Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Non-members varnishing day

I went to London yesterday for Non-Member's Varnishing Day at the RA.  It is a day for exhibitors to get together over a glass (or four) of champagne and some canapés and savour the pleasure of being on the walls of such an illustrious gallery.

There are also speeches and prizes, but I was so busy talking in a distant room of the exhibition that I missed them completely.  I also totally forgot to pick up the painting that did not get in, so I will have to com back at a later date.

It was a lovely sunny day in London and the Royal Academy looks its best on days like that, with natural daylight streaming in from above.  The show looked very good, I thought.  There were lots of things I liked and very few I hated.  The sculpture rooms were perhaps the most disappointing.  I was not sure about the quality of the exhibits, but it was hard to tell as they were gathered together and packed so closely that it was hard to tell where one piece ended and the next began.  By contrast, the paintings and prints were given a lot of room to breath.

I did not make straight for my painting when I arrived.  I wanted to happen across it naturally.  I walked round the show, enjoying that fact that it was possible to actually see all the work quite easily.  The last time I was in the RA it was to see the Hockney show and that was packed.  This was much more civilised.  And it was great to turn a corner and see my painting taking its place with all the others.

I was astonished at the prices of work in the show.  I always think of the Summer Exhibition as being at the affordable end of the spectrum, but there were very few paintings I liked that I could have afforded to buy.  The last time I was in the show, I used the money I made from the sale of my painting to buy another painting in the show.  That would be difficult to do this time.

Having felt preposterously over-priced at the Cambridge Drawing Society Exhibition, I now find myself something of a bargain in the RA.

Saturday, 26 May 2012


I write 'The End' on my New Book yesterday.

Actually, not my New Book, so much as my New, New Book.  My New Book is still provisionally called The Mask and is a contemporary chiller set in Amsterdam - though it does move between the past and the present.

My New New Book is called I Pass Like Night, which is set in the wholly imaginary world of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (from which the title is a quote).

But of course it's not the end at all.  This is just the end of the very first version of the book; the version that even my wife doesn't get to read.  It's the rough shape of the book, printed off so that I can get a clearer idea of what I need to lose and what I need to change, which bits work and which bits need that extra something to lift them from dimly being a row of words on a page.

So these books are quite different on the face of it.  Except I'm not sure they are really.  They are both, after, my inventions.  But what do we mean by 'invention' when we talk about writing?

I do occasionally sit down and try and force an idea to come.  This was certainly true with some of the short story collections I have done.  I had a deadline and stories could not simply come to me when they felt like it.  I had to go out hunting for them.

But mostly I let thing seep in.  Images will appear in my head and I won't be able to shake them off.  I will imagine a scene or two.  Sometimes the scenes will obviously be from the same book, at other times not.  I have scenes swimming around in my head I've never found a home for, and maybe never will.  That giant, maggot-like creature that emerges from a mountain lake will perhaps never be more than that one disturbing thought in my head.  Or will it?  That eyeless woman that crawls out of the attic shadows: will I ever find a home for her?

The Mask is a result of a trip to Amsterdam and walking beside dark canals on chilly autumn evenings.  But it is also about dark Dutch painting of the 17th Century and a strange Bruegel painting of children playing and a masked face at a window.  It is about a memory of a very creepy 1979 television adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's Schalken the Painter.  

I Pass Like Night goes back to a teacher reading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to me aged about eight.  It is also about Gustave Dorés incredible illustrations to Coleridge's poem.  It is also about my fascination with Coleridge and his writing.  It is about the power of imagination and the wonder of imagined worlds.

But of course The Mask - of whatever it will eventually be called - is an imagined world as well.  It may on the face of it have more of its story in the 'real' world, but I think this only increases the potency of the many times the book slides into the past - or rather a strange, darkly imagined past.

Just as the Tales of Terror books were set in a Victorian or Edwardian past imagined by writers of ghost stories, The Mask is set in a world imagined by Dutch painters like Vermeer, Gerard ter Borch, Peter de Hooch.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Not creepy at all.

