Sunday, 31 May 2009

There's only one Ardizzone

The last day of half term and I got a call from Chris Riddell. He rang me on Friday to say he would ring me on Saturday and then forgot. We don't speak that often but when we do we have a lot to catch up on and so Chris was booking himself in.

It turns out he and Paul are going to the Lake District about the same time as us. 'The Lake District' is such a prosaic name isn't it? They don't call East Anglia 'The Flat District' do they? Anyway the prospect of meeting Chris on a fell-top is an amusing one. Paul knows the Lakes quite well I think, but I'm not sure that Chris has ever been. Maybe we can all meet up if we do happen to be there at the same time.

I have been going to the Lakes for years and to one particular corner - the area around Ullswater and Brotherswater especially. It has been great introducing my son to the simple joy of staggering up a steep slope and the euphoria of reaching a summit and eating your lunch among ravens and buzzards with no sound but the roar of the wind in your ears, the bleat of lambs or the occasional Tornado fighter jet. Despite - or maybe because of - my vertigo, I feel intensely alive up on those fells.

Oddly, considering we are both illustrators, Chris and I had quite a long chat about the problems of illustrating and the issue of illustrations getting in the way. I think that any book can be illustrated and in a way that compliments the text. But of course, in children's books, the illustrations are often doubling up on what is written because they are often unnecessary descriptive.

This is OK for younger fiction, where illustrations can help the reader, but in older fiction overly pedantic illustrations can simply kill the story. What is the point of the author straining him or herself to come up with a fantastic description for the villain's sinister appearance, if the illustrator is going to simply draw the villain on the opposite page? And this dilemma seems all the more striking when you are in the position of being both author and illustrator.

It is a constant struggle between what good illustrations can add to a book (which is a lot) and what bad or indifferent ones can take away. Edward Ardizzone was a master of not giving too much away and adding atmosphere to a book. Sadly there are no Ardizzones working in children's books at the moment and I have a feeling that if there were, someone would be giving him art direction along the lines of 'Can we not see a bit more of the boy's face?'

I spent a large part of the day sitting with my son as he did his homework - a writing project based on Mal Peet's The Penalty. I tend to help with English and History (and Science) while my wife handles Maths and French. Though I'm not sure how much help I was, not having read the book. I've not read any Mal Peet come to think of it. I haven't met him either. Chris assures me he is a very nice chap.

I did have horrible memories though of having my love of books and of reading ruined by what we called English Literature. That feeling of having to read something knowing that you will be asked questions later. That horror of being asked to read something out loud in class - particularly if there was dialogue and strange accents.

Schools now don't seem to make the big distinction between creative writing (what we called English Language) and this study of books, and that has to be a good thing. The focus seems to be on analysing what a writer is doing, thereby hopefully improving both the students own creative writing and their ability to look at something critically and order their thoughts. It is a constant danger, though, that what began as a pleasure, a form of entertainment and something done willingly and eagerly, can be turned into a chore.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

The stream mysterious glides beneath

We spent a lovely day today punting down the Cam to Grantchester and back, with Anne Cunningham for company, me on the pole, my son on the paddle (for emergencies) and the womenfolk providing the conversation. In passing, we saw reed buntings, robins, mallards, moorhens, damselflies and naked male buttocks

There is something magical about the river. Even on a busy day like today, there are moments when there seems no one about at all and there is no sound but the rippling of the water and the twitter of birds. Everything was so green: the water surface reflecting the overarching trees, and the drifting river weed beneath. Rupert Brooke describes it thus in The Old Vicarage, Grantchester:

Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.

Death didn't seem much in evidence to us, though there is always something melancholy about a river somehow. And I don't necessarily mean that in a negative way. There is just something about the pace of a river that lends itself to quiet contemplation.

We picnicked at the foot of the hill by Grantchester village in the shade of a willow tree, while a succession of punts, kayaks, canoes and the odd swan, floated by in the bright sunshine. It was idyllic actually.

Thursday, 28 May 2009


The BBC poetry season continued with Michael Wood singing the praises of Beowulf. I love Michael Wood. I do. His BBC TV programme - In Search Of the Dark Ages - from many years ago, was one of those programmes (like Civilisation and The Shock of the New and The World At War) that expanded my knowledge and showed that television can educate and inspire - be a kind of open university.

And he seems like such a genuinely nice guy.

The BBC still produces work of that quality - the wonderful series with Dr Alice Roberts - The Incredible Human Journey for instance; but for how much longer?

Anyway - I had a tape of Seamus Heaney's version of Beowulf in the car when I was writing a book for Scholastic about the Battle of Hastings. It is wonderful. It came to mind a lot when we made our recent visit to the Sutton Hoo burial (that's my son wearing a copy of the famous helmet).

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

History is so last year

There was a depressing piece in the Guardian saying that there has been a huge drop-off in the numbers of students taking History at A Level here in the UK. Children are so predisposed to be fascinated by history and the UK is such a rich place historically, that if you can't keep them interested in the subject then something is going badly wrong isn't it?

Boys in particular seem hot-wired to be spellbound by the ancient world in particular. I find it upsetting as a sometime writer of historical fiction - that we are losing children's interest in what seems to me to be an endlessly fascinating subject as they get older.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Any man's death dimishes me

There was a Simon Schama programme about John Donne tonight in the BBCs poetry season. It made me want to rush out and by a book of his poetry. I already have one, but sadly it is in storage with most of my other books. It is really beginning to annoy me.

I am not a fan of Simon Schama - I find his presentation style too off-putting. If it was just the weird vocal delivery, that would be one thing but there's also the squirming about. Fiona Shaw read the poems. I don't know why. Perhaps Schama didn't feel up to the job. But they are a man's poems, surely and very male. It was worth watching anyway just to be reacquainted with these words:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

Any man's death diminishes me. There few political leaders I can think of who wouldn't benefit from reading those words on a daily basis.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Read the book

As well as seeing Sickert In Venice yesterday, we also went to see Coraline (in 3D). I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had seen the trailer and was a bit concerned that it looked a bit too conventional for such a weird story. My opinion was pretty much the same after seeing the movie.

