Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Day of the Triffids

What can I say about the BBC's adaptation of The Day of the Triffids? Eddie Izzard was good in a silly role. Apart from that I can't think of many positives. It had clearly had a fair amount of money thrown at it. It certainly didn't fail through lack of effort or seriousness.

Maybe the fault lies with the book. Don't get me wrong, John Wyndham was one of my favourite writers when I was in my teens and The Day of the Triffids is a good book. But maybe it shows that whilst some things work perfectly well on the page, they don't when realised as moving images.

When I say that it's the fault of the book, I don't mean 'fault' at all. What I mean is that maybe the notion of filming The Day of the Triffids is doomed from the start. It seems a cinematic concept, but it is essentially flawed. Creeping carnivorous plants are a creepy concept in a book, but just plain silly on screen. Dressing the film up like 28 Days Later ( film that based its opening on The Day of the Triffids) did not make any difference. This was a zombie movie without zombies.

Does that mean that the book is flawed? No, I don't think it does. John Wyndham was not writing a screenplay, he was writing a novel. It should not have to work in any other format. What it shows is that the way we imagine when reading is different from the way things are shown in cinema and television (and so it should be). Film is limiting and pedantic. It has to show and depict in a way our imaginations do not (unless they choose to).

Literature is - I think - more tuned in to that way of thinking. It is a direct link from the imagination of the writer to the imagination of the reader.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Footballer's thumb

I have spent far too long playing FIFA 2010 on my son's xbox 360. The game was a Christmas present (to him, not me) and it has been driving me crazy ever since he opened it.

These games all follow the same pattern. We both play the game when it first arrives and we laugh at our incompetence and the weird quirks (in this case the deranged commentary). I go about my normal life. My son plays the game over and over again, gaining an intuitive grasp of all the many button and lever combinations. He becomes unbeatable.

I was sure that this would be different. He could use the buttons better than me, but I could play a tactical game. I could pass the ball. I could bide my time. Football isn't all about running down the pitch and going for goal every time.

We play again. I get thrashed. We play again. I get thrashed again. My thumb hurts. I launch into a long diatribe about the randomness of the whole game play, hinting strongly that the computer is somehow favouring my son. He gets upset. We play again. My son toys with me, using his goalkeeper as a centre forward and passing the ball back and forth in front of my goal before scoring. I sulk. I insist on being someone other than Tottenham just in case their infuriating ability to lose to just about anyone has been factored into the game. I play as Chelsea. I get thrashed.

I refuse to play any more.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas everyone and happy St Stephen's Day. Hope you had a good time yesterday and that you at least got some of the things you wished for.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

I'm ready for my close-up now Mr Downie

I had a meeting with Sarah Odedina today. We had a 'what's next' meeting, and I was very pleased that she seemed to be so enthusiastic about my new book proposal. This will have to jump through a few hoops yet before it becomes a definite thing, so I won't say any more about it now.

Sarah caught me on the hop a little, as I had really come in to talk about the possibility of doing a graphic novel at Bloomsbury. This idea had come up at a meeting and Sarah contacted me to see what I thought.

I have wanted to do a graphic novel ever since I was a teenager (though I would have called it a comic then). I love that form of storytelling. Or at least I do when it is done well. In this country - for reasons I am never very clear on - it rarely is. The graphic novels produced by children's publishers are particularly duff.

Graphic novels also do not tend to do good business here. Booksellers don't know what to do with them and there is still a culture that says comic books are for kids. Although there is an understanding that novels for children have to be well-written, for some reason publishers think they can get any old nonsense past children when its in comic form (when those children can go and buy the best of Marvel or DC or Dark Horse).

But this is a put up or shut up business. Will what I do be any better? I think it will - I certainly hope it will. But it may not even happen.

After my meeting with Sarah, I met up with the collectively wonderful Adrian Downie, Ian Lamb and Susannah Nuckey to do a promo video for Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. Adrian shot the whole thing on several HD cameras against a green screen. Ian operated a complex arrangement of lighting and Susannah did wonders with props and make up (I looked twenty years older by the time she'd finished!)

A backdrop resembling a cross between a cupboard and a cellar will be added later apparently.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Inbali's books

A light icing sugar dusting of snow this morning in Cambridge, followed by sleet and then drizzle. I spent the day doing various pre-Christmas jobs, one of which was to pick up a couple of books sent by Inbali Iserles.

She sent these for the Cumbria Books appeal because she was going on holiday and we were still hoping to gather all the books in by Christmas. I was out when the postman arrived - of course - and I have just got round to dragging myself across Cambridge to pick them up from the sorting office.

It does make the scheme seem real though - having another author's books sitting here, ready to go.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

De verschrikkelijke verhalen van het zwarte schip

A big parcel of books arrived the other day containing the Dutch editions of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship. I have been so busy blogging about Cumbria that I haven't had a chance to acknowledge their arrival.

It is always a thrill when another country decides to take your book, and always a little disappointing if they do not take the next in the series - so I'm very pleased that Pimento has taken The Black Ship.

And I love all those jagged Vs and Ks in that title.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Good news

I have emailed everyone (hopefully) who contacted me and Facebooked myself senseless, telling everyone that the Cumbrian Book Appeal is postponed until the new year. This will allow the council to recover a little from the devastation and allow for a more considered approach to the distribution of books.

I am moving towards thinking that the fairest way to give books would be to schools and school libraries rather than to individual children. We simply do not have enough books to make that viable at the moment (although authors are still coming in).

But we have had a bit of good news this morning. Hills Bookshop in Workington in Cumbria has very generously offered to store and distribute the books in the new year on a date yet to be decided. So now there is simply no reason for it not to happen. Hills Bookshop visit all the schools in the area on a regular basis.

I had a very similar generous offer from Kate Johnson at Heffers Bookshop here in Cambridge, but obviously it makes more sense for the books to go direct to Cumbria. I will let all contributing authors know well in advance when the books are required.

As well as thanking all the authors and illustrators, I must also thank Heffers Bookshop, Scholastic, Bloomsbury, Random House, Piccadilly Press and Usborne. And I'm going to thank Usborne again because I keep forgetting to mention them. Twit.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Postpone or cancel?

Chris Little - the media officer with Cumbria County Council - got back to me today and said, perfectly reasonably, that the council simply does not have any spare resources or manpower to assist this scheme. And the last thing I want to do is cause them problems.

His suggestion is to postpone until after Christmas when they will hopefully be a bit more sorted out and able to help with distribution and so on. This obviously destroys the idea of the books being Christmas presents, but it does have several things going for it.

The council will be able to get behind the scheme - and I personally think that without their support the thing is unworkable. The schools or libraries will be in a better position to act as collection/distribution points. It will be easier to get around the county.

