Greetings! How very good to see you here. If you're wondering where 'here' is, this is the great terra incognita between getting agent (hurrah!), and getting publisher (fingers crossed). But you are most welcome, whatever your relationship is to books, or words, or writing. I hope you enjoy - and please tell me if you do. POSHTOTTY

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Over your shoulder

Sitting on a train into London, and without reading material, my eye falls on the book open on the lap of the commuter next to me. Specifically, it falls on the fact that he is using a neatly folded tissue as a marker, moving it down from line to line as he reads. This seems a rather antiseptic way to read a book, and because of this, I'm expecting to see that the book itself, when my gaze darts to that, is some sort of textbook, and maybe badly printed enough for the ink to come off on a reader's fingers. Not a bit of it. It's a library hardback, and it's an historical romance. A truly dreadful historical romance, by the looks of it; the first words I read are:

Johanna was delighted to learn she would be the first of the princesses to get married.

Now, I write historical fiction, so I feel I have that much of a stake in what such writing can and should be, and this, as a line, is wong in ways that annoy me so much I start labelling them - 1) it's flat, it's reported emotion, it's not Johanna, God help the girl, leaping around in delight at cocking a snook at her sister-princesses, assuming such they be, and sticking her be-coiffed head out her casement to shout 'I'm getting married before you! Ner-ner-ner-nerner!' (If she did, that's a book I'd read with pleasure.) 2) The name. Princesses are not called Johanna. I remember watching a Hammer House of Horror years ago, with a character in it called 'Senorita Yvonne'. She was eaten by a werewolf, and frankly, with a name as anachronistic and sloppily unimaginative as that, deserved no better. Why go to the bother of creating a character - albeit in the case of Johanna, one flat as an uncooked gingerbread-man - and not come up with an imaginative and interest-snagging name for them? I went to the Mervyn Peake show at the BL recently (of which more anon) - now, if you want a master-class in the creation of fabulous names, read him. 3) So on two counts now, the author of this book has insulted me, as a reader, setting before me a bit of dead shorthand as oppposed to a bit of lively action, and misnaming a character so badly (and names you can't pronounce are another hatred of mine - how am I supposed to get carried along by the fact that you've fallen over a cliff/discovered a lost tribe of headhunters/are about to save the life of an infant during a fire at sea/ if every time my eye hits your name on the page, my reading mind is tripped up by it?).

Yet I keep reading. I race that folded tissue to the bottom of the page, maddened that it obscures the paragraph to come, despite the fact that with every line the writing seems to be getting worse in more and more predictable ways. So what is it? What is this thing about stolen words, other people's reading, that makes what they have in front of them so irresistible?

Is it simply because the words belong to someone else? (As children, my brother and I used to fight for the cereal packet with the best copy on it to read at the breakfast table - much to my mother's ire.) Is it curiosity as to what another is reading? In which case, once I've seen what it is, and judged it truly awful, why isn't my curiosity satisfied? Or is it that awakened hunger for words - any words, for an escape - on a dull commuter train? Sometimes I find myself reading some other poor soul's book, and trying to work out what the book might be - is it a Stephen King? John Grisham? Maeve Binchy? I've never to my knowledge read a word of Grisham or Binchy except for over other peoples' shoulders, yet I can spot their style at once. So is this just a spot of mental gum-chewing? What?

My own relationship to over-the shoulder reading baffles me. How about this - if  the shoulder and the words should ever be yours, close up your book and ask me what I'm doing. Maybe we can both get an answer.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011


Many a writer takes the plunge and tries to bring music into their writing - to re-create in words the experience of listening to, or playing, or otherwise being transported by a melody; to bridge the gap between notes and words. I think this gap has already been bridged, but the other way about - writing into music - and it's been done by the Blues.

Forgive me, this is the zeal of the newly converted, I know it. But one thing music and writing do have in common is the fact that they find you, rather than you finding them, and just as some wonderful new book (for me, most recently, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), beating you about the head with its covers, will have you extolling it to all your friends, so breathtaking music will have you doing the same. Welcome to the Chicago Blues Fest 2011. Yup, you've all known about the Blues for years, like you all read Jacob de Zoet already. I'm playing catch-up here.

I never knew I had been listening to the Blues before, but of course I have, all my life. Listen to it for 3 days solid (mouth open in wonderment the while) and you realise you have been hearing, and do still hear it, in everything. Frank Sinatra (duh, of course), Ry Cooder's Trouble, hiding behind his tree. Culture Club - 'Black Money'. My nephew, who can get a tune out of a bagpipe - out of a bag, in all probability - says that if two musicians who have never met before want to play together, they play the Blues. It's a universal language, he says.

You're telling me. The lyrics of the Blues, the story of the song, is in the music - a hoochy-coochy stripper, chickens scratching in a yard, a train going off into the night. The wail of the abandonned, the sobs of the lost, the contempt of the heartless, the creepy conviction of the utterly mad - they're all there in the guitar, the piano, the mouth-organ (or Mississipi saxaphone, as I learned with joy it is called). The thump to the beat of the Blues is like the prose in the King James' bible, insistent. Corpuscular, teeming, organic. There's something inescapable about it, and relentless too, it's big music. Sit on the grass before the stage and you feel it bumping up through your tailbone, not weaving its strands round your head. It's merciless too, big enough to be threatening - people get killed in the Blues (and even then, sometimes they come back); nothing is ever forgotten. A proud boast from the stage - 'my daddy played this, my graddaddy too'. Shemekia Copeland was crowned the new 'Queen of the Blues' on stage on Sunday, now there's inheritance for you; when Eddie Clearwater played it was as if one shimmer of the air, one little zone-out, and back you would be kicking along a dirt-road, 80 years ago.

The words, by contrast - the lyrics - are so compressed, so multi-layered, they're what you have to tease apart into different lines and staves of meaning. Here's an idea; take a line of a Blues lyric 'I still love you baby, 'cos you don't know what it's all about', and write the story that led up to it. How much sad knowledge is in those 13 words? You have conversations with everything in the Blues - trouble and misfortune, rapture and joy, death, despair, love, infatuation, madness, the black snake in your room, the Blues themselves, as they walk up to your front door It's a mostly one-sided conversation, it's true - even with your darling, we have to take your word for it about that real good feeling you get talking on the phone, but by the time you're growling 'TALK to me baby,' at the end of the song, and doing that kick Blues players do, like they have to stamp on the song to keep it under any control at all, we all know what you're really talking about. Oh, I get the Blues. I SO get them!