Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Monster Bride - A Musical! Please help!

Please, please contribute if you can to this Kickstarter project! Here's the link

The very brilliant Brendan Cull and his colleagues are trying to get a musical off the ground - and it's based on 'Never the Bride' by yours truly. Wouldn't you want to see Brenda and pals hoofing their way across a West End stage?

So, please - donate some cash and help it come true!

Monday, 29 April 2013

Must-Read Monday...

"From the unique perspective of David Sedaris comes a new book of essays taking his readers on a bizarre and stimulating world tour. From the perils of French dentistry to the eating habits of the Australian kookaburra, from the squat-style toilets of Beijing to the particular wilderness of a North Carolina Costco, we learn about the absurdity and delight of a curious traveler's experiences. Whether railing against the habits of litterers in the English countryside or marveling over a disembodied human arm in a taxidermist's shop, Sedaris takes us on side-splitting adventures that are not to be forgotten."

I've loved all of his books so far, and read them all as they've been published. This looks perfect - even if i've already read some of them in the New Yorker. (Thanks, Ellie!)

"After a health scare, Brighton-based Lou is forced to confront the fact that her time to have a baby is running out. She can’t imagine a future without children, but her partner doesn’t seem to feel the same way, and she’s not sure whether she could go it alone. Meanwhile, up in Yorkshire, Cath is longing to start a family with her husband, Rich. No one would be happier to have a child than Rich, but Cath is infertile. Could these strangers help one another out? Combining Sarah Rayner’s deft exploration of raw emotions with the joy and resilience of friendship, The Two Week Wait is a memorable, moving page-turner about two very different women, each yearning to create a family of her own."

After I so enjoyed Sarah Rayner's 'One Moment, One Morning' last week, this more recent novel is a welcome arrival. The author was so pleased with my review last week she sent me this herself - which is amazingly kind. I was *delighted* to find that some of the characters from 'One Moment' carry on, over into this not-quite sequel.

"Peg always felt a little blurred, a little lacking in definition. Her mother died when she was six, her father simply disappeared, and she was brought up by her grandparents and her obese, bedridden aunt. But, despite all this, she never developed the habit of asking questions.

At least, not until she met Loz, her straight-talking, psychotherapeutically literate girlfriend, who urges her to confront her demons.

But as the skeletons come tumbling out of the family closet and the full horror of the past begins to reveal itself, Peg starts to wonder whether her youthful lack of curiosity might not have been a good thing. A very good thing indeed..."

Julia Crouch's domestic thrillers have become an annual treat. So pleased to have my mitts on this one. 

Friday, 26 April 2013


I love this bit of graffiti on Canal Street. Actually, the photo's not so clear. Can you see who it is?

With all this talk of John Hurt on the 50th anniversary Doctor Who shoot, and speculation over who he might or might not be playing - I just think, I'd love him to be playing Quentin Crisp again - for the third time. I'd love the Doctor to meet Quentin in 1990s New York for some kind of very sedate adventure in Greenwich Village. (Ah, there's my next pitch...!)

Meanwhile - I'm busy writing about Fester, still. I have over two thirds of a book, suddenly, telling the tale of our six years with this amazing cat of ours - and all in his voice. It has a title - very simply: 'The Story of Fester Cat.' I'll let you know how it goes...

Today I'm still chuffed about all the amazing responses I got for my Times Higher Ed article yesterday. People are really taking it up as a blow on behalf of creativity against the deadening weight of spirit-destroying, box-ticking pissing contests.

Just this morning Neil Gaiman very nicely retweeted the piece to his many, many followers, so it seems to be picking up plenty more readers than I expected...

Here's his tweet - giving me the opportunity to link to the piece again...

@neilhimself: In which @paulmagrs writes the kind of email most of us only wish we could write: http://t.co/yqNKWBZBVB

Oh! and lovely Brian Cox: @ProfBrianCox: Highly amusing critique of the jargon-filled nobbery of impact assessment in higher education http://t.co/jDrFY9kljL  "Should be required reading," he says!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Ask a Silly Question

I've an article in the current issue of the Times Higher Education, which is published today - in print and online.

