Stardust by Neil Gaiman

This is the fourth Neil Gaiman novel I’ve read in as many months, and it’s noticeably different in style from American Gods and Neverwhere. I recall watching the first few scenes of the movie on TV and switching over. The novel is – as is so often the case – so much better than the movie. If you’ve seen it, then I suggest you read the novel.

The story is bigger and better than the movie because Gaiman begins with a broad brush of life in the (fictional) Victorian village of Wall a couple of decades before the main body of the story begins. There just isn’t the time in a movie version of a novel to explore the characters’ backgrounds, aspirations and relationships in the kind of depth that Gaiman does. For a fairytale – which is what this is – to be told well, it’s this this depth and long line of chronological consequences that needs to be told.

The characters are drawn rather well, and the story hangs together. What really makes this a masterful tale is the fact that Gaiman is able to tie the characters into a story containing a complex enough causal relationship that it gives the reader a deeply satisfying ending as all of the detail knits back together seamlessly – something which a lot of modern literary fiction lacks (Boyd W., I’m speaking to you). In addition, there are some beautifully-imagined concepts – I’ll call them objects and occupations – which I won’t describe here for fear of spoiling the joy of discovery for the reader. They’re the kinds of details which makes one think, “I hope I can think of something as satisfying and original as that when I come into this genre.” With the f-word only used the once, and in a humorous way, this is a fairytale suitable for a contemporary  British audience of just about any age.

[easyreview title=”Stardust” cat1title=”Plot” cat1detail=”Compelling storyline which hangs together well” cat1rating=”5″ cat2title=”Imaginative world” cat2detail=”Very well-imagined, delightful and enchanting in detail.” cat2rating=”5″ summary=”A satisfying story of good versus evil.”]

Independent author, or independent publisher?

Self-publishing as an independent author is so much easier and rewarding than going down the traditional route, isn’t it? No agents, no publishers, better margins, choose your own cover artwork rather than have to put up with something dumped on you by a stranger who’s not even read your novel. Life in the freewheeling and carefree world of the indie is, well… freewheeling and carefree. Isn’t it?

If only.

September was the month I had to submit my accounts for the first year’s trading of the company I set up to handle my publishing. It was an administrative burden I’d been putting off since the end of June. I balanced the books and organised something in the region of 200 receipts, large and small, and registered a stonking loss on dismal sales. In part, this was because I’d gone down the traditional route of paying for a run of 5,000 copies of Apocalypse Later. In retrospect – had I known they were options – I’d have used Createspace or Lightning Source. But they wouldn’t have been able to deliver the rather lovely matt-black cover with silver foil block lettering that I could see in my mind’s eye glinting on the shelves of Waterstone’s.

Which brings me onto distribution. I’d not appreciated how hard it is to get retail distribution. In spite of a very successful PR campaign I failed to get into the bookshops despite a concerted effort. I did at least manage to get into one retail distributor. Amazon were my only outlet. Notwithstanding the tiny margins, their ordering algorithm meant I was put out of stock at my peak selling period. Whilst a friend who was published by one of the Big Six did have a stock-out problem with Amazon, at least she didn’t have to scrabble around trying to get distribution deals.

During September I’ve been working on the artwork for my forthcoming sci-fi parody series (sorry, still embargoed, but soon – I promise). Having created a set of logos and selected a winning design with the help of friends, I put the final version out to a freelancer. Instead of working on the design I’d sent – maybe half an hour’s work – he came back with four bizarre and irrelevant designs. Every twelve hours (he was based in the Philippines) he’d send me more wide-of-the-mark images and I’d bat them back with yet more detailed instructions and the same image I’d sent him previously. After five days of this I had to give up. I’ll find a designer in London and sit with him or her for an hour. As for the artwork for the Facebook timeline cover, I’m hand-drawing that when I have the time.

With 40,000 words done as of today, thoughts turn to promotion. I’m keen to hire my PR lady again, and have provisionally booked her. Will she get me the impact she did last time? It’s uncertain. But the whole question of PR is something a traditionally-published author would never have to concern themselves with – and they certainly won’t find themselves delivering review copies to newspapers at seven on a winter’s morning, or scrabbling around to write articles that get killed.

Of course, the indie author needn’t hassle themselves with registering a company, getting physical books printed, and hiring a PR agency. But if you take your work seriously as an indie then you have to act like a mini imprint. Yes, the margins are better, and you have more choice – but this is what economists and marketers would call ‘a redistribution of costs in the value chain’ (no, really, they would – I’ve worked with such people). My guess would be that successful indie authors – once all of the other tasks are taken into account – end up much closer to the earnings achieved via the traditional route than they’d care to admit. An honest indie would have to take into account the amount of time they spend blogging, interviewing other authors, Tweeting, participating in conferences and being active on social media, and then apply the hourly rate of a professional in those areas.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking the indie way at all. There should just be a little more recognition that publishing independently really is about being an indie publisher, rather than just an indie author. Here’s the truth: yes, the serious indie author gets to spend their time writing things that people will buy. However, they also have a day job, which is to sell what they write. So long as you recognise you’re both a writer and a publisher, you won’t go far wrong.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival – nine reviews and some thoughts

After three years in a row as a performer, it was strange to attend as just an audience member. For one thing, I kept encountering other performers (usually flyering) and greeting them by first-name and receiving confused looks. I’m generally better than most at identifying the odd face, and I guess if I’m not wearing my trademark suit it’s a bit more difficult. Other comics never managed to see my show, since I was in a ‘family’ venue nearly a mile from the main strip. The anonymity was quite pleasing, as was not having to wander around with several kilograms of computer, projector, leaflets, etc. What follows are my thoughts on the nine shows I saw. Speaking of anonymity, I’m not naming any of the shows I didn’t like. Comedy is subjective, and every performer has bad days. There is one performer you must see, and I reveal all below.

Show one: The Seasoned Comedian

When I got off the train on Saturday I went into the first show I came across on PBH’s Free Fringe. It was a comedian who’s been on the circuit for almost a decade. It had been three or four years since I last saw him. He’s a very confident and hard-working performer, and this was the first show in his run. There were some good (what we call in the trade) rug-pulls which elicited guffaws from a few people in the late-afternoon crowd. However, comedians are the toughest audiences, and I’m sorry to report I didn’t laugh. I was just off the train from London, but I did notice that a few people at the back left. The material was delivered pretty well but… he hadn’t moved on since I last saw him. He just needed that little oomph, and I don’t know what it would be. Maybe his ‘attitude’ wasn’t for that particular audience. The stories were lovely, and some of them heart-warming. I would have thought that some professional direction would help.