Not that we didn't enjoy it or it wasn't well done and didn't have some great things about it. It just wasn't creepy enough. It wasn't weird enough.

Anyway it gives me another opportunity to send anyone who reads this back to Neil Gaiman's book, which is a much more sinister creature. Go and see the movie if you haven't already.

It's fun.

But don't miss out on reading the book.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Sickert in Venice

We travelled up to London today to see the Sickert in Venice exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. I had taken the trouble to ensure there was no engineering work on the line between Cambridge and King's Cross, but foolishly had not checked the train from London Bridge to North Dulwich, which did not exist because - as we discovered on the fairground ride of a bus journey we took instead - a bridge was being replaced.

The Sickert exhibition was small but had some lovely pictures in it. There were two facades of San Marco that were especially good and a couple of nighttime paintings. It was especially nice to see paintings of places we had so recently visited. It was very inspiring too. How ever many times I think that my painting days are behind me, a show like this reminds me of how much I love painting.

I thought it was very odd for the bookshop to be selling crime-writer Patricia Cornwell's book in which she details her crackpot claim that Sickert was Jack the Ripper. Cornwell destroyed one of his paintings in the service of this delusion.

She should get no encouragement from a gallery surely.

Friday, 22 May 2009

We are ugly but we have the music

I went for a drink with John Clark and Malcolm Harding and talked about writing and horror movies and George Best and how confidence is vital to so many kinds of self-expression, whether it be sport or art. It was great but I stayed too long and woke up exhausted.

I mentioned I'd been blogging about poetry. I can't recall whether Malcolm expressed an opinion, but John was pretty dismissive. But saying that you don't like poetry is like saying you don't like painting or you don't like music - it is probably that you haven't come across anything that speaks to you, or that - for whatever reason - you have constructed a barrier to it. Once you decide that something isn't for you, then you simply stop exploring its possibilities.

Strangely enough I wrote a poem about George Best for a book of football poems that Tony Bradman was compiling. It goes like this. . .

Man U played in grey

When I was a kid,

At least they did on our TV.

Except Best of course;

Even in black and white

He was in colour.

Tony didn't use it. I can't think why. . .

Not content with defending poetry I also attempted a defence of Leonard Cohen against the charge of being bedsit misery-maker. I have never regarded him like that. A big part of art is finding someone who can give a voice to your feelings. It can be liberating to find that you are not alone in dark thoughts. It can be cheering.

But anyway, Cohen is often very funny, in a droll way. This is a verse from one of his most famous songs, Chelsea Hotel #2 - but it was also a poem first of course. Cohen was an established poet in Canada before he was ever a singer. It is about Janis Joplin. It's a sad song, but a very grown-up one. I naively thought the 'fixed' referred to her hair or her clothes rather than - as I subsequently realised - to drugs when I first heard it..

I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
You were famous, your heart was a legend.
You told me again you preferred handsome men
But for me you would make an exception.
And clenching your fist for the ones like us
Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty,
You fixed yourself, you said, "Well never mind,
We are ugly but we have the music."

It does rhyme, but not in any obvious way - legend/exception and beauty/music. It sounds natural. 'You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception' is just a great bit of writing. The 'again' conjures up both a joke too often repeated.

I've always taken comfort from 'We are ugly but we have the music'. I love that line. I think it probably strikes a chord with you or it doesn't. I have to say think the 'music' stands for all creativity or personal expression and the 'ugly' is not necessarily about looks alone. It's a rallying cry for all us unlovely, awkward, shy or troubled painters and poets, singers and writers.

I think troubled (albeit good-looking and glamorous) George Best would have got that too.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

The wealth ye find another keeps

This is fast becoming a Richard Holmes appreciation blog - but hey, there could be worse things.

This is my battered copy of Shelley: The Pursuit. What can I say about it? It is simply one of the best books - of any kind - I've ever read, plain and simple.

Shelley's life has the narrative arc of fiction. Edited down it can read like a Romantic novel (and a melodramatic one at that) rather than biography. But the great strength of Richard Holmes is the fact that he doesn't need to slim his subject down - he can pack a book with fascinating detail and still have this incredible page-turning flow.

I came to Shelley through Mary Woolstencraft Shelley's Frankenstein, not through his poetry. I read the book and saw the James Whale movies. In Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester plays both Mary and the bride. I read about the book's conception in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva (referred to in that movie) rented by the mad, bad and dangerous to know Lord Byron and the ghost story competition there in the summer of 1816 between Byron, Shelley, John Polidori and the nineteen year-old Mary.

I read Anne Edwards Haunted Summer, a novelisation of the event. I read Frankenstein Unbound by Brian Aldis in which a split in fabric of space and time sees both the writing of the book and the action of the book happening side by side; a book that was turned into a huge stuffed turkey of a movie by Roger Corman. Gradually - like many people - I just became a little obsessed with the people involved.

Richard Holmes evokes that night in the Villa Diodati wonderfully, but it is just one of a hundred extraordinary incidents in Percy Bysshe Shelley's life. He was sent down from Oxford for writing an atheist tract, his radical politics meant he was spied on by the government, he deserted his pregnant wife Harriet (who subsequently drowned herself in the Serpentine) and took off with Mary (Godwin as she was then) and her infuriatingly fascinating half-sister Claire Claremont, wandering around Europe in the company of the notorious Lord Byron. Shelley and Byron had a schooner built though Shelley could not swim (refusing lessons from that famous swimmer, Byron) and he drowned aged thirty in a storm in the Gulf of Spezia. His body was burned on the beach and his heart plucked from the funeral pyre to be kept by Mary ever after.

He also found time to write some rather good poetry.

Like Coleridge, Shelley could be very bad at being a man. But it says a lot about Holmes' biography that you still care about him, for all that. The account of Shelley's last days has haunted me ever since. Oh and in case you find it hard to imagine a poet like Shelley ever writing anything so radical he would be seen as a security risk, check out the opening verse from To The Men of England. . .

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?

It goes on to say. . .

The seed ye sow another reaps;
The wealth ye find another keeps;
The robes ye weave another wears;
The arms ye forge another bears.