The piece is basically the text of an email I sent to UEA - a university I stopped working at almost ten years ago. They had written saying they were including a book I co-edited over thirteen years ago in the research portfolio they were submitting as part of a current research assessment exercise. All they needed from me was info about our sales figures - so that they could measure the book's quality and impact.

I wasn't best pleased, really. This email-turned-feature was the result...!


The piece is getting *lots* of good, supportive feedback on Twitter and Facebook. Many of the responses come from academics and writers in higher education who feel as browbeaten by the stupid bureaucratic pissing contests as I did.  Many say that they *wish* they could write and talk about it like i do in the piece, and my email to UEA, but would fear for their jobs if they did...

The favourite bit people are quoting seems to be:

'I don’t think that’s where that book’s success is to be found. Or any book’s. Not in sales. Nor in distinction by prizes or third-hand repute or by any of the measures imposed by, on the one hand, your shitty middlebrow literary culture or, the other, your titting assessment exercises."

 A Facebook friend-of-friend was reminded of a Samuel Johnson quote - which delighted me:

"The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it: till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it."

I must point out to everyone, though, that my original email reply to UEA was directed not at an admin person - but at a faculty member: an academic member of staff and a writer. That's who wrote to me, a salaried academic, complicit in this REF machine, asking me - a freelance writer - to do their research for them. Research on myself, for free, for them. 

Hence my ire. 

Meanwhile - @timeshighered tweeted: 

"Magnificent", "cathartic", "air-punching reading" You seem to like @PaulMagrs response to a REF impact request."

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

'One Moment, One Morning' by Sarah Rayner

It's been a good time for burying myself in work - and also for reading. Last week I piled up those TBRs - and flung myself into some comfort reading. With mixed results, I must say. David Sedaris' 'Naked' was a real treat to return to, twelve or some years after I first read it. On rereading it seemed so much more serious and sour than before. There's a gallows humour in everything that he does, of course, but on this revisit I was really struck by the sadness of the family stories especially. It looks like I might have to reread *all* of his books now, before getting to the new one...

It was warm enough on Saturday to sit in the Beach House to read, for longer than an hour. Strange being there, without Fester in his wickerwork chair, or hopping over to sit or lie on me as I read. But I'm just going to have to get used to that.

I tried to get into one of the books on my pile that's been waiting a hugely long time for my attention. A sequel to a fantasy novel I read twenty years ago. It was an eccentric, whimsical novel that I loved back then - but the sequel was leaving me cold. I did my fifty pages test - and stuck with it as long as I could take it. But I had to abandon the thing. It just wasn't dragging me along bodily into its world. Maybe that's not always mandatory - but it was, to me, this Saturday morning.

Saturday afternoon i had a nice reading experience. Jeremy was off rummaging in TK Maxx - and he dropped me in the high street in Cheadle, so i could potter about in charity shops and spy out vintage tat. And I picked up a book I had meant to read last year - and can't remember why I didn't. 'One Moment, One Morning' by Sarah Rayner fell into my hand and, next thing I knew, I was sitting at a tall table, on a stool, in the sunny front window of Cheadle's best little cafe - 'The Big Bite' (!) completely absorbed in this novel. (Having the best coffee of the week, too.)

It was one of those delicious reading experiences where you are just swallowed up by a book. The pace, the view-points, the differentiation between characters, the amount of detail, and the concentration of events is EXACTLY right for the quality of your attention and your mood at that moment. It has a first chapter about a sudden, shockingly unexpected death in the most mundane of situations - in a commuter train heading towards London. It's a book that hits the ground running beautifully - and before you know it - you are introduced to the three leading ladies and seem to know all about them, and you're stuck inside one of those nightmare days with them that seems like it will never end. This makes it seem horrible - but it's not. It's a book about the worst things that can happen to someone - but it's about how new friendships spring up, too. And about how we have to rely on each other when bad things happen.

So - I loved it. I spent three days in the world of Anna, Karen and Lou and their variously over-lapping lives. The whole thing is set during a week in their home town of Brighton, and I really feel like I've been there with them while I've been reading this.

