Monday, 5 January 2015

Books of 2014

Happy New Year folks!

A good and multi-talented friend of mine has obviously made a resolution to create a regular blog and to do so has launched this website. He is a brilliant writer, a musician and an artist, so worth a look.

In his first blog post he counted down his 15 favourite books that he read in 2014, irrespective of publishing date. I’ve read a lot wider this year than previous, with fewer 18th century titles then any in the last few years. I’m not sure why my friend picked a top 15 but I will follow his example, so here are my…

Starting at number 15

Sweeney Todd: A String of Pearls by James Malcolm Rymer

Exciting and atmospheric Victorian potboiler that launched Sweeney Todd into the world’s vision. Sweeney himself was an interesting character and I felt awful for his poor assistant, thrown into a corrupt mental asylum. The problem was that the whole book led to the earth shattering twist…that his victims were being turned into pies. Unfortunately, we already knew this leaving the last bite a bit limp.


The Cloud of Unknowing by an Anonymous Author

14th Century Christian mysticism is not my usual path but there was something about the central message of this text that did appeal. God is unknowable, between a human and God is the ‘cloud of unknowing’ which can never knowingly be penetrated by will, knowledge or prayer but can only be succumbed to. Thought-provoking and sometimes mind-bending. Worth a shufti.

At 13

Down and Out in Eighteenth Century London by Tim Hitchcock

A vivid evocation of life on the edge of eighteenth century society and the patchwork, cobbled together way in which such people got by. Extremely interesting but rather paltry in terms of evidence, grabbing small shards from across an entire century to build a picture that seemed to come more from a subjective viewpoint that the author had of what he thought might have happened. Probably like all history, but I like a historical author to pretend to a little authority.

Coming in at number 12

The Pretended Asian by Michael Keevak

I bought this expecting it to be a biography of George Psalmanazar, a man of unknown identity and origin who managed to fool Britain that he was Formosan (Taiwanese) for a time. Instead it was an in-depth look at how such a con managed to succeed. These boiled down to Psalmanazar’s memory, sticking to every detail he invented, no matter how ludicrous and his courage, combined with Europe’s lack of racial knowledge; racial identity being an unknown concept and mainly figured on language then physiology. I was engrossed, astonished and a little in love with Mr P.

Number 11

Falstaff by Robert Nye

A romping, twisting turning ‘true’ biography of Falstaff from the big man himself. Perhaps a little too penis obsessed, a bit cruel and crude but also large and roaring with life. This was a big gassy novel that ended in a satisfied belch.

In at number 10

Pompey the Little by Francis Coventry

The first of three eighteenth century works in the list, I’ve already reviewed it extensively here. It’s a fun tripping tale of a little dog with big adventures. Think Tom Jones crossed with Lassie.

Number 9

The Horned Man by James Lusdun

A 21st century novel in the mix. This is a creepy and haunting story of a man too rational to be completely sane. He is being stalked by some deeply irrational forces that gobble him up. I was hooked throughout and gobbled my way through it like Johnson at a dinner party.

Number 8

The London Monster by Jan Bondeson

In the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century a fiend went around stabbing at and ripping lower parts of ladies’ dresses. This caused a huge hoo-hah from a media fond of stories located near bottoms and fanned by a massive reward. This is a study with a lot to say about modern moral panics, not to mention that it’s a fascinating tale itself, with bottoms.

Straight in at number 7

The Book of Beasts by TH White

I was going to pick ‘The Age of Scandal’ or ‘Scandalmonger’, his eighteenth century gossip books, which I also read this year but this was better. Those books had a distasteful flag waving imperialism and longing for a strong upper class that rubs me the wrong way, while this was a glorious translation of a medieval bestiary. The illustrations and legends of the beast were so evocative and inspiring that anything I write may well have a hidden manticore in it. To put a cherry on the top, the last essay by White about the transmission of information in the middle ages was worth framing. In it he made a beautifully impassioned case for respecting the medieval bestiarists for transmitting knowledge against great difficulty.

