Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Roast Books: 'Little Roasts' and an interview with the publisher Faye Dayan.

Tonight I decided to give myself a treat. I finished reading 'Little Roasts': a collection of short stories sent to me by Roast Books. It's an eclectic selection of stories of varying lengths - each one shorter than the one before.

The first, Brian, McMurphy and Sally too by Rowena McDonald was based in Montreal and dealt with the effect a life model called Sally has on the lives of two artists: Brian and McMurphy. The writing was great, the characters had a convincing vitality, and I enjoyed the story very much indeed.

The second, 'A Sop of All This Solid Globe' by Keith Scales seemed to me to be a comic study on insularity. A Visiting Lecturer with 'an accent' comes to visit a farming community in the US. The professor is important in his field; but his field is unimportant to this community. The teacher asks her students to name a Shakespeare play and one of them responds 'Moby Dicks?' The 's' is the perfect finishing touch, I feel. Keith Scales has also written The Cloverleaf Development (also in Roast Books) and I intend to read that next because having read this sample I would like to read more from this author.

Circling by Mark Kotting was about a London taxi cab driver (which is Kotting's day job). He circles London picking up fares, and it was fun recognising the places. I liked the terse style of this writing. His last fare turns out to be a particularly poignant one, and Kotting ends the story in just the right place.

The last, very short story, Rudimentary Mathematician is by Nikhil Panndhi who was born in Delhi in 1992, and so is still a teenager. She uses unusual elaborate language with a touch of magic realism to tell and interesting story about a grave digger. It is a suitable exotic ending for a successful collection. Each story seemed to have a similar sort of energy, although quite different in tone and style. I enjoyed reading each of them very much.

The publisher behind Roast Books is Faye Dayan, and she kindly agreed to be interviewed about the project.

About Faye Dayan:

'I finished a degree at St. Johns, Oxford and a MA in London in history and the philosophy of display, but knew I wanted to work in literature and also start a business. These things combined and Roast Books was born. At 25, I have had no experience in publishing before - just a streak of madness and a love of books. I started Roast Books in order to aspire to meet the demand for short fiction, on the spot reading entertainment, I wanted to create books that were modern and great for our busy lifestyle, but also beautiful to hold and touch.'


Questions About Roast Books.

CD: Why did you start roast books?
FD: I was interested in the idea of literature that was suited to the modern lifestyle, reading for on the spot entertainment. Contemporary novellas are ideal for this, and I think it’s a really underappreciated art form. With the novellas, our next project, An A-Z of Possible Worlds, by A.C Tillyer, Roast Books is trying to present quality literature in a fresh and innovative package.

CD: What market are you aiming for?
FD: Great Little Reads really has something for everyone, as the novellas are quite diverse. Selling Light and the Profit have quite a universal appeal, both being commentaries on the modern world, whereas Lizard is popular with younger female readers. The texture and feel of the books is designed to appeal to those who seek character in the book itself. The new ebook technology is fantastic, but in a way I think it could be also nudging readers to reconnect with the physicality of the book as a beautiful object.

CD: I really like the coffee theme - the website with its coffee percolator and the 'list of ingredients'. What made you think of that?
FD: Well, in line with the idea that some of us have less time these days to select a book, the list of ingredients outlines some of the main ‘flavours’ in the book, without giving too much away. It also sets the scene for the idea that the novellas are perfect to read in a coffee break or a lunch hour. Actually it was the author of Lizard, Leonore Schick, who came up with this idea, in an intense conversation about coffee, cooking, and reading.

CD: How did you find your authors - did you advertise?
FD: Yes, I ran a nationwide competition through writers groups, online forums and magazines offering publication as the prize. We had entries from writers of all ages, published and unpublished who wanted to find a home for their novellas.

CD: What do especially look for in a short story?
FD: Well actually I don’t thing that there can be a set list of ingredients! But quality of writing and originality are very important. With a novella especially, I think a really difficult thing can be balance and pace.

CD: The general design of the books is very attractive - I especially like the idea of the flap, and only ever seen that on overseas books before - how did you come up with the design?
FD: Actually I was inspired by those amazing Parisian bookshops. They always have these huge tables with books laid out, so that you can handle them all more easily. And the flaps are convenient to keep your place when you’re on the move with your Great Little Read.

