Showing posts with label Andrew Strong. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Andrew Strong. Show all posts

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Distracted - Joan Lennon

Charlie Chaplin in Pay Day (1922)
(wiki commons)

I am at the two thirds stage of writing a novel, and I am in the sludge.  I recognise this stage.  I know it's just a question of slogging on through.  I am not enjoying the slog.  And I am in the throes of excessive distractability.  So when I saw an article online on Nir Eval's theories about the nature of distraction, I downed tools and had a read.  (Okay, if I'm honest, I read a bit, got distracted, came back and read a bit more, got distracted ...)

I don't buy the whole package Nir Eyal is proposing - for example, I think that not everything we do is "prompted by the desire to escape discomfort." "It's pain all the way down" is not my kind of mantra.  But the nub of the argument - that distraction doesn't start with the technology out there - it starts with us - I certainly recognised.  

"We use these devices as psychological pacifiers as we are looking for an escape from uncomfortable sensations. And if we don't deal with that fact, we will always find distraction somewhere."

Part of dealing with that fact might be to find out what other people are saying about distraction.  There have been, for example, excellent ABBA posts on the topic - have a visit, for example, to Chitra Soundar's Seven Habits of a Highly Distracted Writer, Clementine Beauvais' On Not Trusting Your Future Self, or Andrew Strong's How to Be Creative.  (Go on - it's an educational and entertaining way of not getting down to, you know, the writing.)

But, yup, this distractability I acknowledge mine, to paraphrase the Bard.  Also, I have no magic cure.  I still have to do the slog, in order to get past the sludge.  I break it down into baby steps, use the timer, mark up every 100 words achieved, give myself tons of tiny treats, and distract the other people in the house who are also trying to write/draw with corking* challenges.

This too shall pass.  (Off now to find out where that comes from ...)

* Corking is a not-quite-yet-Olympic sport where you try to throw Prosecco corks into an empty cat food box from a distance.  Feelings run high.  It is eminently distracting.

Joan Lennon's website.
Joan Lennon's blog.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Fawnography - Andrew Strong

I’m lucky enough to live close to Hay on Wye, it’s my destination of choice on a wet Sunday afternoon.  The bookshops go on forever, and there are one or two decent places to eat, not something that can be said of many small Welsh towns.  I’m a food snob, and a book snob, and a snob in general, so when the festival comes around, I tell everyone I know who intends to go that I prefer Hay when it’s quieter, when I have the place to myself.

After all, most people who attend the festival are not there because of a hunger for all things literary.  What they want more than anything else is to see, and if possible talk to, a celebrity.  This doesn’t interest me at all. If I go, I'm there out of sheer intellectual curiosity.

Yesterday, however, after tramping through heavy rain from the car park in town to the main festival site, one end of Hay to the other, and thankfully having seen not one celebrity, I found a quiet bar, bought a hideously expensive pint and slumped myself in a sofa.  I’d arranged to meet friends there, but they were scattered about the site, and none of them genuinely interested in books (unless you include ones by Alan Titchmarsh) so I had a few minutes to plan my intellectual journey for the day. I don’t know about you, but when I attend things like this I always have to have a focus – whether it’s poetry, or fiction, or history, I have to prepare myself, consider in advance what perspective I intend to take in order that I’m not thrown in any direction, and end up completely adrift on a brown sea of aimless hogwash.  (Hay is muddy, remember).

And then Adrian Edmondson walked into the bar, in wellies, and he stood right next to me and I could actually hear him talking. 

Those few minutes were very difficult for me, you understand.  I was suddenly sucked under by just the sort of empty headed nonsense I had hoped to avoid. I remember, ten years ago, having a pee next to Adrian Edmondson in the toilets at Leigh Delamare services.  He was more famous then.  I didn’t speak to him on that particular occasion, of course.  It would have been very inappropriate, but here, in a bar, well, this was a different matter.

I found I couldn't help myself from continually glancing up at him. Not because I am in awe of him in any way, but more likely because I was considering how his comedy is in an intellectual tradition that follows Beckett and Pinter, and I was thinking I could go up and ask him something along these lines but decided against it because he might think I was a tosser.

After Edmondson left the bar (he drank two pints when I had managed just one) I decided I would go and look for my friends so I could just mention, in passing, that I had just seen a very famous comedian, and making sure I shoehorned Beckett and Pinter into the same garbled sentence so I could impress upon them that I was interested in Edmondson from a cultural standpoint and really his fame was of no interest to me.  He’s just a bloke like other blokes, he drinks beer and uses the urinal (I have witnessed both, remember).

So I hurried out of the bar, fighting against a tide of bodies making their way to some ‘talk’ or other. I pushed through the middle class masses wondering why it is that they feel this need to see someone talk. It’s as ridiculous as listening to someone paint. Why go all the way to Hay to see people talk?  Similar talks are all over the internet. If you are truly interested in what these people have to say, then just stay at home and watch the videos on youtube. Or better still, read their books.  It’s all very hollow, isn’t it?

And then I saw the great Australian novelist Tim Winton, and wasn’t that Martha Kearney just behind him?  And what the hell is John Bercow doing here and, suddenly, looming out of the light like a great galleon emerging from fog, there is Stephen Fry, right there, in front of me, smiling, avuncular, our national treasure.  He was being ushered towards the new signing area next to the bookshop, nodding, his massive brain working away.

Lower status celebs (like Bercow) sign books in the main shop, but those of bigger stature, like Fry, sit in a sort of corridor next to the shop, so fawning admirers can line up and wait their turn for a few seconds of unselfconscious, fully paid, staring.

I am above all this, of course, and when I eventually meet my friends, I quickly steer the conversation to the Theatre of the Absurd and just drop in the fact I had been in a bar with Adrian Edmondson, and wasn’t it pathetic that grown men and women stare and whisper, and that I’d also seen Stephen Fry. 

One of my friends, Gary, then mentioned that he had a ticket to see Fry talking about Shakespeare.  Gary has never seen a Shakespeare play in his life.  So why, I wondered, was he so keen to hear what Fry had to say about the bard?  I have all the BBC Shakespeare on DVD, as well as one or two of the Branaghs. I'm serious about my Shakespeare, not like Gary, who's just a dilettante. But off he went, ticket clasped in his hand, his eyes glazed over in expectation. Fool.

Later that day I made my way back to the car park in the town, still curious as to the true nature of the festival.  What is this desire human beings have to be close to famous people, who, just because they choose to write, or perform, are given inordinate status?  I was thinking this, and as I entered the car park, much emptier than it was earlier on, there walking towards me was Blackadder himself, Rowan Atkinson. 

I tried not to stare, but there was nobody about, no one could see me, so it didn’t matter, and Atkinson had his eyes on the tarmac, obviously keen not to meet my gaze, so I had a big long look.  He isn’t as tall as I expected.  Not much between him and Bercow. 

