Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sunday Salon: Short Storyfest.

There is a lot I should be doing today: there is a big library book open on my book stand; the house is in a mess; the laundry has mounted up, the weeds are growing much too sumptuously in the garden...but it's beautiful weather and I am determined to make the most of it so I am sitting outside reading through various selections and will review them as I go, updating this post throughout the day.

The first one so far has been this the eponymous story from Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie. It reminded me a little of Tania Hershmann's story in Along the White Road in that it was about the ways people cope with the loss of a child. It was unusual and quite poetic, as well as having some really effective off-beat humour. For instance, when the virgin Mary speaks her words are 'unfailingly meaningful and often ungrammatical'. She also has to speak out of the corner of her mouth where her pink lipstick had smudged. The story manages to be moving, wise, religious and irreverent all at the same time - quite a feat. I really enjoyed it.

Next I'm going to dip into the prize winning stories from the National Short Story Prize 2006 - starting with 'The Flyover' by Rana Dasgupta.

This is a strange mixture of fantasy and modern day crime. It started off quite promisingly like a story from V.S. Naipul's 'In a Free State' but then slithered away from me. I didn't understand it, I'm afraid, and would love someone to explain it to me. But it is well-written and evocative of another place and culture. Ah well, moving on...

To Michel Faber's The Safehouse. This was really good. It took something commonplace - the missing person poster and went riding away with it. It was witty and surreal - but it could have worked equally well as the beginning of a novel. A man wakes up and discovers why people are staring at him. This compels him to go to 'The Safehouse'. I don't want to say much more so as not to give the whole thing away. There is an excellent description of the place which is really thought-provoking and I obviously raved on about this story enough for Hodmandod Senior to pick it up so I'm writing this as I wait for him to finish.

Next is 'An Anxious Man' by James Lasdun. This was quite different in tone from the first two. It was much less fantastical and could be described as a character study. In a way nothing really happened, and yet it was gripping - a great testament to the skill of the storyteller. The narrator is challenged again and again by his own imagined fears, and when these turn out to amount to nothing, his promises are forgotten.

Rose Tremain's story The Ebony Hand was excellent. It was set a little in the past - the first one to be so. It was realistic, but there was an oddness about it due to the insanity of one of the characters, and the strangeness of the narrator - who was as middle-aged and isolated. There were some great pieces of writing, and I think it was this one that won the competition.

The last one is Men of Ireland by William Trevor. It is one of the shortest ones and yet perhaps more than any of them. A tramp visits the priest of a parish he left when young. He insinuates and unsettles the priest and at last the priest gives him money. It causes the priest to question his motive. It is an exquisite little story, quite a perfect gem.

Now onto the 2007 collection. The first one is by David Almond, who normally writes for children. It's called 'Slug's Dad'. It is set firmly in all the north-east, as David Almond's work normally is, and it is about an encounter with a ghost. I was extremely moving.

The Morena by Jonathan Falla is a much longer story about a young woman trapped by lack of anywhere else to go in the house of an old man. It is set in a Latin American country, and is about the displacement of infatuation. It's well-written and involving.

I don't think I've ever read anything quite like Julian Gough's 'The Orphan and the Mob'. It is very funny, fantastical, and fast-moving. It is also teasing. It struck me as a cross between Father Ted and the League of Gentlemen. An eighteen year old priest has to take some orphans from the orphanage to an event in town. The characters are deliberate stereotypes, and half way through a mystery is introduced - one that you somehow know will never be solved because that would spoil it. A sophisticated piece.

The next story, Jackie Kay's 'How to Get Away With Suicide' is about exactly that. Malcolm doesn't want to live any more, but he doesn't want anyone to feel they've driven him to it. It's an interesting and noble thought, because I often feel that is the point of most people's suicide: it is the ultimate revenge tactic. I think the general sentiment is 'You drove me to this and I hope you feel guilty the rest of your life'. But Malcolm doesn't want his ex-wife, who has dumped him, to go through this. The story is a monologue which is one of my favourite prose styles.

The last story by Hanif Kuereishi is a story of our times: a short monologue about a man who films beheadings. It is horrific.

That's been a lot to read in one day. Short stories are more intense than novels, I think. One thing that struck me was how different the two collections were. The first all seemed to me to be slightly off-beat and fantastical whereas the thing that was striking about the 2007 collection was the variety of styles. It's been an interesting day but oddly tiring and now feel I need to go away and think of nothing for a while.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Compost Bin

There is something beautiful about a compost bin. Lift the lid and you see this:

lots of pink frantically wiggling worms.

There are usually more nestling in the lid. Often they fall off in clumps when I lift it. I think you will agree they are attractive little creatures, and very interesting. Furthermore, they do great work.

This is compost from the bottom of the compost bin that Hodmandod Senior is using to fill a raised bed. Since it was rich and dense he has mixed it with a few home-produced wood chippings. Now that we don't seem to need grass any more since Hodmandods Major and Minor are leaving or have left home we are thinking of doing a little horticulture.

(This post was initiated by reading that Cromercrox was installing his own Can O'Worms in Cromer.)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Good to be God and an Interview with Tibor Fischer.

A few weeks ago, I was approached by a publicist from the independent press, Alma books, and asked if I would be willing for my blog to take part in a book tour for Tibor Fischer's book Good To Be God. So because I happened to be between projects I said yes.

The Review of the book and an interview with Tibor Fischer follows below.

