Thursday, January 29, 2009


A while ago, in fact, about 20 years ago, I had my first story published. Company Magazine ran a competition, looking for crime stories with a female focus. The idea jigged around my head for a while, and then one morning, I woke up and there was this story in my head. I think it took a few hours to get the first draft down, then a couple of weekends to tweak and rewrite, and then I posted it off and did my best to forget about it.

I came third, I think. A cheque for £50, and the story was published in an anthology. I was invited to a reception at Murder and Co, just off the Tottenham Court Road at that stage (it's on Charing Cross Road, just up the road from Leicester Square now). There was champagne and Liza Cody. I was given a copy of the anthology, which is there rubbing dustjackets with various short story collections on the shelves, and then I turned my hand to other stuff. Like my scintillating best-seller, European Natural Gas Markets, and moving to China and directing a couple of plays and then onto the regency romance market, and moving to Brussels and all that life business like marriage and minions and mortgages. That story, Box, was long-forgotten.

Here in Brussels, we lived with Radio 4 Long Wave for quite a while, to the point where even the cricket-averse DH knew who Freddie Flintoff was, until we hooked up with a satellite and now we get Radio 4 FM but via the TV. It comes with little captions so you can see what you are listening to...There is a point to this digression, because imagine my surprise this afternoon, when I glance at the TV and what catches my eye but my maiden name, and there, read by Joanne Whalley (OMG, the heroine of one of my all time favourite TV series, Edge of Darkness), was Box. I listened to it in a sort of weirded out trance, because it was at once familiar and totally strange. I'd heard it in my head for quite a while as I was writing it, but hearing someone else read it, a competent actress who gave it life and flavour and an accent, that was the most wonderful sensation, particularly after a day of the customary stresses associated with dealing with hormonal adolescents and paperwork and marking exams and and and.

And if it had been another day, the likelihood of my hearing it at all would have been remote - what a piece of luck and timing that I actually came across it. The nicest kind of serendipity.

If you'd like to listen too, you can follow the link for the next 7 days:

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Aaghgh death of book, death of book, agh agh

Bloggers I like (John Green, Dear Author, Smart Bitches etc) are all discussing the way the US publishing industry has recently been exploring the nether reaches of the U-bend in the Crapper of Fate (pls xcse coarseness, but that's how they all make it sound). Apparently book sales have collapsed and all is doom and gloom. But but but - I checked out an interesting site run by Morris Rosenthal of Foner Books - here is his industry sales review which runs up to Oct 2008 (when the fact that a hedge fund was chief shareholder in one of the biggest US conglomerates, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt screwed them royally):

Check out the table about 2/3 of the way down the page - it shows the sales, and for the last 5 years, US book sales have run around $16.5bn per year...This year it looks as though it will be less because November saw a 14% plummet, and who knows what December brought - although maybe Santa bought a few books - he was certainly generous with the printed matter in our London/Brussels axis.

But the thing that baffles me altogether is this constant moan about the decline of the market - there have never ever been so many readers in the world - literacy rates may be proportionally lower globally especially since cute folk in organisations like the IMF and World Bank have helped poor countries switch money out of essentials like education in favour of paying interest on 'strucutural adjustment' funding. But overall, the number of people who learn to read continues to increase, little by little. Of course, their disposable income for books is shrinking at the moment, but the fact of the matter is if the right books are published, people will buy them and they will buy them more than ever right now, because books are a much better way of escaping the glooms than DVDs, say, or reruns on TV.

This is because reading is interactive and requires us to lose ourselves in a different time and place. The problem is that publishers at the moment have been burned by their own stupidity so badly - offering humongous advances for rubbish that won't sell (hmm, step forward sleb bios of ex-Big Bro contestants and Strictly Come Dancing judges), while failing to understand that by and large, fictions readers don't want more of exactly the same, but do want something just as good, if not better. Which is a subtle distinction that requires a punt every now and then, the kind of punt that takes imagination and people who understand about books. Which hedge fund managers by and large don't. Nor, clearly, as we are all discovering to our cost, do they seem to know much about their own business.

