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A Writer's Diary

19/7/24

How do you publicise a book? I’ve decided that the question should really be: why do you? This isn’t a phrase that I would have formulated even a couple of months ago but it’s fascinated me more and more in the month following the publication of my novel, The Sparkler

To explain this, I think I do have to dig a little into the “how”. In September last year I wrote:

“I've always loved the line about George Meredith by Thomas Hardy: ‘His words wing on – as live words will.’ That's what I want; it's what we all want, surely. But how do you go about achieving it? Goodreads? Reviews? How do you go about getting those? It all feels beyond me, slightly. Or else there's that other feeling, the one just before you bash a hole in the wall, where you look at a shelf and think: ‘How hard can it be?’ I really don't want to get this wrong.”

I honestly don’t think I have. In fact I’d go so far as to say that I think that I’ve been diligent. I’ve written to pretty much every newspaper and magazine that you can name. I’ve sent copies (my own copies) out for review, along with what my publisher, the excellent Vine Leaves Press, refers to as a “sell sheet”, i.e. an A4 sheet that includes the most salient details about your book: the title, obviously, but also the plot; reviews; the ISBN number, etc. (I should say that there are few things more satisfying than getting your own ISBN number for the first time.) I’ve contacted reading groups – I’ve contacted many many reading groups – and every book festival that I could find. (There are an awful lot of those.) I’ve also written to quite a lot of local libraries.

The response? Apart from those very helpful people who have interviewed me for their blogs and reviewed me on Amazon, I have to say that it’s been mixed. No reviews from the major papers. (Although I did get an apologetic note from The Spectator saying that they didn’t have room.) Perhaps a handful of reading groups – all but one have said that they might confirm – and, at the last count, two festivals. Oprah? Forget it. Richard and Judy? Not a hope. Goodreads? Yes, but I’m still not entirely convinced by Goodreads. I could go on, but here are some of the wins:

I’ve read in two local libraries. This was lovely, actually. You get a handful of people (at least, I did) and then you talk and read and answer questions. I’ve discovered that that last bit is my favourite bit. I think it’s true to say that I hardly ever know what I’m going to say before I say it and part of the pleasure, for me, has been watching myself formulate what I hope is an effective answer. A friend of mine – the travel writer Peter Moore – said that you can tell that I’m a teacher. He meant that what comes across is confidence, I suppose, but there’s also an element of crowd control. Not obviously: they’re not shouting and throwing things. (Yet.) But I’m aware (again, I watch myself almost as if I’m somebody else) that I do what I do with a class. I try to win them over. There are jokes, true, and I enunciate as well as I’m able (I do sometimes find that my London accent acts a little like leaden weights) but there’s something, also, about the way I stand. It isn’t deliberate. I’m aware of myself leaning a little towards them all. I can feel the way that, when I stretch out my arms, I’m trying to encompass them somehow. To gather them in.

So. It was fun. As was BBC Radio London. I’d never been to Broadcasting House before and just walking in was more than a little surreal. I even loved the paved area outside, which has a more-than-life-size statue of George Orwell standing guard. Next to it, inscribed in the wall beside it, is the phrase: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Too right, brother, but there wasn’t a lot of that going on in the BBC studio. The opposite in fact: I was trying furiously to get in as many of the book’s attractive qualities as I could. The interviewer – sadly not Robert Elms – was, shall we say, not entirely on top of her brief but I liked her anyway: she was flying by the seat of her pants, which is an experience that I’m not entirely unfamiliar with. It gave me space too. I was able to say, pretty much, what I wanted to. Nerves? God, yes, of course. There’s a carpeted lobby and they bring you drinks. You can hear the show coming over a radio in the room beside you. (What feels like a faint rumour of the show. You still can’t quite believe that it exists.) There is, just down the corridor, the Peel wing. All very unfamiliar and yet weirdly familiar at the same time. It’s something like a dream experience and, yes, despite the comfort, it’s frankly terrifying. Partly, it’s the comfort that’s so scary. It’s so very much itself, so organised around itself, that it alienates you even more; you’re no more a part of it than you are of the Masons, say, or the rings of Jupiter. But I said to myself: “You wanted this. You’d better bloody enjoy it.” And I did.

Which brings me to my favourite experience so far. I was recently interviewed by Professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, the author of Becoming Dickens. This was online, but it had been set up by the Dickens Museum in Doughty Street and, afterwards, I spoke in front of what felt like a crowd of proper Dickens aficionados. It was a thoroughly delightful thing to do. I’d spent a long time with Dickens, and wandering around his house was a little like reacquainting myself with someone I used to know. His desk; his sideboard; the tiny bed that was provided for his sister-in-law. It all added to my perspective, but I found – or perhaps I just wanted to find – that it was very much my perspective: that I was making all of these details support what has changed, I’ve noticed, from a fictional portrait to something like a fixed view of who he was. Then there was the feeling of flying engendered by being questioned by an expert and having, to some degree, to meet those questions; to do them justice. Afterwards, the live audience eagerly asked me to explain exactly what I thought I’d done. I felt what I like to feel: on top of things, and on top of things, moreover, in an environment that was exemplary in its… highendedness? Is that even a word? Well, it is now.

In other words, I’ve put myself out there. I’ve had some great experiences. And I’ve spread the word. There will be more; I’ll make sure there is. (For one thing, I’ll be giving a talk to the Dickens Fellowship in September of next year.) But this is where it starts to get complicated. Firstly, how much have I sold? I don’t know yet. (VLP will tell me quarterly.) Do I think it will be a lot? No, not particularly. More, I think, than is suggested by the statistic I read about a month ago: i.e. that over half of books published in the United Kingdom sell only about twelve copies. How many then? I wouldn’t like to say, but not a huge amount. Not enough to lift me up into what, now that I’m allowing myself to use neologisms, I’m going to call the bookosphere.

Does that bother me? Yes. It bothers me a lot. Or, at least, it did but I’ve given myself a thorough talking to. I went through a phase, for about two weeks, of obsessively checking my sales on Amazon. This, for a lot of reasons, is about as meaningful as trying to find a medical diagnosis via Google Chrome. If I had remained in that mindset then I don’t think that anything would have felt as though it was enough. Because it’s endless, isn’t it? There’s potentially no ceiling, which not only encourages you to do more and more and more but, at the same time, gives you no way of ever reaching what you think your goal might be. Because: what is my goal? This returns me (finally) to my initial question. Why do I – why did I – publicise my book? If it’s to sell copies then it’s difficult to imagine ever being satisfied. How much is enough? God knows. Nobody is ever going to tell me. And, then, why is it enough? What am I looking for? Money? Highly unlikely. Critical success? Extremely difficult when no bastard will review me and, anyway, that isn’t the same as sales. What then? You end up, I think, with a tautology: I need to sell more books because I feel as though I need to sell more books. It’s insufficient, no? And it takes away from all the rest of it: the people who you meet and the interesting and enjoyable things that you do, like the lovely symbolic activity of reading from a book about Dickens in Dickens’ own house.

I was going to use the phrase “small wins” but I think that that’s insufficient too. The Dickens Museum a small win? In the words of my grandmother, I should bleeding coco. I make a regular joke – or a half-joke – in which I tell my partner Naomi that I’d give it all up for one shot at a headline gig at the old Hammersmith Odeon. At the Dickens Museum, though, when she asked me if I’d swap, I said no. Not this time. It was a gorgeous thing to do. Why do I publicise my books? To spread the word. To get them read. To sell whatever I can. To be happy with selling whatever I can. To meet like-minded people. And, if I’m completely honest, to be treated like the writer who I’ve always wanted to be. Three years ago, I was thinking about publishing myself. Now I have two publishers, with two books out in the world and two more that I’ve been promised will see the light of day. There were long periods in my life when I never thought I’d be published at all. I feel lucky. I really do. And, in the words of Raymond Carver, the rest is gravy.

​​

*****

19/6/24

This week's diary entry takes the form of an edited transcript of the conversation that I had with Claira Hermet on BBC Radio London last Saturday.

Claira: Alan joins me now in the studio. Alan, how are you?

Alan: I’m good thank you.

C: Now this book is fictional but it’s based on the life of Charles Dickens. Some of the things that happen in the story are factual. Can you tell us a little bit about the story without giving too much away?

