Saturday, 28 February 2009

What would Jesus do?

I cycled into town with my son today and bumped into my friend and studio-mate Lynette. I haven't seen her for ages because, having been frozen out during the recent cold spell, I have been at home working on the revisions to the novel. I promised her I would be in next week and we'd grab a coffee and catch up.

There was an extraordinary piece in the Guardian magazine this weekend in which American Christians explained how they squared their belief in a man who said 'Turn the other cheek' and 'Let he who is without sin cast the first stone' with their desire to summarily execute anyone who crossed them.

Why is it that so many Christians seem to be obsessed with an Old Testament desire to smite their enemies? Lighten up. Why follow a philosophy of peace and then look for loopholes? There was someone interviewed who was far more interested in the fact that Simon Peter cut off the ear of the high priest's servant when Jesus was arrested, than he was in the more important fact that Jesus did not resist at all. Who are they following: Peter or Jesus? Who exemplifies the Christian ethos in that story? Peter or Jesus? It's like saying you are a vegetarian - and eating meat anyway because you like the taste and anyway, who the hell's gonna stop you.

There was that craze for stickers saying 'What would Jesus do?' a while back. Well I think we can safely assume he wouldn't be driving a 4X4 with a Colt .45 in the glove compartment. In fact we know what Jesus did do in the Garden of Gesthemene - if we can use the word 'know' at all - he told Peter to put his sword away. He was a man of peace.

To cap it all, these people are often described as 'fundamentalists'. Wouldn't a 'fundamentalist' Christian - someone who followed the fundamentals of Christ's teachings - be someone who owned very little, did no one any harm, wished no one ill and tried as best they could to help their fellow man, regardless of sex, colour, creed or political belief?

Or am I missing something?

Friday, 27 February 2009

One last tinker

I finally got the revisions to the ms of my new novel for Bloomsbury finished and sent off. There is always a feeling of relief tied to a desire to just have one more look and one last tinker. . .

But I promised I would have it back by the end of the month and I am always pleased to hit a deadline.

So what is it about, this novel? Well, as I have already said, it is set in the Victorian period and is about a boy called Michael Vyner who is orphaned and becomes the ward of a rich man - Sir Stephen Clarendon - whose life his father saved (at the expense of his own). The book follows Michael's visit at Christmas to his guardian's moated manor house in the fens - a grim and mysterious house called Hawton Mere.

Now I have a few moments to relax and then I have to get on and check the proofs of Tales from the Tunnel's Mouth. I saw the cover David has done when I saw Sarah Odedina the other day and it looks great - his best Tales of Terror cover yet, I think.

And I got an email from Ian Lamb telling about another award shortlisting for Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror. But more about that next week. . .

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Paint it black

I went out for a drink with John last night. While we were waiting for our friend Malcolm Harding to arrive we managed to have a twenty minute conversation about the use of black in paintings. I hate to think what we sounded like to anyone else but I love talking about art. In fact there are few things I'd rather talk about.

A couple of posts back I was saying how art college squashed my admiration for the Pre-Raphaelites, but it wasn't a one way process. I think I made it sound quite negative, and that isn't how I think of it at all. In fact I think I am from a generation who came out of art college still believing in art; still trusting it.

It also opened my eyes and mind to lots of things I had previously not encountered or ignored. That process also opened my mind to other things - literature, politics, music. A valve was opened that has never been shut off and for that I am extraordinarily grateful. Thank you Manchester Polytechnic School of Art and Design (even if you have changed your name to the ridiculous Manchester Metropolitan University)

I have art college to thank for everything good in my life.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

A pain in the neck

I sat down at my desk yesterday and my neck seized up and it became increasingly painful to do any of the looking up blankly into space that I normally do. I have been getting a lot of pains recently - in my left shoulder and in my elbow. It is either to do with the a) unsuitable seat I sit in, b) the fact that I am horribly old and worn out, c) that I am unusually stressed at the moment. Or all of the above.