But also, with the amount of authors we have - even with generous additional offers from publishers and booksellers, we would struggle to be able to supply children with books. At the moment it is schools and school libraries that seems a more achievable goal.

Maybe with a bit more time, we might be able to get more authors and illustrators involved and maybe more publishers and booksellers too. With a bit more time, maybe we might get hundreds of us involved. I have always believed that is possible.

Or we could simply decide that it was a nice, but unworkable, idea and call it a day. I will try and email everybody involved tomorrow and see what you all think.

What do you call a crowd of authors?

I no particular order, here are the authors so far:

Mary Hoffman, Sally Nicholls, Fiona Dunbar, Anthony McGowan, Jim Eldridge, Peter Bailey, Narinder Dhami, Josh Lacey, Tony Bradman, Paul Stewart, Celine Kiernan, Saviour Pirotta, Marie-Louise Jenson, Inbali Iserles, Meg Rossoff, Jonathan Mayhew, Joe Craig, Kath Langrish, Sam Enthoven, Sally Grindley, Sandra Glovers, Alan Cliff, Damian Kelleher, Tony De Saulles, Philip Reeve, Tracey Alexander, Pauline Chandler, Paul May, Leila Rasheed, Valerie Wilding, Adele Geras, Rosie Rushton, Brenda Williams, Rob Jones, Sue Eves, Andy Seed, Enid Richmont, Chris Mould, Chris Riddell, Cathy Cassidy, Jane Clarke, Cathy Hopkins, Philip Ardagh, Helen Bonney, Anna Wilson, Sarah Webb, Lynn Breeze, Mariam Vossough, Sue Reid, Francis Mosley, Anita Ganeri, Nicola Davies, Gillian McClure, Lee Weatherly, Lynn Huggins Cooper, Andrew Solway, Amanda Lees, Damian Harvey, Kjartan Poskitt, Philip Wilkinson, Dave Smith, Tommy Donbavand, Brian Lux, Val Rutt, Mark Walden, Ann Turnbull, Tracey Turner, Mike Jubb, Jan Dean, Michelle Harrison, Laura Kennedy, Pippa Goodhart, Lynne Chapman, Kay Woodward, Jenny Vaughan, Cindy Jefferies, James Mayhew, Sandra Horn, Gillian Philip.

This was hurriedly written - so I apologise for any spelling mistakes and if you have offered and can't see your name there then let me know, just in case I haven't got you on my list (though it may simply be an oversight - and I apologise in advance). If you know someone who you think ought to be on that list and are in a position to give them a prod, then please do so.

Thank you all so much.

A new day

OK - it's a new dawn, it's a new day etc etc. Where do we go from here? Today - in between doing some work, some Christmas shopping and sorting out my tax return - I will try one more time to see if I can't get some more positive feedback from Cumbria Council in terms of numbers of children and ideas about the best way for the books to reach them.

Failing that I will try and contact schools direct. Secondary school heads know their feeder school counterparts and hopefully they will be able to give me some idea of how we might crack this problem of where the books might go. I think we may have to concentrate our efforts on particular schools if the Council cannot come up with anything better.

I have had very generous offers of books from Scholastic and Random House, which though it strays a little from the idea as I originally saw it, it will increase the number of books we can offer. Though I have managed to gather a lot of authors and illustrators together, I would be happier if we had four times as many at this stage.

I would ask anyone who has hesitated thus far, to please join in. If you think it won't work, your contribution might well make the difference. If you feel you are already committed to other charitable giving, I am not asking for money - only half an hour of your time.

Over the weekend I also had word from Kate Johnson at Heffers here in Cambridge offering all kinds of practical help, support and enthusiasm. It makes me all the more determined to make this thing work.

As well as Kate, I want to thank Nikki Gamble of Write Away, Philippa Dickinson of Random House, Susannah Nuckey of Bloomsbury, Anne Clark of Piccadilly Press and Lisa Edwards of Scholastic for their offers of help and advice and for spreading the word. Thank you all so much.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Weekend news

I have had a few distractions from trying to sort out the books for Cumbria appeal. On Friday evening we all went to a Private View of arts and crafts and had mulled wine and minced pies whilst chatting to painters and admiring some very nice driftwood boats.

On Saturday morning I went to hospital and had a small camera on a long flexibly stalk put up one nostril until it went down the back of my throat. A very strange sensation.

I spent much of the rest of the weekend taxiing my son from school concert rehearsals and back, to football and back and so on. All of which gave me a chance to feel a bit less frustrated with how the project is going.

More authors joined over the weekend and I hope very much that I have replied to you all - but if I haven't then I will do so today. There is still scope for many, many more authors and illustrators to get on board having said that.

If you are already signed up but you know someone who isn't, give them a prod. If you are an editor then please spread the word among your writers. I am not asking for money (apart from postage), only the time it takes to sign, wrap and post a book (or four). I see this as a team effort - a show of solidarity by authors and illustrators with our readers, but having said that, the more household names we have in the scheme the easier it will be to get publicity and logistical help if needed.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Where do I send the books?

Authors continue to come in to the scheme to give signed books to the children affected by flooding in Cumbria. I hope more will join over the weekend, and I hope that Monday will produce some definite solutions to the problems I have already mentioned. A huge thank you to all the people who have been in touch, both with offers of books and with support and thoughtful comments.

Mostly the response from authors has been a simple, 'I'm in - where do I send the books?' I wish I could answer that question (apart from the obvious, 'Not to me!!)

Friday, 4 December 2009

Where are we?

OK - so where are we on the books for Cumbria front. Well authors are starting to come into the scheme in numbers. As fast as I can reply to one, I get another offer in the inbox. I want to thank all the authors and illustrators who have offered books and I want to thank all the editors and publicity people at Bloomsbury, Scholastic, Random House & Picaddilly Press who have taken time to make suggestions, offer help and pass on details to their authors. It warms the cockles of my heart.

This is how I see things at the moment. The books will hopefully be sent to one address in Cumbria - I think a library is probably the best place. I would like to avoid making families trek for miles to get the books and it would seem better to take the books to them. Cumbria Library service is using a mobile library to reach Cockermouth. That might be the answer. But of course that isn't for me to say.

I don't think this is difficult. But it becomes more difficult with each passing day. I need the same sense of enthusiasm from Cumbria Council as I've had from authors and publishers. I'm sure I'll get that.

Publicity is another issue. The children will have to know its happening and I would like Cumbria's plight to get some more airtime from the media. Blue Peter have been contacted - thank you Susannah Nuckey of Bloomsbury - but they can't do it in the time. Oh yes they can! No - they can't apparently.

Thursday, 3 December 2009


Just a quick one for those who are not on Facebook and want to know how things are going. Well - there is still no firm plan for distribution but I have had an offer of help there. I am in contact with Cumbria County Council's media department and I hope to hear from them tomorrow about numbers of children. I am also hoping to hear from the Libraries department to see if a library in the area might not be the best address for sending the books to.

