About Me

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Shortlisted Bath Short Story Award 2013 Runner-up Cinnamon Press Competition 2013 WNNER: Don Louth Writer of the Year (run by Reading Writers) WINNER: Bradt/Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2012. SHORTLISTED: Scott Prize (Salt Publishing) 2012 for a short story collection. Writer/ Journalist - assistant editor and writer for the art and books pages of Wolfprint. Most recently published in Independent on Sunday and short story anthologies: Sentinel Champions No 9, 100 Stories for Queensland, 50 Stories for Pakistan, 100 Stories for Haiti and From Hell to Eternity. In a recent writing competition, Joanne Harris described my writing as '...compelling (but quite creepy)'

Friday, 5 December 2014


Julie Burchill and Cosmo Landesman in the same room. Could ever such a thing happen? Well it did – at Covent Garden’s Horse Hospital on a skin-flaking December night. December 2nd to be precise. Both were there to discuss their respective memoirs and in particular, some small recollections of their marriage. Can a memoir ever be subjective? Is an entirely straight account simply boring?

Two people, once lovers, sat on the stage – with journalist Katie Glass between them. There was a crackle of anticipation. Many people in the room knew Burchill, or were fascinated by her unusual, unquiet life.

It was clear as the night progressed that Julie and Cosmo are very different people: Julie is a modernist and a mischief-maker. She believes in ‘candour in all things’. Candour was clearly once a worry for Cosmo, as he once put a stipulation in their divorce papers that Julie never spoke about their relationship. When Cosmo spoke publicly about their relationship first and broke his own embargo, she saw it as a release to do the same, albeit with great discretion. ‘I was a gentleman,’ she said quietly. Cosmo is much more of a measured and melancholic soul but his description of the young Julie tip-tapping out words while asking sweetly to be fuelled on more booze and cocaine - still producing ‘perfect copy’ - was a revelation. ‘I was taught by a master,’ he admitted and his tone throughout was seemingly fond, nostalgic and self-deprecating. They both remembered the ‘cold vodka and hot sex’ of their early affair. In contrast, the notorious bileophile Julie was disparaging about Tony Parsons, her first husband. He was, she said, always keen to come to London to parties to ‘be all cockney and also be my bespoke fucking guard dog’. It was clear that Cosmo – her ‘hot jew’ had been an escape, an adventure and a breath of clean, unpolluted air.

Their first meeting – or memory of it – was an example of how subjective memoir truly is and how detail is remembered so uniquely. Cosmo met the ‘hip young gunslinger of punk’ and she met the ‘son of the parents who have an open marriage’. The young Julie was all legs and pale skin, whereas Julie saw Cosmo as a young John Taylor from Duran Duran, without the flounciness. Or the hair. ‘Now you look like a Jewish grandmother,’ she giggled. Cosmo’s peculiar family – the subject of his memoir - was talked about a great deal.

Julie read a chapter from her memoir Unchosen called ‘Meet the Perverts’. Cosmo’s family were notoriously into free love and they pottered, kaftan-kinky, in a crumbling house in Islington that they had picked up for a song in the sixties. Cosmo describes his father Jay wearing purple nail varnish and his mother in a see-through kaftan at the school gates. ‘Were you jealous of your father?’ asked Julie. ‘I guess I was,’ said Cosmo. His father was a libertine but a very successful one, with women at least. The fact that he tried to blag his way into parties with his ‘I’m Julie Burchill’s father in law, don’t you know!’ truly placed him as a wannabe, besotted by celebrity. Cosmo’s mother Fran once berated the clean very working class Julie for throwing away mouldy bread. ‘I dislike beards on men,’ said Burchill –‘ …but I dislike them even more on bread.’ She was pretty brutal about his parents and described Cosmo as the ‘only intelligent person in that house’. A house she nicknamed Slaggy Heights. ‘Not so much Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ she said, ‘…but more Guess Who’s Coming to Do You…’ It prompted a member of the audience, who knew the Landesman family well, to stand up during open questions and make a long defence of the parents. She wasn’t the only person to make a statement rather than ask a question, as some people seemed to have missed the point of a time for questions.

