Thursday, 27 August 2009


My son had a tooth out today. He is having a brace fitted and needs a tooth out to allow room for the required movement of his other teeth.

He had worked himself up about it rather having never had any dental work done. But the dentist was amazing and I don't think my son was really properly aware that the tooth was out until he was told.

I sat and watched the whole process and was not really sure what to expect from my son. Was he going to freak out? Was he going to scream? Burst into tears? In the end he did none of these things and simply lay there placidly and let the dentist go about his work. And it was fascinating to watch.

Every time the dentist was going to do anything potentially painful he made my son cough. Afterwards he explained that this overloads the brain long enough for it not to quite notice what is happening. Which makes the brain seem a bit dim. But it certainly worked.

I stopped myself from asking why he did not employ the same technique on me when he was yanking my tooth out last year.

The painting is of St Apollonia, patron saint of dentists owing to the fact that she knew all about having teeth pulled out. Come to think of it that really out to make her a patron saint of dental patients. She makes an appearance in a story in Tales from the Tunnel's Mouth.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Old man, big skies

It was my birthday today (and I am honoured to discover in the Guardian birthday list that I was born on the same day in the same year as Tim Burton) so we went to the Norfolk coast for the day and pottered about among the jolly sailors at Brancaster Staithe before going for a very nice lunch at the White Horse. Then we went off to Titchwell, an RSPB reserve we used to frequent when we lived in the area. Rising sea levels are going to force great changes on many places in East Anglia and Titchwell is one of them.

The reserve is made up of reed beds, marshes and open lakes sitting behind a wide beach and a wall of dunes that one day (and possibly quite soon) will succumb to a winter storm. There seems to be an acceptance that this change cannot be altogether prevented, but work is going on to try and manage it. The habitat will change, but a new one will be created.

It was nice that the marsh harriers put on a little display for us, but mainly it was a day for appreciating the big skies of Norfolk. Apocalyptic clouds moved in as we walked the beach but even the drizzle that fell as we returned to the car could not dampen our spirits. It gifted us a perfect rainbow as the sun burst through once more.

A good day.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Cormac and Oprah

Maybe someone from the Guardian reads my blog, because have been blogging about covers too. Or maybe its just coincidence. Sure. Coincidence. Take a look on the link on the left or click on 'Guardian' in this post.

And I know I have been raving about Cormac McCarthy a lot lately, but if you like his work or even if you don't, then listen to the man himself talk to Oprah. I would urge anyone who writes - or wants to write - to watch this clip. He is trying hard to look laid back and relaxed but is clearly as nervous as hell. I have to wonder how anyone persuaded him to do this.

But I'm glad they did.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

You really can't judge a book by these covers

The horror, the horror. . .

During my conversation about book jackets with Helen Szirtes, she made the perfectly good point that a book jacket should not misrepresent a novel. I certainly think that a cover should always say something true about the novel.

These covers shamefully misrepresent the novels. In most cases they are trying to make them seem more accessible to the mass market paperback purchaser. Although the words - greatest adventure, greatest horror etc - sound exciting, the images are so weirdly ordinary (with the exception of the 1984 cover, which is superbly - and inexplicably - sleazy). Frankenstein's monster looks like a Midwestern farmhand. Treasure Island's cover seems to be showing a tiff between two 1950s beatniks. The depraved version of Dorian Gray has something of Tony Blair about him. Or maybe that's just me. And 'romance, terror and exotic adventure' are the very words we would all use to describe Heart of Darkness, I'm sure.

And what can one say about Nana? She certainly looks very naughty. But what's going on with those strange headless shirt fronts.


Very, very odd.

Having said all that, I think a collection of pulp covers of classic novels might be a fine thing to own. And I am suddenly tempted to pulp my own covers, just for the hell of it.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Close encounters

I drove over to Norfolk to see Chris Riddell. Chris is married to a farmer's daughter, Jo Riddell ( a very talented artist in her own right) and they have a cottage near Jo's parents house. We used to live just down the road when we first moved out of London in 1993, renting a tied cottage on a nearby farm.

Chris and Jo have turned this place into a beautiful retreat and just to annoy me after I told them about the many problems with my own studio, they showed me round the studio they were building out of an old outbuilding. It was fantastically light and high and spacious and was nicer than anything I am ever likely to have in Cambridge whatever happens. Not that I begrudge Chris and Jo having such a lovely studio. No. No.


