Wednesday, June 27, 2007

James Hanley and 'Boy'

Hooray for One World Classics. They've not only reissued James Hanley's Boy, but done so in a splendid paperback edition priced only 7.99 (UK - $13 US). Photographs of Hanley, a brief but good biography and essay on his works, plus a piece by his son and reprint of Anthony Burgess's introduction to the last reissue all add real value. It shows what a publisher can do - Penguin Classics should be ashamed of themselves for hiking prices so much higher and offering so much less.
Hanley was only a name to me before. His book is a fine one. It was banned in its time, the publishers successfully prosecuted following a complaint by a Lancashire couple after the wife objected to the blurb. Boy is not a salacious read - some queer advances on the kid by fumbling seamen are duly repelled, and the thirteen year-old experiences two prostitutes in Alexandria, vivid but not lurid. It's a tale of a brutal life but not exploitative - the kid, largely known by his last name of Fearon, is brilliant at school and longs to become a chemist but poverty see him hauled away for a horrific job at the docks, from which he runs away to sea. A sensitive loner among men whom he largely despises, he's clearly doomed yet always striving.
The energy of doomed survival is what really powers the book, and the detail. Hanley was born into an Irish immigrant family in Liverpool in 1897, and this spin of a young reclusive life out of poverty and onto the sea was part of his own life story. It's a strata of life that seldom appears so convincingly in novels.
I'm happy not only to come to know the book, but also Hanley's life - in his own seagoing terms, here was a writer strapped to the decks through storms, writing to the end. I particularly liked this passage from Burgess's introduction - useful for me as I transition into my role as a creative writing lecturer within an English department.
'A practising novelist has, regretfully, to disown scholarship,' Burgess wrote. 'He can bring to a great dead practitioner of his own trade only the tribute of profound homage and the fellow feeling of the fellow sufferer. For writing fiction is mostly suffering, though, with luck and obduracy the suffering can be transmuted into a kind of muted joy. The novelist does not expect financial reward as a right, though he can be forgiven for resentment at seeing them go to the tawdry and meretricious. Hanley earned little from the art he doggedly practised, but he survived into old age with the satisfaction of knowing that what he had done he had done well. Unlike some of us, desperate at the piled-up bills and the prospect of the knock of eviction, he never compromised. He tried to deliver aesthetic joys but never set out to give easy pleasure.'

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bernard MacLaverty and short stories

Years ago I wandered out to hear Bernard MacLaverty give a reading at a community centre in Glasgow. He's long been up there among my most admired contemporary writers - for the acuteness of his perception of the human condition, the clarity of his prose, and also I reckon for his humility. He's not a grandstanding writer.
One of his stories, My Dear Palestrina, is an abiding favourite. It has been just as affecting for me in the versions he has written for radio and television. As a child I went for weekly piano lessons in Loughborough with Mrs Towers. MacLaverty's story taught me the poignancy of that relationship, ranging across an age gap but finding meeting ground in the beauty of art. It is a pitch perfect depiction of the bond between piano teacher and pupil. Curiously, MacLaverty told me how he had never studied the piano himself in that way. Somehow storytellinghad spun him into the truth of that world.
So maybe 'your man' depicted in his new short story 'Trapped' in the latest edition of the Edinburgh Review is not MacLaverty in thin disguise, a lovely tale of a writer on a Friday night in Dublin, effectively kidnapped as a guest by an elderly couple and locked into a fifteenth floor apartment. Somewhere, for sure, he has bent to a festival's whim and stayed as a guest in an organizer's home rather than insisting on a hotel room. I must remember the lesson.
And has he had something like gout, and been locked in a Glasgow lift at a film screening? The 'your man' in 'Trapped Again' has been.
Conceivably both characters are as remote from MacLaverty's own life as the piano teacher and pupil. Whatever. He offers up truth in delicious detail. Matthew McGuire's fine article on MacLaverty's short stories is in the same edition of the Edinburgh Review (Causeway: New Writing from Northern Ireland), placing the short story form in a Northern Irish context. He makes an interesting case, bringing in Frank O'Connor's observation 'that the short story was most prevalent in in societies confronted by instability, fracture and distemper'. That's a curious notion, a society confronted by distemper. I see distemper as a condition associated with dogs. Maybe there's a short story in it somewhere.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Junuary in Plymouth


A friend spent the month of June last year filming in Plymouth. He and the cast barely ever got to see the city for the rain that fell. They labelled their month in Plymouth 'Junuary'.

