Wednesday, 25 January 2017

'Fellowship of Ink' - cover and blurb!

I'm pleased to say that this new novel comes out in April from Snowbooks!  Please spread the word..!


The Smudgelings… Professors Reginald Tyler and Henry Cleavis and their various literary friends… little did they know as they gathered on Sunday evenings by the fire to drink sherry and read out chapters from their ongoing fantasy novels that they were wearing thin the fabric of space and time. All around them in the magical, northern university town of Darkholmes there were Holes opening up to other dimensions…

Here we are in the 1930s, in the leafy lanes and lofty towers of an ancient town… where there are witches, demons and gargoyles mixed up with dons and their frustrated wives and handsome boyfriends. And, most mysteriously of all, there is Brenda, the rather strange housemaid to the Tyler household, who is here incognito, for reasons all of her own…

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

I'm the Princess! - Diaries by Alan Bennett and Carrie Fisher

I began 2017 reading Alan Bennett and Carrie Fisher – both books are a blend of memoir and diary extracts. ‘Keeping On Keeping On’ is a seven hundred page not-quite extravaganza, more of a consoling compendium, and that’s what Alan Bennett has become for me. He’s the figure who turns up and tells you that all is – perhaps not quite well - but at least doing as well as might be expected.

The ten years’ worth of diary extracts are the highlight of this volume. I’m less interested in the two plays at the end, which I found quite tricky to read, and the introductions to other plays and books which pad out the second half of the book. I wonder why Faber think his fans are as completist as this? There’s quite a lot of repetition of ideas and underlining of the same themes and, while I hardly ever disagree with what he says, I do find the repetition tiring in the end. In a book of this length and with so little editorial crack-down Alan B comes to seem like the J K Rowling of shuffling about and watching the world go by.

No doubt he would hate to hear this, but he’s best when he’s writing about what happens when he pops into the local shop and some woman bumps into him and says something pithy, well-meaning and odd. Those are his greatest bits. I could do with hearing less about Britten and Larkin and Auden and I could definitely hear less about church furnishings and much more about the woman in the post office, or the one outside the corner shop. I like it best when he’s interested in living people and the random bumping-into that seems to go on around him.

The switch into Carrie Fisher’s also-recently published memoir, ‘The Princess Diaries’ was startling. I was transported back to 1976 and I was amazed to find how young and funny and dweeby the cast of Star Wars all were. How unaware they were of starring in something that would end up attracting so much attention. They were not quite iconic and each having a slightly dull time of it – the highlight being meals in London restaurants and stolen snogs in the back of hired cars. It’s very sweet and banal – this tale of being a pretend-Princess who falls into having weekend sex with a man who can barely talk to her, while during work hours they’re saving the galaxy.

My favourite bit in the whole book comes when the film is released and takes off like a rocket. Carrie and her girlfriends are cruising around LA in a car, staring amazed at the queues going round the block (hence the term ‘blockbuster’ – which I never knew!) When she sees the biggest queue of all, Carrie springs half out of the car’s sun roof and yells at everyone: ‘I’m in that movie! I’m the Princess!’ Then, when people start to cotton on and pay attention, she thinks: ‘Uh-oh!’ She comes to her senses, dives back into the car and yells at her friend: ‘Drive away!’

The actual verbatim diary extracts from 1976 are neither here nor there. Sort of Dorothy Parker - the teenage years. A bit of lovelorn poetry and a lot of longing. But they’re amazing to read because they’re so ordinary, and because she wasn’t having the time of her life at all.

Later chapters describe the fandom and convention circuit – her later career in ‘lapdancing’ as she calls it. There’s some very funny material here, in what is perhaps the definitive account of the vast, commercial sf conventions. The highlight of the whole book for me are the monologues she writes in the voices of fans who have come to see her: extolling her virtues, bubbling and gushing, accidentally insulting her, and giving so much away about their own lives. These are monologues almost as good as Alan Bennett’s own. Her essays are pithy, her memories are entertaining – but it’s her pin-sharp observation of people, and her pitch-perfect ear for everyday speech that shows up as the most brilliant of her talents.