At number 6 

Boswell’s Column, by James Boswell

I am not a big Boswell fan and I didn’t know that for many years he had written an anonymous column for The London Magazine. It’s Boswell without the big sell. He is touching and honest and sweet. Sometimes he over milks his quotations but in general he is wonderful and thoughtful company. The main downside was editor, Margary Bailey who so niggled and pedantified his Latin that I felt she was picking on him.

Time for the Top Five and at number 5 we have…

The Midwife (vols 1-3) by Christopher Smart

Okay I love Smart as visionary poet but I might love him as Mary Midnight more. Mary Midnight is the character he wrote (and sometimes performed) under in the years leading up to his incarceration for madness. Mary is a sarcastic woman who knows more then the men. My favourite part was Mary’s own confidence in her own abilities and her fondness for only one other writer, a certain Mr Smart. Jokes range from politics to fossilised turds and there is a sweep of invention, fun and enjoyment which can’t help but register. 

At 4

The Trial of Socrates by IF Stone

A very rare trip to Ancient Greece now. I had heard the story of Socrates, martyr for free speech and philosophical thinking. This book gave me a whole different look at the world of Athens and the ways in which Socrates may well have goaded the city into killing him. It was a totally refreshing look at a world alien to me and I would like to go back another day.

Number 3

The Air-Loom Gang by Mike Jay

Springboard for my new novel and a book that has inadvertently given me more to think about then any other this year. It tells the story of James Tilly Matthews, a man incarcerated in Bedlam for shouting Treason in parliament. He developed a whole delusional other-life of mind control machines, strange gangs and secretive deals with the French revolutionary government…only some of it may be true. If you like your history thought provoking and exciting, this is the book.

At number 2

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (and I forgot to get the name of the translator).

Wow, a nineteenth century book anywhere in the top twenty, have I gone mad? And French at that. What can I say but that I was wandering around Rouen at the time and it seemed like a nice idea to read a famous novel in which it featured. The story is a little dull, bored lady has affairs to escape boredom - but the characters, they were wonderful. Flaubert’s specific skill as a writer is the telling detail and this book rings with them. Emma is lovely and tragic, her husband oblivious and my favourite character, Homais, was ludicrous, loveable and kind of nasty. This book is utterly not my kind of thing but it engrossed and lingered.

And now, for my top rated book what I read in 2014….

In at number 1

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

I make no secret of my distaste of Victorian stuff but this book was brilliant, involving, atmospheric and sad. I was completely carried along. The way Dickens builds up a scene, situation or character is astonishing. Now, I’ve read a few Dickens and enjoyed them but I was not expecting to enjoy this so much. My favourite element of Dickens is how over the top he goes, so often his description or metaphor goes too far and becomes gawky but the only response seems to be to laugh and go ‘oh Dickens you scallywag’. I’m definitely cracking into another one next year.

So that’s it, a look at the books I read in 2014. This new year should bring some more Dreamonger news (it’s in editorial purgatory at the moment), more 18th century japes, more  on twitter and maybe a new novel. I hope it brings joy to you all - and to me also.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Monday the 1st of December, all invited.

On Monday, December the 1st I shall be performing a bit of Death of a Dreamonger in the Brixton Bookjam. It describes itself as ‘congenial, intelligent, unpredictable and eclectic.’ I’m hoping to provide the congenial and eclectic.

It’s been a very long time since I have performed and I am hugely looking forward to it. I love to read my own stuff to an audience and at university I road tested a lot of chapters and spoken word events and variety nights. I get a certain focus and clarity on stage I don’t often feel any other time, my head usually being full of a soup consisting of whatever I’ve been reading and seeing.

It is held in a large pub and appears to be a rather packed event from the photographs I have seen. I have been practicing, getting my timings right and trying so that I basically know the piece off by heart and can do it straight to the audience.

If anyone wants to come and have a look, the Brixton Bookjam starts at 7:30 at the Hootenanny pub on Effra road on December the 1st.

If you can’t make it, a podcast will be made of the event for the sure delectation and delight of those unable to attend.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


For those unfortunate enough to follow me on Twitter, they may have noticed that I've been posting every evening with the hashtag 

As any regular reader to this blog will realise, that the hashtag relates to Christopher Smart's long, strange and wonderful poem of the same name. I plan to tweet the entire poem, line by line, for as long as it takes.

