Sunday, October 30, 2005

Halloween Haikus

Jeff Vandermeer on Vanderworld has started a Halloween Haiku competition. It is definitely worth a look...

Friday, October 28, 2005

Shallowlands - Ros Barber's blog

Some time ago I blogged about the rather excellent poet Ros Barber of whom I am big fan. I am pleased to report she has started a blog called Shallowlands about writing a novel. It is entertaining and very interesting and I shall be dipping in to see how she is getting on.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

'Contexts' in 'The Writers World'

On Tuesday I was contacted by a student, Angi Holden, who is studying Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University in Alsager. Apparently part of the course is called 'Contexts' and she has a presentation assignment on 'The Writer's World' and has decided to focus on Chester Litfest. She asked me a few interesting questions. Here they are with my responses.

A.H: What is the value of a festival - such as Chester Litfest - to an established writer?

C.D: First of all not sure about the 'established writer' bit, really. I've only written three novels, I don't think that's 'established' really. But for a writer like me, the main value of any Litfest (and I've performed several this year - WOW (Writing on the Wall at Liverpool), Swindon, Basingstoke, Cheltenham and now Chester) is to introduce myself to potential readers. They do tend to be potential readers rather than actual readers because apart from my friends in Chester, few people have come across my work even though it has been quite widely reviewed. And because I am relatively unknown my talks have to be on topics that I think might interest people and so they will come to find out about the subject rather than come just to 'meet the author' as they do for well-known novelists. Well-known novelists tend to talk about things like how they write, how they got started i.e. general things about their lives as writers. My talks tend to be less about me and more about the topic of my research. At the end of my talk I hope they are interested enough to want to buy my book, and then buy any subsequent books that I write. Quite often they don't, of course - my talk has given them all the information they need - and that is good as well, because part of the reason I've written my books is to tell people about characters or events which I think are interesting, important and deserve wider attention, and so just their attendance at my talk achieves this aim.

Another benefit of being in a festival is that even if people don't come to your event they read about you in the programme which is widely circulated so that is good publicity.

Sometimes local bookshops stock festival books so that can be of benefit too - because sometimes it is hard to even get your books in bookshops. So being in a festival helps to bring your book to the attention of bookshop managers - for example in Swindon the manager at Waterstones there read my book because I was coming to the festival and liked it so much she made it her recommended read and put it on display which would more or less guarantee that it would sell. However it does depend on the manager - at Basingstoke the bookshop associated with the festival didn't stock my book which was disappointing.

The big festivals have an extra benefit in that you meet other writers and journalists. In Cheltenham I met several well-known authors and a journalist from the Times asked me a few questions. They also treat their writers really well, and it is great to be invited.

All festivals are a lot of fun too, and I really enjoy them but they are exhausting because after travelling for several hours with, in my case, a computer, a bag full of books, and an overnight bag you then have to set everything up and perform then either sleep badly in a B&B or make the long journey back again. And of course I have to spend several days beforehand preparing my talk with pictures and words. I enjoy this too, but all of this takes you away from writing, and it is impossible to write before or after giving talks - even Alan Bennett says so.

A.H: How does it compare with your perceptions of a literary festival from a "punters" point of view?

C.D: From the punters point of view ... well, I've been to as many events as I can in the Chester Festival (as I do every year) to support both the festival and the people involved. There were more I would have liked to have gone to but I was away at festivals myself so I couldn't. I would have liked to have gone to Joanne Harris's and David Frost's too, and I should have liked to have gone to Chester Poets' but was away at events. I suppose, like you, I like to hear about other writers' lives and how they got started and it is always interesting to hear the writers' real voice and see how it compares to the one on the page. I also like to support local writers and writers I have never heard of before - and these often turn out to give the best events - the most interesting and informative.

A.H: What's been your highlight of the festival?

C.D: So far the best event of this year for me was the one at Chester University by a couple of lecturers there (John Cartwright and Brian Baker). They have written a book about science in literature and their lectures were fascinating. One was on how writers have mentioned science in literature through the ages and the other on science fiction.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Talk at the Chester Literature Festival.

It is the last week of the Chester Literature Festival and my last event for a while - a talk on THE MAKING OF MODERN MADNESS at the Grosvenor Museum. It was good to be on home territory with a room full of people who have read my book and know me and I was very glad to see them. I don't feel like giving up any more.

Jan Bengree gave me an excellent introduction, and Sheila Parry gave the vote of thanks. Sheila's Steve operated the computer very well, and when the projector gave up half way through (because it wasn't having enough attention) he managed to cajole it into working again. Alan Wall was there, which was very good of him because he lives far away, and the manager of Waterstones sold my books - and amazingly some people bought them.

Tonight I feel all is not lost and tomorrow I am going to work hard and try to produce another book if I can.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Heaton Chapel Lit and Phil

It was a dark and windy night - a wet one too - but through the dirty diamond windows a faint glimmer showed...

Rows and rows of chairs - surely they won't need all those...

But this is the Heaton Chapel Lit and Phil - second oldest Lit and Phil in the country and they have standards to uphold...

And they kept coming and a coming..

Until there were many...

Jolly good audience, very appreciative, and lovely lot of people. They'd never heard of Alfred Wegener but they have now.

The evening, however was not without incident. The projector seemed to be dead at first and four of us stared at it until it got embarrassed and started to work, spontaneously...and on the way back I decided to go round the traffic roundabout using the unique Hodmandod anticlockwise system. As experiments go it was unsuccessful and I only just escaped with my life.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Mimosa Festival

Well after a week the blog is back - I missed it too much.

Today I went to the Bethel Presbyterian Church of Wales in Liverpool. I walked down Penny Lane (as in the song) and it was litter-strewn and run-down looking, especially the millennium park which was particularly bleak. The Welsh chapel stood proud of the hill, instantly recognisable - that characteristic combination of austerity overlain with dour ornament. Inside there was another country - Wales in England, people coming up to me talking a language I should know but don't. They were my height, my complexion, my people, all of us from the same stock - Romano-Celt. For an hour I listened to the language that should be mine, but isn't, the language I was used to hearing as a child on holiday but never learnt: Gareth James and his talk entitled 'Cefndir y Mimosa'. The sparse snatches I understood sounded very interesting and not for the first time I wished there was some sort of hat you could wear, the universal translator that is always so freely available in most works of science-fiction. But then there was a talk in English which I know was fascinating - author Susan Wilkinson from Toronto talking about 'The Romance of the Mimosa'. The Mimosa was a ship that began life as a tea clipper but is most famous for being the ship that transported about 160 Welsh people to Patagonia. They left from Liverpool. At the time 80 000 people out of a total population of 450 000 were Welsh in Liverpool and there were 70 Welsh chapels in the city. Bethel is one of just seven that remain and is due to be demolished in the near future. Like much of the rest of the Welsh legacy in Liverpool it is crumbling away, is in desperate need of expensive refurbishment and is under-used. However the Welsh community in Liverpool is live and kicking and still publishing.

THE WELSH OF MERSEYSIDE is one of their recent publications. It is well-researched and contains a catalogue of Welsh buildings and characters including one John Davies 'Cadvan'. He was a 'cantakerous' competitor in the National Eisteddfod (a Welsh cultural festival). Although his heroic verse won first prize in the 1884 competition his love lyrics in the 1900 competition were not similarly lauded and he protested vehemently. He stares out of the pages of this book - a handsome man but clearly eccentric - his Wesleyan Methodist ministerial robes festooned with eleven medals dispersed over the entire expanse of his chest.

