Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Temporary like Achilles

I can't remember where it was that I read it, but the English poet Simon Armitage was making a comment about Bob Dylan - saying that he was a late convert (as was I) to the great man, but if you take the music away it is A-Level poetry (which if you are reading this outside of the UK, refers to exams taken by 17/18 year-olds prior to university).

Hmm. This seems a bit of a re-run of the 'Is Dylan as good as Keats' argument. And what a pointless debate it is. No - Dylan isn't Keats. Even Shelley wasn't Keats. But then Simon Armitage isn't Keats either. And you don't get the music with him either.

The thing with song lyrics is that they are sung. They are not trying to be poems, A-Level or otherwise. They are not poems set to music. You can't make a judgement about them without the music. They are part of the music. But they can still be great. They can still speak to the heart and be amazingly evocative.

And most importantly they have to stand repetitive listening. I can't think how many times I've heard Sad-Eyed Ladies of the Lowlands or Positively 4th Street, or Tangled Up in Blue or Don't Think Twice It's Alright or Temporary Like Achilles but I know I'm a long way from being bored with any of them.

In fact I'm a long way from even being bored by those titles.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Feral bushes

I was hunting around for illustrations to send to my agents - Law Ltd - to go on their website, and I came acros this. It is an illustration to Uncle Montague that I had completely forgotten about. It comes from a really early stage in the book's development when I was seeing Edgar's chat with Uncle Montague happening in a kind of 1950s fantasy world, and the stories being Victorian/Edwardian.

The drawing is of Edgar walking past the topiary bushes that have gone wild. It is a bit fussy and the figure of Edgar doesn't quite work. But I like the bushes.

Monday, 28 April 2008

What are you reading?

I went to London today to take part in the Kingston Festival. I was booked to do a talk at Chessington Community College and trained and tubed it to Waterloo where I was met by Alice Shortland from Bloomsbury marketing. We in turn trained it over to Chessington South where we were greeted by Vanessa Howe, the enthusiastic festival organiser, and a torrential downpour.

I spoke to a large group of 11 and 12 year olds who were the usual mix of attentive and restless. I did stop the reading at one point to ask someone to be quiet, but I don't usually do that sort of thing. It is the job of the staff at a school (in my opinion) to prime the kids (so that they know who you are and what to expect) and to maintain discipline during the visit. It is the author's job to amuse and enthuse and inspire. It's best not to mix things up. I want them to enjoy the visit, not feel like it's something onerous being foisted on them.

I'm not sure I was at the top of my game today though. It is quite hard to get the right mood - and the stories do require a bit of calm and concentration. I really need a roaring fire and a wing-back armchair, but what are you gonna do? Maybe they'll invite me back when their new library is built and I'll have another go. I hope so.

They were were a nice group of kids and I would have liked longer to chat with them. They asked good questions and there were some fascinating answers to my question 'What are you reading?' One boy was reading H P Lovecraft of all people - another was reading Philip K Dick. Philip K Dick! It certainly beats the usual Anthony Horowitz and Darren Shan (though they were mentioned of course) and it was worth the journey on its own.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Michaelhouse cafe

I'm off to the Kingston Festival tomorrow to speak to 60+ eleven and twelve year olds at Chessington Community College. I suppose I really ought to give some thought as to what I'm going to say.

I watched a movie with my son this afternoon of Holes, from the book by Louis Sachar. Great book and a pretty decent film.

Tomorrow is the opening of the exhibition by our friends Anne Cunningham, Judith Weik and Isa Tenhaeff at the Michaelhouse Cafe here in Cambridge. Go along and see it if you are in Cambridge or visit Anne, Judith and Isa's websites if you aren't.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

He tells me stories. . .

Three copies of the audio book of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror arrived today. It is produced by the Chivers imprint under the BBC Audiobooks umbrella. It is read by the actor Bill Wallis who does a fantastic job. In fact I had to stop listening as it was going to put me off when I come to read the stories myself on Monday at Kingston.