I have had lots of offers of books from authors and illustrators today and I want to thank everyone who has been in touch. But I need more. We can not have too many authors. Please, please, please spread the word. Hope to have more concrete news tomorrow.

Thanks again

Cumbria Q&A

I've just had this email from Josh Lacey. He raises some very good questions

Hi Chris

A couple of thoughts about logistics:

First, how about getting a publisher or publicist to organise it? They're so good at that sort of thing... I'm sure publishers would be happy to donate some books and some time in exchange for a bit of publicity...

Good point - anyone fancy taking that on? A helping hand from anyone involved in publicity would be great.

If not, do you know anyone who lives in the area who could distribute books?

I heard from author Jim Eldridge today. Jim lives in the area and whilst he can't be expected to distribute what I hope might be hundreds or even thousands of books, he is full of useful local contacts.

Second, do you have a list of schools? How many kids are involved? How many writers? How many books would each writer provide?

I am still waiting for accurate numbers from Cumbria County Council. I think we need to have as many writers as possible giving at least one book. I would like to a a couple of hundred (or more) writers and illustrators getting involved

Third, would you ask writers to send books directly to schools? To a distributor? Would someone collect the books and drive them there? Could some of the writers visit the schools to hand out books?

Many of the schools are still closed. The County Council will have to provide collection points and advertise it through the media. Big names among the authors will help this. If I get enough pledges from authors for books I will then certainly ask if some people could actually go up there and be there when the books are handed out. But that is a long way down the line. Without storage, transport and distribution, it won't work.

I just seem to be bombarding you with questions... sorry.


No problem Josh - they are questions that need to be asked (and answered)

Cumbrian Book Appeal

I am interrupting the normal broadcast of blithering on this blog by telling about something a bit more serious and urgent.

As people in the UK will know, Cumbria has suffered terrible flooding recently. Already it seems as though this is no longer newsworthy and yet clearly, it remains a devastating reality for those affected.

It struck me that children's authors have a chance to inject a little bit of good cheer into the lives of children in Cumbria. I thought that we could sign and wrap one (or more) of our books and send them as gifts to those affected.

So far so good. But I also wanted this to happen before Christmas. The books have to be collected, transported and distributed. There are huge problems and I have to confess I don't know that it will work. I just think that it can.

But - I will say that there has been an incredible enthusiasm from authors for the project. I have many, many firm offers. I have been in touch with Cumbria Council and they are keen. The issue of how books get from author to child is still the thing that will potentially scupper the whole thing, but I remain hopeful that someone more practically minded than me will come forward and solve that.

Meanwhile, if you can help in any way or simply have some thoughts, please get in touch via the comment feature on this blog.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The meaning of life

I have spoken about book jackets many times in this blog. Writers underestimate their importance at their peril I think.

A book jacket at its simplest level is just product information. It tells you what the book is and who made it. The blurb is a kind of ingredients list.

All of that is important stuff, and it all needs to be there and readable. But of course a jacket is more than that. The cover can also give a visual impression of the book. It can show one of the characters or a scene from the story. It can give some idea of the setting or the historical period or even the prevailing mood.

But though all those things are important as well in their way, I think the truly vital quality of a book jacket - one that can get lost in all those discussions about typefaces and illustrations - is its ability to make the book a desirable object.

This is clearly a subjective thing: what is desirable to me might not be desirable to a fifteen year-old girl, but that is where clever graphic designers come in. A good book jacket will both confirm tastes we already held, while also intriguing us and showing us something new.

I have bought many books on the strength of their jackets and I find it almost impossible to buy a book - even by an author I like - if it has a bad jacket. And I think I'm far from alone in this. As long as a book does not actually misrepresent a book, I think the main design aim should be to make it as attractive or compelling an object as possible.

Which brings me on to the Oxford University Press A Very Short Introduction series. These books are great. They are perfect for authors in that they give a short grounding in a variety of subjects. They are well-written and thought-provoking.

As well as being short, they are also small - half the size of a normal paperback: perfect for rail journeys as they weigh next to nothing. But they are also beautiful objects. Non-fiction jackets that are a thousand times more desirable than many, or even most, fiction jackets.

I assume the abstract covers (painted by Philip Atkins) were a way of providing a series continuity whilst answering the problem of the diversity in subject matter. But there could have been a crushingly dull solution to that. Go into any bookshop and see.

These jackets are lovely. They bring out the collector in me. They make me want to buy the whole lot.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Turkish tales of terror

Of course I should maybe have pointed out that Boris Karloff (real name, William Henry Pratt) was British - like Colin Clive who plays Frankenstein (Henry, rather than Victor in the movie). The director James Whale was also British, but it is odd to see how early that American conceit of having dubious characters played by Brits actually started.

And I was very pleased to hear that there is to be a Turkish edition of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship. It occurs to me that I haven't seen the Turkish edition yet. By an odd coincidence the Turkish translator of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror - Zeynep Alpaslan - was kind enough to get in touch a couple of posts back.

So merhaba to all my (existing or potential) Turkish readers.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Happy birthday Boris

It is Boris Karloff's birthday today - or at least would be were he still alive. I was trying to think where I first became aware of that iconic image of him as the monster in James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein movie. I suppose it would have been through parody and cartoons first. It is so ingrained in our consciousness that it feels like we were just born with it.

I first saw that Frankenstein movie when I was in my teens as part of a series - called, I seem to remember, Monster Movies - on TV late on Friday nights. I was spellbound by those early RKO and Universal movies. I haven't seen them for a long time, but they had a huge impact on me and I still think about them now. The series went all the way through to the sexy Hammer movies of the 1960s and I certainly enjoyed those too - though perhaps for other reasons.

I've been thinking a lot about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein of late and although the book bears little resemblance to the James Whale movie - especially in regard to the creature, who is an intelligent and articulate being rather than a shuffling mute - the movie has a resonance all of it's own.

Karloff's performance is superb. Karloff had acted in dozens of movies before but he became synonymous with horror after that. He appeared in so many horror movies it would be boring to list them, but here are a few: FrankensteinThe Old Dark House, The Mummy, The Black Cat, Bride of Frankenstein, The Walking Dead, The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead and The Raven. He was great in Peter Bogdanovich's Targets. He had a wonderful voice and even narrated Chuck Jones's animated version of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

But it is as that shuffling mute creature that he really got to me. He managed to act through the make-up and diver's boots and made that character both frightening and sympathetic.

And that is such a haunting combination.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Wind and rain

I took my son plus Will Hill and his son, to football today. We were playing on the AstroTurf pitch where the team do their training. Familiarity did not help them - they lost 6-1. It was nice to see Will though and have a chance to chat on the way there and back. We seem to have lived parallel lives in many ways.

