Thursday, 26 August 2010

Erik Ballantyne Houston

Erik’s funeral, or memorial service, was yesterday. The last chapter of his novel was read; it’s both a part of the narrative and a dying, in words on a page. It can’t be read without choking. Snow is falling; if I were to come over all literary about this, and having read a few books I can’t not, there’s Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ in there. And Chekhov’s ‘Ward Six’: ‘A herd of deer, extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, of which he had been reading the day before, ran by him; then a peasant woman stretched out her hand to him, with a registered letter . . . Mihail Averyanitch said something to him, then it all vanished.’

Had Erik read Joyce, read Chekhov? I’ve no idea. Very few of his students or professional colleagues, possibly none of them, knew that he was a writer as well as a musician. I hadn’t known myself that he fished, and fished seriously, had won prizes, as well as doing this for the sheer pleasure. There was a man yesterday who had spent a day fishing with him on the River Avon less than a month ago, and who was struggling to understand that there’d be no more fishing days with Erik.

No conclusions from this, no arguments to be made. But I do love this example of a man writing, and writing as a serious (and playful) endeavour, with ambition and continual revision and his whole heart, as a complete aside to his professional career. Erik was a musician. He was a star, and then, ill, he shrugged that off and taught others. He didn’t need to write. Except that he did.

I tried, yesterday, when talking about that last page, to emphasise that much of the book is very funny. Wrong word; I was overbalancing. Erik would have laughed. He was 37. He had found someone he loved, and in that I believe he was happy, and his life was out of all proportion.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Erik Houston, 1972–2010 and beyond

Erik has died. He was 37. The White Room was CBe01, in November 2007.

I first read that book in early 2006, when it was sent me by The Literary Consultancy – I ‘read’ for them, by which I mean I wrote reports on manuscripts under headings such as Structure, Characterisation, etc. The work was numbing. Apart from the earnest no-hopers, the work (I’m simplifying, but only a bit) divided into these two categories: the stuff that was competently written but knowingly aimed for a particular spot on the Waterstone’s shelves and deeply boring; and the writing that was raw, interesting, with flashes of genius, which stood not a hope in hell of being taken on by a mainstream publisher. So I wrote my report, which included some tentative suggestions; and Erik sent a revised manuscript back to me, through TLC, and I reported again and asked TLC for his contact details, which normally they don’t give out, but somehow I got them and we met. In a Caffe Nero in Notting Hill, near where he taught. The book of course was still unpublishable in mainstream terms. I loved it. And when, on the spur of a particular moment, I decided to publish four books, I emailed Erik.

Erik was ill when I met him. How many people in Europe, the world, had this particular strain of this particular illness? I can’t remember; it was something like two, maybe three. He was given so long to live, and lived on; another deadline, he passed that too. In Hammersmith hospital he was clinically dead for a terrible number of seconds, and came through. He cheated death. I blindly supposed he could go on doing this.

Erik was a violinist. This is from the Facebook memorial page: ‘Erik has played as a soloist and chamber musician throughout Europe, in the United States, Japan and Russia. Recommended by Yehudi Menuhin, he toured as soloist with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Saulius Sondeckis. This included concerts at the Vilnius Opera House, and at the Lucerne International Festival where he played Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso in the presence of the composer who praised the performance as ‘wonderful’. Erik has also appeared as soloist at St John’s Smith Square, London, and the Rachmaninov Hall in Moscow. He has played chamber music at the Purcell Room, London, at the Schleswig Holstein Festival, and in Japan with the Menuhin Ensemble.’ And more. But he was ill, and there are other things in life beside hotel rooms, the itinerary of a professional musician, and he stopped that; he married, became a father, became a teacher at the Royal College of Music.

‘Settled down’ is not the right phrase.

The White Room hardly has a ‘structure’. It’s a river; it meanders, and tributaries flow into it, and in places it putters and in other places it surges. It barely knows where it’s headed. The current in midstream is strong. There are two main men (one of whom sneaks a look at his medical records: ‘“Inexorable progress towards death.” A note added: “A year, tops.” “Damn, it’s Thursday, and I didn’t put out the bins,” thought Paul, with the bit of his brain that still worked.’); and there are two main women. Others too. I think Erik liked women, which is not a difficult thing to do, and I think he knew how to love, which is a different thing altogether and makes for confusion and difficulty as well as joy and a kind of, if you write about about it well, extreme comedy which he was completely up to.