Anyway, I got into my car, and starting the engine felt a trifle disappointed that there was no one I could tell about my encounter with a superstar.  But, like I said, I’m above all that, so decided to keep it to myself.  

Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Outer Limits - Andrew Strong

Long ago, before most of you were born, I used to listen to music on vinyl.  A vinyl single was usually about three minutes long, and a vinyl album, or LP, twenty minutes a side.  When I started playing in bands, and writing my own songs, I thought it was best to write three minute songs, or to think in sets of songs forty minutes long.  The technology of playing music dictated what I wrote.

When I watch a film I wonder how the screenwriter’s plotting is influenced by a movie's eventual length.  If a film is ninety minutes long, each of its three acts gets to be thirty minutes.  People will feel short changed if a movie is less than an hour, and often complain if it goes on for too long.

But what dictates the length of a book?  I’m led to believe that publishers prefer children's novels to be shorter, but why?  Is it simply because huge books don't sell? Are they too daunting or too heavy?

The original draft of a book I’ve just finished was 120,000 words.  My agent insisted I cut in half. I did so, and although the book is neater, and sharper, I think it’s lost something of its rambling essence.  (Can an essence ramble?)

So, like a DJ who creates an extended mix, or like the Directors Cut of a movie available on DVD, I wonder whether it’s possible to publish both long and shorter versions of my new book.  And while I’m at it, I wonder if I could write an even shorter short one.  Take this to its logical conclusion and my book will end up as a short story, a poem, or even a tweet.  Perhaps it can exist, like matter, in a variety of states. The book is about music, so I suppose I could include a cd, or a link to a download.

These days so many of the contexts in which artists work are  in flux.  Writing is no longer confined to print, but to a myriad of forms.  We can write blogs of infinite length (that no one will read).  We can tweet pithy wisdom. (Nobody will read these either).  At sea in the online world, we have no limit to their imaginings.  I can write and record my music at home, upload it on to Soundcloud and don't have to concern myself with the memory capacity of the means of distribution.  The LP, the CD, even the concept of music of any finite length has been challenged by software such as Koan which enables music to be ‘generative’ – that is, the composer determines certain settings (key, pitch, tempo, arrangement) and the music unfolds infinitely.

As someone who trained as a painter, then spent ten years in music before writing books, I see many art forms suddenly released from their bonds, in freefall.  Of course it is liberating: there’s a new world out there, and it goes on forever. 

Writers have always enjoyed creating their own restraints: Joyce’s Ulysses, Georges Perec, the works of Italo Calvino, the Oulipo movement, they have all sought to devise structures to give their work some limit, a reaction to, perhaps, a sense of reality as too chaotic. 

Reality is too daunting to capture in its entirety, so we all need to be selective, to choose, to  limit.  But the boundaries of our reality are dissolving in the online world.  We get vertigo, we run to find the edges, there aren’t any.

And our security, like the security we get from good parents who give clear boundaries, is threatened.  It’s a brave new world.  It's daunting and exciting in equal measure.

So, if and when my new 'work' eventually comes out, maybe it will be in several forms, the least of which will be the printed book.  And if you miss most of them, please make sure you don't miss the tweet.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Truth, Lies and MRI Scans.

Anthony Burgess, on being told he had a brain tumour, and only a year to live, was jubilant. Great, he thought, a whole year in which I’m not going to get knocked over by a bus, or die in a car crash.  Worried that his premature death would leave his wife with nothing, he threw himself into writing.  The brain tumour disappeared, Anthony Burgess established himself as a major novelist.

This little story, which Burgess describes in his autobiography, may or may not be true.  I doubt that it is.  But regardless of its veracity, it’s been going round and round in my head for some time.

Like everyone else who writes and reads this blog, I am writing a book.  It’s a book I’ve been working on for five or six years.  It’s the one I’ve always wanted to write. I’m sure you all have one like it. But like plenty of novels writers write, I have struggled to finish it.

However, I had an Anthony Burgess moment.

In April this year I had an MRI scan that suggested the arteries in my head were unusually thickened, and I was at risk from a developing an aneurysm.  I’ve written about this in an earlier blog, so won’t go through all the gruesome details again. I’ll just mention that the specialist took five months to tell me, by which time, I thought, I’m lucky to still be here.

More recently I had a second ‘enhanced’ scan, using state of the art MRI that, if the first had something of the 1970s about it, this one was 2001.  I was sucked into the mouth of Hal.  Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

This second MRI machine was right next to a bank of monitors displaying my skull, brains and all that mazy Hampton Court stuff. How I longed to see a little homunculus sitting there in the middle, arms pulling the levers, sweat pouring down his little brow.

“Look!” I imagined yelling to the radiographer, “there, in the middle, a tiny man! And he’s gobbling chips!” The radiographer frowns.  “That’s very common,” she says.

Look, not all of this is true. The truth is not that exciting. I had the scan, I went home.  The radiographer didn’t say anything at all.  She smiled and nodded and I wondered, as I got my coat, whether she was looking at me that way because I had six months to live, or because she thinks I’m an idiot.

What if it was both?

But, when I got the report, it was reassuring.  Whatever was on the previous MRI scan, it was not on this one.  “No abnormalities in the brain, no lesions, the orbits, pituitary, corpus callosum, brain stem” and so on, all normal. Things are flowing as they should be.  The homunculus needs a new armchair, but otherwise, nothing.

What, I asked the specialist, has happened?  Why has thickening, or arteritis, or aneurysm, or infection disappeared?  I thought these things were either irreversible, or cured only by colossal amounts of steroids.

No answer.  A shrug. “An over enthusiastic radiographer,” he muttered.

“What?” I yelled, picking him up by the collar and holding him against the wall.  “Are you saying my illness was the product of someone’s imagination?”

“Please,” he said, “it’s not my fault!”

He reached out and pressed an alarm button, two orderlies charged in, and in seconds I was strapped up, restrained, and couldn’t move.

“I just want the truth, doc,” I said, struggling to free myself.

“Put it this way,” he said.  “Perhaps we in the NHS love to create fictions, too.  Why should all the imaginative stuff be left to writers?” 

For whether I was ill, and after a long rest, am cured, or whether there was nothing there in the first place, the fear that I had something eating away at my brains was the spur I needed.  It wasn’t that I was afraid I wouldn’t finish my book before I died, it was that writing kept the worry away.  As long as I wrote, I didn’t dwell.

I have nearly finished my book.  I’m proud of what I’ve written, but know that finding a publisher for it will not be easy.  It is, to say the least, very idiosyncratic.

But does that matter? I’m going to live. 

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Wordshop - Andrew Strong

In my last post for ABBA I wrote about my intention to take a roadshow to schools across Edinburgh. I say ‘roadshow’ but I’m not sure what that is. I also used the word ‘workshop’, and in the end decided it was a ‘wordshop’.

