Sunday, 30 March 2008
Snow last weekend, and today Cambridge was bathed in brilliant sunshine and herds of tourists wandered about in their shirt sleeves eating ice cream. Bizarre. We wandered through town, sneaking a peek into Sidney Sussex (noting the plaque telling you that Oliver Cromwell's head is buried nearby in a secret location). More of that another time.
I have decided to set myself a little project of taking photographs of details around Cambridge - architectural details, door numbers, stone carving, sculptures, that kind of thing. The details of a place fascinate me for some reason. I have a vast array of fire hydrant photographs from a holiday in New England and far too many pictures of door knockers.
Saturday, 29 March 2008
I always come away from conversations with Martin re-enthused about illustration. He is Illustration Man (though I'm not sure what his super powers might be). He is always full of stories about new books and exhibitions and today was telling me he has been filmed for an upcoming TV programme about illustration. And tomorrow he is off to Bologna for the Children's Book Fair.
In the evening I met up with Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge after their Wordfest event, cycling past hordes of students in gowns queuing to receive their degrees. Philippa Dickinson, the MD of Random House Children's Books was with Chris and Paul (which shows how much Random value the pair of them). We had a glass of wine and a chat before she had to leave, during which Rosemary Sutcliff's name came up and Philippa began a sentence 'I remember Rosemary telling me...'
It seems silly to say it, given that I'm a writer myself, but I'd sort of forgotten Rosemary Sutcliff was a real person that someone could remember talking to. I was deeply impressed.
Friday, 28 March 2008
But what a fantastic thing it would be: to have a record of everything you had ever read from the age of ten. I can remember some stand-out books from when I was a child. I remember dragging Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea home from the library when I was about nine and being read A Christmas Carol at about the same time. I can remember Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth series and Henry Treece's Road to Miklagard and War Dog. I can remember C S Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and even the mawkish Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. I remember the brilliant Dr Seuss: The Cat in the Hat and One Fish Two Fish and I remember Enid Blyton's Famous Five stories. But as to all the countless other books I read or heard at that age; they are probably gone for good.
And in any case it is different remembering books as an adult and having the evidence there in front of you of what you really thought at the age you read the book. One of the nice things about writing for children is that they are such an appreciative audience. That is not to say they are uncritical. If they do not like something, then they are far more resistant to it than adults. The difference is that they are enthusiasts by temperament and so, if they do enjoy something, each book (or movie, or holiday, or birthday party) will be the 'best yet' or the 'best ever'. There are always caveats with adults.
Anyway - the first two books in my son's journal will be Jack London's The Call of the Wild (another book I can remember reading), which he read to himself and finished yesterday, and Mark Walden's 'Hive 2', which was read to him. He thoroughly enjoyed both, but it will be interesting to read what he has to say about them.
Thursday, 27 March 2008
I also got a copy of Joe Rat by Mark Barratt that I illustrated just before Christmas under the influence of a hideous cold. It is published by Random House/Red Fox and is a good book, I think - quite dark with a real sense of danger and some genuinely nasty characters.
Wednesday, 26 March 2008
There was a discussion about the merits of the landscape around Cambridge as we walked to Grantchester on Monday. It can seem a bit dull at first glance. The flatness doesn't appeal to everybody, though Judith, who is Swiss, made the point that mountains can be claustrophobic. Judith likes the view. So do I.
I like hills. Despite having a fear of heights, I like hill-walking because of the view it affords. Flatlands like Cambridge (and Norfolk where we lived for over ten years before moving here) are strangely the only places that give a similiar open sense of being able to see all the way to the horizon. You get an amazing view: not of the land, but of the sky. It makes you lift your head up.
And that can't be bad can it?
Tuesday, 25 March 2008
Monday, 24 March 2008
I am amazed at how little I know about the details of the background to the New Testament and of the history of the early church. I would feel horribly ignorant were it not for the fact that hardly anyone else I know has a better grasp of it all.
As chance would have it, there was a documentary about this very subject last night on Channel 4 - who was at the Last Supper and what happened to them. It was called The Secrets of the Twelve Disciples. It was fascinating and at two hours long, pretty detailed. A nice addition to the other documentaries over the Easter period - one about the Lost Gospels and another about the Turn Shroud. It was presented by a theologian - Dr Robert Beckford - and whilst he did not question the Gospels themselves or their authorship, he did question whether Peter really was buried in Rome, whether James went to Spain, whether there were female disciples and introduced (to me anyway) the wonderful notion of Thomas sailing to India to set up a community of Christians there.