CD: I also like the cover pictures - how do you come up with them?
FD: Kenneth Andersson is the Scandinavian illustrator who worked with First Presence design and Roastbooks to create the book covers.

General Questions.

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
FD: Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever ‘encountered’ one, looked in the eyes and really acknowledged it. Unlike the character ‘Briege’ in Selling Light, who has an affinity to underappreciated species.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
FD: well, about a week ago I managed to beat my dad in scrabble by scoring a 7 letter word on a triple word score with the word ‘seceded’ which I am still gloating over – does that count?

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
FD: Yes actually – visiting Morocco for the first time.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
FD: There’s a Japanese movie called dolls (Takeshi Kitano) which is a movie that probably made me cry the most. But it’s a very beautiful film.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
FD: I’d like to speak loads of languages fluently (like my sister)

CD: What is happiness?
FD: List of Ingredients: family, white wine, receiving letters, work, not working, having time to paint my nails, ignorance, knowledge, new pens.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
FD: Make sure I’m not sleepwalking, then open my lap top.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Imagining the Zhujiang Delta.

At the bottom of China is a delta. On one side is Hong Kong, close to that is Shehzhen, further west again, skirting the delta and its spray of small flat islands, is Guangzhou. Each of these cities contains around eight million people, and there are yet two or three more of equal size. I'm not sure why just yet, but these cities, over the last few years, have seen the greatest economic growth in a country that has in itself seen the fastest economic development. Each city gleams with tall glass and metal buildings.

It is at the edge of the tropical monsoon, and is therefore wet and warm. The islands and surrounding countryside contain ponds full of carp, and around each pond mulberry trees. Each one is a self-sufficient ecosystem - one component feeding the next in a satisfying cycle. I keep imagining these small quiet places amidst all this activity and wonder how it must be to live there. So much bustle and yet so much peace. And, probably, so much pressure to change.

At the moment I am trying to work out a way of going there. I have worked out a way to get to Guangzhou, but now I want to try and find someone who will take me to the islands and the farms - preferably someone who can speak English and can do a little interpretation for me.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sunday Salon: Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grilllet

This very interesting book was sent to me by One World Classics. It is translated from the French by Richard Howard.

Alain Robbe-Grillet was born in 1922 and died last year. According to the note at the back of the book he was best known as the pioneering spokesman of the 'Noveau Roman' - a greatly influential movement in post-war French fiction. Vladimir Nabokov says that 'Jealousy' is the finest novel about love since Proust.

Robbe-Grillet seems to be a consummate example of the objective narrator. Everything is described from the outside. The setting (and there is, so far, just one - the house of a banana plantation owner) and the characters (just two - although there is another who I suspect to to be the narrator, although he never refers to himself. I just know he is there because three places are set, three chairs are drawn up but only the occupants of two are described) are described with a pointedly clinical precision - how many windows, where the shadow falls, the angles and shapes of the banana plots on view outside the window, the mark on the wall where a centipede was exterminated with a rolled up napkin, and the shape it makes....

It gives a cold impression, and yet because of what happens the reader feels the restraint of the narrator, and the heat that lurks beneath. I have the strong impression of something being held back as I observe 'A....' who I suspect to be the wife of the narrator, the plantation owner, sitting next to Franck, a neighbour who is married to Christiane (who herself rarely visits because of their child). I watch them as they sit - how closely their arms lie side by side, how their chairs touch - and I listen to them talk and learn how logical it is that A.... accepts a lift from Franck. Then, when Franck goes, I watch her leave the room, go up the corridor without speaking, close the door of her bedroom and bolt it, and then, through the window see her brushing her hair, one side and then the other - and the tilt of her head, the way it rebounds back as the brush finishes its sweep, and the way one eye keeps watching through the window.

Because the narration is so objective the reader is never invited into A...'s head. Because I am a witness I can only guess, and so sometimes, with the narrator, I get things slightly wrong and have to revise my account. A smile turns out to be a shadow on her face, for instance, or A....'s walk to the dresser turns out to be to the pantry instead.

It is oddly mesmerising...

Added a little later.

I have found a very interesting obituary in the Guardian on Robbe-Grillet. He was initially a scientist, and maintained an interest in botany all of his life. He was also an innovative film-maker - and his films and his novels are equally influential. The novel, he says, should not be about characters or telling a story, but should be about 'imagination at work' and 'should create a mental world, not to be confused with the real world'. Once he found one of his books rigorously annotated by an American lecturer who taught his works, and claimed that the 'unfortunate American had got everything wrong'. It makes me slightly wary of saying anything much more about his work, but I think I shall.


