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This�Friday’s�piece comes from�Caroline Smailes, author of�two novels to date: In Search of Adam and Black Boxes - both of which�avoid the traditional happy ending. As a result she has had quite diverse reactions to her work. She has an army of loyal fans, but then there are people who are completely thrown by the way she avoids the temptation to give us some hope! This short pieces discusses that happy ending syndrome.

I blame Walt Disney

The creative writing course I attended years ago taught me about a formula for creating a perfectly structured novel. It was said that endings should focus on �The Road Back� and on �Return with the Elixir�. That�s all very fabulous, but what if that road back involves popping a few tablets and killing off the main character?

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When Joseph Conrad died in 1924, Ernest Hemingway wrote a piece for the Transatlantic Review laying out his position on the legendary author of Heart of Darkness. To the young Hemingway, Conrad had long served as an antidote against all bad writing and as a source of inspiration. In his piece, Hemingway related how he had saved up Conrads novels. Knowing that once he read them all he could never read them again for the first time, the previous summer Hemingway had managed to save four to bring with him to Canada. By the time the summer was coming to a close hed already raced through three of his Conrad novels.Finally, after saving it until the autumn, he used up the fourth and final Conrad book while sitting up all night in a hotel in Ontario. When morning came, wrote Hemingway, I had used up all my Conrad like a drunkard. I had hoped it would last me the trip, and felt like a young man who has blown his patrimony. But, I thought, he will write more stories. He has lots of time. But alas, he was wrong, for Joseph Conrad was dead the following year.

I immediately remembered this story when I read about the new version of A Moveable Feast, due to be published in the US this week, because I have lately found myself in a similar predicament. About two years ago I used up all of my Hemingway and have been fiendishly reading biographies and critical studies of the author in a desperate bid to recreate the feeling of first reading his books. So far, Ive been too proud to move on to things like collected letters (though recently I cracked and read the posthumousIslands in the Stream) so this news got me turning over a new idea in my head perhaps, just perhaps, a new version of A Moveable Feast would almost be like reading it again for the first time.

Edited by Sean Hemingway, the 42 year-old grandson of the author, the new version of A Moveable Feast is being called the restored edition. Apparently, the most significant change is the shift in the portrayal of Pauline Pfeiffer Hemingway’s second wife. In the new version Hemingway squarely shares the blame for his marital betrayal of first wife Hadley, rather than turning Pauline into a ruthless seductress who tricked him into leaving a happy marriage as in the original.

Scholars have been quick to point out that Hemingway never finished A Moveable Feast in his lifetime. When he died, it was left in a nearly publishable state which fourth wife Mary Hemingway edited and arranged to create the version most people are familiar with today. As such, there is no authoritative version. Because Hemingway never finished the book, one version is technically as authoritative as the next.

This being the case, besides supplying additional unpublished sketches,what exactly has the maintext been “restored” to? Given the authoritativeness of all genuinely created versions that are possible, it seems like the word restored is being used a bit deceptively here. From the sound of it, the only things that have been restored are Hemingways sense of shared responsibility and the reputation of his second wife.

I havent yet read the new edition, but I instinctively worry that by making these changes to the text some of the consistency of viciousness apparent in the first version may be lost.

Carlos Baker keenly notes in his late 60s study of Hemingway that the rancour displayed towards Pauline in A Moveable Feast is by no means exclusive to her. Indeed, in his analysis Baker is convinced that many of the sketches in particular those involving Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, Zelda Fitzgerald, dos Passos and the Murphy’s (who Hemingway blames for encouraging him to leave his wife for Pauline) were written with vengeance in mind.

According to Baker, in writing the book Hemingway explained that he was using a special technique, like a cushion shot in billiards or a double-wall bounce in jai alaiwhat one learned about the young Hemingway…was revealed in part by watching him rebounding from the personalities of Miss Stein, Ford, Fitzgerald and the wine-sozzled habitues of the Cafe des Amateurs in the rue Mouffetard.” Most often, what one learned about Hemingway through this technique was that he was a disciplined, humorous, serious young artist. However, in addition to this, it is often obvious that many sketches were written with “the tacit assumption of his own superiority, accomplished through the persistent denigration of others it was in these places that the tone of the book sometimes turned sour.”

Looking at the underlying tone of the original book like this, it almost seems like you lose something essential about the kind of writer he was if you restore Hemingway to a more responsible position. It would be nice and pretty if he wrote that way, but often he did not. To transform the ending into something more palatable may be just as authoritative as the bitter conclusion in the original edition. However, as authoritative as it would be, and despite how desirable it is it might not make for a better book.

In any case, I withhold all judgement until I read the new edition after all, perhaps reading itwill really be like reading Hemingway again for the first time.

This week’s extract comes from Janice Y. K. Lee’s acclaimed debut novel, The Piano Teacher.Picked by the Richard and Judybook club as asummer read,The Piano Teacher isa compelling and engrossing tale of two love affairs set against the backdrop of mid-century Hong Kong.

May 1952

It started as an accident. The small Herend rabbit had fallen into Claires handbag. It had been on the piano and she had been gathering up the sheet music at the end of the lesson when she knocked it off. It fell off the doily (a doily! On the Steinway!) and into her large leather bag. What had happened after that was perplexing, even to her. Locket had been staring down at the keyboard, and hadnt noticed. And then, Claire had just . . . left. It wasnt until she was downstairs and waiting for the bus that she grasped what she had done. And then it had been too late. She went home and buried the expensive porcelain figurine under her sweaters.

Claire and her husband had moved to Hong Kong nine months ago, transferred by the government, which had posted Martin in the Department of Water Services. Churchill had ended rationing and things were starting to return to normal when they had received news of the posting. She had never dreamed of leaving England before.

Martin was an engineer, overseeing the building of the Tai Lam Cheung reservoir, so that there wouldnt need to be so much rationing when the rains ebbed, as they did every several years. It was to hold four and a half billion gallons of water when full. Claire almost couldnt imagine such a number, but Martin said it was barely enough for the people of Hong Kong, and he was sure that by the time they had finished, theyd have to build another. More work for me, he said cheerfully. He was analysing the topography of the hills so that they could install catch-drains for when the rain came. The English government did so much for the colonies, Claire knew. They made their lives much better, but the locals rarely appreciated it. Her mother had warned her about the Chinese before she left an unscrupulous, conniving people, who would surely try to take advantage of her innocence and goodwill.

Coming over, she had noticed it for days, the increasing wetness in the air, even more than usual. The sea breezes were stronger and the suns rays more powerful when they broke through cloud. When the P&O Canton had finally pulled into Hong Kong harbour in August, she had really felt she was in the tropics, hair frizzing up in curls, face always slightly damp and oily, the constant moisture under her arms and behind her knees. When she had stepped out of her cabin, the heat had assailed her like a physical blow, until she managed to find shade and fan herself.

There had been seven stops along the month-long journey, but after a few grimy hours spent in Algiers and Port Said, Claire had decided to stay on board rather than encounter more frightening peoples and customs. She had never imagined such sights. In Algiers, she had seen a man kiss a donkey and she couldnt discern whether the high odour was coming from one or the other, and in Egypt the markets were the very definition of unhygienic a fishmonger gutting a fish had licked the knife clean with his tongue.

She had enquired as to whether the ships provisions were procured locally, at these markets, and the answer had been most unsatisfactory. An uncle had died from food poisoning in India, making her cautious. She kept to herself, and sustained herself mostly on the beef tea they dispensed in the late morning on the sun deck. The menus, which were distributed every day, were mundane: turnips, potatoes, things that could be stored in the hold, with meat and salads the first few days after port. Martin promenaded on the deck every morning for exercise, and tried to get her to join him, to no avail. She preferred to sit in a deck-chair, wearing a large-brimmed hat and wrap herself in one of the ships scratchy wool blankets, face shaded from the omnipresent sun.

There had been a scandal on the ship. A woman, going to meet her fianc in Hong Kong, had spent one too many moonlit nights on the deck with another gentleman, and had disembarked in the Philippines with her new man, leaving only a letter for her intended. Liesl, the girlfriend to whom the woman had entrusted the letter, grew visibly more nervous as the date of arrival drew near. Men joked that she could take Sarahs place, but she wasnt having any of that. Liesl was a serious young woman, who was joining her sister and brother-in-law in Hong Kong, where she intended to educate Unfortunate Chinese Girls in Art: when she held forth about it, it was always with capital letters in Claires mind.

Before disembarking, Claire separated out all of her thin cotton dresses and skirts; she could tell that was all she would be wearing for a while. They had arrived to a big party on the dock, with paper streamers and shouting vendors selling fresh fruit juice and soymilk drinks and garish flower arrangements to the people waiting. Groups of revellers had already opened champagne and were toasting the arrival of their friends and family.

We pop the corks as soon as we see the ship on the horizon, a man explained to his girl, as he escorted her away. Its a big party. Weve been here for hours.

Claire watched Liesl go down the gangplank, looking very nervous, and then she disappeared into the throng. Claire and Martin went down next, treading on the soft, humid wood, luggage behind them, carried by two scantily clad young Chinese boys who had materialized out of nowhere.

Martin had an old schoolfriend, John, who worked at Dodwells, one of the trading firms, and had promised to greet the ship. He came with two friends and offered the new arrivals freshly squeezed guava drinks. Claire pretended to sip hers as her mother had warned her about the cholera that was rampant in these parts. The men were bachelors and very pleasant. John, Nigel, Leslie. They explained they all lived together in a mess there were many, known by their companies names, Dodwells Mess, Jardines Mess, et cetera, and they assured Claire and Martin that Dodwells threw the best parties around.

They accompanied them to the government-approved hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, where a Chinese man with a long queue, dirty white tunic and shockingly long fingernails showed them to their room. They made an arrangement to meet for tiffin the next day and the men departed, leaving Martin and Claire sitting on the bed, exhausted and staring at one another. They didnt know each other very well. They had been married barely four months.

She had accepted Martins proposal to escape the dark interior of her house, her bitter mother railing against everything, getting worse, it seemed, with her advancing age, and an uninspiring job as a filing girl in an insurance company. Martin was older, in his forties, and had never had luck with women. The first time he had kissed her, she had had to stifle the urge to wipe her mouth. He was like a cow, slow and steady. And kind. She knew this. She was grateful for it.

She had not had many chances with men. Her parents stayed at home all the time, so she had as well. When she had started seeing Martin he was the older brother of one of the girls at work she had had dinner at restaurants, drunk a cocktail at a hotel bar, and seen other young women and men talking, laughing, with an assurance she could not fathom. They had opinions about politics; they had read books she had never heard of and seen foreign films and talked about them with such confidence. She was enthralled and not a little intimidated. And then Martin had come to her, serious: his job was taking him to the Orient, and would she come with him? She was not so attracted to him, but who was she to be choosy? she thought, hearing the voice of her mother. She let him kiss her and nodded yes.

Claire had started to draw a bath in their hotel room when another knock on the door revealed a small Chinese woman, an amah, she was called, who started to unpack their suitcases until Martin shooed her away.

And that was how they had arrived in Hong Kong, which was like nothing Claire had imagined. Apart from the usual colonial haunts all hush and genteel, potted palms and polished wood in whitewashed buildings it was loud and crowded and dirty and bustling. The buildings were right next to each other and often had clothing hung out to dry on bamboo poles. There were garish vertical signs hung on every one, advertising massage parlours, pubs and hair salons. Someone had told her that opium dens still existed in back alleys. There was often refuse on the street, sometimes even human filth, and there was a pungent, peppery odour that was oddly clingy, attaching itself to your very skin until you went home for a good scrub.

There were all sorts of people. The local women carried their babies in a sort of back sling. Sikhs served as uniformed security guards you saw them dozing off on wooden stools outside the banks, turbaned heads hanging heavily above their chests, rifles held loosely between their knees. The Indians had been brought over by the British, of course. Pakistanis ran carpet stores, Portuguese were doctors and Jews ran the dairy farms and other large businesses. There were British businessmen and American bankers, White Russian aristocrats and Peruvian entrepreneurs all peculiarly well-travelled and sophisticated and, of course, there were the Chinese, quite different in Hong Kong from the ones in China, she was told.

To her surprise, she didnt detest Hong Kong, as her mother had told her she would she found the streets busy and distracting, so very different from Croydon, and filled with people and shops and goods she had never seen before. She liked to sample the local bakery goods, the pineapple buns and yellow egg tarts, and sometimes wandered outside Central, where she would quickly find herself in unfamiliar surroundings, where she might be the only non-Chinese around. The fruit stalls were heaped with not only oranges and bananas, still luxuries in post-war England, but spiky, strange-looking fruits she came to try and like: starfruit, durian, lychee. She would buy a dollars worth and be handed a small, waxy brown bag and she would eat the fruit slowly as she walked. There were small stalls made of crudely nailed wood and corrugated tin, which housed small speciality enterprises: this one sold chops, the stone stamps the Chinese used in place of signatures, this one made only keys, this one had a chair that was rented for half-days by a street dentist and a barber.

The locals ate on the street in tiny restaurants called daipaidong, and she had seen three workmen in dirty singlets and trousers crouched over a plate containing a whole fish, spitting out the bones at their feet. One had seen her watching them, and deliberately picked up the fishs eyeball with his chopsticks, raised it up to her, smiling, before he ate it.

Claire hadnt met many Chinese people before, but the ones she had seen in the big towns in England had been serving in restaurants or ironing clothes. There were many of those types in Hong Kong, of course, but what had been eye-opening was the sight of the affluent Chinese, the ones who seemed English in all but their skin colour. It had been quite something to see a Chinese step out of a Rolls-Royce, as she had one day when she was waiting on the steps of the Gloucester Hotel, or in business suits, having lunch with British men who talked to them as if they were the same. She hadnt known that such a world existed. And then, with Locket, she was thrust into this world.

After a few months settling in, finding a flat and furnishing it, Claire had put the word out that she was looking for a job giving piano lessons, as a lark, was how she put it something to fill the day, but the truth was, they could really use the extra money. She had played the piano most of her life and was primarily self-taught, but she didnt think it would matter. Amelia, an acquaintance she had met at a sewing circle, said she would ask around.

She rang a few days later.

Theres a Chinese family, the Chens. They run everything in town. Apparently, theyre looking for a piano teacher for their daughter, and theyd prefer an Englishwoman. What do you think?

A Chinese family? Claire said. I hadnt thought about that possibility. Arent there any English families looking?

No, Amelia said. Not that Ive been able to ascertain.

I just dont know . . . Claire demurred. Wouldnt it be odd? She couldnt imagine teaching a Chinese girl.

Does she speak English?

Probably better than you or me, Amelia said impatiently. Theyre offering a very adequate fee. She named a large sum.

Well, Claire said slowly, I suppose it couldnt do any harm to meet them.

Victor and Melody Chen lived in the Mid-Levels, in an enormous white two-storey house on May Road. There was a driveway with potted plants lining the sides. Inside, there was the quiet, efficient buzz of a household staffed with plentiful servants. Claire had taken a bus and when she arrived, she was perspiring after the walk from the road to the house.

The amah led her to a sitting room, where she found a fan blowing blessedly cool air. A houseboy adjusted the drapes so that she was properly shaded. Her blue linen skirt, just delivered from the tailor, was wrinkled and she had on a white voile blouse that was splotched with moisture. She hoped the Chens would allow her some time to compose herself. She shifted, feeling a drop of perspiration trickle down her thigh.

No such luck. Mrs Chen swooped through the door, a vision in cool pink, holding a tray of drinks. A small, exquisite woman, with hair cut just so, so that it swung in precise, geometric movements. Her shoulders were fragile and exposed in her sleeveless shift, her face a tiny oval.

Hello! she trilled. Lovely to meet you. Im Melody. Lockets just on her way.

Locket? Claire said, uncertain.

My daughter. Shes just back from school and getting changed into something more comfortable. Isnt the heat dreadful? She set down the tray, which held long glasses of iced tea. Have something cool, please.

Your English is remarkably good, Claire said, as she took a glass.

Oh, is it? Melody said casually. Four years at Wellesley will do that for you, I suppose.

You were at university in America? Claire asked. She hadnt known that Chinese went to university in America.

Loved every minute, she said. Except for the horrible, horrible food. Americans think a grilled cheese sandwich is a meal! And, as you know, we Chinese take food very seriously.

Is Locket going to be schooled in America? We havent decided but, really, Id rather talk to you about your education, Mrs Chen said.