I was very pleased to learn that the painting above has been chosen for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.  I entered a couple of years ago without success and I am really pleased to be chosen his year.

I have had work in the exhibition before, but a very long time ago.  It is a great British institution.  How else would my work ever end up gracing the walls of the Royal Academy?  It brings out a strange snootiness in critics, but I never really understand why.  I always find things I like.  And often I find things I like a lot.

The exhibition runs from the beginning of June until 14 August.  There were over 11,000 entrants this year.

I showed this painting on Facebook and someone described it as 'creepy'.  I think that may have to do with their expectations of me because of my writing.  I certainly don't think of it as a creepy painting.  It is a painting of a National Trust cottage on the Looe Pool near Porthleven in Cornwall.  We stayed there the Christmas before my son was born.  It was the last holiday we took together as a couple.  It was one of those state of flux moments.  Everything was about to change.

That's what I see when I look at that painting.  I don't see a house in twilight.  I see a kind of intake of breath - a moment of reflection before my son, and everything he brought to our lives, appeared in the world.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Unhistorical fiction

We have a Spanish exchange student staying with us and at his request, we all sat down to watch Ridley Scott's Gladiator again.  This must be my fourth or fifth time, I guess, and each time I find myself a little baffled at how enthusiastic some people are about it.

It is a good movie, don't get me wrong.  And I can certainly understand my son , who is a nut about everything Roman, getting excited about.  I would have been excited about it at his age.  But for anyone over fifteen, it is quite silly.

Part of the appeal for a fifteen year old boy, is the level of slightly transgressive violence.  Heads, hands and feet are lopped off with cheerful regularity.  At one point in the arena, it looks as though Maximus is going round popping balloons filled with red paint.  Who knew a human head could contain so much blood?

This violence is meant to be realistic.  It is meant to show us what the Coliseum was actually like.  But of course it would have been nothing like that.  It would not have been a choreographed battle full of dazzling feats of swordplay, but a brutal hacking match where exhaustion would be the killer.  Instead of the spectacular decapitations it would be a series of wounds and broken bones from which even the victor might die days later.

There has been a change in cinematic combat over the last few decades.  All movies - even this one - seem to be martial arts influenced.  Every time a fight breaks out, in whatever movie, it seems as though the combatants have spent years training in karate or kung fu.  There is a scene in Gladiator at the beginning, when Maximus has been taken to be executed where he stands waiting for a rider to attack him.  The way he holds the sword - it could be a Kurasowa movie.

But historical accuracy is often not a great feature of historical fiction.  It is a strange genre that stretches from books or movies which purport to be incredibly accurate, to movies like this one where they borrow the authenticity of history but feel no obligation to stick to it.

If Gladiator had been fantasy - if it had been a Conan movie, say - it would not have had the appeal, despite the fact that it certainly feels more Robert E Howard than Robert Graves.  Commodus did not kill his father, Marcus Aurelius.  He did make a pretence of fighting in the arena but he was not killed in the arena by Maximus, and how could he have been - Maximus did not exist.

Not that any of that stops it from being a good movie.  Historical fiction is fiction after all.  And Gladiator is worth the money for the first few minutes alone.  That battle sequence in the forest is superb - and it feels like it carries some truth with it.

Maybe we should call it historical fantasy.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Boys will be boys

Another big part of my conversation with Jon was the subject of boys.  We are both the father of boys and we both were boys, of course.  We may not be experts, but we do have some specialist knowledge of the area.

Some of this goes back to my post about football a few weeks back, as well as the one a few days ago about being fourteen.  But Jon and I were talking about how the treatment of boys is often seemingly about containment or control of their boyishness in a way that does not seem to happen with girls.