But the show must go on. Being a professional writer/illustrator/cartoonist or whatever is obviously defined by getting paid for the work - but another big part of it is that you do it whether you feel like it or not. There is no mileage in throwing a sickie when you are self-employed.

My neck works a little better today after some exercise and ibuprofen. My friend Tom Pitchford - librarian from Hitchin Boys School - sent me a link I'm going to share with you. It is for a designer called M S Corley who has redesigned the Harry Potter covers in the style of old Penguins.

Take a look - they are very nicely done. The Lemony Snickets are good too.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Victorians

I'm enjoying Jeremy Paxman's series about the Victorians on the BBC. I have a bit of a soft spot for Paxman, but his style doesn't quite work here. He is fine when he is talking to camera or narrating, but his meetings with ordinary people are a bit strained. I don't get the impression he gets out much.

But the notion of looking at Victorian society through painting is a good one. Some of the art is execrable of course - and only interesting because of what it tells us about that world. But let's face it - much of contemporary art is execrable too, and tells us nothing except how much some people are willing to pay for so little.

My main art teacher at school was the infuriatingly moody Joe Taylor, who nonetheless was also funny and clever and passionate about art. He had a particular passion for the Pre-Raphaelites and I remember being very excited about the fantastic collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings at the Manchester City Art Gallery. That was, until art college had taught me to be embarrassed by it.

Follow the link to the Pre-Raphaelite collection and take a look. It has Holman Hunt's Light of the World which used to grace the walls of many a Victorian nursery - and presumabley gave the creeps to many a Victorian child!

But Manchester is a Victorian city, full of Victorian treasures. Every Christmas, boards would be taken down at the art school in All Saints to reveal a magnificent Edward Burne-Jones tapestry (made by Morris & Co) of the Adoration of the Magi. It was hidden, I was told at the time, because it was too expensive to insure all year round. I don't know whether that was true - but it certainly added to the magic that it was hidden for most of the year.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Gog Magogs



We decided to have a day off from homework and novel-writing and went up to the Gog Magog hills to the south of Cambridge - to Wandlebury rings - the remains of a bronze age hill fort. It was teeming with people today, but that still couldn't extinguish the magic of the place. We have still yet to see the lesser spotted woodpeckers they claim to have there, but that might be to do with the fact that my son does tend to make a lot of noise crashing through the undergrowth and stick fighting with his father.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Pink and purple and read all over



The Japanese edition of Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror turned up today, courtesy of Rironsha. It looks great. The cover has a pink tint to it, but opens onto purple endpapers and then a bright red title page. I like it a lot.

And pint-sized pub singer Duffy has had great success at the Brit Awards. The Guardian tells me that she has been compared to Dusty Springfield. Hmmm. Yes - that surprised me, too. But on closer inspection, their names are almost identical. Duffy. Dusty. Uncanny, really.

They certainly couldn't have meant vocally. Dusty Springfield had a voice that is rich and accomplished and yet also heart-breakingly fragile.

While Duffy has a voice that sounds like a bluebottle trapped under a glass.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

What next?


I went to London today to meet Sarah Odedina at Bloomsbury to have the 'what next' meeting I mentioned a while back. I met Philippa, my agent, beforehand and we had a coffee and cake and a chat before heading up to Soho Square.

My family accompanied me to London, and we all went to see the excellent Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy in the morning. It was a beautifully designed show packed full of gems (in both senses of the word). The rooms shone with gold. In fact the coins alone were worth the visit. There were lots of exhibits from Venice (pillaged from Constantinople during the infamous Fourth Crusade) - some of which we recognised from San Marco. Many exhibits came from places I will probably never visit - and some from places where my wife (who has the audacity to be a woman) would not be allowed to visit.

My meeting at Bloomsbury went well. Sarah is incredibly enthusiastic and it was great to hear how excited both her and Philippa are about the new book. You can lose sight of that sometimes as a writer: that other people do not know what is coming as they turn the page, and are excited at the prospect.