Well, I did go up to Edinburgh, and I thought I’d tell you about it.

First, I should I explain that I really didn’t know what I was doing.  I think it’s important to state this otherwise you may be looking for the point of it.  I had about three weeks to prepare, and was looking for interested teachers at the same time. You can imagine the difficulties when I first contacted schools.

Teacher: so what is this about?
Me: I’m not sure. Literacy. Words. Music.
Teacher: does it have a purpose?
Me: Oh yes, of course. It will have. Soon.
Teacher: Could you say what the purpose is?
Me: I want to expand your mind. I want to control your stationery.

With a couple of days to go I had a format for the ‘wordshop’ worked out. I would talk about interesting words, read a few poems, ask children to make up their own poems, get children to improvise a surreal drama, then finish with some whale sound effects. Everyone likes those.  Had I discovered what the point of it was? No. I was on an adventure.  I suppose I wanted the children to feel that too, as if they couldn’t be too sure of what was going to happen next.

I would hold up my books, perhaps read from them at the end if there was time.  What I wanted to do more than anything else was engage children. Engage, entertain, amuse, confuse, distract, challenge, motivate, inspire.  That sort of thing. 

I’m back home now, two weeks or so later. It was great fun. The children I worked with were wonderfully exuberant and came up with some astonishing comments and insights, and took part with glee.  I loved the moment a boy stood up and began a hilarious chant using the word ‘potato’, and in one school a teacher laughed so much she had to go and sit in the corner and dry her tears.

I learnt several things: a) my keyboard is heavy b) parking in Edinburgh is difficult c) most people are open to new ideas d) rationalising what you’re doing is not always a good thing  e) nothing is as hard as trying to be funny, but when you succeed, it’s obvious. f) everyone loves to hear whale song.

So thank you Edinburgh, and all those people who gave me an opportunity to try out my multimedia self-publicity. A big thank you to Kenris and also Fiona, Saira, Amber and Richard.

Next, I want to try and combine music, poems and stories into a sort of operatic audio magazine. Sell them to schools at £5 a time. If it goes well I should make about £10,000 a month.  Enough to afford some real whales.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Set Texts - Andrew Strong

Without exception, all of the set texts I studied at school put me off reading literature for a very long time.

Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare: ‘Hard Times’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Hamlet’. Each of them rinsed, squeezed, hung up to dry, until there was nothing left but questions on the text, model answers, the dreary farce that is English literature for most school pupils.

As a child I read superhero comics. I loved all that stuff; the flawed hero, the ridiculous costumes: a perfect preparation for Jane Austen. After comics I read nothing at all. I don’t think I picked up a book for years.

Luckily, I found literature for myself through a curious route: pop music. Every evening, once I’d escaped school, raided the fridge, had a fight with my brother, kicked a ball against a wall for twenty minutes, I would retreat to my bedroom and lose myself in sound.
Music was more noise than anything else, a beautiful aural slush that obliterated the horrors of the day. When things were particularly unpleasant just a song title could whisk me off into a distant realm: John Cale’s ‘Paris 1919’; Nico’s ‘The Marble Index’.

And now and again a single phrase transported me from suburban south Wales into a parallel universe. There are lines from David Bowie’s songs that summoned up images that now, decades later, are still with me.

Millions weep a fountain, just in case of sunrise (‘Aladdin Sane’)

With snorting head he gazes to the shore
Where once had raged a sea that raged no more
(‘Drive-In Saturday’)

This isn’t Keats, but I’d had enough of Keats by the time I was fourteen. I needed to create my own world, and I couldn’t do that in the sweat and plimsoll stench of the classroom. At home, with Bowie, a few words would capture a thought and I’d be gone, lost.

These handful of images were a lifeline. I began writing songs, three or four chord constructions vamped on an old Bluthner in the front room. I grew to love the smell of that piano, the polish, the musty waft of the mechanism when I pulled off the panels to make the sound brighter.

And then, when all the exam revision was behind us, pupils were asked if we’d like to contribute something to the school magazine. I submitted some of my song lyrics, rewritten on Basildon Bond with an ancient fountain pen so my words looked like proper poetry, and every one of my efforts was selected for publication. To this day, it felt like the beginning of a new era. Someone was taking my writing seriously.

The meaningful texts of my youth were pop song lyrics. I don’t think of them as literature, but they did more to lead me to writing than ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Hamlet’. Decades later I’ve grown to love Austen and adore Shakespeare. I’d like to be able to say I’m fond of Dickens too. But two out of three isn’t bad.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

A No-Brainer

Now and again something strikes me as so true, so right, so profound, that I can’t sleep. I pace the corridors of my country retreat until the early hours, mumbling away to myself.
At the same time I am, of course, wary of such feelings. I know the way my brain chemicals can leap about and do somersaults, bounce off the inside of my skull, creating all sorts of messianic thoughts.
When I think something is important, I begin to question why I think it is important, and then begin examining my values. Nothing can withstand such scrutiny. Great ideas the size of planets shrivel up into wasabi peas. By the time the maid serves breakfast, I might as well sit at the table dressed as Napoleon.
The book that caused the most recent episode was “The Master and His Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist. I experienced so many stirrings of recognition I began to believe that my brain liked what it was reading so much that it was stamping out any embers of criticism.
It’s a huge book, but its thesis is straightforward – and please realise I am simplifying this hugely - that left brained thinking has elbowed its better half into the long grass. Left brained thinking is rational, mathematical, deductive. Right brain is empathy, intuition, emotion.
I usually despise such simplifications. And I despise this one more than most, because McGilchrist uses closely argued prose (ie a very rational left brained argument) to make his case against that very methodology.
However. I’m going to use a brilliant manoeuvre and beg your indulgence. Let’s think of this right brain/left brain stuff as a useful metaphor. Now that you’ve agreed to this, I’ll plough on.
Consider what school subjects our political leaders still believe to be most important: literacy, numeracy, science and IT. The curriculum, then, is heavily weighed towards left brain thinking.
Why are maths, science and IT are still valued more than art, music or drama? Why does reading receive more emphasis than oracy?
Subjects that cannot be easily gauged, or measured, are valued less. You can measure reading age, spelling age, maths age. You can test a child’s knowledge of science. You can buy computer programmes that will test the lot.
But no computer can test a child’s capacity to draw, or to express an emotion in speech. And by definition, there can’t be the tools for measuring creativity: if you are highly creative, you will have brilliant ideas long before some bureaucrat comes up with a way of testing what they are.
And yet when we look at what makes an organisation great, it isn’t its targets, or its data, it’s the people in it: people who show initiative and creativity; people who are good with other people, who watch out for the smallest signs of distress and respond to it; people who recognise and nurture talent.
What elevates something to excellence is something beyond measure.
McGilchrist’s book is a six hundred page scream. The data munchers, the Daleks, are taking over. They are taking over because the test obsessed school curriculum exaggerates the abilities of systematizers over those of their more intuitive, emotional, people-friendly peers. The examination system rewards closed, rational thought, students who can play the game.
More than ever, then, artists and writers need to make strong, well-argued cases for the elevation of their disciplines in schools and in the world outside. We must not pander to the data-fiddlers and boast that whatever it is we do can improve a child’s scores. Ironically, and sadly, we, like McGilchrist, have to use the techniques of the left brainers (rational argument) to champion the intuitive, poetic mind. (I had thought of tying a fish to my head and standing on one leg in Parliament Square, but didn’t think that would put these ideas across so well).
We need only look at children’s faces when we tell a story, or perform a play, to know that what we provide is right. We do not need any other test. Quality cannot be quantified.
Which is why literature is so vital. Literature is all the right-brained thinking child has left. If her art and music lessons are squashed into the scrag end of an afternoon, often taught by teachers who are not particularly fully absorbed by these subjects, the result is a desert for the empathetic, intuitive child. The left brainers tramp merrily away with all the booty.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Why? - Andrew Strong