I was about to say that it's a novel about grief... but it isn't that, not quite. It's a novel about shock and repercussions of a terrible, sudden event, and getting ready to deal with grief. And it's done in such a calm, consoling way. With, every now and then, explosions of intensity and lucid rage from all three lead characters. It felt like exactly the kind of novel I wanted to disappear into this weekend - a book about turning everyday tragedy into hope.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

the reading pile

Here's the current reading pile in my study. As you can tell, I'm starting off a memey thing with this... and soon everyone will be posting pics of their current TBR shelf. Up to 15 books, i'd say - so do plenty of winnowing. And include a small, stuffed friend, too. On Facebook you can make it your cover pic. I LOVE looking at people's TBR shelves. Even more than I do shelves of what they've already read. If I go to somebody's house it's the first thing I look at.

From the pic I guess you can tell I'm doing a whole load of comfort reading. There are four rereads on my shelf - I'm looking forward to going back to David Eddings, David Sedaris and that slim 1970s Anne Tyler novel. And there are nine series books (nine!) as well as standalones by favourite authors.

This is real Beach House reading stuff... except the weather isn't *quite* there yet for days spent outdoors. The magnolia blossom is showing, and the cherry, and the horse chestnut is sprouting green. I'm not sure yet what it's going to be like at the bottom of the garden, reading by myself. I've never had to do that for a long time. I'm so used to being a cat-rest.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

I Love a Mystery

I really do love a mystery.

I've just finished the ninth in the Coffeehouse Mystery series by the brilliant Cleo Coyle, 'Roast Mortem.' I've written about these on my blog before, but for those who don't know, it's a series about an amateur sleuth, Claire Cosi, who runs a fancy coffee shop in Greenwich Village. I'm *almost* up to date with the series - as it enters its tenth year - and the books are just wonderful. This most recent one I've read must be one of the most complex and involving yet - dealing with a spate of arsonist attacks on coffeehouses in the city and the inter-related lives and longings of a group of NYC firefighters.

I love reading mysteries but i've no interest in solving anything at all while I'm reading. I'm only too happy to be led along throughout the whole book and let the headstrong Ms Cosi do all the work. I've noticed that about myself when i'm reading this kind of book. I don't ever see them as a puzzle to be solved by anyone other than the characters. I think i'm more interested in the wealth of detail about these characters' lives and the funny, soapy, dramatic, romantic stuff that goes on.

In the end I think I'm a sucker for series fiction whether there's a whodunnit involved or not.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Fester and books

Fester loved a good recipe book. Actually, he loved any kind of book when it was open on the kitchen table. He'd scratch his whiskers and ears on the corners of the pages, and sometimes if you were reading with the book flat open, he'd come and sit right on the pages and stare into your eyes, as if now he was reading *you*.

In this picture he's having a look through a book of recipes published by Roald Dahl's family. It's a lovely book - full of food and happy memories - that Nick and Jon brought when they came to visit last December. It was a Sunday afternoon between Christmas and New Year - quickly planned and nothing more than a lazy lunch and then a film. But it was perfect - haggis and neeps and sherry and white wine. And then watching 'Mame!' together and laughing all the way through. Fester liked nothing more than everyone sitting together and watching films, and him sussing out which was the best lap to sit on. The roasted offal was pretty popular with him, too.

One of the happiest Sundays in recent times.

I hope everyone has a good weekend they're looking forward to..?

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh

In the Nineties there were three new writers for children whose work I adored. At the start of that decade, when i was in my early twenties, there was Janni Howker, who i hope to read again some day soon. Then, at the end of the decade there was David Almond, whose fantasy stories for grown-ups I already knew well. But in the middle of the nineties there was Sylvia Waugh, who wrote a series of books about The Mennyms, who were an extended family of life-sized dolls who lived in seclusion somewhere in the north east. They did everything they could to hide their oddity and vulnerability from the rest of the world and the books had a strange, compelling magic to them.