In one scene somewhere in the middle of 'Good to be God' the narrator, Tyndale, the temporary head of an independent church, sends his two aspiring side-kicks, Gamay and Muscat, to find the lover of one of his erring flock. At first they kidnap the wrong man, the second time they manage to get it right but their victim seems disappointingly unperturbed. In order to intimidate him Tyndale attempts to shoot him in the toe, but he finds hitting the target more of a challenge than anticipated. Eventually he decides to dump his slightly hurt, but still contemptuous hostage, to some waste ground outside Miami. Job done, they start back only for the car to break down a short way along the road. Tyndale, of course, has no idea of how to fix it and neither do his henchmen, so they are forced to wait for breakdown services.

This is funny enough, but the punch-line is yet to come - and this is thrown in lightly and with perfect narrative timing - just before the pick-up van appears Tyndale can just make out their victim getting on a bus for the centre of town.

Good to be God is an entertaining book. Tyndale is a failed lighting salesman who finds himself in Miami substituting for a friend at a sales conference (for handcuffs - it's complicated, but quite plausible). Once there he decides to start again on a new career - that of God. The writing leads you neatly in one direction before toppling you with a whimsical aside, again and again. I was reminded of Black Books, Green Wing, the Peep Show - all my favourite comedies - but like them I think 'Good to be God' also has a serious message too. In fact it has several, and these are threaded in along the tract at fairly regular intervals: success depends on luck; 'not every big boss is loathsome but most are'; 'we're all trapped by our lives'. On one page the leader of Tyndale's church, who has already been established as good, is discovered traumatised because his terminally ill mother has told him 'There can't be a God... Because otherwise I wouldn't suffer this much.'

The book ends happily; sometimes even the most luckless can find their own paradise, and deification is not always essential. It has whetted my appetite for Tibor Fischer's work and I certainly intend to seek out more of his work to read in future - in fact I have already ordered UNDER THE FROG (which was short-listed for the Booker Prize) and look forward to reading it.

Tibor Fischer was born in Stockport of Hungarian parents. Brought up in South London, he was educated at Cambridge and worked as a journalist. He was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his first novel, Under the Frog, which also won a Betty Trask Award, and he was nominated as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists. Subsequent works include The Thought Gang, The Collector Collector, Don't Read this Book if You're Stupid and Voyage to the End of the Room.

CD: How did you start writing 'Good For God'? Were you obliged to go to sunny Miami for research?

T.F: I was very reluctant to go because I get sunburnt easily, and the constant partying in Miami and the obligation to eat in hip restaurants are rather wearing, but as a novelist you have a sacred vocation to seek out the truth, no matter what the personal sacrifice or hardship required.

CD: I thought your dialogue was magnificent - funny and yet convincing. Do you have any tips for writing great dialogue? Is it even possible to learn?

T.F: Read Elmore Leonard. Listen to people.

CD: How do you set about writing a novel in general. Is it the same each time? Do you plan?

T.F: I don’t think any two writers work in exactly the same way. It’s not like making a chair, whatever Socrates says. I start with a vague idea, a character, a scene and I see what happens. I write as much to entertain myself as others.

CD: Who is your first reader? How many readers do you have before you send a manuscript to a publisher?

T.F: The first reader is obviously me. But I have a crack team of German advisers in a warehouse in Erfurt who cast an eye over the book before I send it out. Germans are tops at proof-reading.

CD: How autobiographical is this novel?

T.F: Well, in common with most writers, I feel I should be worshipped like a god. I don’t play golf.

CD: What did you find more useful as a novelist: going to the University of Cambridge or being a journalist?
T.F: No-brainer: journalist.

CD: What were the best moments being short-listed for the Booker Prize for your first novel? I'd really love to know about this - how did you find out, what happened next, what everyone's reaction was, and how it changed your life (if you think it did!)

T.F: The best thing was, for the few weeks I was on the shortlist, my publisher, Penguin, made some effort in pretending to be interested in my work. I found out I was on the shortlist when I was called by the Daily Telegraph. I didn’t have an agent. It was quite hard to deal with as it came after a long period of employment and isolated drudgery – I was like a mole dragged into the light. There’s no doubt the Booker made a huge difference to my career and essentially saved me from the obscurity most writers disappear into.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters..etc.)

T.F: I like eating them. I once had a memorable dish of snails with halibut in St.Petersburg. It was memorable, but, truthfully, not that great. One of my cousins used to deal in snails (really).

CD: What is your proudest moment?

TF: Getting an entry in the official history of Hungarian literature, without having written a word in Hungarian. The argument was that I am a Hungarian writer, but I’m just pretending not to be.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
TF: All events are life-changing.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
TF: Old whores in Hamburg.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
TF: Impatience

CD: What is happiness?
TF: An entertaining wife

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
TF: Go back to bed.

A Wider Sky

A big surprise today - my father sent me this:

A Wider Sky, and autobiography by the late artist Sir Kyffin Williams. It is a gorgeous book, and delighted to think that my father sent it to me for no reason except that he'd been reading a copy and thought I might like to read it too. Inside there are more pictures by the artist - mainly pen and ink.

Kyffin Williams spent some time in Patagonia on a Churchill scholarship, and there is one painting of his - a man and a boy on a horse going through a bright yellow hay field behind an indigo sky, that I would dearly love to be on the cover of my book.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Today's Acquisitions

It's been a good day. First this arrived:

The Sonnets by Warwick Collins (whose previous book, Gents, I enjoyed). This is a telling of the story surrounding Shakespeare's sonnets, or at least Wawick Collins's interpretation of the story surrounding Shakespeare's sonnets. so I expect it will educate me as well as entertain - which I always appreciate in a book.

Then this:

Words from a Glass Bubble by Vanessa Gebbie, which flicking open I see is stuffed full of gorgeous prose - really looking forward to this some time soon.