Oh. Claire was taken aback.

You know, she continued pleasantly, where you studied music, and all that.

Claire settled back in her seat. I was a serious student for a number of years. I studied with Mrs Eloise Pollock and was about to apply for a position at the Royal Academy when my family situation changed.

Mrs Chen sat, waiting, head tilted, with one bird-like ankle crossed over the other, her knees slanted to one side.

And so, I was unable to continue, Claire said. Was she supposed to explain it in detail to this stranger? Her father had been let go from the printing company and it had been a black couple of months before he had found a new job as an insurance salesman. His pay had been erratic at best he was not a natural salesman and luxuries like piano lessons were unthinkable. Mrs Pollock, a very kind woman, had offered to continue her instruction at a much-reduced fee, but her mother, sensitive and pointlessly proud, had refused to even entertain the idea.

And what level of studies did you achieve?

I was studying for my Seventh Grade examinations.

Locket is a beginning student but I want her to be taught seriously, by a serious musician, Mrs Chen said. She should pass all her examinations with distinction.

Well, Im certainly serious about music and, as for passing with distinction, that will be up to Locket, Claire said. I did very well in my examinations.

Locket entered the room, or rather, she bumbled into it. Where her mother was small and fine, Locket was chubby, all rounded limbs and padded cheeks. Her glossy hair was tied in a thick ponytail.

Hallo, she said. She had a distinctly English accent.

Locket, this is Mrs Pendleton, Mrs Chen said, stroking her daughters cheek. Shes come to see if shell be your piano teacher so you must be very polite.

Do you like the piano, Locket? Claire said, too slowly, she realized, for a ten-year-old child. She had no experience with children.

I dunno, Locket said. I suppose so.

Locket! her mother cried. You said you wanted to learn. Thats why we bought you the new Steinway.

Lockets a pretty name, Claire said. How did you come about it?

Dunno, said Locket again. She reached for a glass of iced tea and drank. A small trickle wended its way down her chin. Her mother took a napkin off the silver tray and dabbed it dry.

Will Mr Chen be arriving soon? Claire asked. Oh, Victor! Mrs Chen laughed. Hes far too busy for these household matters. Hes always working.

I see, Claire said. She was uncertain as to what came next.

Would you play us something? Mrs Chen asked. We just got the piano and it would be lovely to hear it played professionally.

Of course, Claire said, because she didnt know what else to say. She felt as if she were being made to perform like a common entertainer there had been something in the womans tone but she couldnt think of a gracious way to refuse.

She played a simple tude, which Mrs Chen seemed to enjoy and Locket squirmed through.

I think this will be fine, Mrs Chen said. Are you available on Thursdays?

Claire hesitated. She didnt know whether she was going to take the job.

It would have to be Thursdays because Locket has lessons the other days, Mrs Chen said.

Fine, said Claire. I accept.

Lockets mother was of a Hong Kong type. Claire saw women like her lunching at Chez Henri, laughing and gossiping with each other. They were called taitais and you could spot them at the smart clothing boutiques, trying on the latest fashions or climbing into their chauffeur-driven cars. Sometimes Mrs Chen would come home and put a slim, perfumed hand on Lockets shoulder and comment liltingly on the music. And then, Claire couldnt help it, she really couldnt, she would think to herself, You people drown your daughters! Her mother had told her about how the Chinese were just a little above animals and that they would drown their daughters because they preferred sons. Once, Mrs Chen had mentioned a function at the Jockey Club that she and her husband were going to. She had been dressed up in diamonds, a flowing black dress and red, red lipstick. She had not looked like an animal.

Bruce Comstock, the head of the water office, had taken Martin and Claire to the club once, with his wife, and they had drunk pink gin while watching the horse races, the stands filled with shouting gamblers.

The week before the figurine fell into Claires handbag, she had been leaving the lesson when Victor and Melody Chen came in. It had rung five on the ornate mahogany grandfather clock that had mother-of-pearl Chinese characters inlaid all down the front of it and she had been putting her things away when they walked into the room. They were a tiny couple and they looked like porcelain dolls, with their shiny skin and coal eyes. Out the door already? Mr Chen said drily. He was dressed nattily in a navy-blue pinstriped suit with a burgundy handkerchief peeping out of his breast pocket just so. Its five on the dot! He spoke English with the faintest hint of a Chinese accent.

Claire flushed. I was here early. Ten minutes before four, I believe, she said. She took pride in her punctuality.

Oh, dont be silly, Mrs Chen said. Victor is just teasing you. Stop it! She swatted her husband with her little hand.

The English are so serious all the time, he said.

Well, Claire said uncertainly. Locket and I spent a productive hour together.

Locket slipped off the piano bench and under her fathers arm. Hello, Daddy, she said shyly. She looked younger than her ten years.

He patted her shoulder. Hows my little Rachmaninoff? he said. Locket giggled delightedly.

Mrs Chen was clattering around in her high heels. Mrs Pendleton, she asked, would you like to join us for a drink? She had on a suit that looked like it came out of the fashion magazines. It was almost certainly a Paris original. The jacket was made of a golden silk and buttoned smartly up the front and there was a shimmery yellow skirt underneath that flowed and draped like gossamer.

Oh, no, she answered. Its very kind of you, but I should go home and start supper.

I insist, Mr Chen said. I must hear about my little genius. His voice didnt allow for any disagreement. Run along now, Locket. The adults are having a conversation.

There was a large velvet divan in the sitting room, and several chairs, upholstered in red silk, along with two matching black lacquered tables. Claire sat down in an armchair that was far more slippery than it looked. She sank too deeply into it, then had to move forward in an ungainly manner until she was perched precariously on the edge. She steadied herself with her arms.

How are you finding Hong Kong? Mr Chen said. His wife had gone into the kitchen to ask the amah to bring them drinks.

Quite well, she said. Its certainly different from England, but its an adventure. She smiled at him. He was a well-groomed man, in his well-pressed suit and red and black silk tie. Above him, there was an oil of a Chinese man dressed in robes and a black skull cap. What an interesting painting, she remarked.

He looked up. Oh, that, he said. Thats Melodys grandfather, who had a large dye factory in Shanghai. He was quite famous.

Dyes? she said. How fascinating.

Yes, and her father started the First Bank of Shanghai, and did very well indeed. He smiled. Melody comes from a family of entrepreneurs. Her family was all educated in the West, England and America.

Mrs Chen came back into the room. She had taken off her jacket to reveal a pearly blouse underneath. Claire, she said. What will you have?

Just soda water for me, please.

And Ill have a sherry, Mr Chen said.

I know! Mrs Chen said. She left again.

And your husband, he said. Hes at a bank? Hes at the Department of Water Services, she said. Working on the new reservoir. She paused. Hes heading it up.

Oh, very good, Mr Chen said carelessly. Waters certainly important. And the English do a fair job of making sure its in the taps when we need it. He sat back and crossed one leg over the other. I miss England, he said suddenly.

Oh, did you spend time there? Claire asked politely. I was at Oxford Balliol, he said, flapping his tie at her. Claire felt as if he had been waiting to tell her this fact. And Melody went to Wellesley, so were a product of two different systems. I defend England, and Melody just loves the United States.

Indeed, Claire murmured.

Mrs Chen came back into the room and sat down next to her husband. The amah appeared next and offered Claire a napkin. It had blue cornflowers on it.

These are lovely, she said, inspecting the embroidered linen.

Theyre from Ireland, Mrs Chen said. I just got them!

I just bought some lovely Chinese tablecloths at the China Emporium, Claire said. Beautiful lace cut work.

You cant compare them with the Irish ones, though, Mrs Chen said. Very crude.

Mr Chen viewed his wife with amusement. Women! he said to Claire.

The amah brought in a tray of drinks.

Claire sipped at her drink and felt the gassy bubbles in her mouth. Mr Chen looked at her expectantly.

The Communists are a great threat, she said. This is what she had heard again and again at gatherings.

Mr Chen laughed. Of course! And what will you and Melody do about them?

Shut up, darling. Dont tease, said his wife. She took a sip of her drink. Mr Chen was watching her. Whats that youre drinking, love?

A little cocktail, she said. Ive had a long day. She sounded defensive.

There was a pause.

Locket is a good student, Claire said, but she needs to practise more.

Its not her fault, Mrs Chen said breezily. Im not here to oversee her practice enough.

Mr Chen laughed. Oh, shell be fine, he said. Im sure she knows what shes doing.

Claire nodded. Parents were all the same. When she had children, she would be sure not to indulge them. She set her drink down. I should be going, she said. Its harder to get a seat on the bus after five.

Are you sure? Mrs Chen said. Pai was getting us some biscuits.

Oh, no, thank you, she demurred. I really should be leaving.

Well have Truesdale drive you home, Mr Chen offered.

Oh, no, Claire said. I couldnt put you out.

Do you know him? Mr Chen asked.

Hes English. I havent had the pleasure, Claire said.

Hong Kong is very small, Mr Chen said. Its tiresome that way.

Its no trouble at all for Truesdale, Mrs Chen said. Hell be going home anyway. Where do you live?

Happy Valley, answered Claire, feeling put on the spot.

Oh, thats near where he lives! Mrs Chen cried, delighted at the coincidence. So, its settled. She called for Pai in Cantonese and told her to call the driver.

Chinese is such an intriguing language, Claire said. I hope to pick some up during our time here.

Mr Chen raised an eyebrow. Cantonese, he said, is very difficult. There are some nine different tones for one sound. Its much more difficult than English. I picked up rudimentary English in a year, but Im sure I wouldnt have been able to learn Cantonese or Mandarin or Shanghainese in twice that.

Well, she said brightly, one always hopes.

Pai walked in and spoke. Mrs Chen nodded. Im terribly sorry, she said, but the driver seems to have left already.

Ill catch the bus, Claire said.

Mr Chen stood up as she picked up her bag. It was very nice to meet you, he said.

And you, she said, and walked out, feeling their eyes on her back.

When she got home, Martin was already there. Hello, he said. Youre late today. He was in a vest and his weekend trousers, which were stained and shiny at the knees. He had a drink in his hand.

She took off her jacket and put on a pot of water to boil. I was at the Chens house today, she said. Lockets parents asked me to stay for a drink.

Victor Chen, is it? he asked, impressed. Hes rather a big deal here.

I gathered, she said. He was quite something. Not at all like a Chinaman.

You shouldnt use that word, Claire, Martin said. Its very oldfashioned and a bit insulting. Claire coloured.

Ive just never . . . She trailed off. Ive never seen Chinese people like the Chens.

You are in Hong Kong, Martin said, not unkindly. There are all types of Chinese.

Where is the amah? she asked, wanting to change the subject.

Yu Ling came from the back when Claire called. Can you help with dinner? Claire said. I bought some meat at the market.

Yu Ling looked at her impassively. She had a way of making Claire feel uncomfortable, but she couldnt bring herself to sack her. She wondered how the other wives did it they appeared to handle their servants with an easy aplomb that seemed unfamiliar and unattainable to Claire. Some even joked with them and treated them like family members, but shed heard that was more the American influence. Her friend Cecilia had her amah brush her hair for her before she went to bed, while she sat at her dressingtable and put on cold cream.

Claire handed Yu Ling the meat she had bought on the way home. Then she went to lie down on the bed with a cold compress over her eyes. How had she got here, to this small flat on the other side of the world? She remembered her quiet childhood in Croydon, an only child sitting at her mothers side while she mended clothes, listening to her talk. Her mother had been bitter at what life had given her, a hand-to-mouth existence, especially after the war, and her father drank too much, perhaps because of it. Claire had never imagined life being much more than that. But marrying Martin had changed it all.

But this was the thing: she herself had changed in Hong Kong. Something about the tropical climate had ripened her appearance, brought everything into harmony. Where the other English women looked as if they were about to wilt in the heat, she thrived, like a hothouse flower. Her hair had lightened in the tropical sun until it was veritably gold. She perspired lightly so that her skin looked dewy, not drenched. She had lost weight so that her body was compact, and her eyes sparkled, cornflower blue. Martin had remarked on it, how the heat seemed to suit her. When she was at the Gripps or at a dinner party, she saw that men looked at her longer than necessary, came over to talk to her, let their hands linger on her back. She was learning how to speak to people at parties, order in a restaurant with confidence. She felt as if she were finally becoming a woman, not the girl she had been when she had left England. She felt as if she were a woman coming into her own.

And then the next week, after Lockets lesson, the porcelain rabbit had fallen into her handbag.

The week after, the phone rang and Locket leaped up to answer it, eager for any excuse to stop mangling the prelude she had been playing, and while she had been chattering away to a schoolmate, Claire saw a silk scarf lying on a chair. It was a beautiful, printed scarf, the kind women tied around their necks. She put it into her bag. A wonderful sense of calm came over her. And when Locket returned, with only a mumbled, Sorry, Mrs Pendleton, Claire smiled instead of giving the little girl a piece of her mind.

When she got home, she went into the bedroom, locked the door and pulled out the scarf. It was an Herms scarf, from Paris, and had pictures of zebras and lions in vivid oranges and browns. She practised tying it around her neck, and over her head, like an adventurous heiress on safari. She felt very glamorous.

The next month, after a conversation in which Mrs Chen told her she sent all her fine washing to Singapore because the girls here dont know how to do it properly and, of course, that means I have to have triple the amount of linens, what a bother, Claire found herself walking out with two of those wonderful Irish napkins in her skirt pocket. She had Yu Ling handwash and iron them so that she and Martin could use them with dinner.

She pocketed three French cloisonn turtles after Locket had abruptly gone to the bathroom as if the child couldnt take care of natures business before Claire arrived! A pair of sterling silver salt and pepper shakers found their way into her bag as she was passing through the dining room, and an exquisite Murano perfume bottle left out in the sitting room, as if Melody Chen had dashed some scent on as she was breezing her way through the foyer on her way to a gala event, was discreetly tucked into Claires skirt pocket.

Another afternoon she was leaving when she heard Victor Chen in his study. He was talking loudly into the telephone and had left his door slightly ajar.

Its the bloody British, he said, before lapsing into Cantonese. Then, Cant let them, and then something incomprehensible, which sounded very much like swearing. They want to create unrest, digging up skeletons that should be left buried, and all for their own purposes. The Crown Collection didnt belong to them in the first place. Its all our history, our artefacts, that they just took for their own. Howd they have liked it if Chinese explorers had come to their country years ago and made off with all their treasures? Its outrageous. Downing Streets behind all of this, I can assure you. Theres no need for this right now. He was very agitated, and Claire found herself waiting outside, breath held, to see if she couldnt hear anything more. She stood there until Pai appeared and looked at her questioningly. She pretended she had been studying the painting in the hallway, but she could feel Pais eyes on her as she walked towards the door. She let herself out and went home.

Two weeks later, when Claire went for her lesson, she found Pai gone and a new girl opening the door.

This is Su Mei, Locket told her when they entered the room. Shes from China, from a farm. She just arrived. Do you want something to drink?

The new girl was small and dark, and would have been pretty if it hadnt been for a large black birthmark on her right cheek. She never looked up from the floor.

Her family didnt want her because the mark on her face would make her hard to marry off. Its supposedly very bad luck.

Did your mother tell you that? Claire asked.

Yes, Locket said. She hesitated. Well, I heard her say it on the telephone, and she said she got her very cheap because of it. Su Mei doesnt know anything! She tried to go to the bathroom in the bushes outside and Ah Wing beat her and told her she was like an animal. Shes never used a tap before or had running water!

Id like a bitter lemon, please, Claire said, wanting to change the subject.

Locket spoke to the girl quickly. She left the room silently.

Pai was stealing from us, Locket said, eyes wide with the scandal. So Mummy had to let her go. Pai cried and cried, and then she beat the floor with her fists. Mummy said she was hysterical and slapped her face to stop her crying. They had to get Mr Wong to carry Pai out. He put her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and she was hitting his back with her fists.

Oh! Claire said, before she could stifle the cry.

Locket looked at her curiously. Mummy says all servants steal.

Does she now? Claire said. How terrible. But you know, Locket, Im not sure thats true. She remembered the way Pai had looked at her when she came upon her in the hallway and her chest felt tight.

Where did she go? she asked Locket.

No idea, she said cheerfully. Good riddance I say. Claire looked at the placid face of the girl, unruffled by conscience.

There must be shelters or places for people like her. Claires voice quivered. Shes not on the street, is she? Does she have family in Hong Kong?