Unfortunately it resulted in a rather heated exchange when John Clark who I share a studio with and Judith, his partner, (who took the photograph of me on this page) stopped in after we'd walked to Grantchester. Neither John nor I really knew what we were talking about and so of course we simply became louder and louder until the kitchen started to rattle.
We had a wide-ranging ill-informed theological debate about the veracity of the Gospels, the historical Jesus, religion in schools. Shakespeare popped in at one point. So did Franco and Mussolini. So did the relative merits of football and rugby (John is an ex rugby player). It was that kind of argument.
Sunday, 23 March 2008
As Patti Smith once said.
And I love that line of James Joyce from the end of The Dead: His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling. . .
I couldn't hear the angels calling, but I could hear the voices of the choir in King's College Chapel seeping out into the snow and that will do me.
Friday, 21 March 2008
I actually caught part of it last night. The disciples looked worryingly like a Bee Gees tribute band. And Penelope Wilton as Mary had another chance to do the shouty thing she thinks is a Bafta-winning show of grief, when it is actually a bit rubbish. Terry Jones in drag would have had more gravitas.
I saw Pilate/James Nesbitt asking the crowd who to crucify and I saw Judas hang himself down a well and I saw Jesus crucified. But it was all empty somehow. He looked like a victim of political expediency. He came across as a sad and even deluded figure. The sky didn't darken when he called out in pain. We didn't get the lance in the side for some reason. We got the thieves, but none of the conversation that gives their presence any meaning. The poetry of 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do' was reduced to the crass 'Forgive them for they don't know what they've done.' Urrgh. Why would you want a Jack Vetriano crucifixion when you could have a Giotto or a Rembrandt?
Question the truth of the gospels by all means, but do that somewhere else. Even if you see the story as myth, there still seems no reason to reduce the potency of that myth. Jason and the Argonauts without the magic is just a boat trip after all.
Thursday, 20 March 2008
That said, I have heard nothing from my publisher or agent so it could all be some terrible mistake. I checked the UKLA website and there is no mention of the shortlist. So I'm hoping that Michael Thorn is right.
The shortlist was chosen by teachers and the award is given to honour writers whose use of language has a powerful impact on the reader. The winners will be announced in July.
Picture Book Shortlist:
The Cow that Laid an Egg - Andy Cutbill & Russell Ayto
The Way Back Home - Oliver Jeffers
A Long Way Home - Elizabeth Baguley & Jane Chapman
Eliza and the Moonchild - Emma Chichester Clark
Stuck in the Mud - Jane Clarke & Garry Parsons
Penguin - Polly Dunbar
Here Lies Arthur - Philip Reeve.
Give me Shelter - Ed.Tony Bradman
Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror - Chris Priestley
Anna Hibiscus - Atinuke
My Dad's a Birdman - David Almond
Tamburlaine's Elephants - Geraldine McCaughrean
The Bower Bird - Ann Kelly
The Story Spinner told by Phil McDermott
Wednesday, 19 March 2008
My edition is ancient. It has a truly dreadful illustration on the cover - I am sorry Paul Leith but it is. The present Penguin Modern Classics edition has this cover, which is certainly eye-catching, if a little over the top for Saki's subtle stories.
Saki was the pen-name of H H (Hector Hugh) Munroe. Anyone who has yet to read one of his stories is in for a treat. Like all collections of short stories the content is variable - not necessarily because the quality varies, but simply because some will be more to an individual's taste than another. I love the ones with children in them - Sredni Vashtar, The Open Window, The Storyteller. He has a range going from bone dry Wildean wit to genuine chills.
Women do not fare well in Saki's work however. His hatred of maiden aunts is clearly heartfelt and is a scar from his unhappy childhood - his mother was killed by a charging cow (or at least by the shock of the attack). It is the kind of tragi-comic incident that Saki could easily have made up. Animals are often malevolent in his stories. And he gets the intensity of children bang on: the boredom and the intensity of play and their imagined world. He gets their potential for cruelty too. He was very much in my mind when I wrote Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror.
Tuesday, 18 March 2008
E Nesbit is a great writer. Her books for children still hold up really well. And she was a fascinating woman, co-founding the Fabian Society along the way. The stories I have read so far are surprisingly odd. In fact they are very, very odd. The Head is utterly bizarre from beginning to end and has a plot that even Edgar Allen Poe might have worried was a little over the top. A man happens across a house in the middle of nowhere, the occupant of which has built a scale model of a particularly traumatic event in his life in the cellar. Not only that, but he is persuaded to reproduce this life-size as a money-making scheme in London, all in the hope of attracting the attentions of a man he has sworn vengeance upon. Nesbit clearly has a horror of such things because The Power of Darkness itself has a (slightly) more believable plot about a waxworks at night.
