Tag Archives: Stephen King

A year in books – 2014 – John Maguire

Since I purchased myself a Reading Chair, my reading habits have become far more structured this year. It’s true I still read haphazardly in between appointments and on my daily commute on the buses of Liverpool. It takes 21 days for a new habit to be formed and now if I do not snatch a few moments in my chair daily, I feel like the day has not really been complete.

stack-of-booksI started the year with Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS, a first-hand observation of New York during the Bohemian seventies. It details her relationship with the controversial artist Robert Mapplethorpe. The poetry behind her descriptions of the creative process is intense, dark and beautiful.

BREAKFAST WITH LUCIEN by Geordie Grieg tries to get behind the skin of the cantankerous painter Lucien Freud. This book does not shed the artist in a great light. I would hate for a friend who I chose to have breakfast with regularly to narrate all the things we intimately discussed (allegedly) after I died. As Freud was an enigmatic private man I find this well, quite frankly, quite rude. The book was an addictive read and proof that you can appreciate the artist even if his or her life choices are somewhat questionable and contradictory to your own moral compass.

THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES by Roald Dahl were delicious, macabre, tales of the everyday with a sadistic twist, a tapas board of terror. I wanted to re-read THE GREAT GATSBY before seeing the new-fangled 4D bluescreen adaptation.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I would say that this is the greatest book of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, perhaps second only to TENDER IS THE NIGHT. Sadly, it left me questioning how he would have developed if he had not drowned himself in hard liquor. How many great writers have been lost on the wild seas of intoxication?

I abandoned THIS SIDE OF PARADISE as I felt it was like being in a room with a married couple when they drank too much and argued at a party. LAST DAYS by Adam Neville is an enjoyable horror focusing on a lost cult from the seventies. I could not help drawing parallels with Scientology.

Back to the classics next with the episodic story of self-development DAVID COPPERFIELD and then onto NICHOLAS NICKELBY both by Charles Dickens, I think I found my favourite Dickensian character too (so far) in the eccentric Mr Dick. I struggled through BLEAK HOUSE, a great tale but I found the legal wranglings tedious.

THE APPRENTICE by Tess Gerritsen was a grizzly and graphic suspenseful horror. Nothing quite like feeling like you are actually attending an autopsy when reading whilst on the bus to work at 6:45am. Surgically accurate fiction, you feel every cut. (Pardon the ridiculous pun!)

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walters will make you yearn to visit the slow country, Italy. A gorgeous tale of romance that reminded me of the great Sixties films by Fellini or the recent The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorrentino.

KEEPING THE DEAD by Tess Gerritsen took me back to the morgue. A guide on how to mummify a dead body is always a good thing to have in your mind’s library. Perhaps though, something to omit from a CV or job application? A masterclass in pulp horror. With & SONS by David Gilbert, you can taste the atmosphere of New York City. The narrative focuses on a writer and his complex relationships with his siblings. DON’T POINT THAT THING AT ME by Kyril Bonfiglioli was camp farcical fun James Bond meets a sexed up Jeeves and Wooster.

DOCTOR SLEEP by Stephen King is the sequel to one of his masterpieces, THE SHINING, and is equally as horrific. Wow, I am now grateful for having read some of King’s weaker books as this illustrates the man’s sheer genius. When asked in an interview where he gets his ideas from he said,

I have the heart of a child. I keep it in a drawer in my desk.

REVENGE by Martina Cole is a recipe for gangster revenge tragedy. Take a dose of Danny Dyer, add a few WAG-like women, a sprinkling of Ray Winstone and a few reated metaphors, like he was ‘strung up like a kipper’. An entertaining spectacle of a book. MAGGIE AND ME by Damian Barr, is a coming of age tale about a gay guy growing up when it was not deemed acceptable to be gay, running parallel with the political changes during the Thatcher years. JUBILEE by Shelley Harris took me to the hot summer of 1977, one street in Blighty and all the little hidden tales behind the closed doors of its residents.

THIS BODY OF DEATH by Elizabeth George was an epic crime thriller that cleverly entwined several plots into a climatic conclusion. It left me trying to solve its mystery right up until the explosive conclusion.

goldfinchTHE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt was my book of the year. My only regret is I will never have the experience of reading this book for the first time again. With stunning sentence structure and imagery throughout I encourage all to indulge in this literary treat.