I've just spent five June days tramping around the city - in the rain. 'Well these five days, they were rare,' a real estate agent told me, then checked in for support with the vendor of the house we were viewing. 'We get lovely weather down here, don't we. There was a really lovely spell .. when was it? ... in March.'

The bonus of getting wet here is that a wind is pretty reliable so you dry quickly as well. And then the sun comes out and the whole city shines. I'm coming to think it a splendid place. As urban British cities boldly fronting the sea go, I'm not sure it can be beaten. It's less packed, touristy and squalid than Brighton, green hills of Devon and Cornwall wrapped around its vast natural harbour. I've been beaming into its housing stock, much of it Victorian and well kept, facades pretty in their pastel paint. The place has a dynamic feel to it, the city centre pedestrinaized into wide esplanades of greenery and fountains, fine new buildings arising, yet splashes of green still visible throughout. The park on Plymouth Hoe, where Francis Drake reputedly played bowls while awaiting the Spanish Armada, must rank as the slopes of public-access lawn with the finest seaview in the world.

I'm yet to learn of the city's literary heritage - the best I've been offered so far is the news that Agatha Christie once spent time on a nearby island - though plaques throughout my walks mark Plymouth's astounding marine history. My favourite among the new ones I came across marked the departure point of HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin aboard, off to the Galapagos to discover the material for his Origins of a Species. Not bad so far as literary precedents go.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Book Festivals


I sat in on a meeting the other day geared to set up a new literary festival. It is starting from the principle that such festivals are a good thing. In local terms that may well be so. In national / international terms I'm more interested in the question 'What niche has yet to be filled? What's unique to this area that has not been reflected elsewhere? What greater purpose might a festival serve?'
My thoughts were strengthened by a conversation with a publicist the other day. She pronounced herself utterly weary of one of the big festivals, in Oxford. Though backed by The Times, it seemed to spread itself too thinly. She had taken along one of her big-name authors to find herself in a room seating 30-40 max, and they sold 3 or 4 books, all a touch demoralizing.
My upcoming appearance at Edinburgh will beonly my second such - the earlier one was at the cheery festival in Wigtown (which certainly has a purpose as a foundation stone for the whole community, reinventing Wigtown as 'Scottish Books town', their own version of Hay on Wye).
I'm intrigued by London's new venture, London Lit festival. Spinning off from the web, it has a fine grassroots feel to it. This isn't someone imposing a festival on a populous, it's the writers and booklovers in a city coming up with their own events, presenting their own festival programme. I look forward to seeing how it tiurns out.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Edinburgh Book Festival - an inside scoop


The Edinburgh Book Festival publishes an illustrious programme of meet the author events - though for those of a more esoteric disposition the festival holds a bonus event not included in the programme.

Me.

Persist in the online search, or phone to make a booking, and it will be grand to see you at my 10.30am event on August 14th.

It will be a pretty unique event - I will be speaking about John Scott Haldane, giving my talk a special spin in honour of the festival's venue, Charlotte Square. Haldane was born in 17 Charlotte Square, grew up there, and was married at the Church next door. The Square is a wondrous story in itself, so it's a special tyreat to have the chance to bring Haldane back to life there.

Monday, June 18, 2007

George Bernard Shaw's 'Shaw's Corner', Hertfordshire

George Bernard Shaw liked that his home at Shaw's Corner was two miles from the nearest major road, and so free from the dust of passing cars. A winding trail of the narrowest country lanes still leads you to his home. Shaw and his wife liked to walk around the gardens, talking their way along a route they reckoned as being a mile long, dropping a pebble into a pile for each mile achieved. He preferred this to stepping out into the public world. Listening to the mass of birdsong in his garden on Saturday morning, I understood why.

