Friday, 30 January 2009

You're Michael Palin

I went to London today and on strolling out of Leicester Square tube station I found myself walking next to someone. I tried to overtake and he did the same so we continued to walk parallel to one another. I glanced sideways and saw that it was Michael Palin.

'I have an overwhelming urge to tell you that you're Michal Palin,' I said. 'But you probably already know that.'

'Yes, indeed,' he said with a smile, downing his espresso.

He was as charming and as forgiving of irritants like me as you you would expect.

Later in the day I went to see my good friends Chris Riddell and Dave Simonds at the new Guardian offices on York Way near King's Cross station. I used to see them every week for years, and though I do not in any way miss the work we used to plough through at the Economist, I certainly miss that contact and the laughs we used to have (between bouts of impotent rage and soul-crushing despair). Dave still works there, and probably has a better time of it without me having a hissy fit every week.

Dave and I actually still work on the same publication - the New Statesman - but the wonders of modern technology mean that I do not have to physically go to the offices and send my strip as an email attachment.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Christopher Hibbert

I called Helen Szirtes today to talk about her notes on my latest book. Helen has been great to work with on my Bloomsbury books and I'm very happy to be working with her again on this one. Now I need to knuckle down and get on with the changes.

I was very sorry to read of the death of Christopher Hibbert. The challenge in writing historical fiction is to feel comfortable in the period in which you are setting the book. For this to be the case you need lots of information about the details of life: what do people wear, what do they eat, how do they eat and so on. If I have a character stepping into a street, I want to be able to visualise that street, the buildings, the people, the animals, the smells and sounds. The more convinced I am of these things, the more convincingly I will describe them in my book.

There are certain writers who bring certain periods or places or peoples to life. N A M Rodgers' books on the British navy are fantastic. I am constantly delving into Liza Picard's books about London. More than anything you need to feel secure in the historian's knowledge, and I trusted Christopher Hibbert's expertise completely.

Hibbert wrote really well about the eighteenth century, a period I have explored a few times, with my Tom Marlowe adventures for Random House and with Jail-breaker Jack, my non-fiction book about Jack Sheppard. It was Hibbert, together with Roy Porter, who helped me to get a feel for this extraordinary period in British history.

Hibbert wrote a wonderful book about Jack Sheppard called The Road to Tyburn, which was reissued a while ago as a Penguin Classic History. It is not only a fascinating piece of social history, it is also a very fine piece of writing.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Being too human

I watched Being Human last night on BBC3. Oooh it could have been good. But it wasn't. Not really. . .

The opening section had promise. I really liked the idea that the vampire character was first bitten in WWI. It was wonderfully random. But the 'laughs' are weak. The section where Russell Tovey rushes around a wood searching for a place to transform, constantly bumping into other people was just embarrassing. And the use of music is awful - like Scooby-Doo, but worse.

The lead actors are good. The leader of the vampires is particularly good because he does not conform to the usual goth stereotype. Aidan Turner as the vampire and Russell Tovey as the werewolf are fine - Turner is weirdly more lupine than Tovey, but Tovey's perfect because he looks like a puppy. Lenora Crichlow as the ghost isn't great, but that's not her fault.

I realise that the BBC probably spent its entire special effects budget on the werewolf transformation sequence (and incidentally, isn't it about time someone came up with a new spin on this? American Werewolf in London was a long, long time ago) but is she a ghost or not. If she is a ghost how is she sweeping the floor and making cups of tea. We can see her, but if we couldn't, would we see a cup floating about? How does Tovey hug her? Is she solid? Because if she can move things around and be touched then isn't she actually just a flatmate?

She's a ghost. I want to see through her! I want her to walk through walls!

Production values are always going to be a problem in a programme like this. It was never going to have the gloss of Heroes. But that can be a good thing. Heroes has ended up chasing its own CGI tail. It can be all about the writing.

Strangely this concept echoes something I have had on my computer for a while. My idea was better (of course) and rather than put me off, it strikes me that perhaps I ought to have another look at that. . .