We had a wander round the local fields after a very good lunch on a beautiful day. Norfolk is a great county to get your lungs going again. It is a big breath of a place with the horizon always far off and hopeful. I miss those big skies and open spaces. I think I feel smaller in Cambridge. It is like hill walking: an open view is a heart-lifting thing. A city street is - well, it's pedestrian.

Chris and I have the capacity to talk and talk and talk. I need to do this and will bond with anyone who thinks it isn't weird. I can talk for hours and hours without ever needing to do anything else. Chris is the same. I'm not sure that our conversations aren't often parallel in a slightly autistic way, in that we are very different in our temperaments and outlooks. Chris has a much more unshakable belief in the decisions he makes than I do. He has a very uncluttered view of what he is doing. It is one of the many reasons he is so successful, I'm sure.

We sat so long in the low sunshine that when Chris got up he had been sun burnt on one side of his face like Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Cover to cover

I had a long telephone conversation with Helen Szirtes today about the amendments to The Dead of Winter. We were doing the last bit of tweaking before it goes off to be proofed. As I have said before - this is such an important stage in the life of a book. It is vital to have a good working relationship with your editor and vital also that you take this part seriously.

Inevitably we occasionally wandered off piste and during one such diversion I was pointing out that we seem to me to be in a real high point of paperback book jacket design in this country - which was certainly not the case a few years ago. I could chose lots of publishers to illustrate this, but I am going to pick on Vintage (part of the Random House empire).

Look at the wit and spark these covers have. Doesn't it make you want to buy the lot? More importantly, doesn't it make you want to read the lot? Go into a book shop and browse the fiction section and you will see jackets as good as these or better.

But you will need to be in the adult fiction section.

I know that these books would not work for children. They are too knowing of their subjects. They are almost in jokes, relying on the purchaser to have some prior knowledge of the book. They are books designed to be re-read. The Frankenstein cover for instance would be baffling to anyone who thinks they know the story but have not actually read the book.

But isn't the wit and the ingenuity of design transferable? Do children's books have to be quite so obvious?

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Lord of the fruit flies

After a plague of flying ants and a continuing plague of wasps, I am now enduring a plague of fruit flies. Every time I pick up a piece of fruit or lift a glass of wine to my lips, a fruit fly or two (or six) will appear and start bothering me. Their tininess is somehow part of the irritation.

I will destroy them.

There was an interesting report in the Guardian about a furore over a book cover in the States. This involves the American branch of my publisher Bloomsbury and a book by Australian novelist Justine Larbalestier. A character who was black in the book, was depicted as white on the cover. There seemed to be a curious notion that covers with black people on them did not sell. This strikes me as odd. It did not seem to affect the sales of Maya Angelou or Alice Walker.

Or maybe it did.

Anyway good on Bloomsbury for backing down and listening to the author and good on Larbalestier for sticking to her guns. But the whole episode says a lot about the false logic of marketing. As the wonderful Ursula Le Quin pointed out in this piece: it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you do not put black people on the covers of books you will not find out whether the book-buying public are as racist as you think. And if they are, then do you really want to pander to it - encourage it even? A few successful books with black people on the cover and marketing people will be demanding they appear on every cover regardless.

Or is it that marketing people are the racist ones?

But the important thing to remember here is that what goes on the cover is irrelevant to whether a book sells or does not sell. It is the quality of the writing.

Just kidding.

It is the publicity budget.

And speaking of covers I found this oddity on a Google search the other day. It is always a bit of a risk putting something on the blog when I can't actually understand the language, but it is so weird, I can't stop myself.

I apologise for the low res quality, but I have not the faintest idea what this is, other than it seems to me a foreign edition of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. Edgar seems to have mutated into Harry Potter. And it seems to be a riff on a David Roberts drawing without actually being his work.

If anyone knows anymore then please tell me. I don't even know what language that is.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

I hate Dell

I hate a wretched day today. Whilst my Dell desktop has been relatively trouble free since I bought it many years ago, my Dell laptop has been a utter pain.

It is a year old and has been away twice for pretty major repairs. In June it had everything but the keyboard replaced and came back with a new hard drive. I had to reinstall all the software apart from Windows. I switched it on yesterday to hear a high-pitched squeal and it refused to boot up.