Anyone with children will know the ‘why?’ stage. The child discovers that this tiny word can make an adult talk and talk and talk. The child receives undivided attention because the adult loves to show how much he knows.
‘Isn’t the blossom beautiful?’
‘It’s beautiful so it attracts bees.’
‘To help make more trees, and more blossom.’
‘So you like some Gummy Bears?’
It goes on forever. The child isn’t really listening, she’s just enjoying the attention, the love that’s being devoted to her.
Because adults love to explain. Adults want to be able to show they understand and that everything is explicable.
Because adults fear that not knowing means they are stupid. Or that the child will feel rejected. Adults just love to fill silence with sound.
Shut up. I don’t know.
Take the recent riots. How many different explanations did we hear? Left wingers giving left wing explanations (cuts; no jobs; the breakdown of the state). Right wingers giving right wing explanations (bad parenting; nanny state; the breakdown of the family). I am sure many of these views could have been given even before the event.
Question: If there was a riot next week what would be the causes?
The right wingers and the left wingers have already made up their minds. The event itself doesn’t have any relevance.
Young children imagine all adults will give similar answers, that the reasons for something happening are easy for us grown ups to understand. The world is black and white. Up until around the age of seven or eight, if you ask a child whether it is wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed a starving family, almost every one will give a categorical ‘yes’. It is wrong to steal. Of course it is.
This is one good very reason for giving children a diet of fiction. Children get to hear inside the heads of other people, even if they aren’t real. These imaginary people can hold views that real people may have. And slowly, a child begins to realise that two characters versions of the same event may be very, very different.
As children begin to explore the territory of what makes us the people we are then they can begin to understand that others may be inflexible, or are not even prepared to listen to evidence before coming to conclusions, that sometimes judgements are clouded by temperament, character or emotion.
It’s a giddy experience, the dawning realisation that there may be fewer certainties in the world.
It just is. Now go to bed.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Nothing Doing - Andrew Strong

I seem to spend at least a week, every summer, picking things up and putting them down again. This is in the cause of ‘tidying up’. Last year I had a shed built on a small plot of land at the end of the garden. Within a month I’d filled it with junk. I ordered a new shed. I have three new sheds now, all built this last year, and all are full up.
Not that I can’t throw anything away. At least once every six months I order a skip and leave it parked at the end of the lane. It fills with rotten furniture, saggy mattresses and deceased lawnmowers.
Every year I need more and more storage. I live in a reasonably big house, but can never find anywhere to put things.
So this year I decided to excavate the spare room, a place where guests fear to tread. It’s in a wing of the house that was once the maid’s quarters. She must have died in there and left a jug of milk to go off at the same time, because I haven’t been able to get rid of a very weird smell.
That weird smell, or the ghost of the gone off milk, or both, has meant that the guest room door is rarely opened.
I had to take the bull by the horns, however, and grasp the nettle that was knotted around the bull’s horns (I wore protective gloves). I was going to venture into the spare room.
It was worth it. Stacked in a huge, damp cardboard box I found my ancient diaries, or journals as I prefer to call them. Calling them journals makes me sound more like Edmond de Goncourt and less like one of the Waltons.
At this point, I’d like you to imagine a clichéd cinematic dissolve. From the middle aged man cut to the fourteen year boy sitting cross-legged on his bedroom floor, listening to Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. I say imagine, because in reality I would have been listening to T.Rex.
I’m thinking what to write in my diary. So I put: ‘I am sitting on the floor listening to Mozart’. (I lied a lot in those days).
Three or four years on, I vowed to write a page a day, roughly five hundred words. I kept that up for thirty years. On days when nothing happened, I would still have to write it all down. And those details of days when nothing happened are what interest me most. The descriptions of travels, or even my participation in events that made national news (the Poll Tax Riots, IRA bombings) don’t absorb me as much as where I went to buy my bread and milk, or attempt to describe the state the teapot was in. I glued in plenty of ephemera: cinema tickets, receipts from shops now long gone, and even food. On October 2nd 1982, under some grimy yellow sellotape, there’s what I think is a Trebor Mint.
So, if you’re looking for a moral in all this it’s that the things that mean the least to us when we are young can mean the most thirty years later. I still like T. Rex though.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

High Ambition - Andrew Strong

Telling a class of children a story can be magical. But wash your hands first, because if a story works, you'll have them eating out of your palms. I like to tell stories as often as I can; sometimes I'll just make a story up. I'll wait until almost the last moment, until I'm in front of them, and savour the feeling of a story popping out of nowhere. Last week I made up a story about a man who fell asleep on an inflatable bed and drifted out to sea. It was very exciting. Until I got to the end because I couldn't think of one. So I asked the children. The consensus was they wanted him to drown. I didn't let him, of course, he was too nice.

And not so long ago I told the story of Joseph and his brothers. Just as I was about to begin, one child put up her hand and asked, "is this R.E.?" I nodded vaguely. She groaned and sunk in her seat. But after three or four minutes, every face was turned to me. It was wonderful. Stories are powerful.

But when it comes to reading books to children, rather than telling stories, there are more challenges. After all these years, I think I know what to look out for. First, there must be natural breaks. Twenty minutes is enough. I need somewhere to end so that children are begging for more. Second, I don't want to explain too much. Keep content simple.

A few months ago I read a class some of the Mr Gum books. When I came to the line 'he was a gingerbread man with electric muscles' I almost suffered a stroke. I could not continue: the place was in uproar. I was shown the door - it was red, and covered with scratches. Some people, it seemed, had tried to claw their way out of that room.

After the Gum books, I wanted to be a little more ambitious. I wanted to try longer chapters and difficult vocabulary. I chose a book as far from Mr Gum as possible and by one of my favourite children's writers, Geraldine McCaughrean.