During open questions, a woman garbled a little about being middle class – most of us lost her point – whereas Julie told her sweetly: ‘I can tell that by the way you talk.’ (She was high end posh). It was a great putdown and some of us were choking with laughter. Burchill is funnier than a donkey on acid slipping on a banana skin. She gives you belly laughs because that’s exactly where she kicks. Cosmo throughout simply shrugged at the stories and muttered ‘true…true’. I actually quite liked him and wasn’t expecting to. Julie was very generous in complimenting his book and he gave her a number of sincere compliments too. Not a love fest, but a relationship with a certain amount of respect, particularly as they share parenting.

Ultimately, there were some fiery moments, but no blood drawn. Or at least, none dripped. Julie did sneer at Cosmo’s romanticism of the past. ‘You think things were better then,’ she told him. He denied it, but his protests faded away pretty quickly. When, during their marriage, he told her he was writing the great London novel. Later in his life, his failure to do it successfully was always a regret for him. The Tough and The Tender was the intended title. ‘Sounds like a butcher’s memoir,’ Julie giggled to the audience. But she was unimpressed by a suicide in the novel of a character very obviously based on her: a woman who ultimately throws herself off Brighton Pier. ‘If I had written about you throwing yourself under a lorry in Tesco’s car park, you wouldn’t have been happy. It’s so mundane. But you are more of the suicidal type than I am,’ she said wryly.

Cosmo painted well the fire and fun of their life together. Yet he rarely smiled. He seemed to have a melancholic core that has hardened over the years. He talked about the young punky girl teasing him and call him a fucking ponce with one ‘crazy demonic finger’ – pushing him to write when he was tangled up in angst and procrastination. He admitted once to only 250 words and he was known for rewriting shopping lists. ‘Just hit out the fucker,’ was her advice. I was reminded of the glorious film Betty Blue – where beautiful troubled Betty acts as a strange but effective mentor to the blocked writer Zorg.

However, if you think that I am referring to Julie and Cosmo as the tough and the tender in the title, you would be very wrong. Julie showed a great deal of tenderness during the evening, particularly in the way she described her parents: ‘straight out of Thomas Hardy novel’. She talked quietly too about the Stalinist influence she inherited from her father, which faded eventually but formed a lot of her opinions at the time. She considered that each new marriage was better and Cosmo gave her confidence, was the sherpa who took her up the mountain. At the summit of course is now her Dan, the brother of Charlotte Raven, who she originally left Cosmo for. ‘I will die in my marriage, ‘ she said, before apologising for being ‘operatic’. Cosmo also talked about being with Julie as ‘winning the lottery of love’.

But ultimately, the subject of Julie’s memoir Unchosen is her love of the Jewish faith. It was only brushed upon during the evening but she is very clearly fuelled by this love. She now has a happy marriage and her Jewish faith. Her eyes shone and she sat up straighter whenever Judaism was discussed. Cosmo pronounced Judaism as ‘Judyism’ in his chewy American accent and called himself a ‘bad jew’. He was quickly corrected and for a second, you saw the solid husband-wife combo in their comfortable berating of one another. Two writers in the same house must have created interesting chemistry. Cosmo argued that she was not quite so pro-jewish when he knew her, but Julie vehemently denied that.

A tough and tender lady indeed. I feel Julie Burchill – the heroine I so admired in my bondage-trousered teens – is tough in terms of not accepting any bullshit, but is tender in terms of friends she loves, a husband she adores and a faith she will be fiercely faithful to for the rest of her life. But don’t think settled and slippers – that is not her style. There is still the same naughty insolent spark in her eyes and when she told the story of Cosmo asking her about books on her bedside table when she was younger, her remembered reaction was typically scathing: ‘Bedside table, I said! I don’t have a fucking bedside table! What am I – 50!’