I contacted Dell, to whom I have just paid a large amount of money for support. The man at the other end of a line that seemed to stretch a very long way indeed asked me to get a small Philips head screwdriver. He asked me to loosen a small screw behind the battery and the squealing stopped.

I have no idea why.

But nothing else worked. My keyboard has gone mad and is throwing the letters about the page at random and deleting things I've already typed - again at random. I was told that it must be a software problem and the money I had paid was for hardware support. I would have to pay extra for software support. Even though Dell put the software on and sold me the software and there is nothing on the laptop other than the software they themselves installed.

I have rather a tense relationship with bolshie inanimate objects.

I had to stop myself uninstalling the software with a hammer.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

I'm ready for my close up. . .

Adrian Downie got in touch yesterday. Adrian is responsible for the lovely Tales of Terror website at Bloomsbury. He was asking me about what we might do for Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth and saying that Bloomsbury have been shooting some videos for their website and putting them on YouTube.

Normally these take the form of a question and answer session with the author, but Adrian was wondering if we could do something a bit more interesting.

I'll keep you posted. . .

Friday, 7 August 2009

The Economist

A few posts back I was talking about my life in newspapers and mentioned that I used to work for The Economist every week between 1990 and 1996. As well as doing drawings for the various sections - Europe, Asia, America etc - we illustrators would also occasionally be asked to do the cover. These are a few of mine.

When I left college I had assumed I would work in books. I really only knew about book illustration. I was taught by Tony Ross who was working on his own picture books while heading the illustration department and he used his contacts to get me my first job - illustrating Sherlock Holmes stories for the French publisher Gallimard.

This was a dream job. Gallimard had published some of my favourite authors and Sherlock Holmes was a gift to an illustrator. But I blew it. When I took my drawings in, I was told that they were 'too dark'. Whether they were literally too dark (I was fond of big areas of black ink) or whether they were too grim, I never did find out. My career as a book illustrator stalled there and never really took off again.

Instead I became an editorial illustrator, working for newspapers and magazines, though I did do the odd advert or brochure or even label for cans of beans. Deadlines are tight in this line of work and are immovable. The rubbery deadlines of the book world are still a little strange to me.

Illustration is in part about making the best use of the restrictions that are applied. It is like being asked to cook a meal with limited time and limited ingredients. What can I do in the time allowed? How can I adapt the brief so I can play to my strengths? With editorial illustration time is possibly the biggest factor. We were never given more than a day to come up with a rough (though mostly with an Economist cover, the concept was given to you) and then do the finished artwork.

Sometimes it was a lot less than a day.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Visiting economist

We had the lovely Mardi Dungey over for dinner tonight. Mardi is on one of her visits to the university and has a punishing schedule which sees her jetting off back to Tasmania tomorrow morning.

It is always a pleasure to see Mardi. Not only is she great company, but she's also like our own personal economist. Everyone should have one.

Of course she isn't really ours.

Not to keep

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Adult fiction

I spoke to Chris Riddell again today. He was inviting us up to his Norfolk retreat and as usual we ended up having a long conversation about all kinds of other stuff.

The last time we spoke I had been telling Chris that I had been contemplating doing some historical fiction and mentioned we talked about an idea I have had for a while for a book that opens with the a pretty bloody evocation of the Battle of Hastings. I started working on it for a project for Usborne that fell through. It has been buzzing about in my mind ever since. Chris was suggesting that I write the same book - but for the adult market.

I suppose I have always thought that I would write for adults. This is not because I think that writing for children is not a compelling enough thing on its own, but because there are things I would like to write that just seem to lend themselves more readily to a book for adults.

We'll see. . .

Monday, 3 August 2009


Or should that be vespe? Having suffered a plague of flying ants recently, Cambridge is now undergoing a plague of wasps. And I hate wasps.

I still hear it regularly trotted out that wasps are fascinating creatures that won't sting you if you leave them alone. This is such nonsense. I have been stung sitting on a tube, where the first I even knew about the wasp was the sting it rammed in my neck. I was stung mowing the lawn at our house in Norfolk. A wasp dropped out of an apple tree onto my head (which was closely cropped and tonsured by time's tweezers) and stung me twice before I flicked it off.

Wasps are evil. They may rid the garden of pests and pollinate orchards. They may read stories to old people in hospitals and save baby seals from fur trappers for all I know, but they are coming between me and my peaches and they need to be stopped.