He gifted his home to the National Trust in 1948, dying a couple of years later. The lady custodian of the place reckons he used his last years staging the place as a shrine to himself, drawing in material from his London home and setting it. Here's a quiz. Who are the figures of influence ranged along the mantelpiece in his dining room, where he spent two hours a day over luncheon, working on his correspondence? (Click the picture to make it bigger. Answers below)
I'm disappointed that Shaw's plays have fallen from favour. I've never seen one I didn't enjoy - we need a revival of Major Barbara. The prefaces to Shaw's plays were one of the first times I met political opinion that made sense to me. Thirty years ago I visited the editor of the Loughborough Echo (was Arthur Deakins his name?), a venerable man in a wood panelled office where a signed postcard of Shaw was framed and on display. The rareness of the piece was its signature - Shaw was parsimonious with them, knowing they were sold on.

A daybed is positioned next to the desk in his study. At the bottom of Shaw's garden is a tiny and revolving writing shed, the chair squeezed next to the table to make room for yet another day bed. Clearly this was a man who believed in lying down to seek inspiration.

Those powerful influences on Shaw's life? Ghandi, Dzershinsky (leader of the KGB), Lenin, Stalin, Granville-Barker and Ibsen (playwrights), plus a picture of Shaw's birthplace, 33 Synge Street in Dublin. It would be fun to hear Shaw defending that curious range of choices today. His one editorial comment on the arrangements was the selection of one of these as a portrait for his bedroom wall as well. At least he opted for Ghandi to oversee his dreams.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Green publishing

I now have my copy of The Low Carbon Diet, as blogged earlier ... it really is the most user-friendly guidebook to greening your life that I've come across.

I went to an environmental publishing meeting at the last London Book Fair. The chairman, a 'green' publisher, started by asking the audience to raise their hands according to which shade of green they felt themselves to be - none, light or dark, dark being a committed eco-warrior brand of being.

I raised my own hand for 'light green'. The chair, I suspect, would have claimed 'dark green' for himself, though one of his first tales was about driving the motorway in his car. Still owning a car, though I never use it, was one of my own reasons for being shy of the 'dark green' tag.

The big issue of the event was paper, whether it was sustainable or not. Years ago with Harper San Francisco I agreed to surrender part of my royalties to have my book produced on sustainably harvested paper - trees would be planted for those that were used in my book's manufacture. I headed down from my eco-publishing meeting to the Simon & Schuster stand to check on the paper status of my own new book, Suffer & Survive. It is all to be printed on on paper that comes with all due sustainably forested certification. Hooray.

I was impressed on reading The Low Carbon Diet how much green practice I already put into play - stuff that has come into my life automatically. I check the food-miles on all my purchases, for example (why oh why must all beans now be grown in Africa? I'd love to buy beans again - maybe from my local farmer's market). I shower not bathe, hold back on toilet flushing, walk and use public transport, have switched my electricity supplier to Ecotricity, that kind of thing. I'm still searching for the extra pledges I need to make - and did at least just cancel a flight to Italy to save the CO2 addition. Maybe I'll click on to save a flush, install a Hippo in the toilet, and save some extra water that way, as The Low Carbon Diet recommends. And in non-flying terms, they've pointed me to a grand little site which helps steer travellers through the various connections that make travel round the world by train and ship possible, www.seat61.com.

I'm kept up to speed by my partner James Thornton. an environmentalist to his core. He's written the feature article for the June Ecologist magazine which features the work of the new legal / environmental NGO he's set up, ClientEarth. It's the first body set up to enforce and shape environmental legislation throughout the EU. My own role is a shade of William Golding's who gave the name Gaia to James Lovelock's conception of the the Earth as a self-regulating organism (a notion also upheld, years earlier, by the subject of Suffer & Survive, J. S. Haldane). The name ClientEarth came about during a conversation James and I held last summer, walking the beach at Santa Barbara. He had often said of his career as an environmental lawyer that his client was the Earth. The name seems a perfect fit.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Derby Writing - the weigh-in

Rob Smallwood makes it look casual in this picture, but that IKEA bag in his hands holds the short story entries for the City of Derby short story competition, which amassed as a pile of papers weighs in at 51lbs.