I say 'one of my favourite children's writers' but I have long held a suspicion that actually McCaughrean's books are far too sophisticated for ten year olds. But putting my doubts to one side, I began.

'The Kite Rider' is set in China during the thirteenth century, its vocabulary is quite tricky, and the background needs some explaining. I would need to take my time. Consider that there are some children who have only the simplest grasp of where they live. Yes, you point to a place on a map, you can tell them, show them again, repeat where it is, get them to explain to you. But ultimately if they have haven't travelled, not even as far as the nearest city, they can have little grasp of the scale or nature of the world beyond. China is a big step for them. Thirteenth century China, an enormous leap. Even one of the brightest children asked me if they had electricity back then. There is work to do before a book such as this can be tackled.

But, ten chapters in they were riveted. They loved the main protagonist, Haoyou, and suffered every one of his blows. McCaughrean is a writer of enormous scope, she can unpick a character's motives and lay out each thread for you to examine. Nine and ten year olds may have difficulty in appreciating this, but as the story is so powerful they are swept along.

I doubt that many of the children in the school, and very few I have taught, could have read this book alone. At the most there may be one or two who could have a go, but the vast majority would find it an impossible task.

Yet I think they need exposure to this quality of writing. It is simultaneously panoramic and microscopic. Including the preparation, it's taken us the best part of two months to read together. For some of these youngsters, it's become a big part of their lives. I am yet to find out exactly how much they enjoyed it, but I know that, in years to come, they will use the experiences of the Haoyou to discover their own world, and when they do, the flight of 'The Kite Rider' will have been time well spent

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Leaky Warehouse of the Mind - Andrew Strong

I’ve just finished the redraft of what I hope will be my next book. It's an attempt at comedy, but I wanted to capture the idea that an era is coming to end, a golden age is over, and an uncertain future must be faced with courage. I’m not sure how well I have succeeded, but the book is written, and I have to hope that it comes across.
It was only when redrafting that I realised how incidents in my life were creeping into the story. It was written through a very harsh winter, so characters in my book do battle with the elements. More recently, I’ve been watching the birds return, the house martins and swallows. These have woven their way into the story.
But there are other things that are less obvious and a little unnerving. I wanted a name for a big, family house. I won’t use the actual name I chose, but instead will use an equally ludicrous one as an example, let’s say ‘Heron’s Thumb’. I googled this made up house name just to see what came up. I discovered that not only is there a house of this name, (and there is just one) but it’s in Bridport, Dorset, where generations of my father’s family lived. My great grandfather may well have known ‘Heron’s Thumb’.
Which reminds me of something that happened to me after I’d just bought my first flat, in Leighton Road, west Ealing, London. My mother, who then lived in south Wales, wrote to me, and included in the envelope a photocopy of a letter written to her mother, by her grandmother, around 1930. The address on my great grandmother’s letter was the same Leighton Road.
But when I went out on to the street to find the house, it no longer existed. I discovered later it had been bombed in the war. Had it still stood, it would have been directly opposite the flat I had just bought. Not only this, but my mother went on to tell me that her grandparents had owned many houses in the area, but more or less gave them away in the 1960s, when they were unable to sell them.
Therefore, my first flat was one my great grandparents may well have owned, and the name of the house I've chosen for my next book could have been one a great grandparent might have known.
I tend to dismiss anything that has a whiff of the supernatural, and would rather seek out some sort of rational explanation. I suggest this: the human brain is a vast warehouse of clutter, stuff we’ve collected over decades, and even inherited. When we write, some of that clutter comes tumbling out into words, unconsciously.
It made me wonder, have any other writers retrospectively researched the name of a character, or a fictional place or event, and discovered some buried family history, or disturbed a long buried personal event?

Thursday, 31 March 2011

In Praise of Mr Gum - Andrew Strong

For years I’ve wanted to write Finnegans Wake for children. A book that bordered on linguistic chaos, but which, deep down, played on some elemental need to savour the primitive music of words. Logic, plot, characters could all take a hike into the mountains. I wanted to write a surreal masterpiece.
I never did it, I never will do it. There’s no point now, anyway. Andy Stanton has beaten me to it.
Stanton’s books are almost without plot, and the characterisation is a little eccentric. But there is a texture of rich, playful, fizzing language. A few weeks ago I read the first Mr Gum book to a bunch of nine and ten year olds. They laughed so much I had to stop at the end of each sentence to let the noise die down. They pleaded with me to read the second book, but after that one I suggested they go out and buy the others themselves. Most of them did just that.
‘You’re a Bad Man Mr Gum’ has a plot device that makes me tremble with envy. Mr Gum is a very lazy and hence, messy man. His house is a tip, but his garden is immaculate. When a neighbour’s dog gets in Mr Gum’s garden, and wrecks it, Mr Gum seeks revenge. Of course, if it occurs to a child to question why Mr Gum’s garden is pristine, when his house is a tip, Stanton is one step ahead: Mr Gum must keep the garden tidy, or a fairy appears and smashes the old grouch in the face with a frying pan. Of course!
But when this plot device is no longer necessary, we hear nothing more of the fairy with the frying pan. And no one cares. Stanton is not in the business of tying up loose threads. He abandons his threads, leaves a heap of them in the corner for you to sweep up.
The Mr Gum books are anarchic, but buzzing with humour and word play. The language is gorgeous. For an example of this, consider the setting of the Mr Gum stories: the town of Lamonic Bibber. This would not be out of place in Finnegans Wake. It’s a phrase that suggest laziness, booze, the bubbling of a stream.
The theme of laziness pervades the Gum books. Descriptions tail off, and similes have a late period Blackaddery feel to them. Early on there are a smattering of conventional similes, for example, there's Mr Gum's ancient carpet which 'smelt like a toilet'. But later, when the effort of coming up with consistently accurate comparisons seems to bore him, Stanton describes a character ‘giggling like a tortoise’. The absurdity of it, and the sense that all this simile stuff is too much like hard work, makes it deliciously funny.
Stanton turns slouching into an art form. Like Miles Davis or Picasso, he works hard at making things look very easy. The Gum books remind me of Geoff Dyer’s wonderful non-biography of D H Lawrence, ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ – a book about not getting around to writing a biography of D H Lawrence.
A parent of one of the boys who was particularly taken by the Gum series told me his son had read all eight books, one after the other, and was now having withdrawal symptoms. Could I suggest something else? I grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled down Finnegans Wake.
I didn't really.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Maths of Writing - Andrew Strong

