Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A Few Kind Words have moved ...

. . . to new and more salubrious quarters. You'll find new posts plus all the old ones with just one click - HERE!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Witness

When I came back to Scotland in 1990 after living in London for 20 years it seemed like a different country to the one I had left. The spirit of John Knox had finally been banished from the streets of Edinburgh. You could eat well (well, a lot better), get a drink on a Sunday, have a cup of coffee outside on the pavement on a sunny day. There were good clubs and gigs, plays and shows. The capital seemed to have acquired a cultural life outside of August and optimism was the order of the day.
Writing was undergoing a tremendous renaissance with the contemporary Scottish novel being hailed far and wide. The music scene was transformed too. In my own particular area of interest, traditional music, the change was nothing less than radical. I had left to the strains of Jimmy Shand and his ilk, the old guys, with their slick, strict tempo country dance band sound. Now the young guys (and girls) had thrillingly claimed it for themselves, doing dangerous things with their fingering and bowing and breathing, nonchalantly and expertly playing fast and loose with melody and tempo, making music worth listening, as well as dancing, to.
And then, of course, there was devolution. Donald Dewar was a much admired figure across the political spectrum, although his flagship legislation for the new Scottish parliament was causing some consternation outside the Central Belt.
Having been brought up among landowners I had never given a moment’s thought to the fact that, thanks to the Napoleonic code and other European inheritance laws, Scotland is the last place in Europe where it's still possible to buy a very large piece of wilderness, sit in the middle of it, and effectively keep out the rest of the world. But now the issue of landownership was squarely on the political agenda - not least because it was one area where the new parliament, with its limited powers, could make a significant change - and I found the whole issue fascinating.
Put simply, on the one hand, very large tracts of the Scottish countryside were in the possession of a very small number of private landowners; on the other hand those landowners with their deep pockets managed and maintained this largely unproductive wilderness as an amenity for everyone else. It was a polarising debate, and at the time I returned there were those on both sides who believed it heralded the revolution.
In the end the Land Reform Scotland Act did little more than enshrine the ages-old Scottish precept that as long as you were sensible and respectful you could go where you wanted; though it did raise people's awareness of the fact that in Scotland, ownership in law was philosophically underpinned by the notion of stewardship or custodianship, and it paved the way for some high-profile community buyouts, notably on the islands of Gigha and Eigg, and on the Assynt peninsula.
It also, however, gave me the background for the novel I wanted to write; my response in part to the whole experience of being back in Scotland again, in part to the Balkans conflict and the horrors of Sarajevo and Srebrenica (I think of Homs and Idlib today and despair). It enabled me to concoct an independent Scotland of the near future in which land had been nationalised and in which, after years of mismanagement, the disgruntled Highlanders had risen up, alongside their dispossessed former lairds, against the government - a civil war arising out of a kind of reverse Highland clearances.
The book was published in 2007. It did reasonably well, was shortlisted for several prizes, and despite being pitched by the publishers at the top end of the young adult market, was read by just as many adults as teenagers. At the time of writing it I never imagined that five years later the SNP would be in charge, much less that independence would be heading the agenda. Nor did I imagine that my publishers would have ditched me and that I would be free to republish the book myself for use on a then only-dimly-imagined electronic reading device.
    But that is what has come to pass and now The Witness is available on Kindle at a very modest £1.95. If you haven't already read it, it will give you an edge-of-the-seat glimpse into a possible, though I sincerely hope not probable, future Scotland. If you have already read and enjoyed it, you can help me bring it to the attention of other readers by adding it to your Kindle library for less than the price of a pair of Ratner's earrings. Well worth it I'd say ... but then I would, wouldn't I. I hope you'll agree. You can find out by clicking here!