And then this:

the very long awaited Val/Orsen by Marly Youmans. One of a limited edition of 500 and signed by Marly. At last! And I have to say it is very much worth the wait because it is gorgeous. The outside is a work of art in itself. I don't think I've ever anticipated a book with so much pleasure.

After 5 years...

...a review of my last novel on!

Thank you for your kind words, Gary Selikow.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Salon: The Huguenots by Samuel Smiles

Today I've been reading this book: The Huguenots by Samuel Smiles which was first published in 1867 by John Murray. I'm not sure who has republished it now: I suspect it might be POD since there is no indication anywhere except 'printed by Lightning Source'. It must be out of copyright. Up until 1905 it was reprinted eight times. I bought it from Amazon, and even though it is old it is still very interesting.

As I mentioned yesterday some of my ancestors were Huguenots and until recently I knew very little about them. Today I have been reading about how the Huguenots began to settle in Spitalfields, London, after initially settling in Canterbury.

At this time Spitalfields was just outside the east gate of the city walls (also called Bishops Gate), close to open countryside. It was a fashionable place to live and gentlemen like Sir Walter Raleigh lived there in substantial houses. The Huguenot dwellings were smaller and spread out in a series of small lanes to the east. It was a garden suburb, as the names of their roads suggest: Fleur de Lyse Street, French Street, White Rose Court, Greenwood Alley, Fashion Street, Green Apple Court, Blossom Street, Flower and Dean Street, Rose Alley, Mermaid Alley and Pearly Street. The Huguenots liked to grow flowers, vegetables, and were fond of song birds which they kept in cages where they worked.

Just now I have been looking at these places on google maps, then looking at the 'street view' to see the buildings. Unsurprisingly few of the Huguenot houses remain, but there were a few along the west end of 'Fashion Street' that I spotted, which I think looked old enough and seemed to be of the correct style. The Huguenot's houses were three storied, the upper floor with wide windows to let in a lot of light because this is where they had their looms. Between the top floor and the rest of the house was a double-layered floor - an attempt to cut out a little of the noise of the loom from the domestic part, and the top floor usually accessed via a trap door up a ladder. Each master weaver served an apprenticeship of seven years. He was then entitled to employ two or three 'journeymen weavers' on contracts of a year. He was also allowed apprentices and they all lived together with the weaver's family in the house below.

It was a design of house that must have lasted for a long time, because I spotted cottages like these when I went to Macclesfield (a town nearby to where I live). If you click on the photo you can see the wide windows on the second floor.

Here a drawing published just after Samuel Smiles's book showing how it would have looked inside.

And here, in 1928, the last of the cottage weavers

Shortly after this the loom seen in the background was sent to a nearby mill, and I find it fascinating to think of this continuous history of weaving stretching from Elizabethan times until today. There are still small firms of weavers of Huguenot descent in England - and until recently there used to be large ones too. The multinational textile and chemical company Courtaulds was one of them.

Samuel Smiles seems to be an interesting author. His most famous book, apparently, was something called 'Self Help' which extolled the virtue of hard work. He was a big fan of the Huguenots and 'heroic' engineers of the English industrial revolution; but he doesn't sound like he'd have been the ideal dinner guest.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Huguenot Ancestry.

In common with a lot of people in the United Kingdom, some of my ancestors were Huguenots. All I knew about them until recently was that they were French protestants, but over the last few days I have been finding out a little more.

The first influx of Huguenots arrived in the small port of Rye in 1562. The first thing they did when they touched land was to fall to their knees and thank God for deliverance. They arrived destitute, having crossed the Channel in open boats. During that summer they came ashore almost daily, until the mayor was finally forced to apply to the Queen (Elizabeth I) for assistance to feed them.

By 1572 the persecution had become more intense. Estimates vary, but altogether maybe 30 000 Huguenots were killed by their Catholic neighbours that summer. Others were tortured until they swore they would take the Catholic faith, and 641 escaped and came to Rye.

The Huguenots continued to come to England over the next forty years. Even when the King of France proclaimed the Edict of Nantes in 1599, allowing all French citizens 'Liberty of conscience and freedom of worship' they continued to come; but when the Edict was revoked in 1685 that trickle became an incredible gushing torrent. The total population of the UK at the time was around five million but during the next two years 100 000 Huguenots migrated to England. A hundred thousand! The government recently flinched at such a potential influx of Gurkhas but these immigrants were welcomed. Parliament and private subscription together generated the huge sum of £200 000 which helped settle into areas such as Spitalfields (Hospital Fields) and Soho. The Huguenots knew 'mysteries' about clock-making and weaving, and the country was anxious to learn them.

Others moved to Treorchy in South Wales and became shopkeepers. Because they kept shop they changed their names from names such as 'de Wilde' to 'Wilde' to fit in with the rest of the population - which was where my ancestors came in. But for most people at that time a French Huguenot label was a sign of quality so that according to one commentator 'hardly anything now vends without Gallic name'.

It is strange how things turn out. My son's girlfriend's relatives all come from Lyon - which was one of the Huguenot heartlands, and sometimes I look at the two of them and it seems to me they have similar faces. I think maybe you are related, I told them recently. Maybe, 500 years ago, your ancestors were cousins in the same street. They were not impressed.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Please Help Save Salt Books

This year I hosted Elizabeth Baines and Tania Hershmann as they made a book tour through the blogosphere. I was greatly impressed with their books: in particular with Elizabeth's gorgeous style and with Tania's ability to sweep a scientific fact off its feet and go running with it.

I read today on twitter that their publisher SALT books is in need of help since sales are down and their grant is running out and it would help enormously if everyone would 'buy just one book'. Their site is here.