Now 50 has come and gone, but Julie Burchill still has energy and things she wants to do. If she has climbed a mountain, from the evidence of that evening, she has not only arrived at the top, she is planting flags everywhere with happy, well-oiled hyperactivity. I hope she and Cosmo take their banter on the road. They have so much to say about marriage, the process of writing and the world as we are experiencing it now. A great night.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

J K Rowling and her Cloak of Invisibility

I was intrigued by J K Rowling’s recent flirtation with her cloak of invisibility. There will be plenty of people – particularly publishing folk – who will dissect and analyse her motives, as well as sniffing out a cynical marketing exercise that will of course, in time, make money.

I do have to be honest – the industry that Rowling began has given me my house and the food I eat. My ex other half worked on Potter for ten years and it was fascinating, but more so for the tactile talent it stirred up amongst designers and artists, who had a vision that was spurred from a reasonably-sized book. The creativity of crafting wands and Rowling’s early involvement with drawings and notes was genuinely exciting. But talk of it was forbidden at home - it grew so big that it was too overwhelming at times. I went to a few Potter parties and again, if I’m honest, I was bored. Actors are lovely but they ‘are’ rather than have vast and complex things to say that have not been written for them. Film folk too sometimes have a hard edge or they live in a rarified world where the veneer is important, but nothing is deep. So when I finally got to talk to Rowling – a fellow writer - I felt a sense of relief.

She has been typecast so much – so many have built a sense of romantic poverty about her life. People flutter around her, waiting for their good fortune to arrive from a touch of her hand. So what did I ask her? About Wales of course. She went to school in Chepstow and grew up in that area. I was a Tintern teenager and although the valley is lovely, I can fully understand the need to create worlds of your own, to cloud-dream lying on your back in a field. The penultimate film recreated the forest in the Severn Valley and so I asked her if she missed Wales. I had a lot of champagne inside me and she had more – but the joyful way she talked about Wales was real, very passionate.

But I didn’t ask her about the name Hermoine. My mother – who had an antique shop in Tintern, not far from Chepstow, had her name across the shop front. Her name is Hermoine – not Hermione – my grandfather spelt it incorrectly on the birth certificate. But I often wondered if J K Rowling made the connection. Yet I never want to know – to be disappointed, perhaps.

But drunk or not, she struck me as intelligent, mischievous and playful. In some ways, it’s sad that people can only see her as money as a ‘standard’ for writers. ‘You can be the next J K Rowling’ is the most vulgar and depressing thing I hear from non-literary folk and even, shame on them, some bookish souls. Money is important of course – it cushions you from some pain – but literary excellence is better, surely?

So I understand why she wrapped herself in Gaibraith (which means ‘stranger’ but also is a Scottish estate agency.) For a moment she could walk in the world with a moustache and a big hat pulled down over her face and people would still say ‘Handsome fellow.’ Writers are about words, the quiet internal worlds. But successful writers – where we know their faces and every aspect of their lives – invite huge amounts of criticism and some jealous sneering. Many attack the work as sport and it often goes beyond literary criticism. So the production of this work quietly let her know that she can write, that other writers rate her without all the baggage of the Rowling name. She has broken out of the typecast and instead of the main part in the panto, she was for a while the back end of the horse, watching the audience from a hole in the cloth.

Many discussions will be made and now of course, like people who forensically analyse the darkness in pop songs, meanings will be made for her Cuckoo. But a cuckoo too is of course in disguise and the over-grown nest baby and by the time it is revealed, it is too late. I’m sure that there was lots of playful knowing symbolism that made her chuckle when she was writing the book.

