a dog-lover you might be familiar with the terrier of the same name, but I’m guessing that outside Yorkshire (probably even inside most of Yorkshire) the name won’t conjure up a place for you. As you might have guessed, it’s the dale (valley) where the River Aire runs, and these days houses Leeds commuters, many of them living in buildings that forty years ago were textile mills. There is also a UNESCO world heritage site, the mill village Saltaire. Dylan Byford has cleverly taken this geography and history and extrapolated it into a messy future. An unspecified time when another industry is disintegrating in the periodically flooded dale leaving empty warehouses and unemployment, Saltaire exists in a protective bubble, and northern politicians look to Durham rather than Westminster.
Airedale is a cyberpunk police procedural featuring politics, subversion, riots and local businessmen. It’s full of wonderful details of integrated technology and state surveillance, what’s changed and what hasn’t. Haz Edmundson is a contractor working for the police, what we might call a forensic computing expert who doesn’t usually have to deal with dead bodies. Except tonight, when for one reason or another he’s there when the body of an activist is discovered and he can’t let it go when it’s officially marked as an accidental death. How far is he prepared to go to uncover the truth? And who can he trust?
Haz is a wonderfully human character. A hopeless, unreliable, scruffy single dad who’s good at his job but not hard-boiled enough to deal with death in a detached way. He’s also apt to ask the wrong questions at the wrong moment, and land himself in trouble. I would happily read more books about him. If he can hang onto his life or his job long enough to star in them. There were a couple of interesting strands that weren’t fully followed up, in my view, and I don’t claim to completely understand the conclusions but I had a fabulous time along the way. Except for the bit near the start that’s really not for the arachnophobes (grit your teeth and race through it, it’s only half a dozen pages and only one of them is horrifying).
I didn’t pay for my copy because I won it in a draw on Twitter but other than them once reading (and rejecting) the manuscript of a crime novel of mine set in Newcastle, I have no relationship with Northodox and I don’t know Dylan Byford either. If you like William Gibson but have always wished someone would write in a similar vein but with uncool characters in small town Yorkshire (it can’t just be me), you are definitely onto a winner here. Similarly if you enjoyed the Greg Mandel series from Peter F Hamilton (I reviewed the first and second books a few years ago), or if you’re a fan of British police procedurals and you have an open mind on the SF elements. It does have a great sense of place, and I was initially attracted to it because of the setting, but I was hooked from the first page and the setting soon became the icing on a fine cake. Highly recommended, whether you know where Airedale is or not.
If I’ve introduced you to your new favourite book you can always buy me a cuppa…
I have a new flash fiction out at Janus Literary this week, which I’m excited about. Partly because Janus is fast becoming known for interesting and varied flash of quality, and partly because this story’s been four years in the pipeline. Janus didn’t even exist when I submitted this story for the twelfth and what I thought might be the last time. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to the casual reader and encouraging to the new writer of short fiction to hear the story behind the story, and I know that Janice Leagra of Janus appreciates openness so here goes.
It sometimes feels like writers have to pretend the magazine/journal/website their story ended up in was their first choice. In some cases this might be true – accepted on the first submission, or maybe venue A and venue B are equally thrilling and appropriate but A is closed to submissions so you try B, get rejected, try A eventually and get in. On the other hand, a casual glance through writing-Twitter reveals constant tales of rejection, and if you pay attention you’ll also spot the tales of acceptances on the twenty-fifth try. It strikes me that it must be rare for a story submitted on spec (as opposed to invited or commissioned) to end up in the place you originally hoped it would. Or indeed wrote it for.
I wrote Brought to bed with a good book for a body-themed issue of a magazine that no longer exists, in June 2017. I have an idea that I’d heard someone talking about how pregnancy made their body unrecognisable, so one of the first lines I wrote down was, “Veins darkening, ropes thickening like the vines decorating an illuminated manuscript” (which eventually became, “veins darkening until I looked tattooed, calves twined with vines from the borders of an illuminated manuscript”). Combine that with the idea of going to bed with a good book, and there you have it. The title plays on that, with the old-fashioned phrase of being brought to bed with a child i.e. giving birth.
Looking at the revision control on the document, I started typing in it on June 8th after mulling the idea over for a while, and on June 9th I submitted the final, polished piece. I think I’ve tweaked a couple of words since then but essentially the final published version that’s at Janus was written in a day, four years ago. Clearly it didn’t get selected for that magazine back then, though I genuinely don’t know why since all the feedback was enthusiastic. I’m sure I tweeted at the time about getting a rejection that included the phrase ‘best flash I’ve read this year’ and wondering if that was actually worse than just a bald ‘no’. When you get constructive criticism in a rejection it gives you something to work on, a way of potentially improving the piece so it might get somewhere on the next try. ‘This is great but we’re not using it’ makes it all feel bafflingly random. Which of course it often is.
It’s easy to think, when you get a form rejection (by which I mean, a standard paragraph with nothing specific to your story) that the story’s not good enough, or it was a barmy idea, or the ending needs more work. It might be fine and it all came down to personal taste, or fit with the other pieces in the issue, but you don’t know that so you put the piece aside and let it stew for a while and tinker with it and don’t send it back out for months. Or at least I do. This time, however, I had outside confirmation that it worked and kind of did what I meant it to, so I sent it to five more places in 2017, and got a form rejection every time. I had a sneaking suspicion that it was too weird for the mainstream and too mainstream for the SFF mags, nevertheless I sent it out four times in 2018. And got four form rejections. I tried a competition in 2019, and didn’t longlist, and I gave it one last try at the start of 2020. I’d resigned myself to yet another story I was pleased with and proud of, being consigned to the electronic bottom drawer and never being read by anyone other than OneMonkey and a handful of editors. And then Janus Literary appeared, and I soon realised they might be just the people to try. I was right, they liked it, and in June 2021 Brought to bed with a good book was finally released into the wild. Never give up – if you’re sure the story is working.
Offhand, I can’t think of any spy thrillers I’ve read before. Obviously I’ve seen The Ipcress File, and the Le Carre adaptations starring Alec Guinness, but I haven’t actually sat down and read any of the books behind them. I have my dad to thank for nudging me towards Mick Herron’s Slough House series, of which Slow Horses is the first volume.