THE LEMON GROVE by Helen Walsh, a titillating tale of a Mum’s sexual obsession with her daughter’s boyfriend, had some luscious descriptions of the Mediterranean landscape. Like a holiday one night stand, it was fun at the time, enjoyable but didn’t develop into anything more substantial.

DECEPTION by Philip Roth is an experimental stream of conscious, dialogue between a writer and his mistress through the years of their affair. This then began an addiction to the writer’s work. THE BREAST followed a Kafkaesque story of a man who literally turns into a giant breast. Anyone who thinks of Roth as a misogynist needs to read this story. It brings us face-to-face with the intrinsic strangeness of sex and subjectivity. The narrator of this fable is David Kapesh and I followed his future adventures in THE PROFESSOR OF DESIRE and then THE DYING ANIMAL. This piece sees Kapesh as a 60-year-old lecturer and cultural critic begin an affair with a 24-year-old student. An exploration of the human condition, the strange facets that make up an individual and the paradoxical emotions of love and desire.

I moved on to Roth’s other collection with narrator Nathan Zuckerman. THE GHOSTWRITER details the young writer meeting his literary hero E.I Lonoff. Again Roth takes the reader through this characters life story with ZUCKERMAN UNBOUND and THE ANATOMY LESSON, a tempestuous ride through relationships, fame and addiction. The thinner volume THE PRAGUE ORGY takes the reader along with Zuckerman’s adventures in Soviet Russia, a scabrous and gutsy observation of this country.

Okay, I made a Philip Roth patch to wear to wean me off this literary obsession and picked up A LIFE STRIPPED BARE by Leo Hickman, a non-fiction book which chronicles an experiment in how to live a more sustainable existence in our throwaway fast society. NOW AND YESTERDAY by Stephen Greco was an interesting story about a gay designer in his sixties looking for love in Eighties New York. The descriptions of his lifestyle and the interiors of New York were fabulous and decadent.

THE LITTLE BOOK OF TALENT by Daniel Coyle, short sharp tips on how to improve performance in your chosen field has equipped me with a few points on self-improvement. I slipped off the PHILIP ROTH wagon, as I wanted to read a book about the complex Israel-Palestine conflict. The COUNTERLIFE was a challenging and thought-provoking investigation into this chaotic mess.

SISTER MAYBE by Ann Tyler was recommended by my dear friend and fountain of wisdom Rita Tannett. As this lady has previously recommended the amazing BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin and many others in the past, this was priority. What a piece of writing – each chapter crafted to have maximum emotional impact. A tale of an American family and the undercurrent of troubles behind their perfect family set up.  It reminded me of the Roxy Music lyric,

in every dream home a heartache.

Prior to seeing the Andy Warhol exhibition at the Tate Liverpool, I read Viktor Bokris’ THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ANDY WARHOL. Bokris has written fantastic works on Blondie and Lou Reed. He is not frightened to ‘tell it how it is’ and focuses on Warhol’s love of art in the early years and his metamorphosis into a complex, cold, master puppeteer. I found this one of the most disturbing books to read, as for so many people that he came into contact with, although messed up to say the least, he seemed to add to their troubles. Not really one of those friends who you can describe as a life enhancer.

I re-visited one of my favourite poets William Blake, SONGS OF INNOCENCE AND EXPERIENCE. A volume of work that like a classic Kate Bush album needs to be digested in one sitting.

oh the places you'll goThe great thing about buying Xmas gifts for my nieces and nephews is I get to read the books before I give them away. THE LORAX and OH THE PLACES YOU WILL GO by Dr Seuss are like little nuggets of philosophy.

So be sure when you step,
Step with care and great tact.
And remember that life’s A Great Balancing Act.
And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and ¾ percent guaranteed)
Kid, you’ll move mountains.

Tove Jansen’s MOOMIN BOOK OF WORDS is like a kindergarten class taught by Salvador Dali. THE CHARIOTEER by Mary Renault, an of its time novel about the love that dare not speak its name during the war. It was an articulate brave, novel that plays an important part in LGBT history. On Xmas Day I read possibly one of the best gifts I have ever received, a Ladybird classic, CHARLES DICKENS, a thirty page book that neatly sums up the master craftsman’s career.