I was at a school last year where I did an event that was poorly staged and poorly led.  The kids were hard work because they did not really know who I was or why they were expected to listen to me.  We can argue that they should listen anyway, but without a teacher or librarian priming the audience, a visitor has a lot of work to do to win them over.  We don't know the kids and we don't have the armoury of rewards and punishments open to teachers.

Anyway - at this particular event there was a group of girls who were constantly talking among themselves - even at one point where I was reading.  I had to stop and explain to them that this wasn't going to work and they stayed quiet.  For a while.

At the end of the event, the librarian stepped in and tore a strip off a boy who was by no means the most disruptive member of the audience.  In fact he had asked questions and had been pretty good-humoured, albeit a little boisterous.  But I will take a slightly cocky, cheeky kid over a sullen, silent one any day of the week.  The girls were clearly the problem in that event.  But it was the boy - he was big and quite loud - who was singled out.

It seems to be appreciated that there are all kinds of girls and these differences are celebrated - and rightly so.  But there are just as many kinds of teenage boy.  Some are quiet and studious.  Some are shy and withdrawn.  Some are loud and boisterous.  Some are sports-mad.  Some are sex-mad.

Some are all these things in a single day.

But there is little acknowledgement of this complexity on television, say, where teenage boys will be almost universally dim, lazy or threatening.  And again - I'm not saying that they can't be these things.  I spent much of my teens dodging boys for whom casual violence was a kind of pastime.

But not enough is said about how funny teenage boys can be or how enthusiastic, how brave or how resilient, how clever or how inventive.  Or, simply, how different they are.

I don't write exclusively for boys and I know that girls and young women enjoy my books.  But I do write from the position of having been a boy myself and in a way, I write for that boy I once was.  He is easily distracted and finds it hard to concentrate on any one thing for a long time.  He reads a lot of comics and watches a lot of TV and he's a bit of a dreamer.

I like him.

Friday, 11 May 2012


Jon Mayhew, writer of Mortlock, The Demon Collector and The Bonehill Curse and all round good guy, popped in to see me on his way from Norwich to The Wirral in Cheshire where he lives

We went for what was meant to be a hour long chat but which actually became three hours somewhere along the way.  Jon bought me a coffee and I was only when we left that I realised I had never even offered to buy him another in all that time.  We were too busy talking.

We were meant to be talking about the possibility of us doing some joint events but we actually spent the time talking about just about everything but.

Writing is a solitary business in the main and so most chats between writers will inevitably feature the business of writing itself as well as all the peripheral baubles and pitfalls.  Only another writer truly understands what it is to be a writer.  Or at least that's how it feels.  We share our grievance and we may even test the odd idea or admit to a hope or two.

I share a publisher with Jon - Bloomsbury - and  publicist - Ian Lamb.  We have both done our share of events - Jon was returning home after a couple of school events in Norfolk - and we have spoken before about the possibility of doing something together that was a bit more exciting both for us and, hopefully, the audience.

Jon shares a lot of my interests as a writer and we read a lot of the same stuff when we were younger, including comics.  We are both children of the television age and unashamedly so.  A lot of our inspiration comes from sources other than books - television, cinema and in Jon's case, traditional English ballads.  A lot of our enthusiasms are similar and we share a kind of sensibility.

We don't have a firm structure in mind for this joint show, but in looking for a word that sums up what we are about, we agreed that 'Uncanny' hits the mark.  It is a word I am very fond of.  I like it because it covers a lot of the fiction I loved as a teenager as well as a lot of the comics I read and movies and TV I watched.  I also like it because it is not restrictive in terms of genre.

More about this when we have more to say. . .

Thursday, 10 May 2012


Getting all of my books out of storage means that I get to see a record of my reading habits over the last how ever many years.  It is not complete, of course.  Many of the books I read at college I simply left behind or gave away.  Others have been borrowed and never returned or damaged and discarded or incorporated into the collections of other people I have shared a house and life with.

I have a very imperfect memory of the plot of these books, but an almost perfect recall about where I was and who I was with when I read them.  They are like little memory triggers.  I look at a spine and a whole world opens up.

