Do You Know Me In Real Life? Do you Want to Read a Novel?

If you know me in real life and I haven’t yet asked if you want to read my novel – do you want to read my novel? It’s the one I’ve been going on about for the last year or so; it’s called ‘Tapestry’ and is based on the Fibonacci sequence of numbers. These numbers are present in nature and particularly in spirals, which have fascinated me for decades. ‘Tapestry’ is a picture of Britain from post-war to post-Brexit and involves a spread of characters from the royal family to the homeless and including some ghosts. You can read as much or as little as you like, though it would be good if some people could read the later chapters. If you’re interested drop me a comment below. Lots of people have already read and liked it.

Sorry but for various reasons this offer is limited at the moment to people I know in what we are pleased to call real life.

Kirk out

Advertisements

We Need to Talk About Eleanor

Spoiler alert: Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine

Un. Put. Downable. More readable than The Silence of the Girls, more compelling than Killing Eve, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine was so addictive that I went to bed late and started reading again first thing. I didn’t even do the crossword, that’s how engrossed I was. Basically I read for four hours yesterday interrupted only by dinner and tennis, and then another hour this morning. Wow.

I’d had an unfair idea about this book, that it was basically light fiction (I’m trying to avoid using the term chicklit) with a twist. I was wrong. If I had to categorise it I’d say it was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time meets We Need to Talk About Kevin. OH has done an excellent summary here so I won’t sport with your patience (or mine) by recapping the plot, but will skip straight to the novel’s strengths and weaknesses. The best feature of this novel was its readability; not in any facile sense but in terms of engaging the reader with the central character who seems, like the narrator of Curious Dog Night-time (as we call it) to be somewhat autistic. She doesn’t understand social interactions and does her best to mimic others, hoping to pass for normal: I can relate to this so hard it makes my heart bleed. Like the narrator of Kevin, she is a survivor of horrific abuse and like her has continuing – and horribly difficult – contact with the perpetrator of that abuse. But this is a hopeful novel, one which starts from a low base and builds gently, gradually and at times amusingly (I laughed out loud a lot) to its conclusion. It reminded me of Goodnight Mr Tom in the way the central character is surrounded by loving, helpful, ordinary people who become her true family. Eleanor Oliphant treads the line between the facile and the grim and leads us towards the light.

If I had to make a criticism I’d say dialogue isn’t Gail Honeyman’s strong point. Eleanor’s speech is perfectly done as she sounds like a cross between a station announcer and the Queen Mother, but ordinary everyday dialogue doesn’t come across so well. But that’s nit-picking; I say this is an excellent read and I give it 9.5 out of 10! Get a copy today.

Kirk out

Zen and the Art of Paperback Marketing

For my birthday I received an adult colouring book. I am fully seized of the benefits of adult colouring and feel no need to explain or justify it; however the author of the book may have felt such a need as a long list of qualifications succeeds her name, prompting OH to comment: ‘How many qualifications do you need to make a colouring book?’ before adding, ‘she probably felt she wouldn’t be taken seriously otherwise.’ That’s almost certainly true, but what struck me was the tag at the bottom saying ‘a zen colouring book.’

How is it zen? I’m not even sure I know what zen means – I suspect it’s one of those words which, if you think you understand, it you don’t – but I’m wondering in what way this is a zen colouring book as opposed to a non-zen colouring book? What particular qualities does it have that make it so? At first glance I can’t discern any, nor did the introduction give any clue. This does not, of course, make it any the less fun or beneficial, nor am I disputing that colouring can be a deeply meditative process, but zen? Hm.

One of the most disappointing books I’ve read is ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.’ Being at the time both passionately interested in motorbikes and also wanting to find out more about meditation, I seized a copy as soon as I could lay my hands on one, but was sorry to find little in it of either topic. It seems that zen is just a handy marketing term for something a little off-beat, hippyish or related to spirituality in a vague sort of way (and Robert Persig sure was vague*.)

Anyway whether it’s zen or non-zen, unzen or dezen, it’s a good colouring book, and that is enough. More of this anon and how it contributes to the writing process. In the meantime have a very happy Monday, stay cool if it’s hot where you are and don’t forget Wimbledon starts today! And Andy is playing again, as is Johanna Konta, so be prepared for a lot of match reports.

Yay!

*to be fair, he does say so himself, but I still think it’s a highly self-indulgent book

Kirk out.

Can You Inkle?

