Sally Heathcote Suffragette

Bryan and Mary Talbot were at last year’s Ilkley literature festival talking about this graphic novel, and since then it’s been part of the Read Regional promotion in northern libraries. Particularly with the forthcoming suffragette film focusing people’s attention on the subject at the moment, Sally Heathcote Suffragette deserves a wide audience.

Cover of Sally Heathcote Suffragette by Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, Kate Charlesworth

As you’d expect given who produced it (Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot, and Kate Charlesworth) it’s a high quality affair, with beautifully detailed artwork. I’m almost sorry that I borrowed it from the library, as there are some pages in particular I’d love to keep. The colours are generally muted, except for the purple and green of the WSPU, and the flaming ginger of Sally’s hair, that allows her to be spotted easily in a crowd. The background is full of authentic reproductions of railway posters, advertising boards and the like, and the era is conjured magnificently.

I found myself thinking early on ‘That Mrs Pankhurst is a right piece of work’ and I can’t say my opinion changed. The character of Sally is a good one to see the development of the story through, but I didn’t have much sympathy for Sally myself, as she gets involved in violence and destruction, and goes along with the absolute outrage at the idea of working men possibly getting the vote (that’s the trouble with groups that want the advancement of one section of society, rather than improvements for all). If you have a Northern and/or working class chip prepare to get it exercised, with Londoners patronising Sally for being from Lancashire and middle class women patronising her for being poor. Also, whether this was the intention or not, as it starts and ends with Sally as an old lady it did make me stop and think about the invisibility of the old, who knows what extraordinary things they did before they were so frail.

There are notes and a timeline at the back to really propel you into the history but I learnt a lot from the story itself (Sylvia Pankhurst’s split from her mother and Christabel for instance). Coincidentally, I read it in the week of the centenary of Keir Hardie’s death (thus getting a reminder of his involvement with trying to expand the franchise), and immediately before I started on Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 (which covers both female and working male suffrage in the first chapter) so it all slotted into place nicely.

Weekend creativity

Like those conversations in the pub that are full of great plans but never amount to anything, OneMonkey and our artist friend Mark and I have spent most of today drinking tea on the sofa and telling each other what to do, knowing 90% of it will be ignored. If we weren’t shy, if we had more confidence, if we were more organised, if we only had time to do this project justice… The excuses have been flying around, all of us about as bad as each other, but between us we’ve generated a few ideas that might pay off (not in terms of actual money, obviously, but maybe in terms of artistic satisfaction). It’s an interesting exercise having an outsider’s perspective (by which I mean I’m not a painter or illustrator, Mark and OneMonkey are not writers), asking the questions that are so obvious they’ve been overlooked.

So, in between all the book reviews I’m writing, all the books I’m reading, the 3 writing deadlines that are looming, and the continuing amusement of the interactive detective story I’m writing with OneMonkey (not to mention the art history MOOC I’ve just started and the philosophy MOOC I still haven’t finished) I’ll try following up on some of today’s suggestions. When was it I was supposed to sleep..?

Sixth annual International Illustrator Appreciation Day

Whose word-enhancing art are you going to appreciate today? Five years ago I tried to boost the profile of artists quietly providing book covers and magazine illustrations. In the last few days, by coincidence, I’ve had my attention drawn to this vote for artwork (suitable for a future book cover) at Spark. Hard to choose, but I particularly liked Monsters and Marvels by Luke Spooner, Snake Bones by Rodrica Cogle, and The Carrot is Mightier Than the Sword by Sean Greenberg.

It’s also been a week for comics exposure, what with Dave Gibbons being created Comics Laureate in the cause of literacy, so in case it’s not your usual medium why not check out some freely available volumes? There’s The Only Living Boy at NoiseTrade, and a whole graphic novel list at Free Online Novels (including 2 written by me, with fabulous art by Mark Pexton, which you can get here).

Words as art

The other night, Gideon Coe (BBC 6Music DJ with excellent musical taste) had a quiz where you had to figure out the album from a word cloud made from the lyrics. This set me off making clouds from Iron Maiden lyrics, which was great fun using the nifty online tool (where you can play around with colours, font, layout etc) at Wordle. Then I wondered what a short story would look like that way, and since I have a selection of my own to hand, I tried it with Last Night in Las Vegas, and here’s the result:

LastNightLVNot only does that look like a film poster for something cool and sixties, but it almost turns the story into poetry (come on, I did say ‘almost’). It’s amazing how it makes you look at the story in a different way, gives you an idea what’s going on and highlights themes. It could catch on as a form of ‘trailer’ for novels or short stories . I’d certainly consider using it that way – any readers or writers care to share their thoughts on the idea?