I have finished the book. It's very interesting and I've never read anything like it before. It reminded me of films I've sometimes seen in art exhibitions: a single scene looping around again and again, each cycle enabling me to something more - or something different. A.... brushes her hair, places the drinks on a tray, has the same conversation with Franck, arranges to go down to the port in his car. Each time it happens something more is added between the scenes already there. It is intense, and each time the scene is superimposed it is as if the pen digs deeper on the page or the light burns away, or the neurons in my brain fire with the same message again and again.

Overall I'm not sure what has happened in this book, but I suppose Robbe-Grillet would say that doesn't matter. Instead of a conventional story I have the impression of something being created on the page and that, I think, is entirely the point. It made me think of further possibilities for my own work, and I'm really glad I've read it - by learning about Robbe-Grillet's creativity I have discovered a little of my own.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Mandarin Chinese- first lesson.

Harold Goodman has taken over from the late Michel Thomas, having been taught his method. Today I did part of the first lesson from the Foundation course and was most impressed.

Learning a language as different as Mandarin Chinese, he says, exposes your mind to a completely new discipline. He also says it is quite an easy language to learn. I shall see...

There are four tones in Mandarin Chinese, and in this method each tone is associated with a hand movement: a green thumb which is something level like the chime of a bell; a blue finger pointing to the sky in which the voice rises as in a question; a red V of two fingers where a note falls and then rises again; and then finally a short sharp black note of one finger stabbing downwards at the ground. It was entertaining and fun. More tomorrow.


Oink - first picture with new camera.

Friday, June 26, 2009

China: part 1: 'Work on Stuff that matters'.

I can't quite remember what I did to win this, but win it I did from Book Depository (where I buy a lot of my books) and I love it: a moleskin notepad. I particularly like the quotation from Tim O'Reilly on the front: 'Work on stuff that matters'

A small scrap of paper fell out when I opened it, and reading it I discovered that Bruce Chatwin ordered a hundred moleskins before he left on his travels to Australia - but they were not enough. Presumably he just wrote and wrote, and thinking about that made me remember what I love to do most - and that is travel and write... And it was as if some small flame burst into life inside me. I remembered travelling around Greenland and Patagonia writing down everything that happened in something similar - not quite a moleskin, but a bigger A4 version.

Then, an hour or two later, I remembered seeing a series of film reports by the NewsNight economic editor Paul Mason on China, which fascinated me - such different lives and scenery - and it was as if I was seeing all the scenes I'd imagined in Simon Winchester's book on Joseph Needham,

'Bomb Book and Compass' - and the flame grew higher. I think it was then that I realised that what I most want to do is to go to China and write, but at first I tried to ignore it.

I let it burn for a while, but all the time it grew hotter until I rang Hodmandod Senior and told him what I wanted to do, and he said I should do it. So I made my first step. It is just a small one but I feel I am on my way: I ordered a Michel Thomas course in Mandarin Chinese and a DK travel guide.

So thanks to the reminiscences of Bruce Chatwin, Paul Mason, Simon Winchester and Joseph Needham, I am going to go to China.

But it is the moleskin that started all this and especially the quote on the front: 'Work on stuff that matters'. So thank you very much Mark Thwaite (the man behind Book Depository): I am sure that you didn't intend this when you sent it, but I think you may have provided the kick I needed to stop moping around and actually do something.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

My Review of Bomb, Book and Compass by Simon Winchester ...

...is in the great book review website Bookmunch just here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Review of Val/Orsen and an interview with Marly Youmans

Marly Youman is a friend of mine. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of reading her new book Val/Orsen, and she has kindly agreed to an interview about the book and her work. A short review and the interview follow below.


Val is a boy who is brought up in the forests of large old trees in California. He prefers to be outside; perhaps because he was born there. His birth was precipitated by Val's natural father; a brute who accuses his heavily pregnant wife, Belle, of sleeping with another man and then slaps her face again and again:
'Unwieldy in late pregnancy, she crawled to get away, The door was ajar; she hoisted herself and staggered into the woods. The downward plunge was sheer panic, breath harsh against her throat, legs moving off-kilter, arms hugging her belly. A quarter mile from her house, she tripped and plunged to earth. An enormous pulse took control. Her water broke, one wave after another soaking the ground until dabbles of blood and green smears of meconium decked the fronds. '
Belle produces first a child called Orson who is mysteriously taken away by a passing stranger, and shortly after that delivers Val, his twin. Although it is Val who narrates the book, it is the shadow of Orson who dominates it. Her first-born arrives with a caul obscuring his face, and this little-known and little-seen child leaves behind a persistent and all-consuming longing.