Show Two: Domestic Science

On Monday I dived back in. First up was Domestic Science, which was clever comedy in front of a clever audience (a poll of the highest level of science qualification achieved confirmed that). No cheap gags or swearing here – some interesting science and cutesy jokes (the duo are a real-life couple who met whilst performing in the venue two years ago). They had two guests, one of whom is my discovery of the year: Martin Croser. He’d been asked to write some science-based puns, a couple of which had me laughing like a drain. The poor man was shaking with fear (or maybe it was the DTs) but his attitude was wonderfully carefree and self-deprecating. I know great writing when I hear it, and these puns were word-perfect. More on him below.

This show is on PBH’s Free Fringe, but to suggest that audience members give the same kind of donation as they’d pay for a full paid-for show is a little cheeky if in excess of 40% of your show is comprised of guest spots. Still, there was interesting domestic science and good audience participation, so it delivered most of what it promised.

Show Three: A Complete and Comprehensive History of the Roman Empire in Less Than an Hour – With Jokes

Next it was to Ed OMeara. I have to confess that this kind of thing is my ‘beat’: intense knowledge of a rich subject-area, and mining the comedy gold from it. Ed’s clearly a very confident performer and knew his subject inside-out. He was blessed with a good audience who were clearly nerdy with their ancient history because they were able to call in facts.

It’s tough as hell to dig those jokes out, and there were few truly funny moments. However, I would say he delivered much more of his promise than our friends doing Domestic Science. Why so? Check the title of the show. He was never for a moment off-subject and delivered it in detail – with jokes. I know how hard it is for a solo performer to push out that kind of delivery for an hour, and he maintained excellent energy levels throughout, with fairly good degree of audience participation. Indeed, he had to edit down his material towards the end because he was over-ran the hour.

Show Four: The Bright Young Thing

I’m not going to tell you the name of the comedian or title of the show I saw next. No one likes a bad review – though this guy needs a dose of reality. His blurb said he’d won no fewer than three ‘new act of the year’ awards. Having seen the show, I can’t for the life of me fathom how. He came on stage in an underwhelming manner, made what he admitted was a pathetic attempt to create a bond with the audience, and then proceeded to ramble on in what he admitted was a monotone for forty minutes about how he feels about life. The audience sat there stupefied throughout. And then the show just ended. No attempt to inject any energy. No clear ‘attitude’, just an aimless drifting and an annoying and unprofessional fiddling with the microphone stand – displacement behaviour, I guess.

Judging by their ages, I’d guess that many in the audience were from his fan-base – hence my suggestion that this performer needs a kick up the arse for his own benefit. He told us he wanted to write something a bit more sensitive, and that’s fine. But if you’re going to big yourself up in your blurb you had better deliver on that promise. Delivering sensitive material about where you are in your life can be funny. This wasn’t. A comic twice his age plus another ten years might have got away with it at the end of a long career. He said he had a meeting with a producer scheduled at the Fringe. Not if she sees this show first, he won’t… Zero points on delivering against promise.

Show Five: The Impro Show with Good Publicity

Last up on Monday was a bit of impro. Thanks to the presence of a journalist in the crew, this show’s had a decent splash in the media. The parameters within which the cast were operating were extremely tight, based as it was at a particular point in history. That offers advantages and disadvantages. One big advantage was that the title of their show was a catchy bastardisation of a couple of TV programmes. Another advantage is that what improvisers call a character’s ‘status’ is immediately clear to every other performer. Thus, there’s no confusion as to where they are in the on-stage pecking order. Instant comedy can be generated by transgression, or transition of status. Something just didn’t work that evening – simple as that. I received an apology from an acquaintance in the show later on. I told him that it was unnecessary – improvisation sometimes just doesn’t work. Everyone on stage can be working like mad but sometimes the magic stays in the bottle.

Day two was a different story…

Show Six: Martin Croser – Funny Bone China

First up was Martin Croser – Funny Bone China, playing in a venue a little off the main strip of the Free Fringe, but still pretty central. When I arrived he was standing on the corner with a small dry marker board with ‘a show ostensibly about tea cups’ written on it. He’d had five people on day one, and another five on day two. It looked like I was going to be the only audience member that day, but three people wandered in looking for a specific show starting half an hour later. I didn’t hesitate to tell the trio that Martin had delivered a stunning set the previous day at Domestic Science, and that the writing was genius. I made a personal promise that he’d be better than whatever it was they’d wanted to see.

After offering to help them find their show, Martin told them he’d aim to edit his show to half an hour, which he did. That takes a high degree of skill, and he did it very competently. When the half-hour was up, the trio stayed – which made it extremely difficult for him, because he’d just cut the middle of his set and given us the punchline that tied the start to the finish. He ploughed on with a wonderful mix of old, new and visual comedy.

His brand of self-deprecating tragi-comic and honest humour is a thoroughly refreshing change to the sort of navel-gazing ‘aren’t I marvellous’ rubbish spewed out by so many award-winning comics (see Show Four). I was actually quite concerned about the extent of the brutality of the self-mocking, but it was impossible not to laugh – heartily and often. Where the subject-matter ranged beyond that, the gags were pushed right up to the end of the absurdity curve with immense skill.

This is a man who clearly cares passionately about his writing – he must spend hours chiselling away at veins for rough gems, then cutting and hand-polishing them until they gleam just so. Great audience interaction – but then there would be with just four audience members. Attitude was spot-on – a man pushed beyond caring, but with deep humanity visible in the most atrocious subjects. Oh, and the trio admitted I was absolutely right.

It’s extremely upsetting to see a writer of such obvious genius not receiving the recognition he deserves. Hey – I don’t know how he’d be in front of a huge audience, and looks like ‘a strategically-shaved bear’ (his description). At the very least someone needs to come along and pay this man to sit and write comedy gold for a living. You must see him.

Show Seven – The Coin-Operated Girl

After Martin Croser it was round the corner for The Coin-Operated Girl (points for the correct hyphenation). Miranda Kane was a sex-worker for seven years, having retired from the industry in the late spring of 2012.