There are books for which this is the main appeal, in that the book itself means little to me in terms of quality or the effect it had on me when I read it.  Other books - other authors - are very different.

When did I first read Franz Kafka?  I don't know, although I'm fairly sure that Metamorphosis was the first thing I read - maybe at school.  I know that that story did something to me.  It was unlike anything I had ever read before and yet it seemed to speak very clearly to me.  It was bizarre and yet it also seemed to get to grips with something a more literal book could never have hoped to.

I became fascinated by Kafka and read books about his life and critical essays about his writing.  The iconic black and white photographs of him became a fixture in my consciousness - as they have for so many others of course.

Many more have no interest in Kafka of course and though they know about Metamorphosis and its famous opening line, they might not actually have read it and certainly haven't read anything else by this patron saint of the misfit.

Kafka is a reference point for me and this can be difficult.  I have said before how children's fiction is very plot-based - proudly so, in fact.  Writing supernatural fiction, a writer will occasionally hear an editor say that a story must have an 'internal logic'.  That is to say that however odd the goings on in the tale, they must make sense within the narrative.

And for a certain type of story this is undeniably true and it is the satisfying aspect - to learn why the main character was behaving so oddly, to discover the reason behind the curse, to know why the haunting is occurring at that time and place and so on.  But not all stories have this form.

There is no logic behind Gregor Samsa awaking one morning to discover that he has been transformed into a giant insect.  He did not incur the wrath of an insect god.  He is not being tested.  He does not revert to human at the kiss of a beautiful woman.  It just happens.

This lack of logic is what some people find unsatisfying about Kafka - or other writers of this type - but it is exactly what I like about it.  All that is required of a writer is that he holds the reader's attention and makes the story work, in his or her terms.  To make a reader accept a fantastical premise like the one in Metamorphosis you have to be a very good writer as well, of course.

But it simply is not true that a story has to make 'sense'.  There does not have to be a reason for everything.  In fact for some stories, that kind of tying off of loose ends is the kiss of death.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Movie nibbles

Someone who contacted us a while back about the possibility of turning The Dead of Winter into a TV drama was back in touch asking about the rights to Mister Creecher.

The whole business of movie rights, as I've said before, is a strange one.  I suppose we have had three or four people interested in Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror now, for both TV and cinema.  The latest of these I have still yet to meet but may do so in the near future.

So far none of the people involved has wanted to actually take out an option - that is, to buy the rights for a set period of time.  It is frustrating because it is hard not to be excited by the possibility of a movie, however much you tell yourself that it will probably never happen.

Even having an option taken out does not mean that anything will happen.  You get some money - not a life-changing amount sadly - and the wait.  And wait.  And wait.

Of course some people do have movies made and those movies do well and the books get a huge new lease of life and everyone is happy.  And that is why writers - who pretend to be pessimists but are usually dreamers - are always going to be excited by that email headed 'Movie interest!'

Tuesday, 8 May 2012


Our new shelves meant that we finally went through all the boxes that have been stacked up in our conservatory since we moved in five months ago.  As well as books I found a little stash of notebooks.

Some of these were from my days working a The Independent newspaper.  They are strange mix of ideas for cartoons and illustrations I knew I would have to do, and of short stories and ideas as well as diary notes and observations.

Some were earlier though, going back to the early 1980s.  One of them contains a very early version of the story The Path from Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror.  None of these stories were ever intended for children.  I don't think it had occurred to me to write for children when I was that age.

I had tried to write novels before.  I wrote a large part of a fantasy novel when I was about sixteen or seventeen.  I started to write another more autobiographical novel at college but I burned that one in a saucepan in a Woody Allenesque grand gesture.

I intended to write another autobiographical novel based on my time working in a steelworks in the summer of 1979 but it did not get further than a few notes.  Other than that almost all my output was in short story form.

