Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Search engine

I have been trying to sort out my studio over the last couple of days.  I have so much stuff hoarded away in there and no efficient way of finding anything.

I am a long way away from resolving this and I suppose it must be true of anyone who has had a long creative career.  How much of what we produce to we keep?

I have a small sample archive of the work I created as an illustrator and cartoonist for The Economist and the F T and the Independent and so on, as well as work done for design groups and magazines.  I have a fair bit of work done for children's publishing - both for my books and the books of others.

But I also have shelf-loads of sketchbooks and scrapbooks and I have folios and plan chest draws full of artwork of various kinds.  I have stacks of canvases and boards, some with paintings on, some primed and waiting.

But added to all this, I am a writer.  In fact I am first and foremost a writer now, in terms of income, and many of the people I work with are fairly oblivious to my other life as a visual artist.

So as well as all those sketchbooks, I have notebooks - some going back thirty years.  I toy with the idea of typing them up in the times when I have nothing better to do, but that's probably not going to happen.

And of course that leads on to that other great store of stuff - my computer(s).  I have file after file after folder of stuff going right back to when I first started, still in the default type on Word - New Roman was it?

That stuff doesn't take up as much space, but it bothers me for the same reasons - it is a great lumber room of half-forgotten things with no clear way to see what's in there.

So I am trying to open the odd notebook and open the odd folder to try and see what I have there.  There are stories I came up with that stalled because I couldn't resolve them or knew they weren't what my publisher might have wanted.  I want to look at all that stuff again and see it afresh.

Who knows what I might find?

Monday, 17 June 2013

Reading aloud

I have discovered that I can email my books to my Kindle.  I realise I am probably the last person on earth to know this was possible, but I was still very excited about it all the same.

I was given a Kindle for Christmas and I have read a few things on it - although I can't say I am in love with it.  Being able to send my documents to it does make it seem more useful though.  And whilst the experience of reading on the Kindle is not the same as reading a book, it is better than reading on a computer screen somehow.

So, instead of printing out Marley's Ghost, I loaded it onto my Kindle and read aloud from there, sitting alone in my studio.

And I have to say it read pretty well...

Saturday, 15 June 2013


I managed to finish the first draft of my new book yesterday.  It is called Marley's Ghost and is the third of my books (along with Mister Creecher and The Dead Men Stood Together) to be linked to the work of another writer.

As with Frankenstein and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, A Christmas Carol had a huge impact on me when I first encountered it and in writing my book, I want to try and channel that enthusiasm into a new work but also, importantly, to be true to the original and send my readers to the source of my inspiration.

I remember finding A Christmas Carol dream-like when I first heard it.  It would have been my first encounter with Dickens and possibly my first experience of that kind of confident authorial voice.  Dickens is there all the way through, standing with Scrooge and the Spirits and standing with us - a point he actually makes, wonderfully, in the book, saying that he - Dickens - stands beside us as we read.  And so he does.

As with Frankenstein, A Christmas Carol is a story most people know - or think they know - even if they have not read the book.  But the book is much odder than most would imagine.  A lot darker too.

I will be talking more about that nearer to publication.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Ghostly infestation

An avenue of trees on Jesus Green has been taken over by caterpillars - caterpillars of the ermine moth. This is the second time this has happened, although this year it is even more extensive.  A couple of the trees did not fully recover from last year's attack and given that the caterpillars have stripped every tree of every leaf, it will be interesting to see if the trees can survive.

It is a weird sight, with the trees looking as though they have been in a sharp frost.  There is a ghostly white bloom to the branches and trunks with the webs extending out across the grass.  There are countless caterpillars, some in great knots beneath the (surprisingly tough) silk blanket, whilst others rush up and down the tree trunks.  Given that it is spring and the area is full of nesting birds, the caterpillars must taste particularly bad for them to be so ignored.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

New book, new jacket

This is the lovely cover for my next book, to be published by Bloomsbury in September this year.  It's called The Dead Men Stood Together and that title is a quote from the poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  In the poem the narrator - the ancient mariner of the title - tells how at one point when the crew of his doomed ship have died and come back to a 'Life-in-Death', he stands beside his 'brother's son'.  My book imagines the story of that nephew.

This book, together with Mister Creecher and the book I am writing at the moment, Marley's Ghost, form a trio of books linked to stories that made a huge impact on me when I was young.  This one has been particularly interesting to write because it is based on a poem and I wanted the book to reflect the lyricism of that work.  I wanted to do justice to the original and to a poet who has fascinated me for years.

You can judge how well I achieved that goal when it comes out this autumn.

Future classic

When I was up in Scotland I received an email from Maurice Lyon at Bloomsbury telling me that Mister Creecher had been chosen to be included in the Booktrust Future Classics Library Pack for secondary schools.  'Future classic'....I like the sound of that!

I have said many times what an honour it is to be noticed among the crowd of great books out there, let alone to be singled out in this way.  It is a great privilege to be part of Booktrust's brilliant book-gifting scheme and I am delighted that Mister Creecher will find its way into so many schools.

It has been a particular pleasure of mine that so many teenage boys I have met in my recent travels to events and awards, have expressed their enthusiasm for a book that is, in effect, a homage to Romanticism, directly related to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but also inspired by painters such as Friedrich and Turner and referencing P B Shelley and Keats.