Friday, 9 March 2012

Chinese fairies

My mother is in reminiscent mode. She’s got to the age, nearly 84 as she reminds me constantly, where that old cliché about having nothing left but the memories is starting to manifest itself.
In her day she was wildly active, forever starting this, chairing that, raising money for the other. Now she’s largely sedentary. The once constant flow of correspondence, in her large expressive hand, with much underlining and postscripts that curled round the corners and along the edges of the pages, has dried up. She doesn’t like using the telephone and is no longer interested in being sociable. It’s as if she has quietly and gently closed the door on the world – which is not to say she’s planning to leave it. She’s quite happy, she says, and thoroughly enjoying herself ‘being lazy’; as well she might now that she’s ensconced in her own fully serviced flat in the very nice care home five minutes walk from my house.
She spends her day reading voraciously, watching television and, when she has a visitor – which most days is me, reminiscing. She returns frequently to the Clyde blitz and the bomb that brought down her bedroom ceiling on the night that she was providentially sleeping in another part of the house with her mother. The bomb, jettisoned by a plane returning after the main raid on Greenock, the other side of the river, fell in the garden at the east end of the house. But the blast, in the peculiar way of such things, travelled round the narrow space between the rear of the house and the grassy bank behind it, and demolished the west wing, leaving the east wing unscathed.
It must have made the war personal for her in a way that nothing else could have done. She’s never said ‘I beat the Germans’, but I can’t help feeling that that’s there in the undertow of the story. It’s definitely a source of pride that she survived. Often she tells the story the same way, but last time she added an intriguing detail. ‘It didn’t break any of my possessions,’ she said, ‘except some Chinese fairies.’
Chinese fairies? I was in a rush and didn’t follow it up at the time, but I will. In the 1930s her father served in China, commanding a flotilla of Royal Naval gunboats charged with keeping the West River free of pirates. She travelled out there with her mother, aged seven or eight. That journey must have been another hugely formative experience, and although I already know some of the stories, a little digging will undoubtedly throw up more.
But the story that’s really caught my fancy recently is the one about their summer holidays in Scotland with her maternal grandparents, who used to take a shooting lodge near Callander, in the Trossachs. My mother and her parents were then in naval quarters in the south of England. Her grandfather, a City grandee, lived in Buckinghamshire. To ship the whole family, plus domestic entourage, north, he simply hired a private railway carriage. They embarked at Taplow station and sometime the following day disembarked at Callander, having presumably been towed up to London, unhitched at some terminus, then re-hitched to another train heading north – all without the inconvenience of once having to step down from their carriage. My mother shared a sleeping compartment with the cook and a chambermaid, and loved it.
When I’m talking to groups about stories, I invite them to imagine for a moment that they are books, in which each successive page and chapter contains the stories of the incidents and experiences, the encounters and relationships, that make up their lives. I then ask them to picture a giant coming along, wrenching the book from their hands, and rubbing out those stories, starting at the first and working through to the last page, when the book is empty. What then are they left with? I ask.
As I watch my mother growing older I realise more and more how our identity is nothing but the stories we tell ourselves. Without them we are really no longer human.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Anecdotally speaking

There’s a small agency in Melbourne, Australia called Anecdote. They use stories and storytelling to help businesses change and adapt, develop their strategies and undertake other manoeuvres that call for some plumbing of the corporate psyche.
I met one of the Anecdote team in Edinburgh just before Christmas. Kevin Bishop is a former RBS executive who went to live on the other side of the world so that he could follow his new-found vocation as a business storyteller. An energetic and engaging chap in a smart suit, he had none of that whiff of the smoke-filled tepee that one sometimes associates with storytellers. Quite the opposite, everything about him suggested that Anecdote does serious work with some big global players, thank you very much.
We talked about what stories mean to people in business, and I was pleased to find that we shared a distaste for the recent rash of business ‘fables’ like Squirrel Inc and Who Moved My Cheese, which seem lumbering and contrived and largely devoid of the most basic ingredient of storytelling – the ability to create in the reader an emotional connection with the characters. Frankly, I don’t care enough about what happens to the wretched squirrels or mice to want to read beyond chapter one. These stories have been created in service of a message and, as such, are little more than propaganda. They have all the imaginative flair and pathos of a Pyongyang news bulletin.
Anecdote’s skill is in using real stories, often gathered from the dustiest, most neglected corners of businesses: priceless nuggets of organisational knowledge held in the head of one old security man who is about to retire, when they will be lost forever; a simple story of human behaviour recounted by a lowly office worker that changes management attitudes; personal stories that help colleagues understand one another better and bring teams together, and so on. These are stories – I know from my own work with clients and the work we do through Dark Angels – that have the power to change things because they have true human resonance.
Real stories like these are things to be shared, and the more they are shared the more powerful they become. Anecdote publish an e-newsletter in which they generously share much of what they come across in the course of their business. There’s a fascinating item in the current issue about a study by a team of neuroscientists at Princeton University who have discovered that when you put someone through an fMRI scanner as they are telling a personal story, then play back the story to a series of subjects as they in turn go through the scanner, the same bits of the brain light up – in other words, the storyteller’s and listeners’ brains fall into sync. Further, while some listeners brain patterns show a short lag as they catch up with the story, others’ actually precede those of the teller because they are predicting where the story will go. And finally, those listeners who do most predicting also score highest in the subsequent comprehension test.
Science, it seems, is starting to demonstrate what we know intuitively – that stories allow us not only to connect powerfully and deeply with one another, but also to absorb information very efficiently. If this helps businesses to overcome their fear of something they tend to see as alarming and unmeasurable, and move away from a slavish devotion to so-called objectivity, then three cheers for science.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Constant craving