Final book of the year was Michael Faber’s THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS. He is the author of one of my favourite novels, THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE. What I love about this writer is the way he can adapt to different genres, from Victorian prostitution to sci-fi with his excellent UNDER THE SKIN. Incidentally, the adaptation of Under the Skin was my film of the year. Seeing Scarlett Johansen’s alien drift through the street of modern Glasgow past Clare’s Accessories and later try to understand Tommy Cooper on the television was surreal.

His latest work is a re-visit to the sci-fi genre, a novel about a religious preacher travelling into deep space to bring God and the light to an alien tribe. A graphic exploration of the importance of faith and what we mean by the word, ‘home’.

farage HITLERI may send it directly to Bigot – sorry I mean Briton – of the Year. Nigel Farage.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Golden Country

The Summing Up by W. Somerset Maugham

the summing upWe love to read writers when they write about writing. Whether it is George Orwell’s Why I Write, Stephen King On Writing, or Scarlett Thomas’s Monkeys with Typewriters, there is an enduring need to peep behind the curtain. These blends of memoir and ‘how to’ guide fascinate us either because we want to see how our favourite stories were created, or if we are trying to follow their path we are keen to see if the authors have pointed out any shortcuts. Therefore the thoughts of W. Somerset Maugham – prolific novelist, travel writer and playwright – cannot fail to be instructive.

He writes authoritatively about his own work, covering the process, his aims and its reception by readers and critics. He is also knowledgable about the classics as well as contemporaries such as Colette, but is unafraid to turn his wry glance towards those who favour literary pretensions and his own place in the history of literature. As a dramatist he is master of the concise yet withering put-down (a technique he apparently honed against school bullies):

There is no more merit in having read a thousand books than in having ploughed a thousand fields,

before turning his gaze to the wider world of philosophical and religious theory, so that the book moves from memoir and writing guide to consider the eternal topic of how best to live.

For all his apparent candour, Mr Maugham does gloss over one area: that of his own personal life. Although he talks of love and beauty it is in such general terms that the reader may be forgiven for thinking he died (in his 90s) as a confirmed bachelor. He is at times dismissive of love and his behaviour while under its influence. It is only by checking other sources that his firm adherence to his own words becomes clear:

I demanded freedom for myself and I was prepared to give freedom to others.

Yet the nature of this freedom is only briefly alluded to in a passage concerning his travel writing:

I am shy of making acquaintance with strangers, but I was fortunate enough to have on my journeys a companion who had such an inestimable social gift. He had an amiability of disposition that enabled him in a very short time to make friends with people in ships, clubs, bar-rooms, and hotels, so that through him I was able to get into easy contact with an immense number of persons whom otherwise I should have known only from a distance.

This is a very subtle and low-key tribute to the man who shared his life for 30 years – a relationship which survived and outlasted Maugham’s marriage. Yet, given the legal status of such relationships at the time he was writing, it is undoubtably a sensible one.

No doubt this gift for remaining just outside the spotlights also served Maugham well during his brief intelligence career. Operating in Switzerland and Russia, the man who wrote:

Some of us are so made that there is nothing else we can do… we write because we must

couldn’t resist turning his experiences into stories, crafting a series of adventures for a gentlemanly spy by the name of Ashenden. Ian Fleming, a friend and admirer of Maugham’s, seems to have been inspired by these tales. Enough that in Quantum of Solace – which lent its name if not its plot to the second Daniel Craig Bond film – Fleming has his agent share Ashenden’s disillusionment with the supposedly glamorous life of the fictional spy.

If there is a negative point to this book, it is that so many other interesting works are discussed so engagingly that my ‘to read’ list has seen a large number of new additions. Although he would live a good many years after its publication, there is an air of a man settling his accounts and looking back on a career that has given him much pleasure. The book is enjoyable and illuminating, a fitting testament to a wide-ranging man of letters.

3 Comments

Filed under The Golden Country

Hot Reads!

As the holiday season looms, I find a simple mantra helps me focus on what I am going to do during my two weeks away: Read, Reflect, Recharge. My suitcase is packed for a trip to Rome and now all I need to do is choose the books to read while I am there. Here are four titles that may keep you entertained wherever you are spending your vacation.

& sons

& Sons by David Gilbert

An autopsy of rivalry and emotional pride between a father and son, as well as the son’s relationships with his siblings. You can taste the atmosphere of New York City, the poisons and fluidity of the electric jungle. Gilbert’s tale has been marinated in Philip Roth and Paul Auster, but this is no copycat of the greats. Gilbert’s version of New York City is contemporary and insightful. The American novel continues to evolve!