I read a huge amount of short stories and always had done - sci-fi and horror stories in my teens and then later, everything from Kafka to Carver.  My own short story ideas are equally diverse.  Although my recent output for children has been entirely in the genre of horror, at this time I was also writing stories that were more influenced by reading modern American writers and which did not have any fantastical or uncanny element at all.

Sometimes I worry about this.  I am the same as a visual artist.  I do not have one clear single vision for my work as a painter or an illustrator.  I wish I did.  It must make life easier.  But I don't.

Neither do I run on a single set of lines when I write.  My head is buzzing with ideas at the moment, but only some of those ideas are in any way connected with my previous work.  It is understandably thought desirable, career-wise, if you can successfully brand yourself in some way, in terms of genre.

It is harder, though much more desirable, to brand yourself as a good writer, regardless of genre.

Thursday, 3 May 2012


There is much excitement in the Priestley household, because we are having shelves built.  That's right - bookshelves!  This may not seem very exciting, but we have had our books in boxes in storage for over five years and it is ridiculously exciting to think that we will finally be reunited with them.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012


I've been thinking a lot about being fourteen lately.

I suppose it's because my son is fourteen - at least for another few weeks - and its a period in my life that I remember quite well, in parts.

Of course I was fourteen so long ago to write about that period - something I think of doing more and more - amounts to historical fiction.  I recognise much of myself in my son, but our lives could not have been more different.

I will regularly bore my son with an evocation of a world in which there was no video recording, no DVDs, no iPlayer or in fact any way to watch a programme again or see one that you had missed or in fact watch anything other than what happened to be on one of the three television channels at the time - BBC1, BBC2 or ITV.

There were no computer games - or personal computers of any kind, other than pocket calculators.  There were no iPods or iPads or mobile phones.  Music was only available through the medium of the radio or via vinyl records.

It sounds like hell, doesn't it?

Well, I can't build up much of a case for the early 70s being a golden age, but I don't feel like I missed out.  We had more freedom for one thing.  The dangers were perceived to be less - with good cause - and so we were allowed to simply wander off into a world of our own making.

That world - the world of the child-becoming-an-adult is a really interesting one, I think.  It manages to bring with it a lot of the wonder of childhood, but that wonder is combined with new forces, many dark and confusing.  It is a time when you are trying on the you of the future and seeing how it fits.

Increasingly this time is being branded 'young adult' when in fact it is 'pre-adult'.  Children of this age are still children, regardless of whether they engage in activities that are considered adults.  These not-quite-adults are starting to get a sense of what the world is really like.  They do not fully understand that they will never fully understand it.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012


It seems perfectly natural to talk about the influence of literature and movies when talking about writing, but, for me anyway, the visual arts have also played a huge part - and continue to do so.

I have no idea when I first saw the work of Hieronymous Bosch - it would have been at school and in reproduction - but I have never ever tired of it.  Looking through the prism of painters like Dali it is easy to see him as a kind of pro to-Surrealist.  But he wasn't anything of the sort, of course.

Bosch gives us a baffling glimpse into another world where even the everyday objects are confused by historical distance.  These tools and musical instruments are taken by Bosch and put to the service of demons and strange creatures who engage in meticulously rendered but utterly perplexing dramas.  It is a world of magic - a mix of pagan and Christian mythology.

I am fascinated by the worlds he creates.  They are like a painterly form of Tourette's - Bosch just seems incapable of stopping himself painting yet another bare bottom with a flute or a flower sticking out of it.  They are vulgar and violent and very, very weird.  Like Brueghel, the painter with whom he is always linked in my mind, I go from detail to detail, always finding things I had not spotted before.

For a long time I have wanted to write something in Bosch's painted world.  I just have never come up with the right story.  One day maybe. . .

And incidentally I discovered when I was in Amsterdam that his name is not pronounced - as I've always heard it - Hi-RON-i-mus Bosh.  It is pronounced HY-ro-NAY-mus Bosk.