Looking through their story selection I saw many splendid books, but the one which particularly struck me was Vanessa Gebbie's WORDS FROM A GLASS BUBBLE - so I've just bought that.

The Book Chavvez Gave to Barack Obama

This just arrived through the post from Serpent's Tail:

Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano is a 'comprehensive endictment of the pillaging of South America'.

South America has undoubtedly been pillaged - not just the mineral resources and its livestock, but its people and forests too. A few years ago when I was researching for my Patagonian novel I found it unexpectedly difficult to find anything very much on the history of South America. Looking through the shelves of my local bookshops, for instance, yielded only this: The Epic of Latin America by John Crow.

Which is detailed and well-written, and yet, despite its size (998 pages) is 'just' an introduction to this vast complex subject.

South America is still being pillaged. In Patagonia I met an old woman who was living on her own, miles away from anyone else - armed with a rifle she was quite able and happy to use - valiantly resisting robbers and 'a well-known fashion manufacturer' who both had designs on her land.

And then, of course, there is the most important resource of them all - the Amazonian rain forest. The continual pillaging of this is likely to have repercussions for us all. Which means Open Veins is indeed 'essential reading' - and, besides, I rather like the idea of reading the same book on my bedside table as the President of the United States of America. I could even twitter him to see how he's getting along...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sounds in the night: the hum, schizophrenia and genius

In January I wrote about a noise at night. So it was with great interest that I read this report on the BBC news site today.

Hearing sounds that no one else can hear is worrying. It is akin to hearing voices or feeling that there is someone sitting on your shoulder inspecting and criticising all that you do. In other words - a sign of madness.

The rumbling sound I heard then I still hear, but it disturbs me less. It was worrying me, and it was that anxiety rather than the noise itself that was keeping me awake. I felt that if I made an effort not to hear it, and to concentrate on the sounds that I knew were there, then it would fade, and so it has. If I listen for it, I know I will hear it, so I don't and it goes - or at least vanishes from my consciousness.

It is what we all do, I think. The buzz of a faulty piece of apparatus, the flashing light at the peripheral of our vision, the irritating chatter - we filter them all out. The inability to filter really is a sign of madness. It is thought by some that schizophrenics, for example, have a faulty filter. In fact it is used as a test for the condition. Schizophrenics take in everything, and are consequently perpetually overstimulated. But being stimulated like this, from many different sources, and then putting all those sources together to make something new is also the ability of the genius.

I think, given the choice, I would choose sanity.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Few Timely Links

1. The first line of my novel is on Twitterlit today! It's strangely thrilling to see it. It's almost as big as the thrill as seeing it in print for the very first time... Thanks to Debra Hamel for picking it today.

As you can see from the site Twitterlit feeds in the first lines of books twice a day, then by clicking through you can find the book. Some of these first lines are funny, and some mysterious - and all of them make you want to read more. It's also a great stimulation for writing and imagination.

2. The first line of Simon Singh's book TRICK OR TREATMENT is 'This book is about establishing truth in relation to alternative medicine.' which led to the subject of a column in the Guardian which in turn led to the court case I wrote about here.

If you are in the UK you can (indirectly) show your support for Simon Singh by signing this petition to change the libel laws in the UK. Only about 90 people had signed it last time I looked so there is room for plenty more. (A reminder - You can also show your support directly by signing this facebook page).

3. There is much in this country that seems to me should be changed, but there are also some things that seem to keep working just because they are slightly weird and archaic. An example is the post of Poet Laureate. Last night I watched Ian Hislop present a programme on the 350 year history of the Poet Laureate. Part of the reward of the post was a life-time supply of sherry (well, 650 bottles which would last most people a year or two). It was an affectionate and amusing account and you can see it for the next six days here.

This programme was to celebrate the appointment of Carol Ann Duffy to Poet Laureate...And Carol Ann Duffy was one of the judges of the Arts Council award I won which enabled me to write the book that is presently being Twitterlitted. Which takes me neatly back to point 1.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rich pickings

Ah, Saturday - even though it is very much like my Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday there is one important difference: the presence of Hodmandod Senior. This means I take even longer to get down to doing anything constructive due to some deeply entrenched behaviour brought about by long-term social conditioning...and also laziness (i.e. sitting around drinking tea and talking).

So, this afternoon, having duly arrived at my desk, I now need to chose what to read next (after I finish my editing): should I feed my obsession with silkworms with this library book;

or delve into this book I've been dying to read for a couple of weeks now sent to me courtesy of Book Munch;

or continue this one I started last night and is proving just as fascinating as I thought it would be (because, for one thing, it contains lots of references to Leo Szilard);

or maybe start climbing a stairway to hell;

or then there's this...

Which arrived this morning, and is a 'French erotic bestseller, published for the first time in English'.

There is one word in that sentence that I find off-putting: 'bestseller', but since Serpent's Tail have published it I am hoping it has a certain je ne sais quoi.

Ah, decisions, decisions...

Friday, May 15, 2009

An Interview with Daniel Davies, author of Isle of Dogs.

A couple of weeks ago Dr Grump read the ISLE OF DOGS by Daniel Davies and has been going on about it ever since. So, it is with great delight, that Dr Grump (lecturer in etymology and sexual dynamics at the University of Uurm) presents her first interview with an author: Daniel Davies. It is a particularly good one, and Daniel has even included a snail poem, so we are both utterly delighted. Thank you Daniel Davies!

But first, in time-honoured fashion, a review of the book and then a short biography.