Sow seed, -- but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth, -- let no imposter heap;
Weave robes, -- let not the idle wear;
Forge arms, in your defence to bear

That still sounds pretty radical to me. My guess is that were he alive, he'd still be attracting the attentions of government spies.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Hold off! unhand me, greybeard loon

This talk of Coleridge gives me a chance to sing the praises of Richard Holmes.

I don't know where my peculiar fascination with the English Romantic poets began. Certainly not at school, because I have no recollection of having studied any of them. The one exception was Coleridge, in that I must first have had The Rime of the Ancient Mariner read to me when I was eight or nine and thought it was just about the most extraordinary thing I had ever heard. I'm not sure my opinion of it has ever really changed.

But I knew nothing about Coleridge at all. Gradually as I got older I learned that he was an opium addict. I read the famous story about the 'person from Porlock' interrupting the hallucinogenic Kubla Khan. I lived in the North-East and so visited Cumbria and realised that he had a connection with the Lakes and with Wordsworth. But it was all pretty sketchy.

It wasn't until I read Richard Holmes' superb Coleridge: Early Visions in 1990 or so that I appreciated how fascinating a man he was or what an amazing life he led. Holmes is a brilliant writer. His emotional approach to his subject results in some harrumphing, How Dare He! reviews, but I have always found it really works. He brings his subjects to life. Because he clearly has such real affection for the people he writes about he makes you care about them, despite (or maybe because of) their flaws and failures. He makes Coleridge human - and that only makes the work all the more compelling.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

It is a father's tale

I had an email from Mardi Dungey today in response to what I wrote yesterday about early memories of poetry in school. She was making the perfectly valid point that the English Romantic Poets did not seem very relevant to her childhood in Tasmania.

They didn't seem that relevant to a council estate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne either, it has to be said.

This issue of whether these poets still have anything to say to us, comes up time and again. But I think good art is always relevant. Poetry has an ability to catch you unawares, emotionally - regardless of when it was written. It is similar to music in this respect. It won't do it to everyone at every time, but when it does, it's startling.

I was painting the kitchen in our old house in Norfolk some years ago. It was a job I hated - painting woodwork, with its multiple coats of primer, undercoat and two coats of eggshell. To alleviate the tedium, I had the radio on. I think it was Poetry Please on Radio 4. The reader read Coleridge's The Nightingale. It was a poem I knew (I have a bit of a thing about Coleridge) and yet it had never meant anything to me, particularly.

On it went, until it reached the last section and then it hit me. I was a father myself now. I had been impatient with my own small son the day before and shouted at him. I knew too of Coleridge's damaged childhood and the troubled, depressive addict he would become in later life. I knew what a poor father (and husband) he would actually turn out to be. The hope that his son will have a happier life and a cheerier disposition (and the pain that is at the back of that wish) is heartwarming and heartbreaking simultaneously.

The first few lines have that Farewell! O Warbler! with its crazy exclamation marks and I guess these things do put people off. But get past that.

Read from line five, where he begins, My dear babe and you will hear Coleridge talking to you across the centuries, heart to heart. You'll see him standing in that midnight orchard plot, his baby son in his arms. You'll see the moonlight in those tears. If you are anything like me, you might have a few of your own by the end.

All parents have these special, diamond-bright moments with their children. How many of us would be able to set them down so well? That's Samuel Taylor Coleridge talking to you - not a Great Romantic Poet, but a flawed human being who happened to be able to write. . .

Farewell! O Warbler! till tomorrow eve,
And you, my friends! farewell, a short farewell!
We have been loitering long and pleasantly,
And now for our dear homes.That strain again!
Full fain it would delay me! My dear babe,
Who, capable of no articulate sound,
Mars all things with his imitative lisp,
How he would place his hand beside his ear,
His little hand, the small forefinger up,
And bid us listen! And I deem it wise
To make him Nature's play-mate. He knows well
The evening-star; and once, when he awoke
In most distressful mood (some inward pain
Had made up that strange thing, an infant's dream)
I hurried with him to our orchard-plot,
And he beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,
Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently,
While his fair eyes, that swam with undropped tears,
Did glitter in the yellow moon-beam! Well!
It is a father's tale: But if that Heaven
Should give me life, his childhood shall grow up
Familiar with these songs, that with the night
He may associate joy. Once more, farewell,
Sweet Nightingale! once more, my friends! farewell.

Monday, 18 May 2009

By the nine gods he swore

I downloaded Bill Wyman's (Si, Si) Je Suis Un Rock Star to help my son with his French homework and to improve his vocabulary for his upcoming French trip, but there are some errors in the grammar apparently, so he tells me.

Talking of poetry - as I was yesterday - one of my first school memories (I am guessing that I must have been eight) was of reading a poem out loud as a performance to parents. Wooden sword in hand, I stood in line with the other children to recite my part of Horatius by Lord McCaulay.

That was what counted for interactive learning in my day - learning great tracts of an epic poem by heart. You could be forgiven for never having heard of it. It begins thus:

Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the Nine Gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin should suffer wrong no more.
By the Nine Gods he swore it, and named a trysting day,
And bade his messengers ride forth,
East and West and South and North,
To summon his array.

I remember that first verse as though it were yesterday. Anyway - so it goes its windy way for verse after verse after verse, illuminated here and there by flashes of Gladiator-style violence. This bit sticks in my mind.

Stout Lartius hurled down Aunus into the stream beneath:
Herminius struck at Seius, and clove him to the teeth:
At Picus brave Horatius darted one fiery thrust;
And the proud Umbrian's golden arms clashed in the bloody dust.

Clove him to the teeth. For some reason, at the time I had imagined some kind of upward blow that had split his whole body in half up to his jaw (ending up like an old-fashioned clothes peg), rather than the downward blow McCaulay was clearly envisaging. Likewise I thought the proud Umbrian really did have golden arms (and who wouldn't be proud of that?), and they had been chopped off.

Then, whirling up his broadsword with both hands to the height,
He rushed against Horatius and smote with all his might.
With shield and blade Horatius right deftly turned the blow.
The blow, yet turned, came yet too nigh;
It missed his helm, but gashed his thigh:
The Tuscans raised a joyful cry to see the red blood flow.