I was talking to my eldest daughter about last week's post and my South American travels. The conversation moved on to the 60s and 70s in general, and the music in particular.
Sophie is 31 and the mother of my first and so far only grandchild. She's done her fair share of travelling, mainly in India and Southeast Asia, so she knows the score. She lives in the depths of rural Wales with her homeopath husband, and their musical tastes are fairly eclectic. Mainstream she is not.
Even so, in her eyes I think my journey seemed somehow different, perhaps almost mythical, because of the era in which I made it.
"I know so many people of my generation who have a real nostalgia for that time, for the 60s and 70s," she said, "although of course it can't be nostalgia can it, because we weren't actually there."
Strictly speaking, no. But I know what she means. We've all experienced a longing for something past, a perceived age of innocence, a Camelot, a temps perdu - whether or not we've actually experienced it.
But did we really have it easier in those days? I honestly don't know. It was easier to get jobs. The music was new and inventive and thrilling. The clothes – well they were simply ridiculous. You could still go to places where not many others had been before. There was a general sense of optimism. But the freedom...
Personally, much as I revelled in it, I also found it confusing, perhaps even rather frightening. How was one to know what to do with one's life when the only two certainties were that one was not going to do what one's parents had done, and that it was now possible to do practically anything else that took one's fancy?
My Latin American journey was a profoundly formative experience, but it was also profoundly unsettling and six months after returning I had a nervous breakdown. There were other contributing factors, difficult family circumstances chief among them, but I think more than anything else I was overwhelmed by possibility.
This was not a problem faced by my mother, now 83, whose house this weekend I'm clearing with my brother and sister; or others of her generation for that matter. Slated for Oxford in the late 40s, she had to give way to the older women returning from the war and settled for teacher's training instead, followed shortly by marriage. I was born four months after her 21st birthday.
At the same age as I was setting off for South America, she was settling down in Edinburgh with her recently qualified and impoverished advocate husband, a two year-old child, the tail end of post-war rationing still in place, and that grim decade, the 1950s, ahead of her.
It's not an era for which I harbour any nostalgia, actual or imagined. And yet, as I open yet another box of papers or books, and find a diary entry here, a newspaper cutting there, my curiosity is kindled. I want to know what it was like. I want to flesh out the stories of which these snippets offer such tantalising glimpses.
That's really what forges our connection with the past, I realise. Our constant and endless craving for stories. They’re part of the glue that hold families together and give us a sense of continuity. Without them we become isolated, cast adrift.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Halfway to heaven