Dr Grump liked this book. She found it educational. What she liked most, she told me, was the way Daniel Davies doesn't mince his words. Sex scenes, and there are many of them, are described in anatomical detail. These provide some comic moments - the enviable prowess of the iguana comes to mind (you have to read it to find out more), and the last two words are an excellent comic twist.

Jeremy Shepherd has returned to live with his parents after giving up a high-powered job as an editor for a glossy magazine following an existential crisis. He tries to make sense of his life using Abraham Maslow's 'Hierarchy of Needs'. His physiological and safety needs are met by his parents, a humdrum job in the local civil service fulfills his need for companionship, and the fact that he is 'post ambitious' sees to his need for esteem. Only the pinnacle need, that of 'self-actualisation' or fulfillment is left, and for that Jeremy turns to anonymous sexual encounters of the plural kind at venues arranged via the internet (the term, apparently is 'dogging', and there is, apparently, a website, but Dr Grump says she is definitely not going there, because like Jeremy's computer at work, the University of Uurm's network is monitored. This idea that we are always being watched is another theme of the book).

Although the sexual encounters are described in startling and impressive detail, it is the evocation of the shabby provincial town that Grump and I admired the most. It is something we both know well. Although Uurm is a fine medieval town, it is, quite unfathomably, twinned with a small town in the East Midlands, called Heapsville. 'That was so Heapsville on a Friday night,' she said to me after reading out a particularly fine passage, 'Nothing to do there at all except make babies.'

We also admired the section describing the narrator's angst, because we've both felt this by the bread in Tescos. 'That's exactly it!' said Grump. 'It was all those different sorts of bread - what is it all for?' She's now going round claiming to be 'post-ambitious' whenever I ask her to do something that involves firing more than one neuron at once.

'Ladlit, I'd say, wouldn't you?' I said to her when I'd finished the book.
'Yes,' she said, 'But intelligent and ravishingly different ladlit. I rather like it. In fact I like it so much I'm going to order a few copies for the Insitute of Sexual Dynamics waiting room.'

Daniel Davies was born in Sutton-Coldfield, near Birmingham, in 1973, to a Welsh father and a Polish-German mother. He studied English at Cambridge. His previous jobs include curator at the British Museum, sub-editor of medical journal The Lancet and the Evening Standard. He lived abroad for three years teaching English in Barcelona, Prague and San Sebastian.

Questions about The Isle of Dogs.
DG: How autobiographical is this book?
DD: Well, to paraphrase Jeanette Winterson when asked the same question about Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, it’s both completely autobiographical and not autobiographical at all. I know it’s a spoilsport answer, but the sexual passages are the least autobiographical. The passages about work, ambition, spiritual crises and so on are far more so.

DG: How did you go about researching this book? Did you go to an actual meet?
DD: Most of my research was done online. There are a vast number of chatrooms and websites devoted to dogging, so it’s not hard to get a good (or bad) glimpse into the dogging universe. But I tried not to over-research the book – I think any writer has to trust in his or her imagination too. If you cram a book with too much research, because you’re anxious to make it seem authentic, you end up killing it. As for going to actual meets, I couldn’t possibly say. It could put me in grave danger – like Tom Cruise’s character in Eyes Wide Shut.

DG: My colleague, Dr Dudman, was hugely impressed with the passage on angst and post-ambition and has frankly become somewhat irritating with her constant referral to it. Are you post-ambitional or do you have some ambition left?
DD: I’ve never had much in the way of conventional ambition. I’ve never wanted to be a millionaire or prime minister or a footballer (although I could be the hard-tackling holding midfielder that Arsenal so desperately need – I await the call from Arsène). At the risk of sounding lofty, all my ambition has always been artistic, or writerly. As a writer, I’m hugely ambitious. Some ambitions are inexhaustible. Literary ambition is one of them. However good or bad you are, you always want to be better – because you always can be, whether you’re Leo Tolstoy or, at the other end of the spectrum, Daniel Davies.

DG: What helped you most to become a novelist? The degree in English from Cambridge, your work as editor at The Lancet and the Evening Standard or teaching English abroad? Or none of the above.
DD: They all helped. It was living abroad that led me to write The Isle of Dogs. I first read about dogging on the BBC website while living in Spain and it struck me as so English – eccentric, secretive and basically quite funny. It seemed a good starting point for a state-of-the-nation novel. Living abroad enables you to see your own country with great clarity. An English degree didn’t do me any harm, I’m sure, but plenty of writers studied other subjects. I sometimes wonder if anthropology might be the ideal subject – in a way, all literature is anthropology. And it certainly worked for Saul Bellow. Having a professional background as an editor and copywriter has been helpful too – it’s great training in learning to be focused and cutting extraneous material. It also helps you accept criticism with good grace.

DG: Surveillance is an important theme in this novel. What do you think of the recent proposed legislation on increasing the police's power to monitor our internet activity?
DD: To be honest, I’m sure it’s happening already. It probably just depends on your demographic profile – if you have a certain kind of name, or worship a certain religion, or go to certain kinds of demonstration, the police probably have an eye on you. I think the police state has truly arrived. What’s so depressing is that we’ve greeted it with such fatalism and passivity.

DG: Do you write for a particular audience?
DD: No, definitely not. I don’t think many writers do, to be honest. As Philip Larkin once said, you just write the poetry or fiction that you have to write. Who actually reads it is out of your hands. I’m just grateful that anyone reads it at all.

DG: Do you have anything else in the pipeline?
DD: Yes. There’s a queue of books, all waiting to land. I’ve just started work on the second draft of my new book, provisionally entitled No Man’s Land. It’s a different kind of novel from The Isle of Dogs and contains no sex whatsoever. But it does explore other kinds of subculture – those of gangs, extremism and vigilantism.