I always thought The Inklings was rather a twee name for Tolkein and Lewis’s little club of authors but this hasn’t stopped me subscribing to the Daily Inkling. Neither a newspaper of Narnia nor a broadsheet of Middle Earth, this is a series of daily blog prompts which, as I mentioned the other day, are a useful back-up for when my brain is running on empty.

Yesterday was unusual: I dropped in to vote in the European elections (please God don’t let Farage win, he’ll be unbearable. I mean more unbearable…) and stopped off at the library to return The Horse and His Boy. I’ve decided that reading fantasy, particularly children’s fantasy since the adult kind seems to be focussed on clashings of swords and bucklings of swashes (ooh, now at my back I hear a gathering army of protestors, speaking of Pratchett and others I haven’t read. So be it) where was I? Yes, reading children’s fantasy books in bed is a great way to get to sleep. Paul McKenna advises not reading anything before sleep besides his book, but the habit is too deeply ingrained for me to give it up. However, I recognise that a Rebus or a Nicci French is probably not the best thing for inducing a peaceful drowsiness, so I hit on the idea of fantasy. I began with Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner and then went on to the Narnia novels. I’m now beginning His Dark Materials. What’s important about these books is that they transport you to other worlds, meaning that you are already in an almost trance-like state by the time you slot in your book-mark and turn off the light.

This was leading on to something… oh yes, today’s blog post prompt. What was it again? ‘How important is physical fitness in your life?’

Well, yoga is very important. I guess you get more attuned to your body the more you do it, but it beats me how people can survive without a good daily stretch. If I miss it even for one day I feel stiff and listless because yoga not only stretches the muscles and joints, it raises the kundalini, the vital energy that keeps us all going and without which we are running on empty. This is why so many people drink coffee whereas in yoga stimulants are strongly discouraged (I have tea in the mornings and herbal infusions after that.)

But the missing dimension to yoga is a good cardio-vascular workout. Unless you do a number of rounds of surya namaskar (about which I have mental blocks as I’ve mentioned before) you don’t get many aerobic benefits. So whilst I go for a brisk walk sometimes and dig the garden most days, it probably isn’t enough. But I can’t bring myself to jog or go to the gym so the occasional zumba session to youtube videos is as far as it gets.

There. That’s today ticked off. Have a good Bank Holiday weekend. Oh, and the book I borrowed from the library? The Silence of the Girls. Was it any good? I couldn’t stop reading it. And that was yesterday.

Kirk out

Patrick Who?

Oh. My. God. Sometimes you come across an author and think, why the hell haven’t I read this person before? I’d heard of Edward St Aubyn but, whether from reverse snobbery or whether because there are just too many people to read, I hadn’t delved into him until I came across a TV series called Patrick Melrose. Even then I might have scrolled on, had it not starred the incandescent Benedict Cumberbatch. I am always stunned by the power of that guy’s acting and it’s pleasing to learn that both he and the series won Baftas last week.

OH and I were utterly destroyed by Patrick Melrose. We emerged from a two-day binge as exhausted as the protagonist himself after a weekend on coke, shattered and begging for more. Once we’d finished all five episodes I had to go straight to my dealer (Alibris) and get the books.

If I tell you it’s a series of novels about an abused child, economically and socially privileged but neglected by one parent and cruelly used by the other, a boy who as an adult goes on drug-fuelled binges and considers himself abstemious if he takes coke instead of heroin, a man who ends up like all junkies calling his dealer at one in the morning and finding him unavailable takes a taxi to the badlands of New York to score in a back alleyway – if I told you all this you’d likely yawn and scroll down. Patrick Melrose is all these things, but how can I begin to convey how compelling it is?

For a start the social milieu – the bored and boring wealthy – ought to be a total turn-off. Patrick’s mother-in-law, inexplicably nicknamed Kettle, takes the biscuit with her selfishness and snobbery, but Kettle’s crimes are as nothing to Nicholas Pratt, Patrick’s father’s oldest friend, and Patrick’s father himself.

David Melrose is a monster. His idea of parenting is to give a child the worst possible experience, a childhood of which they can say ‘if I made it through that I can make it through anything.’ Having been abused by his own father, the young David sabotages his talent for music and neglects his gifts as a doctor; whether without these experiences he would have been a sadistic rapist is debatable but that is what he becomes. The first novel opens with David holding forth from an upper window of their holiday home in France and keeping the housekeeper in conversation ‘long enough for her arms to ache but not long enough for her to drop the tray.’ After his wife complains about the figs going to waste he forces her in front of guests to eat the fruit where it lies. He is a ruthless bully and serial rapist who attacks both his wife and his five-year-old son. No Childline in those days.

