Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Lights, camera, inaction

I spoke to Philippa, my agent, yesterday. It was the Bolgna Children's Book Fair last week and she was catching up. She had the rather exciting news that a film production company had expressed an interest in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror.

The movies! Hollywood! The big time.

Well, not quite. Expressing an interest is free and is therefore quite popular. I once had an excited phone call from my previous agents telling me that Sam Rami was interested in my book - Death and the Arrow was the one I had out at that time. Within seconds of the phone call I was picturing myself living some strangely 1960s version of the high life, driving along the Italian Riviera in an open topped white Mercedes sports car.

Then I got another phone call. There had been a mistake. Sam Rami wasn't interested in my book at all. He was interested in Christopher Priest's book. He was with the same agent and some frantic fingering on the Rolodex had resulted in a call to me and not him. Damn you Christopher Priest and your freakishly similar name!

So expressions of interest need to be taken with a pinch of salt. They may - if you are lucky - result in an option being taken out on a book. This means that the interested production company pays the writer an amount to secure the book for a fixed period, during which they may or may not do something with it.

What was most interesting about this nibble from the film world was that it came from a production company with an interesting track record and with an inquiry as to whether I might be interested in scripting the movie myself.

The answer to which is - yes, I most definitely am.

Saturday, 27 March 2010


I went to collect the work not chosen for the Eastern Open today. This is the downside of entering competitive open exhibitions - there is the very real chance of failure. I was lucky. I had at least got one of the three painting I entered into the exhibition, and better than that, they had chosen my personal favourite of the three.

The exhibition will be at the Arts Centre in King's Lynn in Norfolk. We lived nearby for thirteen years. I got married in the beautiful Guildhall and my son was born in the Queen Elizabeth hospital one starry night in 1997, the Hale-Bopp comet hovering overhead.

I'm not sure we have been back to King's Lynn since we had we had our meetings with the solicitor finalising the sale of our lovely house. It will seem very strange to go back after four years. I went to King's Lynn every week for the whole time we lived in Norfolk and yet the thing that comes most readily to mind is my son waddling down the pedestrianised areas not long after he had learned to walk, head down, watching his feet, crashing into passers by and arbitrarily wandering into any shop that took his fancy. It took forever to get anywhere.

Happy days.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Wonders of the solar system.

And speaking of sci-fi, I am really enjoying the BBC's Wonders of the Solar System. I realise that it is science-fact rather than science-fiction, but frankly the facts are often so bizarre that it feels like fiction.

The programme is presented with wide-eyed and contagious enthusiasm by ex pop star Professor Brian Cox. At least it says he is a professor, but he actually looks like a slightly dippy newly qualified teacher with a an evangelical desire to make physics fun. He is perfect for this though. He knows his stuff and is quietly radical in his championing of a rational view of the cosmos, but he is also young enough to be still connected with his boyhood fascination with space.

It was a fascination I shared. When I was a boy we lived for a few years in Gibraltar. My father was in the army and we were stationed there. My father had actually been stationed there in WWII for a while. We had an apartment with a balcony that overlooked the Mediterranean and had views out across to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

The night sky was often crystal clear. This was the 1960s and the space race between the US and the USSR was full on. I'm not sure there was a child anywhere at the time who was not caught up in the excitement of it. It is certainly no accident that the first piece of writing I did that ended up in print was a short story called Journey to the Moon. It was entered into a competition (by my parents? My teacher?) run by the local paper, El Calpense. The story was published in the newspaper.

I won a medal. I still have it.

Thursday, 25 March 2010


Finally got round to watching Moon on DVD. For those of you who haven't seen it, this is a pretty rare cinematic excursion into old-fashioned sci-fi and is hugely enjoyable. It is directed by David Bowie's son, who for understandable reasons has ditched the name Zowie Bowie in favour of Duncan Jones (Bowie's real name being Jones of course).

It is the story of a man - very well played by Sam Rockwell - who appears to be going a little mad as he reaches the end of his seven year stint on a mining station on the moon. There is an accident aboard one of the vehicles and he wakes up in the infirmary to discover that there now seems to be a slightly younger, fitter and angrier version of himself in the building. Any more information would ruin the movie for you.

It reminded me a little of John Carpenter's Dark Star, but with a little 2001 A Space Odyssey thrown in. Maybe there is also a little Alien in there too, with the outside shots and the sinister corporation. The computer at the lunar station certainly seemed like a cousin of HAL from 2001. And the computer was the only issue for me really. If they had the technology to make empathetic computers that could think imaginatively, then why have humans up there at all? Aren't they a bit messy and unpredictable?