Sunday, October 16, 2005


I am going to finish my blog for a while...but before I go...

A few nights ago I went to see two poets - Fleur Adcock and Wendy Cope who were funny and at the same time made you see things in a different light. It was a good evening.

So to finish this literary blog - at least for now - here is a poem I wrote about ten years ago. It is about Mrs Mounter - a painting by Harold Gilman. She was his landlady and he painted her several times. I think she looks like she is remembering back to when she was younger.


Two cups, two spoons, two saucers,
shoved together anyhow.
Which one of us is chipped, stirs
nothing, an empty cup? How

can I know it's not just you
that's fading away, wearing
out? I am watered down too,
but remember the longing

to see something more than tea
in your black eyes - the promise
of rich, over-brewed love, we
both once drank instead of this.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Margaret Murphy

Now for a real crime writer - Margaret Murphy - who lives close by on Wirral and as well as being a great teacher and speaker writes highly entertaining crime novels with local settings. She has written two based in Chester itself (DARKNESS FALLS and WEAVING SHADOWS) and I find it great fun to pick out the places you know. However her latest trilogy (first is the DISPOSSESSED and the second is out in November (NOW YOU SEE ME)) is based in the more exciting city of Liverpool because, after all, Chester is a place where little tends to happen - although in Margaret's two novels about the place, things are certainly very lively indeed and they are great page turners.

She has an excellent website (link above and below) which gives a lot of information about the books with extracts. She has kindly answered my seven questions.

1.Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters..etc.)
I kept pet snails, in junior school. I've always hated slugs, though. Later, when I taught biology, I kept giant African snails - this was before Health and Safety banned everything, on the basis it might be unhygienic.

 2. What is your proudest moment?
I come from a repressed Roman Catholic background, where Pride (capital P) was a sin, and always came before a fall. I do have moments when I'm quietly pleased, in an 'aw shucks' kind of way: like having my first book published. Or having my next book published. Positive feedback from fans pleases me more than anything, though.

 3. Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
1989 - 1990. I had a series of TIAs. I lost concentration, co-ordination and had trouble articulating. Problematic for a teacher, and devastating for someone who always loved language. As I began to recover, I decided I'd made enough excuses: I had to try to write that book I'd always said I would write. So began my career as a novelist.

 4. What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
A good friend - a refugee - experiencing a flashback. I was caring for her after a particularly traumatic interview, and she woke from a nightmare, and thought she was back in prison. When she looked at me, she saw the soldiers coming to attack her again.

5. If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
I'd like to have more energy, so I could get more done with the day.

 6. What is happiness?
Deep, Clare, really deep... Happiness used to be a cigar called Hamlet, apparently, but never having been a smoker, I can't vouch for that. Happiness is waking in the morning with the sound of the birds outside the window, the sun already warming the garden, and the scent of honeysuckle lingering in the air.

It's the first thrill of excitement as you begin planning a new novel. It's sharing a bottle of cold wine on a summer's evening with an old friend. Your voice and theirs no more than a murmur on the clove-scented air.

 7. What is the first thing you do when you get up?
I open the bedroom curtains and see what kind of day it is. Then I drink lots and lots of tea.

Jake Arnott and THE LONG FIRM

Jake Arnott has written three loosely connected novels about criminals - THE LONG FIRM, HE KILLS COPPERS and TRUE CRIME. - all very successful and well-reviewed. THE LONG FIRM has been made into an acclaimed series for BBCTV. On the 18th October he too is giving a talk in Chester - this time on violence in the novel. Judging from his responses to my interview it should be very interesting.

First I shall review THE LONG FIRM (which I do not think contains spoilers but the interview follows after the photograph).

THE LONG FIRM by Jake Arnott

THE LONG FIRM is about crime but is not really a crime novel, it could be accurately described as a character study of a man who happens to be a criminal - ‘A Torture Gang Boss’ in fact who lives alongside the Kray twins in 1960s London. The Kray twins are not the only nonfictional characters who take a bit-part in this book: others are Judy Garland, Dorothy Squires, Johhnnie Ray, Mickey Deans, all of them portrayed as washed up and unsavoury characters - sad people clinging onto life through a haze of drugs and alcohol.

A large part of the adult life of Harry Starks is revealed through five people who are intimately involved with him: Terry, a young male prostitute and one-time boyfriend who escapes Starks’s clutches after being tortured with a red-hot poker in the mouth; another homosexual Lord Thursby who becomes involved in Starks’s dodgy business activities in a part of Africa; Jack the Hat, a heterosexual accomplice; Ruby a faded starlet who becomes Starks’s go-between with a corrupt policeman and finally Lenny who is a university lecturer and criminologist and is responsible for Starks’s interest in education once he is incarcerated in jail. Each of these people is corrupted by Starks, each one is tortured physically or mentally until they are forced to kill or torture others. Starks is charismatic, preys on those weaker than he is, which is just about everyone.

There is a lot of sex and violence in this novel. The first sex scene is on page seven. It is cursory, unemotional, it is only later on in the book that a couple of homosexual orgies are described in graphic detail. Starks is a homosexual (‘not gay’ he declares towards the end of the book) and one of the few things that disturbs him is the death of a young homosexual called Bernie. He is also Jewish, though this seems to have little bearing on his character, and a manic depressive - given to black periods when he retires to listen to recordings of Winston Churchill and punish the young men who love him. Harry Starks is overwhelmingly cruel and forces subjugation on anyone that comes close. The way he does this is convincing and extremely chilling.

Each of the characters in the novel has a distinctive voice. Terry’s is wheedling - unsurprising since he is in the middle of being physically abused. The Lord’s account is written in a diary form, which is quite pompous, while Jack the Hat’s is written in a fast-paced staccato. It is this voice I found the most sympathetic - Jack the Hat has motivation, some endearing qualities, weaknesses, a sense of guilt which were abjectly missing from any ot the other accounts. He is the one who doesn’t last. It is as if by showing weakness he condemns himself to an early death. Ruby’s account is written in a summarily fashion. She tells us how she feels about things rather than shows us; while Terry’s style is so full of jargon and correct-thinking it borders on the humorous and for a time is tongue in cheek - and I have to say I do know people who talk like that, so it is, unfortunately, realistic. Like Ruby, Lenny is forced to kill - in Ruby’s case the killing is accidental - while Lenny’s motivation is less apparent but equally believable.

I guess all this might make it sound distasteful, but it is not. The quality of writing lifts it from something sordid and makes you turn page after page. I didn’t think I’d like it, in fact I was prepared to hate it, but instead now that I’ve finished it I find myself looking at the other two books in the sequence with longing, wondering when I’m going to find time to read them. Like the characters in the book I too have succumbed to an addiction - but mine is of the literary kind.

Clare Dudman: Do you have any connection with snails?
Jake Arnott: I remember when I was young trying to catch a friend’s attention by throwing gravel at the window, and picking up a slug instead.

C.D: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
J.A: Most days seem to contain life-changing events - that’s how it should be I think. Probably the most important ones are the ones I can’t remember - like walking for the first time or saying my first word. But I can remember one early incident - the earliest I remember. My baby brother was crying about something and my mother tried to calm him down by saying, ‘Don’t worry it’s not the end of the world.’ And I remember it occurring to me that there could be an end. I must have been about four.