He reeled, and on Herminius he leaned one breathing-space;
Then, like a wild-cat mad with wounds, sprang right at Astur's face.
Through teeth, and skull, and helmet so fierce a thrust he sped,
The good sword stood a hand-breadth out behind the Tuscan's head.

That's gotta hurt! as my son would say. Those Victorians certainly knew a thing or two about gratuitous gore-fests.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Hard marbly baas

My son's football season has come to an end and so there was no match today. At least he ended it on a high point last week, with not only a goal but a fantastic run down the wing in which he simply outran the opposition defense and drew gasps of admiration. It was poetry in motion.

And speaking of poetry (did you see what I did there?). . .

I have been enjoying the BBC4 programme, A Poet's Guide to Britain, in which Owen Sheers looks at various poems in relation to their setting, analysing the poem and talking about how it came to be written. He does this incredibly well and schools could do a lot worse than showing the programmes to their students in their entirety.

Last week he looked at a poem I must confess I did not know at all: Sylvia Plath's Wuthering Heights.

The horizons ring me like faggots,
Tilted and disparate, and always unstable.
Touched by a match, they might warm me,
And their fine lines singe
The air to orange
Before the distances they pin evaporate,
Weighting the pale sky with a soldier color.
But they only dissolve and dissolve
Like a series of promises, as I step forward.

There is no life higher than the grasstops
Or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
Pours by like destiny, bending
Everything in one direction.
I can feel it trying
To funnel my heat away.
If I pay the roots of the heather
Too close attention, they will invite me
To whiten my bones among them.

The sheep know where they are,
Browsing in their dirty wool-clouds,
Gray as the weather.
The black slots of their pupils take me in.
It is like being mailed into space,
A thin, silly message.
They stand about in grandmotherly disguise,
All wig curls and yellow teeth
And hard, marbly baas.

I come to wheel ruts, and water
Limpid as the solitudes
That flee through my fingers.
Hollow doorsteps go from grass to grass;
Lintel and sill have unhinged themselves.
Of people and the air only
Remembers a few odd syllables.
It rehearses them moaningly:
Black stone, black stone.

The sky leans on me, me, the one upright
Among all horizontals.
The grass is beating its head distractedly.
It is too delicate
For a life in such company;
Darkness terrifies it.
Now, in valleys narrow
And black as purses, the house lights
Gleam like small change.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

On Raglan Road

I keep meaning to draw your attention to a couple of sites run by friends of mine. Adrian who designed my websites at Bloomsbury is cycling in India and blogging as he does so. It is fascinating. I had no idea that Adrian was such a good photographer. His pictures go well beyond the casual tourist shot. Take a look.

And speaking of photography, Judith Weik and family went to the Suffolk coast a little while after we went. I took lots of photos, but none of them came close to the beautiful picture Judith is using as the opening page of her site. It is so simple and yet very powerful. There is something very satisfying about those weightless stones and the calm sea behind.

Paul May's blog includes a lovely set of photographs of trees near his house. I wish I had thought of doing that when we lived in Norfolk. Again - very simple, but very satisfying. His musings on nature and loss (and the rhyming of leaf with grief) got me thinking and I left a comment mentioning Patrick Kavanagh's On Raglan Road, a poem set to music.

Here is Sinead O'Connor (looking particularly elfin) with an especially beautiful version. . .

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Growing up digital

I went to a talk at my son's school in Cambridge today called Growing Up Digital. Not a talk about grammar, as you might already have guessed.

It was actually very good. The speaker was Stephen Carrick-Davies and he had already spoken to my son's year during the day. My son came back from school very eager to show me this film about cyber-bullying they had been shown (as were we). It's very good (albeit upsetting).

The talk was about various aspects of the digital age and how it affects children and their parents and carers. An awful lot of it was deeply depressing, and I was less buoyed by the supposed benefits of this golden age than either the speaker or most of the younger world.

One of the slides showed a picture of Ghandi with a text box that said something like 'What might Ghandi have achieved with a MySpace account?' I think we were supposed to marvel at what a force for good the internet can be. But how often is this the case? We know it is a magnet for conspiracy theorists and holocaust deniers, but I'm not aware that it is very effective in disseminating life-enhancing political or philosophical thought.

But the point is - with Ghandi more than anyone surely - that it is what we do in the real (or Stephen kept referring to it - the 'offline') world, not what we say in the virtual world. If Ghandi had been yet another internet blogger or MySpace show-off, then the chances are we would never have heard of him - or if we had, suspected him of some ulterior motive. Ghandhi did things. He wasn't simply famous. There is no substitute for action and real, personal contact. You can spread a message with the internet, but what is the worth of that message without the basis in a tested truth? There is a big difference between signing an online petition and risking a baton blow to the head. What might Ghandi have achieved with a MySpace account? Anonymity probably.

I feel a great deal of helplessness - as I know lots of parents do - when dealing with these things. My age disallows me from having a worthwhile opinion. I liked this Douglas Adam quote that was used, in which he sets out a horribly recognisable rule of thumb with new technology:

1) everything that's already in the world when you're born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you're thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it's been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

The idea that children sit inside looking at YouTube videos, uploading dodgy photos and endlessly chatting to each other on social networking sites is depressing enough without the dangers we know are present. And ironically the reason they are sitting in the house rather than in the local park is that we want them safe.

Might not this dislocation from the 'offline' world be part of the reason why we have such a high rate of mental illness in the developed world? Online gaming and social networking are substitutes for, not improvements to, real human contract. It is this impersonal world that encourages the cowardice of cyber-bullying surely. It is just too easy.

I am reading Tom Sawyer with my son at the moment and we are both enjoying it enormously. The language is confusing - made doubly so by my wandering American accent (Missouri one minute, New Jersey the next - via Scotland)

Mark Twain gets that age of boy absolutely bang on. It doesn't matter that we have no real connection with that age or part of the world, the way that Tom relates to Huck Finn, to Aunt Polly, to Becky Thatcher is so well observed that the jokes still work. I think my son has laughed more at this book than any other.