A: Yes, well I need to go back a step, I think, and say why I wrote the story. I wrote the book because, if you read biographies of Dickens, there’s a gap. At least, I think there is. The gap in Dickens’ life, despite the fact that so many words have been written about him, is in his intimate relationships; his relationship with women. We know that his marriage broke down, we know that he had an affair with an actress in later life, but we don’t really know about his relationship with either, to the extent that we don’t even know whether he had a child with the actress or not. I was reading a book by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst called Becoming Dickens and it made me think that there was something to be written about the young Dickens who was still trying to make his mark. We think of Dickens as somebody who was already…

C: Established.

A: …an icon. But, actually, as a young man he was trying to make it. He had a lot of debts, he was trying to write his father out of debt… And so what I’ve done is take the life and then create moments in the gaps that exist so that everything that happens in the novel could have happened and essentially what happens – it’s not really a spoiler -  is that he goes on one of his regular all-night walks, he ends up in Islington, he goes into a pub and not only does he meet Joseph Grimaldi (who he never met in real life but whose biography he wrote) but he also meets a barmaid and… chaos ensues.

C: Chaos ensues.

A: Yes it does.

C: And that’s the bit that’s got everyone on the edge of their seats. Now I’m going to want to read the book and find out exactly what happens. When you’re doing something like this, where do you start with creating a story that feels true to him but that’s interesting and that gets the readers interested? How do you get into the mind of Charles Dickens?

A: That’s a really good question. I was at the Hay Festival years ago and someone asked Sarah Walters, the novelist, how she was able to write dialogue from the 1940s and she said that you need to research enough that you can think in the language of the time. That’s kind of what I did with Dickens. I read a lot of biographies, I read a lot of books about pre-Victorian London, and when I found myself thinking in pre-Victorian speech and syntax then I thought I could probably start. And you’ve got two things going on at once: you want to write something that’s true to Dickens but you also want to write something that’s a narrative. Every step of the way you’re thinking: “Does this feel true?” and “Does it still feel like a story?” As long as you can tick those two boxes then you know that you’re heading in the right direction. But, like writing any book (this is my third novel, although it’s the first to be published), you don’t know entirely where it’s going to go until you’re in the middle of it. E.L. Doctorow said that writing novels is a bit like following the headlights in the car. You know you’re heading to a destination but you don’t know how exactly you’re going to get there.

  

C: I find that totally fascinating. Here on Radio London I’ve been talking to different authors and I thought that the way that it worked would be that you had a whole plot up on the wall and you knew the characters and you knew where the story was going to go and then the more authors that I started to speak to the more I realised that you’re taken on a journey too.

A: If a character in a novel doesn’t surprise me then that means two things. One, that that character isn’t alive in the world of the book and, two, if it doesn’t surprise me it’s not going to surprise the reader. And it’s not just about big surprises like being on a roller coaster, it’s about following somebody’s life and only knowing so much and then that knowledge growing as you go so that the reader feels as though they’re learning something new as they go along. I think that Dickens is particularly fascinating in that regard. He burnt a lot of letters in later life, which causes a lot of gaps. But we don’t tend to think there are. We all think we know about Dickens but, actually, we don’t. We really don’t.

C: You know the bit that he wanted you to know.

A: Yes. Exactly.

C: But then, when it comes to his private life, he got rid of a lot of the information that would have given us an accurate truth. It’s fascinating. We live in a world now where everything is so out there. There’s a digital footprint that’s inescapable. Whereas he lived in a time when I suppose he could do that.

A: But, you know, the process is quite similar, I think. We all have a digital footprint. But I know people whose digital footprint is very different to their actual lives. We’re all putting our best foot forward, digitally, aren’t we? But the great thing about a novel is that you can explore all of those little feelings that you don’t even necessarily know you’re feeling at the time; all of the things that go to make up somebody’s psyche. You wouldn’t want to because you’d get sued, but I think you could do that to almost any celebrity and you could come up with something that’s much more interesting than what they want us to see and what they want us to hear.

C: I’m sure you’re right. Did you do any of the late night walks yourself? I was talking to the producer, Amy, earlier and she said that he was known for walking from his home in Clerkenwell all the way to Kent and back again. So did you…?

A: No. I didn’t. I don’t have Dickens’ energy in that regard. He knew London incredibly well. He’d been dropped into London as a young boy and he was forced to fend for himself so he knew London like the back of his hand. I’m very fond of London but I don’t know it anywhere near as well as Dickens did. Actually, though, of course, the London that we know is not the London that Dickens knew. One of the most fascinating things about writing the book was learning what that London looked and felt like. So, for example, Trafalgar Square hadn’t been built. Instead there was this network of billboards around where they were putting up the statue. London was a very different place.

C: Yes, and there’s the atmosphere, isn’t there? What it was like for normal people. And, when you read a good book, you can envision it yourself.

A: Well, yes, there are the fogs, for example. The pea soupers. Because of the amount of soot in the atmosphere, you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. You had to make your way almost by touch.

C: I’ve just started reading the book. I love stuff where I feel as though I can see…

A: Do you think you can? Can you visualise it?

C: Yes. Definitely. And what’s fascinating, too, is this notion of you being the person who’s writing this book but who doesn’t yet know how it’s going to end. I suppose you have to trust the process.

A: Yes, and you have to trust your knowledge of the characters. I also relied on it being factual. As I said, my Dickens meets a barmaid, he falls for her and they have a relationship and I suppose, if I was a different kind of writer, what I could have done was create an alternative reality where he leaves his wife; lives with the barmaid; has fifteen children… But that wasn’t what I was interested in. What I wanted to do was to keep his life as factual as possible and to work from there. One of the things we haven’t talked about is his relationship with his sister-in-law. This has always fascinated me and it’s partly what this book is about. His sister-in-law was very young when she died and, when she did, he went completely off the deep end. He wore her ring; he was caught in her wardrobe studying her clothes; he couldn’t write; he mourned her far more than his wife was allowed to do and I’ve always thought: “What is that about?” I’ve tried to explore that. Peter Carey, in Jack Maggs, created a fictional Dickens in an alternative world and, in that world, he gets his sister-in-law pregnant. I didn’t feel as though I could do that. I had to investigate it in a different way.

C: I’m really looking forward to reading it. If someone wants to get their hands on it where can they go?

A: They can order it from Amazon. They can also order it from Waterstones, Foyles and Blackwells and from the Vine Leaves Press online book shop. What I would really like is for people to let me know what they think of my version of Dickens’ life. Put a review on Amazon; put a review on the Waterstones website; email me on my writer’s site. I’d really like to know what people think so that we can start a conversation.

C: Alan, thank you.

A: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

 

*****

 

 

6/6/24

I’m an agnostic when it comes to book launches. Not that I always was. BTS (before The Sparkler) I seem to remember feeling that a book launch was a kind of Shangri-La: impossibly remote and, whether in a pub or a bookshop or a gallery, with an inherent glamour. A glow. I would (we all would) feel different there.  

 

Now, though, I have my doubts. I have a very supportive group of friends; friends who came to our One Hand Clapping evening (an extremely enjoyable mix of music and poetry); who will, I have no doubt, buy The Sparkler now that it’s out, and who nearly all dutifully dragged themselves to my “Not Yet Sixty” party six months before the actual date last year. I know that I keep mentioning Christopher Isherwood’s notion of “symbolic living” but it’s worth mentioning it again: a launch, I’m nearly convinced, would be almost entirely symbolic. Because: who does it serve? Not even me. Those people who want to buy the books will buy the books and it will almost certainly be the people who I already know will buy the book who will, once again, come out to support me visibly. No, what I really intend is to validate myself. It will be, in my head at least, a rite of passage, like a Christening or one of those Levi Strauss-type ceremonies where you come out feeling, finally, as if you are a member of the tribe. In other words, it will make me feel like a writer. But you know what? I do finally feel like a writer anyway.

 

Dublin was different, though. It’s a funny thing: you can knock yourself out – you can plan and plan; you can send email after email (I will get to these next time) – but a lot of the best things seem to happen in a way that is entirely serendipitous.

 

You’ll remember, I hope, that we were in Dublin. The first time was just before Christmas. Not that Christmas seems to make all that much of a difference. Walk around central Dublin after eight o’clock at night and it’s like being in the middle of some urban festival. I liked it, especially the pubs, but I think that I liked it more in the day. In the day, if you’re a fan of Joyce, there are buildings that give off a kind of heat. One of the most obvious – one of the most redolent, shall we say – is Sweny’s Pharmacy.