Watching the YouTube film of my Latin American trip opened the floodgates again. There are still so many moments that remain clearly imprinted on my memory, almost forty years later: sailing to the Galapagos Islands on a cargo steamer, driving down out of the Andes into Amazonia in the rainy season, trying to change money in a Santiago back street a few months before the fall of the Allende government, being arrested in La Paz, hitching a lift with an opera-singing Peruvian madman, being handed a loaded revolver in a car in Guatemala and so on.
Much of our itinerary (though not all of what happened on it) is now routine for a gap year traveller, but it certainly wasn’t then, in 1973. We felt like the first European tourists ever to have set foot in some of the places where we ended up. The means of transport, rugged three-ton ex-army trucks, had a lot to do with it and never more so than when we crossed over from Chile into Bolivia. There are a couple of minutes on the film of what followed, but that really doesn’t begin to do justice to the experience.
The border was at a breathless 11,000 feet above sea-level, somewhere inland from Antofagasta, a town where it never rains, at the northern end of the Chilean Atacama desert. The Chilean side of the border crossing was manned but not the Bolivian side. We had to find our way to the town of Uyuni, we were told, where we would get our passports stamped. This proved a lot less easy than it sounded.
At the border the metalled surface stopped abruptly. Beyond, a railway line and a tracery of vague dirt tracks disappeared into the distance, but there was nothing in the arid, mountainous landscape remotely resembling a road. The only map we’d managed to get hold of was Russian, I don’t know why. Uyuni was marked on it, but it was over 100 miles distant, there was what looked like a vast lake in the way, and there were no discernible features either on the map or in the landscape by which we could navigate.
It took us two days to get there – two days of driving sometimes in circles, sometimes through dusty baked-mud villages that from a distance resembled clumps of large boulders, sometimes through swamps of mud or sand, but mostly through the absolute emptiness of the altiplano, the high-altitude plateau of the central Andes.
On the second day we had what still rates as one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. The lake marked on the map turned out to be the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Half the size of Yorkshire, it's a vast expanse of milky white water, a few inches deep, lying on a thick crust of salt at 12,000 feet above sea-level.
We had picked up a local guide and had been skirting the salar for some time when, to our astonishment, he directed us out onto a short, rough causeway. We watched, hearts in mouths, as the lead truck bumped along the causeway and then down into the water. The crust did not give way. The truck rolled forward, picked up speed and we followed. Soon we were bowling along at a steady 20 miles an hour on a surface as smooth as a billiards table, the lead truck kicking up a fine salt spray that coated us from head to foot.
It took three-and-a-half hours to cross the salar, a distance of 70 miles. In the thin air the sun burned down and the sky was brilliantly blue. Around us the salt was blindingly white. After a while the hills behind us dwindled to nothing. Then the horizon started to melt as a thin haze of cloud settled and met the water, and we found ourselves gliding through a surreal, uniformly milky world in which it was impossible to determine where land ended and sky began. In the middle of this, distant shapes came to life and floated upwards. It was a huge flock of scarlet flamingos. Later, a semi-circle of volcanoes began to materialise out of the haze.
Today, trips to the Salar de Uyuni are on every off-piste travel company’s itinerary. Recent photographs show squadrons of landrovers parked at one of the weird volcanic islands that rise out of the salt. I don’t doubt that these travellers marvel at the place just as we did, but I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them, and sorrier still for the desecrated salar.
When we stumbled across it we had no idea of its existence. It seemed to us like a pristine wilderness. In 70 miles we saw nothing but a solitary man on a bicycle. We had no idea that when the causeway ended, the lead truck wouldn’t simply vanish through the crust, no idea how long it would take us to cross; and certainly no idea that we would spend the best part of three hours in this extraordinary saline limbo, literally suspended between heaven and earth. It was almost as if, for a short while, we’d left the planet.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Mind the gaps

Last Saturday I took part in the final event of the 26 Treasures Scotland project, chairing a panel discussion at the Winter Words book festival in the Pitlochry Festival Theatre. February 4 is a date which, since university days, I have thought of as the absolute nadir of the year. True to form, it was a filthy afternoon, sleety and freezing. We were also up against the Calcutta Cup kick-off at Murrayfield, half-an-hour after we started. But still we got an audience of about 40 people in the main auditorium.
The panelists were historical novelist Sara Sheridan, who has been the driving force behind the project, Linda Cracknell, writer of short stories and radio plays, and Alison Weir, expert on the Tudors and one of the UK’s most successful writers of historical biographies and novels. Sara, Linda and I had all contributed to the project. Alison had not, but she was in Pitlochry anyway doing her own event and the organisers thought her presence would add something to ours. It did.
The three of us talked about the objects we had been allocated and then read our respective 62 words on Queen Mary’s harp, the Coigrich – a talismanic gold casing for the handle of a bishop’s crosier, and the Gown of Repentance. We had also asked Alison to choose an object and she had obligingly come up with 62 words of her own on a large lump of Lewisian Gneiss, at (appropriately) 2.6 billion years old, the most ancient of all the 26 treasures.
We then began a conversation about whether these short pieces of highly personal writing, essentially fictions created in response to the allocated objects, had any place in a museum whose chief purpose is the presentation of fact. To elaborate on the question, I asked Alison if she had ever written a novel about an historical character for whom she had also written a biography. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘more than once. It’s all about filling in the gaps, you see.’
And that, it seems to me, is what the whole 26 Treasures project has been about – filling in the gaps. Mostly we stand in front of objects in museums armed only with the factual information provided by curators. We may be intellectually or aesthetically engaged by them, but if our imaginations aren’t kindled we are seldom going to make the more human, more emotional connection with them and their time and place of origin.
26 Treasures encouraged the writers, first, to imagine the stories around these objects, and then to communicate those to the museum’s visitors. The stories don’t alter the facts any more than Alison Weir’s novels alter their underlying historical truths, but they do enhance them. It’s no surprise that so many of the 26 writers came away from the project with a distinctly proprietary feeling about their objects; though the Gown of Repentance, unsurprisingly, stirred no such feelings for me.
But filling in the gaps is something we are naturally inclined to do as imaginative creatures. It’s what I constantly tell business writers. You don’t need to give us the kitchen sink. You can easily get rid of half of what you’ve said and your audience will still get it. We’re hard wired to read between the cracks. We imagine and intuit and do very effectively all those unmeasurable things that the business world finds so alarming. If we didn’t we would have been savaged by sabretooths or trampled by mammoths millennia ago.

