Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Vade Retro!

I'm sending the Devil away from my blog now. He's had his say. However, despite my misgivings, I am going to borrow his e-reader for a bit, just to give it a second chance. I have the feeling I'm going to own one at some point in the future, though certainly not until they come up with something much less clunky and squint-making. If I ever sort out my time travel problems I might just zip forward to 2017 and then come back and blog about the Apple Soft-Touch Flexiscroll. No home will be without one.

And whatever you think of that, Flexiscroll can't be a worse name than Kindle. I'd love to know how that brand name was coughed up. Anyone know? Anyway, top marks go to the interesting and talented Rachel Fenton for holding Amazon's e-reader up to a mirror and perhaps glimpsing the diabolic truth behind the name Kindle:

Eld Nik!

Yes, I know it works better in Old English but still -- creepier and creepier. Someone should tell Dan Brown. No, on second thoughts, perhaps not...

Talking of time travel, I'm happy to say that the clouds have cleared slightly and I'm writing again. I don't want to tempt fate, but at the same time, declaring this in public might just help me keep up my new progress. Please hold me to account.

Nicola Morgan, also interesting and talented, recently posted some excellent advice on how to blog well. The lesson seems to be 'give to your readers rather more than you take from them'. Easier said than done, but since this post is mostly just waffle about demons and time travel, here's some music for you. Don't forget to consider buying it if you like it (and you will).

Sunday, 27 September 2009

To Hell With Books!

The paper kind, I mean. Let us embrace the convenience of the e-reader!

Now, this is hardly my heartfelt position on the subject of digital books. Like most wordy people I love my tatty old paperbacks and don't like the idea of a hand-held reading unit, no matter how slimline. But there would be little point adding my voice to those already busily (and ironically) defending paper in on-line forums and blogs. What else is there to say? Books are the most highly-evolved form of carbon capture known to man, they are always beautiful (even when their spines fall off) and a house with no books is a sorry and cheerless place. We love 'em so hands off!

But the fact is, the digital book – which has actually been with us for years – has recently seen a huge surge in popularity. When I was a student we often talked about the future of the printed book, but few of us were seriously worried about it. In particular, the idea of e-paper screens was not taken seriously. Now, a decade and a half later, there's already a choice of e-reader, with the Kindle possibly coming to the UK soon and new players entering the market. The US already seems to have welcomed e-readers with open arms, with digital sales of the latest Dan Brown novel briefly rivalling the paper edition. And there's talk of colour screens in the near future.

I had a little play with a Sony e-reader recently but I wasn't exactly seduced by it. In any event, I'm not temperamentally predisposed to being in the first wave of anything (though I don't like a Luddite). But it seems to me that there's nothing to be gained from merely complaining about this revolution in the medium of reading, or from hoping that it goes away. And might it not be a good thing? To explore that possibility, allow me to speak with forked tongue and give the Devil's defence of digital books.


Paper books are unhygienic. They are wasteful. They take up a lot of space and do their authors no favours.

Why not buy a Kindle instead? It has a such a wonderfully creepy name. For sure, the screen is a putrid shade and the grey text sits ill upon it, but give the tech time; one day paper will seem dull by comparison, and those still reading off it duller still.

Think of the poor planet! Think of the carbon being pumped into the air by book distributors. Think of all those printing sweatshops in the Far East. Just thinking of the ink alone should make you paper-lovers feel tainted with guilt. And think of the swarms of sales reps driving all day to make sure that your over-lit streets stay stacked high with books. Millions of books.

What a shame about half of them will have to be pulped. Chemically.

Turn to the e-reader today and help change this. Yes, in the long run lots of people will lose their jobs, but since e-books are much cheaper, even the unemployed will be able read the latest literature.

And what of the poor authors, watching their incomes dwindle as readers blithely pass on their work or give it to charity shops? How must they feel knowing that one sale might be read by a dozen people, with no control and certainly no recompense? Second hand bookshops are choking writers! But with an e-reader file swapping can be hindered, so that everyone who wants to read a book has to pay for it. And because the costs are low they probably will, which all adds up to a fuller wallet for the people who actually write the stuff in the first place.

So let's go digital. After all, why wouldn't you want to see out-of-print books become available again, or the market in poetry and short stories be revitalised?

Why would you NOT want a library in your pocket?

You know it makes sense! Hisssss...


That's more than enough of that. It's sometimes fun being the Devil's advocate but it's never nice being his mouthpiece. But does he have a point?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009


If you're here from the other place, yay!
Now I hope that you'll like me and stay.
Never let it be said
Self-promotion is dead,
Or that versification don't pay.

Welcome and help yourself to coffee -- it's for a good cause. Here's sugar and cream, and a batch of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. There's also a bottle of calvados if your day isn't going as planned. It's nice dashed into coffee too.

(Um, if you've come for the other thing, I'll meet you behind the yucca in five minutes)

Monday, 21 September 2009

My Particular Friend

I had such an unusual post planned. As part of the Journée du Patrimoine, a day of access to -- and celebration of -- France's cultural heritage, the Natural History Museum of Rouen offered a one-off guided tour. At night. By torchlight alone!

The museum is a seriously spooky place. Most of its shaggy exhibits date from the nineteenth century, and the long galleries of over-restored, glass-bound beasts give off a gothic Doctor Moreauishness even by day. There you can see the escaped circus elephant that roamed the city in the winter of 1910 (and which died from pneumonia as a result), a two-headed kitten embryo (pasta yellow in Victorian formaldehyde), and a whole menagerie of patched up and flaking beasts. So many glass eyes. Such narrow windows.

I should have liked to take my camera. I should have liked to capture shifting light and shadows in long exposure.