 

Sweny’s looks like 1906. It has a bright white frontage, with what I believe are called pilasters. (Say that in a Dublin accent and it sounds just like a curse) Its name appears to have been written in gold leaf (I doubt very much that it has) and, once inside, one’s prevailing impression is of varnished wood, glass-fronted cabinets and books. And books. Joyce’s face is everywhere: there's all that old fashioned décor, and a collection of jars and philtres, and then another layer of memorabilia. I once read about a wasp that lays its eggs inside a spider and then, when they hatch, the larvae burrow their way out. This is what I always think of when I go to places that have been emptied out by their historical associations. Kafka’s house, for example, in Prague, turned out to be just a white room with a table covered in Kafka mugs and T-shirts. (All very Kafkaesque.) Sweny’s is not like that. What you feel around you, like limpid water, is the past. Perhaps you simply want to. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that what you experience is a sort of no-time. Book time, call it. Outside: Dublin. Inside, time seems to hover. It expands. Joyce was here and now he isn’t but he also is. To complicate it, so was Bloom, who “strolled out of the shop… the coolwrappered soap in his left hand.” That portmanteau word is appropriate: everything – history; décor; the thrum of the world outside; books; fridge magnets – is wonderfully cheek by jowl.

 

I was, as is my wont, not so much charmed as almost unbearably excited. Whenever this happens, I feel the need to speak. I was soon boasting that I had read Ulysses about fifteen times. PJ, the proprietor, looked me squarely in the eye and said “I’ve read it forty times.” It wasn’t even a boast. Joyce is too present in Sweny’s for him to feel like anything other, really, than part of the atmosphere. PJ offered us a glass of scotch. Rude, we thought, to refuse and then, of course, one thing led to another.

 

We came back in February, with two of our friends. (Emphatically not poetry people, I have to say, which made them all the more supportive.) This being Dublin, the pub across the road allowed us to ferry our Guinness over. Sweny’s is tiny, which meant that it felt crowded, and I found, after about half a pint of Guinness, that I was enjoying myself. I just had to ignore the fact that the poems I read were mine. Instead, I concentrated on the more important stuff like clarity and enunciation. When you read out loud, you find yourself searching for a rhythm that swings, yes, but that doesn’t swing too much. (My dad used to own an LP that had the wonderful title of Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently.) It feels, swaying there, slightly inebriated, trying to intone but trying to do it lightly (an oxymoron, surely), like you’re about to dance. Or sing. You mustn’t, though; you mustn’t croon. You mustn’t sound oracular. If poetry doesn’t keep pace with the rhythm of human conversation then I find that I distrust it. And if I do, then so will you.

 

When I was in a band, I could never hear the audience. Partly, this was because there were so few of them. But partly it’s the nature of the beast: the instruments drown out the noise, if there is any, that they’re all making. Of course, there’s applause – at least, there’s meant to be – but applause is applause is applause, I find. It’s rare that it exhibits any character. No, what was different in Sweny’s was that there was a feeling of reciprocity. Complicity, almost. I could hear people breathing in agreement. Even my friend quite liked the poems. Well, some of them. (He said: “What do you know about St Paul?”) That was my favourite thing, I think: that they had proved to be accessible.

 

In other words, it felt like a success. Although I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it did. The nearest I can get to it is that the audience made me feel like I had given them what they expected. That, in their eyes at least, it was poetry. That I might even be a poet. I resist that label, I must say. Imagine always thinking of yourself as being a poet. You’d be unbearable. No, here and there is great. I can’t be doing with the numinous, or the ineffable, more than once or twice a week. And, to prove it, next time I’ll tell you how frustrating the rest of it can sometimes be.

*****

30/5/24

Tuesday was Publication Day (those capitals again) and I want to crave your indulgence for one week. I'd already written a diary entry but, what with the current interest in the book, I'd like to publish something that's already in a post elsewhere. In other words:

Why have I written a novel about Charles Dickens?

It's something I've been asked, now, several times and I expect to be asked it again when it comes out in May. (It's available for pre-order soon.) Partly, the answer's very simple: it was inspired by two books, The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott and Becoming Dickens by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. The latter was particularly inspiring. Far more than the biographies by Peter Ackroyd, Una Pope-Hennessy, Claire Tomalin and Fred Kaplan, Douglas-Fairhurst gives you a sense of Dickens as an emerging figure: not the established man of letters but a man who is just coming into his own and who is finding, already, that success is not a straightforward thing. What you want in a novel is something, or someone, that isn't fixed in stone. You want struggle, and an aim that isn't a foregone conclusion; that can seem to recede further into the distance the more your character runs towards it. In short (to use a Dickensian formulation), Dickens was never at rest. The effects on his emotions of his early life – his job in a factory and his feckless family – meant that he was always trying to escape the thing that he'd outdistanced long ago. He was exorbitantly driven, and we know, don't we, how that invariably turns out.

At first, I thought that Grimaldi might be the protagonist. A famous clown! What could be better? But I found, as I was reading Stott's excellent book, that it was already something of a novel in its own right. Take this, for example. It's the story of his grandfather, who was a sauteur: "a kind of gymnast specialising in high leaps that were achieved by bending one leg at an oblique angle and coiling it low to the ground before jumping explosively into the air". Stott writes:

"It was ...during the performance of Le Prix de Cythere that the Grimaldi family first leapt to national prominence. According to legend, the show was visited by the grand figure of Mehemet Effendi, the ambassador of the Ottoman Sublime Porte. The ambassador, a vain and preening man, announced his presence by taking the box nearest the stage and, excited at the prospect of performing before such an eminence, Giovanni bet his colleagues that he could jump as high as the chandelier that flanked the box. He won his bet with his first leap but, in doing so, kicked the chandelier with enough force to smash it. One shard found its way down the throat of the laughing Mehemet, while a second hit him in the eye. Blind, choking and humiliated, he was quick to complain of the indignity he had suffered at the feet of a mere jester, and demanded that Grimaldi be punished before the full Court. A public act of contrition was accordingly arranged, only for Giovanni to seize it as a further opportunity for self-promotion by lacing his apology with such a dash of fairground double-talk that he reduced the courtiers to hysterics, heaping further dishonour upon the injured man."

Surely this is unimproveable. All you can possibly do is fill it in a little; add a few colours and grace notes. But you can't make anything out of it. It's static. It's a set-piece. And that was Grimaldi's life: one set-piece after another. No, Dickens it was and Dickens it had to be. His life was complex; it was fluid in a way that Grimaldi's wasn't. Which isn't to say that Grimaldi wasn't a nuanced human being, just that he seemed to spend his whole life hammering at the one note: comedy. He exhausted himself; he wrecked his body. But it was all in the service of pantomime. As a foil to Dickens, he was perfect. (And entirely fictional. There's no evidence that the two of them ever met, despite the fact that Dickens wrote his biography.) I could see how he might be made to tempt Dickens into a whole other mode of being; how he might be irresistible to the young man who had once applauded him. But Dickens had to be the main event. There is so much to write about. And (thank God) there are huge gaps.

To explain. Dickens has always fascinated me. When I was about ten – and when I was, let's be honest, an enormous swot – I used to type out whole passages from his books. I know now (and I think that I knew then) that this was a five-finger exercise, but it was more than that. I thought his descriptions were delightful. He had a way with exaggerated metaphor and these seemed, to me, to function as a sort of fairy dust that he sprinkled over a world that was, once he'd finished with it, both strange and recognisable. Somewhere, for example, is the image of a man giving birth to his own foot. And, of course, there's the fog in Bleak House; the many ways it seems simultaneously to magnify and comment on the city that surrounds it. To read and then assimilate images like this was to see the world anew, and, moreover, to be encouraged to try to do the same: to employ what Michael Longley calls "redemptive eloquence". In other words, to try to remake the world; to fix it in an image, yes, but also to make it make sense. To give it shape. Dickens was, I used to think, the acme of grown-up literature.

Only he isn't. Because gaps there are and those gaps insist on being explained, at least to me. In his essay on Dickens, Orwell quotes D.H. Lawrence on Balzac. Lawrence called him "a gigantic dwarf" and that, Orwell is implying, is the perfect description of Dickens too. Why? Because, for all his vividness and seeming comprehensiveness, he largely leaves adult relationships alone. Sex, obviously (apart from the wonderful line about chimneys "spitting fire" in Hard Times), but also anything that could possibly lead to sex. It isn't enough to say that Dickens was a nineteenth century novelist. Read George Eliot or Thackeray and you can feel the way that sex is thrumming in the background. Dickens, though? It's all-but-inaudible. At least, it is in his early books. After the beginning of his affair with Ellen Ternan, it's true that his female characters become much more recognisably human. It's also true that there are characters in all of his later books whose passionate natures, and indeed whose pasts and ruined lives, make certain inferences inevitable. But, still, when it comes to the relations between men and women, he is so circumspect that it's as though he's afraid to bring certain things into the light.