About a year ago I started listening to the American spy comedy podcast Mission Rejected, and since I’d taken to calling my parents daily during lockdown and was somewhat lacking in conversation topics, I told my dad about it. He suggested I give Mick Herron’s novels a go, if inept spies were what I was after. Dark satire, rather than comedy, but most enjoyable. They weren’t available via the library ebook service, and pandemic restrictions have meant the Library of Mum and Dad has been off-limits for 18 months, plus of course if you’ve been here before you’ll know I’ve been trying to read the overlooked books on my shelves during lockdown. However, I read a Guardian interview with Mick Herron earlier this year and it prompted me to buy the first book in the series (as an ebook, to limit clutter).
“Plotting is pretty much secondary to me,” he says. “What really interests me is the characters and getting to grips with them, and them getting to grips with each other.”
Charlotte Higgins interview with Mick Herron, The Guardian, 15 Jan 2021
As you might guess from that quote, the mission is not the important bit, or rather, it doesn’t matter that much what it’s about. It’s all in the context of the War on Terror, with some stereotypical far-right nutcases kicking about. The meat of the book though is the relationships between the has-beens (or never-weres) at Slough House, and between Slough House as a whole and the ‘proper’ spies at Regent’s Park. None of whom bear any resemblance to the old-fashioned gentlemen in the Alec Guinness dramas. Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House, is very much the Andy Dalziel of MI5 – crude, abrasive, but underestimate him at your peril. There’s also a walk-on part for Peter Judd, a right-wing politician described as a buffoon with floppy hair and a bicycle. Can’t think who he reminds me of…
Herron is good at sleight of hand, and there were a few places where I was misdirected and had to flick back a few pages to work out why. I also enjoyed his use of ‘if a passenger on the bus were to glance through the window, this is what they’d see’ kind of thing, rather than it all being from one character’s point of view. I doubt it’s a realistic picture of life in the modern secret service, but it’s full of interesting characters and I’m looking forward to working my way through the remaining six novels plus a few novellas.
If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…
I can’t believe I haven’t yet written about How to Start Writing the Climate, a series of four workshops run by Linda France for New Writing North. Prospective participants had to apply with a sample of their writing, and it’s always a boost to be selected in that way, whether it’s for an anthology or an online gathering. As I write this in mid-June we’ve had three of the four workshops, with another short piece to write before the final one in early July.
Since I write in various genres including sci-fi, it would be easy to see climate change as something I could (should?) tackle in a particular way. The books I’ve read that had it at their heart have all been sci-fi (I recommended a few a while back). It’s a common theme, usually used in a dystopian way – societal breakdown due to food or water shortages, damage to infrastructure through storms or floods – and set in the future. The trouble is, we’re living through it right now and it could (should) crop up in every genre except fantasy, because it is the realest of real.
I say that, but it even has a place in fantasy. My semi-rural fantasy novel set in northern England in 2018, the one that got me onto the Penguin WriteNow day in 2017, has a strong ‘green’ theme: pollution, fracking and ecosystem damage, as well as changing weather patterns and political responses to the climate emergency. It’s still SFF though, still a niche readership (if it’s ever published) and all about impending disaster – the North Sea has decided people can’t be trusted with the land so she decides to reclaim it. I felt that climate change, its effects and possible mitigations, people’s fears and plans relating to it, ought to crop up, however subtly, in all genres. Just like environmental considerations ought to crop up to some extent in all policy and planning. Hence my desire to attend these workshops.
The trouble is, if it is a topic with strong emotional pull – a topic where there are fears and arguments in the background – it’s hard to know where to start. I also found it was hard for me not to stray into near-future SF, or into some kind of hectoring, doom-laden vein. On top of all that I’m not an expert, just a Guardian-reading citizen who’s looking to live through this. All those mythical target dates (this by 2030, that by 2040, the other by 2050) should be comfortably within my lifetime, I have a stake in this. Maybe not as much as if I had children, but still…
Linda started off by acknowledging these difficulties and trying to help us through them. We had a delve into why we write at all, why we want to write about climate change, and why it’s difficult. The delve included some free-writing sessions, where you write for a set time without stopping (if you get stuck you write e.g. ‘I’m stuck, I can’t think of anything, how annoying’ etc until you break out of the rut). I’ve often found these useful for freeing up the mind, or rather, sneaking ideas past the self-censor, and it helped here too. I gained a tiny insight into what my personal angle might be, the motivation that could see me through. I also did a mind map which I augmented over a few days, and that gave me some bare topics but also phrases I jotted down like ‘no plastic tat’, ‘ok if you’ve got good quality belongings to start with’, ‘it’s expensive to be frugal’.
Then we talked about who the audience might be, and I faltered. There’s a mix of poets and prose writers in the group but we’re not talking documentary style, factual writing. Primarily we’re looking to inform as we entertain, with poetry or fiction or creative non-fiction (true events written in a storytelling narrative style). I can’t imagine that any reader of the sort of literary journal I might aspire to be published in will be unaware of climate change or what they can do to slow down or mitigate it. They might not be prepared to make the changes they recognise as necessary or they might not be able to afford to (I once explained to an earnest middle-class student that normal people aren’t deciding between the recycled brand and the standard big-name brand that costs the same, they’re deciding between the recycled brand and the value brand which costs half the price. He didn’t seem to get it). But fundamentally, I’m not telling them anything they didn’t know and I’m unlikely to change their behaviour. Two things, then: one, I can at least reflect reality better if I weave some thoughts on climate change in; two, I can make it specific and bring it closer to home.
While I think it is true that at some level we must all know what’s going on by now, and what we can do (would like to do, are prepared to do, ought to do) about it, it still sometimes seems far away if you live in a comfortable inland area of a developed country. There’s talk of droughts and sea-level rises and melting glaciers but I live in a pretty rainy part of northern England where people still laugh at southerners and their summer hosepipe bans. We’ve had some devastating moor fires over the last five years but it’s easy to focus on people’s carelessness with cigarettes or barbecues, rather than how much more likely these fires are if the moor gets drier than normal. So maybe Climate Change the big scary topic is familiar, but specific ways it’s affecting northern England and its weather and wildlife will be unusual enough to make someone pause.