But the thing that really separates that world from ours, is not the language or the steamboats or the alarmingly casual use of the word 'nigger' - no, it is the freedom the boys enjoy and the intensity of the world they create for themselves.

The fact is that I grew up in a world much closer to Tom Sawyer's than to my son's. I did not have a murderous Injun Joe after me, but I certainly recognise the vibrancy of his childhood world. I grew up away from adults, in the company of children. We played, we invented games, we did stupid and dangerous things, we got into scrapes, we strayed far from home without recourse to mobile phones. That world seems gone for good. The truth is, there is no adventure left in childhood now that is not pre-packaged or risk-assessed. And the world is a lesser place for it.

Of course I am the same. I don't want my son to be in danger. But then neither did my parents want me to face dangers. And I have to say - I would rather he got hurt standing by a friend than escaped unscathed by deserting that friend. Sometimes you have to get hurt. There's a big difference between a Facebook 'friend' and a friend who is there when you need them.

It is always going to be what you do 'offline' that really counts.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Mike Mignola is a genius

This book arrived in the post recently, courtesy of Tom at the Hitchin Boy's School library. Baltimore is illustrated by Mike Mignola and I have already mentioned my admiration for him in previous blogs.

I actually think Mike Mignola is one of the great American illustrators - right up there with the very best. I think if he did not work in comics, there would be little argument about this. I can think of few times I have seen a bad Mignola - he has the drawing equivalent of perfect pitch. If he has an Achilles heel, it is that he occasionally puts too much information in an image. But we are talking about degrees of perfection here.

Mostly though, his drawings are brilliantly economical. Like Rowland Hilder, Mignola knowingly refers to a woodcut style of illustration, though to a very different end. Where Hilder's work is gestural, Mignola's is very designed and restrained. His imagination is second to none, but it is always rooted in a very acutely observed reality. When he needs to be right, he is always bang on. The details that a lesser artist would simple make up or ignore, Mignola draws with almost scientific accuracy. Because his style is so economical and hard edged, Mignola cannot fall back on the illustrator's standby of simply making something vague.

For someone who spends so much of his time drawing action, Mignola is at his best, for me, when he is evoking stillness or silence. It is the moment before something happens that he draws so well. Baltimore displays this talent superbly, illustrated as it is with dozens of vignettes in which very little happens, but which are, every one of them, packed with atmosphere.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009


I bought this copy of Kidnapped in the wonderful Haunted Bookshop in Cambridge. Robert Louis Stevenson is a writer I admire enormously and Kidnapped is a fantastic book. It actually cost less than the current paperback editions. It is a 1948 reprint of a 1946 Oxford University Press edition, illustrated by Rowland Hilder.

Hilder was a very successful painter and illustrator. His paintings are a little too illustrative for my liking, but his illustrations - his line illustrations at any rate - are, I think, undervalued.

Kidnapped is illustrated throughout with chapter headings. They sometimes feature characters from the book or scenes from the story but more often than not, they are landscapes or seascapes. Hilder was a landscape painter, so he was on firm ground there. But there are more to these images than simple landscape sketches.

Believe me, that degree of brevity and nonchalance is hard to pull off - especially if you are dealing with a sailing ship and all that rigging. I can think of few illustrators working today who could combine that degree of accuracy with that kind of spontaneity. Hilder employs a kind of traditional stamp-like wood engraving look, but with a calligraphic, almost Japanese fluidity of drawing. There are colour plates in the book but they are nothing more than competent. These chapter headings on the other hand are gems. . .

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Enter with drag on

I showed my son the YouTube clip of Bowie and there was an utterly incredulous, 'What the. . .' look on his face the whole time. It's a little like the expression my dad used to wear at the time. Children today are so conservative!

Lisa and Peter Kirkham came round for dinner last night. Or is that supposed to be supper these days? I am rarely this sociable: a trip to London and lunch with Paul and the very next day I'm entertaining the Kirkhams. It doesn't seem right somehow. I ought to spread these things out. Peter and Lisa were great company and knowing them is one of the better side-effects of writing as I got to know them originally through author events at Heffers. Lisa is a designer and massive children's book fan.

At some point in the evening we got to talking abut martial arts. Or maybe I got to talking about it and everyone else just concentrated on not yawning. Anyway, I was reminiscing about my love of judo when I was a kid - I did it as an after school club for years - and of Aikido when I was older. I even did a bit of Jiu-jitsu. Tai Chi too.

I had a poster of Bruce Lee on my wall when I was in my teens and I can vividly remember going to see Enter The Dragon with my brother. I was awestruck. Bruce Lee's acting may not have been Oscar-winning, but his screen presence was mesmerising. He was like a wild animal. Suddenly judo seemed very dull indeed. The towering Tamara Dobson in Cleopatra Jones was the B feature. Wa-haaa!

I used to watch Kung Fu with David Carradine too, on TV. I bought the first series recently on DVD and sat down to watch it with my son, but it is so slow. Even the real-time stuff seems like slow motion. But I used to love it. I wanted to be like David Carradine: peace-loving and wise, but with the capacity to give someone a graceful kicking if absolutely necessary.

Buddhist monk style baldness is looming, but little else.

I have watched my son play football every week in wind and hail, rain and snow. His mother comes once - in blistering sunshine - and he scores for the first time ever! It's not fair.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Madness and modernity

I saw Paul Stewart yesterday. We went to the Madness and Modernity exhibition at the Wellcome Collection. There were some interesting things there, but the best exhibits were in the permanent exhibition. I think I need to go back with a notebook and do some sketches. Paul and I were too busy talking to really concentrate on the deeply strange exhibits.

It is always good to see Paul and he was on good form. He probably won't read this because he clearly finds blogs a bit pointless. 'I'm just not interested enough in other people.' Thanks very much.

But I know what he means. Sometimes when I'm writing these posts I do wonder why on earth I'm doing it. It is the sort of thing I ought to hate. And yet something keeps me burbling on. . .

Paul has been blogging with Chris Riddell, but it is a fantasy blog. That is, the blog is real enough, but the world it describes is a fantasy world. There is a link to it in my blogs list. It's called The Farrow Ridges.

