Thursday, 30 October 2008

E-Buyer Beware continued

Well, may be today is the day the computer arrives, one which will stay with me for a couple of years at least. The last one went back eleven days ago. Despite agreeing with E-buyer's technical help that it should be replaced, it went to the repair shop (again). We started phoning this Monday. 'Well, we need three working days after receipt of the machine.' 'You've had them.' 'Yes we have, but our repair technicians don't work on Mondays.'

I have to get up early to use the internet on David's machine. On Tuesday I went and had a lie down after lunch, but soon woke up to the sound of David bellowing like a maddened bull. 'Get your supervisor! Don't give me that standard guff! GET YOUR SUPERVISOR!' The girl in customer services was a stolid defender of her company. She was obviously beginning to repeat the standard guff like a zombie. In a voice that lifted our roof into the air, David began to shout at her to look at the records. LOOK AT THE RECORDS! Our records must be as long a ladder by now. But she did look at them, at last, and subsided. We were right. We had been promised an exchange. She'd see to it right away.

On Thursday we had an email from E-buyer to say that the HP Compact was out of stock. I wish I could scream, or swear, or feel the need to break things. But I just stand there looking, at most, slightly glassy-eyed. That's philosophical practice for you! Well, it keeps me sane.

Guess what, we phoned E-buyer and spoke to several departments. The upshot is that a Fujitsu-Siemens is on its way, and I'm rather glad it's not an HP Compact. I have developed a morbid distrust of them which is neither philosophic nor rational - well, it might be rational.

I wasn't going to let E-buyer go without trying a haggle. What I wanted was for them to say, 'Oh look, you've had such a shocking experience with us - I mean, not having a computer for two months when you run a small business must be terrible - that we're not going to charge you the extra £14 for the Fujitsu.' In that, I failed. Companies with rock bottom prices are institutionally incapable of haggling. May be companies with rock bottom prices should be avoided. But the last girl we spoke to readily agreed to send it 'next day delivery' for no extra charge, so I won on that one. 'Thank you, so kind,' David breathed into the phone.

Friday, 17 October 2008

E-buyer Beware

This is a note posted to the ether in case anyone looks there to see what happened to me. Since early September I've been absent from cyberspace and out of touch with most of my friends. My old Evesham computer suddenly died on me. It happens. It shouldn't happen when the next thing on your pile of things to do is to load up Acronis back-up software. So I had to crawl in shame to the wizards of Cowley and ask them to retrieve data from my hard-drive. Then began a series of daily calls from a Pole called Michael. 'Bad news, I'm afraid.' Each day the news was worse than the day before but, if I'd like to leave it until Saturday, Deep Wizard, Chris, would have a look at it. It seemed like a long time to wait, but I waited. On Monday Chris phoned. 'I have good news.' He had cloned the hard drive and set in a separate case. I went to collect my life's work from him with relief and gratitude.

Meanwhile we had ordered two new computers from E-buyer. Given that David's old computer was an Evesham of the same vintage as mine, that seemed reasonable. Two new HP Compacts duly arrived, Vista downgraded to XP, which is what we wanted. I set mine up and revelled in its silent operation (the Evesham exacerabted my tinnatus to a maddening degree). So, being a reformed character, I plugged in a pendrive at the end of a day's work, and the machine didn't recognise it, said it needed a driver. I don't remember the order of events clearly now. Just to note that in that period my phone broke and so did the printer. My friend the astrologer, Darby Costello, had been predicting financial chaos in the second half of 2008 as Pluto moves into Capricorn. As the banks began to topple, I phoned her to see if Pluto was behind my sudden difficulty with anything with a plug. She thought no, that Mercury was square to my Sun. Mercury moves fast - all that should be over by now - but six weeks later, as share prices plunge, I'm not yet set up with a fully functioning computer.

When my HP went back to E-buyer, I took David's and set that up. Couldn't get broadband. A nice man in India helped me solve the problem - the device was being shown as unknown in Device Manager - but unfortunately I didn't take a note of the solution. That was a pity, as almost everything with a USB began to qualify for a yellow question mark in Device Manager. At the end, cut off from the internet, no flash drives working, and no CD-writer installed in the machine, it was IMPOSSIBLE for me to back up. I'd had two weeks of functionality. It was a divine interval obviously created by the spirits attending the Wrekin Trust, for in that two weeks we got 'Awakening Consciousness - selected lectures of Sir George Trevelyan' off to press. When the computer died on me, I had two vital files on it. Only two. It cost me £75 to get Deep Wizard to retrieve them. Then back went the machine to E-buyer. Meanwhile the replacement for the first had arrived. Can you guess the rest? Well, I'm working on it now, but it's going back on Monday as my external hard-drive will not work through its USB ports.

Our contact with E-buyer has been, on rough estimate, at least 10 hours of telephone calls, waiting in queues at 10p a minute for technical support. Do the maths (I can't - I'd be sick). Yesterday David waited in a queue for 40 minutes and, when it was down to one ahead of him, the line went dead. When he redialled, there were 6 ahead. Forty minutes later, he got through only to be told to phone another department which, by that time, had gone home. He phoned this morning: they won't collect now until Monday. I have to wait until it is received back before they send out another. I'm used to that. Used to waiting. Used to spending hours and days loading up a machine with programmes and data only for it go phut.

In the past six weeks I've mostly been living life without a desktop, getting by with my little old laptop (not connected to internet). As using that is physically painful, I don't use it much. The result? I have so much more time! It's been a revelation, the way a computer eats time. Whether it's sending emails, building databases, actually doing some work, browsing in Wikipedia and elsewhere, playing games, it EATS my time. I go to it first thing to see what emails I've had overnight from America (usually it's a bunch of spam); I go to it last thing to see what's come in during the evening (yep, usually more spam); I fiddle; I play; I pay bills and order vegetables.