My next problem involves starting out on climate change and ending up on biodiversity loss, extinctions and habitat destruction. I worry that, although the two are connected, I’m straying off topic. However, if there’s one thing I learnt from my repeated reading of Douglas Adams (sadly I don’t seem to have learnt how to write good comic fantasy), it’s the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. By which I mean, if I write with the intention of writing about climate change and how I feel about it, then if it ends up being about reduction in butterfly numbers and changes to migratory patterns that aren’t all directly caused by climate change, that’s ok. Feeling a connection to nature, which many people have discovered or deepened during the pandemic, makes us care more about our impact on the planet, and by extension, man-made climate change. Expect more birds and trees to crop up in my non-SF stories. And butterflies, of course.
If I’ve given you something to think about, you can always buy me a cuppa…
The topic of reading fees came up on Twitter again this week. Since I don’t seem to have talked about this for a while (about 3 years, in fact) here’s a few of the things I’ve been thinking.
First off, what do I mean by reading fees? I mean any kind of payment or purchase required before your own writing will be given consideration. Some places have tip-jar options, or you can pay if you want feedback rather than a bald yes/no, but those are not a barrier to entry as they’re not compulsory. I can think of 3 types:
A stand-alone competition e.g. the Bridport prize
A competition run by a magazine or media company e.g. Stand magazine or The Sunday Times
Run of the mill submissions e.g. to a magazine for publication
Secondly, why is it a problem? After all, in the age of instant electronic submissions isn’t it reasonable to want to put the brakes on the half-baked, ill-considered, nothing-to-lose, late night entries? Some poor soul has to read these things. And the prize money has to come from somewhere, and you can’t expect people to judge competitions out of the goodness of their hearts, and there are printing and website and publicity costs… Well, yes. But still…
2/2 So the same voices go unheard, and the voices that can afford to be heard are heard. And those of us who can't afford it feel left behind, excluded from a club that we're just not welcome in.
It was Sarah Davy of Northern Writers Studio who got me thinking about all this again this week. If you’re not a writer you’re probably wondering what the fuss is about. Nobody’s forcing anyone to enter competitions and sure, we’d all love some free money but there’s no need to whine if you can’t afford to enter. Except, in short fiction at least, it’s those competition wins (or shortlisting, or longlisting) that get you noticed, show people you’re at a particular level, get you work. So they matter, and consistently deterring particular groups from entering means you’re consistently holding them back from – shall we call it career progression?
I’ll take the 3 types of fees in reverse order. Number 3 is easy – it shouldn’t exist. If you think of a magazine, publisher or production company, who are their customers? Readers or broadcasters, I would say. Logically, the customers should be who they’re charging. If they’re charging money to submit a story or a script and what they’re offering in return is what the average person outside the industry would imagine is their day to day business (we will print this story in our magazine and sell it to readers, we will pitch this sitcom to the BBC and hope they pay us to make it) then it looks a lot like exploitation. Kind of like charging the actors to appear on stage as well as making the audience pay for tickets. If you can’t get by without charging writers, you haven’t got a viable business model and you might want to have a rethink.
Number 2 should allow for funding of prize money by the magazine etc profits. Ironically the biggest prize money, the most publicity and arguably the most kudos comes from two competitions with no fees – the Sunday Times short story prize and the BBC Short Story Award, both presumably funded via their other business, and/or sponsorship. They weed out the time-wasters by requiring a certain number of publication credits. Now, I have other problems with those two (if the judges can call in stories that haven’t even been entered, it’s not a level playing field) but they’re not putting up barriers to writers with little spare cash. In other cases, you would hope that their normal business (selling books or magazines, for instance) would give enough money to at least subsidise the competition. If it doesn’t, and they’re in fact hoping the competition will subsidise the magazine, then we’re back to the scenario in number 3.
The ones I find it hardest to know where I stand on are the first batch, the competitions that just are. The Bath flash fiction or novella-in-flash awards, the Bristol short story prize (which came out of a magazine originally but it no longer exists), the Bridport. As far as I know, they charge fees to enter, a certain number of writers will be selected for their annual anthology which they then sell, and any profits from that will be ploughed back into the competition. They often have early-bird discounts, and the Bath has a regular (free) writing competition where the prize is free entry to the quarterly award. Once they’re up and running you could think of them as being a bit like scenario 2, only with a single product that isn’t the main focus of their business, but mainly they’re getting their funds from entry fees. Tricky. I have entered the (quarterly) Bath award 5 times (2017×2, 2019×2, 2020), the Bristol twice (2013, 2020) and the Bridport twice (2013, 2017). Why?
The cash prize would undoubtedly be nice, particularly if you’re a cash-strapped writer. It could pay for a course, a new laptop or snazzy software, books or a research trip. Perhaps a treat, as a reward for all the rejections you put up with for the remainder of the year. Or the gas bill, so that’s one less thing to worry about when you’re trying to concentrate on a plot knot. But is that the main reason we want to enter? (I say ‘we’ but I’m on a well-paid contract till next summer, only working 3 days a week but my annual salary still starts with a 2 so I can afford these things at the moment). If it’s easy money you’re after, lottery scratchcards are a better bet – you won’t have spent hours writing and rewriting, and when you don’t win it won’t feel like a judgement on your talent and possibly your worth as a human being. So it must be something else that’s drawing us in. External validation. The thrill of having that famous judge rate your work. Kudos. Bragging rights or a notch on the CV (that career progression I mentioned earlier).
Which leads me to my first suggestion:
Judging, printing and publicity costs will remain but if the prize fund needs to be £1000 instead of £5000 surely you can knock a couple of quid off the fee (the small fees still add up but it’s a start) or afford to waive fees for more people. Sarah Davy mentioned the problem of there only being a handful of free entries, and these having to be applied for. This means people of limited means are competing with each other for those coveted places, and there are plenty of people I know who have the attitude that there’s always someone worse off than them so they would never apply. Also, it’s mortifying to have to plead poverty, particularly since writing’s a small world and it could be someone you know who’s processing the applications.