It's this, most of all, that made me want to write about him. This, and his relationship with his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth. He fell to pieces when she died; way more than his wife was allowed to do. She found him struggling in the wardrobe with Mary's clothes. He wore Mary's ring. For a while, he couldn't write. And then there's his language: his insistence that she was "an angel"; that her and her sister had never, not ever, had a cross word. I mean, seriously, what is going on here? What is he hiding, especially from himself? I'm not alone in thinking that I know. Peter Carey, for example, wrote about a fictional Dickens in Jack Maggs. His Dickens gets Mary (a fictional Mary) pregnant. I didn't go that far, but I did try to examine what I'm sure were his less-than-familial feelings. How did he keep them out of his conscious mind? Did he? Barely, I think. This was the question that exercised me the most: what was his intimate life like? Nobody really knows. Some biographers have suggested that he visited prostitutes as a young man (a not uncommon form of "education" for men of his age and class), but that didn't particularly interest me. No, instead, I made things up. This is one of the things, I think, that fiction's best at: using imaginary stories to address questions that you can't find the answers to. My Dickens has an affair. His attitude to his wife is explored by means of a scenario that has no basis whatsoever in the facts we know. But all the rest of the facts are true. I did an awful lot of research and, in the end, I almost managed to convince myself that it happened just as I say it did.

Once, at the Hay Festival, I upset Claire Tomalin. I asked her if she thought her biography of Dickens was just another version. After all, Peter Ackroyd had maintained... I didn't get much further than that. "I have no idea," she said, "why Peter would say that!" But it's true: nobody can possibly know everything. Why did I write a book about Dickens? Because it seems impossible, considering what we don't know, to answer the questions that I wanted answers to. In the end, I had to make those answers up myself. It was an extremely enjoyable thing to do. Now, though, I have to wave my effort off as it tries to make its way out in the world. In essence, I have to point at it and say: "Look what I've done." It is, it's true, a little nerve-wracking. I hope that, rather than put people off, it will inspire the kind of discussion that, in his own time and place, Dickens could never hope to have.

(You can order The Sparkler here.)

*****

23/5/24

It’s been a while. In my first diary piece I wrote that:

 

“I have a lot of new experiences coming up: edits; launches; an actual, physical, honest-to-goodness book of my own to hold; learning the ins and outs of sales and of effective publicity. It's all going to take a certain amount of thinking about and I hope that, by tracking my own progress, it may strike a chord with some of you, at least.”

I could claim, I suppose, that all of the above got in the way of writing this, my virtual diary, but it wouldn’t be true. The truest explanation is that there are an awful lot of lulls, or gaps, in publishing: between acceptance and your first edit; between that edit and the final one; between that and the final proof (and the cover, too, which is very exciting); between the final proof and the pre-order, and finally (it’s a long one this) between the pre-order and publication day. One way of putting it is that I’ve found myself falling (or failing) between events, which means, in essence, that it’s difficult to keep writing – to keep wanting to write – when there isn’t that much going on. And then… Well then it drops out of your consciousness and even the things that happen just feel like things that happen. Your commenting muscle atrophies. It doesn’t seem like there’s any need to editorialise.

But Publication Day (note my own capitals) is almost here. The Sparkler, my novel about Charles Dickens, is coming out on the 28th (next Tuesday, in other words) and my poetry collection, A Brief and Biased History of Love, has just been entered for the PEN Heaney Prize. What’s more, I’ve spent three days redesigning this whole site. We’re in the honeymoon period, the site and me. I can’t seem to keep my hands off it.

In other words, I’ve got a lot to tell you, and I’d like to start with my Dublin poetry launch. It'll be a two parter, this. I want to set the scene a little bit. Here, in a slightly altered form, is something that I published a while ago:

Sarah Bakewell, putting Heidegger into language we can understand, writes that:

"Enabling things to unhide themselves is what humans do: it is our distinctive contribution. We are a ‘clearing’, a Lichtung, a sort of open, bright forest glade into which beings can shyly step forward like a deer from the trees. ...It would be simplistic to identify the clearing with human consciousness, but this is more or less the idea. We help things to emerge into the light by being conscious of them."

Um. Yes and no. You have to be careful with Heidegger, and I do think, to be honest, that, lovely though this concept is, it has its weaknesses. 

To take the long way round, let's start with existentialism. Existentialism, of which I'm reasonably fond, is partly an adaptation of Heidegger and one of its most famous tenets is that "existence precedes essence". In other words, you are not just the product of your own environment, nor are you the result of genetics. You, in the sense that you have a private "essence", barely exist at all. You are how you act. It's that simple. Whatever you do is who you are.

Which makes me think of Joyce. To be fair, I often think of Joyce. He was a strange man: a man who seemed so remote as to be barely there but who would, after many glasses of white wine, perform what his friends would call his spider dance, his arms and legs flailing in all directions. But this was the same man who had written Dubliners, which was a complete departure: a set of stories with the appearance of authorial intention carefully siphoned out. (In other words, 20th century literature starts with Joyce.) Ulysses (God bless it) is often all-but-incomprehensible, and as for the Wake... (You have to imagine me, here, with my head in my hands and a book on the floor where I've thrown it across the room.) Joyce, more than anyone else I can think of, was who he chose to be. He was the artist as envisioned by Harold Rosenberg. That is: "a person who has invented an artist."

And, to an extent, a place. One of Joyce's stated aims was that it should be possible to treat Ulysses as a kind of encyclopaedia. “If Dublin were to be destroyed", he wrote, "Ulysses could be used to rebuild it brick by brick.” He had a point. You can walk the streets of Dublin, as I did in 2022, and use the book as a kind of A to Z. Bloom's house no longer stands, but you can walk past the O'Connell statue, past "Tommy Moore's roguish finger" and even do what I did: lift your finger to blot out the sun, just as Bloom does halfway through the book. It was like being in an enormous pop-up book. Later, in the pubs, you could feel the atmosphere Joyce writes about. No music; no TV – just a whole crowd of people engaging with one another. It's easy to get into a conversation with a stranger in a Dublin pub and it's easy, moreover, to become a part of things; to find yourself not minding when people press against you on their way up to the bar and to find, what's more, that you've discovered in yourself the desire – more: the ability – to talk. 

And, see, this is where Heidegger and I part company. Was I paying enough attention? Yes indeed. But was I allowing the place to show itself entirely as it was? Nope. Not at all. In one sense, this is obvious. I mean, God, of course I wasn't. In the middle of O'Connell Street there's now a spire: an enormous thing that dominates the middle of the thoroughfare. But what used to be there was Nelson's pillar; Joyce's "one-handled adulterer", who was blown up in the 1960s. I stood near the bottom of O'Connell Street and triangulated what used to be the pillar and the old newspaper offices (now closed) and Mooney's, which may or may not be the same as the current one. It was delightful, this, but it had almost nothing to do with what was happening around me: with the cold and the crowd of Christmas shoppers and the GPO, covered in a video representation of what I can only describe as Disney snow. I was off in my own little world, it's true, but the point is that I was trying to drag Dublin in there with me.

Do I regret this? No! It was fantastic. I wanted to come back home and start the book all over again. What strikes me now is that we all do this, and we do it all the time. Not, perhaps, with the same wild-eyed enthusiasm that I was doing it. Still, Joyce did it in Ulysses. He didn't bring it back; he recreated it. It's like Borges' Pierre Menard, who rewrites Don Quixote word for word but who changes it out of all recognition simply because of the different context in which he writes it. What Joyce created was an emotional geography: places which will be associated for ever with the people with whom Joyce had, shall we say, a troubled relationship. But he changed the places too. He got them wrong: he misremembered, and he added shops where none had previously existed. My point is that we all do this. Not just with places but with animals, say, or types of weather or our friends. They enter our consciousness and we recreate them. We buff them up or we retard them and, often, we don't even know that we’re doing it. For me, Joyce's Dublin will always be just that; it belongs to him to such an extent that many of the buildings seem to be so much more than just themselves. I carry around my own Dublin too, though. It's partly Dublin and partly Joyce and partly me. And yours, when you go (and you really should), will be another city again. 

