Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Cricket balls

Next week, the first Ashes Test between England and Australia. You knew this already. Anticipation builds. The tennis is as nothing. And just in time . . .

Above left is Jennie in her new summer dress: the paperback of 24 for 3 (‘I loved it’ – Mick Jagger) is published next week, but seems to have arrived in shops already. Above right is Jennie’s new friend, Unplayable by Simon Rae (author of, among other books, the standard modern biog of W. G. Grace). Unplayable is a children’s book, the story of Tom Marlin and his (blurb) ‘dizzying rise through the cricketing ranks – a journey involving danger, controversy, heartbreak and heroics, and culminating in the chance to help win the Ashes for England’.

Unplayable, also published next week, is published by Top Edge Press (and typeset by CBe); it will be for sale at cricket grounds and from the Unplayable website (up in a few days, Alan and god both willing) and can be ordered from bookshops (ISBN 9780 9545495 4 1; distributed by Central Books). Sales of the book will support the Cricket Foundation, a charity whose Chance to shine programme operates in 3,000 state schools. It has a foreword by Mike Gatting, who captained an England team that actually did win the Ashes. All things are possible.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

The number 11 bus route

Talking of buses, as yesterday I was, I set off in search of the number 11 in Elizabeth Bowen. I was sure it was in The Death of the Heart – but no, although there ‘a 153 bus did come lurching round the corner, but showed every sign of ignoring them, till Lilian, like a young offended goddess, stepped into its path, holding up a scarlet glove’, and Major Brutt ‘found that an excellent bus, the 74, took him from Cromwell Road the whole way to Regent’s Park’, it was the wrong book. I found it in To the North (1932), another Bowen novel in which an adolescent girl is placed temporarily in the care of bemused adults who have no idea what they’ve taken on (a Bowen staple).

Mrs Patrick advises the 14-year-old Pauline on bus routes, bearing in mind that ‘a young girl cannot be too careful’. ‘She would not, she said, have countenanced a No. 24, which goes down Charing Cross Road. Pauline blushed, she had heard about Charing Cross Road.’ However, ‘The number 11 is an entirely moral bus. Springing from Shepherd’s Bush, against which one has seldom heard anything, it enjoys some innocent bohemianism in Chelsea, pick up the shoppers at Peter Jones, swerves down the Pimlico Road – too busy to be lascivious – passes not too far from the royal stables, nods to Victoria Station, Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, whirrs reverently up Whitehall, and from its only brush with vice, in the Strand, plunges to Liverpool Street through the noble and serious architecture of the City. Except for the Strand, the No. 11 route, Mrs Patrick considered, had the quality of Sunday afternoon literature; from it Pauline could derive nothing but edification.’

Though it no longer springs from Shepherd’s Bush, the number 11 still follows much of the same route. Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944) has an instructive example of ‘innocent bohemianism in Chelsea’ along the number 11 route. I can’t find my copy, but Gulley Jimson’s lesson, as I remember it, is this. You’re heading for Liverpool Street, you get on the bus and go to the back of the top deck, and by the time the conductor (remember them?) reaches you you’ve travelled a fair distance. You ask for a ticket to Fulham; the conductor says right bus but wrong direction, you need to get off and catch a bus on the opposite side of the road. You get off; you repeat the same procedure; after an hour you’ve reached Liverpool Street without paying the fare.

I’m applying to London Transport for a grant to complete my thesis: The Journey of Life: Morality and Subterfuge on London Buses.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Coming soon to a bookshop near you (1)

I hadn’t thought, a year back, that the CBe stable would include among its mares and stallions a pony, a children’s writer. Even though it’s been clear for a long time that some of the most ambitious writing around is to be found in the so-called children’s section. But it’s specialist, isn’t it, the children’s market? And a children’s book needs glitter and a dragon on the cover, not the CBe spartan livery, doesn’t it?

But a book that takes me by surprise, that shows me new things writing can do – and which, in this case, moves me to tears each time I read it – is welcome, whatever its category. (YFB/E3N79 according to the Book Industry Communication codes, which are apparently helpful to someone.)