She’s what she describes as a BBW, which is Big Beautiful Woman. Being 25 stone and from a small seaside town she’d had body-image issues. After moving to London and leading a promiscuous lifestyle she discovered that a lot of men wanted to sleep with BBWs, so she ‘set up in business for herself’. She shared with us her learning-curve – the highs and lows of being an escort (or prostitute, as she puts it in her blurb), which was amusing, titillating, and fascinating in equal order. Oh, and don’t think I didn’t spot the fact that she filled a long and wide venue without amplification. A great voice in all senses of the expression.

She had trawled thousands of emails from her ‘punters’ from over the years to give us a list of her top ten requests. I’m not going to share these with you here because that’s her intellectual property so far as I’m concerned. What’s astonishing is that not a single one of us in the (large) audience was able to guess what the number one was. Oh, okay, I relent and I’ll tell you one. The Girlfriend Experience (GFE in the trade) was number six. She did caution us that these were the top ten for her, and her only, and that she’s a BBW. It may well be different for other sex workers.

This is a massive industry that society refuses to recognise, and yet some politicians seek to legislate against in ways which don’t make sense, and are not endorsed by its workers. Definitely a show worth seeing – fun, enlightening, uplifting, and Miranda Kane is a very professional performer (pun not intended). For more information: http://www.coinoperatedgirl.co.uk/

Show Eight: Chris Fitchew – Jack of All Trades

Third show of the day two was was Chris Fitchew in Jack of All Trades at the Gilded Balloon. I had no idea who Chris Fitchew was before I booked the tickets. He promised several different characters performing sketches. He opened up in the character of a camp wedding planner, and was straight into the audience (boom-boom), getting members to dress up. This was a high-energy punch to the funny-bone – a great opener.

You’re now expecting me to say that the rest of the show lost the energy. Nope, it didn’t. He made sure we were bounced around a series of very different characters and, as he changed into the next one, we got to know a metrosexual fitness fanatic by way of a series of videos. He made sure he finished the show at an energy level just as high – if not higher – than the one he started with. Everyone left smiling. A great show, and even your gran would love it. In fact, she’d fall in love with the camp wedding-planner. I don’t know what it is about the blue-rinse brigade and camp performers. Full points to Chris for absolutely delivering to the audience what he promised and just making people laugh and be happy.

Show Nine: Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolfe III – Brothers and Sisters

Last, but most certainly not least, was Rev Obadiah Steppenwolfe III at the Gilded Balloon.

I’ve heard a lot about the good Reverend over the years, not least because my own return to stand-up after a 17-year hiatus was in the character of an American preacher. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I knew he was going to be offensive, and probably in a fairly blunt manner. What was a surprise was the profile of the audience: a higher proportion of women (at least 50%) than I’d expected, including a couple of groups – one of which occupied the front row. Sitting next to me was a woman who looked like a sixty-year-old librarian, and she loved it.

The Reverend is wearing a beard and a wig on stage these days, as well as wraparound shades. I’m going to hazard a guess that this is for personal security off-stage. Yes; the material really is potentially that offensive in certain quarters. I have to say that he treads a very careful line when it comes to issues like race, and it’s a clever one. He plays it without being racist, so that you’re laughing at society’s attitude to racism. Smart – very smart. I guess the Gilded Balloon has a reputation to protect too, and I do believe they had observers in the room. He plays other cards too, such as paedophilia, anti-Scottish gags (well-received by the Scots in the audience). In fact, he offends everyone equally – so I guess that’s what makes it alright. When he called Bono the most offensive word in the dictionary, and he was met with a massive cheer.

I’d not realised when I booked it, but the show was the Reverend interviewing other comics. You might think that’s fudging it a bit; that he’s avoided having to write a show. Not a bit of it. Remember that he has to stay in character for a whole hour, and do his best to undercut another performer. The first interviewee was Miles Jupp, who happens (we discovered) to have a degree in Divinity from Edinburgh University. I didn’t know that the Rev had worked with Jupp a decade previously, but they’d not done so since (the Rev pointed to their very different career trajectories). Jupp was excellent. He’s a very experienced performer, and gave at least as good as he got – if not better.

Second on was Daniel Sloss. I think I recall the face from a TV show somewhere, but at twenty-two he’s – as the marketing folks would say – out of my demographic. Experience counts, and Steppenwolfe was all over the lad, making him ‘confess’ to all manner of real-life sins and talk far more openly than he probably should – particularly about his girlfriend. This was not bullying, by the way – this was just masterful performance. Sloss revealed that his mother was in the audience. I looked around as we filed out and, sure enough, it looked like he was getting a pretty good talking-to from her.

This is not a show for everyone, and it’s not supposed to be. If you go to an offensive show, you have no right to complain about it being offensive. But, it’s one of those forbidden fruits or guilty pleasures that a real comedy connoisseur should try. I saw Roy Chubby Brown in Newcastle back in the Eighties. Definitely offensive – and Brown is an extremely intelligent man with a strong set of morals off-stage, by the way: he once assaulted a man for swearing in front of a child – and does it in his stage persona. Reverend Obadiah Steppenwolfe does offensive in a different way to Brown. His is a different demographic, and so the humour is more thoughtfully offensive; maybe less overt. Plus, of course, he’s only doing prepared gags as he warms the audience up at the start.

I did wonder how the man behind the character makes a living. Most shows lose considerable amounts of money for the performers. He charges a premium (£13.50), but he does have another professional on stage. I can only assume he takes his show to Spain for the holiday crowds.

The Fringe – How to ‘do’ it

So, day two of my Fringe was magnificent: I couldn’t have gone away happier. What have we learnt from this article? We’ve learnt that marketing hype – be it in the form of past awards or newspaper coverage prior to the run – are great for the performers’ audiences, but are not a marker for quality.

Can we rely on reviews during the Fringe from the range of publications that cover it? Again, probably not wholly – the same performance of the same show can get two stars from one reviewer and five from another. I’ve had nice reviews from people who quite clearly didn’t know the first thing about either comedy or reviewing. It’s not just that comedy is subjective, it’s that a comedy writer of Martin Croser’s standing can – and will – remain either unreviewed, or severely under-rated if he is reviewed. A fresh-faced young reviewer might judge his show as unsuccessful just because of audience size, yet that’s partly because he’s not reviewed. It’s chicken and egg, and there is little justice or logic at the Fringe.