Marly Youman's work bridges its own fantastical space. It is a charmed forgotten world into which the modern day somehow seamlessly intrudes. The effect is startling. In Val/Orson, as in all her work, there is the atmosphere of a myth. It is not just the basis of the story - the separation of twins at birth - but the general ambience of the piece. Extraordinary things are accepted with a fairytale nonchalance: in this tale for instance there are tree-sitters. They are not introduced; why they are there and what they are doing has to be gleaned from the text, and this gives the whole setting depth and power. It manages to incorporate important messages about the environment as well as give a highly satisfying tale of loyalty and search for identity. For a novella there is an impressive range - from mesmerising accounts of fairy stories to gripping and realistic accounts of childbirth.

The book is only available, so far, as a limited edition signed copy. It is a beautiful thing - well crafted inside and out - and I intend to treasure my copy.


Marly is the author of seven books: a collection of poetry, Claire (Louisiana State University, 2003); two fantasies for young adults set in the Southern Appalachians, The Curse of the Raven Mocker (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003) and Ingledove (FSG, 2005); and four novels, Little Jordan (David Godine, Publisher, 1995), Catherwood (FSG, 1996), The Wolf Pit (FSG, 2001), and Val/Orson (P. S. Publishing, 2009). She has received various awards for her writing, including The Michael Shaara Award for 2001. A native of the Carolinas, she now lives a stone's skip from the often snowy banks of James Fenimore Cooper's Glimmerglass with her husband and three children.


Questions on Val/Orsen

CD: When did you first learn about the myth of Val and Orson? What aspect of the story inspired you the most?
MY: I can’t say, really; it seems like one of those things that was always present. As a child, I was fond of legends and fairy tales, so I suppose that I encountered the twins long ago.

I’ve always been attracted by “wild child” tales, and Orson is very much a wild child with leaves in his hair and passion in his heart and no proper manners anywhere. The Wolf Pit uses the figure of the wild child, and I suppose that Catherwood forces the wild on a child, and I can think of other figures in my writing who are wild and strange and at home in the wilderness. But I was definitely searching around for an idea that would put people into trees in a natural way. One of my first stories has a girl who meets her future husband in a tree; later on, they climb into trees to escape from a flood. So I suppose the image of people in trees is, for me, deep-rooted.

CD: Are there really 'tree sitters' in California? If so, please tell me a little more about them. If not, please tell me where the idea sprang from.
MY: Tree sitters are artists of civil disobedience, I suppose. Thoreau would have made a good one. They occupy old-growth trees, often on private lands, to protest the razing of ancient forests, to save individual trees, and to slow down clear-cutting while battles over land are fought in court.

CD: Even though it is set in California you live nearly the other side of the country. What made you want to set your book in such a different place?
MY: I wanted the big trees! More than that, I had in mind a book that would feel like a Shakespearean forest romance. My California is a place of the mind, as much as Shakespeare’s Illyria or the Forest of Arden. It is there and nowhere. Interestingly, Catherynne Valente (who wrote the introduction) found the story true of California. I liked that.

CD: All of your work seems to evoke a spiritual involvement with the natural world. Where does this come from?
MY: When he was a teenager, Jonathan Edwards wrote that the soul was made up of a series of fine threads—something like a harp, it seems to me. The better part of mine seems to be rather leafy and rain-dashed.

CD: Your work also seems to have a fantastical edge - it is subtle in Catherwood, less so in your children's stories - and there is still a hint of it here. Have you always been drawn to fantasy? What do you like about it the most? Have you a favourite author?
MY: When I was in first grade in Louisiana, I received a slip-cased set of the Alice books. I read and reread those books for many years—and others, of course, but those above all. In Gramercy and Baton Rouge I found magical sights, although very different from the landscape of Alice. The combination of an excessive, strange, beautiful place and those excessive books worked on my mind and no doubt warped it a little, so that I have never found it difficult to believe in impossible things, or even to believe in six impossibles before breakfast. There is a fragment of the White Queen in me.