Dr. Sleep

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Imagine an ice-cube being placed at the top of your back and melting down, a chill right along your spine, that is the overall effect that King has managed to achieve with this crafted tale of horror. This impressive sequel to The Shining ties up lots of loose ends left in the iconic classic.

I fell out of love with Stephen King’s writing at the end of my teenage years. I felt the excellent writing that had petrified me (The Dark Half, Carrie, Salem’s Lot and Misery) had become somewhat diluted, with throwaway novels like The Tommyknockers. Unbeknown to me, King was battling with his own demons, the white worm of cocaine and alcohol addiction.

I was suitably impressed with his pure honesty in the book/biography, On Writing. I was unsure about this sequel, but a testimonial by acclaimed writer Margaret Atwood on the cover prompted me to buy the book. I was not let down. His writing in this story is punchy, superbly edited and so terrifying that the only safe place to read it is on a beach or a sun lounger. Don’t have daymares!

revenge

Revenge by Martina Cole

A symphony of violent gangland shenanigans. I was keen to read this author as her books are bestsellers, but then again McDonald’s is also extremely popular. I did enjoy the book, but I think like McDonald’s, it is best enjoyed every now and then. An ideal easy read with a good pace. There is a lot of repetition of metaphors, but it is a great peep into criminal activity. Although I am so glad I am not a gangster…

Maggie-and-Me-

Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

This is the biography of a gay boy growing up in Scotland in the 1980s. Barr had a tempestuous childhood, which he details in this memoir with a dry sardonic wit.

Anyone in their mid-thirties will instantaneously feel nostalgic throughout, remembering the references to popular culture. (He-man, Dynasty, Artex wall decoration) It also chronicles what life was like in the industrial areas of Britain enduring the changes wrought by Thatcherism. This book was so entertaining and emotionally charged that I read it in one sitting!

Tell us about your favourite beach-side reads in the comments below. And do be careful not to get sunscreen on the pages!

4 Comments

Filed under The Golden Country

House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill

I always find reading horror on a sun-soaked beach throws the average tourist. The reality is that I find it is the safest place to indulge in scare tales, as the night terrors can play havoc with my mind. In the small hours a Moroccan lampshade can turn into a dark, cloaked figure ready to drag me off into hell. But at least, I think, I’ve got a lot of friends there.

If looking for a touch of horror on your travels this summer, I would suggest packing a copy of an Adam Nevill or downloading one onto your technological reading device of choice.

House of Small Shadows

Being branded by a credible UK newspaper (that is definitely not The S*n or The Daily Bigotry Mail) as the British Stephen King could intimidate or worry some writers.  Yet Adam Nevill continues to illustrate his literary craftsmanship, particularly with his horror offering. Nevill’s work has everything that makes a story of the supernatural: a dilapidated Victorian house, eccentric inhabitants, noises in the night, a psychologically vulnerable mixed-up protagonist. The Wicker Man meets The League of Gentleman.

Narrator Catherine has left her corporate job in a popular television production company. High-profile bullying saw her fired and forced to leave London to start a new career in a new town. Landing an assignment with huge potential, she is tasked to catalogue the late M H Mason’s eccentric collection of antique dolls and puppets. Mason’s elderly niece invites her to stay at the Red House – both workshop and home of the dead man. It is here that Catherine sees for herself the darkness behind Mason’s unique ‘Art’.

A disturbed imaginative investigation that taps into the innate human fear of puppets. If anyone can say that they can look Mr. Punch up close in the eye and not be freaked out, they are either a liar or a little missing of a few strings themselves.

Mr-Punch

The Red House, like that other infamous horror house Amityville, features as a prominent character in the story. The first description hints at the atmosphere that is flowing through its foundations:

All of the lines of the building pointed to the heavens. Two steep gables and the arch of every window beseeched the sky, as though the great house was a small cathedral indignant at its exile in rural Herefordshire. And despite over a century of rustication among uncultivated fields, the colour of its Accrington brick remained an angry red.

With this tale Neville gives the reader small tasters of the narrative. At the beginning of the book each chapter is miniscule. As the tale unfolds, the chapters become bigger, bursting with syntax and disturbing imagery that totally immerses the reader into the horror on the page.