Nicky Singer has written several adult novels and children’s novels (Feather Boy won the Blue Peter Book-of-the-Year Award, is published in 28 countries, and the TV adaptation won a BAFTA); she’s co-founded a charity to train film, theatre and opera writers; she’s chaired the Brighton Festival lit committee; etc. The new book, Knight Crew, will be staged as a opera at Glyndebourne next March with a cast much younger than me or you (I’m trying not to use the phrase ‘young adult’ in this post, and I’m doing OK), and a three-part documentary about the making of the opera will be screened on BBC2 later in the year. All that’s by the by.

Knight Crew
retells the King Arthur legend (and I thought I knew what that was about, being an Eng Lit kind of guy, but I didn’t, until I read this book) as the story of Art, Quin and Lance, members of a teenage knife gang who experience violence, love and a revelation of how their lives may be changed. If it gets any attention the sub-eds will say it’s about knife crime. And it’s true there are knives, and deaths, and grit and deprivation. But really it’s about, as the Merlin-figure puts it, ‘what we do in our allotted time . . . It’s who and how we love.’

Despite the legend at the back of it all, it’s not programmatic; the conventions the book creates for itself (this isn’t straight naturalism) allow freedom and engagement. As well as love, it’s a book about narrative – about the stories we were told as children, and the ones we make of our own lives, and the ones bigger than us and that continue after us.

It’s not a pony at all. To be published in September, with, oh yes, a full-colour cover. If anyone wants advance reading proofs, especially anyone in a position to help this book along, email me.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Mavis Gallant plays cricket

The current Granta has a long interview with one of my new heroes, Mavis Gallant (see somewhere not far below). More of a meandering chat. She gives nothing away. Why the back-and-forth chronology? ‘I can’t tell you. That’s what I wanted.’ What inspired a particular story? ‘I don’t know.’ Multiple points-of-view in a single story, was this something that came easily? ‘It must have, or I wouldn’t have done it.’ I don’t think she’s being evasive, just honest. It’s not surprising she has little truck with the teaching of writing. At one point she searches for ‘some junkie word’ – ‘Workshop?’ ‘Yes.’

There are other comic moments: ‘Did you ever work in cafes?’ ‘As a waitress?’ ‘I meant to write in.’ And this: if she knew what she was up to in her writing, she wouldn’t bother – ‘I’d be something else. I’d be a champion cricket player. Maybe I am a champion cricket player, in another life.’

And she admires Elizabeth Bowen. (But won’t be pressed: ‘What do you admire in particular about Bowen?’ ‘Oh, I loved her stories.’) Of course she does.

There is, by the way, a fine ‘Brief Survey of the Short Story’ running in a tucked-away corner of the Guardian website. The first piece (on Chekhov) was posted in October 2007, and number 18 (on Stefan Zweig) this month. In between are, as well as predictable names (Kafka, Carver; and, yes, Gallant), unpredictable ones (Maclaren-Ross, H. P. Lovecraft) and far-sighted ones (Akutagawa, Etgar Keret). The whole series is intelligent, helpful, generous – well worth cutting out (I mean printing off) and keeping.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Saturday lunch

A snippet from Christopher Reid’s The Song of Lunch is printed today in the Guardian Review as ‘The Saturday Poem’. (I asked them to include the CBe website address in the credit line, but no dice. Instead they give a telephone number for the ‘Guardian book service’, who presumably order the book from the distributor, whose stock is supplied by me, and everyone gets a few pennies along the way. Fine, and sincere thanks to the Guardian, but if you’d prefer to get the book tomorrow, order from the website.)

Friday, 12 June 2009


Yesterday the Guardian journalist Michele Hanson wrote about visiting Holland Park School, which opened in 1958 as the first purpose-built comprehensive in London. My own children, who are taking A-levels this summer, are leaving that school with good memories, not least of some fine individual teachers. But Hanson’s piece is depressing.

Hanson herself taught at the school in the early 70s. Now, she ‘can barely recognise the place’. Many of the differences have to do with appearance: security guards, neat lawns, uniforms, suits, ‘a swizzy vase of white flowers’ on a spotless table. ‘No litter, no graffiti.’ And, for a school with 1,400 students, a disquieting lack of noise: ‘The foyer, which used to be the children's favourite meeting place, is gleaming and silent.’ In a classroom: ‘More immaculate, shiny surfaces . . . Only the teacher speaks.’ As she tours the school she witnesses the immediate correction of any slightly out-of-line conduct: a boy with his shirt untucked, a girl wearing plimsolls instead of ‘shiny black shoes’, a girl with her bag on a desk instead of on the floor, a teacher with books on the floor instead of, I suppose, on a desk.