My first favorite, then, was Carroll, but I did like a number of fantasy writers when I was growing up, particularly George MacDonald. But I was a passionate reader and willing to read anything that fell my way—my mother was a librarian, so a good many books did fall my way! I’ve read a lot of fantasy with my children, particularly Diana Wynne Jones—the Chrestomanci stories and Howl’s Moving Castle and more—and Leon Garfield and lots more.

Right now I am reading all of the Potter books to my youngest—his current request for bedtime.

And you ask “what do I like about it the most”: one of those good, simple questions that are hard to answer. Perhaps it’s a certain kind of joyfulness that comes from flying free of the usual boundaries, or perhaps it is something about the sense of childhood that lingers around fantasy—the condition of being a child is the condition of not fully grasping the rules of the world and of going forward on insufficient information, and fantasy returns us to that state.

CD: You also write poetry - which do you like writing & reading the best - poetry or prose?
MY: Nothing can compare with the feeling of going to the fount of things when writing a poem—the wonderful, up-flinging drops, the sense of an irresistible sluice of word. I also love to write fiction, though, so I must like what I am writing at the moment. As I get older, I find that I like reading poetry more than fiction. I’m always going back to Yeats, though I’m reading Michael Hamburger’s translation of Celan at the moment… No, I must be fibbing to myself because I’m rereading Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales and loving them as much as ever. Perhaps it’s what I’m reading at the moment that matters, just as it’s what I’m writing at the moment that I like best.

I shall just have to take cover with Whitman and insist on contradicting myself and containing multitudes.

CD: I really like the structure of the book - particularly the way the chapters are very short. It works well. Is this something that was planned or just happened?
MY: From the start I wanted short chapters, leaves on a tree, light and airy.

General Questions.

CD. Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable encounters..etc.)
MY: I squished a pearly one between my toes at Tanglewood one summer.

And I recall a goose-bumped horror from my first residence in Yankeedom: I stumbled upon neighborhood children squatting around an immense tub of sand, a sort of bad castle covered with horrible stretched-out slugs, spotted leopardish things. I knew they existed already because the night we moved into our house, my mother stepped on one. We had to get a flashlight and examine the slime, unsure what madness had befallen us. Luckily we moved back South three years later.

Then there’s Hodmandodish you, of course…

CD: What is your proudest moment?
MY: My Southern ancestors squashed out most of my pride long ago—a hundred years back, at least. But probably it was holding each of my children for the first time.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
MY: Yes. Shan’t talk about them. I am a believer in reticence, a lovely old virtue that should be revived, especially around celebrities.

However, I would say that nearly dying is a very good thing and helps one appreciate all the days after. The trick is managing the “nearly” part; go too far, and it’s no good at all.

CD. What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
MY: I can’t answer this one; it’s like trying to point to a particular teardrop of water as Niagara slams over the rocks. There are just too many drops.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
MY: As a writer: I would shuck my inability to rejoice in marketing. As a human being: I’d like a more retentive memory.

CD: What is happiness?
MY: Rain on leaves (see above.)

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
MY: If it’s winter in this outpost of the North, I check for snow. If it’s summer, I check to see if the morning hordes of tourists are bundled up or wearing reasonable clothes. And for snow. I always check for snow.


Bic medium on Staples multi-use: 8.15am 17th June 2009.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I reckon this might be a haiku but I don't really know (or care much, to be honest)

For tonight I dream
of high places, and spreading
out my arms like wings.


At last, at last - when I returned from spinnin' today this was waiting for me - ordered from Amazon some time ago.

It is by Geoff Manaugh, the creator of the magnificent BLDG BLOG, and it is full of stuff to delight a Hodmandod: underground places, visions of future buildings and settlements, even a section on continental drift. There are installations, art works and gorgeous photographs - all accompanied by Geoff's inspiring, fantastical ideas. It even smells of an art gallery - when I lift it up to my face and breath in I could imagine myself in the Hayward (I think maybe it is all that coloured ink, but whatever it is - I love it). It's a bit like having BLDG BLOG in your hands and I am quite a little excited by it. I've been looking forward to seeing this for months and am not disappointed.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Great Roast Books

These just arrived this morning, and I just had to take a picture...

because they are gorgeous: textured covers, clear printing, thick paper and drawings of the authors on the back flaps. Obviously a great deal of loving care has gone into making these books and, as a result, they are little gems.