She is not the first writer to write under another name and if you can afford to experiment as a writer, then why not? It worked for the wonderful George Eliot in a sexist age. When writers become a clumsy and monstrous brand – they surely crave some delicacy and impartial judgment of the words they spill on the page? Let’s love our writing – be the best we can and stop being jealous of those who actually get off their backsides – or should that be settle down on their backsides – and write! Not to be the next Rowling, not to copy any particular voice or see gold in the print. Just to write because you have twitchy fingers and some tiny little fictional people keep matchstick-poking your brain to smear their lives on some paper.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

In The Lowlands

Depression is like a dog chasing its tail. But it’s a tail that not even the dog wants. Not really. It is just the compulsive need – a short circuit in the brain – that prevents the dog from leaping up and racing outside to join a world of new. Of vibrant. Of delicious potential.

I now put my hands up and admit that I am deeply depressed. But I am only depressed on certain days, when my Interferon kicks in and the bugger causes this reaction. So I know the cause – it’s a recognised side effect. I don’t want anti-depressants. Really don’t like the idea of a pill-popping Valley of the Dolls existence. I have a bit of an obsessive and compulsive personality but not OCD. They are separate things.

Matt Haig – he of new book The Humans – has spoken out about depression. I saw him launch the book last week and when he was asked by a fellow depression sufferer if he wrote through the low bits, he admitted that he hasn’t had a major low for quite some time. His focus and humour were very – oh I hate the word ‘inspiring’ – but yes, they were.

In fact, I do love the way writers are formed. It is rarely a linear process. They get battered as they go along, something is chipped or they stumble. Or they deviate into various daft adventures. Where else can you see a CV that is proud of ‘I was a circus performer at gunpoint, ran cigarettes for the Gestapo and plucked chickens in Margate’ etc? But writers do need not to be neat creatures, if they are to find little strange moments, characters that you would never meet in an accountancy firm. Of course, there are those who live a neat carefully controlled life who can write purely from imagination – particularly famous fantasy writers. But they are rare. Things spark from wandering down wrong streets.

I have been down some bloody awful streets. Taken risks, been in relationships with unsuitable folk, been reckless. There were times, when I met a golden-haired Oxford graduate that I felt ‘Jeez – how messy my life is and how blessed and Brideshead brilliant their life must be.’

So depression is a dark street and sometimes, a rough hand pulls me into a street littered with fag butts the smell of failure. But stories also come in those times – they just may need a little lighter shading in the good times. Dark is good but some stories are coloured in by oblivion – so much so you can hardly see them.

I mentioned the dog and that depression can be a debilitatingly circular affliction. You worry and thoughts magnify, repeat and then hurt you so much you can’t function. It’s bloody annoying because you end up being a bore, melodramatic. Yesterday I went to a Quaker thing in London. Religion can be boring too – if people with shine in their eyes try and persuade you that their happiness can be your happiness, I run away. Quakerism is never like this. I am an atheist Quaker and this is fine. All manner of things are fine in Quakerism. It’s a Society of Friends and activism is a huge part of it all – whether it be political or compassionate. It’s also about thinking, challenging preconceptions. One Quaker talked about his bisexuality and how the Society of Friends now embraces same sex marriages. Another fellow talked about his militant atheism and how he loves to ‘embrace the anarchy.’

It felt like an intellectual movement, rather than an incense and robes kind of religion. The latter is fine for some but really, I’ve done that and I have the ‘Bloody Guilty All My Life’ t-shirt. But finding a group of folk who share your world view is also about joy, finding it wherever you can.

So – what was I talking about – oh yes, depression. Yeah, it’s annoying but I seem to be pushing myself to productivity. Most writers do. It almost becomes a ‘I haven’t got depression or alcoholicism– good grief I can’t be a writer!’ If you are not in the gloomy club….tut, tut.

But when you are in that low place, your skin is softer. I was hit hard recently by someone beloved telling me that ‘You were special, but not that special.’

Someone who can kick a dog (chasing its tail) when it’s down – may reveal much about a person that no further comment should be made. It helped me let go of them completely – hoorah! No one that heartless deserves much from me. Special is subjective and we shouldn’t really be hostage to anyone else’s approval. Special is what you do, how you treat people, that soft chicken fillety thing in your chest. Trying not to sound like a shy over-sensitive snuffly schoolteacher in thick-can’t-see-you-without-them-glasses – but YOU ARE ALL SPECIAL.