Havent a clue.

How can you not know? She lived with you!

She was a maid, Mrs Pendleton. Locket looked at her curiously. Do you know anything about your servants?

Claire was shamed into silence. The blood rose in her cheeks. Well, she said. I suppose thats enough of that. Did you practise the scales?

Locket pounded on the piano keys as Claire looked hard at the girls chubby fingers, trying not to blink so that the tears would not fall.

Congratulations to Philip Hoare! Last night his book Leviathan,a workchroniclinghis lifelongfascination with whales, was awardedthe prestigiousSamuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. Published by 4th Estate, Leviathan is a gripping voyage of discovery into the heart of his whale obsessionand the book that inspired it: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. You can watch Philip speak about his prize-winning bookhere.

Here’s a great piece of filmabout the book:

Thefollowing guest blog comes from Elizabeth Ellis, who submitted this piece to Fifth

Ahhh, beautiful blue skies and the temperature dial hitting 30C and it’s still only 8am. A light haze covers the mountains in the distance and it’s going to be another hot, hot day: a major challenge for any newcomer to Spain. Learning to live with the heat is one of the hardest parts of our new life in Madrid. For a start, there’s the important issue of what to wear. Being British, my wardrobe is the fashion equivalent of the Model T: any colour so long as it’s black.

Now I’ve had to wisen up and buy new, light-coloured clothes, like the Spanish. Not that it helps me to blend in. We are instantly recognised as the new guiris (foreigners, as in “dumb foreigners”) in the neighbourhood and our progress around the barrio is keenly watched to see what these mad Brits will get up to next. While Im all for individuality, it can get a bit tiring at times so I was determined to follow Spanish fashion and fit in – checking out the other women in our local bar and taking their lead. They have long hair, so do I – now (well, its slightly longer than it was in the UK, a major achievement for this urchin-cut girl); they like little handbags, so do I; they like red trousers . . . ok, some things are beyond the pale. But I can cope with wandering around in cute vest tops with drawstring straps and gypsy skirts.

That was how I was dressed the other morning when I popped into my bakers for our daily bread (a task containing both pleasure and pain – pleasure in that the bread is fantastic, pain in the look on the bakers face when I try to speak Spanish). Despite it being 25C at only 9am, the bakers wife looked at me curiously. Dont you feel a bit chilly, just wearing that at this time in the morning? she asked.

The Spanish like discussing the weather almost as much as the British.

I tried to make a joke about it feeling like a bakers oven outside, but the perplexed look on their faces as I stammered my words made me turn my sentence into a simple Not really, and I headed back to the flat, bread in one hand, little handbag in the other.

Waiting at the traffic lights to cross (and feeling chuffed that Id finally remembered to look the right way – as in the wrong way), I noticed a man wind peering at me from out of his window. Seora, he shouted, Its very hot. Do you have far to walk? I shook my head and said I was nearly home. He asked if I was sure I wouldnt like a lift, then drove off as I walked on, amazed at the kindness I constantly encountered in Madrid and smiling happily to myself as I happily swung my little handbag.

A few days later we visited La Terraza. Finding somewhere close-by to have a coffee or a cana had been important to us, but wed had trouble locating one. In we would go, perch ourselves at the bar, only to get a look of disdain and a feeling that we were something the dog had dragged in. It took a little time to be welcomed at La Terraza, but finally Ged has been given a free lighter and I can go in by myself to work, read or just people-watch. Santi, the owner, grumpily teases us about having to turn his bar into a Spanglish-speaking one – winking as he says it – and the staff greet us when we bump into them in the street.

It was through Santi that I learned about Paul, a fellow Geordie, who lives in the next calle to us – we can even see his flat from our garden. We chose to live in Ciudad Lineal, a nice, well-to-do area outside the city centre, because it was so Spanish and at first didnt want to mix with ex-pats, foolishly believing we could immerse ourselves in the Latin life. But after a while you feel the need to talk to someone with whom you share a common culture and language, and Paul quickly turned out to be a good guy.

He was in La Terraza, laughing with Santi, when we popped in and he invited us to join him. Intrigued by the giggling, I asked what the joke was. Oh, Santi just had one of the girls in asking for a discount on their meals as they eat here so much, said Paul. He told them he would give them a discount if they gave him a discount. She wasnt very happy. We looked perplexed, and he explained: You know – the ladies of the night who live around the corner. Its all legal here in Spain. Look, theres a couple over there – with the small handbags. Thats how you can tell who they are.

I looked at my tiny bag with horror, while Ged almost fell off his bar stool laughing. Its since been relegated to the recycling bin and Ive decided Im happy being known as the guiri of the neighbourhood.

Theres a lot to be said about individuality, after all.

Elizabeth Ellis is a former journalist now eeking out a living as an English teacher and freelance journalist in Madrid. Her writing hasappeared inThe Guardian, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and Spain magazine, amongst others. Currently, Elizabeth is working on turning her blog into a book.

‘Dr Nick Edwards’is the pseudonymof an Accident and Emergency doctor working in the UK. He kept a blog under the name of Angry Doctoruntil his criticisms of NHS management drew unwanted attention and he chose to remove it for the sake of his career. His bookIn Stitches:the Highs and Lows of Life as an A&E Doctor was published by The Friday Project in 2007.Writing your first book is a bit like losing your virginity (from an honest blokes perspective anyway) – by far the best bit is telling your mates. But when I wrote my first book, In Stitches: the Highs and Lows of Life as an A&E Doctor, I had to keep quiet….and so half the fun was gone.

The book was an expose of what it was really like working as an A&E doctor. It looked at the problems in the NHS; the wasted resources, why patients often get sub-optimal treatment and how the Anglo-Saxon culture of binge drinking, getting into fights and abusing NHS staff can really take its toll on the sanity of doctors and nurses. It was sarcastic and also not very PC.

Being known as a potential trouble maker and the author of the book, wouldnt have helped my career, and so I chose to remain anonymous. The other aspect of why I chose to not reveal who I was, was that I didnt want patients or colleagues to be thinking that I might be getting inspiration for a next book from our interactions.

But the main point of the book was political about the fears that the NHS was becoming a political football and was undergoing a slow piecemeal backdoor privatisation. When the book was first publicised and I was invited to talk on newsnight, radio 4 and panorama amongst others, I had the chance to create a stir (and sell lots more books). But I became a wimp and chose to hide under my pseudo name. My publishers and publicist were always telling me it was no problem but I am sure the truth was they were totally fed up by me.

So was it the right thing to? From a sales point of view probably not it sold a decent number and has paid for a couple of nice holidays but it doesnt sell enough to subsidise my wifes shopping addiction. From an impact point of view it was also definitely the wrong thing to do – I have had to turn down a lot of PR and journalist interest following on from the book.

But the worst part of not coming out was not being able to take the plaudits. Lots of doctors and nurses I have worked with have read the book and it was generally well received. Once one of the stories was read out during a coffee break and in response to someone saying to me that the story sounded similar to one I had retold, I just responded that I had read the book and the author sounded as if he was a jumped up arrogant twit.

As time has gone on and there have been no ill effects from the book, I have started to feel more relaxed telling friends. Other people have started to guess helped by my pub topics of conversation/rants being identical to the stories in the book. However, my name has never come out and for that I am grateful as I would never want a patient to think of me as an author when they were telling me their problems. But at least now I can enjoy the telling bit about my book now.

My plan for the future will be to come to a half way house. Write future books under my nom de plum but be happy for people to know it is really me. Then I will be able to get more publicity for the books but to patients still be first a doctor and a long way second an author.

As to advice for others writing work based blooks ( books from blogs), just one piece. Whatever you write, write as if you are going to get found out and that you can justify to yourself everything you write.

For any other info please email

Ifyou liked this piece, check out other blogswritten by authors fromThe Friday Project.

In February 2009 Fourth Estate published the international sensation Wetlands, by Charlotte Roche. The novel polarised public and critical opinion around the world and the original German edition became Amazons biggest selling book anywhere.

Today, Fourth Estate publishes the paperback edition of 2009s most talked about and contentious novel.

Is it Art or Porn? You decide.

Watch the videos, read the chapter, tell us your thoughts.

In high schools all over America, J.D. SalingersThe Catcher in the Ryeis a staple of course reading for many Englishlitclasses. Along withthoseother American classics likeThe Great Gatsby,Of Mice and Men,andThe Old Man and the Sea,The Catcher in the Ryeis among that prestigious company ofbooks that nearly every teenager inevitablyends up having to buy cliff notes to write an essay on.

As an alumnusof theLos AngelesUnifiedSchool District, I can vividly recall readingthe tale of Holden and his down and out weekend in New York Cityfor a tenth grade English class. It was a tale, we were taught, thatarticulated thedisaffected adolescent angstthat preyed upon us all.It was, the classic reading goes, the definitive storyof the departure from childhood and the abrupt entry into the weird and disillusioning world of adults.

However, after all these years what I remember most vividly aboutCatcher in the Ryeis how much I disliked the book, and Holden in particular! My enthusiasm for Mr. Holden Caulfield wasnt exactly helped by the fact thata few people in my dormsgave me the nickname ‘Holden’ when I showed up as a freshman at UC Santa Cruz with dyed black hair, tattered jeans and a misfits t-shirt. Presumably this was on account of our common air of disaffected-ness. Luckilythe namedidn’t stick.

In the last few weeks theCatcher in theRyesequel story that has been doing the rounds in the book newshas got me thinkinga lotabout my dislike of the book that everyone elseseems to love.In the latest twist, last week afederal judge temporarily barred the US publication of the work by the Swedish novelist, who calls himself J.D. California,thus depriving US readers of theadventures ofan elderlyHolden and a drug addled Phoebe. Unless, of course, they turn to piracy to secure a digital copy of the book – a Holdenesque gesture perhaps?

But this isnt the story that motivated me to write a blog about Catcher in theRye. Rather, it is this recent article in the New York Times that chronicles the gradual rejection of Holden by High School students. According to interviews with teens and teachers, today’s generation of young people are finding it increasingly difficult to relate to Holden’s angsty dithering. Finally, some people who agree with me! According to the article,

Teachers say young readers just dont like Holden as much as they used to. What once seemed like courageous truth-telling now strikes many of them as weird, whiny and immature.

It seems that many of todays kids do not have much sympathy for alienated antiheroes and cant really feel bad for this rich kid with a weekend free in New York City. One student told the NY Times reporter, we all hated Holden in my class.

The article takes the view that these shifting attitudes can be explained by transforming cultural values and social contexts and I am tempted to agree. The alienated perspective of Holden is much less appealing let alone relevant to students growing up in todays world than it was to the generation of the 60s.

So, has The Catcher in the Rye expired as a meaningful book in our culture? Can a book expire as easily as a carton of milk? Whereas books by Fitzgerald and Hemingway continue to resonate with readers around the globe, perhaps J.D. Salingers iconic book is fading in importance because it was tied so closely to a time and a place where people expressed attitudes and held beliefs that dont really exist in a relevant way anymore. It is perhaps, set in a world that has disappeared.

This week’s extract comes fromAndrew Marr’sforeword toTommy’s War,which was publishedin paperback this May. Tommy’s War presents the extraordinary diaries of Thomas Livingstone Cairns.Starting in 1913, the diaries provide a priceless record of the impression world events were making on the ordinary people throughout this turbulentchapterofhistory. In this piece Andrew Marrgives his perspective onthe importance ofThomas Cairns’ diaries as a record of the time, and offers brilliant insight into theWorld War I era.

A small man in a badly made suit, a hat jammed on his head and an empty pipe between his lips, is walking down the street towards the tram, with a small boy attached to one hand, in turn clutching a mouth organ.Around him are men in uniform, loud gossipy women on the corner, the rattle of horse-drawn carts, the smells of sulphur, oil, coal and sweat. On the walls as he passes, lurid recruiting posters urge him to join the lads in France, to fight to save his women from the Hun, or simply exclaim that his country needs him. Head down, fingering his last stiff collar, he disappears into the crowd gathering by the tram stop. The streets are shabby and the war news is terrible. There is a faint sound of the mouth organ being played. Who is he, this man? What does he do? Does he have a wife at home, her hands coarsened with heavy washing and scouring, but her bread smelling sweet? Will he soon be wearing a khaki uniform, and die choking in French mud thinking of the small boy; or will he survive this so-called Great War? Does he like cards? What does he think of Germans, and this throbbing, clattering city where he has spent his life? But he has gone, vanished into time like the millions upon millions who lived through momentous times but who were not Lloyd George, or Haig, or even Harry Lauder.

Well, by extraordinary luck and chance, he has not gone. Back from the dead, Thomas Cairns Livingstone of Rutherglen, a clerk, married to Agnes, who was often ill, and the proud father of Wee Tommy, is returned to life through handwritten diaries and drawings discovered in a house sale in Northumberland in 2005 and bought for 300. So now we know what he thought, who he was and what happened to him later. It is a story extraordinary in its ordinariness; it is good to have him back. For in general, history is owned by those who record it. Only a handful of truly powerful people were recorded by others at the time. Mostly, historians have depended on autobiographies, property records, diaries, letters, newspapers and account books. So history has too often been that of those at the top of the pile, the politicians, writers and professional leaders; and it has been a hard task to disinter the lives of millions who left no written trace. It was not until 1937 that Mass Observation began to accumulate the diaries and thoughts of ordinary Britons. Before that, the voices of the majority had been heard through snippets in newspapers, court reports or in rare sociological exercises, like Charles Booths studies of the London poor. There were a few memoirs by people further down the tree, clerks and governesses; some of the working class Suffragettes and trade unionists left written records, for instance. There was the knowledgeable mimicking of working-class and lower-middle-class life by novelists the clerks and shopkeepers of H. G. Wells, or the miners of D. H. Lawrence. But the material was always scanty.

During the First World War there was much recording of the lives and heroism of the men at the front, who wrote letters back home. Some retold their stories much later to historians. Little by comparison was written about the home front, where, of course, the vast majority of British people were living their lives. Oral historians like Richard van Emden and Steve Humphries have done much to salvage material from those they could find who were still alive; numerous local historical societies have done the same. But the diary of Tommy Livingstone is a rare thing. Here is the Great War as it was seen by an ordinary man, no hero, living in the backstreets of Glasgow. You might call him a Scottish Pooter, except that his drawings and humour are more self-knowing. He was no special rebel, indeed no special anything. But that is the point. As with family history, the stories of plain people upend and challenge the stories told by historians. For instance, I had no idea just how near the trenches seemed until learning that my family, also from Glasgow, got laundry back from sons in the trenches every week, and sent the clean underclothes back, along with cakes, chocolate and tobacco. The fast train service made Flanders seem very close. Tommys story is family history, except that his immediate family has long gone and it has been returned as a family story for all of us.

These were momentous times, and Glasgow in 191318 was a city at the edge of turmoil, seen by some as the next Bolshevik Petrograd. Yet as Auden famously pointed out while contemplating a painting of the fall of Icarus, great events take place in the middle of ordinary ones, while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. Tommys war is a war in a world of dull work, shortages, crying children and everyday diseases. He is not much concerned with high politics, though he has a shrewd and cynical take on government and its wartime propaganda: This is SOS Week in Glasgow. Save our souls. Sink or swim. Stew or sausages. Steal or starve. Save or starve. Sew our shirts. Have your choice He has a rebellious streak, but his rebellion is more directed at the hated factor, or rent-collector, than the government itself. In that, as in so much, he was pretty typical. The revolt which is remembered as Red Clydeside was a series of disputes, starting with one over rent controls. The vast majority of Glaswegians rented their homes and when 20,000 munitions workers arrived in the city, the shortage of rooms was quickly exploited by the private landlords. Rents went up by more than a fifth. Factors were attacked by women, pelted in the street and went in fear. People refused to move or pay up. Placards reading Rent Strike and We are Fighting Landlord Huns went up in the windows and when, by May 1915, around 25,000 tenants were refusing to pay, ministers started to panic. Tommy, surely, would have sympathised but at the time he was much more interested in a huge rail crash at Gretna, which killed around 227 people but which has been largely forgotten by history. And this, too, is part of the appeal. The story of those times that has been smoothed into predictability by historians is constantly disrupted by small surprises.

