Sunday, 31 August 2008

Mortal engines

I had an email from Merche Clark last Thursday. Merche is John Clark's sister and I will be staying with her when I go to Rio. In fact it was she who set that whole trip in motion. My attempts to email her always end with the message bounced straight back. I had to reply using John as a go-between.

I saw John and Judith on Saturday night. It was Judith's birthday the other day, close to mine, and she invited us over to celebratewith mutual friends. The conversation was very middle-class and middle aged, with much moaning about house prices, the economy, the state of education etc etc.

John thanked me for recommending Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines books. He and his son had really enjoyed them. They are wonderful books and I heartily recommend them to anyone reading this blog. They are brilliantly realised fantasy books, packed full of great scenes and vividly drawn characters. I doubted that Reeve would be able to sustain the level of intensity over the course of the series, but he really does. He knows that world inside out and he really cares about his characters. John rightly said they deserved to be filmed.

What great movies they'd make in the right hands.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Like fish and chips. . .

I was once in newspapers.

I saw Chris Riddell today as he passed through Cambridge on his way from the Observer to Norfolk. We sat in an almost deserted bar and talked about all kinds of stuff. Chris is always so enthusiastic about everything and so encouraging.

I have known Chris for many years - he was best man at my wedding. Our paths first crossed when I stood in for him as an illustrator at The Economist in London when he was on holiday in 1990. When he came back, the art editor, Penny Garret (whom I'd worked with previously at The Listener and the Telegraph) decided the paper could do with another illustrator and so I was taken on, sitting between Chris and Dave Simonds every Wednesday for the next six years.

Chris and I also worked together at the Independent on Sunday where I wrote a strip he illustrated called Bestiary and I took over his political cartoon spot briefly (Chris also did the Monday cartoon while Michael Heath did the rest of the week), before following him to The Observer under Andrew Jaspen. I did another strip there - called Babel - and did a caricature for their profile spot, while Chris did the political cartoon. I did not last very long. Chris is still there.

Chris left the Economist some time after I did; Dave is still there, doing sterling work (as well as doing the New Statesman political cartoon and stuff for various British newspapers. I left to take a job on The Independent under Andrew Marr's editorship. I did illustrations throughout the paper, often on the front page, and eventually did a daily strip called 7.30 for 8.00 as well as the daily political cartoon spot. When Andrew Marr left, I was made an offer it was all too easy to refuse and left the heady world of daily newspapers for good.

It was Chris who suggested I should write a children's book, and Chris who took the manuscript to Annie Eaton at what was then Transworld. My (published) writing career took off from that point.

Chris drew this brilliant birthday card for me. . .

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Life, freedom, peace

Most of the memorials in Westminster Abbey were as you would expect, but there were a couple of unusual ones. This one to Edmund Halley is rather nice, I think.

Here are a couple of battered bat-winged corbels

And I do love a bit of incised lettering. . .

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Five O

So I'm fifty. I said farewell to my forties on Monday with a trip to the Tate Modern to see the Cy Twombly exhibition. I never ever saw myself getting to fifty. In fact I'm not sure I ever saw myself getting to forty. It feels strange.

We had tried to get away from dull old England but failed. In the end we went to London for a long weekend. We stayed at the Goodenough Club in Bloomsbury and treated ourselves to a suite. It was my first visit to the Goodenough, but it certainly won't be my last.

We crammed quite a lot into out trip. We went to the Hammershoi exhibition at the Royal Academy, which was lovely in a quiet and austere kind of way. You could almost hear the clocks ticking and the rattle of carriage wheels on the cobbles outside. Lots of women looking out of windows or reading unseen books. Interiors are already intimate, but the presence of someone viewed from behind seems to make them even more so. Lovely paintings, if a little sad.

Cy Twombly at Tate Modern was a different kettle of fish altogether. My son found the Hammershois difficult because they were so muted, but found Twombly even more so. He was like the little boy in the Emperor's New Suit of Clothes, saying 'More scribbles' every now and then.

And do you know sometimes he was right, I think. Sometimes there just isn't enough there. But when there is - as in the Four Seasons paintings, they are fantastic. Just like at the Doig show a while back, I came away very much inspired to get back to my own paintings.

We saw Prince Caspian, which was not nearly so bad as I thought it might be. I have mentioned some of my thoughts about C S Lewis elsewhere, but this was not a book I knew. Hellboy II was a lot better though. The imagination behind the look of the monsters was very inspiring. The winged Death figure was especially good, I thought. I made a mental note to push things a bit more. The only downside was one of the elements of the film is almost identical to an element in one of the stories in Tales from the Tunnel's Mouth. But there you go; it will look like I've copied Hellboy, but it was written ages before. Honest.