I am writing a novel: The Modelmaker’s Daughter. Trying to run along with a 1,000 word challenge with my writing group Reading Writers. Keep getting sidetracked by various travel writing and article things.

Have had article on Abruzzo published in The Independent on Sunday: http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/europe/abruzzo-poetry-in-motion-in-central-italy-8603826.html

The best thing about that?

My guide Alessio – who is mentioned quite a lot in that piece – sent me a message: ‘Brave, Maestro!’ To put his beautiful country in a British newspaper, made him incredibly happy. You can warm your hands on other people’s happiness, can’t you?

I have been shortlisted for The Bath Short Story Award, which felt like some bloody achievement.

White blood cell count is very low but I treasure the ones I have. I will treat them well and try to keep them away from stress. Maybe I shouldn’t take them down too many dark streets. In fact, I should be a better writer and not mix my metaphors. Dogs chasing tails and dark streets indeed! Ah who cares. They are my words, my indulgences, my legacy.

Write well and prosper, folks!

Sunday, 31 March 2013


It has been a crazy few weeks. Whenever I have been tired, I have remembered greater folk than me. Did Scott of the Antarctic seek a comfortable chair and a Hobnob? Did Shackleton watch bad TV? No because they pushed up through unpleasantness and strain – to achieve great things.

Not at all comparable – but I have challenged myself to do interesting stuff and none more interesting than going to Downing Street. Me – an ex-anarchist – walking the stairs where many decision-makers' slippers have trodden. But this was important – an event for RAILWAY CHILDREN


A group of mostly women (as we had been selected through our connection with Mumsnet, the very vocal parenting site that often makes the news) met first at Horseguards Parade Hotel – for lurid macaroons and to meet several other charities around the country who deal with children on the streets:


These lost children are invisible to most. Outreach workers, who can see them, are out there all the time – not only checking on anyone obviously homeless, but identifying children at risk.

Statistics can be powerful – but these just made me sad:

Every year thousands of children across the UK, India and East Africa run away or are forced to leave homes that have become unbearable through poverty, abuse, violence and neglect.

In the UK a child runs away from home every 5 minutes. That's 100,000 children under 16 a year, and 70% of those children are never even reported missing by those who are supposed to love and protect them.
Unwanted, unloved and often abused, children find themselves alone and at risk on the streets simply because there's nowhere else to go and no one left to turn to.

The streets are often even more dangerous and frightening than the homes these children were desperate to escape. Violence becomes a way of life; something to be endured and often a necessary means of survival. Sexual abuse and exploitation is rife. Drug use often seeps into the lives of children living on the streets and becomes impossible to avoid; drugs are often the only available escape from the hopelessness of their situation. These factors are the same across the three continents in which we work.

With no means of support or protection, these children fade into the background of the streets, often unseen by societies who either deny their existence or regard them as the 'norm'.’

So many of these children are under twelve years old. Imagine not even having a dozen years on the planet under your belt and to be out in the world. Vulnerable, maybe superficially tough but on the inside, where it matters, to be tender and lost. Truly disturbing.

The flip side wass hearing about the incredible workers who put their time into these projects. They radiated enthusiasm and sincerity when they explained their work. It must never be forgotten how vulnerable a child is out there.

Downing Street is a tiny political village. Policemen laughed with us but their hands never left their guns. Inside the place there is Tardis magic and as you walk up the stairs, you have to stop to look at the handsome Earl of Aberdeen and the many many portraits Prime Ministers who have graced the place. Samantha Cameron came to support the charity. She is not her husband and is a person in her own right. But it still felt a little uncomfortable, especially when I talked to her. I felt a bit better when I chatted to Andy, who gives talks for Railway Children and has been at the rough end of things – in care, waking up with another strange tattoo he can't remember. He told me that being in a Tory den was nothing – there were plenty of places where he had felt a lot, lot dirtier. But it’s all about the kids to him. Theresa May arrived as we were leaving but was not impressed by a gaggle of women giggling on the steps.