I suggest reading a tale from this bastion of dark fantasy this summer. Besides you may not be the only person by the pool reading dark materials, I did notice someone dabbling in the Satanic pages of a Katie Price biography and that does indeed fill me with terror, by day or by night.

3 Comments

Filed under The Golden Country

A reading chair

If I was a king, I would have a chair purposefully crafted out of volumes of books. Books that I have read through the years. Books that now I find are inside of me.

The iconic Iron Throne in the infamous television drama, Game of Thrones (adapted from the novels by George R. R. Martin), is allegedly forged from 1,000 swords. I guess this is the source that inspired me. But alas, I am not a king at this particular moment in time, so I have settled for a leather black studded Art Deco-style chair. The type of seat that will improve with age, the more battered and worn it looks.

The Reading Chair 2

I was inspired to purchase a designated seat to just read in after enjoying horror master Stephen King’s book simply titled, ‘On Writing’.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things: read a lot and write a lot.

So read I where I can, but I have a favourite place: the blue chair in my study. So far in 2014, I have read the graphic horrors penned in GRIMMS FAIRY TALES, been to prison and stolen books in 1930’s Paris with JEAN GENET, danced the Charleston at THE GREAT ‘Jay’ GATSBY’s and warded off stray donkeys from Betsey Trotwood’s lawn in DAVID COPPERFIELD. Who knows what adventures await me next?

The Reading Chair

Quentin Crisp said cinema is The Forgetting Chamber, where you forget all your daily troubles and dissolve into the cinema screen. To have my very own chair to escape into the world of literature is essential for sanity, health and well-being. In fact, I think Schopenhauer said it best:

I’ve never known any trouble that an hour’s reading didn’t assuage.

I don’t know where this overgrown bush of books has come from; I cannot resist picking up the odd title as I go. I am sure there are worst habits to have.

The Book Bush

Thankfully, Stephen King agrees with my reading addiction:

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

desk

4 Comments

Filed under The Golden Country

A year in books – John Maguire

My book shelves are like a finely pruned tree, books are added and it can at times get unruly, some are given away, some stay. In 2013 I have seen several new beautiful blossoms appear and a few titles that have gone straight into the compost.

stack-of-books

I started the year with Stephen King’s ON WRITING, given to me by a gifted local play writer, Paul Williams. An honest and candid insight into the craft of writing and the demons that nearly destroyed King’s talent, till creativity helped to decimate them and turn negative experience into the positive.

I enjoyed Stephen Spender’s THE TEMPLE, which reminded me of Goodbye Berlin. Alan Hollinghurst’s THE SWIMMING POOL LIBRARY was a fantastic exploration of human character, yet I felt the water started to become shallow towards the end of the story and my interest waned.

I read the WORLD FILM LOCATIONS: LIVERPOOL, purely from a narcissistic angle, as I had contributed three pieces on films shot in the  Pool of Life, The Fruit Machine, In the Name of the Father and Dancin’ thru the Dark.

I spent four months of the year – April, May, June and July – working on my play PORN0VISION which was staged at the Lantern Liverpool. This meant I kept away from fiction and consumed solely SIGHT AND SOUND and the newspapers.

Stephen Leather’s NIGHTMARE reignited my taste for pulp horror in August.

THE MARRIED MAN by Edmund White introduced me to this writer and I developed a hunger for his work, taking in HOTEL DU DREAM, another work of fiction, then the factual GENET, a biography of the playwright and then THE FLANEUR, a wandering around Paris, which made me yearn to re-visit the City of Light and lose myself in its sophisticated decadence and Bohemianism.

KEEPING FAITH by Toni Piccoult raised some interesting questions about religion, yet didn’t offer any attempts of explanation, it failed to keep my faith.

THE NIGHT CIRCUS  by Erin Morgenstern simply a magical spectacular, a feast for the imagination.

As Autumn turned to Winter, my need for tales of terror developed, starting with THE HOUSE OF SMALL SHADOWS by Adam Nevill,  tapping into my innate fear of puppets.

A tapas of terror was provided with Susan Hill’s DOLLY, THE MAN IN THE PICTURE and THE SMALL HAND.

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS’ Autobiography was titillation with a capital T, part National Enquirer, part poetic, an  insight into the warts and all life of the American scribe.