The first in the series was my favourite, though I read them all, as they came out, one after the next and they make a fine sequence. There is a pleasing old-fashionedness about the whole thing, partly due to the nature of the members of this eccentric family itself - who have been frozen at the same age for fully forty years, living behind closed curtains and caught up in rituals and routines they have gradually evolved to occupy their endless lives. Also, there was an old-fashionedness to the style of the books, as well. While in the 1990s there was a vogue for finding the 'cutting edge' in children's fiction (godless Narnia's, dysfunctional families, teenagers on heroin) it was as if Waugh deliberately wrote a gentler saga that harkened back to a golden era populated by Mary Norton's 'Borrowers' or P L Travers' 'Mary Poppins.'

Not that any of those books - nor the Mennyms - are without their dangers and darkness. But all of the disturbing stuff is commuted through a fantasy that has a lot to with a very British tradition of whimsy that goes right back to Edith Nesbit and beyond. However, you just have to remember Nesbit's own talking life-sized human dolls - the Ugly-Wuglies in her 'Enchanted Castle' - to appreciate how close to the macabre the Mennyms' warm, familial, cosy fantasy often strays.

I was thrilled and disturbed and heartened and uplifted by this novel all over again. For me, just like back in 1995, the most vivid scenes are when Soobie - the blue-faced teenaged Mennym runs out in to the night, vowing to find his sister, Appleby, who has run away from home. Being outside for extended periods is, of course dangerous to the Mennyms - exposure to human sight and also to the elements are both potentially lethal.

We don't know why Soobie has a blue face. Perhaps his original 'maker' - Kate, the owner of the house where the Mennyms hide away - simply ran out of material. Either way, he's blue and conspicuous, but he stays out until Appleby is found.

There's so much that is fiercely, quietly brave in the Mennyms' stories. I also love Miss Quigley, who doggedly pretends she lives round the corner, in a house of her own. But when she waves goodbye after visiting for tea she quietly lets herself back indoors and goes to sit alone in a cupboard under the stairs for another week. Everyone in the family has tacitly agreed for all these years to indulge her in this sad pretence.

This book seems to come out of a different era. It did back then in 1995, and now it feels ever further ago. If you can get hold of a copy, and its sequels, do so. There's a loose, magical thread sticking out of this series - one that connects us with something marvellous in the long history of children's fiction. Something, perhaps, that can still counter all the crass Happy meal crap that the bookshops are currently keen to push.

If you can, grab that loose thread and ravel it back up, please!

Monday, 8 April 2013

Reading Copies

Having fancy editions of books never really interested me. I was never that kind of book collector. It's always been about having reading copies for me, and the more worn favourite books became, the more I loved them. Having said that, there are particular books that are very precious - such as that hard back first edition of 'Maybe the Moon' signed by Armistead Maupin. But that's because of the number of times I read it, and the day (twenty years ago!) Alicia and I went to see him read from it at a 'literary luncheon' in Manchester. 

I mentioned the other day that I was struggling to read the tiny, smudgy print in my awful 1990s paperback of Michael Ende's 'The Neverending Story'. In the end, that day, I gave up, and Fester and I watched the lovely movie instead. (Why were so many sci-fi / fantasy paperbacks of the 1990s punishingly difficult to read? And I don't just mean the contents...) 

I ordered from the US - and just received in the post - a slightly dear and somewhat battered - hardback from 1983. It's a cheery, almost sunny, almost spring day - for walking round to the post office - and picking up a copy of this particular, magical book. 

And look! The text is printed in green and red! One colour for sections in our world, presumably, and the other for when we slip into Fantastica. (The colour blind wouldn't see any different between the worlds...) It seems like a sweet caprice on the part of the publishers, back in 1983, to go to that expense - just to delight me, all these years later.

Do you buy fancy editions of books? You still read them though, don't you? Pristine books are one of the nicest things in the world, but they aren't supposed to stay that way...

Sunday, 7 April 2013

On Gallifrey...

A nice relaxing trip out in the car yesterday - turned into this. A modest re-enactment of key scenes from that Doctor Who anniversary classic, 'The Five Doctors.' Here's Panda and I getting carried away, running across the Death Zone pursued by Yeti, Cybermen and the Raston Warrior Robot.  And climbing up the rocks to get to the Dark Tower.