Tommy had no desire to be a soldier. In that, too, he was typical. After the great torrents of excited volunteers in the early days of the war, when patriotic enthusiasm had been dampened by stories of the reality of trench warfare, millions of men tried very hard not to serve their country, at least not in France or in khaki. We remember the white feather campaigns and the famous Kitchener recruitment posters, and indeed huge citizen armies were created. But the feathers and the posters were needed because of widespread reluctance, particularly as a sense of the length and grimness of the fighting settled in peoples minds. As the war advanced, reflected in newspaper stories about victories and defeats, the pressure piled on. Like Tommy, it became impossible to be both patriotic and a quiet civilian. He is darkly humorous about his dilemma. When the Derby scheme was announced, offering men the chance of volunteering in return for a delay in being actually called up, he reports, Got a love letter from Lord Derby egging me on to enlist before they make me. And later: Recruiting sergeant up at night to assist me in making up my mind. I did not go away with him. Finally, on a snowy December night in 1915, he gives way: Could resist no longer. Joined the army today God save the King. In fact, Tommy never did have to become a soldier. For him the war is always just off-stage, as in a classical tragedy, a succession of liners and battleships being sunk, poison gas used, terrible losses reported, revolutions erupting and aircraft raiding. We must remember, this is how most people would have experienced it. And most, too, would have been more immediately concerned, as Tommy was, with the small things of life rain, wind, coughs, shortages, chores, food and family.

As with Pepys or Boswell (admittedly, greater diarists) we enjoy the constant rub of the ordinary against the historic. Given that some historians have insisted the general public was fairly ignorant of the war it is interesting that Tommy, from his Glasgow flat, pretty accurately records each major event as it happens. Thus he is fully aware of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, even recording that it started at 7.30 a.m. today. But with 67,000 British casualties on the first day alone, a third of them killed, he quickly moves on, so that two days later, his main worry is that his young son Tommy is being teased by another boy: Nice warm day. Tommy getting abused by the young microbe next door called Alec Gray. So I spoke severely to the aforesaid young microbe surnamed Gray. His ma then abuses Agnes. It is a moment to be compared with Pepys worries about the fate of a cheese during the Great Fire of London. Sometimes the juxtapositions are cheerily surreal: The King doing Glasgow this week and round about. I saw him today. Agnes made plum jam at night. Or, from 16 March 1917: Doctor up in the forenoon. Tommy has the German measles. Doctor says it is a mild case Revolution in Russia. Czar dethroned. The Duma are in full power. The Czar and Czarina are prisoners. This, we all know, is how things are, the pattern of life. Great events occur. We note them. Meanwhile we have to cope with German measles, or a local lout.

Tommy is not given to rhetorical flourish or overstatement. He is a brisk, tart, dryish writer, who presents himself as put-upon and henpecked and whose drolleries are the more striking for their rarity. Yet he is, in his way, a good writer, too: he has a distinct voice and it is impossible to spend an hour with his diaries without having a clear impression of the man. No diarist who is disagreeable will keep our attention long: Tommy Livingstone is, we come to understand, a thoroughly likeable man whose love for his wife and son and growing horror at the scale of the slaughter shine through the laconic and self-mocking entries. What I find makes this book particularly touching are the illustrations, the quick pen-and-ink sketches, carefully coloured, of Tommy and the cast of characters, wife, son, recruiting sergeant, chimney-sweep, soldiers and the rest. They have a humorous immediacy and artlessness which is very winning, and go perfectly with the tone of the written diary. In the end, the best test of a book like this is whether one wants any more of it or not: I for one ended it in 1918 with a feeling of frustration. If the diaries continue to 1933, what happens next? Let us hope we find out, but meanwhile a little more about the city where Tommy lived, and the times he lived through, may be helpful. Glasgow is special, was special and always will be. I should know. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, my family were solidly Glasgow. They were of a higher social class than Tommy, though they yo-yoed with the fortunes of the city itself. Various branches went from farm labourers to quarrymen to quarry owners during the great days of the Victorian expansion; the owners of floridly posh new houses a window for every day of the year in one of them, apparently and proud members of the middle-class clubs and societies. One was a Unionist Lord Provost, the last of his political line. Others became losers in the years of depression that followed the Great War, when a pie factory, for instance, lost its shipyard worker customers. But they all belonged to the tight, self-confident world of the Second City of the Empire, remembering its glory days when much of the worlds shipping tonnage had been built on the Clyde, and further back when the tobacco lords who had established the wealth of the new trading city were laying out grand new squares and crescents. It was a city, like Chamberlains Birmingham or the Cottonopolis of Manchester, with a very strong sense of itself and its history, utterly unconnected to the airs of the formal capital, London. My own father vividly remembers being shown by his father the sight of the Queen Mary lying half-built and silent in the yards when bad times had arrived; and the veteran soldiers, with waxed Kitchener moustaches and empty sleeves or trouser legs pinned up, employed to brush clean the points for Glasgows famous trams.

His city, and that of his forebears, was based on technological experiment, audacity in business and a ready supply of cheap labour, coal, steel and water. In 1840, Glasgow was a textile town of some 250,000 people, a vast increase on the previous decades. But by 1900 she was more than three times as big, and surrounded by booming satellite towns. Iron smelting and steel-making combined with the deep estuary connected to the booming Atlantic and imperial trade routes made Glasgow a perfect industrial revolutionary capital. Steamships were built on the Clyde from mid-Victorian times but the rival yards produced competitive pressure which gave Glasgow a world lead in techniques such as screw propulsion, triple and quadruple expansion, high-pressure boilers, turbines and diesel engines. For a century, Clyde-built was a global byword for reliability and skill a memory which lingered on long enough for the engineer on the Starship Enterprise to be Scotty. This expertise in turn led to other engineering successes, from locomotives and machine tools to sewing machines, bicycles and cars: in the pre-1914 Glasgow of Tommys world, the Singer factories were world innovators and the Argyll Motor Works was turning out cars which seemed as likely to dominate world markets as anything made in America. Glasgow was an innovative, aggressive, roiling and cocky place, thick with smoke, noise, the smell of oil and the raucous boasts of chisel-faced city fathers in their stock exchange and their new, grandly built churches. Govanhill, his part of the city, around a mile south of the centre, was one of the poorer districts but far from slum-ridden. Its industry included important locomotive and iron works and its red sandstone apartments were by Edwardian standards relatively spacious as working-class housing. It boasted a fine new Carnegie Library and much admired public baths.

This is not surprising. Glasgow industry sustained a cultural and intellectual self-confidence that has been all but forgotten. Glasgow has always felt oddly American, in the heavy, steel-framed structures and the shape of its public buildings and still does. The revival churches of Greek Thomson are one thing, but the greatest glories of the city for anyone with a taste for the daring are the buildings of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the nearest Britain has ever had to a Gaud, and a man who made corners of Glasgow as exotic as Gauds Barcelona. Glasgow University never achieved quite the Enlightenment status of Edinburgh but it was a close thing. Glasgow was ancient enough, dating back to a college founded in 1451, and the city had a formidable roll-call of philosophers, scientists, doctors and religious scholars. By the early twentieth century, bright Glasgow students would no more have thought of going south to Oxbridge for their learning than of sailing to Mars. Glasgow, with her Gilbert Scott spire rising high, was as exciting a university as any in the country. Then there were the great institutions, the Mitchell Library and the riotously Gothic Kelvingrove Art Gallery. The Glasgow Boys were a school of painters unlike any group elsewhere; and they were followed by Colourists who brought the brightness of the French Fauves to the north, as no English painters of the time quite achieved. All this was going on around Tommy, a mile or two to the west, the cultural life of a city which allowed him, at least, to visit art galleries and carefully laid-out public gardens. Among the smoke and the dirt, there were bright things gleaming.

Glasgow had her own novelists, her own songs, her own orchestral and music-hall traditions, her own favoured holiday resorts, in the southern Highlands or doon the watter on the banks of the Clyde estuary. She had her famous and excellent High School for the middle classes and distinctive political traditions. These included, sadly, a vicious sectarianism. For Glasgow was a migrants city. She had been little more than a large village before Atlantic trade, and then shipbuilding caused mushrooming growth; so almost every Glaswegian had come from somewhere else. Many, of course, had arrived from other parts of the Scottish lowlands, from labouring, merchant or professional families established earlier in Edinburgh, or the smaller burghs of the country. They would be overwhelmingly Presbyterian, either loyal members of the national Church of Scotland, or members of rival churches which had broken away during the great disruptions of the mid-nineteenth century. Their traditions of serious book-learning and disputation would feed many later politicians, including some of the Marxists for which Glasgow also became famous. Another great migration came from the Highlands, the Teuchters much ridiculed by city humorists and on music-hall stages, though the mockery was intermingled with sentimental claims about Hielan hames and aboriginal but-and-bens (small cottages) in songs by the likes of Harry Lauder. These Highlanders, Macleans, Camerons, MacDonalds and Campbells, were again mostly Protestant but included a sprinkling of Roman Catholics from those islands and small outcrops which had stayed with the old faith.

The third great migration, however, was Irish, mostly Catholic but including as with Tommys family Protestants who had been settled in the north of Ireland but who had returned. Tommys father was from Lurgan, not far from Belfast, and he carried his sectarianism to Glasgow where he worked as a railway clerk. He joined a Loyal Orange Lodge. His views are not hard to guess. For the Protestant majority in Glasgow, of all classes, the Catholics were seen as credulous Papist peasants, bog-trotters whose loyalty to Scotland or the Empire could never be assumed and whose priests, taking their orders from the Vatican, led them by their whisky-inflamed noses. The Papes did not use proper lavatories, had recklessly large families which they could not feed, and were in general treated as a lesser breed. This sectarianism was as poisonous as anything expressed by apartheid-era Boers for black Africans, and just as sharp-edged as the near-identical feelings in Ireland itself. There were Orange Order marches, complete with bowler hats and gloating banners, well into the sixties. In return, the Catholic migrants forged and defended a militant identity of their own, initially based in poor enclaves such as Cowcaddens and Maryhill, with their own football club (Glasgow Celtic was founded in 1887), a disciplined church structure and increasingly assertive membership of the trade union movement. They tended to regard their Protestant fellow workers as deferential fools, dupes of the ruling order, and terminally dull.

So Glasgow was a city divided by religion, as it still is, though less violently these days. It was also, of course, a city divided by class and wealth. The great engineering and factory-owning dynasties, plus their lawyers, doctors and stockbrokers, lived in genuinely grand style in the West End. A mile or two to the east were scattered some of the foulest slums in Europe. The world is still thus divided, but while todays hedge fund managers, city stars and footballing plutocrats live behind high walls, or in country estates, then Glasgows rich and poor literally rubbed shoulders in the streets, cramming the city centre where most of the business was done, and the gossip passed on. It was not the grand terraces, though, but the Glasgow slums, especially the tenement flats of the Gorbals, that have been remembered. In many ways rightly so: these were the dark and dangerous cave-dwellings of razor-wielding gangs and heroically drunken drunks. In fact, the tenement was a sensible and popular style of housing and is still used across much of Scotland. With between three and four storeys, a common stair and flatted apartments, it offered warmth and communal living with enough space for family privacy well suited to the wet climate and long winters of the country. A good tenement is as intelligent a housing style as a terrace, or a row of semis. What made the Glasgow tenements notorious was simply lack of hygiene and intense overcrowding as the city expanded. Conditions by the mid-nineteenth century were terrible, though no different from the slums of Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds or Birmingham. Yet the large immigrant families, working in industries with terrible safety records, and against the hard-drinking, heavy-smoking culture of the Scots and Irish, resulted in child and adult mortality rates which were shocking even by Victorian and Edwardian standards.

Out of this grew a militant socialism which touches Tommys life at key moments, not least when he witnesses the Marxist agitator John Maclean, a man admired by Lenin and made a Communist commissar, returning in triumph from prison. Being Tommy, he is not, of course, much impressed: Saw a most unholy mob of Bolsheviks in town today. It was a procession of some of our enlightened citizens welcoming home [Maclean] (from jail). He is standing for Parliament for the Gorbals. Heaven help us all! Most historians believe the stories of Red Clydeside have been exaggerated by later socialists with pickaxes to grind, and it is surely true that Glasgow was never really on the edge of social revolution. But at the time, it was taken very seriously: the war-leader Lloyd George was famously heckled and abused when he addressed trade unionists about letting in less well-qualified labour. Maclean, and some others, had openly opposed the war and been removed from the city to prisons in the east of Scotland. After the war was over, troops and tanks were indeed ordered north at a time when Westminster was jittery about the prospect of British Bolshevism.

Yet the biggest story of Glasgow during the war was the recruitment, maiming and deaths of huge numbers of her citizens. Scots volunteered quickly and in great numbers: Edwardian Scotland was still a comparatively militarised country, with strong regimental traditions and a general pride in the record of Scottish soldiers in the Napoleonic and Crimean wars. As a result, with some crack regiments, Scotland lost a disproportionately large number of her men. By one estimate she lost 110,000 in all, a fifth of total British losses, rather than an eighth, as her size by population would have suggested. Glasgow herself lost 20,000 men, often soldiers from the slums who formed much of the Highland Light Infantry, though nearby coal-mining and rural areas suffered even more. As in England, the upper and middle classes volunteered early and were cut down early too: Glasgow University lost one in six of her graduates. The pressure on Tommy must have been intense. Yet it was quickly realised that if Britain was to fight and win a long war, she needed her mines and industries, shipyards and offices, to continue to function and a complicated system designed to keep vital workers in place was established. Armbands and badges were provided for key employees so that they would not be harassed in the streets by women bearing white feathers; other badges were produced for those (like Tommy) who had offered to fight but were not yet needed. It was a time of sidelong glances and offensive muttering about slackers and cowards: for Tommy it was a matter of some importance that I have now got my khaki armlet to let folk know I have attested and await the call.

Unlike the Second World War, this was not really a peoples war not at least for the British, though it was for many Russians and Germans. The Zeppelin and Gotha raids and the occasional bombardments by German warships against east coast towns are recorded by Tommy but direct danger reached little of the civilian population. In this war, only around 850 civilians died in Britain, as compared to 60,000 in the later conflict. Yet the war affected Tommy and his family, and every other family, in multiple less dramatic ways. It was not simply the friends who left for the fighting, or the growing evidence that the Empire was not performing as well as people had expected. Britain herself rapidly became shabbier, duller and hungrier. Famously, Lloyd George insisted on weaker, more watery beer and introduced tough pub licensing hours to try to deal with the (very real) problem of low productivity caused by drunkenness. Tobacco, as Tommy finds, becomes harder to obtain. Unlike the later world war, this one passed mostly without rationing. Until halfway through it, the Liberal government remained wedded to small-state, free market beliefs and tried hard not to interfere too much. The result was a life of unpredictable shortages, fast rising prices and adulterated food, which provoked riots in some parts of Britain, though not Glasgow.

Yet when Tommy notes in the spring of 1917 that the Germans are trying to starve Britain he is quite right: he may not have known just how close they were coming to success. The U-boat campaigns in the Atlantic had been devastating and Britain came within weeks of having to sue for peace simply for lack of food and oil. It was only a late directive to try the convoy system which saved the day. Meanwhile government action would eventually result in rationing by 1918, while strenuous efforts were made to increase agricultural production at home. In the country, people turned back to snaring rabbits, raiding birds nests and growing their own vegetables but in the towns the population struggled with meagre, dull diets featuring the much-hated National Loaf, a soggy, greyish concoction which nevertheless contained more nutrition and fibre than the white loaf everyone preferred. Shortages were everywhere, from coal to clothing. To save energy, street lighting was conserved, theatres closed early and entertainment much restricted; it is notable that Tommys most frequent references to entertainment seem to be dubious books from the library, games of cards and walks in the park, rather than nights out in bars or at the cinema.

Women, meanwhile, got their first chance to break into male trades, whether they were the tartan-uniformed bus conductors on the Glasgow trams, or women police officers patrolling parks in search of vice, or female munitions workers. This clearly affects Tommy, as it did most traditionally minded men, though he rarely voices derision and seems to accept that the world is changing fast around him. His wife is often sick, as is his son, and he clearly has few domestic skills, but it is a small, tight, traditional family in which he does his best. Glasgow was notorious for its drunkenness and domestic violence, and indeed across Britain battered women rarely complained to the police about drunken husbands: when they did, they got little sympathy. By those admittedly low standards, Tommy seems to have been a good husband. His wife Agnes ill health sick was again typical. Ill health and medicines, mostly ineffective still, feature heavily in these diaries. Mortality rates, particularly in urban Scotland, were shocking. The ravages of so-called Spanish Flu, which took a huge toll of the world just after the war, are well known; but it was a time still when less exotic infections, from measles to whooping cough, killed many. Agnes struggles with mysterious internal pains, lumbago and toothache so excruciating that she talks of killing herself. That was life sorer, rougher and more dangerous by a country mile than it is today. Tommy notes her troubles and does the heavy lifting, and the cleaning, and does not complain. He is hardly romantic or gushing in his descriptions of Agnes but that is not his style. It is eloquent that his diary suddenly ceased when she died. These were two undemonstrative people who needed and loved one another very much.