We talked about music - Paul is a big music fan and had written a list of his own 'sad songs' choices. I was impressed that we had matched up on more than one. We talked - inevitably - about writing and what we were both up to and who we were reading. Paul had seen the film of Let the Right One In and thought it was very good.

He told me that he and Chris are off on a tour of the Highlands, visiting schools and giving talks. I'm very jealous.

Friday, 8 May 2009

In the aeroplane over the sea

I'm off to London today to meet Paul Stewart. He emailed me yesterday to ask if I knew the album In The Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. I do. I have it. It was actually recommended to me by another friend with expansive musical tastes - Neil Dell.

Paul said that a lot of the songs on that were sad - and then corrected himself by saying 'emotional'. I think that hits the nail on the head. That's what an Air Supply song isn't. It lacks any kind of real emotion at all.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

They obey your commands (even when you hide far away)

Another ad from the 1970s.

I got an email from Sarah at Bloomsbury to say that Raben & Sjogren, the Swedish publisher of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, want to publish Tales of Terror from the Black Ship which is great news. I am reading Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist so I am having something of a horror swap with Sweden.

Let The Right One In is particularly interesting to me at the moment because it has child protagonists in an urban setting and I am working on something similar. In fact I had a moment of panic when I began reading it because it opened in almost exactly the same way. But this is most definitely an adult book. It is not just creepy, it is very, very dark.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Dress sexy at my funeral

I went into the studio today. Andrew and Lynette hadn't looked at my blog - probably just as well - so I didn't get attacked for my gratuitous attack on their musical choices as I walked through the door.

Andrew did try to counter by suggesting that the music I had played in the studio was 'dismal'. This cut me to the quick a little. I think this is probably a bit of projection. Because I'm a bit of a miserable, cantankerous character, it stands to reason I would like miserable music. Andrew assumed I would be a Morrissey fan for the same reason. I can't say I am or ever have been. I liked the Smiths but was never a fan. Panic might be on the list below if I had it on my iPod. A chorus of 'Hang the DJ, hang the DJ, hang the DJ' is a lovely thing.

I do have some music others might find dismal. Tom Waits is a bit of an acquired taste. But often I think that is again an assumption about the limitations of popular music. People who don't really see it as a valid art form think that it has to be either feel good music or background music. They hear a slow tune and a sombre voice and assume that the song must be 'dismal'. Leonard Cohen suffers from this. He can be very, very (albeit darkly) funny, but is rarely thought of in that way.

But in any case, the last thing Andrew asked me to turn off was Funkadelic's One Nation Under a Groove. Maybe not conducive to work - but dismal? I think not. Anyway - in a shared space you have to respect other people's needs. Lynette prefers total silence, so I actually haven't played any music (out loud) in the studio for about six months. Which is fine.

But it made me think that I ought to do a list of - well, not necessarily 'happy' tunes, but ones that lift the spirit, just in case anyone looking at the blog thought I listened to nothing but tearjerkers.

Well, they lift my spirit anyway. It may seem odd for instance to have a song called Dress Sexy At My Funeral, but I defy anyone to listen to that and not smile. Fairy Tale of New York City may also seem an odd choice - but it contains one of my favourtite piece of lyrics: the interchange between Shane MacGowan - 'I could have been someone' and Kirsty McCall - 'Well so could anyone'. Mind you, Prince's 'Shake your body like a horny pony would' from Alphabet St is also pretty good. For You by Springsteen is one of my son's favourite songs - and he's only 11. Starman takes me back to me bedroom on the Kenton Bar Estate in Newcastle and dreams of escape. Here he is, landing like a parrot in my front room in the early seventies. Oh how my dad hated him.

I Know There's An Answer - The Beach Boys
Nantes - Beirut
I Feel Good - James Brown
For You - Bruce Springsteen
Bankrobber - The Clash
Brimful of Asha - Cornershop
Close To You (Remix) - The Cure
Starman - David Bowie
Groove Is In The Heart - Deee-Lite
I Feel Just Like a Child - Devendra Banhart
Sunshine Superman - Donovan
Touch Me - The Doors
Crystal Days - Echo & The Bunnyman
Girl Like You - Edwin Collins
Station Approach - Elbow
I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down - Elvis Costello
One Nation Under a Groove - Funkadelic
Crazy - Gnarls Barkley
Dare - Gorillaz
Now It's On - Grandaddy
Made Up Love Song #43 - The Guillemots
Ready For the Floor - Hot Chip
The Farm - Howe Gelb
I'm Bored - Iggy Pop
Dignified & Old - Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers
Cloudbusting - Kate Bush
Waterloo Sunset - The Kinks
Can't Get You Out Of My Head - Kylie Minogue
Up With The People - Lambchop
Wild Child - Lou Reed
Family Affair - Mary J Blige
Three Little Birds - Bob Marley & The Wailers
Regret - New Order
Mausam - Nitan Sawnhey
Hey Ya! - Outkast
Life's A Gamble - Penetration
Young Folks - Peter, Bjorn & John
Papas Got A Brand New Pigbag - Pigbag
Fairy Tale of New York - The Pogues & Kirsty McCall
Movin' On Up - Primal Scream
Alphabet St - Prince
Rockaway Beach - The Ramones
When I Get To The Border - Richard & Linda Thompson
Let's Spend The Night Together - The Rolling Stones
Pyjamarama - Roxy Music
Dress Sexy At My Funeral - Smog
Go Amanda - Steve Earle
Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing - Stevie Wonder
Someday - The Strokes
Jeepster - T Rex
American Girl - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Sweet Jane - The Velvet Underground

And if I could just have one, it would probably be Sweet Jane. Goodness knows how many times I've heard it, but from the opening, 'Standing on the corner, suitcase in my hand' I'm always hooked.

Here's Peter, Bjorn and John with Young Folks. . .

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Time has told me

Here is the wonderful Nick Drake. Sad song - made even sadder by the singer's story.