C.D: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
J.A: Lots of things. Some of them unrepeatable, heartbreaking.

C.D: What is happiness?
J.A: I don’t think happiness is something we can achieve. We can experience occasionally or fleetingly but yearning for happiness can cause unhappiness. I don’t think it can ever be a state of being. I feel quite strongly about that.

C.D: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
J.A: I get the porridge. I have a peculiar sort - a particular way of cooking it in a double boiler with no milk and sugar and not too much salt.

C.D: Do you have any connection with the north west?
Not much really except I used to got out with someone from Liverpool

About writing.

C.D: Have you always wanted to write?
J.A: In my mind. I didn’t always admit to it, I kept it quiet. Until I was published many people didn’t know I was at it.

C.D: How long did it take you to get your first novel published?
J.A: I was an overnight success after ten years of trying. Once I got an agent he sold it in a fortnight. Before that I’d had lots of stuff rejected.

C.D: Are you self-taught as a writer?
J.A: I prefer the term ‘self-learnt’. I try not to teach myself too much. I have given courses, but I’ve always said writing can’t be taught but it can be learnt.

C.D: What is your typical writing day?
J.A: I work until 5pm and then give up and hope that tomorrow will be better.

C.D: Why did you leave school at 16? You are obviously extremely bright. Why did you not stay on?
J.A: School and I didn’t get on. I couldn’t concentrate and I couldn’t fit in.

C.D: Do you think the great variety of jobs you had since has been beneficial to you as a writer?
J.A: Hard to say. I suspect that one day they will be useful. I have an anarchic c.v. and hope that one day all things will become useful.

C.D: Is there any one in particular that was useful?
J.A: Acting. I learnt the importance of finding a voice and hearing it in my head.

C.D: Was being arrested for suspicion of arson a pivotal moment?
J.A: It wasn’t so much losing my liberty as losing all my possessions. I lost everything. It was instant buddhism. It was useful in a way because it made me realise what is important. It made me realise how much we create problems and are stressed about things that are unimportant.

C.D: You seem to feel strongly about corruption in society in general and corruption in the police in particular. Do you think that the situation has changed recently? Is it getting better or worse?
J.A: I single out the police, but really nowhere in society is safe. We live in a corrupt world where everything is out of balance. It is hard not to be greedy and to resist corruption. We pretend we are immune that’s why we like seeing dramas where corruption is presented. As Shakespeare says in MEASURE FOR MEASURE ‘Some rise by sin, some by virtue fall.’ We quickly come to realise at an early age that being good doesn’t get us anywhere. Good deeds don’t go unpunished and the dirty scoundrels get on in the world. I explore that in my third book TRUECRIME - being good doesn’t get us anywhere.


C.D: I would say that THE LONG FIRM is not really a crime novel but a piece of fiction about a criminal. Would you agree? Have you any ideas about the difference?
J.A: Yes. I would call it historical fiction. It doesn’t follow the standard format of a crime novel.

C.D: Are the other two books HE KILLS COPPERS and TRUECRIME the same in structure?
J.A: Yes, they both contain different narratives.

C.D: How much of what is in your books is based on your life-experience?
J.A: Nothing is directly based. . It is all partly based on people I know at an emotional level. The emotional level is the important part. Also, sub-consciously, it is based on myself, I realise sometimes as I am writing that these things have somehow happened to me.

C.D: Were you happy with the result of the LONG FIRM as a TV adaptation?

C.D: Were you involved in the making? Or consulted at all?
J.A: I met with the people early on and kept up to speed. But really I let them get on with it. I was very happy with the writer, the producer, the director, the cast.

C.D: Did you ever go on set?
JA: Yes, much more glamorous than sitting at home writing.

C.D: Is there one voice in the LONG FIRM you liked writing more than the others?
J.A: Jack the Hat. He was furthest from me but he was the one I found came alive the most when I was writing him. He wrote himself.

C.D: Which voice was the most difficult?
J.A: (long pause) I think Terry. He was closest to me in character and was hardest to hear. It was difficult to distinguish his character from my own sometimes.

C.D: There is quite a lot of sex and violence in the novel, although it is no way gratuitous - given the topic, character and setting it is an essential piece. My final question then - given the topic of your talk is what is primarily your purpose when you write a violent scene. How do you go about imagining it? How do you go about making it so convincing?
JA: Gratuitous violence is unforgivable. I think it is important that people try to understand violence, its causes and effects. It is important to understand that it is not glamorous. It is a huge issue. We see violence portrayed as a firework we often don’t see where it has come from or its implications. It is too easy to portray. Real violence is messy, unchoreographed. It is difficult to tell what is happening in a fight.

Violence is ugly - implosive rather than explosive. What happens goes inside - in emotional, psychological and moral effects. It is claustrophobic.

I tend to avoid endless descriptions in my books. I like to use the threat of violence rather than describing actual scenes.

Interview with Sir David Frost

Interview took place on 4th October 2005 - the day that Ronnie Barker died.

Sir David Frost is going to be performing at the Chester Gateway on Tuesday 18th October and makes a plea for questions: the first half of his performance will be on his comedy and humour - with clips from the THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS and THE FROST REPORT (including a tribute to the late Ronnie Barker); the second half will be a question and answer session and he is hoping to get a lot of good questions from the members of the audience. It will include anecdotes from his interviews which Sir David says is always a lot of fun.


A quick google reveals that:

“He is the only person to have interviewed the last seven Presidents of the United States and the last six Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom”
(The Times)

His Nixon Interviews achieved “the largest audience for a news interview in history”
(New York Times).

So I interviewed him with some trepidation... However I have to say he was charming - a thoroughly good human being who, I believe, treats everyone with the same respect.

Clare Dudman: Do you have any connection with Chester or the north-west?
Sir David Frost: My connection with Chester is not as terrific as I would like, but my Uncle, the Reverend Kenneth Aldrich, had several very happy years as the Methodist Minister in Chester. So we heard a lot about Chester from him, and of course I’ve followed the somewhat roller coaster fortunes of Chester Football Club.

C.D: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
D.F: Going to Cambridge - I’d started writing shows for the local Methodist Youth Club already, but at Cambridge I was able to meet other people with similar ambitions and was very lucky to meet a fantastic range of people - Peter Cook, John Cleese, Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Graeme Garden, Bill Odie - a tremendous cross-section of people together with future ministers including Ken Clarke and Michael Howard.

C. D: What is your proudest moment?
D F: There’s been a number: the birth of our three sons - very much so - then career-wise the response to the Nixon interviews in 1977, and this year I was given the BAFTA fellowship which is their highest honour.

C.D: Who was your favourite interviewee? The most devious? The most difficult?
D.F: Well, Nelson Mandela was certainly one of the most memorable, Baldur von Schirach, the former head of Hitler Youth was the most devious, the most difficult was ex King Ibn Sa’ad of Saudi Arabia because we had two interpreters, one for him and one for me and by the time I’d put the question my interpreter, who put it to his interpreter who put it to him and then he had responded to his interpreter who responded to my interpreter who responded to me you found you’d forgotten the question. Nowadays Gorbachov has a terrific simultaneous interpreter - if Gorbachov talks for just one minute the guy is so quick, after Gorbachov stops the interpreter only needs another 3 or 4 words to complete the minute.
C.D: That’s amazing.
D.F: Yes, amazing - that makes it much easier than with ex-King Ibn Sa’ad

C.D: Do you think that the TV interview has changed over the years? How?
D.F: I think it has - in the sense politicians have learnt how to deal with some sorts of questions, and then you have to play the game.. of chess, and learn how to challenge them again - that’s changing all the time. I think there are more pointless hectoring interviews. You only need to be an adversarial interviewer in an adversarial situation. When I was interviewing Nixon on the Watergate or the notorious swindler, Dr Emil Savundra then these had to be confrontational - but it is pointless to be confrontational otherwise. Confrontation tends to shut people up when the task is to draw them out.