What boys seem to particularly respond to is the relationship - the often dangerous relationship - between Billy and Mister Creecher.  I hope the new readers that come to the book via this scheme will have that emotional connection with those characters too.

And more doodles...

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

More old work

I was having a root around in my plan chest drawers again today as there were workmen hammering all around me and it was impossible to concentrate.  Again these are just photos taken with my iPhone using the Instagram app.

These are doodles and sketches from old scrapbooks.  I think my default setting as an artists is doodler and I have never yet managed to find a way of illustrating, or a vehicle that properly reflects that.  I get far more pleasure from looking at these things than I do from most of my finished illustration work.

Monday, 10 June 2013

New life for old illustrations

I took some photos of old illustrations on Instagram today.  They are black and white line drawings I did for books I wrote for Hodder (Jail-breaker Jack) and for Random House (Death and the Arrow, The White Rider and Redwulf's Curse) many years ago.  I used a blurring tool that adds a 3D effect.  It gives them a depth that the line drawings alone could not have.  Interesting, I think...

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Loser (continued)

Having just recovered from the face slapping of losing the Angus Book Award, I had the long walk of shame to pick up my two tree

paintings from the Royal Academy having failed to get them in to the Summer exhibition.

I had a look round the show and saw some nice things - there are always nice things at the Summer Exhibition - but I also saw a lot of horrible things (and there are always those, too, at the Summer Exhibition).  For that is the nature of the beast - what is horrible to me, is presumably work of immense charm and vitality to the judges.  Or at least I have to believe so, given that the work was preferred to mine.

The hang was even more perverse than last year with paintings inexplicably hoisted twenty feet up in the air with nothing beneath them but open wall or open door.  There seemed even more open wall than last year - but maybe that is another effect of not getting work accepted: the bare wall taunts.  Even bare wall was preferable to your dull and derivative daub, it seems to say.

I groaned inwardly when I encountered the first large photograph because photography seems to belong somewhere else somehow and there are already many opens that feature photography, but I have to say that I thought many of the best things there were photographs.

The Summer Exhibition is infuriating and exasperating and exciting and rather wonderful, simply because it doesn't quite have its finger on the pulse and is such a weird assortment in there.  But there are few places in the world where Sunday painters rub shoulders with struggling professionals and students with world renown artists and I hope it goes on and on forever.  It is a fine thing and I bear it no ill will at all for overlooking my genius this year.

There's always next year....

Saturday, 8 June 2013


I have been really bad about keeping the blog up to date.  Apologies to all who came and found old posts here.  I know how frustrating I find that when I look at the blogs of other writers and artists.  I have promised in the past to try harder and I make that promise again - this time with hopefully more resolve.

There is a lot to catch up with but first I will say that I have recently returned from a trip to Scotland where I was shortlisted for the Angus Book Award for Mister Creecher.  My fellow shortlisted authors were Tim Bowler, William Osborne and Teri Terry - and it was Teri with her book, Slated (as with the North-East Book Award) who beat me to it this time.  Congratulations to her and thanks to everyone who voted for me.  I think we all know that there was some kind of terrible mistake in the counting (sob).

Everyone I mentioned the Angus Book Award to raved about it and I can see why.  It is extraordinarily well run and everyone concerned with it was friendly and enthusiastic and very supportive.  We stayed on the coast at the Carnoustie Hotel right next to the famous golf course and on the day of the event we each did two separate school visits.  I went to Webster's High School and to Brechin High School, the first a small group in the library, the second a large group of nearly a hundred, in the school hall.  Both visits went pretty well, I hope.  I certainly enjoyed them.

On the way, my chauffeur for the day, Lynn ('are your shoes...purple?') took me to see some Pictish stones.  The Serpent Stone at Aberlemno at the top of the page is the model for the award itself and it was some compensation to be seeing the original.  To be honest, it was worth it for me to come all that way and see these incredible pieces of art.  It was a chilly and overcast day, but that somehow seemed right.

The event at Arbroath High School was compered with incredible confidence and poise by two students from the school and each of the school involved in the voting process had made films about the books on the shortlist.  These two were full of wit and imagination and put many a publisher's trailer to shame.

Each of the authors did a five minute piece about their book and then Teri's name was read out and she received her award, after which we signed books (posters & scraps of paper) before going back to the hotel for a well-earned drink and some very fine chips.  A huge thanks to everyone concerned - the organisers, the staff and students of all the schools involved.  Hope to be back soon.

The next day I was driven back to Edinburgh airport with Tim Bowler.  I'd driven up with Tim and we talked about books and writing and all that kind of thing.  We shared some enthusiasms - especially for Rosemary Sutcliff, with whom Tim had amazingly exchanged letters just before she died).

Tim caught his plane back to Devon and I went into Edinburgh for a a few hours on what turned out from a very unpromising start, to be a glorious day.  I must have seen Edinburgh in sunshine before, but I can't quite remember when that would have been.

I put my bag into left luggage in Waverley Station and then mooched around, walking up to the castle and around the old town.  I made my usual pilgrimage to Greyfriar's Cemetery and generally enjoyed being in arguably Britain's most spectacular city.

The day was ruined by Easyjet of course.  My flight was, without explanation (unless you regard 'operational difficulties' an explanation) delayed from 5.30pm to 11.30pm.  We were given the option of changing planes to an earlier flight to Luton, which is what I ended up doing, incurring a massive taxi bill to get to Cambridge.

To the victor the spoils.  To the loser the spoiled travel plans.