We spent our last morning in Westminster Abbey which was a little exhausting. Too many tombs. It looks like a salvage yard sometimes, there are so many indifferent Victorian statues vying for attention. The tomb of the unknown soldier is easily the most moving, lying quietly, albeit garlanded in poppies. The anonymity seems particularly striking and poignant among all the me, me, me of all those names.

But the medieval parts are still fresh. The Chapter House is lovely, as are the royal tombs. There are some incredibly inventive miserichords. The ancient throne is great. It would have been good to see Edward the Confessor's tomb, but there is not general access to it. The famous Cosmati Pavement was being restored - although, to be honest after Venice and Rome, it did not seem quite so amazing as all that.

I came back to lots of emails. One from Francis Mosley giving me more reasons to be cheerful (after having sent him a list of reasons why I have been miserable). And there was some cheer to be had elsewhere. The British School in Rio was in touch with my timetable (which looks fun but exhausting). I am in Brazil from 27 September to 4 October and coincidentally, Rocco who are publishing Uncle Montague's tales of Terror in Brazil, also got in touch to see if I can do an event for them whilst I'm over. I have to admit that it is all very exciting.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The Welsh Johnny Depp

We went round to Joad's place this evening for dinner (or is it supper these days - I've lost track). He cooked us some very tasty food and we talked for a very long time. I may have droned on as I seem to do more and more these days. I am becoming such an old fart. I should stand in the middle of Cambridge with a 'The End of the World is Nigh' placard and be done with it. I've never been what you could call a 'people person', but I'm certainly becoming more misanthropic as I get older. Maybe everybody does.

Joad asked me if I'd noticed a comment posted on my blog by one of his ex-students. I hadn't and did a search when I got back. Having found it, I was pleased to see that she was about to go and buy some of my books. I was also very amused by her description of Joad as a 'Welsh Johnny Depp'. I suddenly had a picture of Joad's lecture's resembling the one given by Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, filled with adoring female students fluttering their eyelashes.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Soggy, grey and miserable

Another frustrating day. We seem destined not to get our last minute holiday booked. In desperation we even tried a travel agent today in the hope that he may have some secret deals we could not access, but he said that they had never been busier as the whole of the UK try to escape this soggy, grey, and miserable island for sunnier parts. There were no deals left to be had unless we were interested in going to the Costa del Sol. And we aren't.

Joad Raymond came round to collect his son from a sleepover and we had a long chat over a cup of coffee. He was telling us that he has booked himself in to run the Istanbul Marathon - an intercontinental marathon that crosses from Europe to Asia. He ran 22 miles on Sunday. I'm not sure I could run 2.

But I have been thinking of taking up running in a bid to get back to my fighting weight. I shall be picking Joad's brains if I do. He has already told me about a shop in Cambridge where they fit you with running shoes after examining your running technique. When they see my running technique they may simple refuse to serve me.

Monday, 18 August 2008

We will rock you

During my walk round Edinburgh yesterday, I visited the new (ish) National Museum of Scotland. I didn't have long to look round and I will certainly come back. Susan Harvey had recommended it to me and the early collection is really fantastic and beautifully displayed. I love objects - like the flint arrowheads here - where the beauty comes from the perfection of the design. They are functional objects but have an aesthetic integrity - a truth - a rightness - about them. The beauty isn't necessary (the maker wasn't making them for their beauty) but neither is it accidental.

I had a cup of coffee in the rather dull cafe and watched a troupe of girls doing Scottish dancing. They were a rather amusing range of shapes and sizes, dressed in tartan skirts, black tops and tights, all of which made them look remarkably like Ronald Searle's St Trinian's girls as they bounced about to the bray of bagpipes. And speaking of bagpipes, I hope I never again - as I did walking down Edinburgh's High Street - hear Queen's 'We Will Rock You' played on bagpipes.

I also walked around one of my favourite cemeteries (it suddenly strikes me as a little odd that I should have any favourite cemeteries). Greyfriars is wonderfully grim. The urge to clean the soot off buildings does not seem to have taken hold in Edinburgh the way it has in other British cities and some places benefit from grime. The Scott Monument is a jet black and all the more striking for it.

Greyfriars Cemetery always seems edgier than your average cemetery or graveyard. Drunks and addicts do seem to be strangely attracted to graveyards, and on my last visit here I was growled at by a particularly aggressive wino. This time there were a couple of youths with a dog, yelling and up for trouble.