C.D: Are American audiences different from British ones?
D.F: I don’t think American audiences are particularly different. I think because America is a nation of immigrants, whereas we are a nation of emigrants, I think Americans are particularly generous, perhaps more generous than we are in this country. I think the tastes are just the same; but with just two differences - one liner jokes is more prevalent in America, whereas the character comedy is more prevalent over here.

In politics - if you make one mistake, one big verbal mistake than your career will be over, but that doesn’t happen over here. As someone pointed ot - in Britain politicians stand for office; in America they run for office - which suggests a slightly more vigourous democracy.

C.D: What do you think THAT IS THE WEEK THAT WAS’s biggest legacy?
D.F: It opened the windows and let in the fresh air to television. Before we came along no one had ever done a sketch about the royal family, no one was allowed to make jokes about religion...Many producers said they were very grateful to THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS because they could do much more after THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS than they could do before it.
C.D: You were involved in SPITTING IMAGE as well weren’t you?
D.F: I was involved in SPITTING IMAGE but didn’t start it. The producer was John Lloyd who was brilliant, and the puppeteers were Fluck and Law. I was involved because I told John Lloyd that I thought we could get SPITTING IMAGE off the ground in America - if we had a whole story over half an hour instead of lots of little stories. So we did four or five which were successful.

C.D: What have you most enjoyed doing in your professional life?
D.F: I love comedy and the feeling of an audience’s laughter. This is true of all the well-known shows we’ve been talking about, but it’s also true of speeches too. I would say that I like to surf an audience (even though I’m not a swimmer so don’t even know how to surf), and their laughter.

C.D: What is happiness?
D.F: Happiness comes from doing the things you enjoy and, even more important, doing the things you believe in.

C.D: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
D.F: When I interviewed the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Bhutto, we went up to Murree, on the way to Islamabad, a high point in Pakistan and we stopped at a bridge, and down below there was a lorry below containing about 25 Pakistani soldiers that had crashed over the bridge - all dead, just to see them there was very sad.

C.D: At university you edited GRANTA (a literary magazine) - did you or do you ever write fiction?
D.F: Most of my books have been current affairs or humour, apart from a couple of short stories I wrote in Cambridge, I have never tried to write fiction, no. I’d like to try, I’ll get you to give me some lessons!

C.D: Are your writing anything at the moment?
D.F: I’m supposed to be writing the second volume of my memoirs. My first volume only went to the nineteen sixties and that came out in 1993. So I’m a bit slow getting out my second volume. My publishers are knocking on my door. I haven’t started yet.

C.D: What are your future plans?
D.F: I have a monthly Frost interview series coming out monthly on the BBC starting in November, and another series of through the keyhole, and then a new international show starting next year and also specials in America.

C.D: Finally any words on Ronnie Barker who died today?
D.F: He brightened the nation’s life and he certainly brightened mine. He was a superb sketch actor and a more serious actor too, but he was also of course a great writer. he wrote some of the best sketches ever written. He loved words - for instance the famous Dr Spooner who used to gets words wrong - he was fascinated by that and he wrote a series of sketches which were absolutely terrific. Things to do with words fascinated him - a brilliant writer and performer.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Cheltenham Literature Festival

My Cheltenham Literature Festival class seemed to go quite well - twelve keen writers eager to improve their dialogue. Since this is a topic I have always found quite difficult I had quite a lot to say on the subject - I think it is easier to teach something you yourself have found quite hard to learn. I've heard that some writers actually hear their characters’ voices talking to them but find descriptions more difficult - while others are more visual writers and I am sure I am in the last camp.

The Cheltenham Literature Festival looks after its guests very well. At the station was a volunteer holding a sign with 'Cheltenham Literature Festival Guest' and I realised then that that was some unrealised ambition of mine - to be met by someone with a sign...I was supposed to be sharing a ride with Alison Weir but her train was delayed so I was whisked off to my hotel alone with a reminder to go on to the town hall later. The hotel turned out to be one of those small quiet ones, backing onto a park, with a pretty back garden and friendly owners.

The town hall was about ten minutes away, clearly visible with banners advertising the festival all along the street and then lots more banners and flags outside the building itself -even I couldn't miss it. Inside I was given instructions to go to somewhere called THE WRITERS ROOM.

This turned out to be a small room with a bar in one corner, a table laid out with salad and fruit and a couple of drinks urns. There were a few people sitting around tables talking and at first I felt like I was intruding into some private club. There was a man sitting in a wicker chair I vaguely recognised from a television news programme. This time I managed to stop myself smiling at him as if I knew him. This is a mistake I've made before. The TV screen is one way, I reminded myself - he looks out at me, but he can't see me looking back. So I helped myself to some food as instructed in my Cheltenham Literature Festival letter and sat at my own at one of the tables hoping someone would talk to me - but of course no one did. Eventually I accosted an innocent author also sitting on his own who turned out to be the military historian and ex-Observer journalist Colin Smith who was very interesting and he told me where to get 'my performer pass'. This takes the form of a green armband which is much better than the piece of card I was expecting - although I have to say that the idea of me being any sort of performer is pretty funny...I also had a word with the author Andrew Taylor (who had taken a similar class that morning and is going to be a feature of a future blog).

A young and very charming helper in a black T-shirt then came up to me and introduced herself - Jasmine - she showed me to my venue - a room at the back of St Andrews Church, checked that everything was working and helped me rearrange the desks in the room.

She has just finished her education at the very famous and exclusive Cheltenham Ladies College, which was just next door.

We got through many examples of dialogue - and my 'students' produced some fine examples of their own. Then, passing by a man from Ottakars forlornly not selling copies of my books (he looked quite embarrassed, and I paused for moment wondering if I should offer to sign any, but decided against it) went on to the Festival tent... listen to Lawrence Sail, Helen Dunmore and Bernard O’Donoghue read out their own and other people’s poetry from an new poetry anthology LIGHT UNLOCKED which is a beautiful little book nearly each poem illustrated with an engraving by John Lawrence. Since there some of my favourite poets in here (viz Gillian Clarke, Wendy Cope, U.A. Fanthorpe, Benjamin Zephaniah and Seamus Heaney) I bought a copy. I think I am going to use it as an poet autograph book.

The tent is really a big extension of Ottakars’s bookshop and some of my books were on display just like all the rest - so I was pleased. Apart from the bookshop area there was a small stage and screened off theatre. A covered walkway leads to the town hall where I was very lucky to be able to see Alan Bennett read and speak to a packed audience. Towards the end he appealed to the audience to buy books from INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS rather than chains (e.g. Waterstones) because their 3 for 2 offer has resulted in many bookshops being unable to compete and consequently going out of business.