The pitch if on the crest of a hill and there was a piercing wind at our backs as we fathers stood moaning on the touchline. It was freezing. I needed several more layers than I was actually wearing and was very jealous of the fact that Malcolm Harding had nipped home to add a layer before the game started.

I had an email back from Helen and Richard who we stay with in the Lake District. They told us what life has been like up there in the recent horrendous weather. It sounds incredible. It is hard to imagine the water levels being that high. Ullswater rose by 4 feet apparently. 4 feet! And there is more rain to come.

Saturday, 21 November 2009


I went to London yesterday. I was meeting Paul Stewart at the Royal Academy. I decided to walk to the station rather than cycle and on the way I did I what I do in pretty much all of my spare waking hours - I worried away at the story I have been writing.

Sometimes this process is like whittling a piece of wood, honing it and perfecting it, sometimes its like trying to catch a trout with you're bare hands, another time it can be like doing one of those wooden puzzles where the pieces will only work if put together in one particular way.

I love writing, and this part of it - the sketching things out in your head, is very much part of what makes writing a compulsion for me. I am aware that I have always done this - for as long as I can remember.

As I was walking past the Botanical Gardens I had one of those lovely moments when things just come together. An idea popped in to my head like a cartoon light bulb being switched on. It will amount to no more than a sentence or so in the book, but it will change the whole thing. As I have said many times before, I think it's important - vital - to be surprised by your own work. It is why plotting can be such a killer.

Writing isn't about plodding on towards a predetermined end. It isn't one long methodical steady labour. Or not for me anyway. It is hard work punctuated by dizzying spells of effortlessness. You push and push and then suddenly there's no resistance. You struggle up the hill and suddenly you're whooshing down a snowy slope on a sledge of your own devising.

Of course, you know in the back of your mind you are going to hit a tree at some point. But still - its fun while it lasts.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


I went to life drawing at King's. I still have not lost my childish thrill at entering the college at night. The approach to the wing containing the life drawing studio is magical. Right up until you open the door and hear the thump, thump, thump of music coming from the bar and see the shabby and unsympathetic interior. Once inside you could sadly be in any underfunded institution in the land.

Of course the excitement is increased for me in knowing that M R James told his stories in a study nearby all those years ago, as Christmas treats for his friends and favourite students. What a setting. I wish my audience had to approach my stories via a huge wooden door in a vaulted gatehouse and a wide open quad lit by the glow of old lamps and enclosed all about by silhouetted pinnacles and spires.

I wish all this had an inspirational effect on my life drawing. . .

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

I hate Dell (continued)

I had a very, very, very long conversation with a representative from Dell today. She was supposed to be from Customer Services - but the customer seemed to figure a very long way down her list of priorities.

I have a Dell desktop which has caused me very few problems at all in the last few years. It is starting to get a bit slow and cranky in its old age, but aren't we all? My Dell laptop however - a machine that is only a year and a few months old - is a very different story.

That laptop has been back to Dell on two separate occasions, the last time in June this year when it was extensively refitted. The hard drive was replaced. The DVD drive was replaced for the second time. It still didn't work and has subsequently had the DVD drive replaced for the third time.

But far from being ashamed of having sold someone such a can of scrap, she was much more concerned with trying to convince me I had wasted my money getting support elsewhere despite the fact that the Dell technician had been adamant the problem was a software one. It wasn't. The laptop had simply failed again and had the technician spotted this it would have gone back to Dell a third time. Instead of which a technician came out to Kevin, my support. After messing him about of course.

At the end of an hour and a half conversation where she tried to convince me the laptop must have worked fine after it came back, that I should have paid for software support from Dell because they would have discovered that it was hardware and refunded, etc etc etc, I happened to mention that I intended to contact the Consumer Association and suddenly she offered to refund the money I had paid for support and Dell would extend the warranty until July 2010. When I asked her why it had taken her so long to accept any need to compensate me, she said that she was responding to what I had said during the conversation.

They should have replaced the laptop. But of course, that is not going to happen. They would rather keep replacing parts and ferrying it to and fro and paying technicians to work on it than admit that they have been at fault from day one.

I will never buy so much as a mouse from Dell in the future.

And of course I should have bought a Mac.

Monday, 16 November 2009

This is the BBC. . .

I went to BBC Cambridge for 1 o'clock as arranged, feeling dreadful. I had been offered a taxi, but chose to cycle, arriving flecked with mud (I must get a rear mudguard!). I announced my arrival to the receptionist and whilst I wasn't expecting paparazzi exactly, I was a little taken aback to be ushered unceremoniously by her into a small, deserted cell-like room. I felt like a sperm donor. Or how I imagine a sperm donor to feel. In terms of the awkwardness and grottiness, not the - this metaphor isn't working really. I asked the receptionist if there was any chance of a glass of water and she seemed to look at me as if I was Mariah Carey asking for a basket of puppies.

I was told to put on a pair of headphones and wait until lights lit up on the rather 1950s-looking console. Actually 'console' is overstating it somewhat. It looked a bit like the control panel on an old guitar amp. It all felt a little like The Lives of Others. Sitting there in that room with my headphones on, I caught a whiff of what it must have been like to be in the Stasi - except I was listening to the Scottish news rather than eavesdropping. The receptionist brought my water and I sat and waited.

Suddenly there was a voice in my ears and I tried very hard not to do a BBC voice as I spoke into a massive microphone of the kind that Churchill or Attlee is usually sitting behind in old newsreels. It was dented as though a visiting author had headbutted it in some kind of existential rage.

The voice was the engineer checking I was there. He, like everyone except me, was in Edinburgh. Edinburgh sounded fun. I began to wish I was in Edinburgh with the other guests and not in my isolation chamber here in Cambridge. Then Bronwen Tulloch, the producer of The Book Cafe, came on the line. I had spoken to her already and she was great. How amazing to be both coolly efficient and warm. She was a very reassuring presence throughout. And Chris Kane who presented the programme was very good at including me in the conversation - and making me sound as though I was actually there with the other guests.

I always feel like I am going to develop a career-ending bout of Tourettes and say something wildly and loudly inappropriate. I didn't though.

I spoke a little about scary books and read a short - very short - extract from Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. We had a bit of a discussion about horror and children's appetite for it, why I write creepy stories and whether it is good or bad for children. I stayed around for a quick discussion about Twitter and the various novelty ways it has impacted on the world of literature. I might go into more detail of who they were and what we actually talked about tomorrow.

Then it was all over. The headphones went back on the table, I said goodbye to the receptionist and with her reply she gave me a look that was probably only total disinterest but felt like something between pity and disgust, and then I was back on my bike cycling home against a fierce headwind.