To see all the 26 Treasures at the National Museum of Scotland click here.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Close encounter

In December 1972 I quit my job at Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly and flew to Argentina with my girlfriend. There we met up with 30 other travellers of all nationalities and stripes who had signed up for a trip with the adventure travel company, Encounter Overland. With its fleet of orange-painted, blue-canvased three-ton Bedford ex-army trucks and trailers, the company had been driving the hippy trail to Afghanistan since the late 1960s. Now Latin America beckoned. At £500 a head for a five-month itinerary that would take us from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles, we were the guinea pigs.
In the event, my journey lasted nearly a year. Encounter Overland had miscalculated and by the time we got to Lima, three months into the trip, they realised they were going to have to drive 18 hours a day to make their deadline. My girlfriend and I jumped ship and continued on our own, eventually flying home from Toronto the following September.
It was a momentous year in more ways than I can describe. I was 23 and very unsure of what I wanted to do. I had a law degree but no interest in continuing with the law, I’d allowed myself to be shoehorned into articles with an accountancy firm which had lasted only a few months, and I’d tried bookselling which had just left me feeling restless. I’d had a couple of short stories published and had the vague notion that I wanted to write full length fiction, but not the faintest idea about what. So when, to my father’s dismay, my mother sent me an advertisement for the trip, I jumped at it. What I didn’t know, of course, was that on a journey like this one tends not so much to find answers as more questions. When I got back to the UK I was still none the wiser, but I was profoundly altered and the experiences are with me vividly 40 years later.
Apart from some articles published shortly after I returned, I’ve tried writing about it twice since. In both cases I’ve fictionalised the Latin American experience; and while I don’t know what will eventually happen with The Artefact, in the first instance the trip provided the backdrop for the one novel I’ve written which remains unpublished. And this, Dear Readers, is what I believe lies at the heart of the dilemma and my request for help – to which you responded so generously, almost overwhelmingly.
Some of your thoughts came as comments to the blog, others as emails or phone calls – and I’m deeply grateful for them all. Roughly a third of you said Carry on, for reasons ranging from ‘An unfinished story is a pitiful thing’ to ‘We’re desperate to know what happens’ to ‘At least give it one more try’. The other two-thirds said the more difficult thing: ‘Look within’. Well, I did – with the help of a patient wife, a long frosty walk and, among many splendid and considered pieces of advice, the words of Gillian Clelland who wrote: ‘Yer heart doesny always get it right, neither does yer head, I find yer tummy always tells ye whit tae dae. Listen tae yer tummy. You will feel what is right for you…’
I consulted the entrails, Dear Readers – my own – and divined that I need to revisit the journey more fully, more personally; that it would be valuable to understand more deeply the many ways in which that year shaped me, and that to fictionalise it is to trivialise it when it has quite clearly been knocking at my door, demanding my serious attention, for some time. Put simply, I need to connect with the emotion of the experience, rather than holding it at one remove.
This doesn’t mean that I won’t at some stage return to The Artefact. ‘It will wait if it’s really right,’ counselled Faye Sharpe, ‘artefacts do, believe me, I’m an archaeologist, remember?’ But it does mean that for the time being I have another writing job to do which may, as Neil Baker suggested, turn out to be something closer to memoir; though at this stage I’m reluctant to give it form. Meanwhile, my heartfelt thanks once more to all of you who responded to my plea. I’m flattered that there are that many of you who are even interested in my ruminations.
And now I shall obey Andy Milligan, who wrote: ‘… enough of this self-reflection, man. Away with you and start writing!’