Monday, February 21st 2011, 5.35pm:
time to write/time to read
I’m trying to work out if there is a correlation between the time it takes to write a decent sentence and the time it takes to read it. You’d think it would be directly inverse, as the easier something is to read, the harder it is to write.
David Edgar’s piece in last Saturday’s Guardian demonstrates this perfectly. He shows that the gorgeous passage from the King James Bible beginning ‘swords into ploughshares’ took almost a century to perfect.
time to write/time represented
Furthermore, as it’s possible that a sentence could represent any span of time from a fragment of a second (think of Nicholson Baker’s mini-epics) to millions of years, could there be a correlation between the time a sentence represents and the length of time it takes to write? No, probably not: ‘A moment later…’ is as drab as ‘A millennium later…
How to make time pass is one of those thorny potatoes that most of us have, at one time or another, attempted to mash. It is difficult to break a narrative, leaping forward an hour or two, a day, or a week, without clichés.
Later that same evening:
140/time spent on a particular tweet
Why I took to tweeting: First, the discipline of constructing a sentence of fewer than 140 characters that says something meaningful is a better distraction from having to get on with my next book, flicking peas into a bowl or creating new playlists on iTunes. Second, the tweet should be as crisp and maybe as informative as the chirp of the hungry chick. It's a good discipline. Third, I like the fact that a tweet is dated, the exact minute is given, until it eventually drifts off the tweet horizon, and becomes ancient histweet.
After a double espresso:
time spent writing/typing speed
Trying to save time by typing quickly. Never a good tictac.
Thirty Years into the Future:
lifetime/good sentences
Well, that was a nice life. I managed to write one or two good sentences. I avoided clichés like the dragonfly of eternity avoids capture in the clip clop clapping of history’s coconut shells.
Just now:
plank/light speed
The smallest unit of time a plank. It’s the length of time light takes to travel along a plank. The largest unit of time is the supereon. This is about four billion years, and about the length of time I’m taking to write my next book. If I had more time I’d make it even shorter.
But I’ll shut up now. With this shoddy and laboured blog.
About time.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Real Me - Andrew Strong

Peter Carey, when asked how he writes, says he just writes and rewrites, discovering new threads as he goes along; when something new appears, it can change everything else in the book, so he begins again, writes and rewrites, and then, perhaps, discovers a new thread. And so on.

He doesn't so much write stories, as carve them out. And it’s words he likes, words and sentences, not the storytelling of 'and then and then and then...'. He works on a microscopic level. He lets the story take care of itself. I approve of that.

I've read a few of his books, I liked 'Oscar and Lucinda', and loved 'The True History of the Kelly Gang'. They had an organic, uncontrived feel, and were forever growing. His characters feel the same.

A few years ago I picked up James Wood's book 'The Broken Estate' in a tiny second hand book shop. I didn't know anything about Wood at the time. It looked a serious book, with essays on Virginia Woolf, Austen and Martin Amis. A serious, cheap book. I couldn't resist it.

I like Wood when he goes on about 'rounded characters'. I'll skip what he says and just ask you to think of someone you know well. What is it about them that you know? When you think of them are they any more or less real than a character in a good novel? I think we caricature even the people we know intimately: I'm certain we remember faces by a very few details - a big chin, a small nose, a slightly raised eyebrow. Couldn't our 'deeper knowledge' of people be the same, and more superficial than we might suppose?

And what about ourselves? What do I know about the 'real me'? I wonder sometimes when I hear people saying things like 'I want to discover my true self'; because I don't think there is a true self. I'm not even sure there's a self, at least nothing static, unchanging, like a portrait. So, when it comes to creating characters, instead of piling on detail after detail, a few brushstrokes should do it.

Which reminds me why I have trouble reading Henry James. He does tend to describe faces in so much detail his characters seem grotesque. When someone has an 'elongated top lip' or 'an aquiline nose like a ridge waving down' I begin to see something resembling a tortoise. And then before I can do anything about it the tortoise is chewing a piece of soggy old lettuce - even though James doesn't mention the lettuce - and I can't read any more. If Peter Carey was writing such a book, I’m sure he’d have started again, and written the adventures of that tortoise. As he hasn’t, I will.

I’ll create a tortoise character with a few brushstrokes, and when this character is up and running (well, you know what I mean) - let him open a door, or eat his lettuce, or take forever to go from one room to another; and watch him - he does it his own way. And in the middle of this, he'll look up and he'll say something; he might tell you he's looking for his spectacles, or his purpose in life, or that he’s growing a moustache, and I'll have the beginning of a whole new thread, a new story, a new series.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Comic Effect - Andrew Strong

I didn’t read a proper novel until I was fourteen or fifteen, and then it was because I had to, it was homework. It was ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and I thought it was quite funny, for a book.

My childhood was a more middle class version of ‘Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.’ It was brilliant. I mucked about until the age of about fourteen, when girls and bands and physics came along. From then on life wasn’t so straightforward, but books still played very little part in it.

At nine or ten I was up early on most mornings to take my dog for a walk, usually along the canal path, where the tramps used to sleep. I’d have a big breakfast, enough for a small army, then head off to school where I was bright enough to get through the day without too much effort. Bookish people seemed a little odd. Why would I want to spend hours curled up on my own? It seemed just as geeky to me then as X-box addicts must appear to an older generation today. No better, no worse.

There were comics, of course. I started with my brother’s Eagle, took up the Beano, then the much overlooked TV21, followed by Batman, Flash and the X Men. There was Monster Magazine, Shoot, and a little later music magazines: Melody Maker, NME and Sounds. I was never allowed to read comics or magazines at the meal table, only in the ‘lounge’ in front of the television. I couldn’t read them in the bedroom because I shared that with my older brother and he didn’t need any excuse to beat me up.

My parents would buy me ‘improving’ books for Christmas and birthdays. There was one series called ‘How and Why’. The ‘How and Why Book of Rockets’, for example, or the ‘How and Why Book of Dinosaurs.’ I adored those books, I loved the illustrations and used to make copies of them, colouring them in with felt pens. Sometimes I just drew on the books. What liberation, just to draw straight on to a book! But I can’t say I ever understood the how or the why of anything. I definitely didn’t understand the ‘how’ of rockets, and certainly not the ‘why’ of dinosaurs.

But ‘How and Why’ books were important for one very significant reason. They were bigger than comics, and therefore could camouflage the mindless stuff by hiding it inside a brainy cover. When I started reading ‘The How and Why Book of Volcanoes’ at the breakfast table, my mum gave my dad a nod of the head, and thinking I was on the sunlit path to self-improvement, left me alone. Little did they realise I was gripped by a Fantastic Four adventure I’d borrowed from my friend Martin.

Books were good for you, comics were bad. Books were akin to fresh air and exercise, comics were like crisps and chewing gum. To me, they were just the opposite. Books were dusty and meant for dark corners. My parents, wonderful though they were, thought I would become an intellectual if I read proper books. They wanted a brainy son, and comics would not feed my brains.

But comics are beautiful, and even now the smell and texture of a comic sends a delicious shiver of excitement through me. I love all books now, of course, and have long since stopped drawing all over them. Through comics I found my way to books, and once I’d found them, I was never going back.