About 10 years ago I worked in a university estates department and there was a presentation on the implications of the Equality Act 2010. I recall there being some emphasis on treating people the same where possible – so instead of saying if you need level access you can go round the side of the building, you make the main entrance accessible. Or in my case, you make the general campus map hold all the accessibility information instead of requiring people to ask for a separate map as we had done previously. So instead of making people prove their need and compete for access,
Or happy hour, or whatever suits you. You can announce it in advance, spring it on people on Twitter at short notice, mention it in passing in an email newsletter 2 months beforehand and it’s their own fault if they don’t write it on the calendar. But in some way, you’re saying whoever enters during this slot doesn’t have to pay, and you’re trusting that the entire cohort won’t wait to enter on that day. I believe SmokeLong Quarterly already do something along these lines.
In some ways, I think we’re in another argument for universal basic income, but until that day comes there are things that can be done to mitigate the discriminatory effects of reading fees, which you would hope would be a popular move, what with all the talk of diversity in publishing recently. Like it or not, if your magazine or competition is seen as prestigious in your field (poetry or flash or crime-writing or whatever) you have some responsibility for ensuring you aren’t only selecting winners from those who can afford to pay.
Bridport prize (novel) £20; Bridport prize (short story) £12; Bridport prize (flash) £9; Bath Flash Fiction (or novella-in-flash) Award £9; Bristol short story prize £9; Mslexia novel competition £25; Mslexia short story competition £12; Mslexia flash fiction competition £6…
If you fancy taking the sting out of all those fees, you can always buy me a cuppa…
This 2014 debut novel is set in late 17th century Amsterdam (October 1686-January 1687, to be precise) and since I like good immersive historical fiction I’d been contemplating reading it since I first started spotting it in charity shops several years ago. It had been actually written on my To Read list for at least a couple of years, and I finally borrowed it recently as an ebook from the library. It seems to have flipped my fiction switch – I romped through it, and once I’d finished I was yearning for another novel (I’m on the spy novel Slow Horses by Mick Herron now, review probably to follow in due course).
Nella Oortman has come from the country to be the new teenage wife of a successful Amsterdam merchant twice her age. He buys her a dolls’ house version of their own house as an amusing distraction from his perpetual absence on business. Nella finds a mysterious miniaturist to craft the furnishings she requires, as she tries to settle in with her new sister-in-law and the surprisingly forward servants.
The miniaturist and the cabinet house are the least satisfying elements of the story, to my mind. The essence of the book is bound up in the intrigue, the performative piety, and the things that are not as they seem. The hypocrisy of a society which is so puritanical and yet their fortunes rest on sugar (indulgence) and slavery. It was wonderful on detail and catering for all senses – the smells from the canal and the kitchen, the tastes of the food they’re eating, as well as the usual sights and sounds. Including the occasional reminder that in the evening with only a couple of candles burning, there are lots of shadows for a young girl to jump at.
Even after reading the whole novel and re-reading the first few pages I still don’t quite understand the prologue and it didn’t feel like it fit, to me. However, given the enormous success of this novel I’m probably in a minority (or, given that I loved the novel anyway, maybe it doesn’t matter). If you enjoyed Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier you will love this, maybe Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy will have set you up to be well-disposed towards it too.
If I’ve helped you find your next book to read, you can always buy me a cuppa…
Although I’ve been struggling through fiction this year I have been able to read non-fiction at a reasonable pace so I took the opportunity to dip into this book everyone’s been talking about and awarding prizes to. Dara McAnulty is an autistic teenage nature enthusiast and climate change activist from Northern Ireland that I follow on Twitter. The book covers the year he was 14, from Spring to the following first day of Spring. It’s in the form of a diary as you might expect from the title, though not every day has an entry.
Some of his descriptions are amazingly vivid, and I don’t just mean ‘for a kid’. There were passages in the book that were completely immersive, a joy to read – his focus and intensity really draw you into the scene and his enthusiasm is infectious. Because I grew up in the 1980s, the first thing that springs to mind for me when I hear ‘Northern Ireland’ is unfortunately sectarian violence. This short book (150 pages in the ebook I borrowed from the library) has introduced me to a part of the UK countryside I knew nothing about, and portrayed it as a place of wonder. It obviously has its problems, and he mentions the dwindling of bird species and problems with the reintroduction of red kites for instance, but there is a lot of hope and positivity here.
There is, however, also a fair amount of teenage angst. This is a diary first and foremost, and happens to be mostly about nature because of his interests. I have to say that reading about a child being bullied to the point of suicidal thoughts, in the child’s own words, made me feel deeply uncomfortable. That said, there is far more natural wonder than anything else, and his passion and drive are inspiring. If you want to rekindle a sense of childlike awe for the world around you, dip into this book and then spend some time outdoors watching birds in a tree or insects on a wall.
I loved this novel set on Teesside and I wish I hadn’t tried to read it when I’m struggling to read fiction. It took me two months to get through and by the time I was near the end I couldn’t quite remember details from the start. However, I do know I was hooked by the second page and I recommend it without hesitation. There’s a housing estate being gradually knocked down and replaced, in or near Middlesbrough. We learn of the interconnected stories of a handful of its inhabitants from a variety of viewpoints, and through it all is woven the local legend of Peg Powler.
It’s not as simple as a novel written as a continuous narrative, but neither is it a collection of stories. It begins with a series of letters from the 1990s, but includes journal entries from the 1980s, transcripts of interviews in 2015 and 2016, as well as what you might call straightforward narrative. Through the different points of view and their memories and flashbacks the interlocking stories of the main characters build up in layers, from the 1950s to 2016. It has some pretty dark threads but also humour, love, belonging. It is excellent on the complicated nature of family relationships and the feelings people have for the place they grew up. It is full of the ordinariness of everyday life, wrapped up with some fairly extraordinary goings-on.
Overall it is a pretty bleak tale I guess, but maybe that made the moments of beauty or hope all the more precious. I thought it was brilliantly constructed, though Peg (or her story) didn’t appear as much as I’d expected. Imagine if one of the Angry Young Men of the 1960s had written a novel after getting really into dark folktales – now if that sounds appealing, go read Ironopolis. And if you’re not sure, read it anyway.
I listened recently to a Backlisted episode from 2018, where they discussed How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard. Having never heard of either book or author, I assumed it was going to be satire about the kind of pompous windbag that always has to have been there or done that, no matter where the conversation turns. Weirdly, it didn’t seem to be.