Saturday, 24 January 2009

The streets are full of goths and geeks

Joad called yesterday and I don't think I gave him nearly as hard enough a time over the Esquire article. I'm getting soft in my old age.

I also got an email from Sarah Odedina about my latest book with a long - very long - letter from Helen Szirtes. I have a month or so to get the book - the one that was called Ghosts but which is at the moment called The Secrets of Hawton Mere - sorted out and another draft sent off.

And I enjoyed John Stewart's spin on that expediency issue of Obama's speech. Admonishing Fox News on the Daily Show, he said that 'If we don't stick to our values when they are tested then they aren't values, they are hobbies.' Excellent.

Meanwhile, I have been writing bits and pieces of new stuff. Having had a couple of years with my head firmly in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, I am moving on. That isn't to say that I have exhausted the possibilities of that world, because I don't think that is true at all. I just want to do something else.

I bumped into John Clark today and then, five minutes later, Peter Kirkham (and then the whole delightful Kirkham clan). Peter was telling me that he had met someone else who went to Gosforth High School (as we both did - though at different times). And he reminded me - I think he's already told me and I'd forgotten - that the wonderful Kathryn Tickell went there as well. If you don't know here, seek her music out. And if you have never heard the Northumbrian pipes, you are in for a treat.

I like bumping into people. It makes you feel like I belong here (which I often do not feel at all). This is nothing against Cambridge. I don't think I have ever felt that I belonged anywhere. It probably comes from moving around so much as a child. I am reminded here of the Elbow song, Station approach, whose line, 'The streets are full of goths and geeks' I was just quoting to Peter as a particular favourite.

But it was the line, 'I want to be in a town where they know what I'm like and don't mind,' that I was meaning.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Neil Adams

I went to London today and bought a copy of Death Ray magazine to read on the train. They have kindly listed me in their roundup of the things they liked in 2008. As well as this welcome plug for me, it also contained a tribute to the great comic book artist Neil Adams.

I was in awe of Neil Adams when I was a young reader of American comics. He seemed to be able to draw anything, and his grasp of human anatomy was fantastic. The way he used light and shade was something new and before its time and he is particularly good in the way he uses and renders blackness and shadow. While most artists were still outlining, he was modelling. His design of the Batman image is still among the most elegant. He helped make DC comics cool. Adams' drawings for Deadman, Green Arrow and Green Lantern are so vivid.

I also bought a copy of Esquire to read on the train home (Obama on the cover, natch). I only ever buy magazines like Esquire or GQ when I am catching a train. And there, nestling between gadget reviews, preposterously expensive shoes and cheesy glamour shots was Professor Joad Raymond looking very suave and sophisticated and far too good-looking to be an English professor.

Joad could have been telling us about early newspapers or Milton (and I would have read such an article with great enthusiasm) but instead he was one of a group of people 'with an interest in fitness' (Joad is a marathon runner) who were supposedly having a chat about the current financial malaise seemingly on the grounds that the words physical fitness and fiscal fitness sound almost identical after a couple of glasses of Rioja.

I eagerly await the article featuring nurses talking about the health of the economy and goalkeepers chatting about the importance of saving.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Honey, where's my super suit?

I stayed at home today in the warmth. It was a lot easier to write with fingers that were warm enough to actually move.

Just before 5 I turned on the TV for Obama's inauguration. It took all my will power not to switch it off again when faced with the sermon that preceded it. The mistake in the oath-taking added a frisson of excitement of course. Nice to hear non-believers acknowledged, though Hindus must have been a little cheesed off that they don't seem to count at all. Once you start with lists, it's like a best man's speech - you've got to put everyone in.

The speech was a good one, I thought (written by the 27 year-old Jon Favreau). The man can talk, you have to give him that. But actors speak other people's words beautifully. It is seductive, but it actually means very little if you don't follow through. Only time will tell whether there's more to him than being a Frozone lookalike - 'Honey - Where's my super suit?!'