Friday, 25 April 2008


I saw my friend Joad Raymond at the school gates today. One of the things I most enjoy about talking to him is how quickly my woefully thin knowledge is exhausted. It makes me smile. I can keep up with him for about thirty seconds and then I am floundering. I like that feeling actually. I'd rather be out of my depth than paddling.

Joad is working on a book about angels. We talked about the Garden of Eden, about Eve, about Satan and he told me about seraphim and how they cover the blinding brilliance of their bodies with their three pairs of wings.

He left me with the words, 'I just have Genesis and Hell to do and then I'm done.' There are not many people who start their working day saying that.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

A day of doodling

I must have drawn a hundred heads today. When I was a cartoonist working for newspapers, I did at least one drawing every day. I'm a bit rusty and it takes me a bit longer to get going. Here are a few heads I came up with.

And in a bored moment I did this drawing of Will Self. It really is no more than a doodle, but it does have something of Self about it - I like the drawing anyway. I was a caricaturist for many years and always found it frustrating. Getting a likeness at short notice can be torture, but it is the more the fact that I seldom did a caricature that I liked as a drawing.

The masters of caricature - like David Levine say - always manage to produce something that is actually interesting as a drawing as well as absolutely nailing the likeness. So often caricatures do neither.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Clouded drab

My friend Peter Kirkham traps moths and photographs them. Occasionally, if I'm lucky, he sends me photos. I thought I'd share some of them with you. The names alone are wonderful. Here is - from the top - a Clouded Drab, Common Quaker, Hebrew Character and Red Green Carpet. . .

Monday, 21 April 2008

Death and the US cover

While I'm on the subject of Death and the Arrow covers - there is another one (in fact another two, but I don't have a copy of the Danish one to hand). In the US, the book was published by Knopf which is under the umbrella of Random House.

I was so excited to have a book published in the US but I was a little taken aback when my editor at Knopf - Nancy Hinkel - sent me a copy of the cover by email. I actually giggled when I saw it. It looked like someone had described the book to the illustrator over the phone - 'It's about Death, yeah. And he's got this arrow apparently. . .'

The story revolves around a series of mysterious deaths, the victims all being shot with arrows and found to have a Death card in their pocket. This card is a calling card, featuring the Death figure shown below and is described as such in the book. It is most definitely not a Tarot card.

Added to which, it had a Victorian look about it somehow, rather than early eighteenth. And it looked a little heavy metal. But, looking at it now, I wonder if the Americans did not get it right. Or at least better.

My attitude to covers has changed over the years. I think I would rather have an exciting cover than a pedantically accurate one. In fact I know I would. I think, for all it's faults, the US cover is arresting in a way that the two UK covers are not. They are both more tasteful - but what ten year old cares about that? And it picks up on the creepy aspect of the book, and that is a good thing. It isn't a great cover, but it works.

Incidentally, US publication of Death and the Arrow was momentarily threatened by the fact that in October 2002 a real-life sniper (rather than archer) called the Beltway Sniper was shooting people in and around Washington DC and - in a startling bit of coincidence - leaving a Death card on the bodies. Because of the timing of the publication, there was a danger that it would look like I had been inspired by this real-life event, but things moved on and the book came out as planned.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Death and the Arrow print

The only element of the cover I had any part in was an insistence that there should be at least some kind of visual element. In this cover it is a coloured version of an image I saw years ago in a Dover Book of eighteenth century prints.

There was something about that image that grabbed me. There seemed to be so much going on in that small, crudely drawn picture of the man oblivious to the pointing figure of Death behind him, ready to strike him down with an arrow.

The whole story of Death and the Arrow came out of that one image - or at least that was where the story began. I'm often asked where I get my ideas from, and it is one of the hardest questions to answer succinctly. The fact is, they come from everywhere and from everything you have ever seen of experienced. Sometimes they even come from a curious image like this one.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Death of a cover

And speaking of covers, I have just heard from Random House that the original edition of my book, Death and the Arrow, will no longer be available.