To get the most out of the Fringe, make sure you pick a few shows at random. Immerse yourself in it. Commit to going from one venue to another with little time between. Keep going – you’ll find something you like. It’s also a good idea to take in a couple of shows where there are guest spots, so you can judge for yourself before committing.

L.S. Lowry at Tate Britain – Grim Viewing

As a Scot who was brought up on Tyneside in the Seventies and Eighties, I feel more qualified than most to commentate on matters pertaining to the Grim North. Critics might object that I’m middle-class, and that twenty years of living in the South have made me soft. I did manual labouring jobs as a teenager, and as a student worked at Pizza Hut in the Bigg Market – probably the toughest drinking hole in the Britain. And if I wanted to be a geographic snob about it, I could challenge Lowry’s Northern Grimness as, well, a bit too southern for my liking.

The commentators were wheeled out before the exhibition opened. The broad line was that Lowry, being from Ye Grimme North, isn’t celebrated in the same way as his southern contemporaries; that his paintings lie unseen in London vaults because there’s a patronising Londonista view that his work is somehow inferior. I heard a spokeswoman for the Tate explain that there’s simply not enough wall space to display every artists’ paintings all the time. She’s absolutely right, but more to the point Manchester does have The Lowry. There’s a Van Gough museum in Amsterdam, but no Francis Bacon or a Lucien Freud space in London.

And this is the whole nub of the matter. What we see in Lowry isn’t so much the painting and the art, as the depiction of a lost Northern way of life. That’s why Lowry’s work touches a nerve in a way that no other 20th Century British artist does. To push a simile to breaking point, where Constable and Turner bequeathed us vanished landscapes, Lowry’s legacy is an entire social history. As my doctor-artist friend Liz, who accompanied me, said – “His paintings work best when he has people in them.”

The curators, thankfully, have got this. In room two we get George Formby singing about the day the family got evicted for non-payment of rent. There’s a commentary from the period about how fights would break out between women. A clean rent-book would be used as a demonstration that one household was of a superior social stratum to another working-class family from the same street. It’s a powerful quote, and probably a revelation to a lot of middle-class, armchair socialists from London. For most of us with any experience of life outside the South East it’s just confirmation that people are the same the country over. Poverty is as ugly all over the country – it’s just that its face has changed in the last half-century. And you don’t have to go outside the capital to see it; you never have. Hackney and Tower Hamlets today sit cheek-by-jowl with some of the most obscene wealth in the world.

If anything was a revelation to me, it was that Lowry had been so successful so early in the century. There was a price-list from an exhibition in the Twenties. The most expensive painting was about £20. Consider that the average male weekly wage was about £5 in 1925. A pint of milk was 3d, and with 240d to the pound, that’s 400 pints of milk. That’s £200 at today’s prices, but the cost of a pint of milk in real terms has plummeted below the cost of production. In reality, those paintings were up to £2,000 apiece compared to wages today (which are c.£25,000pa). A tidy sum. And he was getting rave reviews for his work, and the word ‘grim’ was always in evidence. In short, Lowry was peddling the myth of Northern Grimness. I’ve not had time to research it, but perhaps he – along with George Orwell – even invented it.

Yes, there is something wonderful and unique about his paintings. But this was also a man who knew his market – he refused to paint anything other than these stylised – even fictional – depictions of grimness. Sorry, did you catch on the word ‘fictional’? Didn’t you realise that, apart from a few studies from the window of the college where he learnt his trade, his paintings are mostly fictional? Oh, you caught again on the fact that he was taught; that he took lessons? Why, yes, he studied under the (to my mind) brilliant Pierre Adolphe Valette. (One of Valette’s paintings of Manchester in the exhibition blew both of us away.) The ‘fictional’ jibe? Please, it’s not a jibe – Lowry admitted the landscapes were ‘imagined’. It’s at its most joyously and laughably obvious when you see two paintings side-by-side one is called Going to Work, the other Coming from Work (I probably have those titles slightly wrong). The exact same building and gate are depicted on the left of the painting. However, the buildings in the background have changed, but the people are walking in the same direction. And no: Lowry wasn’t making some kind of smart post-modern social comment that people found life at home as hard as work – Liz explained that it was because Lowry was a right-handed painter, and this direction was easiest for him.

Lowry as folk hero

The myth, or otherwise, of Northern Grimness – let’s talk about it like mature adults. As we were waiting to get in, I couldn’t stop myself from singing the following lines:

He painted matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs,
He painted kids on the corner of the street who were sparking clogs.

And;

Canvas and brushes were wearing thin,
When London started calling him,
To come on down and wear the old flat cap.

These are from the 1978 number one hit Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs by Brian and Michael, who were accompanied by the St Winifred’s School Choir and the Tintwistle Brass Band. Here’s the song, complete with lyrics:

This song dollops on the Lowry mythology in thick layers. We’re led to believe that he painted on ‘cardboard boxes from the shops’ because he was so poor. Lowry was never poor in adulthood (nor truly poor in childhood). For one thing, he could afford painting and drawing lessons at art school. Every painting in the exhibition was on board or canvas. It was only when on holiday and he ran out of sketch pads that he painted on envelopes, bus-tickets and serviettes. These pieces are today worth thousands of pounds. That’s right: he holidayed in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Sunderland. My grandparents were middle-class Scots from the Borders, and they also holidayed on the coast of the North East at around the same time – though they couldn’t afford hotels.

The Establishment and Lowry

What of being ignored by the Establishment in London? In 1943 he was appointed as a war artist. A decade later, he was appointed Official Artist at Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation. That’s certainly new information to me, and I didn’t read it at the exhibition. Apparently he also holds the record for the ‘most honours declined’, including a knighthood. I think that latter fact reveals a man who realised what his business was, and that business was myth-making. Would Sir Laurence Lowry be as revered or mythologised as plain L.S. Lowry?