I should have booked earlier.

Having ground my teeth about missing this ghoulish evening, I have decided to turn back to my sketchbooks for a different subject entirely. Here, instead, is a tribute to my particular friend, Ben.

Now, I obviously don't want to suggest that there is any link between Ben and a bunch of moth-eaten, crumbly creatures from the past. He is in fact a fine specimen, and with all his own hair and teeth he's annoyingly better preserved than I am, given that we're the same age.

Ben and I first met when we were four-years-old, and he's worth a mention here mostly because he is the invisible presence behind many of my sketchbook drawings. We have journeyed a lot over the years, and whether he's had to wait for me, go on ahead, or just tolerate my distracted conversation in situ, Ben (who only draws cars) has always been a patient travelling companion.

Neither of us are especially adventurous I suppose (though we do like a laugh) but our wanderings -- from the Scottish Highlands to the Nubian Desert -- have left their traces in dozens of battered Moleskines. This quick sketch, coloured in Photoshop, shows Ben pondering his letters in a game of rude Scrabble (bonus points if you use bad language, especially if you make it up) in a pub in Northumberland. Ben is a formidable opponent, and this must have been dashed off during one of the brief moments when it was his go. No doubt he used an X and a Q across a triple word square and made those at the next table blush.

So no crooked animal shadows for me, but at least I have this chance to thank Ben for all the fun, the foreign forays, and more than thirty years of priceless friendship. May we never need to resort to formaldehyde.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Croatian Sketchbook

I've been digging through my sketchbooks again, and these drawings brought back memories of island hopping in Croatia in 2003. Although billed as a walking trip, the Adriatic Sea meant that we spent much of our holiday time aboard the brave little Stončica, eating oily fish and sleeping on the deck. Why brave? You'll find out in a moment.

The Stončica had formerly been a ferry, but she was so tiny that I can't see how she could have been very useful in that function. Her open rear deck supported a tent-like awning, and her foredeck was a little covered terrace with a table for meals. She was elderly but spruce, and manned by a crew of three: 'le captaine', his mate Zoran, and the youthful and goatish Goran. There was also a local guide (who slept in a tiny cabin), eight French tourists, and me.

French was the language of the trip, though none of the crew spoke it. But English-speaking entertainment was provided by Goran, whose filthy, multi-lingual tongue darted out whenever 'gurlees' came into view. In London's East End he'd have been called 'cheeky' and 'chipper', but on the Adriatic, with its nudist beaches, he was a seething mass of engine oil and hormones.

Each day would see us arrive in a sandy cove -- or village port -- of some new island. From there we would walk and climb through the hot pine interior to a rendezvous point on the other side. Being taken off the shore by Zoran in a rowing boat and pulled out to where the Stončica waited was 'most agreeable' according to a bland note in my sketchbook. It was indeed – a real Treasure Island touch.

The adventure of it all, however, reached an alarming peak when one morning le capitaine decided to set off from the tiny port of Polače despite a very peculiar sky. Within minutes the weather had turned nasty and then, as we headed out of the bay, everything went white. Some kind of storm (I don't really understand these things) set the Stončica spinning, with nothing visible in the blankness but a few yards of furious sea. Eight French tourists and one Englishman held on very tight. The crew kept their heads but I distinctly remember the look of terror on Goran's face, the 'gurlees' briefly forgotten. Somehow le capitaine got us back into port, soaked and missing many of our possessions, but safe. I lost my hat, but at least my sketchbook was dry (no Turner moment for me). We heard later that another craft had been sunk in the same freak storm. Thank you, brave little Stončica.

In one short, hot week we climbed the heights of Korčula, explored the renaissance ways of its ancient port, crossed Vernika, Mijet and a dozen smaller islands whose names esčape me (one so small that the restaurant on it was completely surrounded by water), and eventually arrived in the beautiful city of Dubrovnik in time for the medieval festival. And this was a poignant moment, for beneath the capering felt slippers and sackbuts, the marble streets were still shattered from the Balkan War.

This is one holiday I would dearly love to go on again, but emphatically not with serious walkers. What is it with people who walk just for walking's sake, and who resent lingering at a Byzantine ruin or in sylvan clearings because it wastes valuable walking time? Next time I'll go with fellow sketchers, go for longer and take colour. And next time I'll remember to draw Goran.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

When a Plot is a Place Where Weeds Grow

I feel like the urban gardener who can't find his allotment (wait for the pun). I have all the seeds I need, good tools and a bucket full of horse poo, but I've completely lost the plot.

Right now I'm just sitting here in Heartburn Café, chewing on my writer's block and mixing my metaphors, but that won't answer in the long run. They say that the way out of writer's block is to keep writing, but I have now written 30K words on top of a completed first draft (a sci-fi thriller about visiting the past), looking for ways to fix the story. All I know for sure is that I have a strong premise and interesting characters but a flawed story. What's needed is a bold move – a complete re-write. What I'm doing though is floundering about and drinking too much coffee.

Here's some free advice for would-be children's novelists: It doesn't matter how unusual your approach is, time-travel will always play havoc with linear tale-telling. And mess with your head. Best stick to vampires.

And now back to my block. Mustn't get any on my nice shirt though.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009


And to finish with the subject of my last post, I've just discovered something amusing. Vertigo and DC comics are publishing a series of graphic novels (The Unwritten) about a young man who has to live down being the inspiration behind his own father's literary creation: a bespectacled boy wizard of the same name, whose adventures are a global publishing sensation. Sound familiar? And what's the name of this mega-famous sorcerer's apprentice? Not Harry Potter but...

Tommy Taylor!

Perhaps I'm not who I thought I was.