Of course, not being Bush will take him a long way with most people. And you still have to pinch yourself when you see that a black man is now president of the United States of America. Whatever happens, that felt sweet.

My son came back from school, having just missed the speech and instead wandered into the godawful poem that followed it. I'm sorry Elizabeth Alexander - but it was! And poets should not be allowed to read their own stuff. But I'm not sure anybody could have breathed life into it though. I certainly wasn't about to persuade my son that it was desperately important that he listened.

We watched the speech again on the six 0'clock news and it was fascinating, as always, to see what they chose to show and not show in the highlights. History is now made by TV news editors.

Monday, 19 January 2009

The portable Poe

I went to the studio today and was on my own the whole time. There was plenty of evidence that John had been in. He had painted out every painting he had ever done and started some new ones. I haven't seen Andrew or Lynette since New Year's Eve. It was so cold. I was there for hours and my feet were blocks of ice by the time I left. I need to find a new studio!

Edgar Allan Poe was born 200 years ago today. I have spoken before of my admiration of, and fascination for, Poe's strange and hallucinogenic writing. I'm not sure - but I think I saw the Roger Corman movies before I read the stories and I would not have seen those movies until I was well into my teens. I may have read The Raven at school.

I certainly remember that there was a vaguely transgressive feeling to reading his work. It seemed (and still seems) so unlike anything else, and so dark. Poe is often thought of as florid and otherworldly (and he is both those things) but there is also an incredible honesty at work in his writing. It is like listening to his deepest fears and darkest desires. It is often assumed he was an opium addict but alcohol was his drug of choice and his ultimate undoing.

He knows how to start a story. These are the opening words of The Tell-tale Heart:

True! - nervous - very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses - not destroyed - not dulled them.

Listen to how modern that sounds and how strange. It makes me want to pick up my old Penguin anthology of his stories - hilariously titled The Portable Poe - and read those stories all over again.

So here's to Edgar Allan Poe. Thanks for the nightmares.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

You don't look a day over 799

There was an extraordinary event in Cambridge last night. A light show was projected onto the white walls of the Senate House. It was basically a kind of PowerPoint presentation outlining the history of the university, which is 800 years old this year, but what a screen!

Quentin Blake provided drawings of Darwin and Newton, Milton made an appearance and Stephen Hawking got sucked into a black hole. It all got a little psychedelic at times - a bit like a Pink Floyd concert without the music (which is, of course, fairly appropriate given their Cambridge roots).

There was music, but you could not hear it until you came to leave. The bells of Great St Mary were booming out, as were the bells of many other churches across Cambridge and across the whole country (and the world, in fact, with bells in New York and Melbourne among others, joining in).

Someone behind me - someone connected with the University clearly - said to whoever they were with - 'We've actually done rather a lot really, haven't we?'

Yes you have. Well done!

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Oliver Twist

I finally finished reading Oliver Twist to my son. I'm not sure whether the literary merits outweighed the problems I have with the book. In fact I'm sure they don't. The fact is, Oliver Twist is not a very good book. It has some fantastic moments - it is written by Dickens, so that goes without saying - but it also overwrought and overwritten, and often just plain silly.

I had never appreciated before what a folk tale Oliver Twist is. The boy Oliver is like some poor orphan from a Grimm's fairy story, setting off into the dark forest (except that London stands in for the forest). And there he falls prey to an evil goblin. . .

Fagin is not a character, he is a caricature; a collection of attributes. He is ugly, big-nosed and a miser, constantly wringing his hands and clutching at clothes, collecting children about him and corrupting them in ways that are only hinted at in the book. Fagin could step unchanged into a Nazi recruitment poster.

I have yet to read Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens, but I do have it on my shelves. I searched the index for any discussion of antisemitism but could not find any references. I do know that it was mentioned at the time and he received complaints and may have altered the text in response. But there does seem to be some idea that because Dickens was a decent sort, he could not also have been antisemitic. Here is how he introduces Fagin to us, standing like a demon in hell, toasting fork in hand:

In a frying-pan, which was on the fire, and which was secured to the mantel-shelf by a string, some sausages were cooking; and standing over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair.