Lowry – the man, the myth, the monetisation

The Tate’s attempts to peddle the myth in the gift shop are risible. There are copies of Paul Morley’s The North (And Almost Everything In It), as well as – and this bends the mind – flat caps. You read that right: flat caps, priced at £28. It’s as if they expect Southern Ponces to be so moved by the experience that en masse, they will throw up their hands in defeat, spit out their sun-dried tomatoes and declare for the North. Why didn’t the Tate go the whole hog? Where were the clogs, damn it? When we passed the café on the way out, where in God’s name was the pie, chips and mushy peas? Must we eat cake again?

How Grim was my valley?

When I was a lad and I lived in the North, to the much grimmer north of Lowry’s Grim North, I hated the South, London, and all it stood for. They had it easy, didn’t they?

I now realise that it’s grim pretty much everywhere if you’re trapped in poverty by circumstance or lack of opportunity. Lowry realised that in later life, and paintings like Bargoed in the Welsh Valleys are testament to it. I’ve been to Bargoed, and the depiction of Welsh grimness is painfully accurate.

Manchester’s been done proud by Lowry – a peculiar kind of proud – and it’s right that they celebrate him as he celebrated its communities. The man gave them a specific brand of Northern Grimness – the kind that persuades central government to subsidise a building to the man who did the most for the myth. It even persuaded Tony Blair to bully the BBC into spending hundreds of millions of pounds (of licence-fee payers’ money; your money) to move a chunk of its production up to Salford. Why not Tyneside or Teesside, both of which are equally as deserving? Well, they’re a bit too north, aren’t they? The Mancunian brand of Northern grimness is creatively authentic (think Coronation Street, think Madchester, The Smiths, Oasis and all those great Nineties bands). No, there’s grim and there’s grim.

Even the KLF in their song It’s Grim Up North mentions nearly 70 towns and cities, and not one is north of Yorkshire. And I’d also refute the grimness of some of them. Harrogate, for example, is rather twee. You could argue that it rains an awful lot up there (see video), but if you want to compete on rainy northerness, the whole of Scotland wins hands-down.

Oh dear. I’ve committed the sin described in room 2 – I’ve been trying to out-North and out-Grim Manchester. I’ve become the blogging equivalent of the housewife waving a clean rent-book. I guess my point is that Manchester needs to recognise that it hasn’t got a monopoly on grimness – just a particular brand of Northern Grimness.

A Grim manifesto

Here’s my advice to the impoverished residents of Hackney and Tower Hamlets. Forget rioting. The political classes – liberal, socialist, conservative – don’t like or understand violence, and the apparatus of the state is designed to deal with it. The political classes understand art, and they understand marketing. If you really want to end your poverty, paint it. Or, better still, brand it.

Stag beetle fights for life on mean streets of south London

On my way back from the shops this morning I came across a stag beetle scurrying across the pavement. Its head was severely damaged – the front having been severed in what looked like a clean cut with a sharp object. At first glance I could see he had lost his antlers, and was probably blinded. I managed to scoop him up into my shopping bag. The photograph below was taken in my back garden.

Injured stage beetle

Injured stag beetle

What you can’t see is that his left antler is trailing below his body. I’m hoping that his actual feeding mandibles are intact. Although I’m sure he’s been left blind, his defensive stance when touched is still active. The reaction could, of course, just be an instinctive response by the remnants of his central nervous system.

I managed to get him into the big stack of rotting wood I keep in my garden. I now realise that my kitchen compost bin would have been the best place for him. Apart from a female, the only thing stag beetles will fight over is rotting fruit.

Adult stag beetles are only active from late May to August. I sometimes see them on my runs in the Tooting Commons (their presence proved a powerful argument against the conversion of one common to a concrete football area). The only ones I see in the more urban areas tend to be dead. I can only assume that people either think they’re dangerous (they’re not), or mistake them for the Asian cockroach.

I think these are the most magnificent and noble of insects. Once common, the European stag beetle is now an endangered species. Incredibly, the south London and Surrey colony is apparently one of the last remaining big populations.

If you cut down trees or branches, you can do wildlife an enormous favour by half-burying them around the borders of your garden. It’s not just stag beetle larvae which will benefit. One of the reasons garden birds are in decline is that they can’t get enough insects for their chicks. Insects contain the high amounts of protein necessary for healthy development. Many’s the time I’ve seen birds feeding on insects and grubs from the rotting wood in my garden. Over the next few weeks I’m going to be putting the odd piece of rotting fruit in that stack for the mums and dads of next season’s larvae.

Post script, Monday 1st July

On the way to the bus this morning I found a female stag beetle on the other side of the same bit of road. Very peculiar to see two on consecutive days in a spot I’ve never seen any before. A litter-lout had left a convenient receptacle for me scoop her up and take her back to the same wood-pile as yesterday’s chap. Maybe they spent the morning making sweet stag beetle love? Or maybe they were Streatham Hill’s hottest stag beetle couple? Maybe she bit half his head off yesterday, in which case he won’t thank me for dumping her on him this morning… When will I ever learn not to try to sort out other species’ relationships?

Isle of Staffa and Fingal’s Cave

A couple of days ago I took the MB Iolaire from Fionnphort to Staffa. The last time I’d been to Staffa was 1982, on a yachting holiday. The Atlantic had been like a mill-pond, and we’d been surrounded by a pod of pilot whales between Iona and Staffa. In decades of sailing, it was the first time my parents had managed to land there.

Monday’s trip was different. It was a steady force three, with intermittent sun. The commentary on the MB Iolaire was excellent, and the skipper talked to every person on the trip individually. I shot this video on the approach to the island:

There’s a decent walkway over the tops of the basalt columns to the mouth of the cave. In the intervening years a lightly sanded bitumen has been added for safety. The cable handrail continues inside the cave until a safety chain blocks the way. It wasn’t there when I was a teenager. I went underneath the barrier and continued a few metres forward across the slippery, algae-covered basalt. I stopped about ten feet from where I ventured in my teens. It wasn’t so much that I’ve become less daring; more that I wasn’t confident I had the right footwear. In my experience running shoes are better on algae than walking shoes. Another guy went after me and slipped a couple of times before stopping short of where I’d reached. I shot the following video of the ‘eternally surging sea’.

