Tuesday, 26 January 2010


I guess I can date very exactly when I lost it with lawyers. I know they’re not the root of all evil, but it always feels to me that they think evil is just another thing to be regulated. Do they really know the difference between right and wrong?

It was early 1983; Maggi was having an affair and looked likely to leave me. I went to ask a solicitor what would happen if we got divorced and she said I would lose the children. What if I do nothing and let her leave, can she take the children then? No. So the answer was simple, do nothing, stay legally married and I keep my kids, let the lawyers take over and not only do I lose a wife and half my house but my kids as well.

I asked the lawyer if she thought my kids would believe me if I told them 20 years later that lawyers made me leave them? She just thought I was being difficult because I was upset. I should say that back in those days the partner who left could not legally file for divorce until they’d been gone for five years and I figured that after five years, if I could not convince a court that I could look after the kids then I probably didn’t deserve them. We actually got divorced seven years later with joint custody and the kids living with me. I made sure they stayed in touch with their mum. We had this amazing rota that the kids organised, each weekend each parent had 1 or 2 or 3 or no kids, so it took 3 months to get through all the permutations.

Many years later my eldest daughter got married. We were all there; me, my new wife, Lois and Maggie and her new husband, Alan, and we all had a great time. Maggie said to Lois, my second wife.

‘Every girl should have two mothers.’

All the grandparents were there too, and I know that if we’d left it to lawyers it probably would not have been like that. These days, of course, the lawyers have dug themselves in deeper, and the chances of pulling off a deal like that are reduced.

I get angry when I hear politicians waxing on about the value of marriage. They clearly have no idea what they are talking about – odd really when so many of them are lawyers. Do they not realise that we now have a society where divorce is a more binding agreement than marriage. If you really love someone, and you want society to recognise it, then get married. After that, get divorced. Make the conditions of the divorce that you will live together, to have and to hold, for better, for worse, and anything else you really value. That way if either of you leave or fall short the law will get you for it. Without the divorce, you have no rights at all. Either of you can do what the fuck you like. Literally. Legally.

Friday, 22 January 2010


I put my book on Authonomy in the hope of constructive criticism. The basic deal there is simple enough, there is a complex and invisible algorithm driven by which books other site members like, by which books rise up the charts. If you get into the top five at the right time then Harper Collins will look at your book. With about 5000 books on the site I’m not sure I regard the odds as particularly good. Other people have blogged about how it has become a sort of swap fest, you read mine and I’ll read yours. To get into the top five you obviously have to put in a lot of hours reading and commenting. Not made any easier or quicker when the site prevents you reading offline and its refresh time in clunky by modern standards.

If only five triumph, what is in it for the other 4995 books and their authors? Precious little I would suggest.

I’ve had getting on for 40 comments and almost all of them tell me what a great book I’ve written. I tried sending a letter to random people who seemed to be online a lot in which I asked specific questions. Do you think chapter one is too dark? Did the issues raised put you off? Does it start too slow? The response I got was pretty much the same. It’s not too dark, too slow, or too detailed.

What do agents say? Those who have rejected it so far say things like:- ditch chapter one - there is too much exposition and it’s too dark, so no one would pick it up in a shop if they read the beginning. Get into it much quicker and get to the real crime. Um it’s a medical thriller and there is no actual crime, but never mind – you get the picture.

Nothing said in any of the comments from writers on Authonomy was aimed in the same direction as the agents who have rejected the book so far.

So is there any point to Authonomy? The vast majority of books will not be improved by the comments they get and the chances of being picked up by Harper Collins become more and more remote as the site goes on. Of course all that reading other people’s book and pitching to get you own read chews up time when you could be writing. Slowing up the rate at which writers crank out books that would never be published may be what Harper Collins was really aiming at.

That might seem bad, but in some ways it gives us a hint of a more optimistic picture, not for publishing but for life in general. Given the chance, even perfect strangers will not say bad things, or things they think might hurt. To get any criticism that might push you towards change, you have to pay. In the case of agents, mostly you pay with your time, plus printing off the double-paged versions of three chapters and the stamped addressed envelopes. The other alternative is to pay for critiques from folk like Stephanie Hale or Cornerstones. The latter are more expensive, but they don’t take 15% of whatever you earn eventually. To be fair any word beyond ‘No’ that an agent says is on their own time and costing them money.

One could argue that agents should have an interest, in a general sort of way, in promoting better writing, and hence should share their views. On the other hand book publishing is a competitive business; if all the writers got better there is no evidence that customers would suddenly buy more books. As Fred Hirsh once said. ‘If everyone stands on tip toe, no one sees any better.[i] From there you could argue that the less agents say, the easier it is for them to pick possible winners.