Rather than the euphemistic or sentimental creations you often see in graveyards, Greyfriars, croaks 'Death!' at you at every turn. There are hundreds of skulls and skeletons; often crudely carved and eroded and encrusted with grime to add a layer of Gothic gloom. I drew a few of the skulls:

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Tales from the author's yurt

I flew up to Edinburgh yesterday and checked into my hotel - The Carlton on North Bridge. On the bus from the airport and walking up from Waverley Station I was struck by what a fantastic city Edinburgh is. I certainly can't think of another British city to match it for scale and grandeur.

I did a really well attended Amnesty event in the afternoon in which writers read the work of persecuted writers from around the world. I read the poems of Tasmila Nasrin.

In the evening I went for a meal with other Bloomsbury authors at the festival. It was a chance to meet Celia Rees (and her husband) and Sally Grindley, and to renew my acquaintance with Mark Walden whose H.I.V.E books have been a big hit with my son.

I made the mistake of allowing Mark to persuade me to hit the bar with him afterwards until about 2 in the morning. At least I had the foresight not to actually drink anymore (tempting though their range of malt whiskeys was), because I felt completely wrecked when I awoke after a night listening to the various whoops and peals of laughter coming from the street outside my hotel room.

My event went well though. I met Bloomsbury publicist Ian Lamb in the author's yurt (yes - author's yurt) at about 10.30. Hanif Kureishi was standing in the doorway at one point and I was very jealous of the queue of people snaking round Charlotte Square for his event.

I was really impressed by how well organised it all was. I had a really good crowd who all listened attentively and then asked lots of good questions. I read 'Climb Not' from Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror'.

I then signed a few books before going for a wander around Edinburgh and then back to the hotel to pick up my bag and head off to the airport to catch my plane to Stansted. I hope I'll be invited back next year.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Edinburgh here I come

I went to see my Swedish dentist today to see how my teeth have improved. They have improved - but not so much that he does not recommend pulling one out and doing surgery on my gums. I expressed a little concern over the pain involved. 'There would be no pain,' he said. 'You will feel us pulling and tearing, but there will be no pain.' Well that's alright then.

I'm getting my stuff ready for Edinburgh, trying to decide what to wear. I have a bad track record when it comes to packing my own case. I have a habit of leaving some vital item behind.

My spot is at 11.30 in the morning and it's quite hard to do spooky at 11.30 in the morning. I can be quite scary at that time, but not in a good way. I'm just fascinated to see how the whole thing works and excited by the chance to meet some other Bloomsbury authors. I fly up tomorrow lunchtime and I'm back again about the same time Sunday.

For now I leave you with a creature who, unlike me, has enjoyed the wet weather in my back garden. That's about as handsome as a slug gets, I reckon. . .

Thursday, 14 August 2008


I drove from one side of England to the other yesterday and never saw the sun once. I went to Lyme Regis while I was in Somerset and sat watching my son dig a hole in the sand surrounded by people who switched from swimsuits to anoraks with practiced ease and speed. At one point I saw two people 'sunbathing' sitting on deckchairs in matching anoraks. It was an almost quintessentially English seaside holiday scene.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Corpse fishing

I have just got back from a couple of days in Somerset and opened my inbox to find a message from Adrian Downie at Bloomsbury under the title 'corpse fishing'. It turns out to hold a link to an early version of a game we had talked about to go on the Tales of Terror from the Black Ship website. If you haven't seen Adrian's fantastic work on the Tales of Terror website follow the link on the left of the page and have a look.

The game made me laugh, though that maybe wasn't Adrian's intention. I have a fairly dark sense of humour, mind you. Anything with the instruction 'Hook the corpses, avoid the snails' was bound to set me off. I'll have to give some thought as to what we can put on this new site.

I also had an email from Madeleine Stevens at Bloomsbury showing me the paperback covers for Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. Here are the inside covers:

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Happy stupid people

I have been doing a blitz on my office over the last few days. Having come to the (almost) end of Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth, it seemed like a good time to clear the decks before really getting to grips with Ghosts, my next project.

I never did get to meet up with Chris Riddell on Friday. His journey was disrupted by engineering works and we ran out of time. I hope I'll get to see him in Norfolk whilst he is on his August break. Apart from anything else I will want him to sign replacement copies of some of my son's books ruined in our leak. Chris has given him lots of books over the years and they are a special part of his collection.

There was one of those questionnaire things in the Guardian magazine yesterday. I can't say I had ever heard of Slavoj Zizek and reading his questionnaire, I'm not sure I want to actually meet him, but some of the answers did amuse me. For example. . .

Q: What makes you depressed?
A: Seeing stupid people happy.

Q: How do you relax?
A: Listening again and again to Wagner

Q: What is your favourite smell?
A: Nature in decay, like rotten trees.

Q: What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
A: That life is a stupid, meaningless thing that has nothing to teach you.