What all this means is publishing fewer books, more of which are crummy, thus deterring readers. What publishers need to do is publish more varied and interesting titles and build up small niche markets with print-on-demand technology offered through amazon and other retailers - because everywhere there are niche markets. And they need to ditch their sales guys and the big cars and get the authors out there pimping their own books, because no one can sell a book like a passionate author (take a look at John Green, frex). So - drive down the unit costs of book production - but not the editorial costs, because the one thing most books need nowadays is a lot of pruning and sometimes, slashing and burning, - save the planet by cutting down on paper costs and lumping around big heavy boxes of books which then get pulped, and get authors to work their markets through their own websites and through readings, offering courses and all the other things that most writers have to do already because so few of them as it is can make a decent living out of just writing. Plus, maybe, just maybe, some detailed research into the various genre markets.

Romance is alive and well because the romance genre, long snubbed, has gone out and built its own market through magazines and websites and now blogs and webrings, from AAR to great author pages. The readership is faithful and focused and is prepared to shell out for books because in tough times, you can save up for a couple of weeks, or a month and go out and buy 3-4 books in a hit. And if you are lucky, one or two will be good enough for re-reading, but otherwise, most romance readers have their stash of keepers that they will wheel out when the going gets touch (just as I did last week with one of my favourite Ibbotson books, The Morning Gift). There are lessons to be learned from the Mills & Boons of this world, who generally seem to be able to ride out recessions...

Monday, January 26, 2009

Williamson and the Holocaust

My attention was caught by two items today - the first, on the BBC website, where a debate presenting the case for and against preserving Auschwitz, has opened, and the second, the lifting of the excommunication of four bishops who were not properly bishoped in 1988, including one who does not believe in the Holocaust.

This chap is called Bishop Williamson, who believes that 'there is no serious historical evidence' for the murder of several million Jews in the gas chambers. He believes that between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews were killed by Nazis, 'not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber'. He refers to the Holocaust as 'quote unquote, The Holocaust'.

Williamson gave an interview in Germany last November to Swedish TV which demonstrates a wilful and bordering on wicked misinterpretation of data and semantics. He cites the work of Fred Leuchter, a strange being who offered his services to US states for the 'improvement' of their execution systems, but would then threaten to offer his services to the defendant in appeals against the death penalty to testify that the equipment to be used by a particular institution to put someone to death was faulty...unless they used his services. Given that I am virulently anti-death penalty, I certainly don't feel sympathy for the prison governors shaken down by Leuchter, but I am saying that his integrity perhaps isn't that credible, certainly not sufficiently for some Bishop-not-Bishop to cite him as an historically reliable source on gas chambers...

But what got me in the interview (apart from sheer shame that this noodle purporting to peddle the word of the Lord happens to be an Englishman, educated at Winchester and Cambridge) was his statement that his beliefs were based on truth, and that therefore they must be good, because all truth was good. He did not see the trap he had fallen into - his words were not true, could not be true, because there is abundant thoroughly documented and verified evidence for the existence of gas chambers operated by the Nazis. So his words were not truth, and therefore, based on his own syllogism, must be wicked, or evil, or bad, or whatever you want to call it. On the other hand, why are any of us paying any attention to this crazy nutter, given that he believes that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were staged by the US government?

I suppose it is because, in my case, I cannot understand remotely how anyone can deny the Holocaust - especially someone born during the war, who grew up through the 1950s and 60s with the revelations and trials and memoirs coming thick and fast, not to mention the dense body of documentation - plans, aerial photographs, orders and reports that survived the Nazis' attempts to conceal their crimes. In Williamson's case, I wonder how a man of considerable education (though clearly limited erudition beyond his narrow vision of the Catholic church) can so calmly and foolishly deny what is so easily verifiable. Perhaps the clue lies in that phrase, narrow vision - a vision which is so confined by his theology that he has lost all sight of humanity, of genuine intellectual curiosity and of any humility.