This was followed by an illustrated talk by the geographer Nick Middleton on his book EXTREMES ALONG THE SILK ROAD which was fascinating, especially the section about an island called Voz in the Aral Sea where there has been extensive experimentation with biological warfare agents by the Russians. It sounded frightening and I wanted to learn more. I wanted to know what they did, how exactly do you experiment with biological warfare agents? What is there to test? The microbes kill - what more is there to know? Maybe they try tried to make the microbes more hardy or more potent. Apart from this the Soviet regime had also drained the 'sea' (which used to be the world's fourth largest lake) - and there were impressive and depressing pictures of great hulks of beached trawlers, presumably representing ruined lives and a way of life now gone forever.

Back in the WRITERS ROOM things were becoming even more hospitable with the happy sound of corks being extracted from wine bottles and I spent an enjoyable few minutes talking to Michael Buerk about the joys of living in the north west of England before he was irritatingly removed to the stage (after I had been ushered to a reserved seat in front of a large hushed audience). His discussion on life as a BBC war reporter with Rageh Omaar (who still doesn’t look old enough to be out of school never mind reporting from war zones) about being a BBC war reporter was very interesting. According to Mr Omaar part of the BBC pre-visit safety training course before going off into a war zone involves testing for the presence of land mines with a biro.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Book Search at Basingstoke.

Here is the window display at Ottakars in Basingstoke promoting WORDFEST. On the way to the Willis Museum I went inside hoping to find a copy of my book - subject of my talk at the museum today - but there was not one copy. I had a word with the manager but apparently they do not stock all books for the festival since there are too many. When I got home looked through the programme and did a quick count - 20 recently published books (at most) are featured.

My book was not in Waterstones either. Less than six months after it came out in paperback my book is nowhere to be seen. This is disappointing.

However my talk at the Willis went well with lots of interesting questions, and a very good ploughmans lunch prepared for the customers by staff at the museum which was much appreciated...and I sold a few of the books I'd brought with me on the eight hour return train journey.

Friday, October 07, 2005

WordFest at Basingstoke

Tomorrow I am going to the Willis Museum in Basingstoke to give a lunchtime talk on the 'Diagnosis and Misdiagnosis of Insanity in the Nineteenth Century'. There is a review of a similar talk I gave as part of the Swindon Literature Festival by Ben Payne in the Swindon Evening Advertiser which I think is pretty funny.

GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS and an interview with Joanne Harris.

On October 11th Joanne Harris, one of Britain's most successful novelists, is coming to the Chester Literature Festival to read from her latest work GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS and to answer questions about her work. As a little advance publicity for the event Joanne Harris kindly agreed to be interviewed. The interview follows beneath her photograph below but first a review of the book.


One of the last passages in this book made me smile: it describes a conversation between a newly qualified teacher who has aspirations to be a writer and a teacher about to embark on his hundredth term '...nothing good ever comes of a teacher turned scribbler...' says the old hand. This must be Joanne Harris teasing her readers - this teacher turned scribbler has, in fact, come to much good - shortlisted for the Whitbread novel of the year with CHOCOLAT, long-listed for the Orange Prize for fiction with FIVE QUARTERS OF THE ORANGE and three of her novels reaching number 1 in the Sunday Times best-seller lists - clearly being a ‘scribbler’ has served ex-teacher Joanne Harris very well indeed.

The book is about revenge set in an independent school for boys and told in two different voices - the voice of Roy Straitley a Latin master who is coming up to his 100th term at St Oswalds and the mystery voice which we know from the start is one of the new teachers, has long associations with the school and is set on revenge. Part of the fun of the book is guessing the identity of this voice - the ‘mole’. As the events become more and more sinister the suspicions change. There is something about the book that is slightly reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s THE SECRET HISTORY, although it is more light-hearted and funny.

Joanne Harris’s lightness of touch belies her many astute and poignant observations such as when Straitley wonders when he stopped running: ‘I remember running like that - surely not so long ago, when weekends seemed as long as playing fields. Nowadays they are gone in a blink: weeks, months, years - all gone into the same conjuror's hat. All the same, it makes me wonder. Why do boys always run? And when did I stop running?’

The novel is peopled with strongly-drawn characters recognisable to any teacher who has taught in a school: as well as the teachers (Straitley divides his colleagues into categories: Suits, Beards (mainly IT teachers), Eager Beavers, the Jobsworths, and the Tweeds - ‘a solitary and territorial animal’) there are familiar pupils and supporting characters too.

The pace never slows and interest is maintained throughout the book. The mystery of the unnamed character keeps the reader engrossed, and along the way there are messages about the teaching profession and the institution of school. It is an affectionate portrayal of how loyalty to a place can sometimes override loyalty to colleagues and also highlights society’s recent tendency to look perhaps a little too vigorously for corruption and consequently persecute innocent people on the basis of hearsay and vindictiveness.

Apart from sheer entertainment the book would be of value to those just entering the teaching profession - the narrative is dotted with pieces of advice from the experienced teacher turned ‘scribbler’ Joanne Harris - and newly qualified teachers could do worse than to take heed.

Clare Dudman: Do you have any connection with snails?
Joanne Harris: My gardener has constructed an enormous wicker mojo snail, a kind of snail god, because I don’t like exterminating snails very much. This snail god has worked very well. There are no snails on my strawberry plants but unfortunately they seem to have been diverted from my garden to the house.

C.D: You don’t have trouble with slugs as well?
J.H. No, not really, though I did spot one as large as a carpet slipper in the garden this morning. We have lots of hedgehogs as well so I think these should eat the snails and slugs.

C.D: What is your proudest moment?
J.H: Giving birth to my daughter.

C.D: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
J.H: I have life-changing events everyday, but I suppose the main one was being given a second-hand computer when I was 19. I had been writing everything long hand but having a computer meant I could start sending manuscripts off.

C.D: When did you first start to write?
J.H: At a very young age. I had not a clear idea of what I wanted to write - I mainly did copies of work that I liked such as Edgar Rice Burrows: including subjects like forbidden cities and pirate crews.

C.D: Did this lead onto your first books - of gothic horror?
J.H: It took me some time to evolve my own style. There was a series of experiments. I didn’t like to write the same story twice.

C.D: You’ve written books in different genres - is that what you’d say?
J.H: I don’t believe that thinking in terms of genres is very helpful. It starts people thinking that there are some things they shouldn’t read. It is convenient for marketeers.

C.D: Would you call HOLY FOOLS an historical novel?
J.H: No, you could say the setting was historical , but it is not based on genuine figures - which is what I think of as an historical novel. Historical novels are more disciplined and factual.

C.D: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
J.H: There are two ways to answer that - either flippant or not. I suppose the saddest things I saw were on my visit to the Congo-Brazzaville trip. But one of the saddest things I heard recently was that three-quarters of young girls want to grow up to be like someone like Jordan rather than J K Rowling.

C.D: What did you learn from your Congo-Brazzaville trip?
J.H: That water doesn’t necessarily come out of taps, that food doesn’t come from supermarkets, that we have no right to use the phrase ‘I need’ in this country. I think it is beneficial for anyone to spend some time in a third world country and to see the poor over there. It gives your own life a different perspective. It is not easily forgotten and it changes you for good.

C.D: Why did you go on this trip?
J.H: Because I gave the proceeds of my cookery book to Médecins sans Frontières and they wanted me to write a piece on their work for the Daily Telegraph. It was supposed to be a small trip but it changed into something larger.