So here is a slice of Britain from below, during some of her darkest years, and seen through the prism of the empires Second City, and the pen of one of the countless millions who mostly went unrecorded, unsung and unremembered. The message is an individual, human one, the more moving and memorable because it does not fit neatly into a historians grand narrative. Here, amid the malfunctioning chimneys, boat excursions, bad food and worse news, the little domestic feuds and distant echoes of hectoring from politicians, is the story of one undistinguished, shrugging, perky, rather loveable man who just wanted to get on with his life, be kind to those around him and if pushed do his bit for the Flag but please, not something too dangerous and please, not quite yet. Here clear and unmistakable is the voice of that fabled abstraction, the man on the street not the man on the Clapham Omnibus, as it happens, but the mannie on the Kelvingrove Tram. He isnt easily taken in. He is only a little sorry for himself. He is not noticeably religious or political. He stands aside from the great enthusiasms and lunacies around him; in his sensible, defiant ordinariness, he is almost Charlie Chaplin-esque. He is the man the rest of them are fighting for. And, luckily perhaps, I for one closed his diary realising that I liked him rather a lot.

Andrew Marr, June 2008

The followingguest blogcomes fromPhillipa Fioretti, who submitted this piece to Fifth Estate through

Choosing theRight Word

I am busy engaging in the old must-sharpen-pencils-before-I-can-write strategy. Procrastination, as it is commonly known. But as I write on a laptop, I dont need the pencils. Perhaps I could check my email there might be something interesting or urgent waiting for me. Or I could look slightly to the left and stare out the window. Or I could look up the meaning of procrastinate. May as well know the exact meaning of my current state of mind.

I am, according to the site, deferring action, and delaying until an opportunity is lost. My 1911 copy of the Oxford English dictionary goes one step further and accuses me of being dilatory. I dilated even further when I dug up my trusty 1952 copy of Rogets Thesaurus, and I discovered that to engage in procrastination could also be described as engaging in Fabian Tactics.

Fabian Tactics?

This could lead to some excellent procrastination. I nipped over to Wikipedia, despite having an ancient set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. To get out of my chair and walk into the living room, pull down the index and find the entry on the Fabian Society, replace the index and find the relevant volume is just too much like hard work, and possibly against the spirit of Fabian Tactics.

The Fabian Society, according to Wikipedia is a British intellectual socialist movement whose purpose is to advance the principles of Social Democracy via gradualist and reformist, rather than revolutionary means.

So where does the procrastination come in? To be reformist is not deferring action. I was missing something. On reading further I discovered the Fabians to be named after the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus, nicknamed, (beware transposing those letters) Cunctator, meaning The Delayer, whose battle strategy consisted of the guerrilla tactics of harassment rather than direct confrontation on the battlefield.

It is true that I am not approaching my writing task in a confrontational way, but nor am I conducting guerrilla warfare with it. The term Fabian Tactics proved not to be the definition I was after and I returned to Thesaurus where I discovered I was, by procrastinating, indulging in masterly inactivity, fribbling or thank you Quintus Fabius, cunctating.

The opportunity to procrastinate is one to savour. But I went one step further back to the old word leisure, yesterday and went to bed for the afternoon with Lady Chatterleys Lover. Be not alarmed, jaded reader, I speak of the newly released Penguin edition in the recognisable orange black and white cover. The covers hark back, (clever Penguin marketing people), to a slower time, a time when choosing a book was not an act decided by a visceral attraction to the cover image.

To pry myself away from the screen and re educate myself in reading has become a compelling obsession for me lately. The screen brings anxiety, brings demands, brings urgency. The book allows me to escape.

I am also about to re engage in an old technology writing a letter with pen and paper. A novel and charming idea. Imagine the freedom, to squiggle and draw, to scrawl when I want and to do perfect modified cursive if I want. To sketch a little picture next to my words and to not have to master thirty computer programs in order to do so. One drawback. Once written, it cant be changed. No going back and editing, no cut and paste, no second chances. Get it right first time or not at all.

My father spent the second half of his working life in a position that required him to write long, detailed legal decisions. Despite his assistants and staff all using computers, he would write his decisions in longhand. When asked by me, completely bemused by how he did it without Word, he replied, that he thought about each sentence before he wrote it.

I raised my eyebrows and nodded slowly. Simple question, simple answer.

To write and get it right first time is a challenging concept. My father used an A4 notepad and ballpoint pen and worked on a desk free of clutter. He never used correcting fluid and prided himself on the evenness of his handwriting. (You can imagine what our family dinners were like.)

My handwriting lurches from hastily scrawled printing to illegible and all variations in between. And it deteriorates the more I use a keyboard. When I write handwritten notes my hand grips the pen in an unsteady way, like an accident victim learning to walk again.

I have read, where I dont know, that writers working on computers tend to become more wordy. One would expect from that observation that handwriting a book favoured an economy of style, and yet to read a nineteenth century novel is to experience wordy sometimes to exasperating excess.

Did Anthony Trollope cunctate when faced with writing Barchester Towers at 200,372* words? To produce a manuscript of 85, 000 words I have written perhaps 200,000. I whittle away, replace, add a bit, cut, cut more, cut another chunk, until I am satisfied, and it is a long process despite the ease computers lend to writing. Whereas Trollope might have had to get it right first time – by gaslight with pen, nib and notebook. And yet I, with all my modern tools, am still dilating and cunctating. But Trollopes readers had the leisure for his lengthy books, and my readers, like me, can only steal fragments of leisure in between answering phones, emails, social networking messages, twittering, exhaustion and those gorgeous moments where they allow themselves to cunctate.

Phillipa Fioretti is an Australian fiction writer. She was selected for the Hachette Australia/Queensland Writers Centre Manuscript Development Program 2008. Hachette Australia have offered her a two book contract with the first novel – The Book of Love – to be published in April 2010.

This week’s post from The Friday Project comes from John Higgs, author of I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary. Higgsis a BAFTA-nominated television writer and producer,and haswritten for publications including the Guardian, Mojo and the Independent.

I am about to admit a shameful secret. I have only confessed this once before, to a publisher who was so appalled that I feared she might slap me rudely across the face. When I pick out an interesting looking book in a bookshop I check how many pages it has. If it is four or five hundred, I usually put it back. I have ploughed through so many overly-padded books in the past that I became wary of a hefty page count. This has reached the point where, judging a book to be guilty until proven innocent, I now avoid long books.

It’s a question of time, rather than of attention span. The amount of books available online or in the big chains has grown exponentially, and I am surely not the only one who also has a further pile of unread books at home. Nothing would please me more than being able to fully explore this book mountain, but realistically I can only scrape away at the edges. Two or three good shorter books, in this context, satisfies my curiosity more than one long one.

Then there are the other things which compete for my attention. DVD box sets, video games, podcasts and 3D IMAX have all emerged in the last decade or two – to say nothing of the never-ending Internet, where all recorded music is only a click away and everyone that I have ever met is eager to keep me up to date with their adventures. When you add in work, family, physical activities and the incessant noise of 21st Century life, I fear that it is only my complete lack of interest in sport that allows me to read at all.

In the modern world, a lengthy book has to be able to justify itself. Many can, of course, but it is more common for a book to be long because it is expected to be long, rather than because it needs to be. There is the assumption that length equates to intellectual merit and a weighty title is deeper and more profound than a lightweight book. This is nonsense, and it is easy to produce a list of shorter books to make this point The Old Man and the Sea, Animal Farm, Candide and the Tao Te Ching are the first that spring to mind. It is not the amount of words that is important, but what the author has done with them. Academic and reference titles aside, an author who takes more than 100,000 words to say what it is that they have to say is just plain rude.

Of course, there are reasons why books are the lengths that they are. Marketing departments study the public’s expectations of how books in various genres should appear. Complicated costing processes can lead to publishers stipulating the length of still-unwritten books in the authors’ contract. But if the shift to ebooks proves to be as significant as many predict, then this reasoning will be eroded. A tight, well-written 50,000 word ebook will be no less commercial than an overly-padded 200,000 word blether.

In music, the length of an album has always been dictated by current technology, be that vinyl, compact disc or single MP3s. I suspect that a typical book length will also change, now that more of us are using eReaders. If this is the case, then authors will no longer feel obliged to reach for word counts beyond what their subject requires. A normal book length will be however few words it takes to satisfy the urge to write the book in the first place.

And if an editor then trims a further 20%, just to be on the safe side, then that will be even better.

TodayFifth Estatebegins an exciting newweekly feature: every Wednesday we willpost an extractfrom a differentbook. Keep tuned in as we release free materialfrom a diverse range ofPress books titles.

Today we feature an extract from Outcasts United – the story of a refugee soccer team, a remarkable woman coach and a small southern town turned upside down by the process of refugee resettlement.In the 1990s, Clarkston, Georgia, USA, became a resettlement centre for refugees and a modern-day Ellis Island for scores of families from war zones in Liberia, Congo, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan. The town also became home to Luma Mufleh, an American-educated Jordanian woman who founded a youth soccer team to help keep Clarkstons boys off the streets. These boys named themselves the Fugees — short for refugees.

On a cool spring afternoon on a football pitch in northern Georgia, two teams of teenage boys were going through their pregame warm-up when the heavens began to shake. The pitch had been quiet save the sounds of footballs thumping against forefeet and the rustling of the balls against the nylon nets that hung from the goalposts. But as the rumble grew louder, all motion stopped as boys from both teams looked quizzically skyward. Soon a cluster of darts appeared in the gap of sky between the pine trees on the horizon and the cottony clumps of cloud vapor overhead. It was a precision flying squadron of fighter jets, performing at an air show miles away in Atlanta. The aircraft banked in close formation in the direction of the pitch and came closer, so that the boys could now make out the markings on the wings and the white helmets of the pilots in the cockpits. Then with an earthshaking roar deep enough to rattle the change in your pocket, the jets split in different directions like an exploding firework, their contrails carving the sky into giant wedges.

On the pitch below, the two groups of boys watched the spectacle with craned necks, and from different perspectives. The players of the home teama group of thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys from the nearby Atlanta suburbs playing with the North Atlanta Soccer Associationgestured to the sky and wore expressions of awe. The boys at the other end of the pitch were members of an allrefugee football team called the Fugees. Many had actually seen the machinery of war in action, and all had felt its awful consequences firsthand. There were Sudanese players on the team whose villages had been bombed by old Russian-made Antonov bombers flown by the Sudanese Air Force, and Liberians whod lived through barrages of mortar fire that pierced the roofs of their neighbors homes, taking out whole families. As the jets flew by the pitch, several members of the Fugees flinched.

YOU GUYS NEED to wake up! a voice interrupted as the jets streaked into the distance. Concentrate!

The voice belonged to Luma Mufleh, the thirty-one-year-old founder and volunteer coach of the Fugees. Her players resumed their shooting practice, but they now seemed distracted. Their shots flew hopelessly over the goal.

If you shoot like that, youre going to lose, Coach Luma said. She was speaking to a young Liberian forward named Christian Jackson. Most of the Fugees had experienced suffering of some kind or another, but Christians was rawer than most. A month before, he had lost three siblings and a young cousin in a fire at his familys apartment in Clarkston, east of Atlanta. Christian escaped by jumping through an open window. The smallest of the dead children was found under a charred mattress, an odd detail to investigators. But the Reverend William B. J. K. Harris, a Liberian minister in Atlanta who reached out to the family after the fire, explained that during Liberias fourteen years of civil war, children were taught to take cover under their beds during the fighting, as a precaution against bullets and mortar shrapnel. For the typical American child, under the bed was the realm of ghosts and monsters. For a child from a war zone, it was supposed to be the safest place of all. Not long before the fire, Luma had kicked Christian Jackson off the Fugees for swearing at practice. Swearing was against her rules. She had warned him once, and then when he swore again, she told him to leave and not to come back. That was how Luma ran her team.

Not long after the fire, Christian showed up at the Clarkston Community Center field where the Fugees practiced, and watched quietly from behind a chain-link fence around the playing area. Under normal circumstances, Luma might have ignored himshe gave second chances, but rarely third. But Luma summoned Christian over and told him he could rejoin the team so long as he understood that he was on probation. If he swore again at practice or during a game, he was gone for good. No exceptions. Christian said he understood. This was his first game back.

Luma shouted to her players to gather around her and gave them their positionsChristian was told to play striker, in attackand they took the field. Forty or so parents had gathered on the home teams touchline to cheer on their boys, and they clapped as their sons walked onto the pitch. There was no one on the Fugees touchline. Most of the players came from single-parent families, and their mothers or fathersusually mothersstayed home on weekends to look after their other children, or else worked, because weekend shifts paid more. Few had cars to allow them to travel to football matches anyway. Even at their home games, the Fugees rarely had anyone to cheer them on.

The referee summoned the Fugees to the line to go over their team and to check their boots and numbers. Luma handed him the team, and the referee wrinkled his brow.

If I mispronounce your name, I apologize, he said. He ticked through the names awkwardly but respectfully. When he got hung up on a syllable, the boys would politely announce their own names, then step forward to declare their jersey numbers. A few minutes later, a whistle sounded and the match began. The head coach of the North Atlanta team was a screamer. From the outset, he ran back and forth on his touchline, barking commands to his players in a hoarse bellow: Man on! Man on! Drop it! Drop it! Turn! Turn! Turn! His words echoed over the quiet field like a voice from a public address system. Luma paced silently on her side of the pitch and occasionally glanced over at the opposite touchline with a perturbed look on her face. She was all for instruction, but her method was to teach during practice and during the breaks. Once the whistle blew, she allowed her players to be themselves: to screw up, to take chances, and to create. All the shouting was wearing on her nerves.

When North Atlanta scored first, from a free kick, the teams coach jumped up and down on the touchline, while across the pitch parents leaped from their folding lawn chairs in celebration: more grating noise. Luma pursed her lips in a tiny sign of disgust and kept pacing, quietly. She made a substitution in the defense but otherwise remained silent.

A few moments later, Christian Jackson shook himself free on the right side, dribbled downfield, and fired a shot into the top right corner of the net: goal. Luma betrayed no reaction other than to adjust her tattered white Smith College baseball cap and to continue pacing. The Fugees soon regained possession; they controlled the ball with crisp passes and moved into range of the goal. A Fugees forward struggled free of traffic to take a shot that flew a good twenty feet over the crossbar and into the parking lot behind the pitch, and soon after, let loose another that was wide by a similar margin. Luma paced. Meanwhile, with each of his teams shots the North Atlanta coach shouted more instructions to his players, ever more adamantly. He was getting frustrated. If his players had followed his instructions to the word, they couldve scored against Manchester United. But as it was, they ended the first half trailing the Fugees 31.

A 31 lead at halftime would have pleased most football coaches. But Luma was seething. Her head down, she marched angrily to a corner of the pitch, the Fugees following behind sullenly. They could tell she was unhappy. They braced themselves for what they knew was coming. Luma ordered them to sit down.

Our team has taken nine shots and scored three goalstheyve taken two shots and scored one, she told them, her voice sharp and strident. Youre outrunning them, outhustling them, outplaying themwhy are you only winning three one?

Christian, she said, looking at the boy who sat on the grass with his arms around his knees, his eyes downcast. This is one of your worst games. I want it to be one of your best games. I want to sit back and watch good footballdo you understand? At that moment, the voice of the North Atlanta coachstill screaming at his playersdrifted down the pitch to the Fugees huddle. Luma pulled up and turned her narrowed gaze toward the source of the offending noise.

See that coach? Luma said, tilting her head in the direction of the screamer. I want him to sit down and be quiet. Thats when you know weve wonwhen he sits down and shuts up. Got it? Yes, Coach, her players replied.