Death and the Arrow is a book I still like a lot. It is the first part of a trilogy of books featuring Tom Marlowe and set in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. They are mystery adventure stories and they were a lot of fun to write.

As well as writing them, I did some chapter heading illustrations and I also did the covers. If I did it tomorrow I would no doubt do it differently, but I still think this cover is OK. But then I'm biased.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Paperback terrors

Here is the paperback cover for Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, due out in October, published by Bloomsbury. As always the illustration work is by David Roberts.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Back in the studio

I actually managed to get back into the studio after weeks of absence. It felt good to be back at my desk with paper and pencils rather than a computer screen in front of me.

I spent most of the afternoon measuring out the dimensions of a classic four panel strip, using the standard (American) format. I have been toying with the idea of doing another strip for ages and I have finally decided to actually do something.

Developing strips is a tricky business. There are so many things to consider: the design of the characters (if they are to appear every time), the style of the drawing, the design of the type, the style of the borders to the boxes and whether all panels will be boxed. And all this is without the more pressing question of what the heck is the strip about?

I have done a few strips now, one as a writer to Chris Riddell (a strip called Bestiary), and I still do one in the New Statesman called Payne's Grey. Payne's Grey is unusual (though not unique) in having no overriding plot or linking characters. Each strip is self-contained. The only connection is my jaded world view. Here is a recent example:

Monday, 14 April 2008

The oldie

I was sent an offer of subscription to The Oldie magazine on Saturday - the cheek of it! Junk mail is bad enough, without actually being taunted by it. But I suppose that is what I have to look forward to - leaflets on hearing aids, stair lifts and cruises.

I have been wondering - as anyone reading this may also wonder - what is this blog exactly? Is it a journal? Is it a column? Is it a chance for me to blather on about whatever flits into my head? Well - I suppose it is all these things at some point - as well as a shameless opportunity for self-publicity. But is there a theme? Is some kind of form looming out of the chaos?

Possibly. It does after all reflect my taste and my taste does lean toward the weird and wonderful, the strange, the uncanny - the macabre. I was thinking that perhaps the blog should have a name that says that.


Saturday, 12 April 2008

Winsor McCay

By a spooky coincidence there was an article about Maurice Sendak in this Saturday's Guardian magazine supplement here in the UK. The article was by Jonathan Jones, one of the paper's art critics. Maybe because it was by an art (proper art, high art - not comic book art) critic it was full of how Sendak's work was reminiscent of all kinds of real artists.

Sendak was great because his babies were like those of Philip Otto Runge and Caspar David Friedrich. The floppy dough aeroplane of In the Night Kitchen was reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg's soft sculptures. Well done Maurice.

It is not that these statements are necessarily false, it is just typical of a critic more used to gallery art. They tend to know little about popular art forms and therefore even when they praise - as Jones does here with Sendak - they have to validate that approval in some way.

The more obvious work that In the Night Kitchen is reminiscent of is Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland strips. The homage is obvious (and Sendak has acknowledged it) to anyone who knows Little Nemo, but is still seldom mentioned. To his credit Jones does mention the Little Nemo link, but then describes it merely as a '1900 New York comic strip' and says nothing of Winsor McCay. He mentions Philip Otto Runge, but not Winsor McCay!

Winsor McCay is a hugely influential figure, it is just that his influence has been in areas (comic books, animation) that clearly do not interest Jonathan Jones. His work is subtle and weird and brilliant. Jones says, 'While the original is a congested, chaotic comic strip, what Sendak does is give the images more air to breathe. . .'

Chaotic? Congested? I don't think so. There is more going on in Macbeth than there is in Dr Who, but that isn't normally seen as being in Dr Who's favour. He says that Sendak is constantly wondering 'what pictures can show that words can't tell', when McCay, not Sendak, was the master of sequential drawing.