This was after all of the excitement of seeing the online pics this week of the location filming for the 50th Anniversary episode. Surely they're planning a return of their own to The Death Zone..?

Anyhow, just in case they aren't - we thought we'd do it for them.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Fester Cat and Sitting Still

All last week I hardly read anything at all.

I was struggling to reread my ancient, crappy paperback of Michael Ende’s masterful kids’ fantasy novel, ‘The Neverending Story.’ My copy has the tiniest print imaginable and some previous owner has scrawled daft pencil marks on many of the pages. Even now I’m only about a hundred pages back into that wonderful epic.

Something I’ve been reminded of, though.

There’s a motif running through the book. It usually goes something like this:

‘And so they turned off at the next path and, although they left this particular story, they carried on having adventures of their own. And maybe one day we’ll get to hear all about them.’

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the idea.

For me this has to be one of the most important sentiments in the book. In fiction generally. Any kind of fiction.

The promise that these people – these friends, family, colleagues, lovers, characters, friendly creatures; everyone who ever leaves you and your story; who chooses to or finds they have to leave your side – they will carry on having their own adventures elsewhere. And somewhere, somehow, that is what’s happening.

And one day you will find them again and catch up and hear what’s been going on.

It’s one of the oldest ideas in the book. In any book.

Rereading ‘The Neverending Story’ last week I had Fester purring on my knee. He dozed and gradually lost control of all of his body. He became lighter and lighter in my arms. It was like he was becoming even less than skin and bone. He was turning into paper.

In ‘The Neverending Story’ every character peels off and away.

Everyone goes off into their own imaginary spin-off tale.

This is important to me.

In the six, almost seven years that Fester was with us, I believe he taught us to be a family. In many ways the odds have been against us. There have been some awful things going on in that time, outside and inside our house. From the grandness of a global economic collapse, to the dreadfulness of lost parents and bitter family feuds, down to the microcosmic detail of the day-to-day problems of careers gone crazy. We’ve had it all going on round here.

But through all of the past six or seven years Fester has been our constant. He taught us how to live in one house together. This house was where we settled properly in one place and spread out, with all our stuff under one roof, pooling all our dreams and building a home and a garden and a future together. It was the place we found in our mid thirties. In south Manchester, alongside the railway lines.

And only then did Fester come marching out of the undergrowth and up our back garden, demanding to be let into our house and our lives. This cat who must have been a kitten back in the mid-nineties, back in the days when Jeremy and I first met, up in Edinburgh. They were heady days, a long time ago, when Jeremy and I decided that we had found each other at last and this was it.

Fester was waiting for us all that time. Until he was twelve. Until we were in our house.

He was all about the value of sitting down nicely. Like a Zen master he knew it was all about the sitting and breathing and relaxing. You could tell his whole life’s narrative in the form of a list of favourite perches he found and why each one was essential. He loved long spells in safe havens and special spots. Curling up and being content with doing nothing but just sitting and singing and breathing and working towards the most contented of deep-felt sighs. This was something he taught me to share. Work towards that biggest sigh and that’s you in the moment like never before.

That was the kind of wisdom he brought here – up our back garden, up the back stairs, into our kitchen. We just thought he was starving and glad to have some bits of bacon to chew on with his painful one-and-a-half teeth. But no, he had a whole lot of stuff to unpack and impart to us. And it took the full six and a half years between 2006 and now.

He was teaching us and we were learning to be older, happier, and more still. He came from outside in order to teach us how to live in a house.

Fester’s accomplishment for me was that he made being happy seem easy. Not just for me. For everyone he met. They all felt it. He made it seem easy to be content.

More than that.

He was all about showing us that it’s easy to be happy. Easier than miserable any day.

It’s something I hope I never forget.

Which is why I have to write it down.

And remember that there’s a garden out there, and a Beach House. And there’s always going to be a little cat out there, ready to remind you to be happy, and to remind you of everything you almost nearly forget.

Ungow, Fester.