When the Fugees took the field for the second half, they were transformed. They quickly scored three goalsan elegant cross, chested in with highlight-reel grace by a Sudanese forward named Attak, followed by a cannon shot from Christian from ten yards out. Moments later Christian dribbled into the box and dummied to his left, a move that left the North Atlanta goalkeeper tangled in his own limbs, before shooting to the right: another goal. The opposing coach was still yellingMan on! Man on!so the Fugees kept shooting. Another goal. And another. When the frustrated North Atlanta players started hacking away at their shins and ankles, the Fugees brushed them off and scored yet again.

At 82, the North Atlanta coach, hoarse now nearly to muteness, wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, quietly wandered over to his bench, and sat down, flaccid and defeated. The Fugees tried to stifle their smiles. If Luma felt any sense of satisfaction, it was difficult to discern. She remained perfectly stone-faced. The referee blew his whistle three times to signal the end of the match. The final score was 92 Fugees. Christian Jackson had scored five goals. The teams shook hands and the Fugees quickly ran to the bench for water and oranges, which awaited them in two white plastic grocery bags. A few moments later, the referee approached. He looked to be in his late fifties, white, with a graying mustache. He asked Luma if he could address her players. Luma hesitated. She was uncomfortable handing over her teams attention to anyone, especially a stranger. A little warily, she summoned her team, who gathered in front of the referee some ten yards from their bench.

Gentlemen, he said, Id like to thank you. You played the ball the entire game, and you didnt take any cheap shots. They got frustrated and started fouling, and you didnt retaliate. So Id like to commend you on your sportsmanship. The referee paused for a moment and swallowed hard. And that was one of the most beautiful games of football Ive ever seen, he said.

THIS WAS THE first time Id ever seen the Fugees play. Id shown up knowing little about the team other than that the players were refugees and the coach a woman, and that the team was based in a town called Clarkston. In a little more than a decade, the process of refugee resettlement had transformed Clarkston from a simple southern town into one of the most diverse communities in America. And yet few in Atlanta, let alone in the world beyond, had taken notice. Mention the refugees of Clarkston and even many Atlantans will ask first if youre referring to those who had arrived in town from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Next, theyll likely ask, Wheres Clarkston? I came away from that first game intrigued. I had just seen a group of boys from a dozen war-ravaged countries come together as a team and create improbable beauty on the football pitch. How? Their coach, an intense and quiet presence who hid beneath the brim of her Smith College baseball cap and emerged only to dole out ferocious bits of inspiration or wisdom, presented another mystery. There was a palpable sense of trust and camaraderie between the players and their coach, and an equally powerful sense of fragility in all the tension and long silences. In fact, things with the Fugees were more fragile than I could have realized that day. The team had no home ground, owing to the myopia of local politicians who felt threatened by the presence of these newcomers. The players private lives were an intense daily struggle to stay afloat. They and their families had fled violence and chaos and found themselves in a society with a completely different set of values and expectations. Luma herself was struggling to hold her teamand herselftogether. She had volunteerednaively, as she would admitto help these boys on the field and off, unaware of the scope and intractability of their difficulties: post-traumatic stress, poverty, parental neglect in some cases, grief, shattered confidence, and, in more than one instance, simple anger at having to live the way they did. Luma, I would learn, had no particular background in social or human-rights work. She was just a normal woman who wanted, in her own way, to make the world a better place, and who, it turned out, was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to see that mission through. Luma had vowed to come through for her players and their families or to come apart trying, and on several occasions it seemed the latter outcome was more likely.

But more than anything that day, it was the surprising kinship of these kids from different cultures, religions, and backgrounds that drew me into the story and made me want to understand and tell it. One moment in the game underscored this for me more than any other.

THERE WAS A player on the Fugees who was plainly less gifted at football than his teammatesa tiny defender from Afghanistan named Zubaid. In retrospect, it seems he might have been farsighted. When the football rolled his way, he would draw his foot back, swing his leg with all his might, and as often as not, miss the ball entirely, with all the awkward, unalloyed zeal of a batter swinging for the fences and whiffing. After this happened a third or fourth time, I asked Luma what the boys story was; his presence on the field was so awkward that it required some sort of explanation. Luma didnt seem the least bit offended. In fact, she seemed especially proud that Zubaid was on the pitch. He had never missed a practice or one of the afternoon tutoring sessions Luma required of her players, she explained. He was on the pitch simply because by the standards shed established for the Fugees, he deserved to be.

That was the background, but the specific image that stuck in my mind that day was this: every time the ball rolled Zubaids way, his teammates, faster and more agile than he was to a player, never interfered or snuck in to take it away from him. Instead, two or three members of the Fugees would drop in five or so yards behind him, just far enough out of the way so as not to seem conspicuous, to form a protective cordon between Zubaid and the goal. When he missed the ball with an ungainly swing of the leg, they were there to cover for him, but always subtly, and never in a way that demeaned him or his effort.

Eventually, late in the game, one of the North Atlanta forwards broke loose with the ball on Zubaids side of the pitch, and he rushed upfield to defend. He extended his leg, and the ball locked between the tops of the two players forefeet with a loud thwump. The ball stopped, and the North Atlanta player tumbled forward onto the turf: a perfect tackle. Much to his surprise, it seemed, Zubaid found himself alone, still standing and with possession of the ball, which he quickly passed toward a teammate in midfield. At the next break, when the ball went into touch, Zubaid was set upon by his teammates as though hed scored the winning goal.

SOON AFTER THAT first game, I resolved to pull up stakes in New York and to move to Atlanta to tell the story of the Fugees. I saw a great deal of football over the next few months, but the most moving moments for meand the most instructive and insightfulcame not on the touchline but over hot cups of sugary tea, over meals of stewed cassava or beans and rice, or platters of steaming Afghan mantu, on the sofas and floors of the apartments of refugees in Clarkston. And yet I also found that the game of football itself provided a useful framework for trying to understand how this unlikely group of people had come together. Unlike basketball, baseball, or American football, games that reset after each play, football unfolds fluidly and continuously. To understand how a goal was scored, you have to work back through the actionthe sequences of passes and decisions, the movement of the players away from the action who reappear unexpectedly in empty space to create or waste opportunitiesall the way back to the first touch. If that goal was scored by a young refugee from Liberia, from a pass by a boy from southern Sudan, who was set up by a player from Burundi or a Kurd from Iraqon a field in Georgia, U.S.A., no lessunderstanding its origins would mean following the thread of causation back in time to events that long preceded the first whistle. Relatively quickly, it became clear that the story of the Fugees was also the story of a place, and that place offered as many intriguing mysteries as the boys and their coach. Until relatively recently, Clarkston had been a homogenous, white southern town, situated on 1.1 square miles of Georgia clay about thirteen miles east of downtown Atlanta. The towns motto spoke to its humble origins: Small Town . . . Big Heart. But the resettlement process, which had the effect of cramI ming perhaps a centurys worth of normal migration patterns into roughly a decade, had tested the sentiment behind Clarkstons motto. Adding to the complication: the newcomers in Clarkston were not a homogenous linguistic or cultural group of, say, Somalis, whose appearance had transformed some small American towns like Lewiston, Maine, but a sampling of the worlds citizens from dozens of countries and ethnic groups. The local high school in Clarkston, once all white, now had students from more than fifty different countries. Cultures were colliding in Clarkston, and the result was a raw and exceptionally charged experiment in getting along.

When I first decided to write about the Fugees, I wasnt sure how, or even if, the story of the remaking of Clarkston and the story of a refugee football team there would explicitly overlap. But about a month before I planned to leave New York to head to Clarkston to follow the Fugees, I got a clue that the stories were more intertwined than I could have realized. A dispute erupted between the mayor of Clarkston, a retired heating and plumbing contractor named Lee Swaney, and a group of young Sudanese refugees who were playing casual games of football on the only general-use field in the town park. The local paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, got wind of the dispute and asked the mayor to explain his stance.

There will be nothing but baseball down there as long as Im mayor, he told the paper. Those fields werent made for soccer. The mayors proclamation had a direct impact on the Fugees, who had recently lost their home ground after a dispute with their hosts at the local community center. Luma had hoped to relocate the Fugees to the town parkthe very park from which Mayor Swaney had banned football. And so with only a few weeks to go before trials, she found herself scrambling to find her team a home.

The mayors decree hinted at tensions that went well beyond issues of turf management. In Clarkston, football, it seemed, meant something different from what it meant in most places. It was the international game in a town that had had its fill of international influences. The experiment in getting along, it seemed to me, was apparently very much ongoing, and the results would have relevance well beyond Clarkston. The question of how to cope with cultural, ethnic, and religious diversitythat loaded conceptis a pressing one. As the author Mary Pipher wrote about refugees who had been resettled in Nebraska in her book The Middle of Everywhere, The refugee experience of dislocation, cultural bereavement, confusion and constant change will soon be all of our experience. As the world becomes globalized, well all be searching for home.

WHEN I THINK about Clarkston, I sometimes visualize the town as a lifeboat being lowered from a vast, multilevel passenger ship. No one aboard chose this particular vessel. Rather, they were assigned to itthe refugees by resettlement officials they never met, the townspeople by a faraway bureaucratic apparatus that decided, almost haphazardly, to put a sampling of people from all over the world in the modest little boat locals thought they had claimed for themselves. In an instant, the boat was set upon a roiling sea, its passengers left to fend for themselves. Everyone on the boat wanted the same thing: safety. But to get there, they would first have to figure out how to communicate with each other, how to organize themselves, how to allocate their resources, and which direction they should row. I imagine their heads bobbing in and out of view between the troughs and crests of the wind-whipped sea as they begin their journey. And I wonder: What will they do? What would I do in that same situation? And: Will they make it?

ITS HARD TO know exactly where to begin the story of the Fugees. The violence that led young Grace Balegamire from Congo to Clarkston in the early twenty-first century had its origins in the 1870s, when King Leopold II of Belgium established the Free State of Congo, a corporate state that pillaged the region around the Congo River of its natural resources, terrorized the population, and gave way over time to a collection of politically unstable nations divided by ethnic tension. The tribal violence that drove Beatrice Ziaty, a Liberian refugee whose sons Jeremiah and Mandela played on the Fugees, from Monrovia to Clarkston grew ultimately from the decision of a group of Americans in the mid-nineteenth century to relocate freed slaves from the United States after emancipation, a process that created a favored and much-resented ruling tribe with little or no organic connection to the nation it ruled. The story might begin in 1998, when Slobodan Milosevic decided to unleash the Yugoslav army on the people of Kosovo and gave his soldiers the go-ahead to rampage through villages in Kosovo such as Kacanik, where Qendrim Bushis family had a small grocery store that Serb soldiers torchedthough that conflict too had beginnings in age-old political and ethnic tensions in that region. Or one might start near Clemson, South Carolina, where Lee Swaneythe future mayor of Clarkston, Georgiawas born in 1939, well before integration changed the South.

For now, though, lets begin the story amid the nineteen hills of the ancient city of Amman, Jordan, where Luma Mufleh grew up and where she learned to love a game that would create so much joy and cause so much trouble years later in a little town in Georgia, half a world away.

This week, an article appeared in the New Yorker that explored whether or not creative writing should be taught in academic institutions. According to the article, many creative writing courses operate on the following premise:

students who have never published a poem can teach other students who have never published a poem how to write a publishable poem. The fruit of the theory is the writing workshop, a combination of ritual scarring and twelve-on-one group therapy where aspiring writers offer their views of the efforts of other aspiring writersThere is one person in the room, the instructor, who has (usually) published a poem. But workshop protocol requires the instructor to shepherd the discussion, not to lead it, and in any case the instructor is either a product of the same processa person with an academic degree in creative writingor a successful writer who has had no training as a teacher of anything, and who is probably grimly or jovially skeptical of the premise on which the whole enterprise is based: that creative writing is something that can be taught.

The New Yorker piece uses a newly published book by Mark McGurl, The Program Era, as a focus for examining the history of creative writing programs and evaluating their meaning for contemporary literature. As critical as the above passage may sound, the piece endeavours to make clear the significance these programs have had in shaping modern writing.

In fact, McGurl argues that the birth and institutionalisation of the creative writing program stands as the most important event in post-war American literary history. One way of understanding this statement is to look at what effect institutions have on influencing our attitudes and beliefs about writing:

the university is where most serious fiction writers have been produced since the Second World War. It has also been the place where most serious fiction readers are produced: they are taught how to read in departments of literature.McGurls claim is simple: given that most of the fiction that Americans write and read is processed through the higher-education system, we ought to pay some attention to the way the system affects the outcome.

Using illustrations from McGurl’s book, the piece tries to explain this process. One interesting example follows the creative writing career paths of contemporaries Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Carver, both of whom had long term involvement in various writing programs. Each of these writers were products of various creative programs and both, in turn, became instructors at different institutions. Through their experiences with such programs both Carver and Oates were shaped into writers and, importantly, helped shape aspiring writers by transmitting attitudes about writing craft to successive ‘Program’ generations.

So, what do you think? Should creative writing be taught? Has the Program Era improved the quality of contemporary literature, or vice versa?

The New Yorker article explores all these issues in much more depth. Personally, I’ve felt for awhile that institutionalising literatureunfairly places powerfulmechanisms for determining literary value in the hands of insular, self-interested groups of professors and professional writers. By concentrating on producing works designed tosatisfy the editorial trends of magazines and publishers, workshopscreate an environment that increasingly favors commercial writing and consequentlyeliminates risk and innovation from the writing process. Most of the contemporary writing I like comes from outside the canon of ‘Program’ wrtiers. That aside, I’mdefinitely guilty of a sharp nostalgia for the pre-’Program’ era of writers…

Award-winningcomedians David Mitchell & Robert Webb returned to BBC 2 last night with their fabulous sketch show That Mitchell & Webb Look.This SeptemberFourth Estate publish ‘This Mitchell & Webb Book’, alovely big,colourful book featuring all-new material from the comic duo. And nothing about coal at all…

Rosie Lovell is a passionate, energetic young cook who three years ago opened up a thriving deli nestled among the salted fish, yams and sounds of reggae at the heart of Brixton market.

Rosies Deli has become an intimate and eclectic place where food, music and friends from all over the world tumble into one place on Electric Avenue Theres not really another caf like it; its tiny, welcoming, warm and fantastic.

During some time out from the Caf, Rosie decided to write a cook book, and I for one and glad she did! There are recipes for a hangover (often useful to me), dishes for dates (lets not talk about that) and soulful suppers to comfort and soothe (I refer you to the last parentheses). For me, this is a great cook book because its all about food that depends on who you are with and how you are feeling (and whats in fridge another important factor in my cooking escapades); all of which makes preparing a great meal that fits the moment easy and fun.

Rosies not a chef, shes a damn good cook who knows her stuff and how to make a meal that lifts the spirits. Well, Im sort of bound to say all of this really arent I? seeing as work for her publisher and all but I challenge you to look at this fantastic recipe for quails egg and pancetta tart and not fall in love with Rosie. Dont be put off by the ingredients its about as easy as making a bacon and egg sandwich! Take a look at the video to see what to do.

Gaijin Blues, the firstpiece inThe Friday Project blog series, comesfrom Ben Stevens.Fascinated with Far Eastern culture all his life, Ben is the author of the martial arts guidebook, ‘From Lee to Li,’ and the just-published ‘A Gaijin’s Guide to Japan’. Ben splits his year between homes in Japan and London.

Ah, gaikokujin the outside-country-person, if we are to interpret the endearing Japanese word literally. Commonly shortened to gaijin, any outside-country-person living in Japan be they black, white, Indian or whatever is gonna hear this one a lot. Once, when I was walking through a fairly rural part of Japan, a young boy went and hid behind his father upon seeing me.

Otosan, otosan, gaijin, gaijin! (Father, father, a foreigner, a foreigner!) yelped the endearing little imp, as the slightly menacing father gazed upon me with ill-disguised suspicion. Im not sure what he thought I might do; given that he and his son were working in an allotment, perhaps they thought I had my beady gaijin eyes on their radishes?

Gaijin carries an edge. To the initiated it conjures up images of meaty Japanese bouncers barring their arms against a gaggle of foreign teachers/off-duty soldiers/contract workers trying to gain admission to some seedy back-street club. Most television networks use gaikokujin instead, deeming it to be less offensive. Add the honorific san at the end, and theyre really on safe ground.