Pat Sendak on the head by all means, but don't do it by elbowing Winsor McCay out of the picture.

Friday, 11 April 2008

The hip bone's connected to the candlestick

OK, OK - so the That Much I Know thing that had the nice Kyle MacLachlan quote was in The Observer magazine, not the Guardian. It was still good though.

And while I'm admitting to errors, Patti Smith heard the 'angel calling' rather than 'angels' in Break It Up and it is Edgar ALLAN Poe, not Allen as I keep mistakenly putting it.

I watched a programme called Dan Cruickshanks Adventures in Architecture on BBC 2 this week. Dan Cruickshank is a bit 'Crikey', 'Golly', 'Gosh' for his own good, but I find it hard (I'm not sure why) to dislike him. He went to have a potter round the Sedlec Ossuary in what was Bohemia but is now the Czech Republic.

I first came across this amazing place in World of Interiors magazine (I think). An ossuary was built to house all the bones from the nearby graveyard. Initially they were piled up, but in 1870 Frantisek Rint, a woodcarver, was given the job of giving the place a bit of a makeover.

If you want to see the results, do a search on Sedlec Ossuary images. Here is a taster - it a huge skull and assorted bone chandelier.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Judith Weik

My author photo, top left, was taken by a friend of mine called Judith Weik. When not trying to made me look moody and mysterious, she is a very talented artist and photographer. She is Swiss, living in Cambridge and her work is shortly to exhibited here at the Michaelhouse Cafe with two other friends of ours - Anne Cunningham and Isa Tenhaeff. It starts 28 April and runs through until 10 May. Go and see it if you can. If you can't, here is an example - a particular favourite of mine. You can see more of her work at her website by following the link.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Morose Sendak

I went to Bloomsbury today have one last (ish) look at Tales of Terror from the Black Ship with my editor Helen Szirtes and to have a word with Adrian Downie about the website. The fine tuning of a book is exhausting, but it is so important. There is nothing worse than seeing something in print you wished you had phrased differently. It was good to see Adrian. He was so enthusiastic and imaginative in his work on the Uncle Montague site that I can't wait to see what he comes up with for the Black Ship.

I arrived early at Soho Square and Helen was in a meeting, so I had a chance to raid the bookshelves in reception. Bloomsbury reception would make a superb writing room: a big Georgian room with high ceilings and big windows, masses of bookshelves, the bookshops of Charing Cross Road round the corner, and the buzz of Soho on the doorstep.

Whilst I was waiting I pulled down a copy of When We Were Young, a book about childhood done for Unicef, compiled and illustrated by John Burningham and read a really nice piece by Maurice Sendak.

I never really got Sendak. Everyone kept saying how great he was, but I just couldn't see it. There was something about the way he drew that just didn't do it for me. Then I picked up a second hand copy of The Sign on Rosie's Door and I changed my mind entirely. It is so beautifully written. It is that very rare thing - a perfect book.

So I read what Sendak had to say with interest. There was a lot of sadness. The Holocaust looms large in his life and his work - he is tragically the last of the Sendaks. Some of his close friends apparently refer to him as Morose Sendak.

I particularly enjoyed the story about Judy Taylor, his English editor on Where the Wild Things Are, saving his life when he had a heart attack on a visit to the UK. I pointed out to Helen that this was the kind of level of commitment I am going to expect from her.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Battle of Britain

A book I had published by Scholastic in their My Story series a few years back - Battle of Britain - is being reissued with a new cover next month.

It tells the story of a fictional young pilot, his training, his first combats over Dunkirk (where my father, who was there, still swears he never saw a single RAF aircraft) and his exploits during the Battle of Britain itself.

For research I listened to lots of taped interviews with pilots, all of whom were brutally frank about the grim realities of combat and the fear they felt at facing the enemy. I sat in a Spitfire for a few moments, startled by the claustrophobia the tiny cockpit induced. And I read a lot of poignant letters and diaries, some of which ended with terrible abruptness.