So what is next? Well another novel for Bloomsbury, that's for sure. I have not lost my interest in writing short stories - not by a long way - but I am enjoying the challenge of writing something longer. But I will be writing short fiction again, I promise you that.

What is this new novel going to be like, I hear you ask. Well, all right - maybe you didn't exactly ask, but I'm going to tell you anyway. Actually - I'm not. It will be creepy, of course - I can tell you that much. And this time I think I may write something contemporary. But that's as far as I'm willing to go at the moment. I have a few things in mind and I'll let you know more as the months go by.

Assuming you're interested that is. . .

Monday, 16 February 2009

Work, work, work


I should have been drinking wine and eating canapes at the Groucho Club in Soho this evening, but I just could not afford the time off, given that I am going to see Bloomsbury tomorrow and I want to get as much done beforehand as I can and am just a little bit troubled about giving off too much of a dog-ate-my-homework kind of vibe.

Anyway, living in Cambridge means that it is almost impossible to go to an evening event in London and not stop over - not because it is a long way away (it is only 45 minutes) but because public transport fizzles out too early. I had actually originally intended to stop over. I planned to book a night at the Goodenough with the family and have a day out in London. But I thought better of it. Work, work, work.

Oh - and I would not want you to think that I eat canapes at the Groucho Club on a regular basis. In truth I have never been to the Groucho Club before. But I had been invited to the launch of the Ultimate Book Guide, for which I had contributed a few reviews.

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror is reviewed in the book by one of the editors - Daniel Hahn - but as the review gives away the plot twists to most of the stories I would not suggest reading it if you want to enjoy the book!

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Gooseberries

Valentine's Day. As usual my wife and I enjoyed a traditional romantic dinner for three. When you have children, you grow your own gooseberries - if you see what I mean.

I forgot to mention that news of a couple of foreign editions came through this week. Rironsha have published Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror in Japan. It came out last November. They are sending a couple of copies to Bloomsbury so I hope I'll see one soon. I am very excited about that. The Japanese have a great understanding of horror and things creepy so I take the fact that they are publishing one of my books as a great compliment.

I am also delighted that Raben & Sjogren are publishing Uncle Monty in Sweden very shortly. I am hoping for success in both these countries. I have not been to either country and would very much like to. So, come on - buy those books!

Raben & Sjogren sent a PDF of the cover. I'm intrigued by the fact that they have shrunk Edgar. . .

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Waterland




Flood alert. I set off to the cinema to meet John and found the path led to a fast flowing river. There can be few things more redundant than a bridge that leads to water. Actually it sounds like a Buddhist aphorism doesn't it? Life is but a bridge that leads to water. Death is just a bridge that leads to water. Maybe not.

So - I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire more than I had expected to. The words 'feelgood movie' always fill me with a particular dread. But I quite liked that conceit of using the questions in the studio and the interrogations of the police to tell the story of the character. It was Kurasowa-like. And the performances were great.

It didn't make me want to go to Mumbai in any kind of a hurry though.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Mad Men

I had two contacts from Brazil today. One was a sixteen year old writer called Vitoria Pratini (a friend of Frini) leaving a comment on my blog in Rio. The other was Merche Clark whom I stayed with when I was in Rio. Merche, you may recall if you have been following my adventures, is sister to my studio mate John Clark and owner of the Jamer Bookshop. Merche made me feel very welcome when I was in Rio. If you are in the city and you have a moment to spare, get yourself down to her bookshop and buy some books. It would be nice if they were mine, but any purchases would be greatly appreciated I'm sure.

And speaking of John Clark, I'm off to see Slumdog Millionaire with him tonight. I hope it is as good as everyone says it is, because I am dog tired and might just fall asleep.

This blog is in serious risk of degenerating into a name-dropping site, but I used to work for Danny Boyle a long time ago. He was the director of the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs and I did a couple of posters for him. I have chatted in a port-a-cabin with Danny Boyle. Are you jealous? Don't be. I specialise in working with people before they were rich and famous. It's actually quite annoying.

