I’m a big re-reader of most things, particularly cereal packets and shampoo bottle labels (depending where I’m sitting), and recently I decided to take another trip into Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 ‘classic’ The Songlines.

I first read this for a university module a couple of years after it came out. Aged 22, I was suitably dazzled by its post-modern mash-up of fact, fiction, storytelling, reflection, scholarly insight and travel book. Now, having just been to Australia for the first time (albeit to a Perth suburb more akin to Neighbours than anything approaching a dusty Outback settlement) I thought I might once again pick up on the ancient Aboriginal vibrations cited by Chatwin, and thereby find my way from Bristol to Bath without a satnav.

Sadly, this time around the book was a crock of shit, as the Aussies might say. The kaleidoscopic, encylopaedic sprawl that seemed to cast new light on a culture long since consigned by White Australia to the empty beer can of history was nothing more than an exercise in literary showing off. At best, it seemed dubious (not that that’s always a bad thing); at worst it was short-sighted, Eurocentric and – crime of crimes – it didn’t have much of a story.

There, I’ve said it. A book about the oldest stories known to man has, at its heart, little or no story-telling skill, no narrative structure. I didn’t want Dan Brown, for sure, but passing acquaintance with the classic three-act drama might have been just a bit helpful. In the 80s, such quaint notions were extremely unfashionable (and yes, maybe it’s my age) but today the desire for gripping stories, well-told and with characters we either love or hate, but are never indifferent to, is, I think, stronger than ever, especially in deeply uncertain times.

I’m not alone in this. Among the coterie of hip late 80s writers Martin Amis stood out as being particularly tricksy when it came to plot. Yet even he seems to have mellowed. In a recent interview with The Guardian, he had this to say about one of his best-known novels: “I was snooty at some radio event where people read your novel – it was London Fields – and then you take questions from them, and a lady said, ‘I’m sorry, but I struggled with it.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘I didn’t care about the characters.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m afraid you should really not be thinking about that. You should be thinking about what the author’s trying to do.’ But I think she was dead right.” It is the truth before which all matters of style melt away. “You have to give a shit.”’

You certainly do. Indifference to character is, in my book (so to speak), one of the greatest disappointments a reader is forced to bear. You HAVE to make your reader care about your cast. It’s no use hoping that three-quarters way through the book they’ll suddenly start to admire the curmudgeonly white middle-aged man spending his life watching Netflix. Yes, he can be this character right the way through the narrative but if he’s the one taking us into his world we have to care about it, and him. And when I say ‘care’ I don’t mean ‘empathise’. ‘The Sisters Brothers’, by Patrick DeWitt features two of the most despicable, unlovely and murderous people ever to walk the earth but because they’re so well drawn we can’t help but root for them – even if we do want them to die right from the beginning. The satirical German novel ‘Look Who’s Back’ (Timur Vermes, 2013) is another case in point – dammit, by the end of the book we’re actually cheering on Adolf Hitler!

Chatwin’s sound and fury is in sharp contrast to a much lower-key book I read late last year (and have re-read and re-re read). ‘Neither Dog Nor Wolf’, by American author Kent Nerburn, is also a road trip featuring Indigenous people (American Indians this time) and the author is again at the centre of the story. This time, however, the sense of the white man not just learning something, but being subsumed and even humiliated into considering a way of life that mixes patient understanding of the universe with deep and righteous anger, is quietly palpable the whole way through. By degrees, the book builds into a visceral climax which involves sacrifice (of sorts) and redemption too. Last year the book was made into a low-budget movie that reflects all the stillness, reflection and rawness of the paperback.

You don’t have to be gentle with your characters. You don’t have to like them. But you have to show them off, in all their dimensionality. Character drives plot, not the other way round. Characters act the way they do because of who they are, and how they react. Chatwin’s book is, if anything, too convenient. He had the ‘plot’ – he just needed a few stock characters to flesh it out. Hence its one-dimensional nature, and a lost chance to describe a way of thinking about existence few had heard of at the time.


Diana-was-still-aliveI’m not a novelist (or a Royalist or, God save us, both) but I’m somewhat surprised there seems to be no new fiction recording or reflecting on the extraordinary events of late August/early September 1997. Yes, there was something dramatic happening with a Mercedes and a gilded couple in a tunnel in Paris, but I’ll be honest, at the time I was far more captivated by the death of 122-year-old Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, the oldest living person (still holding the record, 20 years on) who, at the age of 13, had met Vincent Van Gogh in a sweet shop and had (rightly) considered him an ugly drunk. I expect that in 100 years someone who once resided in Prestwich, Manchester, and had the misfortune of meeting Mark E.Smith in a local pub, may have the same opinion.

Poor Jeanne’s demise was always going to be trumped by the death of the Papers’ Princess. Funny how the more interesting narrative is overtaken by events. I think Mother Theresa died at the same time as Diana, and the latter was buried with her Rosary. Or something. Certainly, she was not seen dead in one of those sandals.

To me, there seems a missed opportunity in a novel set in the short time between Diana’s death and its public announcement. The hours (minutes, possibly) before the UK turned from a bastion of queue-tolerating, potato-rootling, umbrella-manufacturing nuggety stoicism into a flood of blubbering self-pity of Dambuster proportions. Because it really was that dramatic. At the time, I was working for the Portsmouth News, a paper best described as one ‘of record’ that rarely, if ever, ventured into celebrity car-crash stuff, metaphorical or otherwise. Yet, as I diligently carried out local newshounding amid the madness of that week I heard the words, ‘You lot killed Diana’ hurled several times in my direction.