And what about:

The mud lay thick upon the stones, and a black mist hung over the streets; the rain fell sluggishly down, and everything felt cold and clammy to the touch. It seemed just the night when it befitted such a being as the Jew to be abroad. As he glided stealthily along, creeping beneath the shelter of the walls and doorways, the hideous old man seemed like some loathsome reptile, engendered in the slime and darkness through which he moved: crawling forth, by night, in search of some rich offal for a meal.

Pages go by where Dickens never refers to Fagin by name but only as 'the Jew' or 'the old Jew' or the 'crafty Jew'. Dickens may well have defended himself by saying that he was creating a vile character who happened to be Jewish, but Fagin is defined by his Jewishness. It is hard to believe that Dickens did not feel that some part of Fagin's depravity was bound up in the man's Jewishness. Fagin is an extraordinary creation, but one that does Dickens little credit.

In a recent BBC adaptation, they tried to make Fagin more sympathetic (but Dickens has no sympathy for him) and even tried to make him the victim of antisemitism at his trial (when he is himself the product of antisemitism as a character). He was played by Timothy Spall - a man who could not be more physically distant from the shrivelled gargoyle Dickens created.

The Dickens of Oliver Twist is nothing like the Dickens of David Copperfield or the writer of The Signalman. It was an early book and he got better - much better - as a writer. Young Dickens was clearly not above Carry On style humour either. The character Charlie Bates alone is called Master. Master Bates. Geddit? Take this paragraph for example:

The three boys sallied out; the Dodger with his coat-sleeves tucked up, and his hat cocked, as usual; Master Bates sauntering along with his hands in his pockets; and Oliver between them, wondering where they were going, and what branch of manufacture he would be instructed in, first.

With his hands in his pockets. Hilarious. Of course there are flashes of brilliance - particularly in his descriptions of London seedier side:

Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half-a-dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it- as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.

Sykes is the one character that rings absolutely true. Sykes seems to be spot on: a brilliantly realised creation. Sykes swaggers off the page. I feel like I've crossed the street to avoid Sykes, heard his growling voice in the pub, felt his dog sniffing round my leg. He is terrifyingly real and horribly modern.

The same adaptation I mentioned above also tried to make it seem as though Sykes hanged himself because of his remorse at killing Nancy - a change that actually outdoes Dickens for sentimentality. Dickens is a lot harder on Sykes by making him haunted by Nancy's eyes, accidentally hanging himself while trying to escape a baying mob in arguably the best section of the entire book.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Roadrunner once

I went running this evening after a bit of a pause. I set off far too quickly and suffered for it later in my circuit. It was good to be running again, though there was so much traffic I ended up coughing for about half an hour when I got back. Instead of a healthy glow, I felt like I'd been chain smoking.

I like running in the dark with my iPod playing. I have a play list for running. The tracks have to be the right beat to really work and there is a certain type of music that seems to work well for me. I remember recently running through moon-shadows of trees on part of my route while Tom Verlaine's Days on the Mountain was playing. It was magical. Sometimes music just fills a gap you didn't even know was there and makes something perfect.

One argument against people walking or running around with headphones on is that we are providing a soundtrack to our lives as though we are in a movie. To which I say - what's wrong with that?

Writers are probably not the most psychologically stable of people. There is probably a common habit of stepping outside of the moment and observing, recording, rewriting - editing. I have always felt as though I was to some extent an actor in a movie.

It has often been a very dull movie, I hasten to add.

And they could certainly have cast someone better looking as the leading man.

My laptop came back from the technicians today. A little like dry cleaning, there was nothing to actually show that anything had been done apart from a piece of paper attached to the lid. I suppose time will tell.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Shameless name-dropping

I fell off the Manchester book award today. And after all my recent reminiscing about Manchester too! I had been on the longlist, but did not make the shortlist. Ah well. It was nice while it lasted.