ABSOLUTE BEGINNER Patsy Kensit’s self-penned offering on her life was four hours  of my life I will not ever get back. But my passion for  her disco hit I’M NOT SCARED, means all is forgiven.

In stark contrast, APRIL ASHLEY’S ODYSSEY was inspiring and captivating, even with all the name dropping.

Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS, about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe in NYC during the Seventies, is possibly THE best biography I have read………all glamour and damage, seduction in piss elegance!

Gave into the word of mouth hype and read John Williams’ STONER, a beautiful observation of the human soul, an Everyman tale that actually made me cry on the train at the end pages. Craven Arms on the Cardiff line will always be etched in my memory box now.

Now in beginnings of 2014, I have nearly finished P.L. Travers’ MARY POPPINS, surreal little tales from the Nursery, it has also provided me with a new mantra to get organised in the year ahead, ‘SPIT SPOT’.

2 Comments

Filed under The Golden Country

A desk of one’s own

Writer Erinna Mettler sparked my interest this week with her post on ‘Desk Envy’. A desk is such a fundamental part of a writer’s equipment, yet so difficult to perfect, it is no wonder that there are thousands of pictures like the ones of famous writers’ workplaces in the post which can inspire the green-eyed-monster. Space in the home is at such a premium – certainly in the UK, even more so in Japan – that for most of us the dream of a quiet room with a huge desk covered with piles of essential writerly clutter and (crucially!) all of one’s own must remain unindulged.

Still, we can dream. I was lucky enough to spend some time in the Lake District recently, with hints of spring breaking through the winter gloom all around. The hotel had this lovely number sitting in a corridor seemingly unused and unloved, except by the chambermaids for heaps of fresh linen mid-change.

hotel desk

Contemplating all that space for half-scrawled notes and pages torn out of newspapers could give me palpitations. Drawers overloaded with notebooks, both filled and still to be used, cartridges and half-full bottles of ink, because this desk would go so well with my favourite pens… until my thoughts crash into the likely shipping costs to get the thing to Tokyo and realise it isn’t to be.

The reality for most of us is that writing space has to exist wherever we find it. When I lived in London I would write sitting on the bed, a cushion behind me and one under the knees, laptop finely balanced, in a pose that would strike dread into the heart of any physiotherapist or yoga teacher. Although it did keep me paying the bills to have my poor spine straightened out again. Having to clear away the detritus which somehow accumulates around any working writer – take the picture of Einstein ‘s desk for evidence – before I could go to sleep was always such a disheartening thought that writing into the early hours became the norm.

It wasn’t until I moved to Japan that I came into possession of a dedicated writing desk. A low wooden table acquired from a neighbour who was moving on, it was the first piece of furniture that I owned after arriving and all the more loved for that. Writing in bed continued, of course, as well as curled up in a chair, but owning a desk was a step up and great things were sure to follow, I was convinced. This is my first Japanese desk, looking far too neat, which means it was probably tidied for the picture:

first writing desk in Japan

Of course, it wouldn’t turn out to be the perfect writing desk, otherwise this post would end here. The difficulty, entirely of my own creation, was that there was so much of Japan to explore beyond those walls that I barely spent any time within range of the desk. Writing again became something to do in cafés, on trains, at work, or in the park. Anywhere, it seemed, but at the dedicated space that had so fortuitously been granted.

For my next apartment, things would have to change. After coming into possession of another donated desk and chair, then finding a wonderful place to locate them – overlooking a neighbour’s well-stocked garden – combined with living closer to the distractions of the city, suddenly writing time was almost abundant. Who wouldn’t want to spend all of their free days here:

Tokyo desk

It is summer, hence the mosquito coil kept close to hand, but the air conditioning unit was right above the window and the fridge a short hop away. ten minutes hate became an unneglected website again, letters were penned and the following spring my book, The Teas That Bind, was written here. All punctuated with essential breaks for pots of tea and staring out of the window. The way the butterflies would dance through the sunshine as it dappled between the trees will stay with me forever.

But life moves on, time intrudes and I find myself between desks again. As ever, my reserve writing haunts are cafés and there is fun to be had attempting to track down a new favourite. Here is where Erinna Mettler surprises me a little, as she writes:

The words don’t really flow in public cafés. For a start off I usually bump into someone I know and then there’s the hovering waiting staff asking if I want a refill, or babies crying and if I drink too much coffee it costs a fortune and I keep needing the loo. The café has to be just right, it has to be big enough to hide in from friends and waiters, with tall ceilings and no piped music, and I prefer diverting decoration and real-fire cosiness.