There is something exquisite and exciting about a small book. Maybe it is some reversion to childhood, and a vague memory of being given such a thing as a prize. They fit in the hand, and there is the promise that here is something that will be short and sweet and easily assimilated. As it says in this excerpt from the Sunday Telegraph...

('...handsome editions designed to be read during along lunch hour or a single train journey.')

It is a fusion of old world charm and today's lifestyle perhaps, a taste of a charmed, remembered time - and then we rush on.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Salon: Bomb, Book and Compass by Simon Winchester

Since I only got half way through this book last weekend I am going to try and finish it today. It's a sultry day, too hot to do anything much, and I am a bit too frazzled to attempt to do any more of my editing job so I am going to sit back and relax with this book - which I am going to review properly for Bookmunch.

Needham seems to have been eccentric in so many ways - for instance he preferred to eat his toast black because he thought the carbon was good for his digestive system. He thought it mopped up impurities. It's an interesting idea, not without merit- Needham, after all was an eminent scientist - but I think that most people these days would say this was not a good idea due to the carcinogenic chemicals also produced when toast burns.

I am another couple more chapters through now and beginning to envy Needham. Because of his genius he seems always able to get his own way. He manipulates his travels through China to fulfill his curiosity about the place; he establishes his mistress in China, as well as his wife, because he feels he can't live without either of them - and thus, very understandably, attracts the ire of a colleague; and then, after he returns to his suite of rooms at Cambridge, the college's requirement for him to do any teaching his waived so he is free to write his books. But then it is important that he writes his books; because he is the only one able to do so. His aim is to write about the science and civilisation and China. It is a book not aimed at the Sinologists or general public but to educated people who are interested in the history of civilisation as a whole. It will fill an important gap.

The text that most stimulated the writing of the book was one that described the 1088AD technique to find south using a magnetised needle suspended on a piece of silk. This was a full century before a compass was described elsewhere in the world.

Another chapter and in this I have learnt that, in addition to the compass, the Chinese invented the following: various sorts of complicated bridges, wrought iron, the wheebarrow, the fishing reel, the sternport rudder, the umbrella, the set of gimbals (used to keep things like compasses upright at sea), the spinning wheel, the kite, callipers, automated figurines, chain pump irrigation, stirrups, playing cards, fine porcelain, chess, tuned drums, and, maybe most important of all, in the sixth century, perfumed toilet paper that was both soft and strong. It has been in demand ever since.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Swine Flu: Country by Country

My God, how it spreads. Dotted there
with some poisonous pen, the world as its petri dish
left out in the warm air. How the circles
intersect, grow irrevocably bigger. And bigger.
That cough you hear. That whisper. Pandemic.
Pan-dem-ic. That cold victorious number. That breath
you draw in. That proclamation. Listen. Listen!
That hand that touches the light switch
before yours. That finger that wipes a tear
from my eye, spit from his mouth, blood
from your nose. That plane that touches
down, its passengers too hot. And becoming hotter.
That porcine mixing pot - and then the human
one. Those birds pecking and shitting
in their battery pens. Like pigs
in their swill. Like men.

Not a meteor impact this time,
nor some volcanic burning. Not fighting,
but in our beds. No ominous rash,
no swelling. Not even a Geiger counter
tick. But a sneeze, spraying into the air.
Seeing to all of us.

(written after seeing this BBC news item)

Barnes and Noble Review

Following the shock news that my novel 98 Reasons For Being actually got a review on Amazon.co.uk I have just discovered that last month it also got its first review on the Barnes and Noble website too! 'Julie' apparently found it in the Bargain Books and liked it enough to give it a kind review. Thank you Julie - I'm very glad you dipped in that day.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Future is an Empty Room

This is the evocative title of a post by Michael Antman in his blog 'Popmatters'. He evokes a future which is already coming to pass: a place where there are no books, magazine, DVDs, CDs, paintings or photographs. He then goes on to say:
'All of these media are being replaced by a single cool, impassive, and implacable delivery system: the screen. According to a recent study conducted on behalf of the Nielsen-funded Council for Research Excellence, we now spend between 8-1/2 to 9-1/2 hours a day gazing at a screen, whether of the television, computer, e-reader, or smart phone variety, and no one is predicting that this rather stunning number is likely to decrease any time soon.'
He goes on to consider what is happening in the high street now, and how this too is reflecting this same emptiness without character - it is a blandness he has seen before.