It’s a sculptural gift: carving and editing out the verbiage and leaving a perfect monologue. Leaving a perfect column of utterance on the page – that’s the real thing. And that’s the thing that both these wonderful writers – on the surface so very different – have in common.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Uttley, Beachcroft and Mahy

One of my reading finds at the end of 2016 was Alison Uttley’s ‘Christmas Stories’. I thought it was something I’d dip into, but I was pulled into her world. Rural, mystical… and so calm. This Puffin has waited a long time in the Beach House – wrinkled, yellow, damp and flattened out to dry on a summer’s day years ago. Waiting for just the right moment. I thought it might be too twee to hold my attention, but I really loved it. Uttley is one of those people whose writing really takes hold of me.
            Remember that – when you equivocate about carrying on and persevering with somebody’s book. The ones that really grab you always stand out. You’re in no doubt this is what you want to be reading. You’ll listen to them talking about just about anything. You’ll even listen to them repeating themselves, as Uttley does, in these stories drawn from many different books across her career.
I was also reading Nina Beachcroft’s ‘Cold Christmas’ from 1974. I feel as if I read something by her a long time ago, mostly forgot it, and am trying to find it again. This one was new to me, but hit many of the right buttons – the big house, being snowed in, the ramshackle cast of people trapped together, not quite getting on. The kids having their own, quite frightening adventures and the adults not quite understanding. Spooky animals. A near-fatal accident in the snow. Some ghostly time-slippage and a mystery cleared up.
I spent quite a few Christmas afternoons in my study, in the comfy chair with Bernard Socks occasionally dashing in to doze for several hours with me. I was burrowing down into pages. Having the usual Twixtmas thoughts about – oh, couldn’t I just stay here and read for the whole coming year? Wouldn’t that be the best thing? I’d learn so much. I’d go to so many places. I’d get so much done. I’d be going deeper into somewhere magic. Somewhere that needs a lot of attention and energy to keep it going.
Wonderful passage about how a character is changed for the better by a ghostly experience –

“As Josephine broke free and ran away laughing until her stomach ached she had a moment’s memory of her first day here and how she had been cross, acutely shy and all closed up upon herself. Nevermore could she be quite as she was: a spirit from the past had broken the little icy shell of self, the brittle outer covering with which she was encased, to play its own melody upon her, as upon some musical instrument, and she had responded.”

And this seemed to me, as I read it, exactly how the best spooky stories ought to feel – the character is transformed by the experience. They are brought out of themselves, through having connected with something old and complicated – often something moving, uplifting, strange or mythic. And it’s more than that – it’s not just the state of the character at the end of the book, it’s about the adventure of reading itself. The book itself cracks you open as a reader and plays upon your spirit – getting in deep and haunting you. And you let yourself by haunted by it, quite happily.
Books get into you.
            Also, because of the context of this scene – in which Josephine and Simon decide never to meet again (because strange things happen when they are together…) it makes me think all this might be about friendship and love, too. Of the kind that stops you sulking about yourself. That brings you out into company.
            Sometimes it seems to me that reading is great practice for being close to other people. Necessary practice. No one ever really tells you this, but it’s true. It draws you closer and gives you skills and tact for coping with others (and yet – especially when young – we were always told that it made us solitary and bad at mixing. When all the while it was the very opposite.) This is a nice set of epiphanies for the gap between Christmas and New Year. Waking up from ghost stories and seasonal festive dreams – into new days, renewed friendships – and a sense of being open to the world.
That charged, magical feeling was there throughout Margaret Mahy’s stories, too, in ‘The Door in the Air.’ That feeling of being on the edge of realizing something amazing; of being dragged into an astounding epiphany by a story. I love Mahy because she can be winsome and phantasmagorical, but then very down-to-earth and satirical. She is all of these things in quick succession in this book – with the accent always on urging us to go out and have adventures and explore and be brave – and to create and to think of it all as art. To think of what you do as good as – even better than – anything that’s ever been done before. Her stories are all about valorizing and celebrating your own abilities and the things you do with them. She’s brisk, energizing, and so gobsmackingly audacious she makes you want to stretch your imagination as far as it will go. She’s like a wonderful aunty, cheering you on. It’s very generous work.
            These are the women I read over Christmas – carrying their books with me as I cooked and peeled vegetables and turned leftovers into vast puff pastry pies and stood in the kitchen eating pate on toast with Jeremy and drinking wine. I’d vanish in the afternoons with my books (all three, I think, out of print) and I’d marvel at them.