*****

8/12/23

I was twenty-nine before I went to university. In my late teens and early twenties, I was in a band – I was fiercely in a band, the way that some people are helplessly tangled up in a relationship – and then, afterwards, I drifted into pub work. It was only when I found myself becalmed in a proof-reading office that I decided that it was time to go back and do what I should have done when I was younger.

I don't regret any of it – not the years when we were so very much under the radar that it would be a compliment to say that we were "in obscurity", not the heroic drinking (it was, I like to think, my five-year lost weekend) nor any of the jobs, pretty much all of them behind a counter, which did at least provide a frisson of excitement (I was robbed four times) – but I was aware, for all those years, of what was less an itch than a kind of unvoiced keening. My long-suffering partner, Naomi, has told me that I have to stop saying that I could have gone to Oxford, mostly because my daughter is at Oxford. It's hers, she says, which it is, and she's making a decent fist of it. It's true, too, that when I'm there, among all of those slightly unreal-looking streets, I think: Nah. I could never have done it. I wrote a poem, once, which describes my younger self as being "ravenous as a rat" and it's him that I visualise. Perhaps I don't mean "visualise"; perhaps I mean that I still feel him, somewhere in my gut – that person who, in the words of Les Murray, was "small" and "wild" "with no idea of peace". Whoever he thinks he is, he's still in there somewhere, resentful, chippy and spoiling for a fight, albeit a verbal one. He would never have fitted in. Or, to put it more accurately, he would have made sure that he didn't. So, no, I couldn't have gone. (Naomi puts it more simply. "You didn't," she says.) But it was mooted by my teachers, and it always rankled. When I used to clean the pipes behind the bar, I read Anna Karenina. When I visited Oxford, I allowed myself to visualise a life in a pub there. I saw myself as a preternaturally literate barman, throwing quotes over my shoulder at smiling undergraduates.

Sad, no? And I'm pleased to say that my degree purged me of all this nonsense. Is a Jude the Obscure Complex an actual thing? If so, I definitely had it. Now, though, I haven't. I'm at peace. I don't yearn for the ineffable or the invisible any more.

I'm reminded of all of this because, last week, I received the proof copy of my first book of poems. It's called A Brief and Biased History of Love, it's published by Culture Matters and it is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. There's a great photo on the front, courtesy of my friend Richard Helyar, and Mike at Culture Matters has done a lovely job of designing it. But, of course, that isn't what I mean. There they are, my poems, between the covers of a book. Between the covers of a book, moreover, that includes an introduction by Fran Lock. A few weeks ago, I wrote that:

 

"My poetry book is due out very soon, and I know that, on the day that I receive my personal copies, I will feel as though this ought to be a moment of great significance. I phrase it in this way because I suspect that I'm in danger of telling myself this so often that the moment itself will pass almost without me knowing it. Or feeling it, at least. It will feel significant in the way that Christopher Isherwood wrote that most of life can feel symbolic: you're so busy giving it meaning that you forget to grasp what it really is."

 

But it didn't, and I didn't. There it was, a physical fact, and again what I felt was this: at peace. I need to unpack this, I think. First, it's important to understand that I'm now sixty years of age and that I've wanted to publish a book for as long as I can remember. It was, the moment when I held it, both everything I wanted it to be and nothing like what I expected. I was expecting, I don't know, a lot of excitement – febrile excitement, sure, but excitement nonetheless – or else its opposite: a slight feeling of: "So what?" Or maybe something that wasn't that definite. Something like: "What do I do now?" I'd yearned for it for so long that I thought that all that yearning would, somehow, short-circuit my immediate response; that it would clot it or colour it or spoil it. Because what could possibly measure up? Well, the book did. The thing is so very undeniable; so very present in your hands. It's the real thing, not something hanging there, elusive and, yes, ineffable, in my imagination. All I could really think, for about a day, was: "Hello."

 

And you know what? It's enough. A couple of weeks ago, Naomi took me to Hazlitts, a hotel on Frith Street that will accept your first edition and then place it in a bookcase for you. It was one of the things I have always wanted to do. It was always supposed to be a moment of validation and, yes, to be honest, it was. For one thing, the hotel itself is gorgeous. The room sloped upwards from the four poster bed towards a bathroom that included one of those baths you see in a Heath Robinson drawing. The thing was huge. Definitively huge: a visible signifier. Outside you could hear the sound of Soho, which, as I'm sure you're all aware, is London but in italics. (And I do love italics, me.)

 

So, yes, it was a great experience. Just as, I expect, selling my first copies will be; just as reading them out will be, when I can find places that are willing to let me read. But you know what? What the book made me realise is that the book itself is the thing. All of those questions: Who will read me? Who will want to buy me? Who can I get to review me? Can I enter it for prizes? Will people laugh at me if I do? Will the sales be on a list somewhere, like a record on the charts? What will they be like? Exemplary? Derisory? None of this feels as important as it used to do. I have a book. A real book; my book. And please don't get me wrong. I will very much want to be (I can't help being) "active", as my other publisher, the lovely and very efficient Vine Leaves Press, described it to me. I will do everything I can to get it out there. I will post like mad. I will seek reviews. I will proclaim it from the equivalent of the rooftops, just as I will The Sparkler, the novel about Charles Dickens that comes out next year, and my second poetry collection, which comes out in 2025. (Thank you, Vine Leaves Press, for both.) But if nothing happens? If I get resoundingly ignored? I will feel put out. But it won't, in the words of Seamus Heaney, be a "killing wound". Because I have a book. And the thing you know, properly, for the first time is that nothing, not even a ravening rat, can take that away from you.

 

*****

16/11/23

Who have I seen at Hay? Salman Rushdie. Ian McEwan. Martin Amis. Margaret Atwood. Zadie Smith. Naomi Klein. Paul Theroux. V.S. Naipaul. Toni Morrison. Richard Dawkins, who claimed that, yes, the Archbishop of Canterbury was just as bad as Osama Bin Laden. (I can't, quite, remember how he got there.) Christopher Hitchens, who all but asked someone outside. Updike, who was a thrill; a proper star. He was charming but guarded, too; brahminical. DeLillo was genuinely professorial whereas I wasn’t sure if we were getting Alan Bennett or “Alan Bennett”. It didn’t seem to matter in the end.

 

The first question I ever asked was to Don Delillo and I was so nervous that my voice swooped suddenly downwards; I sounded like I wanted an assignation. One woman said to Sarah Walters that "I’ve never read your books but can you give me some advice on how to write?" Another told Graham Swift that she didn't think that his main female character was believable "but well done you for trying!" Still, if you get it right the whole discussion seems to open outwards. I asked Tony Benn about the government of 1945 and he told us about their decision to ration bread. It was because the Germans were starving, he said, and we wanted to send them aid; could you, he asked, imagine a government doing that today? No, he said, he was proud to have served on the back benches, and I suddenly thought: God, he was there. It was a thrilling moment.

 

I think my favourite comments were by Don Paterson. He called the sonnet sequence "the hula hoop of the 1590s". He said that the iambic pentameter was like a hi-hat over which Shakespeare riffed; he had perfected the form to the point that "it didn't exist". I had already read his very entertaining book about the sonnets, and this reminds me that, before we went, I would always try to read every book that was going to be discussed. It was quite a challenge, considering how many events we used to buy tickets for, and what I remember most clearly is that, in the end, I wasn't really doing it because of the festival. It became a task in itself; a test, like weightlifting. Almost a chore.

 

Which brings me to NaNoWriMo. Are any of you doing it? For those of you who don't know what this is, it's a challenge to write an entire book in a month. In a thirty-day month, moreover; you don't even get the extra day. (I don't know why this feels significant.) A book, apparently, is 50,000 words, which seems a little short to me, but the idea is sound: if you have the material for a book in you (and I'm tempted to say: who doesn't?), and if you've never found the time to put words on a page, then do it now. Don't worry about elegance or le mot juste, just bang it out. Work out the structure as you go along. It's the same principle as laying down a road: you simply do it. You don't worry, when you're laying it, about the aesthetics of the thing.