Sunday, 15 November 2009

Low battery

I felt dreadful today. My battery needs recharging. I seem to have no energy at all. I have been like this for some time now. My hand still hurts like someone stamped on it. I am perpetually exhausted but can't sleep. I missed my son playing football for the second time this season because I felt too rotten to drive him. It doesn't feel right simply hearing that they lost. I should have to see it for myself.

I spent some of the morning thinking about my radio appearance tomorrow. I am going to the BBC studio here in Cambridge to take part in a discussion on BBC Radio Scotland's Book Cafe. We are talking about scary books for children as well as Twitter and its relevance (or not) for writing.

Funnily enough I have been helping my son with his homework. Part of the brief is to imagine that you are the author of a book and be quizzed about how and why you wrote it. He has chosen Tom's Midnight Garden as his book. I actually learned a few things about Philippa Pearce that I didn't know as I tested him on his knowledge.

It fascinates me how much analysis expected of 12 year-olds these days. It does not seem to be enough to read or even understand a book anymore; the children have to tease out themes and even find fault. They are expected to be critics.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Do I like graphic novels?

I had a very exciting email from Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury asking what I made of graphic novels and whether I liked them or had ever done one?

To which I replied along the lines of I only like them in as much as I love them. Or good ones anyway.

This may be one of the many things in my life that appear to dazzle like a new star only to go phut at some later date, but I am excited about the mere prospect of having a conversation about the vague possibility of doing something remotely in the area of a graphic novel. You heard - or perhaps caught a vague whiff of - it here first.

More - or possibly nothing - about this at a later date. . .

Thursday, 12 November 2009


I went through the proofs of The Dead of Winter with Talya Baker at Bloomsbury. We went through the book page by page and flagged up the various issues we had found. These were either resolved immediately or I put them aside and got back to her later. Talya added to my reading out loud tip by suggesting that you place something under the line you are reading to isolate it and stop the eye from wandering. Good idea, I think. I'll be doing that next time.

This is always such a massive stage in the life of a book. This is the very last time that anything can be done. Well - until the paperback tweaks. But essentially this is the book as it is going to be read by the punters who buy it. Bestseller or landfiller, it's done.

Next please. . .

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Reading aloud

Today I am having a last run through the proofs of The Dead of Winter. I am reading the book out loud like a madman in my office. I have said - many times - that this is the only way I know to catch those stupid clanging errors or ugly phrases that make you want to pull your own head off and do keepy-uppies with it when you come to read it out loud on publication.

And I don't just read it like a speak-your-weight machine. That wouldn't work. I try to read it well, with all the intended drama and force. I feel I have to do this because, if I can't read it to sound as I would want it to sound, then I probably haven't written it like that either.

I would recommend this method for another reason. I think that when you read your work out loud it can surprise you. I find sad scenes that I have written difficult to read, for example. I know what's coming and yet I still get that flutter and catch in my voice.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

An Education

My wife and I went to see An Education this afternoon at the Picturehouse cinema here in Cambridge. We hardly ever go to the cinema it seems and here we are again. It's only a week since we came to see Fantastic Mr Fox with my son.

An Education was a lovely film with a fantastic performance by Carey Mulligan in the lead role. But everyone was good. Even Emma Thompson's cameo as the headmistress was spot on.

Having said all that, it wasn't an especially cinematic experience. I don't mean that there were no car chases or whatever. I mean that British movies often look like television, don't they. In fact maybe they always look like television. Or at least they have for many years.

I'm not really sure why this is or even whether it matters. I enjoyed An Education a lot and I'm not criticising that film at all really. But it would be nice to see a British movie where you knew - really knew - that you were at the movies.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

What about me????

The Carnegie and Kate Greenaway longlists are out. Good to see Mary Hoffman and Philip Reeve on the Carnegie longlist. And Kevin Crossly-Holland. But there seems to have been some sort of mistake because - sob - I don't appear at all.

Chris Riddell is nominated twice for the Kate Greenaway - once for his work for Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book and the other for Don Quixote, another of his Walker Books spectaculars. Chris has already won the award twice - in 2001 and 2004.

Give someone else a go!!

David Roberts, who has done such brilliant job illustrating my books has been nominated for Julia Donaldson's The Troll and Paul Fleischman's Dunderheads. Dave McKean is nominated as is my old illustration tutor Tony Ross. Good luck to them all.

Pleased as I am for David Roberts, it would have been nice for him to have been nominated for his work on my book - not just because I think it is some of his best work, but because, selfishly, it would mean more exposure for me.

Me, me, me, me, me.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Still-born in the USA

I realised that I never did answer questions about the American edition of Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. Well, sadly, the fact is there will not be one. The first two Tales of Terror books were published by Bloomsbury's American arm. Though the books have done well on this side of the Atlantic, they have obviously underperformed on that side.

It is hugely disappointing - both that readers have not taken to the books in the USA, and that there will not be an American edition of Tunnel's Mouth - but there you go. The British edition of Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth will be available in the States in the spring I'm told.

It makes me all the more appreciative of the efforts of Bloomsbury in the UK. I have been very lucky in the way Bloomsbury has decided to put resources behind the books and get them in shops and noticed.

When the book is finished and it's the very best you can make it and you've corrected the proofs - as I have just done with The Dead of Winter - then the publisher takes over. Writers may take the credit from successful books (and the blame for unsuccessful ones), but so much of what happens next is to do with the marketing and publicity departments (and budgets).

And luck of course.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

My precious. . .

And talking of rings - I lost my wedding ring a year ago tonight. My son and I went to the annual firework display here in Cambridge and later I realised my ring was gone. I have few things that are truly irreplaceable, but that was one of them. Every day, I hate that its gone.

We didn't go to the fireworks this year. Thursday night is football training night and my son opted for that instead. Not that it really matters. Cambridge is firework crazy. There is a massive display every other week.

I drove over to Bottisham to pick my laptop up from Kevin, my new computer support guy. He has had all kinds of nonsense with Dell, of course. An angry letter will ensue. If only I had bought a Mac!

On the way over there I caught a bit of Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 doing a 'Top Ten Bedtime Stories' thing with Michael Rosen. By a spooky coincidence they - and Bea Campbell - were extolling the virtues of Each Peach Pear Plum. Although the whole enterprise was partly derailed by Jeremy Vine's weirdly creepy reading of the book at the end. It frightened the life out of me.

Michael Rosen was great, though. As I have already mentioned, live radio can be daunting, but Rosen was so incredibly articulate and generous about the books mentioned. He is a national treasure.

I watched the first part of my old friend and boss (and national treasure) Andrew Marr's The Making of Modern Britain on BBC iPlayer. It was great. Andrew is just one of the cleverest people on the planet. There isn't much he doesn't know an awful lot about and, more importantly, he he has that rare gift of making that knowledge accessible without making it simple or easy. The sad state of history teaching in this country is a bit of a thing with me at the moment. This programme shows why it is so important.