General Questions
DG: Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters..etc.)
DD: Uncannily, I do. I once trod on a snail while I was in Hamburg. Being of German ancestry on my mother’s side, this event – naturally – led me to contemplate the merciless firebombing of the city by the RAF in 1943. I even wrote a poem about it:

Note to a Snail who Narrowly Escaped Death

Hamburg, 27th July 2003

Walking at dusk in the Alsterpark,
I saw you at the final moment
and swerved my foot
onto the sunburnt pavement.

You were oblivious to your escape.
Or were you?
Perhaps your cool skin shivered,
as my skin shivers,

when a juggernaut booms too close.
Such is the lottery of death:
the Bible-blocked bullet,
the wrongly folded parachute,

the incendiary that fails to go off.
In a parallel universe,
my skull is cracked
against the juggernaut’s grate –

after I crush you underfoot,
stopping you in your tracks,
with the tell-tale crunch
of a shelled grape.

DG: What is your proudest moment?
DD: The moment I got an email from my agent, Tim Bates, with the subject header ‘Good news’. That’s when I knew that The Isle of Dogs had been accepted for publication. The pride, I have to say, was mixed with profound relief. Before you get published, there’s always a voice at the back of your mind, heckling you with things like, ‘Give up!’, ‘You’re talentless!’, ‘It’ll never happen!’, ‘You’re self-deluded!’ Of course, all those things may still be true, but being published at least quietens the heckling for a while.

DG: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
DD: Probably getting into Cambridge. Having been to provincial comprehensives, it was like a passport to a different world. Not that everyone there was a monocle-wearing Etonian – or not anymore – but it was still a vast culture shock. I was suddenly surrounded by posh Londoners and people who’d gone to school in Switzerland.

DG: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
DD: Tough question. Recently, it must be an early scene in Crime and Punishment where Dostoyevsky describes an exhausted horse being brutally beaten by its drunken masters. It’s truly heartbreaking. There’s a story, probably apocryphal, that Nietzsche saw a horse being whipped by its owner and threw his arms around its neck to protect it. Ironically, this moment is sometimes cited as marking the beginning of his descent into madness. Personally, I can’t think of anything saner or more human.

DG: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
DD: I’d have a fully functioning thyroid gland.

DG: What is happiness?
DD: I’m tempted to say, ‘A cigar called Hamlet’. Terrifying how adverts just lodge in your brain and stay there for decades. To give a proper answer, and possibly a pretentious one, I think happiness arrives at unpredictable moments when several things coincide in just the right way. They can be quite simple things – like having a good cup of coffee, and a totally spot-on croissant, in a café you love, while the sky is a certain shade. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that when you feel like that, it’s important to celebrate the moment by saying, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ So whenever I experience such a moment, that’s what I say, even if only in my head.

DG: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
DD: Glamorously, I take 125mg of thyroxine. I have hypothyroidism – an underactive thyroid gland – and have to take drugs to compensate for it. If I forget, I’m usually catatonic by mid-afternoon. So my girlfriend really does say to me, ‘Dan, have you taken your pills today?’

Added Later.
For another form of 'dogging' see Debra Hamel's post here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Help! St Deniol's Needs You!

I got a very interesting email today with an unpaid job offer that could well suit someone interested in researching the Victorian period.
'St Deiniol's is seeking 'custodians' to assist in the running of the Library. They would be required for weekends and occasional weekdays. We are looking for people who can commit to a period of at least one month, longer if possible. Custodians although unpaid, will be provided with accommodation on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis. They will help at weekends and occasionally in the week helping other staff ensure the smooth running of the Library.

The role would suit students, researchers or members of the clergy who are looking for an opportunity to read, research or reflect at St Deiniol's or would just like a break. This is open to both British and international residents. Special rates are available for partners of custodians who wish to visit for all or part of the custodianship.'

I went to St Deniol's almost exactly two years ago now in the middle of a distressing time. I wanted to escape to somewhere away from telephones and noise, and St Deniol's was the nearest place I could find. It is a beautiful place.

At St Deniol's there is a fine library. It used to belong to William Gladstone, the Victorian Prime Minister, and is a great place to get away from it all. The rooms are comfortable and the meals are good. I think this could be a great little venture for someone. I feel a little bit tempted myself.

For further details please contact the Warden, Peter Francis either by email or telephone on 01244 532350,

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Book Sniffing

The postman knocks - it's a hardback, too big to go through the door, newly printed from Princeton University Press; navy blue cloth and yellow ribbon at the spine. Someone has taken their time over this. The front and back papers have a map. Inside are close to 500 large pages of closely-written text. Someone's life is in there. I think of all the hours Christopher I Beckwith must have spent in libraries and with old documents in order to write this book - the travelling and the translating, the transcribing and editing. Maybe he has interviewed experts and spent days wondering around museums and archeological digs. Maybe he has spent nights on his own at his desk when everyone else was outside, watching television, or just simply getting on with the business of living.

I bring it up to my face and sniff. It's all for this. A new hardback book. The smell of ink and new paper. It is such a luxury and such a pleasure to own it. I know an ebook is useful, convenient and has almost everything that this book has in my hands - but it hasn't got this weight, this smell, this presence. Just as writing by hand is a different experience from typing, so, I believe, that reading from a book (as opposed to the screen) is a different experience too.