I've enjoyed my prolonged break. Will I have the power to resist the new machine (provided of course that it functions)? I doubt it, but I can hope.

So, if you've wondered whatever happened to me in the autumn, that's it. We would like to escape PCs forever but it's difficult. We certainly won't be going back to E-buyer.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Text blocks (or how not to present your work)

When you send your manuscript out, it should go in its Sunday best. It's the equivalent of an interview, after all. More and more these days I receive people's novels laid out in text blocks, and I scream when I do. What is a text block? This is. Now listen up while I explain a little about HTML. That's the code behind webpages (or will be until XHTML takes over soon). Every element is tagged, including paragraphs, and the standard styling for that tag is that the paragraph will be followed by a double-line space and will not begin with an indent.

Here we are, text block number two. So, this new habit of writing novels in text blocks I took to be a consequence of emails, the style of which may have been influenced by websites. But perhaps not.

Text block number three (once known as a paragraph). When I was tutoring at the Oxford University summer school recently, the most advanced student, who is doing a PhD in creative writing, presented his work in text blocks. I screamed. 'No one,' he said, 'in all my years studying this subject, has ever mentioned it. Quite the opposite. They insist on it.'

What? He went on to explain that he's studying creative writing academically, and academic papers have to be in text blocks. Given that the internet began as a means of academic communication, is that the source of the rot? It seems likely. After all, it almost makes sense given that the composition of essays is often thought of as building blocks of ideas, each paragraph representing a single unit of thought, building block on block to your thumping conclusion. And what academic essays tend not to include is dialogue.

It's when we get to dialogue that this format looks really ridiculous. After a block of exposition you suddenly get very spacy speech, and if a novel is dialogue rich, the visual impact is just dreadful. Subtle things, words on the page. As poets know, how you arrange them is important. Text laid out in blocks does not invite the reader in to a long and fruitful fictional dream. Instead it makes her blink involuntarily and possibly even unconsciously as she tries to imagine people not speaking in dialogue so much as alternating monologue.

'What?' she thinks, 'is this all about?'

'Did you say something, dear?' asks her husband, muting the sound on the TV.

'No, just mumbling to myself,' she says, and pushes the earplugs in deeper.

See what I mean? In between block paragraphs, you get this odd interchange between characters which has no flow. So please, have a look at your precious manuscript. Could you not make it look a little more like a book?

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

A friendship immortalised

In February last year, a very good friend died. 'Very good friend' of the kind who live in your heart but you may not see or hear from too often. I didn't hear about his death until I got a Christmas card from his widow. That hurt, it really, really hurt. I missed the funeral and that's something that never can be regained. I've always had cross-gender friendships and perhaps I forget, in my innocence, how worrying they can be for the partner. Anyway, I've been in correspondence with her and all was forgiven and forgotten, until. . .

I discovered today that Pallas and the Centaur is available on a site selling 'antique collectibles' at a very nice price of £30. It was made collectible by it having been signed to my friend and his wife, and part of its historical attraction is that a postcard I sent to my friend was found between the pages.

Well, I folded up and moaned, that she had got rid of my books. Authors often have the misery of finding copies of their works in second-hand and charity shops. One poor mutt found a copy of his signed 'To Mum and Dad' in Oxfam! So I'm used to it and the pain was fleeting. Then I read the catalogue entry again and realised that my friendship had been turned into a piece of history, made diamond. It gave me a sense of destiny being out of one's control. An author's true fate lies in the antiquities catalogues of the future.

So, apply here for your investment copies of my novels! I will give you, at no extra cost, a signed dedication and may be even a postcard. All you need to do to realise its potential is to die young leaving a widow with a canny sense of business.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Screaming toads

The other day one of the cats caught an adult toad and was tossing it about. It's a little-known fact, perhaps, but toads scream - a high pitched squeak like a mouse. It was the scream that drew me out to the garden to rescue the poor creature. Since then I've been pondering the question, 'Why do creatures scream?' Is it just a release of fear or emotion, or is it a call for help? I would like to think it is the latter, although the fact that I used to scream at Beatles concerts suggests it isn't. But if it is a call for help, then it means that help may be hoped for and expected. What is true, however, is that we respond to screams so automatically that, neurologically speaking, it seems to be in the same league as fight or flight. Fight - flight - rush in to help. If this is the case, it means our niceness is hard-wired. In other words, it's natural to be good. Just thought I'd mention it.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Selfless Genie

Watching Richard Dawkins's programme on Darwin last week had David shifting about in annoyance saying TV shouldn't be allowed to broadcast such rubbish. On such subjective criteria, our screens would be blank. Anyway, as I was on my own last evening, I could watch part two without let or hindrance. Am I Dawkins fan? Of course not. I just fantasize about presenting him with an argument so pithy and logical that it would have his biological wires shorting, and so my enjoyment of such programmes is the search for the hole in the theory. I'll not be the one to find it - an intuitive sense of wrong! is no argument - but one day this prophet of rationalism will fall from his horse, blinded by a Damascene light, and I want to be there when it happens.

The series certainly got more interesting last night as Dawkins asked the question, why altruism? Why are we kind, charitable and generous? He outlined the evolution of his own thought, from the view that looking after one another helps us survive to the rather grander perspective that humans have gone further with altruism than animals, that we are kind to strangers and not just kin, for the reason that the selfish gene (which he proposes as the motive of life) has misfired in the human species, that we are going beyond our causes, that we have seen and understood what made us and have decided to go further.