As a remarkable postscript to this, I have just Googled Encounter Overland to check some facts, and discovered that on YouTube there are three 10-minute episodes of a film made during our trip by the cameraman Peter Sinclair who travelled with us. I had completely forgotten about it and am not even sure whether I saw it at the time. I've just spent an utterly surreal half-hour watching my younger self and others pushing a three-ton truck out of axle-deep mud on the Bolivian altiplano. See here.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Breaking up is so hard to do

I've been dismembering one of my books, painstakingly taking it apart, page by page, so that each comes away from the glue of the spine cleanly, a perfect rectangle. It's a strange, not entirely comfortable, feeling. The book in question is a paperback copy of The Witness, my post-Scottish-independence thriller. I'm doing it because I no longer have an electronic version and the only way I can get the book onto Kindle is to have the text scanned and create a new file from it.
As I remove the pages I can't help pausing when my eye is caught by a passage or turn of phrase I remember particularly well or am especially proud of. I find myself reliving the pleasure of writing it, and this throws into relief the dilemma I face at the moment: should I abandon the novel I've been writing for the last four years? I wrote here last year that 'the story demands to be finished. It’s a living, growing thing, and to let it wither on the vine would be tantamount to abortion. I feel morally obliged to it, such is the power and energy of story.'
Hmm ... now I'm not so sure. I think perhaps that this particular story has lost its energy. More than that, I wonder about its relevance to me in 2012. When I started it, in 2008, I had recently published two novels in quick succession, both of which had been critically well received. A third in the same general genre - the young adult thriller - seemed the obvious thing to do, especially for someone whose literary career to date had followed a random trajectory to say the least.
I had two ideas gnawing at me. One was to mine the diaries I had written nearly 40 years previously, during a year travelling on a shoestring through Latin America. The other was to examine the impulses that make someone steal. As a small boy at boarding school I had stolen sweets, sometimes from the large jar of favours that sat in the headmaster's study (fair game one might say), sometimes, much more shamefully, from other boys. I had been caught and beaten for it and it had troubled me, intermittently, ever since. What, at that moment in my life, had made me do something I had never done before and have never done since?
My story, The Artefact, concerns a precocious eight-year-old who is taken by his parents on a scientific expedition to Amazonia where the whole family suffers a trauma. Later, back in Scotland and growing up neglected by his work-obsessed parents, he starts to steal compulsively. This leads him into bad company and worse trouble. By the time he is about to leave school he is staring into the abyss. It comes to him that he has been cursed, that the only way to get out of trouble and rid himself of the compulsion is to return to South America and right a wrong he had committed there as a child, ten years earlier.
Although I’ve written around 70,000 words, hardly any of that has been over the last two years. Other commitments and interests have taken over, not least Room 121, the business book I co-wrote with John Simmons, and this blog. Dipping back into The Artefact now, some of it seems good, some less so, but - and this may just be the time of year, though I suspect not - it feels stale; the thought of returning to it does not make my pulse race. I know that to finish it is still several months' work. Then there's the thorny question of whether to find a publisher or self-publish. There’s promotion - can I face, indeed do I have the time for, touring the secondary schools again. And there’s the commitment to a follow-up, pretty much a given should I find a publisher.
  To some extent the project has already done its job. I’ve come to understand through the research and writing that in certain circumstances stealing can offer a form of comfort and a sense of self-connection - an explanation certainly, if not an exoneration. I’ve also discovered that my South American material bears revisiting, and there are other arenas in which I could re-work it, this blog for example. Yet a year ago a prominent children’s author for whom I have great respect, insisted that I finish it and paid me the compliment of saying that the kind of books I write are important to their audience.
So I’m stuck. Should I finish it simply because it's there? I need some other opinions – including yours, Dear Readers. I'm posting the first couple of chapters here to give a flavour of The Artefact. If you can spare a few moments, please read them and help me decide: carry on or let go?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