C.D: Do you feel tempted to write about that?
J.H: Yes, that would be something very interesting to do. But it would be important not to trivialise it. I would need to spend more time there.

C.D: Why were the Médecins sans Frontières people there?
J.H: It was the general aftermath of colonisation and occupation, civil war and breakdown of law and order. It was not unique to that area.

C.D: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
J.H: At the moment I’m on heron patrol. I look out of the window for the heron because he is catching the fish in our pond. Then I get my daughter Anouchka up for school and I have lots and lots of tea.

C.D: What is your typical working day?
J.H: After I have got Anouchka off to school I work until 1-2pm and then I stop. I still have a teacherly mode of working. I always have to have a break at 11 am and stop after lunch otherwise my brain gets in a mess. I then do something non-intellectual like gardening or read or go to the gym or watch a movie. I only ever work for six hours really well.

C.D: GENTLEMEN AND PLAYERS is an affectionate study of school-life and teaching and I thought it excellent all the way through..
J.H: Thank you.
C.D: There is a lot of good advice for newly qualified teachers...
J.H: Well, I’d been a teacher for fifteen years...
C.D: I recognised things from my experience as a teacher even though I taught in a comprehensive not an independent school.
J.H: Well, I taught in both - there are lots of similarities.

C.D: Yes. I recognised a lot. Do you miss the teaching life?
J.H: I was a born teacher and I think it is difficult to get teaching out your system. There are things I miss but not enough to want to go back.

C.D: What do you miss the most?
J.H: The continuous soap opera, the perpetual farce - it’s fascinating - how everything can change and become horrible over night. Of course you are exhausted all the time because there is so much stimulus. Once you are stuck on your own, as a writer, you have to find stimulus elsewhere.

C.D: What do you miss the least?
J.H: Oh, the administration. Being endlessly in disgrace with the management.

C.D: How much of you is in Straitley (one of the protagonists) or in any of the other teachers?
J.H: Some of Straitley is me. There is a some of me in both protagonists. I like writing as a villain. There are things you can enjoy doing in print that you cannot do otherwise. I also enjoyed my other protagonist’s black humour.

C.D: Have you always wanted to write?
J.H: Yes, but it didn’t occur to me that it could ever be a job. At first I taught and wrote and had books published and found i could combine the two quite well but then it entered another phase...

J.H: Yes. And then it wasn’t possible to do both. It would never have crossed my mind to quite teaching before that.

C.D: How long did it take you to get your first novel published in 1989?
J.H: A long time. It is so tough and there are so many people that want to be published. What people don’t realise is that there is no one in the publishing houses to read the manuscripts. There just aren’t enough people. You have to be represented by an agent.

C.D: Are you self-taught as a writer?
J.H: Yes. There was nothing available where I live. I am sure I would have benefited from a course. I made mistakes. I had to learn the hard way.

C.D: Was it a conscious decision to change tack? To write CHOCOLAT?
J.H: It wasn’t as big a change as it looks. I was writing lots of different things. I was several years evolving my own style.

C.D: Were you happy with the film adaptation of CHOCOLAT?
J.H: Yes. Perhaps it was sweeter, not as edgy as the book but I liked the end result.

C.D: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
J.H: Hard to say - maybe my pessimism and maybe my temper.

C.D: What is happiness?
J.H: Having a snowball fight with my daughter and husband on a sunny day.

Like Jonathan Trigell's and Freda Hadwen's interviews an abridged version of this interview is expected to appear in the Chester Chronicle.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Auckland Castle

It had not occurred to me that the name BISHOP AUCKLAND referred to something. It is in fact named after the Bishop of Durham's residence, Auckland Castle. Eight hundred years ago the Prince Bishop established his hunting lodge here.

Bishop Auckland is a pretty little place, with a market square where early this morning I walked around the trestle tables being loaded with sweets and an assortment of small cheap items you never knew you needed. The sky was uniformly white and part of it had descended into the square and gave the whole scene a quiet surreal feel. Off the market square is a respectable high street, and at the other end is the entrance to the Bishop's Residence. Some of the houses are clearly old, built from an attractive honey-coloured stone with small windows and leaded lights. I didn't have time to see the Bishop's residence but judging from the entrance it was obviously quite grand.

It seems strange to think there were once Prince Bishops, who were virtually monarchs of their diocese, and the Bishop of Durham was a particularly important one in the north of England. I would like to learn more - the idea of these small fiefdoms and how they came to be and then declined in importance sounds interesting.

The town hall in Bishop Auckland is a striking place, well-kept and modern looking inside and well-used. Last night was the first time they had tried showing a film (LADIES IN LAVENDER which sounds very good) and it was a sell-out. Unfortunately it clashed with my talk of course, but even so I had an audience of twenty (mainly the Weardale Writers) and they were enthusiastic, friendly and interested. A lot of work had gone on to publicise my event with many posters like this one over walls and at the entrance, together with beautiful pictures of icebergs so I was very pleased. Gillian Wales, the Centre Head met me at the station and made sure I was fed and I enjoyed myself very much.

At the last minute I decided to stay the night - having realised that the car journey was likely to be four and a half hours each way - and booked into the Queen's Head hotel on the market square. On Friday and Saturday they have a disco until the early hours, but last night I was assured that I would be able to hear the tumbleweed - which turned out to be true. They gave me a suite rather than a room with a huge bath and a four poster bed, quite palatial, and it was quite a pity I was there for such a short time.

The people of Bishop Auckland don't seem to rate their town very highly - ' down,' one said, '...seen better days,' said another, '...small, not much here,' said someone else, then 'Do you think so?' a taxi driver said doubtfully and rather incredulously when I commented that I thought it pretty. The railway line certainly gives a feel of remoteness. It is at the end of a small branch line from Darlington. The station has only one platform and there is a vigorous growth of weeds on the tracks and a determined amount of graffiti on the walls - which has just as determinedly been almost wiped off again. But I liked it there. I liked the feeling of antiquity and the way it has clearly grown randomly like those copper sulphate crystals in the BRITISH ARTSHOW 6 exhibition.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Gorgeous George

This is George - born June 5th 2005. He is the first grandchild of Jan who is a friend of mine. I got this picture through the post a couple of days ago and every time I've come across it since it's made me smile. So I just thought I'd post it up here. I'm sure he'll make a fine writer some day - of comedy I'd say. I think he has some pretty good lines going on in his head already.

Bishop Auckland

Tomorrow I am off to Bishop Auckland in County Durham to give a talk in the town hall - yet another journey across the pennines - none for years and then two in a week. The area has a haunting bleakness which I always find attractive. This time I am going by car because the train service is inadequate.

Gillian Wales, the Centre Manager at Bishop Auckland, does a very good job at arranging the entertainment in the town - looking thorugh the programme of events there is an astonishing range of cultural activities with touring theatres, puppet shows, a selection of films, dances and concerts, authors events, art exhibitions and crafts - something for everyone I would say. I notice that at half term there is a week-long event celebrating Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales in which the participants will adapt stories for the stage - making costumes and scenery and finally performing in front of fmaily and friends - sounds excellent.

I am giving an illustrated talk on my research for my novel WEGENER'S JIGSAW and discussing my work with the author Elizabeth Hankin.