I am doing this for a number of reasons.

The first is to encourage myself to tweet regularly so it doesn't get rusty and dusty.

The second is to see if any of the lines catches anyone's attention.

The third is to encourage me to read the poem slowly. In previous readings I have pretty much gulped my way through it to get to my favourite bits and rather missing others.

At the moment, I am still somewhere in Fragment A, an invocation of various Biblical names and animals beginning with the word 'let'. The corresponding 'for' sections are missing which means that some of the explanation is missing.

It's probably my least favourite part of the poem. However I have been pleased by the notion of the ape as the maker of variety and pleasantry, and the warrens of a rabbit as mazes for the devil to get lost in.

So, if you want something a little odd and occasionally thought provoking to look at, I recommend a little look at   every now and then.

Thursday, 30 October 2014


I've been preparing my novel, 'Death of a Dreamonger', for self printing in my own Grub Street Publications.

One of the steps toward publication has been to hire an external editor to sort through the book and lend a clear and impartial bit of advice. The cheapest of these was 'cheapbookeditors'. I sent them three chapters and instead of advice, I received abuse.

you seem to be a man, yet write the story as a first person female
perspective, which will have every female reader throwing it down
as soon as that is realised, and every male reader thinking that it is
some gay thing, and every literary agent will shake their head in 
disgust at a man trying to write as a woman.
the book is all over the place with mixed tense, and it would need
a great deal of work, so I am not sure that we would take it on board.
perhaps you could send the whole thing, and explain it to us...

Aside from the fact that the editor can't use capital letters at the beginning of sentences; or that the reading was so cursory that the pretty obvious tense of the piece was misunderstood, the person behind the email really didn't understand that part of the fun of writing is assuming roles.

I had already decided there was no way I'd be using them but riled, I thought I would send them a little more and answer their points.

The original idea of the first person female narrator was as an inversion of the first person male narrator of the traditional gumshoe sort of novel. Setting her up as an outsider, often on the edge of respectability and financial stability was part of this gumshoe element. I was hoping that as the reader continued, they would read Eve as herself and appreciate her as such.

The tense of the book is present tense. I experimented with all three but present tense seemed to have a taut and exciting quality. However at the very beginning of the book she is looking back at her preparations (curling her hair and dressing up) and her hopes for the action ahead (he will gaze his two peepers on my two peepers) so tense does roll back and forward a little.

I received another email...

I have scanned through, and the problem is that it is clever, too clever for its own good, and us editors can only edit that which is 
traditional and fits some rules. No rules, nothing to edit.
There are very obvious punctuation problems, which begs the question
as to how someone who can write in a clever fashion can end speech
in a full stop and miss every comma that should be in placed before a name.
In order to fix this we would have to know what was in your mind, and we don't, so we can't apply normal rules - there would be red ink everywhere.
Also, you (and I the reader) look through the eyes of a girl kissing a man,and us male editors don't do that.
Good luck elsewhere, and you need a lady editor that is unconventional and a telepath.

I would admit that my punctuation is a little skew-whiff, readers of this blog would agree with that. They would also agree that I have a tendency towards unnecessary words. But to say that my book has no rules is an outrage and an insult. That's not counting the misogyny and homophobia implied all through the messages.

I know as an aspiring writer I am a ten-a-penny waste of space but I don't think I deserved such rudeness, especially from somebody I was originally intending to pay.

Luckily, I have found another editor. I am yet to ascertain her conventionality or telepathy but I did receive a first impression.

It's wonderfully original and your writing has a lively, youthful quality

Here we go then.

Friday, 24 October 2014

To nano or not to nano...

...that is the question.

For the last two years I have taken part in the National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo - or nano), a month long event where each member tries to write 40,000 words of a novel. At the end of every November I have sworn that it would be the last one.

Not that the pure wordage of the challenge puts me off, I enjoy the deadline to write my 40,00 words, it gives me an arbitrary date to write by and I’ve always found such dates useful.The problem comes from the fact that I disagree with almost every aspect of nanowrimo.

