Tuesday, 27 August 2013


It was my birthday over the weekend and I went with my wife and son to Wicken Fen here in Cambridgeshire.  It is an area of ancient fenland owned by the National Trust and we have been there many times before.  It was rather wet underfoot after torrential rain the day before, but it was warm and bathed in sunshine.  As always with this part of the world, the sky is the main feature - huge and wide, like in a Dutch landscape painting.

Although we have been before, we had never been on the little boat trip along the lodes - the ancient transportation ditches.  The one we were on for most of the short journey was 'only' 8th Century or thereabouts, but the long, wide and straight one we turned around in was one of the many Roman lodes - in continual use since they were first dug all those centuries ago.  

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Advance copies...

My box of advance copies of The Dead Men Stood Together arrived today.  Very exciting.  Only a few weeks until publication.

Friday, 16 August 2013

More illustrations searching for a story....

Another couple of experiments from the studio.  They are not for anything exactly - they are just images that popped into my head.  In fact the skull-headed woman started off with a perfectly normal head when I started the picture.

I have a lot of plans for illustrated books and I need to get myself back into a way of working that will suit those ideas.  Readability is hugely important in illustration, clearly - if it is important to the image that a figure is smiling rather than scowling, then that must be clear.  But often this clarity becomes a kind of pedantry.  That is what I'm trying to avoid.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Flexing old muscles

I have been playing around in the studio, using black and white acrylic paint on a smooth surfaced watercolour paper.  This head isn't for anything in particular - it's just me trying to get back into illustration after a bit of a sabbatical.

There will be more in due course....

Early work

We went to the Courtauld Gallery in London on Monday.  I haven't seen the collection in a long time and my son had never seen it.  There is a lot of work there, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming.  Somerset House is worth the visit on its own, with its terrace overlooking the Thames (although the Embankment has robbed it of its river frontage and the river gate it once had is now redundant).  It is a reminder of the time when this stretch of the river was home to great mansions and the river was vital for transport.

More and more, when I visit galleries with a mixed collection like this, I find myself detained longest by the early work.  Admittedly, some of that interest comes from a patina accrued by age and damage, a texture and distressed surface never intended by the artist, but often I just find the imagery and the way in which the image is designed, more appealing.  I love the restraint and stillness in Renaissance - especially Northern Renaissance - portraiture.  Above all, I think I admire the clarity.  It is the opposite of what we have come to accept as 'painterly', but all that shows is how restrictive and biased that term is.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

A painted ship upon a painted ocean

I often get asked what books I enjoyed when I was young and the question and the answers I give are usually confined to the literary merits of the books in question.  But this is rarely the only answer I could give.

I will often say - quite truly - that I loved the work of Rosemary Sutcliff, for instance, or Henry Treece. But whilst I did indeed love their books, it was the illustration work of Charles Keeping that first made me take them from the library shelf.

I have always sought out illustrated fiction and was (and am) an avid reader of comics.  I trained as an illustrator and was an illustrator for twenty years before I began my career as a writer.  More and more, I find myself recalling what an impact illustrations can have when paired with the right story.

My next book, The Dead Men Stood Together, is my take on Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  The poem was read to me when I was young - about eight or nine - and I think it must have been the strangest thing I had heard up to that point - with perhaps the exception of Greek myths (another minor obsession of mine when I was young).

I don't know if I was shown the famous Gustave Doré illustrations to a nineteenth century edition of poem then, or whether that came later, but it feels like they have always been linked.  I find it hard to think of the poem without thinking of his work.  Doré's incredible imagination together with his technical ability and the hallucinatory quality of the metal engraving technique, seems to be a perfect match.  He also produced extraordinary images for Dante's The Divine Comedy.

