Watching the fire on the horizon

fireIt’s always a jolt coming home from a holiday. The wheels thud on the tarmac – a moment of relief that the plane has been designed, engineered and flown by experts – and then all those mundanities flood back: piles of washing to be done, the overflowing inbox, catching up on what’s been happening in the news whilst you’ve been away.

Hmm, the news. I was in the UK for little more than 24 hours of Brexit fallout before leaving for a week in Italy with my better half, and I’ve been doing my best to keep up. Even though this mess is going to be with us for years, everything seemed to be happening at lightning speed. In the Naples passport queue on Saturday afternoon there were some jokes – and some genuine uncertainty – from the Brits about whether we could still use the EU Citizens’ line, as if the referendum had been some sort of magic spell to cast the demon EU instantly out of us. Continue reading

Reindeer Games (for Litro Magazine)

IMG_7927csmallThis piece originally appeared in Litro Magazine
www.litro.co.uk/2014/05/reindeer-games

The herd of reindeer appeared over the rise of the hill. A great mass of animals painted a patchwork of brown and white on the green and grey of the high scrub. A low chorus of grunts and lowing carried over the ground, accompanied by a rumbling percussion of hooves. Coming up behind them were a line of quad bikes and a pair of collie dogs. The herd packed closer together, and became a single shifting mass flowing across the ground. One of the quad bikes broke off and turned towards us, bouncing its way over the tussocks. We started to back off, not wanting to disturb this monumental round-up. But as one bike got a little closer, its rider started beckoning us towards him. We were about to become reindeer herders. Continue reading

All the books I’ve never read

booksSo, that was another year, and now we do it all over again. I don’t really go in for resolutions, but the last couple of years I’ve urged myself to read more. Specifically, more books. I’m going to try again this year. Like most of us, I spend too much time on the internet, and I harvest up articles like a curious vacuum cleaner. The Pocket app tells me that last year I read 4,318,693 words. (I doubt I read all of them, there was a lot of scanning and skipping.) Pocket helpfully points out that this word count is like reading The Great Gatsby 92 times. Presented with this fact, I found myself thinking I’d rather have read The Great Gatsby 92 times. Or indeed any 92 really good books. (Pocket also adds that if the pages from those books were stacked end to end, they’d make it past the top of the Empire State Building. All I can say is that would be a terrible filing system.) Continue reading

My word is my Bond (For Litro Magazine)

Fleming007impression

How Ian Saw James

How Ian saw James

We’ve all had the sensation of seeing a film adaptation of a favourite book and thinking that the characters aren’t being portrayed as we’ve always imagined them; that the story isn’t being told properly. For the authors who first wrote the words the sensation must be much stronger and stranger, and there have been adaptations both loved and loathed by their original creators. The difference for writers is that they get the chance to respond in their own writing.

I started to think about this again recently as I came to the end of my sequential read-through – interspersed with plenty of other more nutritious reading – of the original Ian Fleming Bond books. I’d read a couple before out of sequence, but it’s fun watching Bond change and yet stay the same across a decade of stories. He never stops being a snob, a sadomasochist, a misogynist, a xenophobe, a homophobe: as Blofeld calls him, “common thug, a blunt instrument wielded by dolts in high places”. And until things start to fall apart for him towards the end of the series, he rarely displays the levels of character complexity that he does in his debut Casino Royale

Continue reading over on Litro

Zero to a hundred

Sculpture at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Gallery, Madrid

Sculpture at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Gallery, Madrid

A change from the usual books and films. A spot of real life.

On Friday, my Granny celebrated her 100th Birthday. The family gathered, champagne was drunk, the card arrived from Her Maj. (A card also arrived from the Department of Work and Pensions, signed by Iain Duncan Smith. That lowered the tone a bit. We suspected he might be checking she still needed her pension.)

The day before, a friend gave birth to a baby girl; let’s call her C for the sake of this post. 8lbs of tiny human delivered with care and safety by the NHS.

It’s hard not to reflect on the different worlds that these two people were born into. You could pick any area of life and fill a book with examples. But as longevity is what we were celebrating on Friday, health seems like a good one to look at.