Bayard is a French literature professor, I believe, and seems to subscribe to the peculiar idea that it’s somehow embarrassing or shameful to admit to not having read a particular book. I guess if you’re teaching a course on it or writing a review of it, it might be – though I would say there are bigger problems there than saving face. I can’t think of any other circumstance where you would want to say you’d read a book when you hadn’t. Even in a book club, surely there’s a more interesting conversation to be had about why you couldn’t get past page six, than in trying to bluff your way through a discussion of major themes.
In the podcast a couple of them talked about working as booksellers and deceiving the customers. Who expects someone who works in their local bookshop to have read all the stock? I wouldn’t even expect the sci-fi specialist in Waterstones to have read everything on the sci-fi and fantasy shelves. What’s wrong with saying ‘no I haven’t read it but my friend raves about it’ or ‘I don’t really do cyberpunk but it got 5 stars in The Guardian’?
There was also mention of shady dealings with visiting authors. I think it’s much less rude to tell an author you haven’t (as yet) read their book than to pretend you have. I’ve been to many litfest events where I haven’t read the book and on the occasions I’ve ended up speaking to the author afterwards, I’ve truthfully told them the reason. That may have been because I had only heard of it due to the event (which is at least part of the reason they’re doing the event), or was on the library waiting list for a copy, or just hadn’t worked that far down the To Read pile yet. As a writer, I’d rather someone said they were keeping their friend company or had picked an event at random than pretend they’d read my work.
Cathy Rentzenbrink mentioned on the podcast her work with literacy charities, and how it can be intimidating to people starting to read when ‘everyone’ has read this massive list of books, so actually it’s good to admit you haven’t, and take the pressure off . I think my dad said something to me when I was in my late teens and still in my ‘ought to’ phase with books, about the ever-growing list of classics and not reading anything new till you’re thirty. The idea being that there was this nineteenth century list of classics that the educated man ought to have read, compiled when literacy was becoming a mass achievement in England, and nobody knocked Dickens off when they added Orwell, or replaced George Eliot with Virginia Woolf. Every generation added more books, more authors, so it got to the point where you’d have to read nothing but books on that list for several years once you move on to adult fiction, before you could start reading new releases and developing your own taste. And if you feel like you ‘ought to’ read all the Sunday Times bestsellers and the Booker prize shortlist to keep up with the cultural conversation, then maybe you never do develop your own taste.
I could slip into a meditation on class, here, and who defines cultural norms and expectations (harking back to my last post on gatekeepers) but I’ll restrain myself. However, I will say that if you don’t have to read it for an exam, never read a book you don’t have reasonably high expectations of. Some will disappoint you, but honestly if you think an incredibly long nineteenth century book about whale-hunting sounds dull don’t feel obliged to waste whole days of your life on it just because Moby Dick’s a famous title. If anyone asks if you’ve read it, tell them it didn’t sound like your kind of thing. If they insist you must and you don’t want to argue (it is guaranteed to be someone’s favourite ever book, after all) tell them you’ll give it a go when your To Read pile is empty, confident in the knowledge it will never happen. I’m not saying you can’t ask them what they love about it, or let it lead to a pleasant conversation about books set at sea, just don’t try and convince them you read it thirty years ago and can’t quite recall the details. Own your unique blend of tastes and preferences.
Coincidentally, a couple of months before that podcast episode initially went out, I wrote the following here on my blog:
At any given gathering of writers, I can guarantee that someone will mention a book and at least one other person will have read it. Occasionally I’ll have heard of (but not read) it, often I haven’t even heard of the author and I marvel at this literary synchronicity that means that out of all the millions of books available in English, these two people in the same room have read the same one in the last few weeks. Then I wonder how I come across – do they all think I don’t read? I mention Ben Aaronovitch or Reginald Hill and they look blank. Terry Pratchett at least is a recognisable name even if they know nothing about his books. I give up, stay quiet, consider only going to genre-based gatherings.
Now I wonder if it was truly synchronicity or if some of them had been taking tips from Prof Bayard.
If I’ve got you out of learning pertinent facts about books you don’t care about, you can always buy me a cuppa…
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about gatekeepers: literary agents, publishers, programme commissioners, the people who put the playlist together for national radio stations… There’s a lot of them about. For the most part, that’s a good thing – I want some quality control if I’m going to invest my time or money in buying a book, listening to a radio programme, watching a film. But who gets to be the gatekeeper and who do they have in mind when they’re checking for quality, signs of popularity, or profit-making potential?
I happened to hear a clip on the radio recently, MeatLoaf talking about how hard it was to get any record company interested in Bat Out Of Hell. And when eventually they did get it recorded and released, only two radio stations would play anything from it. It has since sold over 50 million copies. Lots of people have heard of it, even if it’s not their cup of tea. Clearly there was an appetite for that album and it must have made a vast profit, but both of those things are only obvious in hindsight. At the time it must have seemed like an insane risk, and the record companies who turned it down were making a rational decision. But was Bat Out Of Hell an out of the blue fluke that it would have been hard for anyone to predict the popularity of, or were those record company execs out of touch? I don’t know, but I’ll come back to this point in a minute.
Say Meat and his mate Jim decided all those men in suits knew nothing and they were going to make the album themselves, press a few hundred vinyl copies and take it from there. It would have been on a lower budget, naturally. And with a different producer, and without anyone at the helm who had experience of marketing and sleeve design and all that aspect of it. It could have strayed (further) into self-indulgence and tried the patience of its listeners. It might have been a close cousin of the Bat Out Of Hell we know, but it would be unlikely to have become quite as popular, and maybe there’d be good reason for that.
Now I happen to like Bat Out Of Hell but I’m not trying to lay out a nightmare scenario where it never existed. I would never have known I’d missed out on it. Maybe Meat and Jim would have tried again on something else, more successfully, and got to record Bat Out Of Hell as their second album anyway. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone in charge heard what they had to offer, said ‘nobody will buy that – or at least not enough of them for us to turn a profit’ and turned out to be wrong. There are a few stories like that – the men who passed on The Beatles, the agents and publishers that rejected JK Rowling, the self-published authors on six-figure incomes – but they are the few who persisted, and either eventually found someone who believed in them, or did it themselves to a high enough standard that they found their own audience.