I know that for some people illustrations are an intrusion, but all I can say is that is never the case for me unless the illustrations are poor or mismatched.  Timidity in illustration is a curse, and illustrators who are over-respectful of the work they are illustrating rarely produce anything worth seeing.  'Classics' still get illustrated, but rarely by anyone with the chutzpah to take on the work and bring something fresh to it.  I don't blame the illustrators - I think this is a problem at the commissioning stage.  Books do not need to be illustrated.  They should only be illustrated if the illustrations are going to add something.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has been illustrated many times by many different illustrators, but it must have been difficult for them to escape from Doré's shadow.  The British writer and illustrator, Mervyn Peake, was one who managed this brilliantly in the twentieth century, when he illustrated an edition during the second world war.  Peake's illustrations are disturbing in a different way to Doré's, who in the main is simply visualising Coleridge's words.  Peake brings a dark, psychological edge to his work.  These illustrations seem to reflect Peake's own fragile mental state at the time.  A few years later, in 1945, he would be one of the first civilians to see the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, when he visited Belsen as a war artist.  

Doré's work seems perfect until you see Peake's.  And that's how it should be.  Each illustrator should make us look at the words again.  But how many of today's publishers would commission an artist like Peake to illustrate a classic work?

And why - and I am asked this a lot too - if I am such an admirer and proponent of illustrated fiction, do I not illustrate my own work?  Well, more and more, I am beginning to wonder about that myself....

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The body of my brother's son

Next month sees the publication of The Dead Men Stood Together.  Advance copies have already gone out to reviewers and some have contacted me via Twitter.  I will be doing very well if I get a better review than the one I have just received from The Bookbag.

Although, I feel I should say that I didn't invent the character of the mariner's nephew.  There is the line in the poem:

The body of my brother's son 
Stood by me knee to knee

I tell the story from that character's viewpoint.  This allowed me to step back from the tale the mariner tells and question it.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has clearly been a special work for many people, and I hope that it will continue to intrigue and obsess younger readers.  Although poetry may seem artificial at first glance, it never feels that way to me.  At its best, it seems to reach into your subconscious and spark images and emotions as real as a memory.  It seems to operate more on the level of a dream - a shared dream.

I have tried to keep that hypnotic, dreamlike quality that is so much part of the Ancient Mariner, and as with Mister Creecher and Frankenstein, I hope that my book may take readers back to the source that inspired me.

German Creechers

A huge envelope full of books arrived not long after we came back from Greece - seven copies of the German edition of Mister Creecher.

The movie versions have been obsessed with the Germanic quality of the name Frankenstein, but as I have mentioned before, Victor Frankenstein - despite the name - was not German, but Swiss (albeit he was actually born in Naples).  He lived in the French-speaking city of Geneva.

Mary Shelley, like all writers, was making use of her personal knowledge, and she had been staying in a house in the grounds of Byron's Villa Diodati, on the shores of Lake Geneva, when she had the nightmare that would spawn her famous novel.

She also, with the poet Percy Shelley (Mary was still Mary Godwin then), would have sailed past Castle Frankenstein on the Rhine.  It is from this castle that Victor probably gets his German name.

But the name has been responsible for all those Germanic castles and villages that appear in the early movies - hilariously spoofed in Young Frankenstein (or should that be Fronkensteen?)

The Germanic connection is not completely spurious though.  Victor trains at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria and it is here that he develops his theories and creates his 'monster'.  But when the creature runs away after Victor rejects him, he flees to the forest and learns to speak (somewhat unbelievably) from French refugees - the De Laceys - in an isolated cottage.  By this stroke of good fortune, the creature learns the same language as his creator, and is therefore able to converse with him at length when they next meet.

Ingolstadt is sometimes described as the setting for Frankenstein, but it occupies a relatively small part of the book.  It is the setting for the creation, but the rest of the book employs Switzerland, England, Scotland and the Orkneys, as well as the Arctic as settings.  It uses the kind of big, bold, Romantic locations that Turner and Friedrich were painting at the same time.

Friday, 2 August 2013

My family and other animals

My son was reading Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals while we were in Greece - a perfect choice, I think.

I loved the book when I did it at school - because of the charm and humour of the writing, but also because it seemed very evocative of my early life, in Gibraltar.  My family were nowhere near as eccentric as Durrell's, of course, and our lives were not as chaotic.  My father was a serving soldier and was stationed there in the mid-1960s and we went with him - my mother, my two brothers, my sister and me.

I spent a good deal of the time, like the young Gerald (though with not nearly so much intensity or rigour) staring at lines of ants, watching mantids hunting, following octopus underwater, studying rock pools.  And in Greece, I felt myself going back to that world so easily.

