Thursday, 31 July 2008

Book of the month

I had a very exciting email from Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury yesterday telling me that Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and Tales of Terror from the Black Ship are to be made Waterstone's Book of the Month for this coming October.

And I finally found out that Philip Reeve won the UKLA Children's Book Award. Congratulations to him for that. I don't know Philip and I haven't read Here Lies Arthur, the book of his that won, but I have read all his Mortal Engines books and they are brilliantly sustained pieces of fantasy fiction. He is a proper writer, full of great ideas.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Time stands still

The tiny courtyard garden at the back of our house has suddenly become a nature reserve. Immature dragonflies have decided it is the perfect place to bask. Having just emerged, presumably they are very trusting of their camouflage (they are very hard to spot it is true) and will just sit there letting you get very close indeed.
They are (I think) - from top to bottom - an immature darter of some kind, maybe a Ruddy Darter, a Migrant Hawker and a Southern Hawker.

I read Gerald Durrell's My Families and Other Animals to my son recently and it evoked such memories of my own childhood in Gibraltar, where I would spend hours watching lines of ants or a praying mantis hunting for flies.

As I grow older I just accept that life moves faster for me than it does for my son. This is undeniably true, but looking at these dragonflies slowed time right down for me again. Maybe Peter Kirkham - see previous entries - has discovered this secret already with his moth-watching.

Sunday, 27 July 2008


There has been a lot of press about e-books lately and Philippa, my agent, contacted me about them on Friday in relation to Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. I'm not really sure what I think about them. I suppose my overwhelming feeling is that there is a feeling of inevitability about it, whether personally I embrace it or not.

Will it be good for writers or not? I don't know. I certainly don't see why it should necessarily be bad. Owning an iPod has definitely rekindled my love of music, not diminished it. It has changed the way I listen and the way I buy, it's true, but so what?

I love books - the feel of them, the look of them, the smell of them. I can't see me giving them up for a lump of plastic, but there is something very appealing about having a machine that could house all the books I need for research or a few novels for long trips. As I say - it is going to happen, come what may. As a writer, the issue is how (and how much) will we be paid?

I suppose one result might be that it will be harder for reading crazes - like Harry Potter - to happen. That relies on everyone knowing what you are reading. It requires visibility. That needs book jackets.

And speaking of book jackets, of course - e-books aren't great news for graphic designers are they? I bought a brilliant book called Seven Hundred Penguins recently - a survey of Penguin book jackets. It saddens me to think that the book jacket might become a thing of the past.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Fiction rules

There was an article about 'reader's block' today in the Guardian. This is the notion that we find it difficult to start or finish a book. It even listed a top ten of books that readers most often abandoned. Ulysses was in there of course, but so, a little strangely, was Crime and Punishment. This happens to be one of the best books I have ever read, so I can't really sympathise with someone abandoning it halfway. It's riveting. What's the matter with you?

There was the usual rent-a-crowd of talking eggheads to tell us ways to overcome this problem. Except for Germaine Greer. She doesn't see the point of fiction, apparently. She thinks its a waste of time. Or at least she does this week. Who knows what she will say next week. It must be so tiring to be controversial to order. If there was a world in which there could only be either Germaine Greer's books or Dostoevsky's, I know which I would choose. I trust fiction more than I trust non-fiction. Good fiction will always be true.

That said, I must say I'm suffering a bit from readers block at the moment. I never seem to find time to read enough of a book in one go to really get into it. I also have an unfortunate habit now that when I read, I start to lose concentration and go off on my own tangents, exploring plot routes the author never took but might have done. It's an occupational hazard I suppose.

After weeks of foul weather and moaning about how cold it was, the sun has come out and everyone is moaning about how hot it is. We walked along the Cam to Grantchester watching dragonflies and little fish flitting about and passing Judith and John and kids out punting. There were far too many people for it to be exactly a peaceful walk, but that river and the meadows around it are special. I hope they always stay that way.