Although I wasn't sure about Andrew's George Bernard Shaw accent. It sounded a bit like Dudley Moore.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Ring around the moon

There was a ring around the moon last night. It was really magical. Cambridge is very badly lit. This can make cycling rather more exciting than it is perhaps meant to be, as pedestrians loom out startlingly from the surrounding murk, but it does have the benefit of allowing us to see the night sky.

It is lovely to be able to see the stars while cycling across my local park, and better still to be able to step out of my front door and see a bright moon, a little smudged by mist, with a great glowing ring around it.

I gather that it is an effect caused by ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. That may explain it, but it does not contain it somehow. It was weirdly moving. I stood for some time in the middle of the road just gazing up at it. Tap 'ring around the moon' into Google images. There are lots of photos. It will give you a little glimpse of what it looked like.

But it won't give you the magic.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

All saints

All Hallows or All Saints depending on you preference. I had a friend at school when I was about nine years old who was inordinately proud of being born on All Saints Day. Robert Turnbull his name was. Where are you now, Robert, I wonder?

My son played and lost a game of football in the pouring rain this morning, bless him. Bad enough to play in driving wind and a cold shower without getting thumped 4-1. Ordinarily I would have been on the sidelines berating him, but my friend Ian Farnan (whose son also plays for the team) was good enough to take him there and back for me.

The day got better though because he managed to sell some of his old toys to a neighbour. Not only did he make some money but he had the satisfaction of knowing his cherished toys will be enjoyed by children he knows and is fond of.

Certain toys have such a sentimental aura about them. It was what the Toy Story films tapped into so brilliantly. Some toys doggedly refuse to have a life of their own, but others will seem to embody a whole period of a child's (and so by extension, their parents') life. They may not be sentient, but they do come alive in play.

It is the same with books of course. Picture books - favourite picture books - get read over and over again. If they are really good - and so few picture books are - then they become something else by that repetition. Something is created in the air - a mixture of you and the way you read and the voices you adopt for characters, the strange bedroom twilight, the hush, the expectant, listening child, the pictures, the words: they all become more than their parts. They are ingredients in a recipe. It won't work for everyone every time, but when it does work, it is perhaps the most magical book experience of all - for reader and listener.

I never bored of Janet and Alan Ahlberg's Each Peach Pear Plum for instance. It remains, in my opinion, one of the cleverest children's books ever.

Of any kind.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Japanese tunnel

I was very pleased to hear that there is to be a Japanese edition of Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth. It occurs to me now that I am not sure that there is to be a Japanese Tales of Terror from the Black Ship. I'll have to check.

I've done a couple of interviews this week. I had a chat to Lorne Jackson who is Books Editor on the Sunday Mercury and Birmingham Post. It was a pleasure to talk to him but I do find interviews tiring. It was no fault of Lorne's - it was a very relaxed affair - but the dread of saying something completely stupid is always with me, and someone taking notes just makes it seem all the more threatening.

And if this were not terrifying enough, I have also had a chat about an upcoming radio interview for Radio Scotland that I will be doing from the BBC studio here in Cambridge on the 16th of this month. I haven't done much radio, to be fair - but I can't say that I have excelled in the medium.

I have never been asked to do TV.

Not yet anyway.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Strip club

I have been doing some life drawing at a class run by the appropriately named Kate King, at King's College here in Cambridge. The classes are for King's students but there are spare places and so the likes of me can - for a fiver - have a small taste of what it would have been like to come to a Cambridge college.

I get a pathetic thrill walking through the small door within the large locked door in the gatehouse. Last night there was an Atkinson Grimshaw sky with a bright moon lighting up a scattering of clouds. The big old lamps were lit and I wondered what it must be like to take this kind of place for granted. I'm not sure I would ever stop pinching myself if I were a student here.

As for the life drawing, the classes - or strip club as my son insists on referring to them - are not classes in the sense of teaching; at least not for outsiders like myself. Kate will certainly give guidance to students, if called upon to do so. But for me it is just the access to a model and the chance to get back into drawing for the hell of it.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Blood red splatters

I went up to London today with my son to see the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy. I've never been a great fan of Kapoor. It all seems pleasant enough, but it has never moved me. His childlike love of materials often seems to produce work that is a bit, well, childlike for me. For all the talk of alchemy and mysticism, a pile of coloured pigment can often doggedly refuse to be anything but a pile of pigment - not less colourful or even beautiful, but not invested with the power that it is clearly intended to have.

But this exhibition - with certain exceptions - seemed different. The huge railway carriage made of red wax, extruding its way through the Royal Academy galleries so slowly it was almost imperceptible, was extraordinary. I can't say I've ever had a dream involving a wax railway carriage, but it was certainly dreamlike. Or is it nightmarish?

And the canon that fires blood red wax at a wall was also rather wonderful. We waited ten minutes but it was worth every second. A man appeared and silently performed the preparations and then BANG - the noise was not so much deafening as shattering: you could feel it thump through your body as the wax shot out and slapped against the far wall.

My son and I had looked at the plaque to the Artists' Rifles as we queued for a ticket, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who found this more than a hollow art trick. While we stood waiting behind the canon I find my thoughts turning to my father who was in the Royal Artillery during World War II and for much of his life thereafter.

Blood red splatters.

The wax dripping down the wall brought a few whoops and a ripple of applause, but I think the noise and the spectacle also stunned the audience a little. Like the wax railway, it was darker than it seems.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Buy my books, they are good

I have had lots of conversations recently about sales. This might have something to do with the fact that it is royalty time for writers, so - unless you are Stephanie Meyer (and let's face it, you probably aren't) - October can be a cruel month.

There is much talk of reduced advances and falling royalty payments. Look how grumpy that last post was. Poor Tracey. Once I start getting crabby there is no telling who I might lash out at next. So keep my spirits up. Buy my books and encourage your friends to do the same.

You know it make sense.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Stuff white people like

I am indebted to The Guardian here in the UK for telling me about the blog called Stuff White People Like. Here is a post on Apple products that is so much better than my rant of a couple of weeks ago. Superb.

I am not indebted however, to The Guardian ruining my morning coffee with not only a photograph of Tracy Emin, but Grayson Perry as well. They are standing on the cover of G2 like something from Revelation. . .

And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the fourth beast say, Come and see.

And I looked and lo, I beheld a woman flogging a dead horse and a man who appeared like unto a six year-old girl with no taste.

Perry is living proof that a grown man can dress in a ridiculous frock, Bo Peep bonnet, platform shoes and ankle socks and still be utterly uninteresting. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: It's the work, stupid.

Emin has threatened to leave England because she pays too much tax. She seems to forget that this country has been misguided enough to provide her with the wealth that has brought this appalling tax burden.

But if ever there was an argument for higher taxation. . .