If this keeps biologists happy - because in our heightened state we cannot allow our specialisms to be cross-contaminated by others (i.e. a biologist cannot be a theologian or philosopher) - so be it, but there's a problem. There's probably many, but I can only see one. In order to believe in the selfish gene (and belief is what is required in the absence of proof), we have to swallow the proposition that this infinitesimal speck of creation (I just looked up 'gene' and find it is a 'unit of heredity', a particle of a chromosome, a code) has a mind of its own. As does nature. And as, apparently, does 'evolution', which appears to be a force worthy of personification: a metaphor which allows such statesments as 'Evolution has no goals'. That's an awful lot to swallow, but I guess there's room if we've disgorged gods, angels and the Creator, on the grounds that they are invisible, non-existent fantasies.

What's upsetting Dawkins, apart from the Creationists, is the idea of social Darwinism, an idea which says that, if nature is ruthless, we may as well be the same, especially in war and business. He very deftly kicked this one into touch by demonstrating that 'niceness' is a factor in sexual selection. But if this were true, how come there are so many abused women and children in the world? Why are so many wives dumped in preference for another, another who is younger rather than nicer? All the magazines tell us to keep our figures, not our smiles. Even children in the playground follow the bully rather than the nice kid. It's not enough, professor, not enough.

Being nice, kind, charitable and generous: these are Dawkins's words to explain the spanner in his selfish works. There is another word he did not use, dare not use. It is love. And that, according to St Paul, is what God is. Let us dispense for a moment with the image of God as a being, that phantom which science has been attacking since science began. Let us agree with the scientists: he does not exist. Not in that form, or any form. If we could only stop punching shadows, we might come to realise that we are all saying and believing the same thing, only in different terminologies. That by which Dawkins sees, knows, wonders and understands; that by which there is beauty (and no, it is not a matter of sexual selection - trees don't look gorgeous to other trees); that by which all beings may act with no reward for themselves (apart from a sublime moment of being other than themselves); that ineffable, mysterious thing which provides no evidence of itself except that which is all around us (and in us) for those with the eyes to see: that is love, that is God.

Having the eyes to see is the important thing. Being able to see the Good comes naturally but stays only by education. Our vision of truth is easily distorted, even warped by the opinions of others, especially those who are both eloquent and clever (and good-looking). It needs nurture and culture. Being nice breaks down all too easily in extreme situations. We need the strength of wisdom and I propose that any system of thought which depends on considering those who differ from it to be fools is not the best place to find it.

One last thought: apparently the double-helix of DNA fits into a golden rectangle and in cross-section it is a decagon, which is formed from two pentagons, and the ratio of the diagonal of a pentagon to its side is Phi : 1. A philosopher would say from this that all life, and life itself, is formed out of beauty. A biologist would say that our idea of beauty comes from our genes.

Anyone interested in reading about the significance of Darwin's nausea both to himself and all mankind should read Patrick Harpur's wonderful book, 'The Philosopher's Fire: a History of the Imagination'.

I've blathered enough. Over to this morning's 'Thought for the Day' courtesy of the School of Philosophy in New Zealand:

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that Love is the reason
for my existence, for God is love.
Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true
character. Love is my name.

- Thomas Merton
(1915 - 1968)
American Trappist monk

Friday, 8 August 2008

Harvest time

As I was writing the last post, I realised that I've been blogging for just over a year now, that this time last year, after the flood, our allotment plot was post-apocalyptic, a scene of death and decay, all brown stumps and foul stench.

This year. . . A cool, wet summer has meant that everything has gone, if not bananas, then beans. Borlotti beans, runner beans, french dwarf and climbing french; a cloud of yellow mangetout, four foot tall, obscuring the peas planted inbetween; squashes trailing, tendrilling, fingering their way down rows of potatoes and tomatoes; cucumbers, lettuces, sweet corn, onions, beetroot. . . You name it, we're eating it.

After the devastation of the flood, we decided to dig the whole plot over and make raised beds. It was easier than I'd supposed, having found a supplier of recycled wood who cut planks (well, ceiling joists) to size and delivered them to the site. Now we not only have the luxury of a great crop, but it's looking smart and weeded (mostly). Some things didn't work. My natty construction of a bean arch over the gully between two beds means that many of the beans are now out of reach, given that the gully has been taken over by a land-grabbing squash.

Still, that's why gardeners live long, because there is always an improvement to make for the next season. One of the last of our olduns, Harry, was out tending his plot last week. He left on the dot of 5.15, as always, and went home for his tea. After finishing his tea, he died. What a way to go! Well done, Harry. I hope there's space for cultivation in the Elysian Fields.

Exclamation marks!!!!

While many species are threatened with extinction, others thrive. Our garden is a heaving mass of tiny toads this summer and you tread the path with caution and dare not mow the lawn. Our cats have eaten enough to decide they don't want any more, although they are still partial to frogs when they find them. 

As in nature, so in punctuation. While the colon and semi-colon are rarely sighted these days, the exclamation mark is everywhere, hopping about in great clusters.

Treat exclamation marks as if they were chillies: a little goes a long way. Treat them as if you were carving them in stone rather than keeping one finger down on the keyboard. One exclamation mark means just that: it marks an exclamation. What do two or more mark? - they show only that, when you've used one previously, it was probably unnecessary. It's like an actor who shouts his first lines and then has to get even louder to signify anger or distress. Try taking all exclamation marks out of your work (and emails) and then put them back in only where one is required, i.e. after an exclamation. 'Watch out!' is an exclamation; 'she got off the train wearing pink slippers' is not.