 

I do think that the principle's perfectly sound. I gather that most writers do this anyway. I think that my way, the other way, of doing things is considered to be a little odd. The only writer who I've read who I know polished as he went along was Anthony Burgess. I can certainly see the arguments against it. Once a passage is done, or you're convinced, at least, that it is done, then it feels as though you'd need the equivalent of a crowbar to loosen it up again. And what happens about the unexpected event? What happens if, a hundred and fifty pages in, you realise that a character isn't, quite, who you thought he was? Or that a new character, a seemingly minor player, should really have had dealings with your protagonist early on? It's difficult. It's doable – I've done it – but you do find yourself doing it with gritted teeth. My favourite description of writing a novel comes from E.L. Doctorow, who said that it's like driving at night. You can only ever write up to where the lights begin to peter out. I find that to be true, but then I go back and go over the same stretch of road until I know every inch of it. All I can do is shrug, a little helplessly, and say that I'm only able to do what I can do. My first novel, Rose, will never see the light of day. I did what everybody does: I went, bullishly, from beginning to end. I hardly edited anything, and, when I'd finished, I did, it's true, have a convincing structure but all the rest of it – the imagery; the syntax; the dialogue; the exploration of character – was absolutely terrible. And there was so much of it left to do. No, it isn't in me. I work like a pedantic snail, one that insists on covering the entire leaf before it even thinks about moving along the tree.

 

So, there. I'd be useless at NaNoWriMo. But there are other factors too. I have, during my writing life, discarded many novels. Not even novels; ideas for novels. There was the one about Stan Laurel and Charlie Chaplin sharing a dressing room. (It became a single poem in the end.) There was the one about Sam Cooke playing the Chitlin Circuit. There was the novel – I found this one particularly exciting – about the women who wove the Bayeux Tapestry. (It's been done, I realised.) Then there's the one about somebody who's lived a number of different lives. (I may still write that, actually.) But, at the moment, there are three books that I think I need to write. One's a novel about music; about the band I was in when I was in my early twenties. I'm 16,000 words into it, and it's funny: I thought it would be... I don't know. Not livelier, so much, as lighter on its feet. This might just be a way of saying that I expected it to be more superficial. The urge, I suppose, is to go back there and relive it. To do it again, somehow, on the page, but better. But the book, as is the way with books, is going its own way. It insists on being fictional. But it also wants to examine the past more thoroughly. It wants to look at motives; at family dramas. It wants to knit it all together, so that one form of drama bleeds properly (I was about to say effortlessly, but it's never effortless) into the other. This, as you can imagine, is a slow process. A quick examination is no examination at all.

 

Meanwhile, the second novel is really just two chapters (possibly three) that are like a truncated torso. Not even a torso: more a pair of feet. It's set in the East End, in the 1930s. A man makes a girl a piano and... you tell me. I wrote 70,0000 words and then, one day, I reread it in its entirety and realised that it had curled up and died. This wasn't an unpleasant experience, actually: one feels (is it just me?) awfully writerly if one can bring oneself to jettison 60,000 words. The first two chapters, I think, do what they need to do. They make sure to set up a story. It's just that I don't know what that story is. Again, it isn't something that I want to rush. More accurately, I know I shouldn't. It will happen. The book will tell me. This is true of my third book, too, which is, as yet, entirely unwritten. A book-length poem anyone? I can't think of many people who would want to read it, especially as, the way I currently envisage it, it's going to be entirely autobiographical. Nevertheless, I need to write it. Or do I just mean that I want to? I have a superstitious feeling that, if I shine a light on it too soon – if I try to write it in a hurry – it will go scuttling off into a corner somewhere. It will stay there, giggling behind its hand with the Sam Cooke and Charlie Chaplin novels.

 

In other words, no NaNoWriMo for me. I wish you luck; I really do. I hope that, if some of you are doing it, you end up with a manuscript that you can use. I wouldn't, you see. I'd give up, half-way through, or even earlier. It's my fault entirely. I always love a task until I have to do it. More, though, a blank page always feels to me like the most private of private spaces. And, yes, if you get it right there's a chance that it will become public. But it still won't feel public. It will feel like me, writ large. Look at that list again: Salman Rushdie. Ian McEwan. Martin Amis. Margaret Atwood. Zadie Smith. Naomi Klein. Paul Theroux. V.S. Naipaul. Toni Morrison. All very distinctive, yes? All very much recognisable. But how do you do that? How do you write in a way that's entirely you; that's as distinctive as a voice or a fingerprint. Not, I would tentatively suggest, by fiat or decree. Not in a month. It takes years; it takes work. Not just the work you know you do but the work your brain does in the background, siphoning and assimilating and siphoning again. It's exhausting; it's demoralising. But it's exhilarating too. And there isn't any secret. You just have to be prepared to do it.

*****

2/11/23

A publisher's reader once compared my prose to Graham Greene's. There were lots of criticisms, too, but I've conveniently forgotten those. No, what I choose to remember is that: me and Graham, linked, fortuitously, by a disinterested third party. It's kismet, obviously. It was always meant to happen.

 

So, as I'm sure you'll understand, I feel quite protective of him. This is by Martin Amis:

 

"Greene could hardly hold a pen. His verbal surface is simply dull of ear (a briar patch of rhymes and chimes); and his plots, his narrative arrangements, tend to dissipate into the crassly tendentious."

 

The phrase "hostage to fortune" comes to mind. Don't get me wrong: I admire Amis, but what I admire, almost exclusively, is his style. Greene is quieter, I'll grant you, but he has an unerring sense of place and a precise, if less volcanic, metaphoric gift. As for plots... I want, in the style of Amis, to say something like "Oh dear. Oh dear." Plots?! Amis was terrible at plots. (If you don't believe me, go and read the end of The Pregnant Widow.) Amis was like Hemingway: he was all style. He was never really a novelist. He didn't have the equipment. Everything was up front, in the shop window; there wasn't a whole lot of stock in the shop behind.

 

Greene could write. He could also "do" plots. True, there was a certain amount of over-determination (late-life Catholicism will do that for you) but it's also true that he was good at the carpentry that is so essential if you want your novel to hang together. I do think, though (and here is the point that I've been labouring clumsily towards), that he might have benefitted from being edited a little more closely. I can imagine that it was something of a task trying to edit Greene. For one thing, he was an editor. (He used to go through R.K. Narayan's books and take out all the adverbs, like Major Major in Catch 22.) What's more he was massively and inconveniently famous. I assume that there came a point when he was, like Caesar's wife, above suspicion and that that is why, for example, I found three uses of the phrase "at last" on one page of The Power and The Glory. It was sobering, and it made me think: even the best writers could do with a helping hand.

 

And if it's good enough for Graham... Years ago, I used to say, with what I liked to think was a certain amount of swagger, that I was never going to allow someone to edit me. It seems incomprehensible to me now, partly because I'm an editor myself. Most of the poems that get published in my magazine go through my fingers and I've discovered that I like the feeling that, with a judicious use of light and shade, it might be possible to help a poem become more itself. This is the crucial point, the one that I would use should anyone too strenuously object: we are none of us the best judges of our own work. Well, not entirely. We know what we're trying to do; we know (we think we know) when a sentence will hold its shape – or, rather, when it has evolved, properly, into a shape – but it's also true that, with our noses pressed against the screen, we're not necessarily best placed to see the bigger picture. Kill your darlings? It's not a phrase that I'm particularly fond of. It's too glib. But there does seem to be a law in obedience to which those passages that you're fondest of, the ones that you're determined to squeeze in, might not be as integrated as they ought to be. There are words, too, and phrases, that seem, at the time, to have come flaring out of your imagination. But in the cold light of day... Well, I can't imagine that there's a single author who hasn't been grateful that, in the cold light of day, they can quietly strangle those things that, only yesterday, they loved with a love that seemed to come, physically, out of their chest. Is it just me that's shouted "Yes!" at a metaphor or simile? I do hope not.

 

No, novelists miss stuff. Poets over-write. They under-write. They (we) write poems that are nearly successful. In other words, we need all the help we can get. I was, I'll be honest, dreading what my publisher calls a "developmental edit". It was an odd feeling: it felt like I was clutching the manuscript to myself even as I was pressing the button to send it off. I'd never been edited before. But I could hardly, after publishing One Hand Clapping, doubt the use of an editor per se. And it wasn't as though my publisher was going to be silly enough to let me off. The main worry, I think, is that your editor won't understand what you're trying to do. Or, worse, that they will understand, but that they won't think that you've achieved it. I did feel rather hoist by my own petard but what I had failed to factor in was what I try to do myself, which is present an edit by someone who is clearly sympathetic. It's difficult to convey the relief I felt when I realised that my editor was on my side. It felt (it really is difficult to explain) even more exciting than when the book had been accepted in the first place. And, of course, once you feel understood then you're prepared to take on board whatever it is that someone has to say. This particular editor was especially good on pacing (I had to kill some of my darlings, in other words) but my favourite moment was what might have seemed like the harshest. I'd written a simile that was, shall we say, a stretch. And, in the nicest possible way, I was called out on it. I tried to look at it from every angle, and, in the end, I thought: "She's right. What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" And here's the thing: without an editor, that would have gone out just the way it was. But, more, I would have continued to feel that that line was... I don't know. Poetic. Startling. A ball in the back of the net. When would I have realised? Possibly never. But, if I had, it would have been too late. It would have hung there, like an albatross. I would never have been able to take it back. I'm going to use the phrase "a salutary lesson" and hope that I get away with it.