I mentioned this far off episode of the household disdain for comics to my octogenarian father the last time we spoke and he made a startling admission. “I still haven’t ever read a proper book,” he laughed. And then he winked. “Except yours, of course.”

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Think Herzog - Andrew Strong

Werner Herzog's ‘Heart of Glass’ is a film that still haunts me, long after I first saw it. The actors, famously hypnotised into stilted and glazed performances, play characters struggling to rediscover the recipe for blood red glass, a secret lost when an old glassmaker dies. Without this knowledge the village economy begins to collapse. It is apocalyptic, visionary, idiosyncratic and very, very weird.

There aren't a lot of jokes in ‘Heart of Glass', but like all Herzog’s films, it is extremely funny.

One of Herzog's more recent productions is a documentary about a man who wants to commune with bears. It's a true and tragic story. The bears eat him in the end. They do, really. And then there’s the film in which Herzog eats his shoe, inspirationally titled ‘Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe’.

Herzog's films teeter between the mystical and the insane; between high art and farce.

Whenever I set out to write a book, I watch a little of ‘Heart of Glass’. I want something of that weirdness in everything I do. Ideas for books usually begin with a subtle image: a dilapidated shop, a boy on sunlit steps. I want to create half-worlds in which realities are questioned and undermined.

If my books turn out a little weird (or ‘bonkers’ as one editor put it) then all the better. I realise it gets harder and harder for publishers to accept eccentric books, but I’m not going to write something that I hate, just to please someone who probably doesn’t really want what they are asking for in the first place.

Herzog never worries about what anyone wants. He does what he likes. He has been an outsider all his life, but has produced works of incomparable beauty and strangeness.

In these difficult times it may be that many children’s writers will take stock and decide to write something mainstream; something that will sell. Instead of doing what instinct has us do, we might try and determine a gap in the market, or attempt to have a guess at what will the next big thing. We’ve had wizards and vampires, what next, wombats?

I'm lucky, I have a day job, it affords me the luxury of being able to write what I like, and if I don't get published, I don't starve. But I still want to encourage everyone to Think Like Werner Herzog, do something extreme, and do it with all the energy you can muster. Be yourself. Be weird. You already are anyway. Just admit it.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Horsehappy Values - Andrew Strong

My gap year was very conservative. I sat in a kitchen of my flat above a glaziers in Acton, west London, and read Ulysses. It was a rite of passage. While friends were driving across Nevada, paragliding over the Sahara, or tunnelling out of Broadmoor, I was turning the pages of Joyce’s voluminous book. Each morning, after my flatmates had eaten their breakfasts of last night’s cold kebab or yesterday’s brown rice, I pushed the pizza cartons and the foil containers of chop suey on to the floor, spread out the readers’ guides and set to work. It took me the best part of the twelve months.

A year later, when Pete appeared at door, lean, deep tanned, a far away look in his eyes, I was yelling “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Pete had been all the way around the world and returned to find me where he’d left me. The only part of me that had done any travelling was my eyes.

When I mention to friends that I want to write the Ulysses of children’s novels they look at me as if I’ve just asked them to fire a nail gun into my knee. “What would you want to do that for?”

I used to feel slightly ashamed and embarrassed that I love James Joyce. Finnegans Wake may be the most difficult novel of all time, but its mad ambition thrills me. So now it's time to come clean.

My day job is a headteacher. I spend my weekdays surrounded by young people. I have two teenage children and they regularly fill the house with their tall, grinning friends. They are all super smart, witty, much, much brighter than I was at that age. They simultaneously play computer games, watch TV, write music, design crazy stunts to film and put up on YouTube. They are texting and listening to iPods, having six different conversations. Watch them, shoved together in the same room. They are not just capable of multitasking, but of multi-dimensional multi-tasking. They seem to live permanently on several levels. Their language is a melt of references, of quips and quotes, facts and nonsense from The Simpsons, South Park, QI, and stuff they randomly bite off the internet and from each others’ Facebook pages. Their chatter skims across media, and across decades. They dabble in accents, and throw chunks of Welsh, French or Spanish into their chatter. Yes, it sounds like the incomprehensible noise of Finnegans Wake. It’s clever, funny, and somehow has its own inner logic.

They are, therefore, in a much better position to understand a book as something other than a vehicle for the third person, past tense narrative.

Indeed, the traditional form is something that must seem not just quaint to them, but archaic. In a recent Guardian article a certain Mr Philip Pullman makes a silly fuss about the present tense, suggesting writers should further exploit the richness of the past tense, and so on. A few pages before Mr Pullman’s piece, Tom McCarthy is interviewed about his novel C. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it is written in the present tense. Compared to Pullman's dusty lecture, McCarthy sounds thrilled and excited by the possibilities of fiction.

McCarthy clearly wants to reaffirm the case for modernist literature, for something more than the traditional ‘sentimental humanism’ as he puts it. If the vast majority of the adult population doesn't have a taste for experimental fiction, perhaps it is this generation of young people that are the first to be ready for novels that play with notions of voices, persons, perspectives and tenses, of stories that are a tangle of parody, pastiche and genre shifting.

And when e-readers really take off, there will be an infinity of dimensions to explore.

The book is dead. Long live the book.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Frittering - Andrew Strong

I hate wasting time. I hate queuing, traffic, train stations and airports. I get irritable just waiting for images to load on my web browser. More and more items on the BBC News website have that horrid little 'click to play' icon: I do not want to watch, I want to read. I can read faster than I can watch. I can scan the headline, and then move on if I’m not interested. For that reason I shun YouTube, and get shirty when people send me email links to ‘amusing’ videos. I am unable to sit through a full length movie; I have to watch in thirty minute bursts, usually from the seat of my rowing machine. This way I can get fitter as I fritter.

Time is the most valuable commodity on Earth: more valuable than air, water or food. Without time you would not be able to take a breath, a gulp or a bite. Yet, although we know we are all busy recycling bottles and boxes, there is nothing whatsoever we can do with time once we've wasted it.

Taking foreign holidays, going shopping, doing the gardening, or worst of all, watching television are forms of time-frittering that get on my goat. Nothing on television is worth one hour of my life. Nothing!

I picture myself on my deathbed, with just one more hour left to live. Shall I watch that jolly bird programme with Bill Oddie? Or how about dropping in on 'Fat Families' before I shuffle off? Nothing, not even an earnest documentary, or live coverage of Nick Clegg eating his own face would make me watch TV if I had just sixty minutes left to live.

I’ve tried living every hour as if it were my last. I soon became a hopeless, jibbering mess. “What’s the point of doing anything?” I hollered. “I’m going to die!” So instead I tried to refine my time wasting and came up with this exceptionally brilliant idea: use every hour as a means of saving time in the hours ahead.

To do this I live my life like an air traffic controller, with thoughts constantly streaming in, diverted, put into holding pattern, or some of them acted upon and brought down safely onto the runway.