At first this seems depressing and somewhat hopeless, but the essay doesn't end that way. There is, he says, a place for all these things - the new technology and the old - and our new challenge is finding the balance, and also working out what works best.

It's a very interesting essay, and I recommend you take a look. Michael is hoping to initiate discussion on his thoughts.

Monday, June 08, 2009

8th June

It is 4 am and already the sun has risen. Above the roofs of the houses a grey-blueness gradually yields to a pale yellow and then red.

I look at the news and see that Nick Griffin of the British National Party has been elected to represent me in Europe.

Then, when I look through the window again, it is as if the sky is bleeding.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Sunday Salon: Bomb, Book & Compass by Simon Winchester

A few weeks ago, the British Library generously allowed me to borrow one of their expensive books for a fortnight from their document supply centre. It was one of the volumes of Joseph Needham's astonishing work 'Science and Civilisation in China', and it cost £120 a copy.

Today I am reading the story of Joseph Needham for a review in Bookmunch: Bomb, Book & Compass by Simon Winchester. It is turning out to be a surprisingly fascinating book. Although, on the face of it, Joseph Needham was a starchy, conventional, happily-married academic, he fell in love with a young woman from China - and this was to have a dramatic effect on the rest of his life.

As last week, I think I might update this post throughout the day.

17.15. I'm finding the book very interesting, but my reading has been slow today. Apart from learning about the man, I am now learning about his travels through China, and hence about China during the second world war. It is before Communism and after the Imperialism. China is ruled by a Nationalist government and has been bombarded by the Japanese for several years. The Chinese academics have been forced to retreat into the Chinese hinterland, and Needham is enlisted by the British government to go there and provide succour.

Sunday Morning Reading

Ah, I am so glad I have my blogger friends. First Maxine wrote this wonderfully blazing post, then Crime Fic Reader added her astute comments, and now I've just read Gordon McCabe's fantastical answer. I am not exaggerating when I say that each lifted my soul in different ways. Thank you all three for your splendid writing. It gives me hope.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Simon Singh on the libel laws

I've just read Simon Singh's essay on why he has decided to appeal against the BCA ruling.

"As a journalist, I have always been aware of the libel laws, but I don't think I ever fully appreciated the chilling effect they have on journalism - important articles are withdrawn and other stories are simply not commissioned because of the fear of libel."

Please read the rest of this article. It is moving and profound (as well as a great piece of writing).

Meeting on Privacy and Libel at the Society of Authors.

Yesterday I went to Society of Authors Meeting on Privacy and Libel. The speakers were Nicola Solomon and Richard Barber. Nicola Solomon is one of the top solicitors in the country on libel and Richard Barbers has been an editor at magazines such as OK! and is a freelance journalist and celebrity ghost writer. My notes come mainly from Nicola Solomon's part of the talk because although Richard Barber's talk was entertaining, and he gave us some interesting anecdotes, it was Nicola Solomon's which contained the most general information. I tried to get this down as accurately as I could - but any mistakes, of course, are mine - and I (grudgingly) take full responsibility for them.

Mark Le Fanu introduced the meeting stressing some positive features for writers:
(i) people in general are reluctant to sue because it is expensive;
(ii) libel damages payments are dropping;
(iii) publishers are generally insured and tend not to pass the cost of claims onto authors;
(iv) the Society of Authors are in the process of arranging a means for authors to find affordable cover and there will be details in the next edition of the Author.

Nicola started by outlining the difference between libel and slander. I thought I knew this but I didn't - not precisely.

Slander is spoken and the claimant has to show how they have been damaged. Libel is written, or performed on the stage and they have to show injury to reputation. There is a subtle difference, apparently. Together they are called defamation. The actual amount awarded has gone down recently but is usually in the range of £200 000. However, the costs can be even more enormous.

The actual wording is important: 'the lowering of the claimant's reputation in the judgment of right thinking people'. Points to note about this are:
(i) The right minded people are the jury;
(ii) And the claimant's reputation must be lowered; so a mass murderer may find it difficult to make a case! Similarly, it is probably not libellous these days to claim that someone in most fields of life does not believe in God because it would not damage their reputation; however it would damage the reputation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and in a case like this would be libellous.