I thought maybe I had been converted to digital - but just at this moment I know I am not.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Silkworm fanaticism

I've been trying to find out if it is all right to send silkworm eggs to the United States - and a few weeks ago tried to phone the American Embassy to find out. Unfortunately there was only a recorded message, but it was one of those warm voices, slightly unsure, pausing over the instructions of urns and ashes, sounding a little sad and sensitive when he explained that no one would want to open them - so I left my message about silkworm eggs and my number, but so far he hasn't rung back. As far as I can see it should be okay, and I'm thinking maybe I'll risk it.

The person I want to send them to is a fellow silkworm fanatic and a nanny. She liked to teach pre-schoolers about silkworms and I think that is an excellent idea. There is so much to learn and think about with a silkworm. James the first of England used to like to keep a few silkworms with him at all times just so he could look at them. The Chinese treat them with respect. There must be no loud noises, no bad smells, no meat, no arguing or shouting - even the presence of a pregnant woman was thought to disturb them. One of the world's oldest men kept silkworms. I think this is because he lived a tranquil life.

Now that the moths have all died again, I'm looking longingly at the eggs, wondering if I should warm a few of them warm and hatch. I am beginning to miss them.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The FrogMore Poetry Prize.

The excellent performance poet Ros Barber has just sent me information on the...


Sponsored by the Frogmore Press

The winner of the Frogmore Poetry Prize for 2009 will win two hundred guineas and a two-year subscription to The Frogmore Papers. The first and second runners-up will receive seventy-five and fifty guineas respectively and a year's subscription to The Frogmore Papers. Shortlisted poets will receive copies of selected Frogmore Press publications. Previous winners of the Prize have been David Satherley, Caroline Price, Bill Headdon, John Latham, Diane Brown, Tobias Hill, Mario Petrucci, Gina Wilson, Ross Cogan, Joan Benner, Ann Alexander, Gerald Watts, Katy Darby, David Angel , Howard Wright, Julie-ann Rowell, Arlene Ang, Peter Marshall and Gill Andrews.

Adjudicator: Robert Seatter lives in London. He has worked as a teacher, actor, journalist and in publishing, and currently works for the BBC. He has published two collections, On the Beach with Chet Baker (Seren, 2006) and Travelling to the Fish Orchards (Seren, 2002).
Conditions of Entry

1 Poems must be in English, unpublished, and not accepted for future publication.
2 Poems should be typed and no longer than forty lines.
3 Any number of poems may be entered on payment of the appropriate fee of £3 per poem. Cheques and postal orders should be made payable to The Frogmore Press.
4 The following methods of payment are acceptable: cheque drawn on UK bank; British postal order; sterling.
5 Each poem should be on a separate sheet, which should not include the name of the author.
6 The author's name and address should be provided on an accompanying sheet of paper.
7 The winner, runners-up and shortlisted poets will be notified by post. All shortlisted poems will appear in number 74 of The Frogmore Papers (September 2009), which will be available at £3.50 from the address below, and on the Frogmore Press website.
8 To receive a copy of the results, please enclose an s.a.e. marked 'Results'.
9 Poems cannot be returned.
10 Closing date for submissions: 31 May 2009.
11 Copyright of all poems submitted will remain with the authors but the Frogmore Press reserves the right to publish all shortlisted poems.
12 The adjudicator's decision will be final and no correspondence can be entered into.
13 Entries should be sent to: The Frogmore Press, 42 Morehall Avenue, Folkestone, Kent CT19 4EF.
14 The submission of poems for the Prize will be taken as indicating acceptance of the above conditions.

It looks good. If I still wrote poetry I'd enter it!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Third Generation

I am pleased to announce the arrival of another set of silkworm eggs. Although the female may be a looking a little worse for wear she is being productive. If these eggs hatch they will be my third generation of silkworms. I think I might put them in the fridge; I'm not sure I want another generation just yet. Maybe I shall keep them for later.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Simon Singh and the word 'bogus'

I can't remember exactly when it was, but a few years ago I had to give a talk to the Geological Society of England about Alfred Wegener in Burlington House on Piccadilly in London - and I was apprehensive (okay, more accurately, terrified).

I knew the audience was going to be large - about 200 people - and had asked a couple of people from my publisher to come along but no one was available. But then, out of the blue, came an email from Simon Singh asking me if he could come along! I didn't think he would, but he did, and I was really delighted when I saw him there. It really made a huge difference. Simon Singh, by many accounts, is a kind man as well as a passionate communicator of science.

Later I met him again at a conference at the LSE where he gave a really interesting talk about the transfer of Fermat's Last Theorem from fact to screen and book. He mentioned then that his next book was going to be about alternative medicine (co-written with Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter). I thought at the time that was bound to stir up a few hornets' nests. I know quite a few people that are believers in alternative medicine - and it does seem akin to a belief in many cases, rather than anything more rational. I don't think this is necessarily bad - the mind, after all is a powerful thing, an important part of any cure in many cases. However, I think it can be dangerous if people claim they are able to do things they cannot, and thereby discourage people from seeking conventional treatments first.

However, it does not seem to be the book, but an inoffensive (at least to me) article in the Guardian newspaper that has turned out to be a problem. As far as I understand, because he used the word 'bogus', a judge on Thursday found in favour of the British Chiropractic Association, and said that by using it Simon was in effect saying that the BCA were intentionally setting out to deceive - which was not the intent of the Guardian piece at all. The full situation is summarised on the excellent Jack of Kent blog. It makes interesting but depressing reading, with worrying implications for the future of free speech in this country.

Please sign up to support Simon Singh and free speech here.

Friday, May 08, 2009


Just when I'd given up all hope, I came across this.

The last bedraggled moth, a female, must have emerged from her cocoon early this morning, and luckily the male was still alive-enough to mate with her. He is flapping his wings weakly, but he is gamely continuing...