I grew up in a revisionist age where the story of the Few seemed all myth, but I came away from the research realising that whilst the Battle of Britain may have been hyped for propaganda purposes, those (mostly very young) pilots were astonishingly brave and did, in no small way, change the course of the Second World War and therefore of all our lives. You don't have to think war is a good idea to acknowledge that.

Monday, 7 April 2008

I like to make something every day

I don't often read the This Much I Know feature in the Guardian magazine supplement on Saturdays. I am seldom interested enough in the person involved to bother. In any case, I have an aversion to these interviews reformatted as a series of bold statements.

But for some reason I did look this week. It was Kyle MacLachlan of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks fame. There was one line in particular that caught my eye:

I like to make something every day, whether it's a film, a cake or a piece of furniture.

Isn't that great? What a fantastic principle to live by.

Sunday, 6 April 2008


There wolf!

We have been having a bit of a wolf-fest in this house of late. My son read Jack London's Call of the Wild recently and loved it, and no sooner had he finished than a movie version of White Fang appeared in the TV listings. It was 1991 and Disney, so expectations were not great, but it turned out to be nicely done with a young Ethan Hawke as Jack Conroy and Klaus Maria Brandauer, no less, as Alex Larson.

Then today there was a David Attenborough programme about a wolf-hunter turned naturalist and hunter, Ernest Thompson Seton who wrote a story about a wolf called Lobo he tracked and killed (though later hugely regretting the fact). The story comes from a book called Wild Animal I Have Known, published in 1898. Seton became a huge influence on the boy scout movement in America, but was in fact born in the north-east of England, in South Shields in 1860. He emigrated to Canada as a child and only became a US citizen in 1931.

And lastly, on Chris Riddell's recommendation, my son is now reading Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver and is enjoying it enormously. It is a pre-historical novel, set in northern Europe in the age of hunter-gatherers. It is part of a series entitled (adopt deep, gravelly, movie-trailer American accent here) Chronicles of Ancient Darkness.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Gothic fest

Nice to that Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror was picked out in the Book Trust's Best New Children's Books pullout in the Guardian newspaper here in the UK on Saturday. It was given a spot in the 11+ section.

The review was as follows:

When Edgar visits eccentric Uncle Montague, he is subjected to a series of compelling stories with scorpion-like stings. In an age when gore and guts dominate the horror genre, Priestley's gothic fest of Poe-like fables stand out like shining beacons, further enhanced but suitably grim illustrations by David Roberts.

Certainly a better reference to Edgar Allen Poe than I got last year. The sentence 'More poo than Poe' formed part of a slightly hysterical (inboth senses of the word
) review in SFX magazine. It cracks me up every time I read it.

Friday, 4 April 2008

And speaking of heads

Writing about Cromwell's head got me to thinking about severed heads in general (as you do). The obvious link is to Charles I, the king whose head Cromwell was instrumental in removing (and thereby causing the later post-mortem severing of his own).

Charles I was executed on a black-draped scaffold erected outside the Banqueting House, whose amazing Rubens ceiling I saw for the first time last year when the New Statesman held it's summer party there. When his head was lopped off, bystanders rushed forward to dip their handkerchiefs in the blood as a memento.

Charles' head was lopped off in one go, which is more than can be said for Mary Stuart - Mary Queen of Scots. The executioner managed to hit the back of her head with the first blow and only severed her head on the third. He held up the head with a cry of 'God Save the Queen' only to find that her auburn curls were a wig. The balding head slipped from his grasp and bounced across the floor towards the audience.

Jack Ketch (who gave his hated name to all executioners) was horribly incompetent. The Duke of Monmouth gave him six guineas to do a good job when he was to be executed, but he also felt the axe and raised concerns about whether it was sharp enough. He may have had a point. Ketch's first go simply wounded the Duke. Two more goes and the head still wasn't severed. Ketch threw down the axe and said he couldn't carry on. Ketch was forced to continue amid boos, had two more goes and finished the job like a butcher with a knife, narrowly avoiding being lynched by the crowd.