But just as with Robert E Howard there is something compelling about the atmosphere she creates and the feverish intensity of the writing. People might be saying 'By Jove!' a lot and getting into a 'funk', but there is something much darker and stranger going on. A psychoanalyst would have a field day.
Monday, 17 March 2008
I am a huge fan of Mike Mignola. I like my comic books to have well crafted, punchy drawings. I don't want multi-layed arthouse nonsense. I don't want collage. I want something that I can actually read. Mignola's work is so well-designed. He is a great storyteller. Everybody who ever intends doing a graphic novel should have a look at one of his pages - many of which carry little or no text at all.
There is a lot of talk about graphic novels and Manga (yawn) in the UK at the moment - though mostly by people who would never be seen dead actually buying a comic book. Mostly they just don't get what comics are about and the results are just plain poor. If only we had someone like Mike Mignola here to show them how it's done.
Sunday, 16 March 2008
Why Wordsworth Editions have styled Robert E Howard as R Howard on the cover, I do not know. This is like putting C Lewis or J Tolkien. It is just a bit odd.
I know Robert E Howard from reading his Conan stories when I was a teenager. I first came across Conan the Barbarian in his Marvel Comics version, and then read the paperback books. The covers featured paintings I am a little bit ashamed (but not so much) to admit to having greatly admired. They were by Frank Frazetta. The fearless musclebound barbarian with a nubile slave girl draped round his overdeveloped quads was an exact opposite of my young self in every way. Actually he is quite dissimilar to my present self, come to think of it.
Howard was American: a Depression-era pulp fiction writer, a contemporary (and friend) of H P Lovecraft, and they both contributed to the pulp magazine Weird Tales in the late 20s and early 30s. Howard wrote sword-and-sorcery like Conan, westerns, detectives stories - all sorts of stuff. He put a bullet in his head when he was only thirty.
Solomon Kane also had a Marvel Comics outing apparently - though it passed me by. He is a bizarre creation: a kind of avenging angel in the shape of a sword-wielding 17th Century Puritan. It is all utter nonsense, of course. The historical setting is so lightly sketched as to be all but invisible and the plots lurch about all over the place.
And yet there is something compelling about the way he writes. He grabs you and drags you through his weird, weird world with such demented conviction that in the end it seems easier to just give in and let him get on with it. It certainly makes me want to take another look at his Conan books.
Friday, 14 March 2008
After a quick wander round bookshops in Covent Garden and Charing Cross road I went to Kettners. I had a quick chat with Adrian Downie who did such a fantastic job of the Tales of Terror website (we talked martial arts and skateboarding injuries before being forcibly separated and sent to different tables) and met up with my editor Helen Szirtes. One of the questions I had at Harrow High School was 'Do you get any help when you write your books?' And of course writers get a lot of help: they get help (mostly uncredited) from editors.
I have been blessed with some really good editors on my books - Anne Clarke on my Hodder books comes to mind, as does Lisa Edwards on my Scholastic books - and I am very, very lucky to have Helen Szirtes looking after me at Bloomsbury. I have learnt a lot from editors, though clearly not so much that it stopped me giving a completely nonsensical definition for the function of a colon when talking to Helen before the meal.
It was like being back at school. I would know what the answer was in my head, but some weird answer would fall out of my mouth. It is probably a condition: stupidity maybe. What I meant to say, of course, was that a colon is used to indicate that what follows it is an explanation or elaboration of what proceeds it. That is, having introduced some topic in more general terms, you can use a colon and go on to explain that same topic in more specific terms.
And of course I'm not quoting this directly from the Penguin Guide to Punctuation. How sad would that be?
Wednesday, 12 March 2008
I went to a school in Harrow today as part of the Harrow Words Live festival. No - not that Harrow school - Harrow High School. It is all part of an initiative by Harrow council to get authors into schools - and a good thing it is too. Having said that, I almost cancelled at the last minute because the storms seemed to be playing havoc with the rail system. But actually I got there quicker than I thought I would.
I did two sessions with two groups of children in the huge library and I spoke a bit about myself and writing and then read one of the stories from Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. They were amazingly attentive for the most part and asked lots of good questions.
As I have said before, school visits are tricky things. It is a weird thing reading to an audience who have not chosen to be there, who might much prefer to be in the drama or cookery lesson they are missing because of you; who, even if they do read, might not ever want to read your work. Who don't know who you are and are not going to hand you their attention on a plate. It is like busking to a crowd who can't simply snort with derision and walk on. They are trapped.