The Gaelic name is An Uamh Bhin – ‘the melodious cave’. Composer Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to write the Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony after visiting. The rocks are hexagonal basalt crystals, formed 55m to 58m years ago as part of the volcanic activity which took place as the Atlantic ocean widened. They sit on a bed of volcanic ash (tuff). At that time the island was at a latitude of about 40 degrees north (the Spanish capital, Madrid, is dead on 40), rather than the 60 degrees it is now. The cave is 20m high and 75m long. Before the sea levels rose 14,000 years ago Staffa was not an island, but was part of the same land mass as Iona and Mull. It’s extraordinary to think what it would have looked like back then. What now-extinct Ice Age giants sheltered inside? Did Stone Age humans reach it before the sea? What would they have made of its other-worldly sculpture, sitting in the landscape like an alien spacecraft? Jules Verne visited in 1839, and I can’t help but feel it must have in some way inspired the classic Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864).

It was unknown to the English-speaking world until a visit by Joseph Banks in 1772. It’s easy to forget that less than 250 years ago this was a Gaelic-speaking area ruled by clans that no Scottish king was ever able to rule effectively. It appears that only one family ever lived there, and that they abandoned it by 1800 after they could stand the storms no more. Their ruined stone house tells you that nature always wins out in the end. Staffa’s oceanic stranding and isolation saved it for us.

That was one hell of a creativity break, provided by Mother Nature herself. I’ll be incorporating this into a novel in the very near future. Next time I visit I’ll wear running shoes and take a better quality microphone.

David Bowie is… helping me with my creativity

A creative break today to recharge my batteries. If you want to see the David Bowie is exhibition at the V&A in London, then you have two choices: queue early in the morning on the off-chance of getting a ticket for a random entry time that day, or buy membership to the V&A. Individual tickets are £15.50 (including donation) and membership is £64 (£79 with guest). I chose the latter a month before visiting with my friend Liz.

My elder brother gave me Changes One Bowie for Christmas when I was fourteen. It was my first rock or pop album. Yes, I’d bought singles – She’s So Modern by the Boomtown Rats was my first, I think – but my first album was Bach’s Fourth Lute Suite, played on classical guitar by John Williams. I was learning classical guitar because I could just never get how to do the mindless strumming required for rock and pop.

I’m not sure what Liz and I were expecting, but we’d been promised costumes and mementos – pieces of a life, I guess. The feeling of exclusivity – much of the exhibition’s content it is from Bowie’s own archives, and it’s not being staged anywhere else – is enhanced by a notice informing the visitor that, not only is photography banned, but sketching is too. Sketching. Heck, they allow sketching in court.

What we did get was a David Bowie experience. Not the David Bowie experience because, as you’ll come to understand, there can be no David Bowie singularity. The headsets were integral to it, and the content was triggered by one’s proximity to pieces. It didn’t always work that well, but it was pretty good. And it was a complete and immersive experience. The formulation (and I choose that word carefully) of an exhibition by Bowie would by its very nature be a complete and immersive experience. This is the essence of Bowie, and his art. It’s therefore meaningless to talk in detail about the individual pieces of the exhibition, because if you think they’re the point then you’re missing it completely.

What you take away is the realisation that this is the artist who did the most to invent the way a particular type of popular music is presented and enjoyed – branded, packaged and marketed, if you will. So many acts followed in his footsteps, but Bowie himself acknowledges his debt to predecessors from across the creative spectrum whose work he parsed and amalgamated. Right at the end of the exhibition he presents this in a Periodic Table of Bowie Elements (sorry if I have the title of this wrong), just in case people haven’t quite got it.

The end piece of the show is a three-story, three-wall video of Bowie playing a couple of numbers. Again, I won’t spoil the detail, but it’s almost like being at a live gig. One of the videos is his landmark performance of The Jean Genie on Top of the Pops. (How thankful the curators must have been that Jimmy Savile was nowhere in evidence.) I was not alone in dancing to the irresistible bass-line, but what was noticeable was that I was joined only by people my age or above. ‘The kids’ were having none of it. I’m not sure whether they were too self-conscious and cool, whether heavy beats don’t resonate with them, or whether the rest of us were sucked into a teenage time-vortex by Pavlovian conditioning.

It was moving and inspiring on a deep level. The secret to success in life was hidden in plain sight: you have to try a lot of things out, work hard at them and see what sticks. You have to adapt, because there’s no such thing as a completed work until you’re dead. You are free to live your life as you want. Everything you do is by choice, even if it’s nothing, or if it’s following society’s mores. Everything you do is present tense. It’s David Bowie is, not was, or will be. Your life is about living in the now. Reach out and grab it: live it and become it. David Bowie is cannot be a singularity because of the nature of David Bowie’s singularity. If that last sentence is a bit too pretentious, then it’s captured the quintessence of David Bowie’s career. (Oops, done it again…)

My big confession is that the only time I listen to music now is in the gym, where I have no control. My iPhone is devoid of musical content and I’ve yet to unwrap the earphones after three years of ownership. I gave up classical guitar at sixteen and switched to claw-hammer blues before dropping the instrument altogether. My music-listening all but ended when I gave up car ownership in ’96 – big business road trips in the States being the only exception (I became The Man Who Sold to the World, as opposed to The Man Who Sold the World).

My old classical guitar lies under my bed. I salvaged and repaired a beaten-up electric guitar from a charity shop in December 2011. I have a ukulele (bought before the current fad), an electric autoharp (December 2011) and a second-hand keyboard (same charity shop, autumn 2012). I also bought a gorgeous amp back in December 2011 which distorts and transmogrifies in a thousand wonderful ways. Mark the musician is clearly lurking beneath the surface. David Bowie is… definitely making Mark the musician restless. David Bowie is… going to make me unpopular with my neighbours.

Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) – London Meetup

I went to the London meetup for of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi – and no, I can’t explain the acronym either) last week. My only previous visit had been November 2012, and I had gone away enthused and excited about my writing career. Unfortunately I’ve flagged in the last few months as I’ve been distracted by various non-writing projects, plus the day-job. I needed another shot of that self-publishing enthusiasm and self-belief.

This time I brought with me an old friend from the MA. Paul’s been prevaricating about publishing his first novel as an independent. I helped him with cover artwork as early as February 2012, but still he wasn’t willing to take the plunge. We heard some fantastic success stories. Chris Shevlin had sold close to a thousand copies of his novel. One member was late because he’d literally just pressed the button to publish his second novel, which he was putting out under a new persona, before coming to the meeting. Another told us of his multi-media book, which he’d been publishing a significant percentage of in daily mini-episodes over a period of four months. It was also great to see that than an older lady who’d turned up in November not knowing anything was now published, selling, and able to provide solid advice to younger and more tech-savvy members of the group. The meeting was expertly chaired by Orna Ross, who is sage, enthusiastic and inspirational. I can’t tell you just yet what I committed to publicly at that meeting, but watch this space on September the second! My friend? He saw the light, and I hope I’m able to write about his success in later blogs.