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Death of death ray

I was very saddened to get an email the other day announcing the death of the excellent Death Ray magazine (or at least its lapse into a coma). Shame on you all for not buying it. Death Ray have been good to me. I was to have appeared in its November issue. They were to run a story and a Q&A I did via email.

The straw that broke the camel's back obviously.

Proofs of The Dead of Winter arrived by jiffy bag. The book is edging ever closer to its publishing form. I'm actually looking forward to sitting down and reading it again.

That may seem odd - and I was actually asked once on a school visit, 'Have you read all of your books?' - but if you put the book aside for long enough, it is possible to read it with some degree of freshness. It is still yours, obviously. But it has also - hopefully - taken on a life of its own.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Une semaine de ripping off Max Ernst

As promised, I thought I'd share with you a couple of the paintings I've been doing based on Max Ernst collages from Une Semaine de Bonte. They are a bit too constrained by the source image to really be 'mine', but they were fun to do. The bottom one could do with a bit more work, but I've spent as long on them as they deserve. I never did get round to re-doing the one I showed earlier.

But I quite like it how it is. . .

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Swedish chair pusher

Malcolm Harding popped round today with a funky chair for me to try out. It's Swedish and it rocks. No - it really does rock. Backwards and forwards. It's good for your circulation apparently. Malcolm is trying to get me hooked on expensive chairs. He's a chair pusher.

I rang the doctor's surgery today and the results of my x-rays were in. It appears that I don't have any bone or joint abnormalities. So it looks like I don't have osteoarthritis. I just have some hideous tendonitis type thing.


And I have been getting to grips with Facebook after setting up a page months and months ago. I don't have many friends. It is quite a long-winded way to discover that. I already have friend-envy. Ed Briant has over 500. Over 500! I was relieved when I went over 5.

I did, however, get an email from John Pilger, who has been lobbying for the return of Payne's Grey. It is weirdly humbling to have someone of John Pilger's stature bothering about me and my strip. Hasn't he got any iniquities to uncover? I feel like I might be distracting him from something important.

Friday, 9 October 2009

For you lover give some time

Richard Hawley's latest has already become a favourite in our house. His Jaques Brel via Scott Walker thing doesn't always work. But For Your Lover Give Some Time is great.

Maybe I will drink a little less
Come home early, not complain about the debts

Bring you flowers from the graveyard now and then

And for my lover make some time. . .

Lovely stuff

I have spoken to both Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart this week. I spoke to Chris on the phone the other day and he was waxing lyrical about Scotland. He and Paul had been on a Highland tour organised by the Scottish Book Trust. Chris was full of praise for the Trust and the country. Chris has had a bit of a Romantic time of it this year, walking in the lakes and wandering the west coast of Scotland. I don't think he knew either area and he seems to have really enjoyed the experience. As well he should.

I had a long email from the lovely Paul Stewart. Despite his reservations about such things, it turns out that he has been reading my blog. He recommended loads of music to me, as usual. He also told me that he had a soft spot for Melanie. Here she is singing Lay Down and it is easy to see why. How does she manage to sing like that sitting down? And how does she work up any enthusiasm when the audience looks like they are attending a funeral. However she does it, it's brilliant.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The beast with five fingers, one of them swollen. . .

My hand has been my enemy for some weeks now. It hurts. It makes writing a pain. I went to the doctors this week to see what she had to say. I had self-diagnosed the problem as being RSI of some kind, but it was getting worse and I had begun to fear it might be something more serious. The middle joint in my forefinger is swollen and I can no longer form a fist.

Not that I'm planning to punch anyone, you understand.

My fears were confirmed when the doctor said it might be osteoarthritis. It is only a might as yet. I went to have my hands x-rayed today to check. The results will be with my doctor tomorrow.

I also spoke to the doctor about by deviated septum. In my nose. The bit of cartilage that separates your nostrils. Well, I have a crooked one. It means one of my nostrils is basically permanently shut, or as good as. This makes me me surprisingly bad at breathing. And yet, ironically, surprisingly good at snoring.

The doctor said that the Ear, Nose and Throat surgeons could do something about that. They would basically break my nose and reset it, so that it was straight. Quite how they break it was left hanging there. Do they have a special surgical hammer?

Or do they just call a porter who has a good right hook?

We are The Glums in this house at the moment. My wife is in constant pain with a frozen shoulder, my son had a brace fitted today and has face ache and I am wincing as I type and looking forward to a surgical head butt. It doesn't seem fair.

Our mood was not helped by viewing a house for the first time in ages. Bidders had already put in offers above the asking price before we even saw it and the tedious business of trying to extract the truth from the spin was as tiresome as ever. The agent described the garden as 'south-ish'-facing. My wife pointed out that it was actually north-facing. The agent then explained that though that was undoubtedly true, if you walked to the bottom of the garden it was in essence south-facing.

If you turned round and faced the house.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


I bought a book on Caspar David Friedrich this week. It is one of the excellent little Taschen Basic series books. They are cheap with decent reproductions: small and slim, but big enough to get a feel for someone's work or, as in my case, to serve as a reminder of someone you already admire. They are also pretty readable.

I've always loved Friedrich. When you draw or paint, certain artists seem to have a particular resonance at different stages of your life. One day you will see the work of someone you thought was absolutely fantastic and wonder why on earth you hadn't seen through all his technical shortcomings and empty trickery before. An artist who had previously appeared without any kind of merit will now seem to hold the key to all kinds of possibilities. Actually, that's true of writers too.

But Friedrich has been a constant. Even when my painting output grew increasingly abstract, I still found things to admire in his work. More often than not I am drawn to a painter because of the way he paints. Rather than standing back from the work, like most painters, I make the guards nervous by leaning in. I want to know how it was done.

The strange thing is, this is totally different with Friedrich. This is not to say that there is not much to admire about his painting technique, but it is the imagery that I find so compelling. There are lots of pictures of men and women standing on shorelines and cliff edges or at windows, shown from behind. They pull you into the painting to share the view. I want to tap them on the shoulder.

It is often twilight in Friedrich paintings. Many of the paintings are of sunrise or sunset, or of eerie moonlit nights. He paints snow covered trees and mist drifting across hillsides. He paints ruined abbeys and deserted graveyards. There is an unearthly quality to most of his best work. They seem like notes from a dream.

His work is so evocative and moody that it is often used for book jackets. Here he is on the cover of the Vintage edition of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black.

Friedrich is a quintessential Romantic and his work is often used on the covers of books that deal with Romantic painting or literature. With his paintings of graveyards, mountains, frozen seas and mysterious travellers, almost any Friedrich painting would serve as a very good illustration to Frankenstein, but it his Wanderer Above a Sea of Mist that always seems perfect for that book. It seems to evoke both the doomed, god-like loftiness of Victor Frankenstein and the tragic isolation of his creation.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Kiss me, you bat-winged fool!