What frightens me most about Williamson is not the bizarre lunacy and repellence of his many views, but the fact that this man has been rector of numerous seminaries for the training of young priests and is currently busy in Argentina continuing his work of warping the world-views of those he's allegedly educating. What Benedict thinks he is doing by rescinding the order of excommunication is unclear - possibly mending schism in the ranks of the Catholic church. But mending a schism between the mainstream and a bunch of about 5,000 extremists which is likely now to sour Catholic-Jewish relations seems like a truly bizarre move. So Benedict clearly woke up one morning thinking, 'Hmm, shall I invite the Lefevrists back into the fold, thus irritating and angering swathes of people in all faiths who'd never heard of this bunch of RC extremists or shall I leave well enough alone?' Ah, well, Popes have made bad calls before and no doubt will again. In the meantime, I suppose we should be thankful that Williamson is safely tucked away in Argentina.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A New Era??

So, the razzle dazzle and the hoopla is over, some are masking their disappointment over The Inaugural Speech while others celebrate its steady, focused approach, and for the first time since 1993, we have a president that the world actually seems to like. And for the first time ever in my lifetime, I see a president I really admire.

My first president was Lyndon B Johnson, but I can't really say I remember him, let alone admired or despised him.

Next up came Tricky Dicky... we all remember how that ended.

Oh, yes, then there was Gerald Ford, who just kept falling over. Followed by Jimmy Carter. Since he has left the Presidency, Carter has grown as a statesman (although I am aware that there are those who loathe and detest him), but as POTUS, I cannot say he impressed. There was the Iran hostage crisis and that unfortunate picture of him deyhdrated and faint as he tried to run in a Washington race.

Reagan was the president of my student days and no, I did not think he was remotely admirable. Even though the Evil Empire crumbled on his watch, that was due more to economic and political movement within the USSR than pressure from the US Administration.

Bush Sr - hmmm. Well, he didn't have Alzheimer's. But he was lacklustre. There was cronyism, there was the slippery slope to dishing out contracts to pals for wars that hadn't been declared just hanging about in the atmosphere. There was a failure to make the most of opportunities and there was economic gloom.

Then came Clinton, and while I respect his intelligence and appreciate his act, admiration is not something I can quite feel for someone who was so heavily compromised both before and while in office by the air of sleaze that surrounded his dealings - almost certainly within the letter of the law, but I always have an image of Hill and Bill like jackals circling their next carcass. And the whole Monica business did bring the White House into disrepute. Although I think he governed creditably enough, the good stuff that happened economically in Clinton's era was more a lucky break than an intended outcome. He also set up some of the deregulation that has landed us in the current fiscal castastrophe. At the end of his eight years, I had a sense of disappointment that was immeasurably deepened by the defeat of Al Gore by Bush and the GOP party machinery.

While Bush Jr was a gift to the satirists, I find myself wishing he had not been quite so easy a target with his malapropisms (terriers and bariffs...), his gaucherie (Yo Blair!), his blithe insouciance in the face of suffering - proudly showing off the latest green gadgets on his Crawfordsville ranch as New Orleans disintegrated. Admirable...I don't think so.

So what is it about Obama that makes me admire him? Number one, he's 'fessed up to his mistakes in print, in two books which he himself has written.

Then there is his sheer intelligence. Apart from the numerous endorsements of his professors and colleagues, the media coverage has shown time and time again, a man who is not afraid to think before opening his trap. He likes thinking, he has run the bid for the presidency with a startling competence and while of course running a country is different, he is a man who seems to be able to manage others, while engendering loyalty and encomia of great fulsomeness.

Secondly, he is his own man. He looks at a situation and does what he thinks is right. Like the dinner for John McCain. He is doing his best to create a bi-partisan government focused on rebuilding a country trashed by its leaders. Because currently the US does look like a frat-house on a Sunday afternoon. There's garbage strewn everywhere, ripped sofa cushions, stained upholstery, someone did spew in the corner, there's the scent of rancid alcohol and stale smoke, and the semi-conscious corpses of the kids who couldn't handle the stairs unbecomingly slumped like rag-dolls across the floor. The Cheneys, the Madoffs, the Fulds, they've had their fun, and pissed on the American and quite a few other people while they were at it.