The focus of nano is quantity over quality. People say that it doesn’t matter what is written, as long as there are words on the page. The justification being that a novel is no good in the head and once it is down on paper, however patchily, it can be edited and improved but I personally see no point in rushing to create rubbish you only plan on changing later. I always sit at my desk hoping to write something wonderful. I know I do not often achieve something wonderful but if I were to sit down with the aim of writing merely something, anything, then I would not sit down at my desk at all.

In a drive to maximise quantity, it promotes a very mechanistic ‘cookie cutter’ guide to novel construction. 

Characters are created by vast character sheets in which the writer lists down every excruciating detail of the character; from eye-shape to chin-size, the names of whatever psychological disorder they may be suffering from, their favourite pop song and a catch phrase that sums them up. There is a particularly extensive one here

What seems to be forgotten in this process is that much as you can’t get to know a person by a long list of details, nor can you discover a character. To really know a character you need to see them acting (or not acting) to the stimulus of the plot. Even if you disagree with Satre, a character is defined by action.

Then there is the notion of plot. These are to be copied wholesale from various online sources, the most popular of which is ‘The Hero’s Journey’ in its various forms. Others use the Snowflake Method, others pick some other pattern. Maybe it is a very useful method but I find it so prescriptive; preferring to take an idea that interests me, ask questions about it and then knock it into shape and call it a plot.

Of course, if you are stuck, then you can employ a plot ninja. Here is the description of one…

A plot ninja is something that is inserted into the plot when the writer finds him- or herself at a loss for what to do next, or when their characters are bogging down in dull conversation rather than doing anything interesting. 

Now, in my first novel I had something like this happen. I had a scene set in a cinema where a really boring film was playing. So boring the character plays around with his need for a wee. Unfortunately, his need climaxes at the moment a gang of ninjas jump through the window in the film and he has to decide between wetting himself or watching the excitement on screen. I think I might have grown out of that phase. I think that something so unexpected would have to be the most planned so it doesn’t seem completely ludicrous.

The project has developed a completely different language for discussing narrative, character and storytelling, most of which I find quite ugly. First there are genres, many people write YA and NA some write YNA. On top of that, they don’t have protagonists they have MCs or MMCs or MMMC’s (to differentiate between the MFMC’s). They also have BFs, BGs, LBs and all number of letters.
I work in a school, I get enough bland-empty acronyms in my life. Maybe I’m just a bit of a snob.

My final beef is that conversation on the forums reveal pretty clearly that in nano-land, there are far more people writing books then reading them. I don’t really consider myself a writer, I consider myself a reader who stuffs his head with so many words that occasionally they are re-constituted and vomited back out, so I find it odd to be on a forum where so many writers foreswear from reading a book during the writing time incase it influences what they are writing.

So, why am I doing it again? The answer is simple: comradeship. 

For a month in the year there is a forum full of people talking about story, research, plots and characters - so what if they talk about them in different ways, the talking is still happen. In London people meet up to chat and write side by side, I even went to an event where the writing took place from 7pm to 7am, with plenty of breaks to chat and compare notes. 

In this lonely quest to write a book that might get some reading (and my goodness doesn’t it feel lonely today), I will probably band once again with all the other hobbits and miscellaneous misshapen souls and nano once more.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A Lecture of Rasselas containing a big surprise.

It’s been a hell of a strange week; I suffered wardrobe malfunction at work, I was asked to show a librarian how to read, I got free tickets to ‘Made in Dagenham’ and I had much fun playing with the NGM crowd but the strangest part of all the week happened on Tuesday.

On that day I went to see Belinda Jack, Professor of Rhetoric at Gresham College do a talk about Morality in Johnson’s Rasselas.

I had previously watched Jack’s six lectures from last year (all available on the Gresham website, along with about 1,500 other lectures). They were about the mysteries of writing and, although I sometimes lost the thread of her arguments, they inspired a lot of thoughts in me. In particular the one about how novels beguile the reader, appealed to me a lot.

So I was a little disappointed when she described Johnson as ‘known, above all, for his misanthropy and profound pessimism’. While I would be first in line to agree about the pessimism, I would fight the charge of misanthropy every inch of the way. One of the most noticeable things about people that read and study Johnson is how fanatic they become, how much they love him. Opening his house to complete strangers because they are ‘poor and honest’, or raising a freed slave almost as his son and leaving him everything, do not seem the acts of a misanthrope. 