Exclamation marks are the enemies of subtlety. Try and restict yourself to using them in dialogue only. 'She got off the train wearing pink slippers!' is justified if you want to indicate something about the character of the speaker, e.g. that she enjoys pointing out the shortcomings of others. After all, we don't use two or more question marks to indicate interrogation, or two or more full stops to indicate absolute finality (ellipses aside, which indicate the opposite). So no more multiple exclamation marks. As for !?! - that's the stuff of comics. Pow!

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Going to Work

When I agreed to tutor a week's course at Oxford University's Summer School, I worried about many things. Would I find enough to talk about for twelve seminars? What can you say about writing historical fiction? Would the other tutors be intimidating? As the day drew closer, however, I began to worry about catching a bus at 8.30 each morning. Would I oversleep? The thing that got to me most was the idea of having to catch a bus every morning. I went and bought a bus pass from the Travel Centre in Debenhams and felt as excited and apprehensive as I did when I first went to senior school. Then Saturday finally arrived and this was it: back to work.

Well. . . it's like a holiday! The weather helps, of course, and going into the city on Saturday and Sunday was quiet and joyful. For a start, there are shops. Recognising an old thought pattern, that a worker deserves treats, I limited my sudden rush of desires to an artisan's loaf to take home later. Then there is Wellington Square, with its heavy scent of limes, and people sitting in the dappled shade as if waiting for a French Impressionist to come along. Having a day timetabled with commitments means there are breaks. Breaks! Breaks for coffee (made by someone else) and lunch (made by someone else), even dinner should I want it. Good generous breaks which, for a writer, means time to get your notebook out and have a scribble. I don't get any of that at home!

Looking back on my years of full time work, I realise they were quite productive. The bulk of the trilogy got written then. When you are at work, you're not at home making a mess and creating piles of washing up. You come home, leave work behind and enjoy leisure time.

Would I want to go back to work full time, though? It's tempting but no, probably not. It wouldn't be long before I was fretting and feeling imprisoned, before I was visiting those shops for workers' treats, before I was missing the bus and taking sickies.

I just need to learn from the experience and timetable my days a bit better. One thing I'll never find at home, however, is the stimulation of varied company. That, in the end, has been the best part of the experience of having a day job this week. Far from being intimidating, the other tutors have given me the best conversations I've had in years.

Thursday, 19 June 2008


Several years ago I adopted Persephone as a guide to the creative life. I was finding life to be constant stress between writing and all other activities; whatever I was doing I was fretting that I wasn't doing something else. This became particularly acute in summer months when the desire to be OUT is so strong. I was advised to give up writing for six months. This was in the month of March. I found the experience so useful that I've followed it ever since and write only between the equinoxes (although sometimes I cheat in the summer, and am cheated in the winter). I must be the only person who greets the onset of dark evenings with a cheer. It did strike me that no one ever mentioned which part of Persephone's life she preferred, being with Ceres, her mother, or Pluto, her husband. I suspect she had no preference but enjoyed both.

Now that I am growing used to the regime, I begin to notice that the creative year in fact divides into quarters. I believe astronomers noticed this at the dawn of time, but I'm slow to catch up. There are the equinoxes and there are the solstices. As the summer solstice approaches in a few days' time, I find I am motivated to clear all the gumph off my desk, complete outstanding tasks and do my filing. Something inward is shifting towards winter and writing a new novel. High summer will be spent doing the research (that doesn't count as writing) and dwelling on the story (neither does that). Both can be done under the apple trees.

The two equinoctal divisions may be simply described as IN and OUT. Winter is the time to stay indoors and beaver at your keyboard. Summer is the time to be out on the veg plot. (This is a simplistic version of my life and takes no account of the multitude of other duties and activities, including earning a living.) The solstice division adds a little subtlety. Spring is OUT-OUT. All the seedlings to raise, nurture and plant, the plots to be dug, etc. Summer is OUT-IN. Not so much to do on the veg plot apart from weeding, watering and some late sowings. Autumn is IN-IN. Everything is inturned. The plants are harvested, the leaves drop from the trees, all the sap returns to the roots of both soul and soil. Then comes the winter solstice and the annoyance of Christmas - such a busy, disturbing time, but it heralds the quarter turn into new life. Winter is IN-OUT. Still writing, but now there are seed catalogues and potatoes arriving in the post. Snowdrops appear and then the celandines and, in March, I'll swop the pen for the dibber.

Friday, 28 March 2008


It's a long time since my last post and, prompted by Jeremy's comment, feel I should say at least something, if only to point you to his own blog since it makes fascinating reading on the issue of our response to climate destabilisation. You will find it at

As for me, I'm in limbo. The external weather is preventing any serious work on the allotment, while the internal weather is delaying any creative work. I'm fully occupied with preparing a talk on Pico della Mirandola for the Temenos Academy next week and, like the last time I spoke on him, find that my ideas keep crumbling to dust. As I pick my way so carefully in the minefields of scholarship, I wonder - what am I doing here? I'm just a novelist! But at the moment I can't even read a book, let alone write one. Still, I'm old enough and wise enough to know that one must trust what happens and just go along with it.

So that the first quarter of 2008 doesn't go down in the annals as completely unproductive, I spend a little time each day building my website. And that is fun. Do visit.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

The Rebirth of Venus

A big lorry drew up yesterday with a pallet full of books. The driver distracted me, telling me how his wife had left him with two little children twenty-five years ago, and that she doesn't know she's a grandmother. He also told me about his elderly father being a right misery and difficult to look after. Thank goodness it was such a beautiful, sunny day. Anyway, we eventually got the books unpacked, and it's looking gorgeous.