Weather reporting

Elmore Leonard apparently said you should never write about the weather. With pared-down crime writing you might think that makes good sense, and it can’t have done him any harm, but don’t underestimate the effects of the weather.

Maybe it’s just because I’m British, and the twists and turns of the weather are discussed at great length daily, not least by me. I think in any piece of writing the weather can play a part – though I’m not saying every piece of writing should dwell on it, or even mention it.

Think of a place you know well. I’ll take the street I live on, a street I walk down every weekday morning, and back up ten hours later. It has as many different moods as there are cloud configurations over the valley.

  • A crisp October morning with breath faintly visible in the sunlight.
  • A foggy November teatime, the streetlights doing nothing but tint small patches of fog orange.
  • Blue-cast January, silent snowflakes settling slowly on covered paths.
  • Muggy August, clouds gathering in late afternoon as the storm promises cool relief.

In each of those cases the street looks and feels different: open and light or closed in, safe or full of hidden dangers, familiar and comfortable or eerie and unsettling. That in turn affects my mood, so imagine what it can do for your characters.

For crime writing the weather has added benefits. Loud wind or rain can muffle thuds or shouts: either nothing is heard at all or witness reports are confused. Bad weather of any kind keeps people indoors, or walking with heads down, either way they’re not witnessing anything. Snow holds tracks (cars, feet, dragged bodies), rain makes mud which does the same. Heat shortens tempers and makes people lazy. And all that’s before you get to the ‘why was he only wearing a thin jumper when he claimed to have walked all the way across town? He’d freeze.’

Monet kept painting Rouen cathedral at different times of day in different weather. Those paintings are all of the same building but they’re by no means the same picture.

Books as art: the future of publishing?

I’ve made the books=vinyl, e-reader=mp3-player analogy before but it seemed to work so I’ll use it again: vinyl didn’t die out because of cassettes, or CDs, mini-discs or digital music collections. Books won’t die out.

OneMonkey raised an interesting question recently though: will they become pieces of art? If you can get the content of a novel electronically in a convenient form that many people have embraced, what will be the added value of owning the physical book? Aside from personal preferences on holding paper and turning real pages that smell of childhood memories, what? It’s the cachet, the exclusivity can be marketed but only if it is exclusive by some measure of the word.

Limited edition signed copies. Hand-written title pages, individual artwork, fine bindings. What if someone owned the original? What if by owning the original you could stop anyone else from being able to read it (like if you bought a watercolour from a commercial gallery and with it the rights to prints). Then you could charge for viewing; stately homes could charge the public to come and read in their library as well as see their Van Dyck’s in the long gallery. Writers could be commissioned by the wealthy.

Books can be art but they also contain ideas and I’d worry about anything that blocks the flow of that. But to stretch another analogy, I’d be much happier about a few rich collectors owning originals if it facilitated the sale of a load of cheap postcards, allowing art into every home.

Epitaphs, lasting legacies and the spec-fic pigeon

What would you want to be remembered for, if you had a choice? If you’re artistic at all, chances are you want your creations to live on after you, physically or in memory. If you make the distinction, would you want it to be your ‘serious’ work or the commercial output that pays the bills (or gives you pocket-money treats, depending how successful you are)? Would you rather the product of your frivolous youth was lost to the ravages of time, or do you think your best work is years behind you?

A while ago I wrote a story starting with Herman Sligo was a bit actor who played Uncle Emil in three episodes of the popular television series The Five Sisters. He died peacefully on November 8th and is survived by his younger sister from The First Line, which ended up being about an old lady’s sadness that her brother’s obituary focused on what was essentially a part-time job in his youth, rather than the community work he’d dedicated most of his life to. Outside of that community, the only reason anyone had heard his name was through television, since that literally made him visible to the wider world. If a genre author is known outside of their particular literary community, it’s usually for something that wouldn’t be considered their best or most representative work, but it might be the one that the wider population has heard of. In a similar way, bands or singers end up being remembered in general for the thing that most people will have heard, the commercial success.

As far as writing goes, I’m not sure what I’d prefer people to notice. If I had to be pigeonholed (which I’d rather not be, but it does happen) I’d rather be a spec-fic pigeon than a literary one. If nothing else, I like the sound of it.