She backed up this phrase by saying, ‘Perhaps the most famous Johnsonian couplet is one in which man:
             Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know,
            That life protracted is protracted woe.’

I wouldn’t say that is Johnson’s most famous couplet, I’d probably put forth,

‘There mark what Ills the Scholar’s Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret/the Patron and the Jail.’

And so on we went, with me rather disagreeing with much of what was said. Then we went on a tour of the book and when we got to the part of the book at the pyramids, she put up the following slide, causing a titter.

Hang on, I made that picture for this blog post here. It’s got my crummy photoshop skills in it and everything. I have to say I was quite flattered, as there was a good 50 odd people at the lecture, probably more people than ever read this blog.

I do not know whether Belinda Jack ever read my blog, the Rasselas review is halfway on Google’s second page if you type ‘Rasselas review’ and the picture on the first of the image search, maybe she only saw the picture.

As a conclusion, she talked about how far you could read Rasselas as a satire and she went through various jokes and lighter moments in the book. A lot of these moments were ones I had also seen and picked up on in my post and so for the end of the lecture we were in complete accordance.

I was especially chuffed because as I queued up for the lecture, I tried to chat with the regular Greshamites, who were rather sniffy at me so it was infinitely pleasing to know that at least some of the talk I was deemed too uncouth for, originated on this blog.

Cool eh?


PS. As November approaches, I wonder the eternal question, ‘do I bother with Nano this year?’ Plus that big Death of a Dreamonger announcement and a review of the Gothic exhibition at the British Library.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Washington Irving's Goldsmith Biography

I’m now back in blighty and sorry to say that the crowd funding of my novel, ‘Death of a Dreamonger’ did not succeed. I put this mainly down to the fact that I was in France for a big chunk of the pre-order time. My time in France was not wasted though; I had a lovely time travelling around seeing stuff, eating gorgeous bread and reading.

One of the books I read was Washington Irving’s ‘Life of Goldsmith’, largely cribbed off Forster’s immense book, which is on my shelf and I will get to reading when I find a table strong enough to hold the weighty tome.

Whereas later writers on Goldsmith want to reach the man, Irving was content to print the legend and I, for one, was grateful for it. Having only read revisionist writing on Goldsmith, it was a joy to hear all of the anecdotes and silly one-liners pour forth. I particularly liked his reporting the following lovely Goldsmith nugget;

‘The public will never do me justice; whenever I write something they make a point to know nothing about it.’ 

A quote that met very well with my experience of two months (I thought) intensive crowd funding. 

My favourite element of the book was Irving’s dismissiveness towards those who dismissed Goldsmith, particularly Boswell who he calls an ‘obsequious spaniel’. At one point he tells the story of Goldsmith having a sulk because the crowds in a French town were more interested in the pretty ladies Goldsmith was with then the writer himself. Boswell cites this story as an example of Goldsmith’s astonishing vanity but gets the following rebuttal from Irving;

‘It is difficult to conceive the obtuseness of intellect necessary to misconstrue so obvious a piece of mock petulance and dry humour.’ 

Irving’s last remark on Boswell is to paraphrase a letter where someone threatens Lord Charlemont ‘to bring over the whole Club, and let him loose upon him to drive him home by their particular habits of annoyance - Johnson shall spoil his books; Goldsmith shall pull his flowers; and last, and most intolerably of all, Boswell shall - talk to him.’

What can I say? I love a bit of Boswell bashing.

Irving’s summary of Goldsmith’s character is that he had a gift for beautiful writing and in following this gift he took, ‘no heed for the future, lays no regular and solid foundation of knowledge, follows out no plan’, and just mooches along to death.

I can’t say I’m completely convinced in that reading of Goldsmith’s life, nor can I say the biography was utterly involving but it gave me a few pleasurable hours; is short, is fun and is free as an ebook. 

As such I recommend it to all.

(Coming up, big announcement about Death of a Dreamonger, sneaky peeks at my new novel and a lecture on Johnson's Rasselas as part of the Gresham lectures.)