It took five (seven, including David's two) trips to the post office this morning, laden like a pack donkey, to get all the pre-ordered books away. (This will be the last time we stress Carl and his stamp-licking tongue - our post office is to close in a couple of months). As I sat signing all the books last night, and reading messages people had sent, I became slightly heady with delight at what marvellous people we have as customers. This is one of the best parts of publishing your own books: direct contact with readers. When you go through one of the big houses, there is nothing quite so flat as publication day. You get your copy through the post in a world that's gone eerily silent and will remain that way for weeks if not months. For some people, it stays that way forever, their book dropping like a stone into a bottomless well. Ugh. . .

We're having an official rebirthday, with guests, on Saturday.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Endagered Species 2 - the Indent

'Any questions?' my tutor in web design asked sweetly. 'You've missed two classes. Do you have any particular questions?'

'Well, yes, there is one. What do I do if I want an indent?'

'A what?'

'Indent. You know, when you press Tab in Word, you get an indent.'

'Oh, well, that is advanced. Even the advanced class hasn't tackled that one yet. But there is a way, yes, and I'll show you if you're really interested, only not right now.'

'Why is it so difficult?'

'Well, you see,' he said, pulling on his lower lip, 'it's a psuedo property.'

So, good folks, the reason why this blog is laid out like a commercial report is because programmers are commercial guys, and think the double-line space between paragraphs is the right thing to do. So much so that the element for 'paragraph' in HTML (my, aren't we getting knowledgeable?) includes a 'white space', which is to say, a blank line. So every time you type a paragraph tag, bingo, you got what you don't want.

Save the indent! I mean - will you ever want to read a novel laid out like this? And a tip for aspiring writers: never send out a manuscript laid out like this.

Dem Bones

So, the news is out following DNA testing on the exhumed bones of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Angelo Poliziano: they both died of poisoning. I heard about the exhumation just as I was making the book ready for press. What a quandry! Should I wait until I heard the results? What if that necessitated rewriting? In the end I decided to leave things as they were. After all, I had not categorically stated how they died. I was not writing a murder mystery. I stayed with Tommaso's point of view at the time: he would not have known for sure himself, but would have had his suspicions (and fears). In the end, his suspicions have been vindicated by modern science.

I trust the scientists are better at their science than their history. The newspaper report said that Pico's bones were those of a tall, burly man, contradicting all his portraits. There are no portaits, only written descriptions, which state that he was 'tall and robust'.

So, science has added nothing to my story, and my story nothing to science, except for one thing. In the novel I dismiss the theory that Pico was murdered by his secretary, Cristoforo Casale. And I am rather inclined to go with my intuition. It has never let me down.

Will this finally put paid to the scurrilous character assassination of Poliziano that has been going on for four hundred years? Somehow I doubt it. It will go quiet for a while, then, in time, we will begin to read again that he 'died of syphilis' or 'died falling down the stairs in the extremities of love.' It takes a novelist to tell the truth.

The book? - out next week. The two-week delay waiting for the typesetter to return from holiday so that the printers could get the correct files turned out to be unnecessary: the printers had the files all the time. Was there ever a book so reluctant to come out into the light of day?

Monday, 4 February 2008


Just a note to say that more comments have been posted under 'Literary or Commercial' below - all well-worth reading.

Endangered species - the subjunctive

Just because a book is written for the 'commerical' market doesn't mean we can assume that readers are a bit thick and will be put off by good English. Whether the use of the subjunctive is disappearing because of this idea or just through sheer ignorance, I don't know. If I was taught it at school, I forgot about it, but it was brought specifically to my attention by a mentor concerned about my development as a writer. The use of the subjunctive lends a beautiful quality to language. Examples include such sweet phrases as 'be that as it may' or 'would that I could'. Briefly it is used when expressing a wish or a possibility, that is, not an absolute. For example: 'I wish my brother were here' (not was). There's not a single example of the use of the subjunctive in the seven hundred papages of Labyrinth. It is not an easy aspect of grammar to master, but it's worth the effort to develop an ear for it. Don't make the mistake of assuming that all sentences beginning with 'if' will take the subjunctive: there are exceptions. My third sentence in this piece, for example, is correct, although I have no idea why.

The mystery of the Labyrinth

I woke up this morning, knowing what I was going to write here, but also determined not to name names. I don't like negative reviews and didn't want to get into that. However, I thought I'd just check on Amazon to see what anyone else thought of Kate Mosse's Labyrinth, which I've spent the last three days reading while I waited for Norovirus to do its worst and leave. I was so shocked, so relieved, I nearly wept. Listen, this book has had reviews to die for and has sold in huge quantities. I do recommend that anyone interested in the commercial fiction debate should read the reviews for Labyrinth on They make fascinating reading, and leave you in no doubt that the great British reading public is not stupid (except that we haven't learnt to recognise buddy reviews in the media for what they are). Review after review carries a grudging one star (you are not allowed to leave the star field empty)and each is enlightening in its criticism. So, what went wrong with this book? If it had come to me in mss, I would have said the following:

"It is obviously well-researched and lovingly done, but it is far too long. In fact, it is interminable and I was nearly in tears by the end, longing for it to finish. Because, you see, the ending was so entirely predictable. At least a third of this book could disappear without any loss. As for the characters, there are far too many of them, and almost all are wooden stereotypes. There is no depth of characterisation. You quite cheekily say in your blurb (yes, I know who writes the blurb) that it's an adventure story featuring two women who don't stand around waiting to be rescued. Oh yeah? Whatever you tell me about the character of Alice, I got the impression of someone standing wide-eyed and saying, 'Ummmm' while things happend to her. In your own notes on your own book at the back (how precious can you get?) you have a section called 'characterisation' which I read with interest, only to find myself being asked if I had guessed which one in the medieval sections echoed which ones in present day. Well, no, I hadn't. Too busy looking for something about them to be interested in. I strongly suggest you take a course in writing, for you obviously have some talent, and before sending it out again, make sure you get it edited."