But, in my presence, Ive been referred to (though only in the third person) as gaijin by a close friend, my late judo teacher, and the owner of a bar I frequent all Japanese people with whom I have (or had) an excellent relationship. This, however, serves only as proof that Ive been accepted; that they dont have to worry (or at least not with me) about using a word which, noted Will Ferguson in his excellent Hokkaido Highway Blues, is basically similar to gringo.

Hey, a gaijin will never be fully accepted in Japan. Get as fluent as you like in the old Nihon-go; dress up every day in a kimono and take shamisen lessons until youre a better player than the Yoshida Brothers wont make a solitary yens worth of difference. Even getting Japanese citizenship wont work. Im just content to be the outside-country-person who doesnt get his knickers in a twist each time hes called a gaijin. (I remained surprised by just how indignant some long-term gaijin can still get.) I think thats respected, and thus about as good as you can get.

Brace yourself. Today Fifth Estate brings you the first in aseries of blogs from The Friday Project. In the coming weeks Fifth Estate will feature original writing from the most talented and controversial authors of the edgy imprint. With pieces spanning an eclectic range of topics, the series aspires to dish out a taste of what the Friday Project is all about…and, hopefully,spark some debate along the way!

As part of our 25th celebrations, we’ve put together an exhibition showcasing a small selection of what we consider to be our most interesting and successful pieces of design and publishing from over the years.

The display picks out twenty five pieces and includes the first ever book published by Fourth Estate, Multiple prize-winners, the 25th Estate film on a loop and some genius catalogue and jacket designs.

You can browse the exhibition on Issuu

Foyles have very kindly allowed us to use their lovely gallery space for this display so if you happen to be passing their Charing Cross Road branch in the next month, please drop by the 3rd floor and have a look!

As an Egyptian American who attended Cairo University in the seventies when there was nary a headscarf in sight, my first reaction as President Obama strode onto the stage in the grand auditorium of Cairo University was pride in the impressive setting. Then I held my breath as he launched into his much-anticipated speech, wondering if he would manage to pull off the nearly impossible tightrope act of speaking truth from power. Quite apart from the policy issues toward Egyptian lack of democracy and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are so many cultural pitfalls he could fall into. Nikita Kruchev famously came to Egypt to inaugurate the Soviet-financed Aswan Dam, but instead of reaping gratitude, he reaped everlasting ignominy by taking off his shoe- an insult in Muslim societies- and banging on the podium with it as he exhorted Egyptians to abandon their “superstitions”, i.e. Islam and religion in general.

President Obama is far too sophisticated for this sort of blunder. He got a warm response from the audience by greeting them in Arabic. But so did Napoleon Bonaparte, who had prepared meticulously for his invasion of Egypt, and proclaimed to the Egyptians that he was a friend of Muslims who respected Islam and its Prophet. Like Obama in his speech, Bonaparte cited the Koran repeatedly. All the same, Napoleon immediately committed an irredeemable gaffe by trying to impose the French tricolor badge or cockade, which the Egyptians mistook for a religious emblem, or at the least a badge of servitude. It was only the first of the miscues that doomed Bonaparte’s expedition, as I found out when I researched the period for my book.

So I continued to watch Obama with trepidation, even as the applause from the crowd, and text messages from friends in Egypt, reassured me that the presidents speech was playing well. I did note, when he evoked his own multicultural background, that he avoided saying his Kenyan father was a Muslim, saying instead that there were many Muslims in his fathers family. In Islam, religious affiliation is patrilineal, so Obama, a Christian, presumably wanted to steer clear of that particular hornets nest.

The lines in which the President invoked Islamic tradition and tolerance drew grateful applause. But other initiatives and promises addressing the grievances of Muslims in the West did not seem to resonate as much with the Cairo audience, as when he upheld the right of Muslim women in Europe to wear a headscarf, or when he promised to make it easier for Muslims in America to tithe to Islamic charities. But one must remember that Obamas speech was addressed, not to the few thousand in the auditorium of Cairo University or even the 80 million Egyptians in the country but to the some 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, Arab and non-Arab, in Indonesia or in Los Angeles.

Like many Egyptian-Americans or other members of Muslim minorities in the West, I was asked by the media to give my opinion on Obamas speech. The thorniest question: Do you feel that Egypt, with its poor record on democracy and human rights, was the wrong choice of venue for this historic speech to the Muslim world? The answer, for this Egyptian-American who has been critical of many aspects of the Egyptian regime in her writing, is a resounding no. Egypt is not Mubarak, any more than America was George Bush. You can be a proud Egyptian, or a proud American, even if you disapprove of your governments policies. And President Obamas choice of Egypt as the heavyweight of Arab and Islamic tradition is a source of pride to the vast majority of Egyptians, even those who protest its government.

More importantly, perhaps, Obamas speech, in spite of the hard truths of some of its passages, has gone a long way to turn the tide of anti-Americanism that had been swelling at an alarming rate over the past eight years. No, he didnt say everything the Muslim world wanted to hear, nor did he mean to, but he pulled off the tightrope act.

One minor caveat: he missed an opportunity, when he was speaking of female empowerment through education, to mention one woman who had everything to do with the Cairo University in which he stood. Last January I attended the centennial commemoration of the inauguration of Cairo University in 1909, honoring an Egyptian princess whose role was critical in achieving the dream of a national university. When the state ran out of funds to complete the construction, the princess dipped into her private purse, selling some of her own land and jewelry to pay for the necessary funds. I wish someone had thought to tell President Obama that history; I am sure he would have found a way to weave it into his speech.

Having spent my formative years in Cheltenham, I thought I knew what to expect from a literary festival.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival occurs in the first two weeks of October, and my personal highlights include talks by Donna Tart, Bret Easton Ellis, and Alain de Botton.The majority of Cheltenham events take place in the large Regency town hall, where you can taste actual spa water if you choose to (although Id advise against it’s like tasting ‘Fresh Liquid Cocoa’ in the Mayan display at Cadburys World, which tastes of salt and lost innocence.)

Given this background Hay was not what I was expecting. Its a very different type of festival. The slogan this year was Ideas May Blossom (a neat double pun punning both on the month in which it takes place and a visual pun on the image of cherry blossom that litters all Hay literature (apologies – seems punning is contagious) ) and it turned out to be very appropriate. Whereas, at Cheltenham, people seem mainly to attend the talks theyve booked in advance, go to signings in the tent and then plod off home through the rain, here people came for the whole day, or several, maybe even camping, bringing their family, and seemed drawn as much by Pimms in the sun and fresh strawberries, only shade provided by a copy of the Guardian, as they did to hear their favourite authors to talk. Not that they didnt come for talks but it seemed the talks were of a different nature too, circulating more around the ideas behind books than the books themselves, and in this seemed less an act of promotion and more just a desire to educate and inspire. Perhaps if it had been raining I would have looked more cynically at it.

Anyway, the lazy weather and relaxed atmosphere really did bring around a culture where ideas could blossom, and proved the perfect fertilizer (to continue the cringey metaphor) for my role there to spread the word of the Anonthology. The Anonthology magazine was always driven more by an idea than it was by plot or story, the idea that peoples reliance on big name authors can prevent new writers breaking out, and so we hoped that Hay festival would be a great place to find people willing to engage with it, and we werent disappointed. Having done the rounds to every caf and eaterie first thing in the mornings and leaving copies on all tables, it was gratifying to see people actually walking around Hay with them, and reading them. Another Anonthology highlight was sitting in a creative skills lecture entitled UEA or MBA? and realising everyone in the lecture would probably enjoy a copy, leaving early and getting permission to hand one out to all attendees as they left the hall, as well as to some of the speakers.

In the same lecture, our own scout website Authonomy also got a great plug from one of the speakers, leading to a flurry of notebooks as every single aspiring writer in the crowd hurried to note down the name.

Personal highlights from the weekend included the screening of Man on Wire on the Friday a film that everyone says is great but Id probably never have got around to seeing, certainly not on a big screen, if it werent for Hay; the Early Edition, Marcus Brigstockes daily news review show; Around the World in Eighty Trades about a stock-broker who swaps city trading for camel trading, and aims to travel the globe by exploiting supply and demand, buying produce for a cheap price one place and selling it for a profit somewhere else; and a groundbreaking and possibly controversial talk from Cambridge biochemist Sabine Bahn, whose studies aim to create a marketable blood test for schizophrenia.

No false advertising here, Hay really is a festival of big and courageous ideas.

Ever dream of having your writing published, but don’t know where to start? On the 11th and 12th of September, Kingston University London will be hosting a two-day seminar called ‘How to get published: a conference for writers’. Hosted by author and senior lecturer of Kingston’s Publishing MA, Alison Baverstock, the course will offer publishing tips and advice from a wealth of industry professionals. The Kingston University website gives the following description of what to expect:

The two days are packed with really practical advice, and there is a wealth of stimulating speakers attending, including literary agent Carole Blake, Richard Charkin (Executive Director of Bloomsbury Publishing), authors Chris Cleave, Mary Lawson, Justine Picardie and Michael Ridpath and many more. There are also sessions on how to write a synopsis, how to present your work to publishers and agents and how to spot important trends in publishing.

The Great Gatsby is one of the best-loved literary classics of the 20th century. It is one of those books that is so good, so wonderfully written, that you are inspired to ask at the end of every chapter “how was Fitzgerald so good?!”

Over the last few days the Elegant Variation blog has posted up, in four parts, Susan Bells essay on the Gatsby revision process, called “Revisioning the Great Gatsby”. Its an interesting read on the craft of writing, and worthwhile for anyone wondering about the kind of voodoo Fitzgerald practiced.

Following up a post we did a couple of weeks ago on piracy in the book trade, here is a link to an article which controversially argues that restrictive DRM Digital Rights Management – is actually creating pirates of us all.

Cambridge law professor Patricia Akester has spent several years interviewing people about whether DRM has restricted individuals from using content in ways usually protected under law. In her new paper, “Technological accommodation of conflicts between freedom of expression and DRM: the first empirical assessment”, Akester argues that, in many cases, DRM prohibits well-meaning consumers from legally using material.

The consequence? Normally law-abiding individuals are forced to take to the high seas of internet piracy to use content in the way they need to.In the Ars Technica article we link to, the pirates are not malicious, peg-legged, hook-handed villains. Rather, the examples given include a blind woman who resorted to piracy to acquire a text-to-speech bible, and film lecturers.

Just arriving this week are copies of Spooning with Rosie. Rosie runs the fabulous Rosie’s Deli Cafe in Brixton, London, and we think she is soon to be a star. We’ll be posting a series of short films with Rosie in the coming weeks, but in the meantime there’s a great introduction to Rosie and the cafe here.

Today we bring you the third and final part ofDavid Starkey and Hilary Mantel’s fascinating discussion of Henry VIII. In this portion, Starkey and Mantel touch upon the impressive young Henrywhoascended the throne in 1509. Hailed by Thomas More as a “second christ”, in his early days theglamorousyoung king wasregarded as a virtuousrenaissance man.A very differentfigure, indeed,than the monstrous Henry of popular imagination.Enjoy!

As promised, here is the second installment ofDavid Starkey and Hilary Mantel discussing the legacy of Henry VIII.

Keep watching 5th Estate as we post the final video later this week!

Five hundred years after ascending the English throne, the legacy of Henry VIII continues to fascinate and endure. David Starkey and Hilary Mantel recently had an opportunity to discuss the legendary monarch in a talk chaired by Dominic Sandbrook at the Tower of London.

Above is the first of three video installments. In the coming days we will post partstwo and three of this intriguing panel discussion – so keep tuned in!

We have long suspected that Obama has a good taste in literature. Last week he confirmed our suspicions when he revealed in a newsweek article that he is currently reading Joseph O’Neill’s ‘Netherland’, published by 4th Estate last year…

These beautiful new editions of five classic Fourth Estate books, published to celebrate our 25th anniversary, arrived today. They are limited to 2,000 numbered copies of each title, with jackets specially designed by artists. A good place to go to celebrate all things 4th Estate is our new home on amazon here.

You can also win yourself a set of these lovely collectable books by having a little fun with our anonthology at

There’s loads more Birthday stuff on the way in the coming months including an exhibition of Fourth Estate design at Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road, kicking off in a couple of weeks time – we’ll keep you posted!

In the spirit of giving books away for free, here is a chapter from Ben Goldacres book, Bad Science,that was made availableas afree download on the Bad Science blog last month. The chapter relates the story of how Doctor Matthias Rath tried to sue Goldacre for writing about his questionable medical practices in the Guardian. Enjoy!

Amidst much fanfare, Amazon last week unveiled its latest version of the Kindle the Kindle DX, featuring a screen large enough to reproduce the experience of reading more faithfully than any device to come before. Almost immediately it was heralded by many news sources as the saviour not only of the book publishing business, but of the struggling newspaper industry as well.

Indeed, the latest e-reading device comes at a moment when ever increasing numbers of people are downloading e-books for use on a diverse range of rapidly evolving devices, from the iPhone to the Kindle to the Sony e-reader.

However, as the popularity of e-readers continues to expand, so too does the threat of piracy. Yesterday, the New York Timesran a story on the proliferation of digital platforms which facilitate piracy in the book trade. Although not designed to foster illegal downloading, according to the NY Times article, sites like Scribd and Wattpad have made this significantly easier. Re-posted in both the bookseller and book2book, the story is the latest piracy-in-the-book trade article to chronicle this lurking menace.

But is the free, electronic transmission of books truly a menace? Not everyone agrees. In fact, our own Cory Doctorow is one of the champions for a school of thought that does not think so. According to Doctorow, who famously releases his work in both hardback and free electronic versions simultaneously, “my problem isnt piracyits obscurity.” Offering free digital versions of books is a way for authors to attract new readers, launch their books on a powerful platform and – publishers will be happy to note – increase booksales.

Scott Pack, publisher of The Friday Project, shares this philosophy. Acquired by HarperCollins last year, The Friday Project operates under an innovative publishing model – releasing titles under Creative Common licenses and distributing digital copies of books for free. According to Pack, they “have always experienced positive sales as a result of giving away free books.” When the Friday Project made one of their most successful titles, Blood, Sweat and Tea, available as a free downloand from their website, sales immediately jumped. The results of giving away free books has been so consistently positive, in fact, that Pack plans to find even more for creative ways to give the follow up, ‘More Blood, More Sweat and Another Cup of Tea’, away for free. “We are looking to make More Bloodavailable for free on any platform we can, as well as creating an Issuu widget so that anyone else can share it as well.”

The debate surrounding piracy and free books is sure to continue to rage on. What do you think: is piracy primarily a menace, or possibly an engine that could be used to catapult talented authors out of obscurity?

The first five people to post a comment with their views will win a freebook from The Friday Project!

If you are one of the lucky five, to claim your book email

tfp logoIf you read Scott Pack’s own blog, which covers everything from alien cauliflowers to betting tips, he seems to be a well-read muso, who is rather fond of talking about his children, obscure music (at least obscure to me) and the VAT on teacakes (or not). If you read his columns in The Bookseller, he looks like a rather smug know-it-all who knows better than you do.Yet if you see him wandering around the office in his cardigan, all smiles and accommodation, well, all he needs is the pipe and slippers. So who is this man whose fearsome reputation as the once Head Buyer at Waterstones precedes him, whose name is designed for embossing and an airport novel and yet is, in person, well, quite normal? The Friday Project is now in the building so I asked Scott to debunk some of the myths about himself, and explain what the newest HarperCollins list is and will be.

Your reputation is a bit like the Wizard of Ozs: it precedes you but seems rather over the top. Why do you think it is so overblown when you are, in fact, cardigan man with a penchant for cake and the Isle of Wight?

I think you will find that they are zip-up jerseys. Surely a cardigan has buttons? As for my reputation, I think that is a combination of me mouthing off on some sensitive subjects, lazy journalists who were looking for an easy story and some publishers being wary of me when I was a retailer. I have read most of what was written about me and if it were all true then I would probably deserve the reputation I seem to have.

The web is littered with commentary about you. I have to ask: did you really, as Tim Adams pointed out in The Observer, write on Friends Reunited: ‘My life is better than yours’ and why? Were you trying to get back at anyone in particular at school for example?

It was a joke that my friends would understand. The clue was in the name of the site. It is Friends Reunited, not People You Never Knew Reunited or Disingenuous Journos With An Axe To Grind Reunited. Up until the point that Tim Adams mentioned it I had only heard from old friends on the site. Afterwards, all sorts of tossers waded in with abuse. Although, to be fair, I wasnt overly polite with my responses either.