So there you have it, we live in a society where you have to pay for insults or unpalatable truths and if you talk to perfect strangers the chances are they will be nice to you. Of course that means Eastenders has got it all wrong, but surely we knew that anyway.

[i] Social Limits to Growth Fred Hirsh, 1976 Harvard Press

Friday, 8 January 2010


I keep reading comparisons between this winter and 1963. Back then I was about to be 18 and lived in Blagdon, in the Mendips, at the top of a one in four hill almost 20 miles away from school. I drove there every day on a motorbike with my younger brother in the sidecar.

On New Year’s ever we had about six feet of snow. On the West side of the house it piled up so high that you could not see the front door and it was another two months before we could get into the house that way. The snow drifted across the fields and piled up in the hedges and the roads. My little brother aged about ten could walk along the top of the hedge because it was frozen solid and filled with snow.

The milkman, a local farmer with a herd of Guernsey cows delivered our milk on a sledge for the first week after the snowfall.

Farmers with tractors carved a channel through the snow and we got our cars and my motorbike down to the garage further down the hill. Each day we walked down the hill to get the bike in order to go to school.

It snowed pretty well every day until my birthday in April, so we carried a spade and sometimes dug our way through where the drifts had built up.

Some time in January our water froze up, not our pipes but the mains out in the road somewhere. We melted snow to cook and wash. It takes a lot of snow to make a pint of water, but we did have plenty. After a week of that we abandoned the house for a couple of weeks and went and lived with my grandmother in Bristol. We came home at the weekend with the sidecar loaded up with all our camping water bottles. It wasn’t much fun dragging them up the hill to home but we did eventually find another route where the hills were not so steep.

The water unfroze in February and we moved back home. I remember driving into Bristol on the bike, a model 18 Norton, for those interested. We had to set off in the dark, because the journey took so long. About eight miles outside Bristol you come to the top of a big hill and from there I could see the sunrise. It felt as though someone had turned on an electric about a mile away, but it is surprising how nice that feels.

The roads were hard packed snow and ice; I don’t think we saw the tarmac before March on most of them. If someone came the other way somehow you had to stop, because the snowploughs had only carved narrow tracks. Jamming on the brakes did very little, so I learned how to spin the motorbike and sidecar through a hundred and eighty degree turn and drive like hell back the other way. Laurie used to wave out of the back window at the petrified drivers coming the other way, who by then had realised that there was no way they could stop.

Some time in about March I arrived at school about ten one morning because there had been a bit more snow than usual, and got black looks from the chemistry teacher. He was a funny old guy who did a lot of caving as a hobby. That next weekend he decided that as the snow in Bristol had all but cleared up, the council having removed most of it, he would go out to the Mendips and get underground.

He got on his trusty bicycle and pedalled out there. He was OK all the way down the A 38 until he came to the usual turn off to take him across towards Burrington Combe. Fifty yards along the road he ran into the snow still five feet deep. No one had gotten around to clearing that road. He abandoned the bike and tried walking, only to sink into snow up to his waist. After half an hour he gave up and bicycled back home. On Monday morning when I again showed up at about ten in the morning he made me a cup of tea.

If we still have several feet of snow in a couple of months time I’ll listen to comparisons, but till then, anyone who says this winter is like 1963 just wasn’t there.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Dash it

I read an article the other day about hyphens and en dashes and em dashes. To be brutally honest I don’t think I really knew the difference but it forced me to read up about it. It’s a very subtle kind of fun. I found that when I changed the en dashes to em dashes, where they are there to indicate a break in flow of thought or speech or whatever, I was less inclined to use the em dash because it was longer. I ended up using full stops instead of some of the dashes. Clever that. I don’t imagine for a moment that they invented it that way to cause that effect, but it does suggest that it has the right impact on the flow of the text.

Going through the whole book doing that I was slightly irritated to find that there are still typos that I’ve missed all the other times I have read through the thing. I start to wonder if text is inherently unstable. Of course if this were physics there would be some sort of sequence, like Uranium changes into Lead etc. I can’t see any signs of that, so it must be biology, and we’re dealing with something like a random mutation. The key question then has to be what might speed it up or slow it down — in particular, does reading the text make the letters more likely to mutate? Do the eyes running over the text, or daylight falling on it, do something to it, like X-rays hitting cells.

Perhaps it is a product of new computer displays — what is a liquid crystal anyway? Does the liquid flow around, or drip out of the page. Would deep-freezing help?

This is not a good way to start the new year, I know I have to proof read and it’s just not a sensible to think that the more I read, the worse it will be — it just feels like that, and the better I get at proof reading the more it will seem like that — at least to begin with. Is this the end of the beginning or the beginning of the beginning? No it’s the third of January.