Don't give up

This could be my theme tune at the moment - book award-wise. This is perhaps the saddest song I know. In fact it's beyond sad. It has moved into an area of remorselessness that few pop songs dare to enter. Because of that it has come right round to occupy an area of borderline cheesiness, saved only by that fantastic bass line and the seriousness with which both singers go about their job. It had a horrible resonance with me at the time it came out and I still have a soft spot for it (though it is hard to listen to). If you think the Carpenters are sad, check this out.

But how bad can things really be for Peter Gabriel - he is being cuddled by Kate Bush after all.

People ain't no good

OK - so here is my alternative list of sad songs. It is by no means exhaustive and clearly I could have filled the entire thing with Nick Drake and Leonard Cohen songs. I have restricted it to some of the things I happen to have on my iPod. Otherwise I will spend the next few days hunting through CDs instead of doing any work. It's a eclectic mix and I have realised I do not have enough soul music on my iPod. I've even included a Carpenters cover - Superstar by Sonic Youth:

Hope There's Someone - Antony & the Johnsons
In Spite of All The Damage - The Be Good Tanyas
I Just Wasn't Made For These Times - The Beach Boys
Racing in the Street - Bruce Springsteen
Be My Wife - David Bowie
Otis - Durutti Column
My Very Best - Elbow
Can't Make a Sound - Elliot Smith
Walking Wounded - Everything But The Girl
Fotheringay - Fairport Convention
Red, Red, Red - Fiona Apple
Man of the World - Fleetwood Mac
You're With The Wrong One - Fried
April 14th (Part 1) - Gillian Welch
When Mac Was Swimming - The Innocence Mission
Fever Dream - Iron & Wine
Hurt - Johnny Cash
Something On Your Mind - Karen Dalton
This Woman's Work - Kate Bush
Outclassed - Kathryn Tickell
Winning a Battle, Losing The War - King's of Convenience
Steve McQueen - Lambchop
Take This Longing - Leonard Cohen
Sweet Old World - Lucinda Williams
You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go - Madeleine Peyroux
Far Away - Martha Wainwright
I'm Goin' Down - Mary J Blige
Better Things - Massive Attack
Chasing After Deer - Midlake
Don't Let it Bring You Down - Neil Young
People Ain't No Good - Nick Cave
Time Has Told Me - Nick Drake
Birdland - Patti Smith
Sour Times - Portishead
Sad Professor - R.E.M.
Nude - Radiohead
Beat the Retreat - Richard & Linda Thompson
Shipbuilding - Robert Wyatt
Jealous Guy - Roxy Music
Teardrops Will Fall - Ry Cooder
Farewell, Farewell - Sandy Denny
The Only Living Boy In New York - Simon & Garfunkle
In The Arms of Sleep - Smashing Pumpkins
Orion Obscured by Stars - Smog
Superstar - Sonic Youth
It's A Sad & Beautiful World - Sparklehorse
Tonight I Feel So Far Away From Home - Steve Forbert
Romulus - Sufjan Stevens
Heaven - Talking Heads
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue - Them
Song To The Siren - This Mortal Coil
Song To The Siren - Tim Buckley
Patchwork - Tindersticks
Pale Blue Eyes - Velvet Underground
Mary Of The Angels - Willard Grant Conspirarcy
Confusion - The Zutons

There are some great songs in there - but I'm not sure I'd want to hear them all one after the other! I have particularly fond memories of Nick Cave's People Ain't No Good - my son and I used to sing that on the way to primary school in the mornings.

Ah - happy days.

Here's This Mortal Coil with Tim Buckley's Song To The Siren. . .

Monday, 4 May 2009

Be a happy, prosperous grit salesman

I dropped my son off at Will and Jane's so that he could play with their son as it is Bank Holiday Monday today. Will lent me a book called Big Morning Blues by Gordon Williams which uses the Jack Sheppard story as a linking device. It looks interesting - more of that later.

The advert above is from one of the Thor comics I picked up in Newcastle. The ads in these comics were both baffling and fascinating to me as a child. How I wished I could have sent away for the stuff they featured, but it was priced in dollars and had addresses in far away places. Though I was never tempted to be a Grit salesman. (Grit is a newspaper by the way - in case you were wondering).

It is hard to remember how unreachable America seemed in those days and how dull - crushingly dull - 1970s Britain felt. Comics were an escape for me. Opening those pages in my bedroom was like pulling open a raincloud and bathing in sunshine.

They clearly saw straight through their readership because so many of the ads were targeted at boys like me who fantasised about being more than we were. There are ads for getting taller, more muscular, learning karate and judo - even this one for a fake beard for all occasions. . .

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Musical cheese

We went round to Andrew and Lynette's last night for a meal with them and their friends Barbara and Mark, and our friend Anne Cunningham. My son sat in the lounge watching Young Frankenstein and rolling around in hysterics. It is always a pleasure to see Anne and it was great to meet Mark and Barbara. Nice food, good company - what more could you want?

Well. . .It is very bad form to criticise your host's musical tastes. Very bad. Very bad indeed. Ah, but what the hell. . .

I think I may have disgraced myself by making my horror at the musical choices too obvious. But they crossed some kind of line, so I feel released from the normal bonds of good manners. Besides Andrew once asked me to turn Midlake off when I was playing them in the studio. Midlake. Outrageous.

Musical taste is obviously a very personal thing - some people have it and some people don't. I have very catholic tastes. I can find something in most genres of music. Except for opera and heavy metal. And for similar reasons: the silly clothes, the inanity of the lyrics, the falsetto voices.

But I would never inflict Sonic Youth, say, on guests at a dinner party just because they couldn't escape. Lynette (who I hasten to add is, in every way, a wonderfully cultured, warm and witty studio-mate) had warned me that she had bought a CD called Sad Songs (why?) in a charity shop but, oh my, nothing quite prepared me for what was actually on it. My ears; my poor, poor ears. If I say that Janis Ian was probably a high point, you will get the picture.

Look at that cover. She looks as if she is staring into a shower cubicle. And that drip coming from the 'A'. It's supposed to be a teardrop, I guess. All I'll say is that it doesn't look like a eye it's dripping from.