‘Not me,’ I’d attempt to explain, ‘I was at a meeting of Emsworth Parish Council, listening to a three-hour debate on road-roar along the A27. I didn’t do it.”

Sadly, my pleas went unheeded and within days, I too was checking Books of Condolence and counting the average fall of tears within the south Hampshire catchment area. Someone from the paper (a features writer) was sent to The Funeral, and forever after, any piece by him was mockingly entitled by the News’s sub-editors as ‘The old man shuffled forwards…..’ referencing his fawning opening line about Earl Spencer from that sad Saturday in Westminster Abbey.

For whatever reason (and there are always more than one – truly, you could put the blame equally on a range of characters including Noel Gallagher, JK Rowling and Tony Blair, all active during that very odd, hot summer) Britain was never the same again. I didn’t watch the funeral for one reason – a fear of being contaminated by planet-threatening levels of nasal discharge. Instead, I went for a long walk and thought about donkeys. Don’t ask me why; it’s a long time ago now. But I think I made the right call.

Twenty years on, only the film ‘The Queen’ has addressed this tectonic shift in British social history. In 2017, wouldn’t we, couldn’t we have expected a ‘Midnight’s Children’ or a ‘Saturday’ equivalent? This strange hinterland of experience, shared (and shaped) by millions, seems to have been hijacked by the ‘Oh, wasn’t She lovely, though?’ beige brigade, who see no further than the most simplistic narrative. Let’s not forget, there were bigger issues going on at the time which even She acknowledged and supported. Do we care much about those now? Or are they seen as some kind of Legacy thing, frozen in time in the prism of Princessly perfection ,like no Disney film could ever quite capture?

I guess there’s occasion for more anniversaries. 25 years, 30 years, 40, 50, ad infinitum, until either Us stop caring about Them or Prince George is seen riding the streets of London on a bicycle, smoking legal weed on his way to work at Subway. And no-one knows or cares. Maybe that would be the best legacy of all.


Man and typewriterSeptember 3, 2017

This is the first blog post in, umm, months (if not years), prompted by someone who said, ‘Why don’t you blog? You’re a writer, aren’t you?’

Well, I write books for a living, but I’m not always comfortable with the ‘W’ word even though I suppose it’s the most fitting description for the thing I do. This discomfort isn’t false modesty; just a way of protecting myself against my own bullshit.

As a ‘writer’ the idea of regular blogging fills me with a little bit of horror. I don’t particularly want to talk about what I do – I’m more interested in just doing it. Other people, however, seem interested in what I do, how I do it, and with whom. Fair enough. I’m often told I ‘must live an interesting life’. And generally it is interesting, even when you catch yourself staring into the fridge at a half-empty tub of cottage cheese and wonder what twists and turns of fortune brought you to this position, 30 years after you set out on this uncertain road.

So…..this year. The last 12 months have been interesting, for a variety of reasons (some not always welcome, I hasten to add). First, the good parts. I’ve been privileged to work, talk to or otherwise engage with some great people this year. And as ever, a complete mixture. Trevor from Somerset. Doug from Chesham. Robert from Wolverhampton. Roland from south London. Paul from Woking. Don from Detroit. Some extremely famous, most not, but all united under a common banner: they have things worth saying, things that you and I might like to read.

This work has taken me all over the place from sunny Surbiton to wet and windy Perth, Western Australia. I’ve played the part of a tart art critic on the radio. I’ve hung on for a dear life to a horse’s mane as it bolted through the Outback. I’ve learned to understand how a diagnosis of illness can turn a life upside down in under a minute. I’ve looked out of the window of my house, down a dark, silent street, and wondered what it must feel like to play music for an audience of 60,000 people.

What else? Well, I’ve finally left my garret (pleasant though it was) and now write in a rural-based office. ‘How do you concentrate?’ I’m asked. Easy. Whatever noise swirls around me is not my noise. If it doesn’t require my attention it doesn’t bother me. I’ve always been puzzled by writers who need absolute silence in which to work. The sort that also need an Apple Mac Book Pro, a Montblanc Pen and a leather-bound Aspinal journal before they can possibly put down a word. James Joyce needed ‘silence, exile and cunning’ to begin writing, but I’m quite happy amid the sights, sounds and smells of a chicken farm.

Not-so-good news….just about 12 months ago I had the unexpected displeasure of a client reneging on a promise to employ me for three years ahead, then refusing to pay what I am owed for writing his second book. The latter is a substantial sum (for me, not for him) and, given that UK writers earn an average of £11,000 a year, has caused me and my family real financial hardship and emotional stress like we’ve rarely experienced.

For the moment I’m not saying any more about this dispute as it is the subject of legal action. I decided to bring a claim against my former client because a) I can’t afford to write off such a substantial sum and b) because it is incumbent on all writers, however poorly-paid, to challenge those who would seek to exploit them financially. As I’m discovering, the justice system in the UK isn’t easy to negotiate (and certainly isn’t perfect) but there are ways for the individual to seek redress without having to involve money-swallowing lawyers. It’s not fun, and it’s far from ‘interesting’ but it is a necessity. The hearing is later this year, so watch this space…..

Finally, I’m planning to expand what I do into the teaching of creative writing. This is likely to be a low-key thing until I find my feet, and hopefully it will help me find my way back into the ‘creative’ part of my own writing, which tends to get neglected amidst the demands. Because that’s the other thing people tend to say: “When are you writing your own book?” OK, OK – I hear you!!