There are two aspects to this and I don’t have answers to either part I’m afraid:
There are currently gatekeepers who control whose novel gets picked up by the big publishers, whose sitcom gets on BBC1, whose album gets enough airplay to get to number one, etc. They are not always as diverse (in background, experience, location, taste or anything else) as they could be. They sometimes get it wrong despite their best efforts. They are usually looking for The Next Big Thing.
It is easier than it has ever been to record and distribute your own music, publish your own novels, make your own radio programme (podcast). How do you find your audience? How, as a potential member of that audience, do I find decent quality output that fits my taste?
To go back for a moment to those out of touch record executives. Let’s say none of them like heavy metal, none of their friends or cousins or younger brothers like heavy metal, so they’re either unaware of or dismissive of the vast, global appeal of heavy metal. They hear something that sounds a bit metal and they say ‘nobody likes metal, we can’t sell it’ so they don’t pick it up. You could argue that if you were a metal band you wouldn’t want to be picked up by a record company where they don’t like metal, but if all the big record companies have that attitude you’re a bit stuck if you want to hit the big time. Now extrapolate that to any taste or viewpoint in your field that might not appeal to the few gatekeepers, whether it’s novels with working-class main characters, British Asian sitcoms, or overblown rock opera. You see the potential problems?
This year I’m working my way through a course called Writing Your Sitcom by James Cary. He wrote or co-wrote several BBC radio comedies I particularly enjoyed, though he mainly focuses on TV in the course as it’s only the odd weirdo like me apparently who prefers radio. However, we were recently talking about why and how to self-produce a sitcom. The how is relatively simple for radio, I know the technical ins and outs of recording and editing audio and I have a decent microphone due to recording some of my stories (which you can find here on chirbit). I’ve been to a Script Yorkshire workshop on how to produce your own podcast so I’m aware of how to distribute it. If I can keep the number of characters down to the number of friends I have with time on their hands and enough acting ability to help me out, I can make it for next to no money – though it would cost me in time, effort, and biscuits. But how do I know if it’s any good? Then assuming it is ok, and I’m not entirely deluded about my own script-writing ability, how do I persuade other people to listen to it when it hasn’t been through any gatekeepers?
As to the why, there are several reasons why you might want to go your own way, but for me the main one comes back to that search for The Next Big Thing. If you’re a BBC radio bod you’ve only got a few slots and although it’s relatively cheap to make a radio sitcom you want to get a decent audience. You need mass appeal, not niche interest. Podcasts of course are the opposite. If you know your sitcom about cosplayers is full of in-jokes that other cosplayers will find hilarious but nobody else will get, then it’s pointless trying to persuade the BBC to give you half an hour a week on Radio 4, but if you can make a good enough podcast it makes perfect sense to appeal directly to a few thousand cosplayers who like comedy. Similarly with your flash fiction collection about British cheese, your album of bagpipe covers of Iron Maiden songs, your novel which is genuinely funny for anyone who’s ever programmed in Fortran but impenetrable to anyone else…
It is just possible that I’m over-thinking this. That not everything has to be the best it could possibly be, and the low-fi Bat Out Of Hell on limited-pressing vinyl would still have been a good album. After all, I write this blog with no quality control (except OneMonkey occasionally reading a draft post). In the Before Times I stood up at open mics or sat in a radio studio in Seacroft and read unpublished stories that I thought were good enough to share. I’ve self-published graphic novels, story collections, and a novel. I’ve had enough confidence in my own ability to do all this but always, I suppose, with the nagging feeling that my confidence might be misplaced. Perhaps what I’m looking for is a network of people who have varied enough tastes and background to really get a wide variety of things, and to be able to say that while that bagpipe album is the pinnacle of its kind, the cosplay sitcom needs more work.
If I’ve got you thinking, you can always buy me a cuppa…
I have a dark fairytale up at Crow & Cross Keys this weekend. It’s called The Crows Remember, and it’s a reprint of a story I wrote for the 52 Crows project from the illustrator Bonnie Helen Hawkins in August 2018. Here’s what I said about the story in my blog post that week:
The Crows Remember is a sad story, as pretty much everyone who’s read it so far has pointed out, but I was going for fairytale/folktale and there’s often an undercurrent of sadness or something dark at the core of those so I think I found the tone I was looking for. It’s set (though I didn’t specify in the story) in Swaledale, which to me is a mysterious place populated by the shades of my ancestors, and some sheep – all of 30 miles and a couple of dales away from where I live, but when you don’t drive it’s not an easy place to visit. Unless maybe you’re fitter than I am and own a bicycle.
It’s great to have this story out in the world again, it seems to have been getting some love on Twitter already – thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to read it. Here’s the excerpt Crow & Cross Keys chose to share on their tweets:
Next morning as she swept she saw something flutter past the open doorway, and when she went to look there was a velvet ribbon the colour of fresh blood lying on the flags. She stepped out and looked around but there was only a crow watching her, head cocked.
I don’t mean why buy books, rather why bother hanging onto them once you’ve read them? Spending lockdown staring at our bookshelves and wondering why we had so many books, and how many we’d actually read, OneMonkey and I had a cull recently.
There are piles of books lying around our flat now, waiting for the charity shops to reopen so we can pass them on. They are mainly mine. Books that were my undergraduate set texts more than twenty years ago, second-hand books I haven’t read and can now admit I never will, books I have read but won’t read again. As we went through each shelf deciding which books to keep and which to jettison, it made me think about where I got them and why I kept them in the first place.
When I was a teenager, in fact probably into my early twenties, I stocked up on the books I thought I ‘ought’ to read. The ones I thought might be impressive (to whom?) on the bookshelves in my student digs. With the aid of the new Wordsworth cheap editions and the clearance shelf in Thornes and/or Dillons in Newcastle I got Tolstoy and Turgenev, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton. Birthday book tokens got me Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (single volume abridged) and some of the optional reading for my philosophy of science modules. I even read most of them. Then I hung on to them for years, no intention of re-reading the ones I’d read, never getting round to the ones I hadn’t. They had become part of the furniture, being packed up and redeployed every time OneMonkey and I moved house (which we did six times in the eleven years after graduation).