But it does no harm, every now and then, to test your work in this way. Not all books stand or fall on their ability to be read out loud, but Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror are all about storytelling. And however much a child might claim a disinterest in books, most are more then willing to give themselves up to the magic of having something read to them, whatever it may be.
Tuesday, 11 March 2008
I'm talking here specifically about the illustration of books. There is a school of thought that says that as children get older they need less and less illustration; that they want to read books that look more like the books adults read. Pictures are for kids. Little kids that is.
I don't think this is true. I know it wasn't true for me. Illustrations attracted me to books when I was a child and also encouraged me to read. I have already said that Charles Keeping's illustrations pulled me through Rosemary Sutcliff's dense and complex prose. I have also stated that I loved comics as a boy - and still do. Books for older children do not have to be illustrated of course - but good illustration can make a good book exceptional. But I do not think this is restricted to children.
The astonishing illustrations of Harry Clarke were the lure to first read Edgar Allen Poe (whose work I first came to via Roger Corman movies). It was the illustrated covers of secondhand Penguin Modern Classics that introduced me to F Scott Fitgerald, Kakfa, Hemingway, Camus and all the other great writers who taught me how to be a human being.
Charles Dickens offered his publisher money to stop illustrating his work and illustrations can make something appear less serious. Not everything needs illustration. But I would say that everything can be illustrated.
Getting back to children, I think that there are a couple of areas where the illustration of fiction for older children can be actually be helpful. One is historical, the other fantasy. Historical because it can help the reader picture an alien historical period that they may have little prior knowledge of (Charles Keeping was a master of this, and so is Victor Ambrus). Fantasy for similar reasons - illustrations can help the reader to make an imaginary world more concrete. Good writing can do all this unaided of course. But good writing is not harmed by good illustration. The success of Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart's books show that there is a real appetite for copiously illustrated fantasy fiction whatever the age of the reader.
Another area that benefits from illustration is horror. David Roberts work for Uncle Montague's tales of Terror is a good example as are the illustrations by Francis Mosley for M R James' ghost stories for the Folio Society (incidentally Charles Keeping also illustrated those stories). The right illustrations work a little like music in a scary movie. They get the reader in the mood. And like all illustrations - they make the book a more desirable object. They make it special.
Sunday, 9 March 2008
We went to another free concert at the Fitzwilliam Museum today. Brahms (Sonata #2 in F) and Beethoven (Sonata #2) this time. Michael Wigram on the cello. Lynn Carter on the piano. It was great actually. Lovely music, beautifully played. We got there early this time and sat closer. We sat in the front row actually. So close the cellist was practically elbowing us in the face. We could hear him take great gasping breaths as he played. This is a bit of a dull sketch of it. Apologies to Lynn Carter, whose contribution to the concert is not really mirrored in my drawing.
Saturday, 8 March 2008
I have to admit, though - I was a little concerned that we might not get an audience. But I needn't have. There was a nice little group of very friendly children with their equally friendly parents. It was great actually and everything you want from a children's department in a bookshop.
I made the decision that Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror were perhaps a little too terror-filled for the age of children, most of whom were under ten, so I read a bit from Billy Wizard and asked the children what their favourite books or types of books were. I put in a bid for The Cat in the Hat as one of mine. I may bang on about Dr Seuss and his genius at a later date.
I'd brought an edition of Saki short stories with me and read The Storyteller, which went down well. I need to devote a post to Saki at some point I think. He is brilliant. I sold a few Uncle Montagues and talked about Tales of Terror from the Black Ship - and a little about how I work and what I'm writing now.
When everyone had gone I signed a pile of books for the children at St John's College School who had missed out because we ran out of books on the day. Actually the warehouse ran out of books. Bloomsbury are reprinting a couple of thousand, which is great news. And I even got a box of chocolate biscuits from Kate for coming along.
Friday, 7 March 2008
When I first wrote the book, I did give some thought to how I would illustrate it myself. I was not entirely happy with what I came up with though. I felt quite strongly that I would have to change the way I normally work for this book and I did not want to get bogged down in the visual side of things. I wanted to ensure the writing was as good as I could get it and I wanted to make sure it was published. Everything else was secondary.
All the time I was writing the Uncle Montague/Edgar sections, I had Edward Gorey at the back of my mind. I love Gorey. I love that dark humour that you get with him and Charles Addams. Gorey was very much the tone I wanted, in both the writing of the storytelling sections and in the look of the book.