But another admirable thing about Barack Obama is that he also likes a joke and some fun, he enjoys dancing with his wife, cuddling his kids and talking to his friends. Where Dubya continues to seem like a bizarre puppet,maybe what Pinocchio did when he grew up, Obama seems like a real person, and now that all the razzmatazz is done, he will roll up his sleeves, sit down to read, think, discuss and debate with the exceptional minds he has appointed to help him, and work out both short and long-term options. When he makes decisions, he will have the humility and common sense to explain them, and he will also be able to remind us all that he is not Superman or Iron Man, he is just another human, and that he may make the wrong decision, or the unpopular decision.

The papers in the UK have been full of the usual British caveat-construction, but you know, I looked at Obama a while ago, and I don't expect miracles. But what I think the Americans have managed is to appoint someone compassionate and sensible who will explore what he can deliver rather than promising the moon, and then he will deliver, explaining it to us all in coherent, structured and elegant language that encourages us to strive for the heights instead of allowing us to wallow in complacency or incompetence.

Sarah Palin attacked Obama for being a man of words - but without words, we are no more than posturing apes. Obama makes us more than that, and perhaps that celebration of the word, of language and of soaring and searing rhetoric, speeches that put us on the spot as much as the expectation of them puts him on the spot, is the gift for which I admire him the most.

So, yes, a new era, an era of eloquence and damned hard slog. Somehow, it seems like an improvement on the era of obfuscation, lies and misunderestimation that has now passed.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Stretching out and courting sailors

Many thanks to Celia Rees - I started teaching her wonderful YA novel Pirates! this week, and on the book's website, she lists some of the songs she used as inspiration, including I Courted a Sailor by Kate Rusby, which sent me back to this wonderful singer. I bought Sleepless when it first came out years ago but didn't really get into her. Then I youtubed her and ended up downloading Hourglass, her first collection of songs. On which there is the heartbreaking I am stretched on your grave, a song that sends shivers up and down my spine and calls up all sorts of images to mind. Rusby has a voice that is smooth but raspy and the accompanying musicians - accordion, flute, fiddle and acoustic guitar, produce a rich, evocative layering of sound that is pure magic. A whole catalogue of loveliness awaits.

Somehow, I've managed to download some additional widget for iTunes called Genius which is meant to provide recommendations (ahem, get you to go and spend more money, perhaps their fight back against amazon going the downloadable route). But Genius is currently sending me apologies that it isn't working fully and btw here's the list of top 10 downloads, featuring Beyonce and Britney. But being in the mood for folk, the idea of listening to the bouncy vacuous beats seems utterly risible.

It was with a shock that I realised that I knew I am stretched on your grave from both Dead Can Dance and Sinead O'Connor's versions, but the song never grabbed me by the throat and shook me until I heard Rusby's version. Curious how some voices, some arrangements of sound just go right to one's heart, or rather whatever strange part of our brains it is where we respond to music.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

War Horse

What a way to start the year - traipsing from Brussels to London, 91 students in tow, to visit the Imperial War Museum in the morning and see the National Theatre's production of War Horse in the afternoon.

Over the years, I've seen many many plays, in all sorts of venues and all sorts of styles. I can think of all sorts of standout performances, I've had wonderful entrancing times in the theatre, but War Horse went straight into the top five or so of theatrical memories. It was exhilarating, heartbreaking, wild, and one of those rare occasions when the adaptation transcends the source material. Morpurgo's book is a lovely book, but the complete physical experience of the play is so visceral, so vivid and so extraordinarily focused in performance that it becomes much more than a story about a horse surviving World War One. I don't think I've ever seen a cast work so fluidly and effectively to create real art: every single person on stage totally gave themselves over to the piece.

Of course, there is the technical magnificence of the horses - extraordinary pieces of engineering, matched by the physical labours of the actors manipulating the heads, the hindquarters and the forelegs while making utterly believable horse sounds - the chill of the screams of horses cut down by machine gun fire will not leave me.