So, even as I make breakfast, I’m planning when will be the best time to unload the dishwasher and, perhaps take the bins out. Should I do those first, or fill the kettle? Then there’s some post to be opened, and the hens to be fed. As I am slicing the bread, I am considering in which order to tackle these immediate chores, and at the same time, in holding pattern, are the thoughts about the things I will act upon when breakfast is cleared away.

Of course, because I'm thinking ahead, the task I am presently engaged with tends to be less than well done. Toast gets burnt, tea goes cold, cutlery ends up in the fridge, hens starve to death, I slice my finger off. I am always moving one step ahead of myself, but rarely do I know where I am. Even as I write this sentence I am juggling with the next paragraph. As I finish my third book I'm half way through the fourth and plotting the fifth. And as every writer knows, planning your next book is a hundred times more exciting than writing the present one.

Another time saving measure is to undertake two activities simultaneously, always ensuring that every wasteful element is counterbalanced by a useful one. I can watch dvds as I row myself fitter, read Proust as I struggle to eat my morning muesli and listen to opera as I'm having a bath.

In this way I get to lead three or four lives in parallel, and keep in shape, too. With my accumulated years I will be the fittest one hundred and eighty year old on the planet. I shall also be a mumbling, foam-spluttering idiot, who doesn’t remember one thing of any quality he’s done in his over-long life. But I won’t have wasted a second.

(Oh, and that bit about Clegg. It's not true. I would have to watch that).

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Five Epiphanies in Children's Literature - Andrew Strong

Something magical happens when, years after finishing a book, a certain moment suddenly flashes into consciousness. These are rarely significant episodes, often trivial, but they have something miraculous about them. Some are delicious, others less so. Here I’m remembering some as I see them now, without going back to the books to check for accuracy.

Alan Garner’s Mountains

I love Alan Garner’s Wales, particularly his description of the mountains, and their daunting emptiness. In the ‘Owl Service’ the hero is up there, wandering the grey stones, lost. Unlike the slate coloured comedy of Frank Cotrell Boyce’s landscape in ‘Framed’, Garner’s summits are spiritual places, where silent epiphanies occur. Garner paints the sombre desolation of the Welsh mountains so accurately they appear more real than those I can see from my window.

Camp Green Lake

It isn’t a camp, it isn’t green and it isn’t a lake. It’s just Holes. Stanley Yelnats (is he the first palindromic hero of a children’s book?) has some digging to do. There are just holes, the heat, the lizards, and the stink of sweaty bodies. Mr Sir comes to fill Stanley’s canteen, but he lets the water pour into the dry ground. Never has a book made me quite so thirsty.

Susan Cooper’s Green Lanes

I spent many summers in Cornwall as a child. I never thought of looking for the Holy Grail, but my dad did get me hunting for Cornish Piskies. He told me they were on the headland, and I would have to go out there with a bucket and spade, the spade for hitting back the wheat, much taller than me then, and the bucket was collecting Piskies. He told me if I listened I could hear them chattering. “Over Sea, Under Stone” is soaked in the mood of Cornwall of my youth, the green lanes and suspicious locals. There is magical moment when one of the protagonists, seeking out a suspicious character, finds himself in the green lanes between those high Cornish hedgerows. I can’t remember what happens, but those lanes, their greenness, and the perfect quality of their Cornishness, is captured forever.

Geraldine McCaughrean’s Aerial View

In 'The Kite Rider' McCaughrean takes you up above the action. We get a bird’s eye view of a battle scene, with the boy on his kite, passing intelligence to the Great Miao. It’s a stunning sequence, a clever device for showing us the plan of things, but it is vertiginous and breathtaking.

William Nicholson’s Examination Room

Aramanth not only sounds like a dodgy liquer, it leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth. Nicholson’s dystopia and its rabid testing culture is a savage satire of the idiotic educational policy of successive UK administrations. Aramanth is a hostile place, even if it is home to the dear family of our heroes. It’s a place you have to escape, and that’s what the protagonists do. But the white robes of the examiner, caught in a spangle of sunlight, somehow summon me back to the examination halls of my schooldays, and fill me with dread.

Arrietty’s Garden

Arrietty takes her first step into the garden. It is a sublime epiphany: it stirs up the rage of adolescence, of dreams of the future, of impossible hopes and utter fearlessness. It’s my favourite moment in children’s literature, and one I savour again and again and again. The reader’s knowledge that there are giants out there, and one is about to appear, makes the moment bitter-sweet, especially as Arrietty is about to find out she may be the very last of her race.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Normality - Andrew Strong

I live in a remote spot and rely on a borehole in the garden for water. Last week the pump packed in - result: no water.

I spent Saturday morning in the attic, trying to make sure it was the pump that was faulty and not something else. I'm no technician; I just hit everything with a hammer once or twice and hope the result is a sudden gush of water. Nothing.

Then I received a letter congratulating me on winning first prize in a competition - a fifty-inch, high definition plasma TV.

I have no water, but I’ll soon have a cinema in my front room. Making crap bigger doesn't make it better, though. It's still crap. I wondered whether the same technology would make books better – a massive iPad displaying books six feet wide, every word as big as your face. Is music better if it's louder? Is food tastier if you get more of it? I don't care: I'm thirsty. I just want some water. I'm going to sell the TV; it'll go towards the cost of a new pump.

And this afternoon I found a bat in my pants. Yes, a real, living, squeaking bat. I have to add I wasn't wearing this particular pair of pants, they were in a pile of other washed and unsorted clothes. The bat was nestled there, having flown out of the open hatch to the attic and lost its way. It's a long eared bat - easy to recognise: it has long ears. You have to whisper when they're around; they can hear everything.

I put the TV up on ebay and within minutes received an email from ‘Tom’ - a Ukrainian. He asked me to call him. “My brother will come up from London and pick up the TV,” he said, his accent intensely Ukrainian. I tell him I live in remote mid Wales. “No matter!” he replies, “my brother will pick it up at six forty-five on the way to Gateshead.”

I try to explain that my home is not en route between London and Gateshead. He laughs. He isn’t the slightest bit concerned.

'Tom' puts seven hundred quid into my account. He’s extremely trusting. I wonder if I’m getting myself into some sort of money laundering scam. How will his brother find my house? Curry’s and Comet can’t find it, how will a diverted Ukrainian?

At six forty-five exactly, the brother turns up, flips open the back of his estate. We carry the TV out, and with a soft hiss, it slides into the car snugly, perfectly.

An hour later than he had arranged a guy comes with a new water pump. “Sorry,” he says, “couldn’t find your house.” I tell him I won a fifty-inch TV, that I didn’t want it, and had sold it to pay for the pump. A Ukrainian on his way to Gateshead just came and picked it up. I told him I’d found a bat in my pants.

"You're dehydrated mate," he said. "Causes hallucinations."

And then he turned into a heron, gobbled up three of my goldfish, and flew away.