If you’re an independent author, I cannot urge you strongly enough to join ALLi. Find your local group using meetup.com, or join here http://allianceindependentauthors.org to get support, advice and discounts on professional writing services. You can also join the private Facebook page to keep up with winning marketing strategies.

MA in Creative Writing – should I take one?

Most universities now offer an MA in Creative Writing. They tend to be two-year part-time courses, aimed at mature students of any age (rather than students who have just graduated and are looking to specialise in a profession). With tuition fees rocketing, they’re a winner for the institutions that offer them – but are they a good investment for the aspiring novelist? Could you achieve the same level of mastery of your art by joining writing groups? Let me tell you a story…

Let’s go back to the Seventies and find out when the MA in Creative Writing entered the public consciousness in a major English-speaking country: the United Kingdom. The first flash into the public consciousness was achieved by Malcolm Bradbury’s course at UEA. Although he was a popular writer himself, it was Ian McEwan’s fame after attending the course that cemented its place as a must-attend destination for a generation of young novelists. McEwan played down the contribution of the MA to his success in one interview I heard, saying he barely saw Bradbury the whole year, but that it gave him time to write. Kazuo Ishiguro said much the same thing.

In that last sentence of the previous paragraph I revealed the real secret of success – once the initial buzz was created, other ambitious novelists flocked to UEA. The honest educationalist will admit that the single most important factor in a school’s success is its catchment area or, in the case of universities, the quality of students it attracts. Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard only take the brightest enquiring minds (presumably Harvard only took G.W. Bush for the patronage), so they turn out the brightest. Gold in, gold out.

As a postgraduate student at the University of the West of England, I had a term of seminars with novelist and UEA graduate David Peak, who was the writer in residence. For me, the possibility of classes from a writer in residence was the reason I’d chosen that institution over any other. I had been writing novels since the age of fourteen, and wanted to be stretched by a professional. Dave certainly did that, using exercises he’d learnt at UEA. For me, a year spent in East Anglia was an impossible dream: I was off into my marketing career.

Scroll forward a decade or two, and I was well into my career. Life wasn’t panning out as I’d wanted. I’d not sold a script to a publisher (not that I’d tried very hard), and I couldn’t write because my career was in the way – long days, plus weeks spent abroad at conferences or pitching to clients. Somehow, I found out about a seminar at the London Book Fair. A panel consisting of an agent, a novelist, and a publisher would advise on how to get a publishing contract. When I got to the venue I looked around. There were hundreds of people in the capacity audience, and I bet tickets could have sold many times over. It was a harsh dose of reality: not everyone in that room was going to get a publishing contract. Ever. What would mark me out as special? I won’t name names, but the agent who said, “All we want is to read a great manuscript” nearly got lynched. A great manuscript won’t get you published: you have to get an agent first. Getting an agent seemed almost impossible. I had to take radical action.

As luck would have it, I’d recently read an article in the Independent on Sunday. Two playwrights were talking about how they met. I was astonished to see that they’d met on the Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck, London. I’d no idea there were any Creative Writing programmes outside of UEA. Suddenly I didn’t have to make a move. A little more research and I found that City University had an MA in Creative Writing that had been founded the previous year by the novelist and broadcaster Harriett Gilbert. I secured interviews at Birkbeck and City. Harriett’s course specialised in novel-writing, and I cancelled my interview at Birkbeck as soon as I had secured a place on Harriett’s course: you just know when something’s right.

What did I learn on the course that I couldn’t have learnt through writing groups? Plenty. A few months before the course started I began working my way through the reading list. For years, my friends and I had been bemoaning the lack of decent contemporary fiction. That reading list was a godsend, and it was gratefully received by my friends. Once I’d finished the required list, I went on to the recommended list and read classics from periods and genres I’d never considered. It was a great mind-opener.

As soon as the course began, my writing was stretched by exercises. Although you can do that in writing groups, it’s really not to the same standard, and in most instances it’s not supervised by a professional. There’s also an element of pressure in knowing that you’re being assessed on your script. You’re also in with a more ambitious peer group, who have also had to pass a set of entrance criteria. Any psychologist will tell you how important peer groups are to development. There’s also a structure to your learning, and you’re all being taught at the same time – in a writing group you might get frustrated by the lack of structure, or the level of commentary. All this was, of course, tied in with the reading list. I was so lucky to have chosen Harriett’s course, because of the way it was tied to literary criticism (the prospect of which had terrified me). Indeed, one of our course tutors – an award-winning novelist who had graduated from the UEA course and taught at another leading institution – remarked that this was the course she would have chosen had it been around at the time, simply because of that close focus on the novel and literary criticism.

Through her literary journalism and her broadcasting career at the BBC, Harriett was exceptionally well-connected. The visiting writers were amongst the most successful of their generation, and there was someone for everyone’s taste: Will Self, Hilary Mantel, William Boyd, Frances Fyfield, Nick Hornby, Val McDermid and Alan Bennett to name a few. In our second year we did an entire term on the industry itself, and met leading publishers, agents and industry lawyers. Remember; this was in small groups, and we were able to ask extensive questions. I don’t know of any writers’ group that could achieve that. Finally, we had expert supervision and peer review of our novels. This must have been my fourth of fifth novel, so it wasn’t a new journey for me. However, Harriett gave invaluable guidance on upping the pressure on my protagonist and filling out a couple of minor characters.

We had a reunion last week, some six years after the end of the course. Other than by self-publishing, none of us have been published. Any industry professional will admit that there’s a large element of luck in publishing It was said several years ago that perhaps ten percent of MA in Creative Writing graduates get a publishing deal, and I would guess that very few would ever get beyond a second novel. So is it worth two years and several thousands of pounds? At the right institution, and with the right tutor, the answer is an unequivocal yes. You do learn a great deal about your craft. You also learn about the industry, and how to approach agents. In other words, your investment makes you ‘luckier’ because it helps open doors. An agent is far more likely to read a query letter from someone who takes his or her writing so seriously as to commit to an MA. The letters to agents I wrote after my MA all received prompt, personal, signed replies – these were from top-drawer ‘names’ in the industry. The quality of my writing and characterisation was highly praised, but the genre was dismissed as being ‘out of trend’. Without the MA I’d have just got a photocopied rejection slip after several months, and been none the wiser.