*****

19/10/23

I once heard a famous author read from one of her books in a university common room. It was the aural equivalent of watching a bird swoop down on a mole or an unsuspecting rabbit. She managed (I don't know how) to boom and precisely enunciate at the same time. Before she began, she gave us a lecture. I can't remember what she said, exactly, but I remember the point, which was that what an audience needed was drama. You had to take the book by the scruff of the neck and shake it til it sang.

 

I've always been ambivalent about this sort of thing. When I was in the sixth form, my old writing teacher refused to read anything with any feeling at all. It was cheating, he said. The words should be able to stand alone and what you were doing by acting them out was effectively hiding them. It was, he said, a form of fancy dress. I've thought this myself, at poetry readings: that some poets seem to be more enamoured with the flow of words than with the words themselves; that drama, in this instance, is deemed to be its own reward. And I don't agree. Words and phrases have their own specific weight. It's like building a wall. Will it stand up? Will it persevere? Does it feel like a wall? If it doesn't, then no amount of lighting will make you want to sit on it.

 

But then. Well, then, I went to another poetry reading. Bow Road, it turns out, is just that: a road. There are lots of mini-marts and Bow Church is right in the middle of it. Me, I'm not quite a cockney. If you stood on the roof of Dagenham's Rush Green Hospital, where I was born, you still couldn't hear Bow Bells. It, that Cockney status, has always had for me the allure of the not quite distant; of something that, if the wind had been blowing in the right direction, I might conceivably have achieved. Consequently, I was fascinated. It, the church, has a Georgian look. It's so perfectly in proportion that, if it wasn't for the noise of traffic, it might look smug. As it is, it's like a dream of something. An aspiration. I was predisposed to like whatever was in its vicinity, but I think I would have liked the poetry venue anyway. It was a gallery, brightly lit, with clean white walls and books about, you know, hegemony and cultural appropriation and the suffragettes: all things that, if I had the time, I'd like to know a little more about.

 

It also had Fran Lock. Fran, who has just been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize, is a considerable poet. (She's also my editor, I'm very pleased to say.) Her work's alive. This is something, I think, that distinguishes real work from work that only acts as though it is. When I was seventeen, Douglas Adams visited our school, and he introduced us to the concept of jokeoids. These, he said, were those vacant spaces that are surrounded by the things that usually surround a joke: an obvious build-up, and then canned laughter. You could hear them, at the time, on American sitcoms: lines that were buttressed by so much support that it was difficult to listen to them properly. If you did, your ear would do what Eric Campbell does to coins in Chaplin's films. It would try to get a purchase and find that the thing collapsed. No, I know, as an editor, that there are a certain amount of poemoids out there. Noveloids, too, and songoids. But Fran's stuff lives. Each word and phrase is dense with her experience. It swings. Even if she read in a low murmur, it would be impressive. But she doesn't. I can't, quite, describe what she does. She seems to ride her poems; to steer them. Her delivery swings too. It was like watching a great punk gig. In my day job, I'm a teacher. I'm a practised reader, in other words, and I know how to pause and to enunciate. But do I – can I – swing? I doubt it. My Irish heritage is much further back; it's much more implicit than Fran's is. Fran has got that Celtic thing: she can turn a line of poetry into a song. I'll be happy, I think, when I finally launch the book, to be able to make it sound like a line of poetry. One thing I do know though:

 

It's going to be murder to try and follow her on the night.

*****

27/9/23

What do you do with a book once you've written it? After it's been published, I mean; now that it's something you can recommend and sell.

 

I edit a magazine. It's called One Hand Clapping, and the idea is that we feature well-known authors next to those who are less well-established. We've been online for three years now but, initially, we were a physical magazine. It took a lot of work – we had to call in a lot of favours – but in the end we had something, I think, that was striking; something that seemed to punch above its weight. The cover, a preternaturally attentive-looking boy, was by a French artist called Fabien Delaube. We had our own tag line: "Small Print. BIG voice." And we had contributions from, among others, Al Alvarez, Colm Tóibín, Mark Doty, Les Murray and Tony Visconti. Our biggest coup was being allowed to place it in the book shop at the Hay Festival. To be fair, it was free, so it was nowhere near as complicated as getting them to sell it, but even so... I've joked that, if people don't know where to scatter my ashes, then Hay would be a perfectly good place. For some it's Mecca; for others it's the lure of Patagonia or Timbuktu. For me it's Hay. It was partly, I think, that feeling of being on the outside looking in: that the festival didn't so much represent the literary world as embody it. There's a story by J.D. Salinger in which a man keeps a book near to his heart as a kind of poultice. It isn't clear whether this is meant to be physical, emotional or spiritual. Hay was a bit like that for me.

 

But here's the thing. I used to go with family and friends. On the first day of Hay Festival 30 (I still have my Friends pass on my wall), I dragged them into the bookshop and we all stood around a table, looking down at the magazine. We were all meant to be admiring it, but what I remember is a distinct feeling of disappointment. It wasn't doing anything. (I don't know what I was expecting it to do. Juggle? Sit up and start reciting poetry?) The pleasure – no: the joy – had almost entirely been in the making of it.

 

And I don't want my books to be like that. My poetry book is due out very soon, and I know that, on the day that I receive my personal copies, I will feel as though this ought to be a moment of great significance. I phrase it in this way because I suspect that I'm in danger of telling myself this so often that the moment itself will pass almost without me knowing it. Or feeling it, at least. It will feel significant in the way that Christopher Isherwood wrote that most of life can feel symbolic: you're so busy giving it meaning that you forget to grasp what it really is. We'll see, but what I do know is that that can't be it. I need to spread the word and, as yet, I haven't, quite, worked out how to do it. The first issue of One Hand Clapping was a one-off. No-one would bankroll the second one. And what I've found, actually, is that, during the last three years, I've come to prefer the internet. You're reading this, I imagine, because of Facebook or Twitter or even the magazine. Six years ago, I wrote the following:

 

"I have the familiar feeling that I'm convalescing from Facebook. From myself, actually: from a strange, tractionless feeling brought on by repeating myself, endlessly, to almost no effect. 'Friending', in other words. (An ugly verb.) I mean, yes, the theory is that these are all potential readers but, in reality, it's an activity that can start to feel as though it itself is the point. It's the equivalent of tugging and tugging at your ear or going back to check the plugs that you've already checked; a form of anaesthetic. Then there are the 'likes', of course (I feel compelled to look for them), and – Oh dear – the threads: there's a real risk that these, at least in my experience, can go just about anywhere. Tractionless, see. No checks and balances. I keep saying to myself: 'I'm off!' But I've said it many times before."

 

Now, though, I understand just what a powerful tool the internet can be. I love to watch the way that word of mouth, for want of a better phrase, seems almost to be self-perpetuating. There's a snowball effect: we've published a lot of poets, many of whom have been kind enough to keep bringing us to other people's attention. I intend to find out how to use the net to send my books as far and wide as I can. Not just the net. There'll be launches (one in Dublin), and readings, hopefully. But it's the net that I feel myself eyeing up, like it's an opponent that I only know imperfectly as yet. I've always loved the line about George Meredith by Thomas Hardy: "His words wing on – as live words will." That's what I want; it's what we all want, surely. But how do you go about achieving it? Goodreads? Reviews? How do you go about getting those? It all feels beyond me, slightly. Or else there's that other feeling, the one just before you bash a hole in the wall, where you look at a shelf and think: "How hard can it be?" I really don't want to get this wrong. I'm sure that some of you must know all about this stuff. Drop me a line. It will be very gratefully received.

*****

21/9/23

Would you be a full-time writer if you could? You may already be, of course, in which case I envy you. I think.

 

But I'm not sure. I teach at a school for gifted pupils. I say this a lot but it's worth repeating, if only because I use the phrase as a mantra: there are times when it's all there is between me and the suspicion that an independent school is an independent school is an independent school. Ali Smith has spoken about how the commerce between two people can become a faith – how the world, in this case, becomes three-dimensional – and that's not dissimilar to what happens where I am. Regardless of the circumstances, these are children who are miles from home, their gift like a bulky suitcase that they can't put down. There's a pseudo-sleepiness – tall gable-ends; "supper"; grass that they tend like a nativity – but it barely conceals the fact that they, the children, work harder than I do.