Fanastic charity, great experience.

I have also:

Helped to judge a short story competition with Reading Writers

Auditioned unsuccessfully for Blithe Spirit

Rejoined my playwrites group

Attended a Writers and Artists’ event at Bloomsbury and spent time with wonderful writers Vanessa Gebbie and Tania Hershman

Said goodbye to someone and truly meant it – a door closed and locked firmly

Met a member of great Indie band The Real Tuesday Weld at a gothic and gin-pickled event called London Bone (which I will blog about shortly).

Exhausted. Communing now with my pillow but still thinking of all those children out there. Some stories are coming too...always a good thing...

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Society Club in Soho - What a Night!

On Saturday, while sitting Last Supper style at The Society Club in Soho, I talked to Tania Hershman about a book she had read on the power of the introvert. It was a fine night – in a pockety, vibe-laden corner of Soho. There were dogs – tiny little ones and a happy-gloomy bulldog, who were taken away before the literary performances by a tall boy-man in a black suit, with otter hair. One was left – Foxy – who barked only sometimes but was zen mostly.

But it’s a interesting thought – that we all fall into various levels of extrovert/introvert comfort zones. A writer, by their very nature – has to live in the mind for some considerable period of time. But then hermit land will not sell books – so the writer has to emerge, blinking – to pump hands, flash teeth and look interested when dull people ask ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ Is there any smart answer? Perhaps to elaborately mime pulling them down from trees, or something equally sarcastic.

Saturday was immense. Tania of course but also James Meek, Jane Rogers and Alex Preston. Alex read an unpublished story about a literate, angst-infested dog. James Meek – who had apparently only just finished writing his story but it sounded slick, cleverly-shaped. Tania read the title story from her collection, which she said ‘got more laughs than usual’ – plus treated us to three other stories. Tania is a natural performer and shines when reading her work. Jane Rogers really showed us an unreliable narrator – but unreliable because the narrator was losing her power to remember as she slipped into dementia.

Four writers and much to learn from all of them – as they stepped out into the world to be extroverts – or at least to share things created in a quiet place.

The Society Club is a marvel and there is more to come as they further champion the short story.

Paul McVeigh’s blog is here too, plus some pictures. I am in one of them…but it might be like ‘spot the ball’:


Monday, 14 January 2013



The news that Sharon Olds has won the T S Eliot Prize for a work that mines her experiences of betrayal – a husband leaving her after three decades, raises an interesting element of the creative process. What chemistry occurs in the creative brain – not all brains but some – that percolates negative elements and like Rumpelstiltkin then makes straw tragedy into ingots of resonant prose?

Olds’ work intrigues and seeing just one quote from the book:

I did not know him,/ I did not work not to lose him, and I lost him’

makes me see how raw and powerful her feelings are still – but how powerfully she has translated her loss. It is controlled – reminding me of method acting, where emotions are used but they are never allowed to take over the professionalism of reading the script.

Of course – it is not logical or fair to say that writers and artists who enjoy fortuitous lives, in the arms of partners who adore them perhaps, are bland and barren. This is just not true. Many writer friends in particular seem to have beautiful and productive personal lives. Their partners or family give them space, the impetus to create. Some understandably wish to make a division between private and public lives – so we may never know what makes them tick. They need their enigma – they feel exposed without it.

So comfort and discomfort can produce good work in equal measure. It is work of the imagination, after all. But when we are thrown a bad hand, like a nasty card sharp chucking things at us from a speeding car – we either throw it away or shuffle it a little.

I have always felt that poets are different animals – pain and suffering does induce some peculiar type of reaction – like a twitch in the synapses that cannot rest. I once wrote – in a review of the wonderful Irish poet Nuala NĂ­ ChonchĂșir’s book – that poets are more alive than ordinary folk. I truly believe that – it is their curse and their gift. They see things far below the surface of live as the rest of us hurry along – like veins beneath the smoothest of skins.