A time for kindling

There are some things you just have to take on the chin.
Ten days ago we had our annual Dark Angels get-together. John comes up to Edinburgh from London. Stuart and I meet him at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. We plan the coming year and enjoy a good lunch.
‘You’re such a geek,’ they said, as I produced my new iPad.
It’s not quite how I see myself, but from their perspectives I guess maybe it’s true. John cleverly avoids things technological by having an obliging better half to whom he refers from time to time as his IT manager. Stuart, the poet, simply scribbles things on the backs of envelopes. Me … well, yes, I confess I enjoy things that do clever stuff. I like to be properly tooled up for the job on hand (unfortunate turn of phrase, I know).
The iPad was a Christmas present to myself, well-deserved of course. That cut no ice with my 20-year-old son. He stole it at once and disappeared on an Angry Birds binge. When I’d retrieved it, I set about downloading the Kindle app (although in truth you don’t set about anything with an iPad; you just tap the screen and whatever it is happens almost instantaneously). In any case, this – Kindle – was the real reason, I’d persuaded myself, that I needed an iPad.
A few weeks before, I’d had an e-publishing tutorial with Edinburgh crime writer, Lin Anderson. Lin has had some decent results on Kindle with her backlist and is now, generously, on a mission to spread the good word to other writers. The good word is this: no writer need ever again suffer the indignity of titles forlornly mouldering in that great literary boneyard known as 'out of-print'.
This is a revelation. Out-of-print titles, in my case four out of six, are to all intents and purposes dead. No one’s promoting them (not that anyone other than me ever did much for mine, anyway). No one can buy them. No one can read them. All that effort and it’s as if, by declining to reprint, the publishers have locked them away, out of sight forever.
Enter Amazon. Suddenly, with a little bit of formatting I can upload my text and jacket image to the Kindle store, write the blurb, set my own price (having first reverted the rights from the publishers, of course) and the books can carry on selling forever. Now, here’s the really good bit. If that price is more than £1.50, Kindle gives me back 70% (or 30% under £1.50). I can set the price as high or low as I like, and change it every day if I want to test the market. Furthermore, Amazon, with all its clever algorithms, will automatically, electronically do at least as much promotion as my publishers did.
I’ve written in the past about the economics of publishing fiction (see here), but only in respect of my ten percent of the cover price and what it has contributed to my overall income (practically nothing); not about where the rest has gone. One swallows all kinds of things out of habit or convention. In twenty years of being published I’d never really questioned the obvious madness of giving away ninety percent of the income from work that I had sweated blood over. I do now.
Did I really need to help finance a glass-and-steel office at King’s Cross, an editor of whose time I might get a couple of days per book, a marketing department quite likely to commission a cover I hated, and a publicity department staffed largely by eager but clueless teenagers?
Clearly not, as I now understand. I can’t wait to get my backlist up on Kindle, to bring these books I love and am proud of back to life again. They won’t necessarily be my pension (though nothing’s impossible), but they will at least be there for people to read once more. Perhaps I am a geek, after all. If so, I’m a geek who doesn’t like not being read.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Life and Fate