Rob braved the M1 yesterday to drive the final entries down to me in London, ensuring safe delivery. My summer reading is assured. From the earlier submissions I've already come to expect a high standard and wide variety. The final tally shows work coming in from 23 countries.

News to me yesterday was that Rob manages this whole enterprise on a volunteer basis, also maintaining the website as a fount of literary information that stretches from Derby throughout the East Midlands. The whole venture is a labour of love, inspired by appreciation of literature, Derby, and all the literary associations of the region. Jane Draycott is judging the poetry wing of the competition (a much lighter load, I am sure).

Winners are announced as part of Derby's festival of writing on October 17th. My role is to seek out three prize-winners and half a dozen honourable mentions. I am quietly confident of some wonderful pieces emerging.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Rachel Lewis's Low Carbon Diet

I had a happy playtime on Hampstead Heath with Rachel Lewis and her family this weekend. Rachel is the co-author (with Polly Ghazri) of The Low-Carbon Diet, a book which we are curiously asked to recycle when we are finished with it. It's a friendly guide to reducing our impact on the planet, helpful hints with easy-on-the-eye statistics to back it up.

I've often thought friends would be well-advised to pay heed to their own books. Their subconscious tends to raise its head there, whispering advice into their ears that they note down for others but seldom take for themselves. Rachel honourably is putting her own advice into practice. Even while on the Heath, her home was being changed, the loft reinsulated, new double-glazing being installed. She has dutifully replaced all the lightbulbs to environmentally efficient ones as well, whilst having the honesty to admit she dislikes the light they give off.

So here's my own pledge. I promise to read my own copy and put some positive changes in place. 30 degree washloads, unplugging appliances, leaving the car behind and recycling can't be the lmit of what I can do.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

index fingered

The biographer Gary O'Connor told me one possible trick of indexing: don't provide one. That way researchers who want to filch a part of the whole thing have to buy a copy, and reviewers are forced to read the book.

I've just shipped off my own day's work of index revisions on Suffer & Survive - largely additions. As a shallow-pocketed researcher myself, I've enjoyed the likes of Amazon's 'search-inside' features. These have alerted me to books I would never have found otherwise, especially American editions, and I've cited and made use of a number of them. Have I bought them? Seldom. The ability to leaf through a few pages of a book generally does it for me, and supplies my immediate need. Though you can only search a few pages at a time, patience lets me come in and out enough. The one thing I can't do is print those pages, so it's a matter of wielding a pencil on paper.

The books I've bought? The ones that promise me so much information that copying doesn't appeal, and I see I want the whole book. Hence the worth, to me, of having a fulsome index. These index pages are also searchable online. I've aimed to make page listings extensive enough to encourage browsers to buy.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Creating a Book's Index

I fondly imagined my J. S. Haldane bio Suffer & Survive was at the printers. Instead I've just received its index to review.

Reading an index is an intriguing way to review one's own book. The alphabet clearly gives it an order, but otherwise an index smashes through all the carefully impanted narrative sense and chronology (perhaps much as a reader's memory might do). As characters crop up in the index, I work to place them within the story.

Ideally the index is creative in its own way - its writer portraying his / her own reading of the book. It's one of the earliest feedbacks you get on the completed draft. That's happened to some extent. The index-writer (I must find out the professional term for such a being) has done well in sifting through the family relationships that can be blurred by similarity of name. I finished my first read in an admiring mode.

Then one of my new colleagues at Plymouth University set me to thinking. He mentioned the challenge of going into one's own index to discover material you know to be in the book, to see if the index directs you successfully. Suddenly my index started letting me down. Haldane introduced canaries into mines for the first time. Canaries were missing from the index. He invented the salt tablet. No salt tablet. He helped ventilate the Mersey Tunnel. No Mersey tunnel. He pioneered deep oxygen treatment. You've guessed it.