But none of that spoils the movie. In fact it reminded me how much I enjoyed science fiction as teenager. I read 'hard' sci-fi with wonderful Chris Foss covers, and I read the more lyrical wing with writers like Bradbury and Le Guin. It is more than a genre really. It is rather like fantasy in the way that the name of the genre is just a signal for you to expect the unexpected. It superficially seems to have the future as its concern, but it is often a commentary on the present and almost always concerned about the human condition. Its scope is almost limitless.

Why is there not more sci-fi literature for children I wonder?

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Mon oncle

We watched this movie at Christmas. I had been meaning to buy it for ages because I felt sure that my son would like it. But the nearer we got to watching it, the more I worried that he would be bored by it. I had not seen it as a child. I first saw it at the Everyman in Hampstead if memory serves. Would it work for a 12 year-old?

Once again this is a movie has children at its heart whilst not being actually for them. I suppose this could be classed as a family film, but it is possibly a little too sophisticated for that classification to be a perfect fit.

The main example of the way in which it doe not try hard enough to keep younger viewers on board, is in the pacing of the gags. This is not a criticism by the way. I get so tired of the idea that everything has to be traveling at full pelt to be engaging, particularly to children.

It takes nerve to slow things down. There is a running gag about a street sweeper who never seems to actually get round to sweeping. It is not pushed forward and then discarded as it would be in a contemporary comedy. It is savoured. It is allowed time. A similar indulgence is given to the sight gag of Tati entering and leaving his apartment. It is almost painfully slow. But brilliant because of it.

It was already a nostalgic movie when it came out and is more so now of course. But its attack on modern living still seems to work. Tati saw the ridiculous side of people willingly becoming slaves to their machines - he would have had even more material now of course. But mainly it is a hymn to mess, to accident, to childhood and to free spirit.

And did my son think I was mad for showing it to him? Thankfully no. He loved it. I think he laughed as much at this movie as any comedy he's seen.

Go and buy a copy of this movie immediately. If you haven't seen it you are in for a treat. If you have, remind yourself of how good it is. It is wonderful. And the closing credits are astonishingly beautiful. Who could have thought a net curtain blowing in the breeze could look so lovely?

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth was another DVD that sat on my shelf for a long time before we finally got round to watching it. I had been forewarned from reviews in newspapers and from friends that it contained some fairly disturbing images and though it may seem a strange thing coming from a writer of horror fiction, I am pretty squeamish.

In fact I always feel a bit of a fraud when I am introduced as a horror writer. Horror suggests gore to me, and though there is gore in my books (and I do love that word) I tend not to dwell on it. It is certainly never the point for me. Gore doesn't interest me as a destination.

Neither, to be fair, is gore the main ingredient of Pan's Labyrinth. It is a movie that deals with horror, but there is so much more going on. It is a fairy story set against the real horrors of the Spanish Civil War and like many fairy stories and myths, it has a child as the protagonist.

There are obvious similarities with Alice in Wonderland but it is much more grim - and Grimm. It also has more than a touch of the Persephone myth. Ofelia, the main character is beset by dangers wherever she goes, in our world, and the strange underworld she visits. As with his Hellboy movies, you get the impression that del Toro has a soft spot for monsters.

As for human beings - that's a different matter.

Pan's Labyrinth does have shocking moments of violence but it is actually no more violent than many folk tales (in the original form) or myths. If you were to film Hansel and Gretel or Cinderella as they were originally told no child would be allowed to see them.

I find Guillermo del Toro's inventiveness very inspiring. His Hellboy movies are great and he is to direct The Hobbit for Peter Jackson soon I gather. I also read that he is going to be involved in movies of both Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde.

There is nothing particular in Pan's Labyrinth that is directly relevant to my work as a writer. But I remember that I just had a feeling when I had finished watching it that I needed to up my game.

It was - like all good art - a kind of call to arms.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Night of the hunter

I have blogged about Night of the Hunter before, but I make no apologies for doing so again. I did not watch Night of the Hunter with my son. Although it has a '12' rating here in the UK I was not sure what he would make of it. I can still remember the first time I saw it. It had a massive effect on me and has haunted me ever since. I think my son should wait.

Again - this is almost a children's story. It is a kind of fairy tale - a brother and sister cast adrift in a cruel world, a hidden treasure and a terrible pursuing demon. It has the feeling of a myth transposed into Depression-era America - but no myth that you can actually recall.

The movie is based on a 1953 novel of the same name by Davis Grubb that I keep meaning to read but never get round to. I suspect this is some kind of reluctance on my part to interfere with the images from the movie. The book is supposed to be very good though.