Of course, the publishing model has changed in the last few years, so you might argue that an MA isn’t necessary. True: the industry is in a state of flux and anyone can publish on Kindle. However, readers are discerning and will keep coming back to authors who deliver on the promise made in the blurb. An MA from a good institution gives you the skills you need to set the high standard required to succeed in an increasingly competitive market. It can’t turn a student into a literary genius, but the attentive student will at least be able to punch their weight. Agents know what a financial and temporal sacrifice an MA is. That marks you out as someone who’s committed to your art. I’d do it again just for the love and joy of writing.

How to create a character

In this article and the associated free character map I’ll show you how to create characters who are strong, convincing and memorable.

“What a character!” is a phrase we hear to describe real people. It can be meant in both a positive and negative way. But when we hear those magic three words, we know what the speaker means. We know that the person they’re talking about is memorable. Furthermore, you can bet there are some interesting stories attached to that person. Probably the next two sentences will be, “He/she was always such a [description of habit or behaviour]. There was one time when he/she…”

When a tribute is being paid, you might hear someone talk about another person’s depth of character. Those three words tell us immediately that everyone knew what that person stood for, and that they held those beliefs strongly.

In either of the above instances, the character in question would be one whose behaviour would be predictable in certain circumstances.

Do you see the underlying truth in those two examples? The character came before the story: stories are attached to character. You could have the best plot in the world, but if the character isn’t up to it, the story will fall flat. Indeed, without the character, there might not even be a story. The story of Christ in the New Testament is often called The Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s such a powerful and compelling story that 2,000 years on around 1.2 billion people adhere to a religion founded upon it. In this instance the entire story is the character. A similar belief-system based on love existed in the Sixties, but without a strong central character it was short-lived.

Define your character before you write the story

Strong characters do two basic things – one for the writer, and one for the reader.

For the writer, they help drive the story. You often hear writers say that “The characters took the plot to places I’d never imagined.” Define character first, and you’ll make the plotting the narrative arc that much easier. If you need a high or low for the character, you know what you must have them do. Give them a strong enough motivation and they will undertake a tortuous journey that will test their character to its limits.

For the reader, it’s all about empathy – the characters are humans they can identify with; they care about them. If you keep your character within their range of capabilities, you continue to suspend the reader’s disbelief. For both reader and writer there’s a wonderfully perverse pleasure out of seeing the character be put under pressure in situations that you know will test his or her personal limits. If a reader doesn’t care about a character, you’ve lost them.

This character map will help you develop full-on characters – characters who will help you write your best fiction. In all my years of writing fiction I would start with the protagonist. Unwittingly, I’d stumbled on a technique I was to be given in the first lecture of my MA in Creative Writing under the novelist and broadcaster Harriett Gilbert. We were asked to choose a picture of person, then to write down key points about them. Our first assignment was to write a short story which brought out those key character traits.

Formalising a character map appealed to me. I developed the idea of a comprehensive character map to ensure I’d cover everything and make me think at an even deeper level. As part of my journey as a stand-up, I spent a great deal of time learning improvisation. That’s another story, but I learnt that audiences love strong characters, who change.

Let’s take two examples of strong, well-defined characters. I’ve chosen them from movies, rather than novels, because the chances are greater that you’ll have seen both.

Indiana Jones is one of the most successful movie franchises of all time. You know Indie’s going to get into trouble. You also know that he’ll get into even deeper trouble because his strong values mean he’s always going to do the ‘right thing’: he’ll put his own life in peril for that of some pain-in-the-neck secondary character because he’s a stand-up guy. You also know he hates insects and snakes, so you know he’s going to be tortured by over-exposure to them at some point. The Indiana Jones stories are basic, predictable, action-adventure plots – but the audience loves the character so much they came back for sequels in droves. Indeed, he’s been voted second-greatest hero of all-time (between Atticus Finch and James Bond, since you asked).

In the Heat of the Night, based on John Ball’s 1965 novel, won five Academy Awards. Sydney Poitier’s police-detective character is deposited in 1960s Mississippi to investigate a murder. The racist chief of police played by Rod Steiger tries to fit up Poitier’s character for the murder. Poitier’s character is in serious danger – this is 1960s Mississippi – and he could be killed at any time. However, it was Rod Steiger’s character that won an Oscar. Why? The racist character played by Rod Steiger changed. Thus, there could be no true sequel. Poitier’s character did go on to do two other movies, but they were clichés (so-called Blaxploitation movies).

In both examples, character has driven the plot to a greater or lesser extent. Indie’s character pulls us through a weak plot and delivers popular entertainment in buckets. Any awards will be for special effects. By contrast, Poitier’s and Steiger’s characters create the story. Steiger’s racism puts Poitier in danger. Poitier’s resolute character brings justice and drives the change in Steiger’s character. Indeed, the movie itself is believed to have helped a massive elicit a social and political change in the real world – this is power of character-led story.

Make your characters recognisable

You also need all of your characters to be easily recognisable. If a character has a particular way of speaking, we know a speech belongs to them. If they have a particular way of dressing, the protagonist or narrator can pick them out in a crowd. They may talk in a specific way – think about the buffoonish Deputy Gurie in DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize-winning Vernon God Little. She says “Stuss-tistically” and has the verbal tics “Gh” and “Gh-rr” which reinforce the idea that she’s of low intelligence.

A multi-dimensional character map

The character map I developed covers everything you need to know about your character in advance of your story. It will provide you with:

  • Traits that give them a unique voice and make them identifiable
  • Flaws that make them human, vulnerable and likeable
  • Habits that make them identifiable – and get them into trouble
  • Beliefs and values that give them believable motivation
  • Backstory to give you a range of sub-plots, and to explain the strength of their motivation

The time you spend on creating your key characters is the most valuable you can spend on your novel or screenplay. And, yes, I did say characters plural. What use is a strong hero without a strong villain?

Download the free character map here.

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