One World Classics

Just now this book fell through the door from OneWorldClassics: JEALOUSY by Alain Robbe-Grillet. I am excited to see it.

A few days ago I got an email asking me if I'd like to sample one of One World's books - which meant I spent a rather happy half hour looking through their catalogue. Such enticing titles! So many names I'd heard of but hadn't read! It was rather like the first days of my summer holidays with my grandmother. I'd be given some money and told I could buy anything I liked in Woolworths. Usually I came away with pens and paper, sad little geek that I was, and would spend the rest of the time writing and drawing on my own in my grandfather's old workshop.

However, I digress (as usual) - back to OneWorldClassics' catalogue. The aim of OneWorldClassics is a noble one, I think. They aim to 'to expand the literary canon in the English-speaking world through a series of mainstream and lesser-known classics, often by commissioning new translations.' By clicking through I could also sample the writing - which didn't make the choice much easier, to be frank, because it was all so good. I paused over Emile Zola's LADIES' DELIGHT, and then, since I by then found myself on the French translations, I came across several of Robbe-Grillet's books. I'd not heard of this author before, but each of his books appealed to me. In the end I chose JEALOUSY because it is 'his most famous and perhaps most typical work, and in it he explores his principle preoccupation: the meaning of reality.' Which makes it sound so fascinating I can't wait to start.

One World and Alma books have a blog here. Which takes me neatly to what I'm reading at the moment - GOOD TO BE GOD by Tibor Fischer - which is published by Alma. This is a book I am finding difficult to read in bed late at night mainly because it has the embarrassing side-effect of making me snort with laughter. It is one of the funniest books I've read for some time. So far it is reminding me a little of Martin Amis's MONEY.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Choosing Silence.

Did you know that. We have to report. In the US today. Yesterday there were. A 76 percent swing means that. What is the reason for. Police are looking for. Did you read. RT@ See http://ww Links at.

On Saturday, my nephew clapped his hands over his ears.

Prime Minister sorry for. Monster profits at. What is. Pakistan's orders are. Tough new measures. Blues devastated because. LOL. Hammer-attack on. Drop is possible for. Should we. Who will. Economy to. Eight guilty of. Sailor suffocated. Royal scandal. Investigation into.

For exactly twenty steps he let the soles of his feet slap upon the pavement.

Public class of. Militants in. Skirmish of. The government. Terrorists are. The global. WTF!?! Endangered species. Wildfires spreading. Insolvency fears. Why today. The British. Mutations are. Debt now.

He is fifteen now, and sometimes I think he is mute just because he chooses to be.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Novel or story?

When is a 'novel' really, in fact, a long short story?

'Silk' by Alessandro Baricco is just 148 pages long (and about a third of those blank). It reads something like a fairy story, with one passage repeated several times (and one word in the middle changed just to check you're paying attention!) about a silkworm seller who journeys to Japan to buy silkworm eggs in the nineteenth century. It is a gorgeous, evocative tale that surely does deserve a publication to itself, but it really does have only one point to make, and therefore I would class it as a long short story rather than a novel. I would not say it is not even complex enough to warrant the term 'novella'.

The characters are lightly and skilfully portrayed. It is as if they are meant to be seen as shadows, maybe behind layers of cloth in a shadow theatre or some eastern boudoir. It is a beautiful effect that adds to the atmosphere of the book. The story is about love, and about being loved so absolutely you pay no attention to it until it is too late. I shan't describe it any more than this because it would be difficult not to give away all of the plot. It takes all of an hour to read I would say - but worth every second.

It has been made into a film, and I don't think I've ever read a book which is so obviously 'filmic' - I imagine (and hope) it is magnificent. Although, according to the reviews, it is not. Maybe I shall take a look anyway.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Silk Moth Tragedy.

Anyone reading this blog will have noticed that there has been a paucity of posts here recently. This is because I have been busy...

...panicking about swine flu.

Having researched bird flu for a novel (which I started, but didn't finish) I knew rather too much about flu epidemics and became convinced that there was going to be a pandemic that was going to wipe most of us out. I thought it a logical result of world overpopulation - part of a Malthusian feedback mechanism, but I was wrong* - which I must say pleases me a lot.

Anyway, I have to report that following instructions from the Centre for Disease Control in Florida, I started my emergency store of bottled water and tinned haute cuisine items such as tinned sausages and beans, ravioli, and soup (and also panadol, tissues, and various other items in case of calamity) all the time thinking about the cache that the father and son discovered in McCarthy's THE ROAD. Needless to say the rest of my family thought I was overreacting.

But enough of that, and back to the more interesting dramatic and tragic events in the lives of my silkmoths...

On Friday I heard a rustling sound from one of the cocoons - clearly one of the moths was trying to get out. Since this went on for some time (about ten minutes) without the moth making progress, I stepped in and performed a cocoon Caeserian with a pair of scissors.

(Female moth to the left, her cocoon to the right)

The moth (a female full of eggs) duly arrived in the world, but was clearly the worse for wear. Her wings did not inflate, and her movements became weaker. I think her wings remained limp because she had already expelled some of her haemolyte (insect-'blood') as waste inside her cocoon, perhaps in her efforts to get out. Usually this haemolyte is pumped by an auxiliary heart at the base of the wings into the capillaries on the wings, and the surplus then expelled as waste.

A little later I realised that the moth had expired, and some of her pheromone was leaking from her because a moth nearby was frantically beating his wings and trying to mate with her. To put him out of his misery I removed her so he couldn't smell her any more. Once again my silk moths were providing more tragedy and pathos than any soap opera. Well, almost...

(* at least, when I wrote that it looked like I was wrong)