Mad Men is back. I was traumatised by the loss of The Sopranos and missed out on The Wire but Mad Men is superb television. It's dark, it's clever, it's sexy. It is so well acted. People used to say British TV was the best in the world (by which they meant the BBC). If that was ever true, it isn't any more.

Britain is not showing itself capable of coming up with anything as good as Mad Men. The Sopranos could never have been made here. And it's not just about production values and access to movie-making talent and facilities (though that does make a difference obviously). It is the ambition. Mad Men is art. What British TV in recent years can you say that about?

The BBC prides itself on costume drama and quite rightly so. But Mad Men is also costume drama and it shows what you can do within that format.

It can be more than slipping a sex scene into a Jane Austen novel.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Cutting and pasting

I am still deep into the rewrite. I work on a computer and there are good and bad things about that way of working when it comes to doing alterations.

The good thing is that you can move whole chunks of texts - whole chapters if necessary - by cutting and pasting. The bad thing is that you can move whole chunks of text - whole chapters sometimes - by cutting and pasting.

What I mean is, it can be too easy to change things. The text starts to come apart at the seams because it is no longer a solid mass, but a collection of floating paragraphs. And a novel needs to hang together.

I'm not just talking about plot (or the story, if you object to the word plot) here, though obviously that is very important. I want my work to read well - to sound good. Messing about with the structure of the book can play havoc with those nice rhythms you created in the first draft.

That said, I think that radical change is better than the odd tweak here and there. As long as you always keep a copy of the original you can always revert. You certainly get nowhere by being precious about your own text.

Better to be brave than tentative.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Goosebumps

We had the lovely Mardi Dungey and her son round this evening. Mardi is back in Cambridge from Tasmania for a week. It was great to see her and to hear that Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror is in the bookshops in Hobart. We miss her and Ross a lot.

Earlier in the day I went over to Sainsburys to do a rare supermarket shopping trip and Radio 3 had David Daniels as a guest. I have never really 'got' opera. It is just about the only music form that leaves me cold and I get a little tired of how it is used as some sort of cultural benchmark. I see no reason why people singing drivel in often quite silly voices should have any greater inherent value than jazz or country and western. It certainly did not have that status originally.

That said, I can't remember who it was, but I heard someone on Radio 2 picking some favourite pieces of music and one of them was David Daniels. What an extraordinary voice. It is easy to say that he sounds feminine, but that misses the point. His voice has a weird unearthly quality because he is a man and yet sings in that beautiful clear voice. I am normally immune to men with high voices (with maybe the exception of Curtis Mayfield) but David Daniels is incredible.

Just as I suggested with the very different Howard Devoto (and boy is that an understatement), download a track and bang up the volume. It will give you goosebumps.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Ch..ch..ch..changes

I am working on the my new book for Bloomsbury. I have been calling it Ghosts in old blog posts and then changed that to The Secrets of Hawton Mere. I am wondering if that is going to be the title when it goes onto print. Titles are strange things. They are either there from the start - sometimes before the start - or they they just loom out at you one day.

I see nothing wrong with this. It would be a problem if the nature of the novel was in a state of flux and the title tinkering reflected this indecision. But a title needs to be right. And the only way you know if it is right is when you hear it.

I have spoken at length to Helen Szirtes about the various issues she has with the book and the issues I might have with those issues and so on. But surely this means I am a terrible writer. Surely I should be able to do it all on my own. Why do I need help? I am a failure etc etc. . .

Well not really. The editor/writer relationship is one of constant negotiation. Certainly a writer who gives in to every suggestion probably doesn't know what they are doing. A writer who refuses to accept any suggestion is probably insecure. And a writer who refuses to consider good suggestions - especially when they are coming from someone as intelligent and insightful as Helen - is just plain stupid.