Friday, 8 August 2008

The dreadful weather continues

The rest of my advance copies of the US edition of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship arrived today, making publication seem very close - which is very exciting. I love getting the first batch of books. To be honest, I don't think I'll ever lose that thrill of seeing a book with my name on it.

Thursday, 7 August 2008


The front page of the Guardian informed me that with a sharp rise in temperature expected, English gardens will be full of spiky drought-loving plants. A few hours later and I was standing on a stool trying to block a leak in my son's bedroom as we had yet another torrential downpour here in Cambridge. How those drought-loving plants must be loving this summer.

When I worked for The Independent many years ago as an illustrator, I illustrated an article about the effects of global warming on the UK. I did a take-off of John Constable's The Haywain in which the cart was crossing a dried up river and there were palm trees and sunflowers. The more likely parody would show the cart being washed away in a flood.

I spoke to someone from my home insurance company about the fact that water has been coming into my sons bedroom and ruining his books. I told her that it probably started when there was a terrific rainstorm here a couple of weeks ago and we all stood and watched as water rushed off the roof like a waterfall. She went away and checked and came back and told me there had been no significant rainfall in Cambridge. So we all must have dreamt it.

I'd have to claim it as an accident she said. There was a £75 excess, she said. And my no-claims bonus might be affected. Insurance. Its such a comfort. Until you actually try and claim.

I spoke to Chris Riddell on the phone. I may meet up with him as he passes through Cambridge on the train back to Norfolk. We talked about what we are both up to and he always seems to be up to more exciting stuff than me. He and Paul Stewart are off to the States to promote their Barnaby Grimes books in September. And maybe that isn't as exciting as it sounds - it must be exhausting. But it beats standing on a stool with a bucket.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

What's happening?

Well, I'm home alone at the moment, the family being away enjoying the rain-soaked pleasures of the West Country. I am just going through the last of the comments about Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth sent to me by Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury. There isn't a huge amount to do, but somehow it always seems to take longer than you think to change a word here, and swap a phrase there.

As soon as those changes are in I will crack on with Ghosts, my new book. It will be good to get to grips with a long novel again and I hope to get that done by the end of the year for publication early in 2010. But of course, things are not quite finished with Tunnel's Mouth. The copy editing will go into much greater detail. It only seems five minutes ago I was doing the final edit on Tales of Terror from the Black Ship.

And I forgot to mention that the US copies of the Black Ship came in a week or so ago. Here is a spread showing David Robert's rather fine illustrations to a story called Irezumi, about a tattoo that. . .Well, I think I'll let you find out what happens with that tattoo when the book comes out in October.

And in a very short amount of time I'm flying up to Edinburgh to appear at the Book Festival there. I'm doing my thing at 11.30 on Sunday 17 August at the RBS Corner Theatre, so if you happen to be passing, drop in. I'll be the sweaty one up on stage.

I haven't been to Edinburgh for years and have never been when the festival was on. I'm looking forward to it. You can get a masterclass in illustration from David Roberts at the RBS Workshop Tent between 5.30 and 7pm on Saturday 16 August.

Monday, 4 August 2008

All that you know is at an end. . .

The phone rang today and when I put it to my ear a fog horn bellowed out and there may have been the sound of gulls and a voice said 'This is your captain speaking. . .' It was a little disconcerting. It went on to tell me that I had free tickets waiting for me if I just answered a few questions. The first one was going to be 'Are you a gullible sap?' presumably, but I put the phone down before I found out.

A couple of weeks ago my son stuck his head through the doorway to my office and announced in a solemn voice, 'All that you know is at an end.' Again - this was a little disconcerting given that I am specialising in spooky children at the moment. Then I remembered that we'd been watching 'Fantastic Four - Rise of the Silver Surfer' and the Silver One delivers that particular line in the movie.

I have been meaning to show some more of Susan Harvey's work on the blog. So here it is. The link will take you to her Flickr site but if you are just too lazy to bother, here are a couple of examples. Her work will be featured in the mixed show at Cambridge Contemporary Art in Trinity Street here in Cambridge. The show started on Saturday and runs for a couple of months. I popped in today and so far her stuff was not on the walls. But it will be at some point.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Brown hawker

The dragonflies have started to take over. This one came into the house yesterday - twice. It is one of the most beautiful insects I have ever seen in this country. In case you are wondering, he's sitting on a sweeping brush that was used to give him a perch to sit on whilst I persuaded him to go and hunt outside.

Brown Hawker just does not seem to do justice to something so dazzling - something that is over 10cm from head to tail-tip and shimmering with flashes of brilliant blue with wings that seem to have been made out of fine copper wire.