I do understand that some people aren't really into music. Well, actually I don't really understand it - but I accept it. I love music - most kinds of music anyway. It's important to me. I like pop music. I just believe there is good and bad - often very, very bad - pop music. I have certainly enjoyed pop music of questionable quality and sometimes even trash can be amazingly evocative of a particular place and time. But there is a limit. As I may have said more than once: nostalgia is not my thing. I can't listen to things ironically.

Not that I haven't got vivid memories of watching Top of the Pops with my mum saying, 'Hasn't he got lovely hair - for a girl', and buying singles and stacking them up on my parent's Dansette record player. But when I was a teenager there was Roxy Music and Bowie and T Rex, but there was also the Wombles, Mud, Pickety Witch, Paper Lace, Middle of the Road, Leo Sayer and Gilbert O'Sullivan. I'm proud to say I was on the side of Roxy Music, Bowie and Bolan. My mum liked Gilbert O'Sullivan. And I may be the age my mum was at when I was listening to that stuff, but that doesn't mean anyone is going to persuade me it's any good. Gilbert O'Sullivan was a featured artist on Sad Songs. As was Leo Sayer.

This just marks me out as a snob of course. But everyone is a snob of some kind. No one likes everything and I certainly don't come at this from a muso position. I'm as happy to hear a three chord (or two if it's Lou Reed) pop song as the next person. I grew up listening to my sister's Mowtown singles. I just need to believe its real. It doesn't have to be real - it just needs to convince me while I'm listening.

Anyway the very same people who would never dream of reading a Jackie Collins book or looking at a Jack Vettriano painting, who are happy to be snobs when it comes to classical music and would stab themselves in the ears before they would listen to Richard Clayderman or Il Divo, are happy to listen to absolute drivel when it comes to pop. When it comes to pop they have a taste bypass. It baffles me a little. I suppose it's because they are unable to take pop seriously. I am a pop snob and proud of it.

And come to think of it, most of these songs weren't even sad - they were just mawkish or drippy. An equivalent Love Songs CD would not have any of the great love songs on it - it would be full of the greetings-card-sentiment nonsense that pads out the charts most weeks. Celine Dion would almost certainly be on it.

The compilers seemed to confuse sadness with limpness. Sadness is a perfectly laudable emotion to strive for in a pop song. We all have songs that made us feel like someone knew what we were feeling at a time when we were broken-hearted. There are some great sad songs in pop music. None of them - with maybe the exception of Sinead O'Connor's Nothing Compares 2 U - was on this CD.

Hank Williams sings sad songs. Nick Drake. Leonard Cohen. Dusty Springfield. Peter Green. Lucinda Williams. Tom Waits. Billie Holiday. Bruce Springsteen has written some great sad songs. So has Lou Reed. A lot of Motown songs are heartbreaking. And what about Antony Hegarty? There's Tim Buckley. Smoky Robinson. Aretha Franklin. Sufjan Stevens, Sparklehorse. Sandy Denny. Not Air Supply.

Never, never, never Air Supply.

I rebel against the idea of nostalgia because so often it involves a fondness for the frankly godawful. That's not to say that I don't regularly reminisce and rewind the tape of my life, replaying various bits (editing them too, of course). But my memories of teenage parties and discos and the like are mixed, and rarely sugar-coated. I was shy and a bit awkward. There is as much pain as there is warmth in looking back and I like songs that reflect that. That's the mark of a great pop song - it can be simple and complex at the same time.

There was some truly dreadful music providing the soundtrack to my teens, but I never much liked it then and I never want to hear it again. I did have the odd Slade single and I have a feeling I may have bought Tiger Feet by Mud in a weaker moment, but I'm happy to confess that I was - and I pray I always will be - totally immune to the soft-rock ballad. Besides there are just too many good bands around today to ever want to hear Chicago again.

They are never going to invite me back are they? And anyone who was about to invite me round to dinner is probably having second thoughts. Hey - but someone has to stand up for decent music. It's a tough job, but I'm willing to take it on.

And if they hadn't followed Sad Songs with a Carpenters compilation I might have let them off (and I know Karen Carpenter had a very pure voice and died terribly young, but the music is still - with perhaps the exception of Goodbye to Love with its oddly over-the-top guitar solo - like being drowned in luke warm honey). But as I said - they crossed a line. And playing Rufus Wainwright at the end didn't compensate. The damage was done.

Maybe I ought to make them a CD of really sad songs. That'll show 'em. Now where's my copy of Berlin? (I'm cackling maniacally at this point, by the way.)

I took my son to football this morning. We also took Ian Farnan and his son - Ian having broken a metatarsal in a football match the other day. Their team was beaten 6-0 but oddly my son played really well and was praised by the coach. Maybe the fact that they were so far behind made the boys relax and enjoy their game.

I thought my days of standing in a bitterly cold wind were over, but it was freezing on the touchline. My back was killing me by the time I was got home. A cup of tea and a blast of Neil Young and I was much better.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Loser (continued)

Well I'm back from Newcastle, head held low. . .

So another week, another failed attempt at a book award. I did at least have a good time in Newcastle and Bloomsbury had booked me into a very nice hotel - the Malmaison on the Quayside.

Well done to Sally Nicholls for winning with Ways To Live Forever. What a nice person. And she did a very good job of selling her book to me. We are hopefully going to do a book-swap.

Before the event Sally and I were talking and joking about falling off the Carnegie Longlist. It wasn't until the introductions that I discovered that the other shortlisted author present - Berlie Doherty - has won the Carnegie Medal twice!

Thanks to Alec for hosting the event and for Eileen for organising it so well and to both of them for being so friendly and supportive. Thanks to everyone who voted for me and especially all those who came and talked to me before and after the event (including the girl who took the trouble to explain why the other stories in Uncle Montague weren't as good as Climb Not!). It was great to meet you all and maybe sometime I can come and visit your schools. It was fantastic to see a hall packed with so many enthusiastic and thoughtful readers.

Whilst I was visiting my dad I picked up a handful of Thor comics from a great store I still have from the 1970s. John Buscema was doing the pencils at this stage. He was a real workhorse of Marvel and goodness knows how he managed to do so many comics at the same time. I always admired his ability to draw the human figure in any position he chose and with such energy. This drawing of two running children is an example of Buscema at his best. . .