In 1913 there were no antibiotics beyond a few folk remedies. There were vaccines for smallpox, rabies and the plague, but not for diphtheria, whooping-cough, tuberculosis, tetanus, yellow fever, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis A&B, flu, pneumoccocus, HIB, meningoccucs, cholera, typhoid, chicken pox, Q fever, rotavirus, HPV. Continue reading

Based on a true story

I was interested in the most recent revelations (perhaps too strong a word) about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and this piece by Robert McCrum as I’d been thinking a bit recently about the importance of being able to identify what’s ‘true’ in stories and, as McCrum puts it, our “profound, unconscious need to know what genre we’re in.”

I’ve written before about how weird the process of making things up is – that as a novelist it’s not enough to lie convincingly, but rather you have to create interesting semi-patterned fabrications like the delusions of a conspiracy theorist. And if you get it right, the reader will join you in the conspiracy. As Dom Grelsch says to Luisa Rey in Cloud Atlas: “Anything is true if enough people believe it is.”

If any book tests the boundaries of genre it’s Cloud Atlas, but even so we have developed tacit cultural agreements about what is and isn’t considered plausible within our stories. At one extreme, in Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, Daniel Everett writes about the Pirahã people who never tell stories about subjects beyond their direct knowledge, and always demand evidence based on personal experience. (Everett, a former missionary, has all sorts of trouble explaining Jesus to them.) But at the same time, forest spirits can literally take the form of people and animals, and be present even if unseen. Continue reading

A Number of False Doors (For Litro Magazine)

A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens.” – John Updike

So, the notes are back from my editor and I’m embarking on the final (this time I mean it) rewrite of my novel. It’s had its fair share of revisions in its life: characters have come and gone and the ending has changed more than once. Usually each change feels more right than it did before, but sometimes I dig up an old draft and feel I’ve lost something along the way. With all the changes that a book goes through, how can a writer be sure that they are opening the right doors?

Continue reading over on Litro

Little grey cells

Last week I saw inside my brain.

I’d signed up for a research study on aging which involves various questionnaires, tests and scans. My replies, actions, charts and images become anonymised data; points for the researchers to plot and analyse so that what they see might perhaps become a tiny percentage of the beginning of an idea about how the brain ages and changes.

My data will become anonymous, but with this MRI scan you can still tell that this is me, even to the stubble of my beard and the shadows under my eyes. Great, even on an MRI l look tired. And I appear to be suppressing a smile – in fact just a squeeze of my cheeks caused by the plastic frame I wore to keep my head still. And then that strange wood-effect on my skin, as if by slicing me in half like that you could count the rings to tell my age. Continue reading

Should have been a Bond theme

With Adele’s Skyfall out tomorrow [edit 5/10today], rather than looking back on Bond numbers of the past, I thought it would be a good moment for a personal top ten(ish) songs that would have made great James Bond themes. (Hat tip to @PaleDavid.) Continue reading

Boyle, Blimp and Britishness

I could love a show like yours Danny.

So Danny Boyle’s tough task of having to describe and define Britishness to the world (or at least to itself) seems quickly to be turning into a sort of giant Rorschach test for the nation, with everyone drawing the meaning they want to see in it, or on some counts most did not want to see.

For all the people identifying Voldermort and Cruella de Vil as the Tories attacking the NHS, one commenter on a Guardian thread saw Mary Poppins’ intervention as the private sector saving the NHS from its own failures. And with the Romneyshambles fresh in our mind, it hard not to agree with the New York Times review that who felt it was  “most inspired by a scene from the movie Love Actually, in which Hugh Grant, playing the prime minister, explains [to his dislikeable American guest no less] that Britain is still a great nation because it is “the country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham’s right foot.””

It was of course so much more than that: with its cavalcade of cultural references from the shipping forecast to Kes, Elgar to Brookside, it managed to be simultaneously traditional and progressive – even a little subversive.  It was flat out bonkers but also strangely moving. Continue reading