For a lot of the time I was an illustrator I would do anything to avoid using someones suggestion. I felt like it was my job to come up with the ideas and I had failed if someone else did it. I would reject perfectly good ideas just so that I could hang on to the notion that it was all my work.

I think working in newspapers changed that. In newspapers you are usually dealing with an editor rather than a designer and they are used to talking things through with journalists - that's the way they work. Journalists tend to have an annoying desire to have every word in the article portrayed in the illustration, but at least they know what they are talking about when it comes to the article you are supposed to illustrate or the concept you are dealing with in your cartoon. At the Independent I had Matt Hoffman on the comment pages and he was no more going to let a lame cartoon of mine through, than he was a lame column. And quite right too.

I still don't take advice easily. I still want to do everything myself. But with writing I think I'm more willing to accept that what I've done might not be the only way to go. I want everything I do to be better than the last thing I did. I want everything I do to be the best it can possibly be and if someone can see a route to that better than I can, then I'm not going to deliberately walk the other way just to be bloody minded.

Philippa Milnes-Smith got in touch having read Helen's suggestions and gave me some more, just as thoughtful as Helen's. I won't be incorporating them all. In fact some of the detail will become irrelevant as I work and areas are discarded or added to and characters dropped and introduced. But Helen and Philippa's comments will help me decide what to keep and what to lose.

Isabel Ford sent the proofs of Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth today. It is a general rule of thumb that publishing deadlines are drawn to each other as if by some kind of gravitational force. So I need to get this book sorted out and back to Bloomsbury and then I need to get the proofs read and sent back. It is going to be a busy few weeks.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Adverts

There are two brilliant adverts being shown on British TV. Both feature children, but are very, very different.

The first is a road safety ad. It shows a man haunted by the broken body of the child he had run over. It is not only a horribly effective advert, it is a brilliantly creepy piece of film making. It is a model of restraint, and shows that you can get pack a jolt and a shudder into a very short time frame if you know what you are doing. It's the banality of the locations that make it so horrible. It is shocking, in the best sense of the work.

The new Cadbury's Dairy Milk ad by contrast is hilarious. It is also a wonderful piece of film making and is also, in its way, a model of restraint. The performances by the kids are brilliant. How anyone came up with the notion of children waggling their eyebrows to a a dance track as a way of advertising chocolate I cannot imagine.

But I'm very glad they did.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Snowflakes are falling




Snow finally came to Cambridge today - and indeed most of the UK. It was pretty deep by the end of the day. I walked my son to school only to find that the school was closed and had not been added to the list on the local BBC radio. Still, it gave us a chance to see what Cambridge looked like under a crisp clean layer of snow. And it looked beautiful if course.

Later in the day we went out to Grantchester Meadows which looked magical and was all but deserted. The snow was relatively untouched and stretched away to the horizon, blending into the blank sky. The river was black and a large hunk of grey ice floated by on a strong current.

One of the many advantages of working from home is that it means you get a chance to have a snowball fight with your son (though I shouldn't be saying this as my publisher/agent may read this and wonder why I am not nose to the keyboard.

But this was perfect snowball snow and we must have had a snowball fight every chance we've had since he was able to throw one.

But it may be time to stop. His aim is getting too good.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Tea? Coffee? Frostbite?

I opened the curtains today and groaned. There was no sign of the sharp frost we had been promised and that meant that I would have to go to football with my son and not only that, I would have to stand on the sidelines serving teas and coffees in a freezing cold wind.

The parents take it in turns to serve refreshments at the matches and today it was my turn. It was bitterly cold and my son still belligerently refuses to score a goal. Why can't he play table tennis or badminton something indoors, where parents could take it in turns to serve cocktails and finger food?

One of the important parts of serving refreshments is that the kids get squash and biscuits at half time. Of course I screwed that up and though Will and Jane Hill (their son goes to the same school as mine and has recently joined the team - and has already scored!) stepped in to help me, it arrived just as the second half was starting.

I am an utter failure as a soccer dad.