Naturally, I would have then edited out the cruelty and fashioned a much kinder response. But she would have risen up in righteous anger to point out that she has a degree in English from Oxford, has worked as an editor for top publishers, teaches Creative Writing at the University of Sussex and is a founder of the Orange Prize. At which point I would have fainted clean away, unable to comprehend such a mystery as this.

One lesson I've learnt from this exercise is to check Amazon reviews before buying anything again. What does it teach us about getting published? The lesson here is as inescapable as it is obvious: it's not who you are but who you know that counts. Now isn't that sad?

Sunday, 3 February 2008

David Suggests a New Genre

What follows is an extract from an email which David sent to my disappointed author, turned down on the basis of being 'neither literary nor commercial'. He has a novel suggestion: for the world that loves categories, let's invent a new one.

"Unfortunately, in so many areas of life, it often appears that the modern world isn't much interested in substance, only attractive packaging (and cheapness). However, I think that is only appearance - it will continue to draw the mass of people, but I suspect that, as in the area of food, change is under way and that increasing numbers are seeking something of real substance. It'll probably take a bit longer to work through to food for the mind and spirit, and it may well never be mass market, but I think it will be a growing one.

The only thing that will really satisfy you as a writer is to be true to yourself - to that indefinable something that you connected with in the portrait in the National Gallery, and the love and intrigue that it generated. If you're happy that you are doing justice to that in your writing then be unshakeable ('And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise'). Least of all rewrite out of commercial considerations - unless writing commercially is your true vision.

Frankly, if I were a writer, I'd be quite disheartened if ***** wrote to me "Do you want to write commercial fiction or literary fiction?" How come 'either or', as if these are the only two types of fiction that can be? In fairness, ***** is just reflecting current publisher thinking - but this thinking is basically an accountant's view, and after that it's a marketing team's view, and at the end of the queue there might be a whisper from an editor.

If we must think in genres then I'd like to propose a new one, 'true fiction'. . . This is neither clever packaging of nothing much at all, nor graceful literary pyrotechnics, but fiction which is lit by an inner light and perception, and is true to and manifests that. Not that there haven't been such works, they just haven't been given a genre till now."

Jonathan's view

While I take a couple of days off to recover from the Norovirus, here are two contributions I've received by email. This one is from Jonathan, who makes incredible lustreware which fulfils William Morris's dictum for arts and crafts: both useful and beautiful. He writes:

"First about the lack of lustre in modern language. I am a great fan of John Ruskin, and find his prose majestic in vision, and vivid in detail. The best of it rolls like some unstoppable wave - whether of righteous indignation or of detailed and delicate description. There is nothing to touch his style that I have come across. Hemmingway wrote terse, spare and effective prose, but there was a great loss involved in this paring economy of language.

Second: commercial versus critically-acclaimed. I agree that this is an unfortunate dichotomy. Chiefly I think it springs from intellectual snobbery, which permeates many artistic fields and not just the literary. But the argument is based on very dubious logic - something along the lines of: lots of people are ignorant; lots of people like this (book/picture/story/film); so only ignorant, or mainly ignorant people like this. I am not ignorant, so naturally I don't like it. What's more, if I don't like it, it can't be good. More succinctly, it runs: this is popular, so it cannot be good. Which line of false reasoning also has the delicious variant: my work is hard to understand, so it must be good. Or my work is misunderstood, so it must be good. In my own field, there is a deep dividing line between those potters (now dignified by the title 'Ceramicists', or sometimes 'Ceramists') who feature in exhibitions sponsored by the Crafts Council, and those who make a living selling work to the public. The new, the wacky and the boundary pushing get publicity...the old hat sells. It is not a watertight boundary(which boundaries are?) but it is a slightly unfortunate division. The problem to some extent is that most of those who can, do; and many of those who can't, teach.

I have always thought there is something healthy about getting along without grants and awards; for if you want to make a living, you have to give people what they value, and are prepared to pay for. Where is the shame in this? Of course it may involve compromise. But to remain entirely uncompromising is, I think, to do nothing. The pure world of principle and inaction."

Monday, 28 January 2008

Literary or Commercial?

I was told today that a book I’m currently championing is written in a commercial style (i.e. language) but has a literary content. When I asked what was meant, I was told that, for this book to be commercial, the protagonist should be female and there should be ‘some bosom heaving’.

In the current issue of Myslexia (issue 36), there is an article by Lesley Lokko, author of ‘blockbusters’, in which she says, ‘there’s something about the honesty of commercial fiction that I adore. Fundamentally, commercial fiction is about two things: good storytelling and good sales.’ She goes on to say, ‘Good definitions of what constitutes “literary” and “commercial” fiction are hard to come by. Most critics waffle indecisively about the boundary between content and style, or prose and plot, and so on, citing the Booker long list as the definitive literary guide . . . but if there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on, it’s the fact that the definition is slippery and shifting, and that no one seems to know whether that’s A Good Thing. I think it’s brilliant.’