All this is enough to make any adult turn to drugs. Having an independent income, Patrick gets to shoot up in hotels and bathrooms instead of piss-stained stairwells, though he resorts to the back streets when other sources fail him. But after a few years of this his inheritance has dwindled and to support his wife and child he is forced to take up a profession. Sadly his practice of the law is more honoured in the breach and he dedicates far more energy to his career as an alcoholic, inevitably leading to the breakdown of his marriage.

The cast of over-privileged characters behave so badly that it’s hard to believe we’re not back in the 19th century: they could easily have come out of Proust. Why doesn’t the housekeeper tell David to eff off? Why doesn’t Eleanor throw David out? It’s her house, after all, and her money – but from the start he has dominated her by sheer force of character. Rather than confront her problems she becomes a drunk and then, continuing the theme of displacement, she gives generously to Save the Children instead of saving her own son. Nobody challenges the right of these people to behave exactly as they wish, but why not? It’s the 1970’s, after all, not the 1870’s, the world outside has cast off deference. The answer lies in the mana they have; the absolute belief that they have the right to rule. They live in an ultra-privileged bubble as they move from taxi to hotel to beach to country house in a merry-go-round of splendid isolation. Most people refer to the survival statistics on the Titanic with horror; here they are recited with approbation (‘no-one from steerage survived’ – and quite right, too.) Debating with them is pointless because they are already the victors: ‘She always felt that her high cards were being displaced by a small trump’ – like Blackadder’s Elizabeth saying ‘Who’s Queen?’ Who’s rich? Whose house is this?

These tendencies reach their apotheosis at a dinner party where the guest of honour is Princess Margaret. Referred to by all as ‘PM’ as though elected leader of the nation, she is abominably rude and subjects the French ambassador to the humiliation of kneeling and wiping her dress after he splashes soup on it. Afterwards when someone suggests to PM that people are privileged by ‘accident of birth’, she snaps back, ‘birth is no accident.’

Horribly fascinating though this is, what keeps you reading is the journey of Patrick himself. Will he make it as a human being? After so much neglect and abuse, after so many drugs and failed relationships, will he finally attain the humble position of husband and father? His main support – and the only real human being in the series – is Johnny, himself a recovering alcoholic who through the process has learned humility. This is the key, we seem to think; the ability to think of oneself as merely human, no better and no worse than anyone. It’s Johnny to whom Patrick confesses that he was raped as a child; it’s Johnny who persuades him to attend therapy.

As a series, Patrick Melrose begins stonkingly. Five novels is a lot to sustain (an unusual number for a book sequence) but it sags a little during the second half of novel four and tails off towards the end. In spite of this it has passages of coruscating brilliance such as Patrick’s manic, drug-fuelled stream-of-consciousness and later his son Robert’s thoughts as a baby. It’s a tough gig to describe the thoughts of a pre-verbal child but he brings it off well:

‘He could see everything through the transparent walls of his fish-tank cot. He was looked over by the sticky eye of a splayed lily. Sometimes the breeze blew the peppery smell of freesias over him and he wanted to sneeze it away. On his mother’s nightgown spots of blood mingled with streaks of dark orange pollen.’ This is all great stuff, but by the time his other son Thomas is born I became wearied by the children’s precocity. It’s hard to believe that a three-year-old would talk in the way Thomas does; in any case, you should only have one genius in any family – look what happened to the Holmes’s.

A propos of which, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Benedict Cumberbatch doing justice to this role. Imagine Sherlock without Watson but with loads of sex and drugs and you’ll get an idea. But don’t just settle for having an idea – go watch the series and when you have, get the books. You’ll thank me.

Kirk out

The Five Best Things About Having a Blog

WordPress has just informed me that it’s eleven years ago today that I started this blog; which means it’s eleven years ago yesterday that I attended a workshop run by Hanif Kureishi and asked his advice on what aspiring authors should do to help the process along. ‘Start a blog,’ he said; and having conducted extensive research (well, I asked OH) I set up an account on WordPress and Bob was most definitely my uncle.

Eleven years, eh? You’d think I’d want to embark on some sort of retrospective; high points and nadirs, most popular posts, top comments, that sort of thing, but frankly I’ve no appetite for that. I would like, though, to think about what this blog has meant to me and what benefits it has brought to my life and writing. So here, for your delectation and entertainment, are my five best things about blogging.