The Night of the Hunter is always in my mind somewhere, mostly way back in the darkness. But whenever I feel dissatisfied about my writing and feel there is something lacking - it is invariably Night of the Hunter that seems to come closest to evoking the element that is absent.

This may seem odd. Night of the Hunter is an intensely visual movie. One of its stars - Lillian Gish - was a huge star of the silent era and its director Charles Laughton seems to be using a visual style that owes as much to German Expressionist cinema as it does to anything around at the time. But despite all the visual trickery and showmanship, it never becomes a cold experiment. Robert Mitchum's performance is bizarre, but intentionally so, and his character is all the more nightmarish because of it. The story-telling is very contrived, but I like contrivance. It is pretentious, but I see nothing wrong with pretentiousness anyway?

For me Night of the Hunter is a talismanic piece. It is just another reminder to me that I loathe safety in art. None of us want to fail in the way that Laughton failed - critics panned the movie and he never made another - and that can often be the excuse for taking the easiest option. I don't see Laughton's failure as a warning. I see it more as a reminder that something can be good and not appreciated. As a writer, painter, film-maker, you simply have to go with your own judgment and hope for the best.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

To kill a mockingbird

Continuing with my theme of movies with child protagonists, I thought I would mention To Kill a Mockingbird. I watched this recently with my son and I don't think I had seen it since I was a child myself. I read Harper Lee's novel to him not too long ago so the story was fresh in our minds as we sat down to watch.

I remember the book and the movie being part of my education in the awareness of the struggle of black people in America. I don't know when I first saw it, but I'm guessing that I would have been ten or twelve. The movie came out in 1962 when I was four (though the setting is a lot earlier of course). A year later Martin Luther King would make his 'I have a dream' speech and JFK would be shot in Dallas.

There is a more straightforward children's story here. The recurring theme of the mysterious Boo Radley (nicely played by Robert Duvall) is wonderful and would probably be enough to make a successful children's book on its own. Boo - what a great name for a scary character!

But then there is far meatier tale of Atticus Finch and Tom Robinson, racism and injustice, ignorance and alleged rape. Scout (nicely played by Mary Badham) certainly has a lot of growing up to do during the course of the book and film. Philip Alford is equally good as Jem, and John Megna is perfect as the eccentric Dill (based on the young Truman Capote with whom Lee was childhood friends). Gregory Peck's slightly wooden acting style actually seems a good fix for the awkward Atticus. But it did make me want to watch In the Heat of the Night to see a black hero take on racial bigotry rather than a white one.

I think racism seems more of an alien concept to my son than it did to me when I grew up, and that has to be a good thing. Racism has not gone away - arguably a suspicion of difference is the default position in human beings - but there does seem to be a more general acknowledgment that it is a bad thing and something to be discouraged. But it is a difficult dragon to slay. It constantly changes its shape and form.

The book clearly had to be edited down to work as a movie and there is a lot of social and political references that are easy to lose. But looking at the movie again, I was struck by the fact that whereas the book tries (though arguably not hard enough) to let us into the lives of Scout's black neighbours - particularly Calpurnia - in the movie she and all the other black people are pushed into the background. The balance feels wrong. For a movie about race, it's awfully white.

What I had completely forgotten about - or perhaps did not appreciate when I first saw it - are the wonderful opening credits designed by Stephen Frankfurt. They are absolutely superb.

Friday, 12 March 2010

More paint

Today I took the paintings intended for the Eastern Open off to the drop-off point in Cambridge. Entering an open is always a bit of a lottery, so now it's just a case of waiting to see what the judges make of them.

I also went to pick up the paintings I have chosen to enter into the Royal Academy Summer Show from the framers. They are small paintings - smaller than the ones for the Eastern Open (which aren't very big themselves) - and so I have opted for a wide frame to give them a bit of elbow room should they get chosen.

Thursday, 11 March 2010


I went to the studio today to get my paintings for the Eastern Open sorted out. I have about eight on the go, and it was simply a matter of which ones worked in the short space of time I had left.

I often find that it is easier to work on the ones that I like least when I have limited time. I am less nervous about ruining them, and because I am less precious, these paintings often overtake the ones I had previously thought of as more or less resolved.

All these paintings have the ghosts of other paintings beneath. Only the composition remains. I have the colours and the paint handling many times over the last months. Without wishing to sound pretentious, if I have an aim with my paintings (and I'm not sure I necessarily have, beyond the joy of pushing paint around) it is that they - in a fairly honest way I hope - show the activity of their painting.

Although that does sound a bit pretentious come to think of it. . .

Wednesday, 10 March 2010


I paid a flying visit to Manchester yesterday. I had been invited to talk to Chorlton High School by Rachel Hockey, their energetic librarian.