Thursday, 24 July 2008


I went to London today with my son, to go and see the excellent new Hadrian exhibition at the British Museum. We walked a long stretch of Hadrian's Wall last year and my son, like many 11 year-old boys (and their fathers), is fascinated by the Roman Empire.

I got back to see an email from Sarah Odedina from Bloomsbury saying how much she had enjoyed Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. That means I can now relax a little before starting on the inevitable changes that will we asked for and that will occur to me once I read it through again. And then it will be time to start on the next book. . .

So what is next? Well, I am about to start on a more conventional novel -rather than the portmanteau novels I have been doing lately. The book is provisionally entitled Ghosts and will have a similar Victorian Gothic setting.
More of that another time. . .

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

End of term

My son played piano at his school concert yesterday after refusing to practice sufficiently. He played his piece beautifully, undermining the speech I had intended to give about the consequences of not listening to your parents. Children are so annoying.

He also received his SATs results and despite refusing to accept any help from his parents and do any real work for them, he did very well - making my speech about the importance of preparation utterly redundant. Children are so annoying.

I went to the studio later and did a bit of painting. For once I actually liked what I did. I liked one painting so much I almost decided it was finished and was going to bring it home. But then I looked at it again and thought that maybe I had become a little giddy. Maybe it needed just a bit more work. . .

And today it was the last day of term and the last day of primary school for my son, a fact we celebrated with a trip to the movies to see Wall-E, which was OK (though not as amazing as reviews had suggested). The look of the film while they were on the rubbish strewn Earth was great, but it went rapidly downhill when it reached the spaceship full of inflatable humans.

Pixar can do rust and chrome and grass and fur and dust and smoke and laser beams, but they can't do flesh. Give me Jungle Book-era Disney any day.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Why oh why?

I have been going through the programs on my laptop today sighing inside at how every single program I know has been tinkered with in some way. Windows Vista seems to the same as Windows XP only slightly more irritating. Well done.

I have Adobe Photoshop Elements 6.0 on my laptop too. I have never invested in the full Photoshop program because I have never really needed it. But Photoshop Elements 6 seems designed to push me over the edge. Whereas Elements 4.0 was designed to look exactly like Photoshop, 6.0 is a horrible, confused, tacky looking thing. Why? Why oh why oh why?

I have a webcam too. I made the mistake of turning it on and seeing myself looking back from the screen. Eeww. I wo't make that mistake again.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Time to move on

The school year is winding down here. Private schools have already broken up, but the state school are still going, if only for a couple more days. We have had the end of year production of Grease, with 11 year-olds looking frighteningly like teenagers in their faux leather jackets and a sports day under glowering skies.

It is a right of passage for children and parents alike. Some have sibling further down the school and so the parents will retain their contact with the primary school. For the rest of us, it is the end of an era of parental involvement. No more standing in the playground chatting to other parents. We have only been in Cambridge for two years, but we have been very lucky making friends with other parents; friendships that will definitely survive the upheaval of changing schools. Some parents and children are leaving Cambridge, but likewise, I hope our friendships will survive regardless.

For me it is the end of teaching the Art Club I run. I won't miss the shouty person I so often became in my attempts to control things, but I will miss some very talented children. I have been a parent helper, been involved in the PTA, run a creative writing club, been a governor (and briefly chair of governors), visited his schools as an author and illustrator and run the art club. I've done my bit, I think. Time to move on.

So, just the music concert on Monday and the leaver's assembly on Tuesday and then that's it until September. . .

Friday, 18 July 2008

Still a bit tense

Philippa, my agent, phoned today to tell me how much she had enjoyed Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. And it is always good to hear that!

I saw John Clark the day before yesterday and he asked me if I'd sent the book off yet and I said I had. He was puzzled by my lack of enthusiasm. Was that not a huge relief? he asked. And I said it was in a way, but until you hear something back it is always a bit tense.