Stopped, I tell you!

Well - all right, perhaps I don't actually hate them. I find all animal life fascinating to a varying degree and wasps, like ants, do have a particular weird intensity about them. I suppose its just that whilst you can watch a bee going about its business safe in the knowledge that it is more interested in pollen than you, wasps have that drunken 'Who are you looking at?' unpredictability about them.

And then there are the numbers. When there are a couple of wasps it doesn't seem quite so bad (though even one determined wasp can spoil a picnic) but at the moment there are thousands of them. I walked into our tiny back garden the other day and heard a rasping sound I took to be something - a mouse say - gnawing away at something. But it turned out to be a dozen or so wasps rasping away at the wooden fence, gathering their materials for a bout of nest-building. I don't want to hear wasps chewing. It's wrong and bit scary.

Sunday, 2 August 2009


I am busy working through Helen Szirtes amendments to The Dead of Winter. When I wrote the book, Helen sent me a set of questions and suggestions. These were big issues about plot and character and continuity and so on. These present amendments are to that second draft that resulted from those initial editing suggestions.

We are at a the fine tuning stage now. Helen has repeatedly written 'rep' for repetition. Repetition is my most common crime and in conversations with other writers I have discovered that am not alone in this. It is incredible how many times I can use the same word in the same paragraph. It is some kind of skill.

Some kind of incredibly useless skill.

Saturday, 1 August 2009


We had dinner with Joad Raymond yesterday. It was good to see him as always and we always get well fed - Joad is a very good cook.

When I saw Paul yesterday we talked about the issue of the government register for visiting authors. This controversy blew up just before I headed off to the Lakes. I was interested to hear what Paul had to say, given that he is a teacher as well as an author.

Paul's view was - and I hope I'm not misrepresenting him here - that it seems unreasonable to expect other people working with children to be checked and not authors. As you may have read, Philip Pullman led the charge of authors outraged that they were having to pay to prove that they were not paedophiles. I have sympathy with both points of view.

I have been a governor at two primary schools here in the UK and there is a requirement that governors are CRB checked - basically a police check to make sure you do not have a criminal record. If I remember rightly, the school pays for this check.

Governors actually have little or no unsupervised access to children, but you can imagine the outcry if it turned out that a person with a precious conviction for a sex crime had been accepted onto a school governing body. It seems only prudent to check. Ditto with parent helpers (who do have significant access to children) and those who work in the kitchens or school office or as caretakers.

However, an author visit is very different. Schools are completely in control of how much access a visiting author has to the children. In most visits they are talking to a large group - sometimes very large indeed. Even then, there are staff present. On the odd occasions I have been left alone with children, there have always been a large group of them. And in any case, most authors - and I am certainly one of them - would ideally rather never be left alone with children. I prefer my visits to be about exciting an interest in writing and illustration and this is best done if teachers do the disciplining. If a school does not want a visitor to have unsupervised access to its children, then they are perfectly well able to prevent it.

The only one-to-one access I ever have with children is during a book signing when some children will take the opportunity to have a chat while you sign their book. This is one of the joys of going into a school because let's face it, if you don't like children you shouldn't be writing for them and hearing what they have to say is not only fun but vital, I think. But this is invariably in a crowded hall and the child I am speaking to is in (hopefully) a long line and there are staff around and a table between us.

Actually, there is one other one-to-one scenario. Often - almost every time in fact - when I go to a school, a child will wander over to me as the event is breaking up and the children are leaving and tell me about something they are doing. It might be about a story they are writing, but it might just as easily be about a band they are in or a movie they've just scene. These brief - and they are always brief - conversations are a big part of why I go into schools.

Paul is perhaps right that it seems inevitable that all visitors to schools will have to be checked in future. But will that include builders working on site - it certainly didn't when I was a governor. Will this list make children any safer? No it won't. Not one tiny little bit. Making the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory - that would make children safer.

I agree with Philip Pullman that there isn't something odious about having to prove yourself innocent - particularly of such a vile crime and one that seems so utterly at odds with the urge to write for children. When I watched the news and heard a parent saying, 'If they haven't got anything to hide, then why are they bothered?' I agreed with him even more. If all of this results in fewer authors visiting schools it will be a tragedy.