In regard to the author I’m championing (as yet unpublished) I think it is vitally necessary that publishers allow for hybrids. Otherwise they, rather like TV companies, are guilty of continually dishing up the same, and to a formula.

So, I’ve made myself sleepless tonight trying to attempt that definition. It is true that commercial fiction is more plot-driven than literary fiction. I think literary fiction suffers from the post-Jamesian idea that ‘character is plot’. Shakespeare would have said that character without plot is a body without a skeleton, but then, bless him, he was a commercial writer. (The sales of Venus and Adonis made him the richest writer ever to have lived before JK Rowling – no bosom heaving there, but much about female lust).

It is also true that the characters in commercial fiction tend to be two-dimensional, bound into their archetypes and predictable. Dickens would say, ‘so what?’, but then he was a very commercial writer.

Commercial novels do tend to have a romantic or sexual element (i.e. hot pages, which I confess to finding gripping, though I never write them myself and am glad that it is no longer true that a bodice must be ripped in every book). Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte wrote in this genre. You can see where I’m going, can’t you? Most of our literary giants were commercial writers in their time.

Who are the exceptions? James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad spring to mind: great writers of difficult reads. It’s too late in the night to go off and do some research to check my facts, but anyone interested in this subject is advised to consult Arthur Quiller-Couch’s ‘The Art of Reading’. Quiller-Couch was an Edwardian critic, the last of his kind to speak out for truth and beauty. He was supplanted at Cambridge by F R Leavis, who introduced the idea of taking literature seriously. Seriously – key word, that. An important distinction between Quiller-Couch and Leavis is that the former wrote novels himself. Leavis only wrote criticism. I’m not saying that Leavis was an evil demon, only that he was responsible for much that followed, and the situation in Eng Lit today is such that I strongly advise any would-be writer not to study it at university.

I suspect that the division between literary and commercial is datable to the mid-twentieth century and the ideas of Leavis and his contemporaries. That is, it comes after James, Joyce, Woolf and Lawrence. Before Leavis there was simply a spectrum catering to all tastes, and not the dreadfully snobbish – however morally correct – division that now holds.

Personally I would love to see a fusion of genres, to have a book which is well-plotted, a gripping read, with great character development and a theme addressing moral questions of our time. Why not? Instead I seem to be faced with a choice of the literary equivalent of a cheap box of chocolates (made with saccharine) and a healthy raw salad. What I crave is a roast dinner.

Has any modern novel satisfied me? Yes. Louis de Berniere’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Some found it insufferably tedious in its first hundred pages (before the romance kicks in), others ludicrously romantic (after the first hundred pages). I found it had a greatness to it that I hadn’t experienced before in contemporary literature, and was not surprised when watching a TV film about its success to find that its admirers encompassed the whole spectrum of British society, from workers to royalty. What was its secret? The author loved his characters, wrote beautifully, did terrific research and felt passionately about war, about Greece, about the people of Cephalonia and their sufferings. In short, heart and mind were in balance. Poor de Berniere suffered, of course, from popularity. You don’t hear much of him these days. And he never won the Booker Prize.

So let’s do for the English novel what Jamie, Hugh and Gordon are doing for English cooking: simplicity mixed with innovation, better ingredients, more passion. Healthy, organic food with incredible flavour. I could go on, and mention the division between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ that’s infected all branches of the arts, but it is now four in the morning.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Writing from the solar plexus

I have been teaching creative writing for a long time, perhaps twelve years, but yesterday's tutorial with one of my American students (in fact, all my students are Americans, on programmes at Oxford University) was the best yet. She was finding it difficult to express what her novel is about; she didn't really know herself. I sat like a TV psychiatrist and probed with questions until we got to the nub of the matter: why  she wanted to write it. It involved a confession on her part to past misdemeanours. What she wants to do is to educate people and better inform their opinions about certain things. She is angry, with herself and with the world.

Now, as she spoke, I felt her words in the solar plexus. It was so strong a sensation that I asked her what part of her anatomy she was speaking from. Not surprisingly, it was the same, the solar plexus. Her instruction for the week is to write from there, to
feel as she writes. It doesn't matter if it is crude, malformed and unliterary. Just get it out. We can talk about style, word-choice, sentence variety, the use of the semi-colon, and it matters not a jot if the content is no good. What makes content good is the passion of the writer and the truth of what is said.

Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,/Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,

We need to give birth to our writing, to scream and thrash, to howl in anguish. And when it comes, it is bloody and covered with mucus and placenta. That's content. I'm tempted to say that style is washing the babe and clothing it, but in fact I think it's in its genes and will leave that discussion for another day.

'Fool,' said my muse to me; 'look in thy heart, and write.'

I wonder now what Sidney meant by 'heart'. The seat of feeling does seem to be in the solar plexus. In Indian philosophy, 'heart' is a much larger concept than the physical pump behind the left breast. When I checked 'solar plexus' in Wikipedia, I found this:

According to Hindu beliefs, the solar plexus chakra is "the center of etheric-psychic intuition: a vague or non-specific, sensual sense of knowing; a vague sense of size, shape, and intent of being." As such, some psychics recommend "listening" to it since it may help out in making better decisions in one's life on many different levels.

In my study of Sidney, such as it has been, I can see that when he wrote Astrophil and Stella, when, in fact, he wrote this first sonnet in the sequence, he had changed as a writer. As he says himself, he stopped looking for words, inspiration and a model in other writers, stopped valuing study above direct contact with nature, and begin to write from the heart. I can only wonder if by 'heart' he meant 'solar plexus'.