Although it has been a long while since I was a resident of the same town,  my memories of it being full of serviceable writing cafés would be shattered if they had all been conquered by the big chains. In the same way that we fetishise desks, most writers probably have a picture in their head of the perfect writing café experience, my own heavily influenced by a visit to the actual table in Paris once used by this lady:

Simone de Beauvoir writing cafe

It is doubtful if she would be as prolific today, however, if she were attempting to write in the 21st century version of her home-from-home café, surrounded by loudly obnoxious tourists and gawping fan-girls such as myself.

Perhaps this is the lesson to learn from all this desk adulation: that the space itself is irrelevant. Make it the best, comfiest, happiest place it can be but don’t get too caught up with perfection. While perfection on the page should always be the goal, sometimes the means and the location of production will have to fall far short of the ideal. Sitting at the dream desk racked with writer’s block and indecision would be a far worse fate than that of being jammed into a tiny table at a terrible café with a mug of bad coffee scrawling note after note on napkins because there is no more space in your notebook.

As Hemingway knew,

the great thing is to last and get your work done

because what is created when your backside is in the chair is far more important than the quality leather cushion or cracked plastic that it rests upon. So even if you are lucky enough to achieve perfection in your surroundings, be sure to recall this advice from Stephen King:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

102 Comments

Filed under The Golden Country

Quote of the day, week, month, year

Well, I have a deep disdain for them [Tony and Cherie]. I couldn’t bear that grinning, money-hungry, beaming, Cliff Richard-loving, Berlusconi-adoring, guitar-playing twat.

There is plenty more where this gem came from over here.

Sometimes it’s easy to write reams and reams about a subject, to set out a case and argue it fully, leaving any readers (if there are any) in no doubt of the writer’s point of view.  And other times it’s more a case of grabbing people by the arm and saying “come here, look at this, it’s really good!”, which is what this one’s all about.

So click on this video, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

The reason why I love this clip so much is Dudley Moore’s obvious puzzlement when asked to describe something that he does so well and so innately.  He is initially completely perplexed at having to explain logically a skill which comes naturally to him.

I have been pondering this lately, as sometimes the writing goes easy and all is well, the sun shines, the birds fly down low to talk to me about my day and playful baby rabbits gambol around my feet.  Then, just as quickly, the sun goes behind a cloud, the rain tips down in sheets and the wildlife gets savagely ripped apart by weasels as the flow of words dries up.  When I sit down at my desk to work, I never know which it will be.  I am trying to figure out why the good days happen so I can con my brain into thinking a weasel day is a good one and maybe, I don’t know, get more prolific.

It appears that I’m not the only one struggling with this either.  Some of my favourite writers (such a kissass…) Chris Killen, Charlotte Stein, Neil Robertson, all have posted recently about not being able to write, losing the ability to string sentences together, lacking belief in their ability to write.  A couple of them are published writers too, which almost makes me want to give up and throw my half-written book into the sea.  If finishing a book doesn’t make it any easier, what hope is there for me?

So why does the writing flow, when it flows?  Is it muscle memory: I’m sitting at the keys typing, so not thinking about it too much?  Then I can freely pull words from my brain to describe scenes both from memory and imagination, attempting to make them as real as if I was standing in the middle of them, so that when you read them it’s as if you’re standing next to me.  Just as if I was pulling you by the arm, saying “over here, look at this!”

Except that you can’t be there, because however well I paint it, you will always see the scene with your own eyes, your own memory and your own imagination.  Stephen King in On Writing called it magic, the ability to transmit pictures from your head to the reader using words, but when it works it’s more like alchemy, turning what could be a tedious description on a fairly boring piece of paper into the kind of absorbing read that makes you ignore all household duties, neglect a holiday companion or keeps you reading through the night long past a sensible bed-time.

Like Dudley Moore in the clip, I still have no idea why it happens when it does and is so difficult at other times, however, the chance of one day stringing together something as perfectly beautiful as the poetry of that ‘Cliff Richard-loving, Berlusconi-adoring, guitar-playing twat’ is enough reason not to go chucking manuscripts or laptops seawards just yet…

1 Comment

Filed under Minitrue