I have shared – perhaps cryptically at times – some negative things that have happened in my life. In fact, I have lymphoma – manageable at present – but I have been through experiences that have been horrifying, but have fascinated me at the same time. Losing hair, going through odd machines to see if a lump that appears might kill me, being naked with lead goggles in a room full of strangers – while a nurse inappropriately plays ‘Having the Time of My Life’ from Dirty Dancing.

And then, when it is finally under control at least – with a strong chemo drug – the man I spent twenty years of my life loving and supporting, decides that future with someone ill was too traumatic. He wanted freedom from the responsibility. Flippantly, I can say fair enough.

I wanted to die, frankly. I could see no future. But then a light ignited in that unnecessary damp bitterness and hate that kept rising in my throat and threatening to poison me. Write. Write. Fury. Reach out to people. Join things. Help people. Write. Write.

I still hurt and I will carry it always. It is a scar that opens to a cold wind all too often. But I am busy:

• Winning the 2013 Don Louth Writer of the Year Award, run by Reading Writers www.readingwriters.wordpress.com

• Writing blogs for a friend’s advertising company

• Writing articles for magazine The Simple Things

• Penning another travel article for The Independent on Sunday

• Planning a travel writing workshop and writer’s day for Reading Writers

• Writing the arts/books pages of Wolfprint, the magazine for www.ukwolf.org - which includes book reviews, poems and articles about fascinating conservation folk – such as an arctic explorer and cult writer Glen Duncan.

• Pitching ideas

• Writing plays for the Prospect Theatre Writers’ Group

• Attending as many literary events as possible, including Windsor’s Book Swap, Short Story Aloud (Oxford)…..anything where writers are…

• Mentoring a friend and encouraging her ambitions – then swelling with pride when she gains more confidence

• Proofreading

• Applying to work part-time with the Society for Storytelling

I am far from rich. I am far from happy. But it is a fair enough approximation of happiness to get me through. Writing sometimes feels like flames from the fingers. It soothes, it transports. You can see by its light.

So good luck to Sharon Olds. I shall raise a glass to her. It sounds like a work I would really want to read.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Will Self at The Bloomsbury Institute 4th October 2012

Muttering ‘What’s all this bollocks?’ Will Self climbed up onto his elevated chair next to his editor and scanned the room like a velociraptor looking for flesh.

‘AND I SHALL BE QUEEN!!’ he shrieked more than once.

A theatrical start but what followed was an interesting exploration of a complex man, who is shot through with contradictions. I had spoken to him earlier, at the wine reception in the conservatory. He signed my book and he was calm, earnest. He can’t help that melancholic face but later, when he was excited, there was something highly daunting about his intellectual dismissal of anyone he considered inferior.

‘Someone earlier said my book was warm. I have never been so fucking insulted!’

He would repeat this during the evening – almost spitting out the word ‘empathy.’

On reading other people’s fiction
It was clear that he loves to talk facts, technique. Although denying that he is interested in anyone elses’s fiction, he spoke well of Kafka and Joyce. He had read them in the last few years. He also acknowledged reading Oliver Sachs’ Awakenings. Sachs had impressed him and you get a sense from Self that rarely does anyone impress him. He said he reads to look at the mechanics of things – or as Auden used to write in other people’s margins – if anything was GETS (good enough to steal).

On writing
I asked him (in the before as a ‘shy sharer’ – his phrase) if writing was a curse. He agreed that it was a compulsion. When talking to a very young writer who asked him ‘What advice would you give your 20 year old self?’ He replied ‘Get a job. You’ve got ten years to fanny around.’ He admitted that he was sitting in squats taking drugs – but a writer should be travelling, learning.

On the continuous present tense used in Umbrella

He feels that he cannot go back to ‘The Count took tea at 5 O’clock’ realist style of fiction. ‘There is no way back for me now. Finegan’s Wake is next.’ He admitted that he is excited about Umbrella as a trilogy and he had a productive summer blocking out the other two books. Despite the fact that he hated writing Umbrella, he seemed lighter and excited when he mentioned the next two. Self adopted the continuous tense for the emotional intimacy and although he may hate to hear it – it did indeed make the book a warmer one that the novels that have gone before.