Monday, October 03, 2005

BOY A and an interview with Jonathan Trigell

Jonathan Trigell was born in 1974 and lived in St Albans and Manchester before moving to France. In 2002 he completed an MA in novel writing at Manchester University. He now organizes events and races throughout the Alps for and is writing his second novel, CHAM. On Friday October 7th he and his editor Peter Ayrton are giving a talk at the Chester Literature Festival.

Jonathan's debut novel, BOY A (winner of the Waverton Good Read Award) is about a teenager called Jack, which is a name the boy has chosen for himself from the Big Book of Boys' Names. He has had to shed his old name in order to rid himself of his former life and his former self: 'Boy A' - the child who murdered another child. This novel asks if a person can really start again and become someone else - and if it is right that he should.

Each chapter in BOY A begins with a letter of the alphabet. This reflects the apparent naivete and bewilderment of the main protagonist - in some ways his release from imprisonment is a rebirth and he has to begin the learning of what it is to be human all over again - and this time get it right. The narrative encourages the reader to see this controversial subject from several different view-points - both directly and indirectly -but the character of Boy A is always sympathetically drawn. The writing is well-paced and there are some particularly vivid and well-described scenes involving the two young murderers. The character of the father of Boy A is strongly evoked, and the relationship between Boy A and 'uncle' Terry is sensitively written and towards the end very touching.

Boy A, or Jack, never actually admits to killing his victim. He comes close towards the end, admits he was there when his friend, 'Boy B' makes the first cut - but the actual killing is not recalled, and only once does Boy A ever admit his guilt - to a psychologist when it is made clear to him that this is the only way he will regain access to his friend Terry. In this way Jack's guilt remains ambiguous and the reader is never asked to feel sympathy for a confirmed child-killer - just a vulnerable young man who has been accused and convicted of the crime.

Clare Dudman: Do you have any connection with snails?
Jonathan Trigell: Well I live in France, so some days I don't leave my apartment for fear of that eggshell crack under my heels. I've eaten snails a few times too, but they just taste of garlic flavoured gristle to me.

C.D. Whereabouts in France do you live?
J. T. I live in Chamonix, which is at the foot of Mont Blanc, a French valley squashed between Italy and Switzerland. It is a fantastic place, with the most rugged mountains in Europe, known as the death-sport capital of the world. In fact, while I am writing this, I can hear rescue helicopters flying outside my window. But it is also a very peaceful almost spiritual place.

C.D. Does living in France make a difference to your writing, do you think?
J.T. There's a great pedigree of writers who examine their own countries from abroad, sometimes I think it is easier to look at a society when you're separated from it. Many novelists seem to feel like that, even when they are in the thick of it, as if they're tourists or aliens. Also, I think memory can be more vivid, in terms of painting pictures for the reader, than the actual experience - because the parts that are retained are the significant ones.

C.D. You've led a varied life with lots of different jobs including holiday rep, guide, barman, dish-pig, driver, airport manager and ski-instructor - were you able to use any of these experiences in your writing?
J.T. Most of what I write is based on personal experience, even the things that have never happened to me. The job that the central character in Boy A has is very close indeed to how things were at a company I once worked for. And my soon to be finished second novel is set in the environment of the ex-pat workers out here.

C.D. Do you have a full-time job now - has this changed since your book has been published?
J.T. I change jobs quite a lot anyway, and I'm fortunate to work in the winter-sport industry, where the year is quite neatly divided into two seasons and most people do something different for one six months than the other. Now I am able to pretty much dedicate myself to writing in the summer, which is great. This winter I am starting an English language weekly paper out here, for the ex-pats and tourists, which is quite exciting. My next novel will be finished very shortly.

C.D. What is your proudest moment?
J.T. Winning the Waverton Good Read Award is certainly a contender; it is a very special prize.

C.D. Do you have any other connections with the north-west besides studying for your MA in novel-writing in Manchester?
J.T. I also did my first degree, in English, at Manchester and my parents met there.

C.D. How useful did you find that MA?
J.T. I think it was very useful in terms of learning self-editing, that's probably the most important skill I took away from it. Boy A, was in effect my thesis for the MA, and it got published so that is obviously a success.
I believe Manchester is the strongest creative writing MA, after perhaps the East Anglia one, but if I had known the meagre handful of successes in terms of publication it had, I might have thought twice. Probably the number of these courses through out the country are making quite a lot of cash for strapped universities, but sowing a great deal of false hope.

C.D. How easy was it to get published?
J.T. I was taken on by the first agent I approached, which makes you think you're pretty much there, but it is still a long process after that.

C.D. I'm presuming that the book is loosely based on the Jamie Bulger case - how closely is it based? Did you do much research?
J.T. Boy A is very specifically not about that case, particularly in relation to the victim, but it does deliberately mirror some of the things that happened to Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the two boys who murdered James - although they were eventually released without spending any time in a prison, unlike my character. The fictional crime occupies the press and public consciousness in the same way as the Bulgers' tragedy gripped the nation. But that aside, it is a very different series of events.
I did do quite a lot of research on children who murder and on prison, trying to get the feel and language of those chapter right.

C.D. What made you choose such a controversial subject for your first novel?
J.T. The idea came to me in a late night chat with some friends and it just felt like something important that needed writing. This idea of someone appearing in the world as an adult, but with absolute innocence of the fundamental things of life and having to live in fear of their past catching up. I wanted to ask a lot of the reader, to see if they can examine their own moral certitudes sufficiently to feel for someone who has apparently done something so terrible.
In a way, Boy A is also a classic coming of age novel, except the central character is doing it years later than they should have. But it gave me a means of examining a lot of the things that compose 'normal' life for young men today.
I also wanted to have a look at the prison system, whether it has any reformative value. And to say something about the hypocrisy of this sliding scale of human life's importance, which the tabloid press seems to have. A scale which runs from good-looking, white and preferably blond, British kids at the upper end - significant even if they are only missing - down to black, African kids, who have to be visibly dying horribly in their millions to make it into the papers at all.

C.D. Were you ever worried when writing the book about the effect it might have on someone involved in the case?
J.T. I was to a degree, but I think everyone involved was already traumatised far beyond anything a loosely related novel might provoke. The tabloid newspapers disempowered the Bulger family from the beginning. Their murdered son was always called James, but some how that wasn't cute enough for the tabloids, so he became 'Jamie' straight away.
There was a chapter in my novel, originally, from the perspective of the murdered child's mother. But I was persuaded that this was only there to salve my liberal sensibilities and I think the novel is stronger without it: because the story isn't about the murdered girl's mother, and it is patronising to try and condense the experience of a grieving parent into one short interlude.
I think the job of a writer is to examine the important questions, which don't have obvious answers. The novel is one of the few places left to explore these things.

C.D. How long have you wanted to write?
J.T. Probably since I was very young indeed, I won a prize at primary school for a story I wrote; about pirates, I think. And at secondary school a teacher once told the class that I was going to be the next Geoffrey Archer - which makes me shudder now, but I believe was intended as a compliment back then.

C.D. Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
J.T. Quite recently I woke up as an atheist. Since then I have felt tremendously liberated, as if I'd been carrying a weight all this time, only to discover that the burden was God.

C.D. What is the saddest thing you've ever heard of or seen?
J.T. There is so much sadness in the world, and most of it is caused by poverty, but I think the saddest thing is that so much of this is avoidable. I am particularly incensed by Western politics at the moment, in terms of free trade. All the anti-globalisation protesters should really be doing their marching in favour of genuinely free global trade, which is the only way developing countries are going to drag themselves permanently out of poverty.