Writers often think that if they do not name a person in a piece they will 'get away with it'. This is a common fallacy. In fact, if the claimant is identifiable, then the writer can be sued. Sometimes 'not naming' can make things worse - and can lead to all the people who could be the person not mentioned in a piece of writing suing the writer. For instance if the writer claimed that one of the sales people in a firm were being dishonest then all the sales people in that firm could sue the writer.

Similarly, if the person is not clearly identified and can be mistaken for someone else then that 'someone else' can sue if it could have been them from what is written. This is pertinent to novelists. There are various methods to help try to preclude this sort of mistaken identity in a novel. It helps, when inventing a character to specify age, occupation and address and then check to see that person does not exist at that address through parish records or company files. I must admit I was pretty surprised to hear about this. Another alternative is to use a very common name such as John Smith, or to use a very strange or invented name.

Lying about someone is not necessarily libellous if the lie does not damage the reputation. For instance claiming that someone could not attend because they were ill (when they were not) would not be libellous because everyone is ill sometimes and saying they are ill does not 'lower their reputation'.

The precise meaning of the words as written is important. The test is to determine the sense any group of ordinary readers (even if they are in the minority) would make of a piece. If it is decided that just a few readers could take a piece to mean something defamatory then the claimant has a right to sue. These ordinary readers could have a sense of irony, and could also have specialist knowledge. For instance if a footballer were to be reported leaving a house which was the address of a brothel then the reporter could be sued, even if only few people had that 'specialist knowledge'.

The piece as a whole is looked at - not just the headline. So a headline can seem to be defamatory on its own, but if the entire piece is not then that writer is quite safe.

Repeating rumours is also defamatory.

However, fair comment is not. So an opinion piece i.e. a review or piece of criticism is not libellous as long it is made clear that it just opinion. But it must be based on fact and not go 'too far' or exaggerate in a demeaning way.

Death of either claimant or writer exonerates the writer.

In the UK, the claimant can only claim within a year of publication. However, if a blog post or on the internet this is from last download so the writer can be potentially sued until the blog post is taken down.

If a writer can claim that a piece is written on the basis that the public 'need to know' then this can be all right too. In this way investigative journalism is justified, and sources do not have to be named to protect them.

Sometimes a 'damaged reputation' can be mended by an amendment or public, written apology.


The laws in this area have tightened considerably recently.
For instance in 2002 it was deemed okay in the courts for a newspaper to publish a story about a footballer visiting a prostitute; but in 2008 Max Mosely's affairs were considered to be breach of privacy (although the Times still has an article on line here).

Naomi Campbell provided another test case. When she was photographed coming out of a clinic she won her case of breach of privacy because health is considered to be a private matter (as is family life, and contents of a home).

In general it has to be shown that the article is of sufficient interest to the public (versus the claimant's human right to privacy).

It has to be fact-based, non-intrusive and sympathetic.

There has to be no breach of contract e.g. nanny who has previously been employed by a family is unlikely then to be allowed to write a book about her experience.

In contrast to libel, the right to privacy extends to after the claimant's death...probably. This is still being tested.

In general the advice was 'Don't say anything about anyone that you wouldn't want them to say about you.'

(corrected later thanks to CFR!)

Final Point.

The UK encourages 'libel tourism' because the 'burden of proof' is with the writer rather than the claimant. Because the costs involved are large it is usually only the very wealthy that bring libel or privacy actions. They can afford expensive barristers who are experienced and convincing to the judge who decides the case (in contrast to the writer who usually cannot). Thus the law tends to favour the claimant.

Judge Edie has often presided over these cases - as he was over Simon Singh's case. But today it has been announced that Simon has decided to appeal against this judgment - which could bode well for freedom of expression in this country. There is a petition to show your support on the Sense About Science site.

Added Later: There is lots more interesting discussion on this topic on Nature Network. Maxine's post is a good starting point.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

World Drawing Day

I love drawing. Several times in my life I have yearned to go to art school, and although I suppose I could have got in I doubt that I'd have had enough talent to be a professional artist. Nevertheless, I do love to draw. So I was interested to see a note from Colin Sherbourn who is the chairman of the Author's North committee I'm on (part of the Society of Authors) a couple of days ago.

On Saturday, he says, it is World Drawing Day. The aim is to get one million people drawing online during the day. You can read more about it at Colin's blog (he is the cartoonist of the newspaper the Westmorland Gazette).