We're two weeks into the new year and stories are everywhere, it seems. There's Melvyn Bragg and his Radio 4 series on the history of literature. It was the 4,000 year-old Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh, that set humanity off on its story-telling spree, he tells us. Then there's War Horse, Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's children's novel. Amid all the publicity, the author has been seizing every opportunity to repeat his mantra that every primary school day should end with the children being read to for half an hour.
   Back on Radio 4 Sarah Wheeler has been introducing readings from the diaries of various members of Scott's South Pole expedition, surely one of the most tragic of exploration stories. And then there was Jeanette Winterson talking passionately about why it matters to read. 'A book is a door,' she said. 'On the other side lies somewhere else.'
   I love that thought. The somewhere else, of course, exists only in our imaginations. But how vivid and real it can feel. Over the Christmas holidays I finished Life and Fate, the 800-page saga by Vassily Grossman set in 1942 during the battle for Stalingrad. Not the kind of thing I normally go for, I have to admit; the last big Russian I read was Dostoevsky, in my early twenties. But after Radio 4 recently gave over every drama slot for an entire week to a dramatisation of Grossman's book, I mentioned that it sounded worth reading and was promptly given it for my birthday.
   During the war Grossman worked as a journalist, reporting from the Eastern Front for the Red Army press. Witnessing the deadening hand of state ideology, even in the thick of battle, he was appalled by the similarities between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany - and went on to describe them in the novel with an almost Orwellian clarity. Before the book was even finished it had attracted the attention of the KGB, who eventually confiscated it. Grossman died in 1964 but had made copies which were later smuggled to the west where it was first published in 1980.
   It tells the story of Viktor Strum, a Jewish theoretical physicist, and his extended family who between them experience practically every shade of existence in the Russia of the 1940s, from the front line to the labour camps, the state-sponsored laboratory to the steppes, the Lubyanka to Treblinka. The central scene is the desperate struggle for control of Stalingrad during the pitiless winter of 1942/43; the central theme the erosion of individual destiny by the relentlessly controlling mechanism of the communist state.
   As 'somewhere else' it wasn't always an easy place to be, but it was an equally difficult place to leave. In my imagination I absolutely inhabited those bombed-out factories, Siberian wastelands, crumbling apartments; I lived the characters'  inner and outer struggles. The scale and ambition of the book made most of the contemporary fiction I have read seem puny and domestic. For the couple of months it took me to read it majestically enriched my imaginative hinterland and I don't doubt that I've expanded personally as a result. That's why we need to read. That's why the bookless households inhabited by a third of children in the UK offer such a bleak prospect.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Community spirit

For me the year began properly on Monday night with the annual village dance. In the middle of Birnam is a large, ugly Victorian hotel with one marvellous, possibly unique, feature – a huge first-floor baronial hall. Here we gather every New Year to dance and greet those neighbours we didn’t bump into in the car park of the Taybank pub which, complete with covered stage, raucous band and compulsory inebriation, has now become the focal point for Hogmanay itself.
The ceilidh, by contrast, is a family event. Every generation is there and most people know one another. There’s a great atmosphere, excellent music from Edinburgh's Bella MacNab ceilidh band, pretty well everyone dances, no one gets too drunk or shouts, and the feeling of goodwill is palpable. I leave each time with the glowing sense of belonging to a real community. It’s a constant delight and a novelty that never wears off for someone brought up in the kind of rarefied circle where one was more likely to have tea in a castle than mix with the local village folk.
It made me think what an elastic word ‘community’ has become. We talk of communities today to mean groups of people who are bound together only by someone else’s idea. There’s much talk of community in the corporate social responsibility report I’m currently writing for a large manufacturing plc. They’re eager – quite understandably in these scrutinous times – to be seen to be connecting with people beyond the factory walls, and doing the right thing by them. But the members of these communities, be they whole towns local to the factories, or particular common interest groups with whom the company has dealings, or just, collectively, the people who buy their products, have no knowledge of one another. So are they really communities? No, of course not. In a real community everyone is known to everyone else and all are nourished and supported by their membership of that group.
Which doesn’t, of course, mean that they must live cheek-by-jowl. A community that flowered briefly but thrillingly, and which I now miss greatly, was that of the musicians that gathered every Monday night at my local pub, the Birnam Tap Inn, during the first five years I lived in the village. Over the last few days I’ve been listening again to recordings I made of those sessions and the feeling of nostalgia is, at moments, almost unbearable.
We came together one evening a week to make music in the most spontaneous, open, communal way possible. Everyone was welcome, whatever their musical ability. There was no programme or agenda. We simply played what we felt like on the night and because the place attracted excellent musicians, the music was mostly of a much higher quality than usual for a pub session. It was exhilarating and deeply connecting, not just for the players but also for the audience of regulars and passers-by. We were all enriched by the experience and on certain nights, when the energy was high and the musicians hit a particular groove, there was an almost religious intensity to the experience.
The session finally ended when the hotel to which the pub belonged closed down. That was three years ago. Now the place is a pizza parlour; home, perhaps, to a new community of regulars. Whatever brings us together, most of us need communities - although it wasn't really until I returned to Scotland, in my early 40s, that I realised it. Now I belong to several, the village of Dunkeld and Birnam, Dark Angels and 26, to name but three. The thought warms me as we face the uncertainties of 2012.