Real people in Umbrella
Albert Death is based on his grandfather – a 6ft 7in man who was a mathematical savant and incredible autodidact. Self scanned the room with dinosaur intensity again. ‘We’re all pygmies compared to him.’ Audrey Death? Entirely fictional. ‘I like old women (a ‘hoorah’ sounded from the back of the room) and young women…I wanted to create a woman to love.’ It was probably the most enigmatic thing he said all night.

‘Winning the Man Booker? I should have fucking won it years ago.’

(on white Australians) ‘There they are crouching on the verge of this incredible civilization..with the amazing tradition of storytelling…putting meat on BBQs. They are ridiculous!’

‘Oliver Sachs must have felt very demeaned by being played by Robin Williams.’

(on charm) ‘What is the use of charm. It’s the answer before you’ve asked the question. It’s close to fascism.'

(on them choosing the book for the Man Booker) ‘They chose it because there are no gags – so it is considered serious.’

Self has a strong interest in psychology and believes the ‘hard zombie’ theory – that although we technically have free will, we are in fact ruled by deterministic elements. He also believes in more ethereal concepts and ‘could never live in an old mental asylum.’ (Talking about the one he visited while researching the book.)

I did chat to him afterwards. He had told a story about a chimp – the alpha of her troop – he met when researching ‘Great Apes.’ The chimp had pointed at his tattoo on his arm to show her but the keeper had whispered ‘Don’t put your arm anywhere near the bars. She is trying to trick you and wants to break one of your fingers. I know all of them and if I stepped inside, I would be killed instantly.’

Self said 'Of course, these are highly intelligent animals held prisoner against their will and they are fucking furious!'

That was actually the point that I took up with him quietly afterwards – we both agreed it was bizarre that people are shocked that apes are developing, with weapons etc. The conversation extended to animals and I asked if any other animal had inspired or sparked his fiction. ‘I’m not an animal person,’ he said, but he was interested when I said that I worked with wolves – although his first response was a Benny Hillesque ‘What…professionally? Nar Nar.’ He was still up and performing - looking around to see who was listening when he said ‘They are just dogs. JUST DOGS!’ At which point, rather than tell him off like a naughty boy who had eaten too many cakes at a party, I shook his hand and as Shakespeare might say, took my leave.

I found him complex, exhausting, funny, scary, vulnerable, strange, witty, wordrich, awkward, insecure, fascinating, infuriating, egocentric, shy………

What a night.

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Prizes and Writing Awards

  • Winner Bradt/Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2012
  • Shortlisted for Salt Publishing's Scott Prize for short story collections 2012
  • Finalist in Brit Writers' Award 2011
  • 2nd in Sentinel Literary Competition 2011
  • Whitechapel Society Anthology to be published 2010
  • Shortlisted for the Mslexia Short Story Competition 2009
  • Shortlisted for The Asham Award 2009
  • Joint winner of the Penguin/Decibel Prize 2008 - Asian Invisible. Published as The Map of Me
  • Highly Commended in The National Galleries of Scotland Short Story Competition 2008
  • Runner-up in Segora Short Story Prize 2008
  • Joint Winner of The Lancet Short Story Competition 2007: The Resurrection Girl.
  • Runner-up in Virgin Trains/The Guardian Short Story Competition 2007: A Small Revolution
  • Winner of the Woman and Home Short Story Competition 2006: Ghosts of Jamaica.
  • Shortlisted for The Asham Award 2005
  • Runner-up in the Good Housekeeping Short Story Competition 2003
  • Winner of The Sunday Telegraph Tourism for Tomorrow Travel Writing Competition 2002: Wolves of Rumania. Winner
  • Winner and also Winner of Most Original Short Story in the Competition in Trowell and District Writers' Competition 2006