The trick in academia, a Plymouth historian informed me, was to do your own index. He took ten very full-time days to write up his own last one. Well I'm grateful for all the work someone else has put into this one of mine. Especially so since my contract stipulated, in what I thought was a particularly sad clause, that I should pay half the costs of such an index but Simon & Schuster have come through to pay the whole whack. So tomorrow I shall steam in for a mere day to add my revisions and on we go. Maybe even to the printers.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Daily Wordcount

Graham Greene reckoned application made him the writer he was. He didn't get over-zealous. A mere daily minimum of 350 words helped him to 26 novels.

My own daily rate is falling slack. I took my book out to write on a plane the other day, then reckoned achievement enough was not leaving it behind. I tell myself that a few still days when I'm not travelling around will see me settle, so when I get back from Plymouth on Wednesday perhaps .... the trick is to snatch an hour or two early on, before a day can ride you ragged.

I met with Anne Macgregor of Moondance Films on Friday. She's fairly fresh from a project that has consumed her for years, a splendid film for the Smithsonian institute, 'The True Story of the Mary Celeste'. The film became a labour of love. On finishing it, she found the need to jump into a new project immediately. It was a weaning process, distracting herself with work so that the Mary Celeste passion would have a chance to ebb away.

Anne pointed out that I am going through the same process with Haldane, shifting to my new novel so as to free myself from what has been an exhausting and mesmerizing project - my upcoming biography of J. S. Haldane. It had never struck me that this was so, but clearly she is right. Especially when I consider the provenance of the book I am writing now. Ten years ago I had so much writing momentum after completing my biography of Mother Meera, In Search of the Divine Mother, that I had to keep on writing. I needed something utterly different to spiritual biography, so started off with just a wacky title: 'Effendi, A Wet Dream of Morocco'. As I started writing, an utterly different book emerged, a tale of a senator's son kidnapped from the Acropolis.

Ten years on, reworked a fair bit, that project grew to two chapters. Now it's called 'Badger Boy', part of a trilogy perhaps, and has grown enormously in my head. It's grown through a further five chapters as well, through a mode of daily application, 2-3 manuscript pages a day.

That puts me slightly ahead of Graham Greene and maybe earned me this weekend off. Maybe. As I sat down to write this evening I fell asleep. Guess I'd better set my sights on a later train tomorrow and get up earlier. Life can go on without me, my writing won't. I have to bring the requirements of journalism to my novels, and set my own word limits and deadlines.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright's 'The Reporter', with Ben Chaplin

My boycotts of filmstars save me a lot of time. The list is selective and headed by Mel Gibson. I even avoid Chinckenrun on account of his voiceover.

Trevor Nunn's creaking production of Royal Hunt of the Sun at the National Theatre last year made me start my theatrical avoidance list. His acclaimed Hamlet at the Old Vic made me ache with tedium. His name's on so many of the productions that bored me witless. Now he's stultifying the world with the Seagull and King Lear at Stratford. The good news is that Derek Jacobi is lined up for a Lear at the Donmar in a year or two. The delay was due to waiting for the sheen of Ian McKellen's current Lear to have worn off. Thanks to Nunn, a week or two should do it.

As a balance, I'll take Richard Eyre as a director I should automatically see productions of. I grew up during his thrilling era at the Nottingham Playhouse in the 1970s, revving up there every Saturday on my moped. Last night saw me at his production of Nicholas Wright's The Reporter, at the National Theatre's Cottesloe.

Technically highly adroit, it's a rare play that truly captures a life ... the TV reporter James Mossman. Ben Chaplin's portrayal was extraordinarily good ... obvious from the first expansive swing of his besuited arm that wasn't actually expansive, held short by constraint. Like Turing, it's a tale of a life pinched short by society's constraints on homosexuality. Rich throughout ... with a lovely depiction of the novelist Rosamond Lehmann (Angela Thorne). At the Playhouse Richard Eyre brought me premieres of Howard Brenton, Trevor Griffiths (The Comedians with Jonathan Pryce the best first night of my life) and David Hare. Full applause for him for streamlining yet another ultra-fine, if deeply saddening, piece of contemporary theatre.