She quotes the headteacher: teachers, he says, need to ‘see part of their job as playing a role and appropriately manipulating children to fit in with what the end product has got to be.’ And an internal memo to teachers: ‘Check, monitor, assess, challenge student progress/performance by rigorous application of current results against predicted data.’

The school is being run as a business, the ‘end product’ here being not profits but exam results. And in business terms it’s successful: year by year, the school has been moving up in the league tables. The ‘complete DNA change’ that Hanson notes at Holland Park is hardly surprising, because everything now is saturated with the jargon and methodologies of business management – the NHS, the police, government and politics too. (And publishing.) But jesus, it’s depressing. Predictable quote from a newly retired English teacher: ‘In the last few years I felt that the school had lost its soul.’

The school maybe, but not, thank god, all those who walk, shirts tucked in or not and shoes shiny or scuffed, through its corridors. Not ‘students’. Boys and girls when they enter, young men and young women when they leave. They know what’s going on. You can regulate and bureaucratise the soul out of an institution with dismaying ease, but individuals are spikier, bolshier, more resilient.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

On glumness

A recent Asylum review of a John McGahern novel ends thus: ‘“But why had things to happen as they did,” wonders the son early on, “why could there not be some happiness, it’d be as easy.” But who needs happiness, when glumness can be so invigorating?’

I do (need happiness).

Most of the writing I get sent is glum: it’s about deprivation and abuse (lots of varieties of that) and madness and the like. Partly to blame are the Romantics: suffering, that’s what we like to read/write about, and what we take as a short-hand measure of a writer’s seriousness. Of course written (painted, composed) by the greats, glumness can be invigorating. But by the not-so-greats, it tends to be just glum. And anyway, a diet made up exclusively of glumness, however protein-rich, cannot be healthy.

I’m not asking for bluebells all the way. Not happiness-lite. And I’m averse to most so-called comic writers (the manipulative effort they put in to making me laugh). But it seems that, for example, for many fiction writers the default thing to do with their characters is to bring them down: lose their loves, miss their opportunities, taste defeat. If the writing is very good, then moving, even heartrending – but, as the McGahern character wonders, does it have to be this way?

It’s possible the McGahern character is wrong when he suggests that happiness is ‘as easy’ as glumness. It’s possible that happiness does tend to write white. But the fact that death is always the finishing line doesn’t mean everyone has to be doomed. Mortality is what makes happiness what it is, and more than worth writing.

Summer reading, if I ever get away from this desk for long enough: Rabelais, I think. First line of the inscription above the entrance of the Abbey of Thélème: ‘Grace, honour, praise, delight.’ And lots of bawdiness too.

Monday, 8 June 2009

In the garden of ruin

A more elaborate version of the sign on page 30 of Days and Nights in W12. (Photo from W in Hungary.) Doubtless there's another sign telling you not to eat the fruit from the trees. You'd think they'd have learnt by now that forbidding things in gardens is pointless.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Door-to-door poets

Maybe twice a year, a man with a rucksack on his back used to knock on the door and flog me a pamphlet of his poems. They made me smile: ‘Alcohol and coffee/ Can be mixed,/ At some cafes/ It can be fixed.// Of course,/ To be respectable,/ Never in/ The same receptacle.’ A lot of legwork, but I’m willing to bet that he sold more copies than most Faber or Bloodaxe poets, and made more money too.

I haven’t seen him for some time. Has he cut a deal with Cape? More likely that recessional Shepherd’s Bush is cutting back on poetry-buying. But today, back from the shops, I found a man at the door who’d somehow got wind of the fact that some, well, publishing activity goes on in this house. He has seven cats and 500 poems. But we talked mostly about the job he did for several decades: he was a locksmith. A man who’s called out in extreme situations – a house has been broken into, a husband’s been thrown out, a scene of crime needs to be secured – and while the wailing and the anguish continue in the background, he gets on with his precise, intricate job, measuring and filing to the exact millimetre. He didn’t give me many stories today, but I do now know that Princess Margaret emptied her teapots in the loo.