Books, as you might expect, are a bit of a Proust’s madeleine for me. With most of my books, I pick it off the shelf and recall its acquisition. Often I get a flash of when or where I read it, if indeed I have. For most of those ‘ought’ books, I got nothing. I hadn’t read them because I got a flash of excitement when I read the blurb in the bookshop, I’d read them because I recognised the title or the author from a list somewhere. With a few honourable exceptions (Tolstoy, for one), I never connected with them. Now I’m in my forties, my hair shot with silver threads that match my glam metal scarves, I don’t care about having Plato or Hume on my shelves. I don’t even care that I haven’t read them (I did try Hume, but his punctuation and phraseology were impenetrable).
Those books joined the popular science books I’d left too long after graduation and didn’t understand, the history books on topics I was no longer interested in or that were written in a dull old-fashioned way. It was easier to ditch the second-hand books, the dog-eared ones I’d rescued from the bin at an Oxfam bookshop I volunteered at many years ago or the ones I’d bought at charity shops or library book-sales. The ones I’d bought new were harder (I paid good money for that!) and the ones that were gifts, harder still.
I find it hard to get rid of books that were gifts, even when they were wide of the mark. I can sometimes pass them on to someone else I know, but to hand them over to a charity shop, not knowing what kind of care they’ll subsequently receive, is too much. Of course, when you’re known to be a book-lover and your nearest and dearest give you books at every available opportunity but you live in a flat, there comes a time when even some of the presents have to go. The books friend T gave me for my 18th and 40th birthdays remain beside each other on the popular science and rock ‘n’ roll shelf (the shelving system only really makes sense to me), as do scattered others, but there are books from friends and family on the To Go piles. The cringing this is causing made me realise that part of the reason for keeping the gift books is so I can hope said friend or relative notices it on a visit and thinks better of me. Even though most of my friends and relatives rarely, if ever, get close to my bookshelves and probably wouldn’t recognise half the books they’d given me.
So we’re back to bookshelves as a means to impress. It made me think of the Twitter account Bookcase Credibility, which popped up at the start of lockdown in 2020 to offer tongue in cheek analysis of the shelves used as background by experts and politicians appearing on the news from their homes. I had a job interview by video call in February and I admit I agonised over which angle to have my chair at. In the end I realised that the books I’d be happiest about having on show (sci-fi and fantasy novels, northern and/or working-class history) were on the higher shelves and I could either do the interview standing up or just not mind. I ended up with Muppet DVDs on one side and a random collection of fiction on the other, most legible among which was probably the Scarlet Pimpernel omnibus (and yet, I did get the job).
Why own books, then? I reckon they fall into four categories:
I (realistically) intend to read them but haven’t yet
reference volumes or say, a history book that I’ve read but might want to revisit for a fact or date
fiction or poetry that’s likely to be re-read, e.g. a seasonal collection or favourite Terry Pratchett
fiction I’m pretty sure I won’t re-read but holds fond memories that flood me when I pluck it from the shelf, possibly because it was a gift
Oh yes, and of course the ones I’d prefer to have as my public-facing background on a video call or author photo, but I’m pretty sure I’m hanging on to them for one of the four reasons above, anyway.
Why do you keep books, if you do? I’d love to know, so feel free to tell me in the comments (or on Twitter @JYSaville)
If I’ve got you thinking, you can always buy me a cuppa…
The Bone Ships took me weeks to read despite being magnificent, so I’m hazy on early detail now – blame lockdown fatigue. However, the simple message is: read this book. If you like epic fantasy, or if you like adventurous tales of the high seas, and especially if you like both, you will love this novel. I happened to start reading it the same week OneMonkey and I started watching Hornblower (late ’90s adaptation of some CS Forester books, set in the Royal Navy in the late 18th century) on Britbox, and I realised how nicely they went together.
The Hundred Isles have been at war forever, it’s what they do. The war ships are built from dragon bones but nobody’s seen an actual dragon for generations. Until now. Whoever gets hold of that dragon will have a prize indeed.
That’s the rough gist of the blurb and it was enough to grab me, having never read any of RJ Barker’s work before. It doesn’t even begin to do justice to the inventiveness of this world, however: the myths, rituals and religion; the vegetation, geography and animals. The characters. Oh, the characters: Joron Twiner, Meas Gilbryn, and the gullaime for starters. But it’s so hard to say anything further without spoiling one of the many revelatory moments.
I could talk about the themes of bravery and loyalty, propaganda and political truth, environmental exploitation and unexpected allies. I could mention the fact that RJ Barker is, like me, from West Yorkshire (about as far from the sea as you can get in northern England), though I didn’t find that out until after I’d started the book – an added bonus, if you will. I will note in passing that subtle shifts in language like calling all ships he instead of she, talking about wings instead of sails, and flying the sea rather than sailing, were effective in shifting this firmly into another world. And I will say again, if either ships or dragons are your thing you will love this book.
I had just finished reading the penultimate chapter of The Bone Ships when it won Best Fantasy Novel at the British Fantasy Awards 2020 and I thought yes, that makes perfect sense. Book 2 of the Tide Child Trilogy is Call of the Bone Ships, which came out in paperback at the end of 2020, and I will be getting it for the Kobo forthwith.
If I’ve helped you find your new favourite author, you can always buy me a cuppa…
I have a constitutional inability to use paper. Tricky in a writer, you might think. As a physics student in the nineties my back of the envelope calculations were genuinely done on the back of an envelope. I hoarded scrap paper and my flatmates used to add their surplus to the cardboard box under my desk, which went with me when I left. I have three writing notebooks that are actually other people’s discarded desk diaries, bought in a fit of enthusiasm and never used. Or in my mum’s case for the 2006 one, put down somewhere safe and lost until 2008.
Brought up in the eighties by my Nana with her 1940s make do and mend ethos, scared into good habits by Friends of the Earth, I have taken reduce and reuse to heart. Even I, however, print things out sometimes. I cannot, no matter how many times I try, successfully edit a novel on the screen. Something about being able to flick back and forth, put pages side by side, or scrawl in coloured pencil helps me enormously. Short stories, even a novella, I’ve happily managed on my laptop. Novels, no chance. But I’m running out.