Then my wife happened to buy a copy of Ten Sorry Tales by Mick Jackson. It was very nicely illustrated by someone who obviously knew and liked Gorey as much as I did, but who had still got his own distinctive style. That illustrator was David Roberts.
Then, when I first went to see Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury one very hot day in the summer of 2006, she handed me a copy of Ten Sorry Tales and told me that David was the illustrator she had in mind. Sarah seemed to have really understood what I was trying to do and it seemed stupid not to relax and go with the flow. It did seem like the perfect match.
And it turned out to be a very good decision. It left me free to concentrate on the stories and David did a brilliant job. He has been so enthusiastic and it shows in the work. He seems to have really enjoyed himself. Nice man too.
I had a quick email conversation with David today. He told me a very funny story about going to a school. As I mentioned in the last post - you can never tell how things are going to go. David thought the children were going to be 13 and 14 year-olds, but they were instead 6 and 7. In a scene straight out of Gorey, he said there were some frightened faces when they youngsters were presented with drawings like this one. . .
Wednesday, 5 March 2008
I was there all day and gave four sets of talks and readings and my voice was sounding creepier and creepier as the day went by and I got more and more hoarse.
I particularly enjoyed seeing the look of utter astonishment on the faces of the listening children as they realised that the children in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror tend not to escape their fate. It also brought back one of those half-forgotten memories of sitting on the hard wooden school hall floor until the blood supply was cut off to your legs.
I was invited by Barbera Lonergan the librarian, and she told me that the boarders were reading the book as a very inappropriate bedtime story. It made me smile.
Monday, 3 March 2008
I was playing football on Saturday with my son and three friends and with Clive, the father of two of the other boys when Clive decided to actually tackle me like it was a proper game of football and I hit the ground with a nasty sounding crunch under my armpit. I twisted my ankle and was in some pain, but with ten year old boys looking on I held back the tears and hobbled on. I think I may have cracked a rib.
But the thing is as a writer, almost any experience adds to the stock of what you can use at a later date. Bad experiences are often more useful than good ones. It is so long since I lay on the grass after being tackled looking up at ten year old boys sillhouetted against the sky that I had forgotten how it felt: the cold earth seeping through your clothes, the desire to show enough pain for sympathy, but to bear it well enough for admiration. That will come in handy one day.
I got stung by a wasp on the way to a meeting at Random House once. I was on the tube and I felt something on my neck and then pain. I whacked the wasp to the floor and stomped on it and then waited to see whether I was going to be one of those people who are alergic and go into shock. Luckily I wasn't.
Then - about ten seconds later I thought: Now I know what it feels like to get stung by a wasp. Then I thought, 'Ow, that really hurts'. Then I thought, 'That will come in handy one day.' Then I thought 'Ow, that really hurts' again.
Saturday, 1 March 2008
Neil and I went for lunch and popped in to the round church of the Holy Sepulchre on the way. What a wonderful building that is. When I was at school, as part of my Art 'A' Level, we studied medieval architecture. My art teacher, Joe Taylor, would take us out in the school mini bus to look at churches and castles in Northumberland and County Durham. The enthusiasm he managed to pass on has never left me and I can get a little too excited by a nice bit of dog-tooth moulding. I am reminded here (worryingly) of Philip Larkin writing about people who 'tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were' and who are 'randy for antique.' Am I randy for antique? Possibly.
Which got me to thinking that education is a funny thing. Often it is the peripheral things that affect you the most or have the most lasting effect. One of the many things that contributed to me ending up a writer was a strand of my BA in Graphic Design/Illustration - what would now, slightly ridiculously, be called a 'module' - that was taught by the late (and I'm going to say great) David Melling who was then Dean of Humanities at Manchester Polytechnic. It was called 'The History of Ideas' - which makes me smile even now. It sums David up in a way.
The set texts were Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches by Marvin Harris and Europe's Inner Demons by Norman Cohn - oh, and Keith Thomas' fascinating Religion and the Decline of Magic. It would be hard to sum up in a sentence what it was about but sitting in that room discussing messianic movements, Matthew Hopkins, angels, John Dee, Plato, the European Witch Craze, and goodness knows what else was a high point of my college life. Again, the fascination (if not all the detail, sadly) has stayed with me. Again David was another person who encouraged me to write.
I know a little bit about a lot of things. It is the sign of the rather undisciplined mind that attracted lots of school reports about daydreaming and lack of concentration. But I feel vindicated (almost). The great thing about being a writer (or an illustrator or graphic designer) is that general knowledge is a great thing. You never know when that strange half-remembered whatever is going to come in handy.