As I mentioned the other day, I have been looking at Max Ernst's Une Semaine de Bonte quite a bit recently. I have also been playing about with acrylics at my studio and, for the first time in a long time, began using them in glazes (having bought some glazing medium). I just wanted to remind myself of the possibilities of this technique and so I borrowed one of Ernst's images and did my own version of it.

It is not really a finished thing, but I quite like it. It feels odd putting work like this up for display, but I think it is like showing a sketchbook - it just gives those of you who might be interested, a little glimpse into my world. I have decided to have a go at doing more of these. I will do another version of this one I think - and I will do three more of the bat-winged characters from the book. The artwork is small - smaller than A4 (so that I can scan it myself) - and is acrylic on paper.

If the others turn out OK, I'll let you have a look.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Mildy diverting monday

After last week's Super Thursday in the publishing industry (with its bonanza of cook books and celebrity biographies), we now have Mildly Diverting Monday, when Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth is officially released onto an unsuspecting public (along with one or two other books). It has been in the shops for a few days now actually, along with the paperback of Tales of Terror from the Black Ship.

October is a great time for the Tales of Terror books to come out. Halloween is approaching and these books are definitely winter books. They need darkness. They need a bit of a chill in the air.

A roaring fire and candlelight would be a bonus.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Bravo Rio

Congratulations to Rio on getting the Olympics. I was there a year ago and it's great to think that the students I met at the British School will have the chance to attend - and maybe even take part, some of them. They will be really excited, I'm sure.

And you'll never find a better place for beach volleyball, let's face it.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Time machine

I was very pleased to see Cambridge's The Haunted Bookshop in the Guardian's top ten list of second-hand bookshops. I have bought many prized items from that shop and there is something magical about hauling yourself up the narrow staircase to the upstairs room and its piles of old children's books. It's a mixture of treasure box and time machine.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Singing is gay

I watched a fantastic programme yesterday about the forming of a choir in a sports-biased boy's school. It was incredibly moving and I was gulping back tears for most of the time. I know - it's pathetic.

Ordinarily I have a low tolerance of this kind of thing - redemption through TV - but this project was different. David Tennant look-alike Gareth Malone made a real difference to the lives of these boys when he set up that choir. This is not the karaoke of 'talent' shows. There is real work here. These are not the look-at-me show offs that normally dive in front of the camera. Some of these boys had to be persuaded and cajoled out of their 'singing is gay' attitude.

There's not enough poetry in the lives of teenage boys. This film showed what a beautiful thing it is when boys are allowed to express themselves. They get such a bad press, but they are under such pressure not display the tenderness they all - all - have the capacity to show. It showed what a stifling and debilitating thing 'coolness' is. It showed that there is so much untapped talent out there. They should show this film in every secondary school in the land, despite the foul language (most of it from the exasperated Malone).

A choir is not so different from a team in a sports event. It certainly is about team-building and doing the best for the whole. The boys who stepped up and did the solos (the penalty shoot outs of choral singing) were amazing. It just shows what you can do, if you have the expertise and have the support of the head.

Music is such an undervalued part of many school curriculums. It shouldn't be. Art, music, poetry, creative writing - they need to be done with exactly the same commitment and rigour as maths and science. They are not more important, but they are as important. They change lives.

If you can, watch the whole thing on BBC iPlayer.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

And we will walk and talk in gardens all misty wet with rain

There are times when I can't listen to Van Morrison. But I have reinstalled some of his songs on my iPod and those words from Sweet Thing on Astral Weeks - we shall walk and talk in gardens all misty wet with rain - well, I've always loved those lyrics.

And whilst I'm letting my freak flag fly, so to speak, I should also say that I was in Fopp the other day and there was a tune blasting out that I knew but couldn't place. It sounded great and I was a little taken aback to discover it was Melanie. Melanie! The same Melanie who burbled on about roller skates and keys. That Melanie. It was Lay Down (Candles in the Rain) and appears on A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Exploding In Your Mind, Vol 2, by Amorphous Androgynous which for some reason I didn't buy at the time, but I think I probably will. But download Lay Down immediately. It will make you feel better for the rest of the day.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Frosty skull

I had an email from Sarah Odedina today saying that Bloomsbury are going to go with the frosty skull cover idea I came up with many months ago for The Dead of Winter. I'm really pleased - both that they are going with an image I came up with, but also that they are going with something so bold.

I like Charlie Brooker in the Guardian. This latest piece about Apple evangelists is great. I don't hate Apple. I have an iPod. I like my iPod (even though it has a battery life of about ten minutes now). I download things using iTunes. I can see myself having a Macbook (as long as I don't have to call it that). But if I have to listen to another Apple cult member wandering towards me like a zombie saying, 'One of us, one of us,' and telling me what a rubbish program Word is or how terrible Windows is. I don't care. Shut up. Shut. Up. And that especially means you Stephen Fry. All new technology is the work of Satan. All of it.

And are Apple computers so great? I mean they are white and everything, with slightly rounded corners. But is that great design? White with rounded corners. Is that it? I loved those iMacs with the see-through coloured plastic backs. They were great. They were fun. But ever since they have simply churned out white 1960s retro space-age stuff. It's not ugly. But is it really so fantastic as a piece of design? White with tiny, wee keyboards.

And do they really work better? They are certainly more expensive. Contrary to what Appleoids will tell you, they are always having problems - all Appleoids have an Apple man (or priest, if you will) to come and sort these problems out. Constantly.

I do not feel the need to promote Windows in the way that Appleoids need to blart on about Apple, but Word works well enough for what I ask it to do. It's become far too complicated lately, I will say that (and the compatibility issue between Vista and XP is ridiculous). But when an Apple fan tells you Word is an awful program you do need to remember that they a) have never used it, or b) have the weird Mickey Mouse version that Macs use.

Last week I noticed in the Technology section of the Guardian that there is a bit of a problem with the preposterously named Snow Leopard operating system on Macs. In some 'unlucky' instances, all of the photos stored in iPhoto are deleted or overwritten when you upgrade. All your photos gone. Poof!


Saturday, 26 September 2009

The backs

I rode over to the Backs today and took some photos from Queen's Road. I had spotted a while back that the buildings here looked fantastic in the late afternoon light. King's College Chapel is such an extraordinary structure with those minaret-like towers at each corner and the gigantic west window. It is easy to take it for granted, seeing it almost every day as I do - until you see it in light like this.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Undead books

Holy neck, Batman - we seem to have been taken over by teenage vampires. Those graphic designers certainly have run through every design possibility from A to B.

Great Marina Hyde piece in the Guardian today about Geri Halliwell. Marina Hyde has rehearsed her celebrity-culture-as-harbinger-of-the-apocalypse shtick many times, but it still makes me laugh.