David and I have been enjoying a joust-by-email with friend Jonathan over the past fews days, inspired by Jonathan's provocative statement that novels are 'not improving' and, therefore, not worth reading. Once the dust had settled, we saw that we all believed the same thing, that very many modern novels are not worth reading. It is not enough to create a plot and some characters, to write even a gripping story beautifully. Not enough. What the reader needs is to feel the writer's passion, about some aspect of being human. When we read a good novel, when we feel improved by what we have read, it's as if a hand has reached in and squeezed that organ behind the abdomen, the solar plexus.

Friday, 25 January 2008

Delayed Gratification

Did I say 'The End'? Silly me. The typesetter is off on holiday until 2nd February we discovered today, when we phoned in a flap to find out why she hadn't sent the files for the cover to the printers. That's it, then. No hope of the promised January publication, but still a chance for my favoured date of February 14th - very appropriate for Venus.

Had to admit mother to the John Radcliffe Hospital again yesterday. Having learnt lessons previously, I took a flask of hot drink and a good book. There I was, deep in Sidney's Astrophil and Stella, when a young Korean woman came to fill in a form. Having established name and address (already taken in the ambulance), she asked, 'Do you consider yourself White British?' Before Mum could say 'Eh?', even before an expletive of surprise issued from my lips, she followed with 'Church of England?' and checked the box. We had about an hour to ruminate on the significance of our colour and theological inclinations before the doctor came.

'Fool,' said my muse to me. 'Look in thy heart and write.'

Thursday, 17 January 2008

The End

Today we sent off the printing files to SRP in Exeter. It's all up to them now, to turn what I've written into a tangible book. How do I feel? Free! I'm so thoroughly engaged by my new project that, in the end, the trilogy became something of a distraction. But anyway, today's the day that the long, awful process of bringing it to completion finally ended.

And what do I see as I look out of the window? Why, floods! The water isn't quite as high as it was in the summer, but the meadow is a lake and the water's still rising. We're back on high alert. I over-reacted in July; perhaps now I am too complacent - we went to bed last night leaving the new TV where it is. It's very hard to gauge the right mental response. I think this time I shall trust to instinct more than to dire warnings from governmental agencies. But the pop-sock sandbags are poised, and we have stocked up on water and cereal bars. Yesterday we went out and bought proper wellington boots so at least I can get to the allotment and rescue the leeks from the sucking mire.

Monday, 14 January 2008

The End is Nigh

I've just finished checking the fourth set of page proofs for The Rebirth of Venus. Fortunately my typesetter is long-suffering and doesn't mind my hopeless quest for perfection. Between us, we've just cured all the hyphenations, and naturally I've taken the opportunity to tweak a little here and there. But it really does feel like dusting a finished statue now.

The cover was just as difficult to finalise as the book. I had nothing in mind before we started playing with colours. Naturally the image had to be from Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. I wish it didn't -- it's so hackneyed. But David in his brilliance thought of flipping it and focussing on the head. Now the image is both familiar and strange all at once, and different qualities emerge in the goddess, more introverted and soulful. As for the colours, we gave ourselves headaches with the pantone palette. I tried lots of different backgrounds but only two created that sense of inner affirmation which says, 'That's it!' One was pink, and I feared it would put men off from reading it in public. The other was laid-back, elegant cream. It seemed right but it didn't seem perfect, not until we arrived at deep cherry for the type. Then, in a moment of illumination, I took up a copy of A Tabernacle for the Sun and realised it was the same colour-combination, only reversed. Then it seemed perfect.

I had an email from Lindsay Clarke today. The novel he's working on has been even longer in gestation (twelve years) and he's finding it just as hard to get it finished. Perhaps our mutual difficulty is in the stars -- I'd like to think so. 2008 -- the year of elephantine births.

Meanwhile I learn that poor Tewekesbury is putting out the sandbags again. Our watermeadow is flooded but that is normal for this time of year. But if Gloucestershire floods again, so will Oxford in all likelihood. And despite numerous community meetings, we're still unprepared. All talk, no action.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

The Semi-Colon under Attack

Since writing about semi-colons last month, I've read an extract from a book published in Quest, the journal of the Queen's English Society, no less, which to my astonishment spoke out for the extinction of this species of punctuation. To quote: 'Semicolons are pretentious and overactive.' Hmmm - 'semi-colons' should be hyphenated, you know. 'These days one seems to come across them in every other sentence.' Oh yeah? Not if you read Philippa Gregory. 'If the undergraduate essays I see are representative, we are in the midst of an epidemic of semicolons.' I haven't had one undergraduate who hasn't had to be reminded what a semi-colon is and encouraged to use it. 'I recognise that my reaction is extreme. But the semicolon has become so hateful to me that I feel almost morally compromised when I use it.' What guff!

Here is a 'sentence' from Philippa Gregory's The Queen's Fool. 'I tried to fight it off, this court would be the worst place in the world to tell the truth.' That's only one of very many examples from this book of separate sentences joined by commas. In one there were about three sentences: I wish I had noted it down but I didn't. This line I've quoted is, of course, two sentences, and is exactly the right occasion for the use of a semi-colon.

It's a good book and I enjoyed it, but my enjoyment was ruined by having to re-read so many sentences badly punctuated. Of course, my eye was keen for semi-colons and I came across about three; on each occasion it was wrongly used and should have been a comma. As John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, we must never disturb the fictional dream. Because of the lack of stops or semi-colons, I could never fully enter her dream. Other reviewers say the same, that the story stretches credibility, never completely grips, etc. Could it be merely because of punctuation? It's possible. What a salutary lesson.