The UKLA Children's Book Award - for which Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror was shortlisted - was supposed to be announced last weekend, but there is no news. I'm guessing I haven't won as Bloomsbury have not heard anything, but on a Google search I discovered instead that Uncle Monty has been longlisted for the Lincolnshire Young People's Book Award, which was a nice surprise, and is also on a list of suggested titles for Staffordshire's Young Teen Fiction Award.

Thursday, 17 July 2008


My new laptop arrived today. Or am I supposed to call it a notebook? Anyway - it arrived and I looked at it and was basically too nervous - having never had one before - to actually even plug it in.

The idea is that I will become a bit more mobile in terms of where I can write. I may even write at my studio sometimes. It is actually pretty quiet there. The second-hand furniture trade occupying much of the yard is not exactly booming.

I do have a kind of perfect writing environment in my head - a lovely office, lined with book and a view out onto. . .Well, I'm less sure of that. Unfortunately you tend to get the writing space you deserve - in that it inevitably becomes a reflection of your personality and creative process.

Mine is a mess.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Stop fiddling about

I finally sent Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth off to Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury today. It is always a nervous moment because the fact is you can always fiddle about a bit more - and a bit more - and a bit more. . .

But at some point you have to let it go.

I sent it to Sarah because Helen Szirtes, my editor on the two previous books, has left Bloomsbury to enter the perilous world of freelancing. I'm hoping she might edit Tunnel's Mouth on a freelance basis, but these things are out of my control.

I also sent the book to my agent, Philippa Milnes-Smith at LAW Ltd.

Now I just have to wait and see what they all think. . .

Monday, 14 July 2008

Susan Harvey

Our very good friend Susan Harvey came to stay with us today. Susan is a very talented painter and has an exhibition at the Cambridge Contemporary Art Gallery in a couple of weeks time and we are storing (and delivering) her paintings to the gallery for her.

Susan works in oil, tempera and watercolour and I am a really big fan of her work. She is such a thoughtful painter. I often tie myself in knots with my own work, questioning what I'm doing and why, and Susan somehow is able to produce these seemingly effortless works of calmness and beauty.

Here is a lovely example. She is planning to do a website and I'll put a link to it when it happens.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

The first of the first drafts

The whole family was down with sore throats and colds today. I was desperately trying to resolve a few final things with Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth so that I can send it off on Monday.

My books go through several stages once they have been assembled into a book-like entity. The very first stage is something that is in a constant state of flux, widening and contracting, bubbling up in one section and buttoning down in another. This is a kind of plate-spinning exercise - trying to keep all the component parts up and working and looking like a single creation.

This stage results in the first draft. Actually it is more like the pre-first draft, because it is a draft that will never leave my writing room. This draft is for me - a draft for me to see just how many problems I have shied away from resolving over the preceding months. It is a way of making those problems more tangible and that makes them easier to solve somehow.

I go through this draft making notes and then refer back to the copy on my hard drive and make another version. This draft is the real first draft, because it is the first I am willing to let anyone else see. This draft is read by my wife who is hopefully going to tell me if there is something that simply does not make sense and whilst she would feel awkward telling me something I had written was rubbish - she tells me a lot by what she chooses to pick out for praise. She is also very good at spotting spelling mistakes.

I then use these observations to go back and produce another draft - the first draft to leave the house. It is this draft - a draft that is hopefully true to the sense of what I want the book to be and as free from mistakes as I can make it - that will go to my publisher and agent. This draft is really the true start of the book as a book and not as a file on my computer.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Bats in the attic

I read an interview with the TV writer Paul Abbot today which, as well as telling me about his extraordinary early life and extended family, also mentioned visiting a hypnotist to get him to stop coming up with ideas. I don't know whether he was joking or not, but I think there is something underpinning it that I relate to.

It is seen as such an objectively good thing to come up with lots of ideas - particularly by those who find it difficult - that no one really talks about the problems. And there are problems.