In addition, there were wonderfully light comic touches, and the changes made to the plot (scenes cut and backstory added) were not lightly executed, but carefully thought through. The main scene setter was a shred of screen across the back of the stage, used to project the wonderful drawings of Rae Smith, who designed the set with Handspring, the company which created the puppets - although the horses are more like sculptures than puppets.

Many of the plays I've seen in the last ten years have been at the National, and their visual inventiveness is one of the great pleasures of going to the theatre there. War Horse was one of the richest in terms of sheer spectacle. Having now read the reviews my students have written about the production, I feel vindicated in hauling them untimely from their beds for their journey to the western front. War Horse is a glorious endorsement of all that is best in theatre, a wondrous example of when everything falls into place and makes magic.

The play is sold out at the National, but is transferring to the West End - booking until the end of September. Prices are up from the National's incredibly reasonable 10-45/seat, but it is worth seeing this piece at any price.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Reading resolutions

The TBR pile is 86 books big, plus a couple more that are coming through the post. Last year, I read 109 books... that means that if I read everything in the TBR pile, I should see the year through to October without buying any more books, especially since some of the babies in that pile are seriously long.

Of course book lust will grab me and I will feel that I simply cannot do without a quick hit from Amazon...but I am going to do my uber-best not to order any more books until the TBR pile is down below 50. There are some great reads in there. I've winkled out the books that I've started and really won't finish (S. Meyer's New Moon, step forward, ditto AM Holmes' This Book will Save your Life). So that is resolution number 1.

And in this Darwin Bicentenary year, I am going to read The Origin of the Species.

Meanwhile, I've finished The Thirty Years War, which was a slog, although I do think I am now clear on the differences between Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III and I certainly know who Maximilian of Bavaria is, though I am still confused about Margraves and Landgraves, Electors John George, George John, Frederick, Charles Lewis of Saxony, Brandenburg etc etc etc.

Have now started Dark Fire by CJ Sansom, and Matthew Shardlake is better than ever - I am really going to eke out Sovereign and Revelation, because this guy is good....The worldbuilding is flawless, the characterisation sympathetic and the stories convoluted and intriguing. Yes, 80 pages in, I did end-read, and now I can settle back to see how the tale unfolds, because of course, it's not the way that it ends, but the way that it is told that matters.

Which reminds me of the joys of Jarvis Cocker, who edited the Today programme on Wednesday morning and used as his thought for the day the words of Alan Watts, an Englishman who devoted his life to philosophy and exploring Buddhism. Cocker chose an excerpt of Watts talking about the way we are so goal-oriented - and as a teacher, peddling the notion that one must jump through hoops to achieve one's full potential, the extract resonated. I suppose my real resolution for reading this year is to encourage the students I teach to believe in reading themselves, to take up and relish reading so that it becomes innate to them, and thence, a consolation, a revelation, a refuge, a door opening up new worlds and new ideas. Not because they should, not because they must, but because they can read. How lucky they are to have such possibilities before them.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Wilkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome 2009

What a good start to the year, tea in bed listening to In Our Time, chaired by Melvyn Bragg, guests: Melissa Lane, Anthony Grayling and Roger Scruton, discussing Boethius and the Consolations of Philosophy! You won't be able to listen to it yet, as it is repeated tonight at 9:30pm, but from then, you can go to the In Our Time website and click on Listen Again to have consolation enough to calm the most savage breast.

Resolutions -

1 Get going on proper work for the dissertation
2 Go for more walks in the Belgian countryside
3 Finish first draft of The Apprentice, vol 1 in the hairy people and blood-guzzling countesses saga.

Those are the public resolutions. I know what I've got to do, so I'm going to go and do it. In the meantime, am just wrapping up CV Wedgewood's history of The Thirty Years War... what a book. What a Dame! Well worth the read.

Who knows what 2009 will bring - but let's hope that it isn't as bad as it could be. To you and yours, all the very best for the 12 months ahead.