I have three novels that I’m working on to a greater or lesser degree right now. There’s the semi-rural fantasy that got me on the Penguin WriteNow day in 2017, which I’ve been sending to agents left, right and centre and now want to go back and rework a bit because I’m not sure there’s enough nature in it. There’s the sci-fi noir that I got useful feedback from a small press from around Christmas time, that I want to tweak to address their concerns so I can send it elsewhere with confidence. And there’s the crime novel I got my first ever full manuscript request for last year, which needs tightening up for the second full manuscript request which I got from another small press, who meanwhile gave me helpful feedback on the few chapters they’ve already read. That’s a lot of pages to print out and go through with a red pen.
OneMonkey has often been heard to say I have more than enough scrap paper. Usually when I’m about to squirrel away flyers and handouts while we’re out, or the single-sided descriptive insert from a box of Christmas crackers at a family gathering. In fact when he cleared out his box of MSc notes recently I agreed to be ruthless and not keep every last printout and single-sided form. I ended up with two full drawers and a one-inch thick stack of A4 on the top of the cabinet, thinking it would last for ages. It’s almost all gone.
It occurred to me this morning as I printed out another section of the crime novel (forty pages of single-sided A4 from the drawer) that I’m not replenishing this supply. Given that neither of us has been a student for at least a dozen years we’re certainly not adding printouts of slides, homework questions, instructions for formatting essays. I suspect if we were students these days they’d point us at an online resource anyway. After a certain number of years I used to put bills, bank statements, mortgage letters and the like into the scrap paper box but they’re mostly electronic now, and the few that are paper are printed on both sides. In a way, that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t help me with my printing. Among the sheets from this morning’s session I also had particulars from estate agents from before the days of rightmove, job details from when you sent for an application pack instead of filling in an online form, and letters from the Institute of Physics which have undoubtedly migrated to email.
Before long, I’ll be forced to print out on brand new (recycled) paper, and the only additions to my scrap paper drawer will be the half-sheets from when a chapter ends partway down a page. And the inevitable double-sided printing disasters where I print the second page over the first. It’s going to come as something of a shock after all these years, the demise of my scrap paper printing supply. I might have to delve under the bed to check I haven’t got a forgotten folder of A-level notes I can liberate some homework sheets from.
If you’d like to help me brace for the shock you can always buy me a cuppa…
I’ve been trying to use lockdown as a prompt to read the books languishing unread on my bookshelves. It’s proving full of delightful surprises, and is also making OneMonkey and I clear out a stupid number of books – more of which in a later post, I’m sure. The latest discovery is this slim volume, Ur of the Chaldees by Sir Leonard Woolley, which I’ve enjoyed immensely. Woolley was in charge of British Museum excavations in the 1920s at the ancient Sumerian city of Ur in modern Iraq, and this is his account, written in 1929 (though I have the 1952 revised edition, and I think there are modern editions as well).
You may recall I read a book called Footsteps by Bruce Norman last year, about nineteenth and early twentieth century archaeological expeditions and the birth of scientific archaeology. This book on Ur was a nice coda to that, being an expedition right at the end of the time period covered in Footsteps. Woolley describes techniques that made me wince, and I’m sure Professor Mick Aston from Time Team would have thrown up his hands in horror at them, but he is using the most up to date techniques available to him and contrasts them with the plundering seventy years earlier which has damaged some of the remains. I mention Time Team not just because I love the programme, but because Woolley’s descriptions of techniques, practicalities and frustrations reminded me of it. It struck me that this swiftly-produced book was the pre-television age version: an insight into the excavations for a popular audience, educating and entertaining in equal measure.
The title is, I believe, a biblical reference which was lost on me, something to do with Abraham. However, I do vaguely recall Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus from primary school religious studies, and both those kings crop up here. As does Hammurabi, whose eye-for-an-eye code of law I remember learning about in history when I was about twelve. Basically, I know more about ancient Sumerian and Babylonian kings than I thought I did, and you probably do too. Not that it matters, because Woolley’s enthusiasm carried me through. The edition I have is 164 pages including the index, which is short enough to be casually and quickly readable. I did get a bit confused about layouts, because there are only twenty-seven black and white photos and a few line drawings in the whole book, but on the whole I got a sense of wonder and discovery as he described unearthing the different layers and artefacts. Amazingly, one of the places they excavated was a museum of antiquities! A site from around 600BCE where objects already at least a thousand years old were gathered as a teaching resource, it seems. A fascinating thought.
Trying to make out details on the small pictures included in this paperback, I wished I could see the objects themselves. He was digging for the British Museum, I realised – they must have pictures somewhere, they’re good at that. What they’ve actually got is a Google street view of the gallery, so you can (if you’re better at controlling street view than I am) walk through the gallery as though you were there. And the same goes for the rest of the museum, I think. I did also discover a British Museum blog post, which I haven’t explored but I think suggests there’s a new online Woolley/Ur resource somewhere. I had a wonderful time spotting objects in the gallery that I recognised either from the photos in the book or from Woolley’s descriptions. To have read about the difficulties of identifying or excavating them gave me much more of a connection than if I’d simply looked through the objects without reading about them first.
Possibly I’m just slow on the uptake and everyone else who’s missing museums has been tripping through the rooms of their favourites in a virtual way for months. However, I realised that in a similar way I could ‘visit’ museums I’ll never get to in real life. It is vaguely possible my London-based friend will persuade me to the British Museum once all this corona-horror is over, but I’ll never go to Cairo or Washington or St Petersburg but chances are their museums have virtual tours too. In the meantime I’ve also discovered, courtesy of OneMonkey, a reddit channel where people post photos of man-made objects, many of them ancient, from all around the world.
So, Ur of the Chaldees has earnt its continuing place on my bookshelves, next to Footsteps. Unusually for my second-hand books I have no recollection of where it came from or when I acquired it. It’s not ex-library, I can’t imagine anyone giving me it as a present, and I can see no evidence of a rubbed-out price from a charity shop. I have no idea what possessed me to pick it up in the first place, or why I then didn’t read it for years. However, I dare say I’ve appreciated it more after Footsteps than I might have done if I’d read it a couple of years ago so all in all, I’m glad I put it off.
If I’ve helped you discover some wonders you can always buy me a cuppa…