My job, it seems to me, is partly to understand this, just as understanding felt like one of the most important tasks in comprehensive schools. I worked in the Pastoral Department and it used to feel like painting the Forth Bridge: you'd limp your way to July and in September it would all begin again, exactly as before. We had children whose stories, if I told them to you, would break your heart and it never really felt as if we made a difference. But the trying was, yes, an act of faith and you always hoped that it might rub off. Pay attention to someone – give them the structured time that they don't get elsewhere – and you hope that, one day, they might remember it; that, at a crucial moment, it might change something, if only a little bit. It was hard, but I liked it, mostly; there was an austerity to it that made it feel, regardless, like a good – a decent – job. And this is without the pleasure that teaching always gives me. Or, more accurately, that just being in a classroom gives me. Some of the best times I've ever had have been in classes where the boys' idea of communication was pretty much just shouting and farting in unison.

 

In other words, I love working at a school. There's a beautiful line in Donne's "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning" in which going out into the world is seen not as "a breach" but as "an expansion, / like gold to airy thinness beat". Of course, he's talking, here, about the parting between two people but I think that the principle is still the same. Would I enjoy being at home full-time? Much as I love my desk, I'm not the type of person who thrives, long-term, on solitude. More than a day of it and I start to feel like I'm on a desert island. No, I like that feeling of expansion; the feeling that you, or, more accurately, all of your strengths and weaknesses are being parcelled out between whatever you have to do and whoever you have to meet; that, at work, you have to respond to so many personalities that it's a bit like sitting in the middle of an orchestra, both listening and not, trying like mad to make your contribution fit. Not too loud, in other words, and not too soft. Not too egregiously prominent but not too much ridiculous diminuendo. It makes me anxious, sometimes, but it does me good. I think that, if I stayed at home too long, part of me would go to sleep, and that that part (or, at least, part of that part) might well be the thing that fuels the writing. It's the inquisitive part; the part that's alive enough to respond to things, even (perhaps especially) those things that are inconvenient or difficult. I agree with Wordsworth: writing is nearly always a matter of emotion recollected in tranquillity. But you have to have had the emotion first. You have to have rubbed up against the world. All of that traction is a gift, really. As is teaching. When I deliver a poem to a class, it's one improvisation after another. It isn't, strictly, meant to be, and, yes, you have to go through hoops. But I never quite know what I'm going to find, and what I discover, often, is as much for me as it is for them.

 

What would happen if I did nothing but write? If I had to make a living at it, how would that affect the way I did it? It would change, inevitably, but how? Would it turn into just another job? Would I (perish the thought) want breaks from it? If I was making money, would I always have one reluctant eye on a prospective audience? I used to go to the Hay Festival every year. That week was the only time I visited Hay and it would always start – at least, it would for me – in the back room of The Addyman Annexe. It may have been the brightness, the cleanness, of the room but in my memory the books give off a soft but compelling glow; something like heat. Once I’d examined the entire stock… Well, then I could take my pick of all the other bookshops in the town. I didn’t so much browse in Hay as binge. If I was short of time, I ran.

 

But what if I'd lived there all the time? When we left, my daughter used to cry. I'd say to her: "It's just like Christmas. You wouldn't want it every day." But, of course, we do, or we think we do. There's part of me that feels that, if writing was something I did all of the time, it would be like one long brilliant Christmas holiday. But there's another part that knows that I wouldn't want to lose what I have now: the sense that, whenever I get time to sit at my desk and write, or try to write, it's an event. A minor one, but there you go. It's like a love affair: it's those snatched moments that lift the heart. Does it improve my writing? I doubt it, to be honest. I'm sure practice would bring its own reward. But I value it more, and that's no small thing. I also have no choice. Which, if you look at it in a certain way, confers a kind of freedom. I can only do what I can do. I find that I can write everywhere – on buses; on trains; in restaurants; at work – and I refuse to think that that, the need to focus anywhere, at any time, makes what I do less valuable, or (God help us) credible, than if I was in one of those fabled writers' dressing gowns, smoking a thin cheroot and dabbing at what, if it was this, would be at least four times as long.

*****

14/9/23

Writing is a lonely business, but not for the reason that people usually think it is. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Ernest Hemingway wrote that:

 

"Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day."

 

This is very grand but also, I think, inaccurate. I don't agree that most writers need anything to palliate their loneliness. I like being at my desk. If you don't love your solitude, I think – if there aren't times when, sitting facing your computer, you feel like you're cossetting yourself – then I doubt if you'll ever be a writer. Martin Amis writes, in Inside Story, of positively yearning for this sort of life, and, speaking as a man who spent at least two hours in company, last week, wondering when he could finally go home and change the font on his Kindle Paperwhite, I know exactly what he means. No, sitting on your own and attempting to front the blankness of the page is the least of it as far as I'm concerned. It's what you sign up for: it's the pact you make with the thing you want so desperately to do. Give it enough time and concentration (this is the pious hope) and you will end up with something "nameless and joy-making," to quote a phrase from J.D. Salinger that has haunted me for my entire life.

 

But, see, that's the trouble. How do you know? By which I mean, yes, how do you know if what you've written is any good but, more (much more), how do you know when you're a writer? At what point can you confidently look somebody in the eye and say: "I am an author"?

It isn't as straightforward as you think it's going to be. It's not like building a chair, say, or baking something. These presuppose a level of competence that's easy enough to ascertain. But writing a book? Or trying to write a book? When does that shift from being what you do to being who you are? Is it when someone tells you that you are? But who? Your mates? Your Facebook friends? Self-definition is a slippery business and I've lost count of all the times I've sneaked away to turn on my computer feeling, somehow, that I'm abdicating from real life: that what the computer offers is so nebulous that I should turn it off, go back to the living room and attend to all the things (think, here, of your average dinner party or of, say, Mission Impossible) that go to make up a "normal" life. That, right there, is what I think of when I think of the loneliness of being a writer: that you're the only person, for a significant length of time, who would define yourself as being one, but that even you - especially you - can't put your hand on your heart and say that it's the truth.

I took to saying "I'm trying to write", and I said this for something like twenty years. Then, when I got my first publishing contract (thank you Vine Leaves Press), this shifted to: "I write". Now, I'm considering finally saying that I'm a writer. I have three books coming out – my novel, The Sparkler, and two books of poems – and it seems reasonable to finally give myself that rubber stamp. It's a no-brainer, no? If I were someone else I'd say to me: "Of course you're a writer." But still I can't quite say it. It's always felt so big, somehow, that word. I can feel myself, my "real" self, rattle around inside it like a pea inside a drum. Hemingway was awfully self-aggrandising. (It's what did for his prose eventually. Because it did deteriorate: you can feel him puffing and blowing in the background.) "Eternity" feels more than a little ridiculous. I think he means posterity, but, as to its other meanings, I can, if I squint, see that the white page is its own form of endlessness. Or that, for "eternity", you could read truth or life or the human heart, all things that seem to recede, endlessly, away from you; that seem actively to resist your attempts to say exactly what they are or what you mean. You sit at the desk and something in you goes: "What big, undefinable thing am I going to try to define today? What words can I use to bring it down?" You'd settle for a little thing: for something so evanescent that, if you didn't write it, it would disappear. For a nano-second – a pipette's worth – of truth. And, yes, that nagging voice is all-but-inaudible. (There are times when you'd strangle it if you could.) And, yes, this all looks pompous in black-and-white. But it's there; I swear it is. It's what a writer does, whether they're aware of it or not. And then what they do (what we're all trying to do) is make language sing. "Words," as Mallarmé said, "words, words." They're all we have. You'd better know how to use them. But when do you get to tell yourself you can? At what point, during the minute-by-minute inspection that's a writer's life, do you finally get to say to yourself that you pass muster? That you are a writer, rather than someone who's just shoving one word up against another? I've never been able to answer this to my own satisfaction.

 

So what is my relationship to the word "writer" now? Let's just say that I'm aiming to grow into it. I have a lot of new experiences coming up: edits; launches; an actual, physical, honest-to-goodness book of my own to hold; learning the ins and outs of sales and of effective publicity. It's all going to take a certain amount of thinking about and I hope that, by tracking my own progress, it may strike a chord with some of you, at least.

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