There is no point to have loads of ideas you are not in a position to act upon. Ideas can be incredibly distracting. I have loads racing round my head at any given time and a lot of the discipline of writing (or illustration or cartooning or painting) is to shut the extraneous ideas out.

Part of why I started writing was in order to fix some of the ideas I had buzzing round in my head. Why was I plotting stories and inventing characters and coming up with dialogue on the train and as I fell asleep at night? It was all a bit crazy. Calling myself a writer seemed to validate this behaviour.

The trick to working - and knowing this does not in any way mean that I have perfected the practice - is to grab every good idea and use it then and there. Only then do you find out whether it really was so good after all. If you don't they flap around in your head like bats in the attic.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Back in the studio briefly

I went into the studio today for a brief visit. John was in and doing some new work on his laptop. He's been doing a lot of really interesting stuff lately - I hope one day to actually grab some and put it on the blog.

I didn't actually do much. I am going to reorganise in the studio once I get my (overdue) book off to Bloomsbury.

And I realised today that the UKLA Children's Book Award is being announced at the weekend. I am guessing that as I have heard nothing, that it ain't going to be me.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008


I went to London today to meet Mimi Liang from the British School in Rio who is over in the UK for a while. We met for lunch and discussed what I might do with the students when I come over to Brazil in September/October. After talking about the possibility of the trip for so long, it was nice to be discussing it all in very concrete terms and nice to finally put a face to the emails.

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror is being published by Rocco in Brazil and they have brought their schedule forward to accommodate my visit, so I am hoping to meet up with them and maybe do some work for the Portuguese edition while I'm over there. It is all very exciting. I have never been south of the equator before!

Monday, 7 July 2008

A bit of a blur

An absolutely crazy day today. My son and I seemed to be cycling all over town in downpour after downpour. He had his induction day for his new school today and we cycled over to register him for that. Then I had to cycle back in a thunderstorm and pick him up and we cycled over to the Kirkham's house where Lisa kindly gave us toasted teacakes and the children hung out together before we got back on our bikes and headed off to his Grade 3 piano exam.

After the exam - when at least it had stopped raining - we cycled back into the centre of Cambridge to meet my wife and we all ate out before heading back to the school for the parents' bit of the induction where we were shown a video of children saying how much they liked the school and then we all got to ask questions. It was exhausting and must have been doubly so for my son who had also had the stress of being thrown into a new environment with lots of new people.

Inevitably it all brings back memories of starting secondary school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne many, many years ago (the same school, weirdly as Peter Kirkham, though not at the same time), and not many of those memories are happy ones. Having had a very good early school experience with very good teachers, I found school from eleven onward a bit of a shock to the system. I think I only ever felt really in control in the art room or when I was writing stories. Everything else was a bit of a blur.

Not much has changed actually.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

More young musicians

I had a very different kind of musical experience today as we went to watch my son take part in the annual concert organised by his piano teacher, Anne Marsh-Penton. It is held in Churchill College chapel and is a really inspirational show of young musical talent. It is a tribute to Anne's teaching ability and the incredible ability of children to absorb, enjoy and perform music. It is hugely inspiring.

These are some of the amazing John Piper stained glass windows from Churchill College chapel.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

The Kaves

I went to The Junction here in Cambridge last night to see Liam Parker play in his band The Kaves. I have known Liam since he was a baby and it was a real treat to see him playing lead guitar up there on stage. Check out the link to their MySpace site and have a listen.

The crowd was a bit small and seemed to consist almost exclusively of teenage girls (plus a couple of old-timers like myself). Liam is the son of very good friends of ours - Kate and Carl Parker - and it was great to see them too. Kate used to share a studio with my wife next door to one the one I rented in Shoreditch many years ago.

I had a conversation with Kate over the top of the earlier band, the sound so loud that I could here one in every fifteen words Kate said. I got an early idea of what it must be like to be ninety and deaf and just nodding with a stupid grin on your face to questions you haven't really heard properly. We escaped with their friend Mark for some relative peace and a chat. I really am officially too old for this kind of thing.