Greece was a bug-fest.  There was lots of other wildlife too - tortoises, birds and lizards and so on - but it was the insect life that seemed most to the fore.  The cicadas - tzitzikas in Greek - made their presence felt with their incredibly loud chirping, trying to bashfully hide when spotted.  There were several species of wasps and bees, some enormous.  Hornets were very common and thrummed past with their incredible machine-like throb.  There were so many crickets and grasshopper, both in number and species.  They hopped about on the hot tarmac of the roads and among the shrubs and trees.  There were lots of butterflies too - many very large and beautiful (most of those larger ones swallowtails).  There were millipedes in the house and very large and aggressive centipedes we were warned not to handle.  And of course there were ants: long lines of them on the march, cohorts of larger ones dragging impossible loads, massive-headed soldier ants scurrying around on the hot stones.

We were not as bothered by flies as we have been in other hot places (or even in the UK) but we were bitten.  Some were no doubt mosquitos but probably not all, as the reactions seemed to differ.  Some of the bites were very painful, it has to be said.  No paradise without the snake...

And talking of snakes, we saw a couple of those too.  I saw a very fast small green snake, that shot away as I approached as we walked through the acropolis near our house in the olive farm, and we saw a pretty large one on the way back.  It was equally keen to escape.

Birdlife was the most disappointing.  We saw lots of swallows, swifts and martins.  We saw buzzards and falcons and lots of hooded crows and jays.  We saw goldfinches, greenfinches and lots of sparrows.  We even saw a little owl sitting on a roof.  But we didn't see hoopoes or bee-eaters or rollers and I was really hoping we'd see at least one of those.

Too hot, I think.  Maybe next time.


I've been away.  I have recently just returned from my first visit to Greece.  I went to the Peloponnese with my wife and son, staying near the coast in two separate locations.  None of us had been to the country before.

In the first week we stayed on an Olive Farm north of Zachora.  We stayed in a lovely house surrounded by olive trees, with cicadas chirping loudly all day - you can do the same if you like the look of it and follow the link.  We are not usually beach people, but we had decided to have a change and spent a lot of our holiday in the sea or on sun loungers.  I am now a bit closer to the colour I feel I'm meant to be.  The local beach was nice, but so was the beach at Kakovatos where there was a taverna and bar on the beach.

In this first week we were close to Olympia and visited on a very, very hot day.  We had been warned it might be very crowded at the time of year (and day) we went, but it was almost deserted.  It is a beautiful, evocative site with a very good museum (although don't make the mistake of going to the adjoining rip-off cafe).

We went into the mountains on a long drive to Dimitsana, Andritsana and Stemnitsa.  The mountain villages are lovely, studded with churches and chapels, many of them very old (most sadly locked).  The roads in the mountains are not for the faint-hearted.  I suffer from vertigo and my wife suffers from a phobia about being driven off the side of a ravine, so my son was the only one looking at the view.  It is an earthquake zone, too, so the road has a tendency to be eaten away by slips and peppered with huge buildings that look like they have all-too-recently fallen from above.

For our second week we travelled south to a small village called Pyrgos set into the hills above Stoupa. Here we stayed in a nice house with a little terrace with a view over the rooftops to the sea and the sunset.  The next village down the switchback-laden road was Neohori which had a nice taverna with spectacular views.  Pyrgos was a lovely little village full of churches hidden in the maze of alleyways.

We had quite a few beaches to choose from, but the beach at Stoupa was our favourite.  We bought face masks and snorkels and spent many an hour watching the fish swimming in the crystal clear water and looking for octopus (which we never did find).

We also went into the mountains from here and if I went back I would do more exploring, but possibly spring is the time for that.  We did a bit of a loop and went to Kastania, Saidona, Exohori and Proastio (the latter of which we particularly liked).  We saw some lovely frescos in some of the churches, but most were frustratingly closed (particularly frustrating as we knew from our guides what treasures they contained)

There were many reasons to come back.  I was particularly disappointed not to see Mystra and Monemvasia looks amazing.  But to be honest, we passed so many places that looked incredible and just going back and trying a bit harder to get into those churches would be worth doing.  I hope I go back.  I think we all do.