C.D. If there was one thing you'd change about yourself what would it be?
J.T. I would like to 'unclutter' myself. I find it almost impossible to throw anything away: I have jumpers in my wardrobe that I have not worn in three years; loads of cigarette lighters, when I don't even smoke; keys which so far as I know don't open anything; sufficient almost-empty-biros to make a small seaworthy raft; conkers I am keeping for when my child starts school - though of course I have no child; socks whose partner has not been seen in a decade; a jar of olives, saved against an improbable future in which I like olives; instruction manuals from appliances long since departed; soaps and sewing kits liberated from hotels in case of a world-wide soap and sewing kit shortage; half measures in the bottom of various large bottles of spirits, that no one likes; and all of this in one of the smallest living spaces in Europe.

C.D. What is the first thing you do when you get up?
J.T. I live in a studio flat (which sounds better than 'in one room') so I have my desk and computer underneath a mezzanine bed. I generally stumble down and switch on the Radio 4 Today Programme over the internet, to hear a bit about what's happening back home, while I make a coffee strong enough to unglue my eyes.

C.D. What is happiness?
J.T. Happiness is wanting everything you have, as opposed to having everything you want. Interdependence, through comradeship, children, dogs or love. Regular exercise. Regular meals. Something in your life that stretches your mind. And landscape, I think it's important to be able to see a bit of nature around us, even if that's just a park or a river.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Newcastle Bridges and the British Artshow 6 at the Baltic.

Newcastle acquired another bridge for the millennium - one that 'winks' -raises its bottom eyelid to allow big ships to pass beneath. Of course there are other older bridges over the river Tyne too - bridges that have replaced more ancient bridges.

The Romans built one of the first - the probable site has been located by finds of old coins and other artifacts. Then, in the industrial revolution, there were bridges built for trains, and in the twentieth century bridges for cars, while the bridge for the new millennium takes only people on foot or bicycle.

This millennium bridge for the north of England connects Newcastle with a new arts complex in Gateshead consisting of a magnificent light-reflecting concert building, a millennium wheel and 'the Baltic'which has been converted from a 1950s warehouse. This is a space not just to be used as a conventional art gallery but as a place where art can be made.

The present exhibition there is called British Art Show 6 and I found much to enjoy.

The show brings together 50 artists which are thought to be most representative of current developments. Film is the predominating medium and there is much variety - from one I didn't manage to see - the sign 'sexual explicit footage' ensuring there was a queue to see Doug Fisbone's TOWARDS A COMMON UNDERSTANDING - to a work that is probably more gentle by Rosalind Nashashibi in which she simply followed a day in the life of an extended family living in Nazareth. This was strangely fascinating. People sat, talked, prepared food, ate - the men at the table followed by the women and children eating what remained - stood by prayer mats and contemplated God, and then slept. Interspersed with the living were shots of inanimate objects which somehow indicated that time was passing - an open door way showing nothing very much but with a background of quiet chatter. There was a sense too of timelessness - this is how it is, this is how it will always be - families living together, not accomplishing much, just being.

Next door to this was a work by Haluk Akakce. In his video BIRTH OF ART computer-generated metallic pears fall opening as they do so to produce magnolia-like blossoms which float and fall again in brilliant colours.

Another film which used reflective surfaces to great effect was Marc Leckey's MADE IN 'EAVEN. The camera moves around the sculpture called 'Rabbit' by Jeff Koons which is made of very reflective steel and explores the reflection and distortion of the artist's bare room. The camera zooms in and out - an effect which is quite mesmerising - alcoves in the rooms become the rabbit's eyes, the walls curve and then become straight, one reality replaces another and the viewer's mind is tricked and stretched too.

Anna Barriball works in many media. Her film PROJECTION was simple but poetic. She filmed herself in profile at a window wearing a sequined t-shirt and as she breathed the pin-points of reflected light on the wall next to her scattered around as if they were alive too. Also on display was her sculpture GREEN + BLUE = CYAN which consists of two desk lamps illuminating a drawing of green and blue circles intersecting to produce cyan.

The other sculptures I liked were those by Roger Hiorns who is fascinated by copper sulphate - he likes the way the crystals grow in their own uncontrollable pattern - which is something that has always fascinated me too. In some ways a growing crystal is close to something living since it shares some of the characteristics. In DISCIPLINE he has taken a thistle branch and replaced the thistle blossom with harder, more durable and just as beautiful mineral flowers of copper sulphate crystals, and in UNTITLED he has fed oxygen into three vessels filled with detergent which causes them to produce impressive columns of foam - touched again with the blueness of copper sulphate - until they collapse back onto the floor like too much toothpaste squeezed from the tube.

The sculpture of Hew Locke was also memorable: in BLACK QUEEN and EL DORADO he constructs large collages of heads from plastic dinosaurs and flowers and creates an effect which is intense, garish and also sinister.

Perhaps the most unusual sculpture was a carpet installation by Tonico Lemos Auad. I could not find a title - but somehow he had managed to teased strands of fluff from a carpet (which you could walk around) into the shapes of animals which were in part crudely formed and in part highly detailed. It gave an exquisite impression of an animal growing from the carpet and yet still part of it.

I suppose it is 2D art I most admire because I like to draw a bit myself. Gordon Cheung's unsettling landscape paintings which involved stockmarket listings from the Financial Times I thought suitably poignant as his trees seemed to be turning into monsters.

Silke Otto-Knapp's painting SHOWGIRLS(BLUE) is subtle, but one of those pictures that the more you look at it the more you see - the vaundeville dancers looking wistfully out of the canvas as if they are trapped.

Lucy Skaer's work is vibrant, large and stunning. In THE PROBLEM IN SEVEN PARTS she shows a corpse again and again around and overlapping an empty wine glass. The corpse is a victim - the message political. It is moving.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

The University of Durham

Tonight I came back from Newcastle and on the way took these photos of the city of Durham. The cathedral is built on the highest point for miles around and is almost encircled by a dramatic wooded gorge - the incised meanderings of the river Wear. The streets leading up to the cathedral are flanked by small ancient houses converted into colleges. Modern life just scratches at the surface of this place.

I went to university here when I was nineteen - I wanted to go as far away from home as I could - not that I was running away, I just wanted to see what it was like to live somewhere else. My college was St Aidan's - a modern structure outside the city - over Prebend's bridge with its notorious flasher up a steep slope then many steps. The science departments were close by - also modern, so visits into the city itself were infrequent - perhaps that's why this old part retained its majesty for me. Bill Bryson is the new vice-chancellor of the university of Durham and seems as impressed with the place as I was.

I studied geology in my first year before swapping to chemistry and one of our first field-trips was a tour through the city. Inside the cathedral we paused by some ornate dark pillars, each one decorated with gracefully curving white fossils - 'dibunophylum bipartitum' our lecturer told us and I liked the sound of these words so much I practised them until I could remember them.

This other picture is clearer, the train window less dirty - to the left of the cathedral is the castle which is part of the original first college. I went to a ball there once and at dawn a solitary piper played from its walls. When I think of that now it seems like it was another person that was there, not me. All I remember are snatches - the piper on the wall, and a walk home in the dawn to catch some sleep, the early light of day difffusing through trees and the cathedral watching us.