Manchester has indeed been on my mind in the last few days. My email conversation with Helen Chase prompted me to Google a couple of people and I found my old friend Jim Parris. Jim was the bass player and musical heart of the band I was in - the one that never played. It was called Theramin. My old friend, former house-mate, studio-mate and fellow illustrator, Alan Adler, was on drums.

And what a fantastic name Jim Parris is, by the way. It sounds like someone Jack Kerouac would have hung out with.

Jim was - and is - a hugely talented musician. He was (and I'm sure still is) very good-looking and cool: everything I was not (and why am I saying 'was' there?). It must have been very frustrating to be in a band with people like me who could barely play a chord without help, though he never showed it if it was. Jim went on to form another band, called Bee Vamp in 1978. John Peel liked them I think. I was very jealous.

Alan also played drums in a band called The Thunderboys when he and the effervescent Carmel McCourt and I all shared a house. Most of the people in the house were in the band (not me though). Carmel was a painting student who, if memory serves, did spot paintings years before Damien Hirst. Carmel McCourt's not a bad name either is it?

Carmel guested on vocals for Bee Vamp and later the band Carmel emerged, with the lovely Carmel on vocals, Jim on bass and Jim's cousin Gerry on percussion. They had a couple of proper hit singles. They were on TV. I was very, very jealous.

After a couple of emails to Jim, Carmel herself got in touch. It was great to hear from her and to hear her news. She is appearing in a play called Song of Songs. I hope I get to see it. I'll give you the dates and venues when I've looked at the email again.

My link with music went in another direction. The other founder of Theramin was Paul Ablett who sang and played sax - or would have had we ever performed. He auditioned me by asking me to play along with James White and the Black's Contort Yourself.

Paul also used to write music reviews for the Student Union newspaper - Pulp. He asked me to illustrate them and those drawings were my first real illustration commissions.

I left Manchester in 1980 and went to London, sharing a house in Palmer's Green and a studio opposite the British Museum with Alan Adler (who was still playing the drums). The Pulp pictures and some paintings of rock stars I did in my final year - Howard Devoto of Magazine among them - got me a job at Record Mirror drawing caricatures of pop stars for the letters page. A job that lasted for five long years. I don't think I ever drew Carmel, but I certainly drew Mick Hucknall of Simply Red who was in her year (the one below mine) at the art college in Manchester.

I had very little interest in the 80s pop scene and I probably did not put my all into those drawings of Bananarama and Haircut 100, looking back. And Boy George stills owes me £200 for a drawing I did for his fan club. My guess is that I'm probably not going to get that back now, am I Mr O'Dowd?

Thursday, 8 January 2009

We are on. . .

Apologies to anyone who took my advice and downloaded I Love You You Big Dummy and whacked up the volume and was in any way appalled by Howard Devoto blurting out the f word. I'd forgotten about that. Hey - that was the seventies! But it's great though, isn't it? And while you are downloading things download The Stooges No Fun to hear Iggy Pop before he was an insurance salesman.

Peter Kirkham got in contact to say that he had heard John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten was now a property developer. After a little Googling I have to say that however unlikely this seemed it does appear to be the case. He also appears to want to break into TV. Presenting Property Ladder would be perfect wouldn't it? Altogether now - Property in the UK. . . it's coming sometime - maybe. . .

My laptop went off to Dell for some tough love, as predicted.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

I'm bored

I'm the chairman of the bored. . .

If anything was going to work as an antidote to my flirtation with seventies nostalgia, it was going to be seeing Iggy Pop doing an insurance advert. Insurance? Iggy Pop?

I saw Iggy Pop in Manchester in the late seventies. He was wearing nothing but a pair of leather trousers with a horse's tail sticking out of the backside, like he was some kind of demented fawn. He was like a force of nature.

Seeing Iggy pop up on TV was all a bit sad. Younger people won't know who he is, surely, and anyone who does will hardly be attracted by the godfather of punk selling out. It is even more tragic than John Lydon doing a butter advert somehow (and heaven knows that was bad enough).