Number One: Readers. As a writer (unless you are writing only for yourself) you need readers, otherwise you’re like an actor without an audience or a priest without a congregation. True, one of the best things about writing for me is that no-one can stop you doing it. I may be ignored by the whole world but as long as there’s breath in my body and sparks in my brain, I will carry on writing; and a blog has the potential to find you readers even if they don’t immediately hook up. Sometimes I get comments on posts I don’t even recognise because they’re so old. Once a post is out there, anyone can find it: I’ll never forget that early thrill of finishing a post and clicking ‘publish.’ At that time I’d hardly published anything in print, so that felt really good.

Number Two: Interaction. Most days I have some interaction with readers either ‘liking’ or following me, and I love getting comments. Reading and responding to comments can spark dialogues and often takes me to other blogs where I can like and comment and follow, and so it goes on. Even though OH is just a shout away, writing is essentially a solitary activity, so this interaction is valuable.

Number Three: Expression. For decades I wrote all my poems, ideas and stories in a series of A4 notebooks but now, if an idea is sufficiently developed, it can go on the blog. I used to suffer a lot from not having outlets and now I have one. It also encourages me to find new and more interesting ways to express myself.

Number Four: Development. A blog gives me practice in writing about all sorts of subjects: it’s primarily about a writer’s life but any topic which occurs to me can be the subject of a post. I’ve developed ideas about politics, I’ve described walking holidays, I’ve reviewed films, books and TV series; I’ve delved into philosophy and religion and I’ve transcribed dialogues between myself and OH for your delectation and amusement.

And finally, Cyril… Number Five: Routine. This may sound horribly worthy and dull, but it’s very important. Practice makes permanent, as they say; and as anyone knows who has suddenly retired from a 9-5 job, it’s hard to motivate yourself without structure. As it happens my working day has evolved over the years to mimic office hours. No fevered early-dawn scribblings or midday doldrums for me: I get to my desk at around 8.30 and work till lunch (12-1-ish). After lunch is usually a ‘dead’ time so I’ll do some gardening or walk to the shops; then it’s back to work between 2 and 3. Finishing time really depends on how it’s going: on a good day I’ll work till six but it’s usually around five as mornings are the most productive time. I don’t work evenings or weekends and I take Bank Holidays off, as I do the whole month of August. This doesn’t mean I don’t write anything – in some ways these are the most productive times – just that I don’t work at writing. There’s a big difference. But it can be hard to establish a routine, and in those early days, writing a daily blog post was an important discipline for me. Nowadays I don’t necessarily blog every day but I don’t like to leave it too long otherwise readers can drift away.

So there we are; eleven years of bloggy wisdom. Enjoy. Oh, and the picture is a rather gap-toothed version of me doing a victory dance after performing poems on the Fourth Plinth.

Kirk out

I’ve Been Thinking…

I’ve been thinking some more about this idea of continual innovation. It’s not, ironically, new: I think it was Trotsky who came up with the idea of perpetual revolution, and although communism as he and Marx intended was never actually practised (what do I think of Soviet communism? It would have been a good idea) I can’t help feeling it would be terribly wearing. Because what we have now is perpetual innovation; perpetual change, perpetual upgrading. Goalposts are moved daily. Targets are shifted weekly. Marriages break up or break down, people redefine themselves, those who deplored tattoos now have them all over their bodies – and so it goes on. When I look at the news I see names I don’t recognise, and it’s not only ‘celebrities’ (when I watch Celebrity Mastermind I rarely know any of the contestants) but also politicians. I had really no idea who Gavin Williamson was until he was sacked and half of the cabinet are strangers to me.

But could it be that I’m just getting old? Possibly. It’s very hard to know, though – I mean, how do you measure the changes you grew up with against the changes my children are experiencing? Douglas Adams had a very pertinent comment to make on this, and he’s right – but how do you tell if today’s innovations are speedier than yesterday’s?

I guess we have to go to history for an overview: in any case there does seem to be a consensus that change is speeding up. In all probability this won’t continue: history teaches us that periods of rapid change often give way to slower times with an absorption of what has gone before. Or we could look at nature: consider a river, say, running quickly as it starts, forging down the hillside and then gathering itself together, slowing down as it reaches the plains and then winding leisurely towards the ocean. Nothing that grows fast carries on fast, except for one or two plants and they’re generally parasitical.

Like ivy. I hate ivy.

Kirk out