Sir Walter Raleigh worked the crowd at his execution for three quarters of an hour. When he was shown the axe he said, 'This is a sharp medicine but it is a physician for all diseases' and when the axeman faltered said, 'Strike, man, strike!' As with Mary Stuart, onlookers noticed his lips were still moving as the head tumbled to the floor. The head was put in a velvet bag and Raleigh's wife, Bess, had it embalmed and kept in a special case.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Cromwell's head

I mentioned the other day that we had peeked into Sidney Sussex College here in Cambridge and that there was a plaque in the ante-chapel that reads:

Near to this place was buried on 15 March 1960 the head of OLIVER CROMWELL, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland & Ireland, Fellow Commoner of this college 1616-7.

I love the nonchalance of that '& Ireland' by the way.

So what is Oliver Cromwell's head doing there? Cromwell was not executed. He died of natural causes - well of a urinary condition or malaria (possibly) or both on 3 September 1658. But then again he was. Executed that is.

You see, when Charles II was restored to the throne, Parliament decided that they would show their devotion to the new king and teach Cromwell a lesson - despite the fact that he had been dead and buried for two years. In September 1660, these brave souls voted to exhume the bodies of Cromwell and his fellow regicides - Ireton and Bradshaw - and on 31 January 1661 they were hanged at Tyburn gallows (near to the present day Marble Arch roundabout at the end of Oxford Street in London). Their bodies were tossed in a pit, while their heads were severed and stuck on a spike on the roof of Westminster Hall where they became a grisly tourist attraction.

Twenty-five years later, the Great Storm of 1703 hits London, snaps the spike and blows it and the Lord Protector's head into the street. Or so legend has it. The head certainly disappears from the roof after the 1680s.

Things get a little vague here. But the head pops up again in 1787 being sold for a hefty £118 by a showman called Samuel Russell. Dr Josiah Wilkinson gets his hands on it in the nineteenth century and in 1960 his family bequeath it to Cromwell's old college, Sidney Sussex. The head is buried and the plaque put up to record it. The exact location is a secret

And in case you think it is just any old head, it does appear to be Cromwell's. It still has part of the spike in its skull for one thing.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

What am I doing?

Well, as usual, I am doing several things. . .

I am doing my usual weekly Payne's Grey strip for the New Statesman, which requires not only the time I spend doing the actual published version of the strip every week, but also time for writing the scripts and drawing the characters. What I have not been doing, is getting to my studio at all. My routine has been thrown out by writing projects and my son's Easter holidays.

I am sorting out the final edit on Tales of Terror from the Black Ship. Next week I will go into Bloomsbury's offices in Soho Square and work through any last remaining problems with my editor Helen Szirtes and then have a chat with Adrian Downie about the website.

I am also in the process of sorting out, via my agent Philippa Milnes-Smith, the next couple of Bloomsbury books, what they will be and when they will come out. I have started work on these already and I am very excited about them. More about the specifics at a later date.

I am also working on a couple of historical fiction ideas, one of which I will be writing a couple of chapters for. I don't want to say too much about this at the present time as it might not develop into anything. At the moment I have just written a short synopsis. Until there is a contract all books are hypothetical (and all work therefore unpaid I might add), but if it goes ahead I'll give more details.

I am also working on a top secret job that I cannot talk about at all and I am only mentioning to make myself sound more cool and exciting. It does exist though. The job, that is. Honest. Though it isn't really a job quite yet, it is more of a pitch. And it is top secret. So I will have to ask you to swallow this blog when you've read it.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

The stern of the Black Ship

Bloomsbury sent me the cover proofs for both the hardback of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship and the paperback of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, both of which come out in October this year.
This is the back cover of the Black Ship. As usual, the elegant illustration is by David Roberts.