No fun.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009


Christmas is officially over. The cards have come down and the wreath is in the recycling bin. In Venice Epiphany (the Christian celebration of the visit of the Magi) has the added attraction of the Bufana - a witch who leaves sweets in children's stockings (or ashes if they've been bad!). There is even, apparently, a rowing race down the Grand Canal featuring men dressed as old ladies.

My son went back to school today and I was in my office in earnest, doing all kinds of dull but important pieces of displacement activity. My laptop has been playing up and though I know that it is going to have to go back to Dell to get fixed, still I let one of their technicians attempt to fix it by remote.

While he was doing this, my agent called. Philippa was ringing to check my availability for a meeting with Bloomsbury, to talk about the latest book and to discuss what happens next.

I always slightly dread the 'what happens next' discussions. It's not that I don't have lots of things I want to do. Far from it. It's more that I get stressed trying to decide which of the many things I'd like to do is the one that has most going for it.

Monday, 5 January 2009

I guess it's just a wave of nostalgia

For an age yet to come.

An old Buzzcocks song, if you're wondering. Actually, I rather like the Penetration version as well.

But there we are. Having said I dislike nostalgia a couple of posts back, I have been indulging in some in the last few days. It started with a reminiscing session with Paul Grunfeld and the resulting post brought contact from Helen Chase who is writing a book about one of my favourite bands of the late seventies - Magazine.

So if any of the old Manchester crowd reads this and happens to have any photos or memorabilia from that time, then get in touch and I'll pass it on to Helen - or go directly to her (her email is in her comment posted a few posts back). And if you don't know Magazine's music, then go and download I Love You You Big Dummy or The Light Pours Out of Me or Give Me Everything and whack the volume up.

Helen was asking me what my impression of Manchester was in those pre-New Order days and it brought back a lot of memories, good and bad - but that has as much to do with my age and my character as the place or the music scene. Having said that, one of my great regrets is not performing in a band. I was in a band for a short time (and had a white Les Paul copy guitar with perspex knobs on) but we never actually played (and sadly that is a vital part of the definition of a band). Ah - how different the world might have been if we had.

Or not.

But I always hated people older than me banging on about the sixties and how fantastic it was, and I was always determined that I would not be the same about the seventies, however much I enjoyed myself at the time.

And as for people who are nostalgic about the eighties - well, words fail me.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Match postponed

I drove my son into the middle of nowhere for his first football match of the New Year only to have it cancelled by the ref because the ground was frozen. All the parents were naturally very disappointed that they had to miss standing around in sub-zero temperatures.

It is actually cold! It's winter and it's cold. Who'd have thought it?

Obviously if you are reading this anywhere in the world where it gets properly cold in winter, you won't be at all impressed, but here in Cambridge, a couple of nights of frost and the shops already look like they've been looted.

Have to go. Must panic-buy some groceries before it's too late.

Friday, 2 January 2009


Ever since we got back from Venice I have felt like I was on a boat. We spent so much time on vaporettos that my brain seems to have decided that I am permanently shifting balance to accommodate the rocking of a boat. I am finding it hard to walk in a straight line. My wife says she feels the same. It is very odd. What would we be like if we went on a cruise?

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Happy new year

So here we are at the start of another year. . .

There is always that strange mixture of excitement and melancholy - well, for me anyway. I understand that the notion that January 1st is in any way the start of something new is totally spurious as the date is arbitrary, and yet I can never stop myself from falling into that trap of thinking that I can, snake-like, shed a skin and be renewed. And I can never quite stop myself from feeling disappointed when this proves not to be the case and come July I'm still the same vaguely misanthropic malcontent with a big nose and anger issues.

Here's my New Year Payne's Grey:

My blog came to a rather sudden halt some time back in November - and I've had complaints! The reasons for this breakdown in communications are many, but I will be magically filling in the gaps with blogs I started but never published.