I really liked Chorlton High School. There was clearly a real appreciation of books there and the school puts a lot of effort and resources into encouraging that appreciation. The students were well-behaved but in a lively and interested way. They asked good questions and seemed to enjoy themselves.

I had a chat to them about who I was and how I became a writer, how I write and what I write. I tried to offer a few things to think about in their own writing. Their questions threw up some more issues to talk about as always. The time whizzed by.

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror and Tales of Terror from the Black Ship had both been longlisted for the Manchester Book Award, but neither had made it onto the shortlist. It was great to hear such enthusiasm for the books from students and staff and it makes me hopeful that Tunnel's Mouth might be more successful. I hope so.

I gave the talk in the school's theatre. I didn't have time to do a reading, which was a shame because the space was windowless and therefore we could control the amount of light. It can be very difficult to get the audience into the creepy state of mind when the sun is streaming in through the window at 9.30 in the morning, but here it would have been easy. It was also a very good place to wheel out a PowerPoint show.

Next time perhaps.

I actually came up the day before so that I could get to the school first thing. I came up a little bit earlier than I needed just so that I could have a quick wander around the city in daylight to get reacquainted with the place. I went to art college here from 1976 to 1980.

A lot has changed since then. For one thing, the city has trams. They look great too. They suit the heroic scale of those Victorian buildings and long, wide streets. The architecture looked fantastic in the low light, with shining windows and glittering glazed tiles and long shadows sending whole streets into twilight.

The brutalist concrete crescents of Hume have gone - and presumably the Russell Club along with them. When I was a student here, I can remember walking round drawing or taking photos and I didn't have to walk too far from All Saints to find picturesque scenes of urban decay. It all seemed a lot smarter now. Old warehouses have been turned into apartments. People live in the centre of Manchester now.

The most startling change was perhaps the fact that I was staying in the Radisson Hotel on the site of the Free Trade Hall, one of the many venues for bands in Manchester. I don't remember going to the Free Trade Hall that often - the sort of bands I liked tended to play smaller venues - but it was still odd - sad even - to see the facade of the building still there, with a modern hotel hiding behind it.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

What have I been up to?

I still intend to talk about movies, but I ought perhaps to tell you what I've been up to in the last week or so.

Well, I have been trying to build up a head of steam with the next book - Mister Creecher. The book is so vivid in my mind that I want to get the bulk of it written as soon as possible. My art teacher at school used to encourage us to 'cover the paper with paint' early on and then work in the details and I have a similar view of writing. I want to get to the end so that I can see the shape of the book. I'm not really content until the whole thing is out of my head. I don't mean the 'whole thing' as in the finished book. I just need to get the story down and see where all the scenes that I have had playing in my head are going to fit into it. I know how my book will start and I know how it will end. But I don't know in advance whether the scenes I have in my head will work. I won't know that until I write it. And if they don't, however important they seemed when I wrote the synopsis, they will get dumped.

last Wednesday I went to the Bloomsbury sales conference in London. I had been asked to give a ten minute talk about me and my books, but particularly The Dead of Winter as that is the one we will be promoting next. Ian Lamb, who handles publicity for my books at Bloomsbury, had asked me to come early just in case things moved more quickly than expected. No sooner had I arrived than Ian showed me through a door and there was a round of applause and I was on! It was a bit intimidating, but they were a supportive crowd and I had Sarah Odedina giving me encouraging looks from the front row.

I am not a great one for rehearsing speeches or reading from notes and so I think its fair to say that my talks do not have the consistency of some authors I have come across who have clearly practiced their lines and honed their act. I like to think that this gives my talks a spontaneity, but it can mean they drift off piste occasionally. I just hate it when I find myself trotting out the same phrases or anecdotes. It has to taste fresh in my mouth, if you see what I mean.

It seemed to work well this time and it was great to hear such enthusiasm for the books. Authors can seem very self-assured when they talk about how they write, but we are a fragile lot actually, and it does no harm at all to hear that people respect and enjoy what we do.

I have also decided to enter a couple of open exhibitions. It is all a little last minute, but I have applied for entry forms for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and for the Eastern Open, which is held at the King's Lynn Arts Centre in Norfolk. It is a long time since I have entered either. I have been accepted and rejected by both, so it will be interesting to see what happens.

I have entered some landscape paintings based on the nearby riverside area called Sheeps Green here in Cambridge. I have painted and repainted those pictures over the course of the last year or two and I have decided that it is perhaps time to get them finished and move on. Before I send them in I'll get them photographed and hopefully show them on the blog.