We met for more coffees, and a lunch in Wapping. He came round to a friend’s flat for supper, someone who knows far more about music than I do. I know nothing about music. But I learned things from Erik, and I miss him terribly.

Monday, 16 August 2010


Still the silly season, still slow. One book sold through the website so far this month. Been away? asked the man at the post office. I’m as guilty as anyone: I tend to buy from second-hand shops, both books and clothes. But here’s a thing, recorded on the blog (now apparently defunct) of a small press founded in 2002 (and also apparently extinct): if every person who submitted a manuscript to the press had actually bought just one of the books published by that press, they’d still be in business. The economics are a perpetual silly season: there are folk spending more money on creative writing classes than on buying books from publishers who won’t be around to publish what they write.

Sunday, 8 August 2010


It’s slow, it’s the silly season, people are away. And what is it with these single shoes that I come across, in the gutter, in the park, by the kerb on the Westway when I’m stalled in a gridlock? Passion or despair mostly, I’d guess, but could be abduction by aliens.

Friday, 6 August 2010

‘It was about celebrity’

The ruckus that resulted from the Guardian’s phone interview with Gabriel Josipovici last week is summarised nicely by JC on the back page of this week’s TLS: ‘Anyone reading this report would quickly realise that the story was not about literary criticism at all; it was about celebrity, the category into which the named authors are increasingly slotted . . .’

The Guardian got a story out of nothing and nowhere; and the publicity department of the publisher of the book on which the story was tenuously hung is, I assume, pleased with the column inches. The other story is about how, for an ideas book to get mainstream media attention, its ideas have to be ignored in favour of personality guff and the setting up of an artificial tableau of conflict.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Red lorry, yellow lorry

Dovegreyreader, whose book blog has a whole community of followers, has read Marjorie Ann Watt’s Are they funny, are they dead? – ‘this remarkable collection of short stories which I have been reading slowly over the last few weeks’:

‘. . . the insensitivities of others laid bare with refreshing candour, those miscommunications, the innocent observations of children so frequently misunderstood by adults, and there's something about revenge being a dish best served cold that is meted out here too . . . Mrs Calder wickedly determined to go out in her own style despite her daughter’s best and more socially acceptable intentions . . . the deliciously and much-deserved retribution awaiting the blase and cynical psychiatrist, or the philandering husband . . . the struggles with conscience . . . the unlikely combinations of characters, the immigrant and the vagrant – all beautifully observed from that unique vantage point of age and experience; ageing seen through the eyes, with respect, of the “aged”, and then that retrospective analysis of childhood that it’s impossible to make when you are younger.’

Meanwhile, today I have been proofreading a Christmas book (I suppose), Answer Me This!, for the esteemed literary house of Faber & Faber. (Sample Q, from a page in front of me as I write: ‘Do snakes have arseholes? And if so, where?’ A: ‘First of all, Neale, you should really stop ogling snakes . . .’) The last sentence of the acknowledgements, page v: ‘Seriously, Faber, what the hell were you thinking?’ A rhetorical question. The co-authors both read English at Oxford.

While in the other half of the living room (no one thinks this is run from an office, do they?), one (of two) of my 19-year-old sons has been replacing the wheels of his second-hand bike with a yellow one and a red one, acquired off eBay.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

24 for 3 times 6

There was a moment this morning in the 10th over of the Pakistan second innings at Trent Bridge when Pakistan were 24 for 3. The other five instances are shameless puffery: Jennie Walker’s 24 for 3: top row, original CBe edition and current Bloomsbury paperback; bottom row, Italian, German and US (retitled) editions. Cricket, especially women’s cricket, in Italy, Germany and the US is going from strength to strength. A July recommendation on the 26 site describes the dialogue as ‘crisp and dreamy at the same time’.