You left home at 16 and went straight out to work in retail: what made you choose that route?

Thats not quite what happened but is close enough. I left home while doing my A levels and worked nights and weekends to pay the rent. Having submerged myself into the real world it seemed a bit pointless going to university. The lure of a weekly wage was too great.

And what made you decide to move from retail into publishing?

Ahh. Well I was reasonably happy as buying manager at Waterstones but the company was introducing a new buying structure and I wasnt convinced it would work. That and some smaller things sort of combined to make me think about trying something else.

What was your proudest moment in retail and what, so far, is your proudest in publishing?

Almost impossible to answer without sounding like a twat but that doesnt usually stop me. At Waterstones I was immensely proud of the team I had put together. There were some amazing individuals amongst them. A number are still there and doing very well indeed. Others are enjoying success elsewhere; a number of them are buying managers themselves now, some are editors. It was a talented bunch and a pleasure working with them most of the time.

And you feel proud of every book you publish but there is a particular pleasure when a book or an author you believe in breaks through to a wider audience.

The Friday Project has been in existence for three years and has already gone through several permutations. What is it now, and what is its future?

It is still the only imprint to specialise in taking great web content and making books from it. That gives us a much wider brief than most people think. It isnt just blogs-to-books, we have cookery books, childrens books, memoir, literary fiction, humour

Our future plans are very exciting. Our author deals will now all be profit-share arrangements with us splitting the profits of the books 50/50 with the authors. We are soon to announce some bold eBook initiatives and there is more to come.

Many Friday Project books are based on blogs; apart from the obvious technical developments that have enabled this genre to develop, why do you think this form of writing is so popular?

Not so many, but some are and it has to be said that they are among our most successful. Books from blogs, by their very nature, tend to have short, punchy chapters and that can mean a speedier read. I think that is part of the appeal. And also, if you are a fan of a blog then owning the book is a logical next step for many.

And what made you decide to start writing a blog?

Everyone at TFP thought it would be a good idea. Originally it was to drum up some publicity and a number of early posts generated some press and media interest so it did the job there. Over time it has softened a bit and become more of a personal blog with some book recommendations. It gets anywhere up to 1,000 visitors a day and seems to have found its level.

Over and over, both on your blog and in other articles, you emphasise the importance of good writing. Do you think that that is enough in this marketplace?

Not even remotely. A point proved by the fact that most of the writers I think are truly wonderful have never had a huge bestseller Charles Baxter, Elinor Lipman, Ron Hansen, Sebastian Beaumont, Sjon, I could go on.

Book publishing has survived almost twenty years co-existence with the internet, despite doom-mongers saying that books are dead; do you think it will survive the next twenty? And if so, how?

Absolutely. Books are much loved and shall remain so. They may not make up as much of the reading spectrum as they have for the past 50 years or so but they arent going anywhere in a hurry.

As part of the festivities marking the 25th anniversary of 4th Estate, we’ve assembled a great new collection of original work from some of the most talented authors the imprint has published throughout the years.

Besides being a wonderful collection of writing, however, it is also a work of cutting-edge literary experimentation. The aptly titled Anonthology showcases anonymously presented stories by the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Patrick Gale. In this challenge to traditional notions of authorship, readers are invited to try and match each story to its true author.

Think you can guess which famous author wrote each piece? Visit to read a full online version of Anonthology and submit your guesses.

It is a long time since I worked with J. G. Ballard at HarperCollins, but his charm and personality, even several years hence, remain as memorable as ever. Whilst working on the paperback of Millennium People, I called him to discuss the cover and the PS section. He was completely happy with all of the corrections and the text of the PS and I thanked him for being so easygoing about the latter. ‘But why wouldn’t I be my dear? If HarperCollins thinks it’s a good idea, and will help to sell more books, then I think it’sa good idea. My position is it’smy job to write the thing and yours to sell it. Frankly, I’d be happy to strap a bottle of suncream onto the front if HarperCollins said it would shift more copies.’ If only it were always that easy… he was a lovely man, and he will be much missed.

Charlotte Roche talks about her controversial book ‘Wetlands’

And here’s Ben Goldacre, author of the bestselling Bad Science to explain why.

A Western superpower invades a Middle Eastern country with overwhelming force, under the pretext of defending its interests in the region, but in reality to expand its empire overseas. The commander of the military expedition proclaims to the shocked and awed local population that he has come to liberate them from the oppression of their rulers, and to share Western ideals of freedom, democracy, and rights for women. He professes respect for the Islamic religion, denies any intention of waging a holy war, and announces that he expects the conquered people to welcome their liberators with open arms.

No, its not 2003 but 1798, and Napoleon Bonapartes army has just landed in Egypt.

The parallels between the French invasion of Egypt two hundred years ago and Iraq today are uncanny. The reasons advanced for the French Expedition were also geopolitical, strategic and imperialist and the enterprise was equally cloaked in idealism: the natives would be liberated from Oriental despotism, and introduced to the principles of the Enlightenment. In return, the Western superpower expected to be welcomed by the conquered Egyptians with open arms.

When the French first arrived, mindful of Bonapartes injunction to respect Muslim sensibilities, they aimed to win hearts and minds and walked about the streets of Cairo unarmed. Within months a series of flagrant cultural missteps and the fatal dynamics of an occupation turned the population against the foreign occupiers and forced the French to retrench behind the fortifications of the Ezbekiah, their Green Zone. Within their compound, the French tried to recreate Paris, including the Tivoli pleasure palace with theatre, dancing, music and wine, just as US forces today recreate a self-contained American environment complete with McDonalds and video arcades.

Then as now, native interpreters, guides, and all those who served the occupier found themselves at risk of retaliation when the evacuation of the occupying army was imminent. For the French then, as for the coalition forces today, the responsibility of protecting the locals who served under them loomed large. A particularly heartbreaking dilemma faced the men and women who were caught in cross-cultural liaisons. General Menou himself, the high commander in Egypt at the time of the evacuation, was married to a Muslim woman. Many of the lesser men in his position left their Egyptian paramours behind to meet their fate, but Menou took his wife with him back to France, as some American servicemen have done with Iraqi women. An article in Time magazine last year reported the poignant personal stories of several such couples.

As the election of Barack Obama makes an eventual evacuation all but inevitable, the French expedition can serve as a model for one of several possible outcomes: what happens in the aftermath? In the case of Egypt, it was the worst case scenario that prevailed: the sectarian strife exacerbated by the occupation segued into the horrors of all-out civil war and Egypt descended into unprecedented chaos and conflict. In the vacuum, local, regional and international powers made a play for dominance and militias jockeyed for power so that yesterdays enemies turned into todays allies and vice versa. Hopefully, with the benefit of history, the worst case scenario can, and will, be avoided in Iraq.

Samia Serageldin is the author of The Naqibs Daughter, a novel based on the true story of how an unscrupulous Egyptian notable pushes his daughter into a liaison with a Frenchman, and the consequences for the girl when the French leave.

In the concluding part of our interview with Jonathan Franzen, the author talks about why he writes long novels, not short stories, and his worries about the threat to writing posed by cultural entropy.

My experience of daily life, even hourly life, is one of constant conflict and division. Of simultaneously being never fewer than two and often as many as four or five different people. And I very much suspect that I will never succeed in writing a book with a single point of view, a single character who carries the whole thing. I consider this a technical failure of mine, and Ive wasted many years of my writing life trying, in a macho way, to write novels that have a strong, single, Philip Roth-like coordinating subjectivity. It never works. The novel to me is the venue for sympathy. In terms of leading my actual life, being a divided and conflict-riddled person is unpleasant. Disaster would be too strong a word, but its definitely no fun. At the same time, my psychic splinteredness does mean that there are few impulses in human beings that I dont have some way of connecting with. The novel to me is the art form that allows scope for my impulse to turn things around and look at them from another perspective. So thats part of it.
It takes me a very long time to develop a character. Im usually frustrated with what I can do in 30 pages. Characters need space in which to reveal their complexity. Even though theyre always simplified and cartoonish in comparison to a real persons character, they still have their own complexity. You need to give them time to really be themselves, and maybe also to be some other kind of self as their life starts closing in on them. This, again, takes space. Plus I dont develop a really good character every day or every month or even every year. Its like making strudel dough. You stretch it out, you fold it over, you stretch it out, you fold it over. You do that about thirty times. Its a long process, and a character whos developed in this way doesnt really fit into a story. And then, having taken the time to develop four or five characters like that, you dont want to just burn them up in 20 pages. And, beyond that, I cant seem to write well about characters I dont love. Sometimes it seems to me my defect as an American fiction writer that I tend to be monogamous and form strong, loyal attachments. I dont want just a two-week quickie with the character. I want to get into a five-year relationship.
To me [one of the biggest problems facing fiction] is cultural entropy Levi-Strausss notion of the disappearance of difference, the rise of global homogenization. A world in which peoples public lives were very different from their private lives has been replaced by public spaces filled with intimate things and by intimate private realms filled with the generic and the public. This is a disaster for the fiction writer and needs to be opposed on that basis alone. Fiction writers spend a lot of time trying to track down that fugitive sense of difference. Things are neither Midwestern nor American anymore; its all sort of mush. Things are neither urban nor rural, its all exurban mush. Things are neither high art nor pop, its all middle-brow po-mo mush. And so on down the line.
And the thing is, some of this entropy is politically healthy and good. If youre too pro-difference, you can end up sounding anti-miscegenist. Or sexist, or classist the poor should know their place and the wealthy should know their place, etcetera. Suddenly, if youre not careful, youre back in a Shakespearean world order. And yet, part of the nostalgia that the artist feels is Wow, look what Shakespeare was able to accomplish back when all those distinctions were really hard and firm! Theres something very unattractive in the artist who wants to break all those boundaries and fluidly pass between them, but wants the boundaries to keep existing for everyone else, so that its only the artist who gets to play with them, excitingly. If I take a close look at my reasons for rejecting the unwholesome mixing of public and private, I see things that may be politically rather unattractive in me. Its interesting that critics on both the right and the left decry the same cultural entropy. You know, It was Madonna Studies that broke down blah blah blah, say the people on the right. And, No its Fox News and Rupert Murdoch that are breaking down the blah blah blah, say the people on the left. We always locate the problem on the other side. But in fact everyone is conspiring in it. This is why the term cultural entropy is such a brilliant formulation because the process has an inevitable, thermodynamic feel to it. As we globalize and as communication systems and transportation and population all expand, how could it not happen?
The fact that I myself think in thermodynamic terms, as if the process is autonomous and unstoppable, is an example of the difficulty of bringing politics into the discussion. Politics itself has been excluded, because the whole notion of the political, in contrast to the eternal or the apolitical, is another one of those distinctions that have been muddied. What serious political thinkers have in mind when they say the word politics is one of those pure quantities that, like all the other pure quantities, is under increasing assault. And as I say this I can hear myself proving to myself that I am not Marxist in my bones, because Im proposing that politics is not the last instance. It itself is a phenomenon; its not the driving force.
We would like to thank the interviewer Chris Connery, and the magazine boundary 2, where this interview was first published, as well as, of course, Jonathan himself.

A special edition of The Corrections, created to celebrate 4th Estates 25th anniversary, and featuring limited edition cover art by Michael Landy, is available here

2009 was slated to be the year we finally got to see the Lamberts on screen; however reports from inside the industry increasingly suggest this to be over-optimistic. But what exactly is taking so long? The novel, first published in 2001, was optioned the same year, and said to be in pre-production the following spring. Stephen Daldry, who just directed the brilliant and award winning The Reader (also a book to film adaptation) was placed to helm it, only recently to have been replaced by Robert Zemeckis. Eight years on, and still no sign of a release date: There is no only additional information offered by IMDB, not even a rumoured casting.

One might suspect it to be the complexity of the material itself thats causing problems; spanning almost 700 pages, the book cant compact easily into a multiplex-friendly 120 minutes. However, this much we know: the screenplay has been written, by the excellent David Hare also responsible for turning another of our books, Michael Cunninghams, The Hours, which also follows separate characters through individual strands, into an Oscar winning screenplay, so presumably no problems there.

The task of a story broken up into separate strands following different characters may have seemed like a challenge a couple of decades ago, but theories in books like Everything Bad is Good for You increasingly suggest that TV and film consumers not only cope with complex storylines, but actually require them to maintain interest; having trained their brains on TV shows – even mainstream ones like 24 and LOST – to expect loose ends rather than dainty knots. Many successful recent movies, like Magnolia, Amores Perros and Crash have required viewers to follow different plots before explaining how they tie together, so the structure of The Corrections should not be the thing holding it back.

Perhaps, then, we are to assume it is the casting that is causing the delay; we have evidence to suggest this has not yet been finalised, since IMDB prides itself on posting details as soon as theyre confirmed. Of all the many things that Franzens book got lauded for on initial release, the close observation of characters surely ranked among the highest. While many literary novels place a greater emphasis on character than on plot, few so closely realize theirs to such an extent that you feel personally connected to them as in The Corrections. Many readers of the books felt that Enid, Alfred, Chip, Gary and Denise literally leapt of the page; more than that, they recognized them.

Quite a task, then, to find actors to portray them.

Readers of books often disagree with casting choices made by film executives, at least in pat because the distance between the written word and the imagination of the readers creates a disparity. But the close proximity of reader to character in this book might provide particular casting difficulties, and whilst movie adaptations always risk alienating a section of the original book audience, the wrong casting decisions here could risk alienating the whole.

Much has been said in recent months about the dubious wisdom of the crowds. Martin Lindstrom, in his book Buyology argued as early as the subtitle that Everything we think about why we buy is wrong or – what is the point in market research, when we delude ourselves about our purchasing decisions? But, perhaps, if the point of a film adaptation of a book is at least in part to draw some of the crowd of the original fans, listening to their opinion in this matter wouldnt be such a bad idea.

It is said that the internet makes an armchair critic out of everyone, and never has this been truer than in the case of movie casting. Comic book fans have been posting on forums for years about who the perfect actors for Batman or Gambit would be; IMDB is full of Who would you cast posts and it should have been X comments.

Official rumoured casting for The Corrections has Judi Dench as the family matriarch Enid, along with Brad Pitt, Tim Robbins, and Naomi Watts as her children, whilst on Franzens wish list Gene Hackman plays Alfred and Cate Blanchett Alfred’s daughter, Denise. However, on the website Imagine Casting, where fans of books or comics can place their wish lists of actors for the movie adaptations, it is Ellen Burstyn, Paul Newman, Jennifer Connelly, John Cusack (as Chip) and Tim Robbins that come out on top.

Now, ruling out Paul Newman, due to his terribly sad, recent death, I dont think these are bad shouts. Weve already seen Ellen Burstyn do neurotic and fussy in Requiem for a Dream, Jennifer Connelly be the driven career woman in Little Children, John Cusack as eternal college grad, job hating, commitment phobe in High Fidelity (and any number of other films) and Tim Robbins as dissatisfied in marriage and paranoid in various. The fact that Tim Robbins appears on both the rumoured official list and amongst the fans choices is surely fodder enough to fuel further investigation. What the fans cast list has also managed to do, amazingly, that adds weight to the value of the crowd sourcing phenomenon, is to pick two actors (Connelly and Cusack) that make physically convincing siblings.

So what do you think? Who do you think has the right or the skill to pick the casts of movies? And, if you had this responsibility in the case of The Corrections, who would you cast?

Once again the UK’s’unacceptably high’ illiteracy levels are making headlines.Despite 5bn invested in various programmes, British levels of literacy are still below many of the developed nations of the world: in 2003 the UK was ranked 14th andrecent government plans to ensure that 95% of the population ‘achieve enough literacy and numeracy to get by in lifeby 2020′ only bring the UK in line with current 2009 levelselsewhere.

From the vantage point of publishing, trying to reach those who can barely readmight seemless important,or much more of a challenge,than reaching those who already buy booksor those who could be persuaded to buy one more…at the right price. But from a national perspective illiteracy is ahuman disaster. Being illiterate prevents engagement with every level of the functioning world, from buying food to reading a map and, crucially, helping the next generation. If a parent can’t read then it’s unlikely their child will find it easy to do so. I found this out when I was a student, through a strange coincidence.

Once a week Itaught adult basic education, slipping away from my ivory tower to urban streets to share what I then thought of as my great knowledge. I enjoyed myself, though I doubt I taught or helped anyone much. However, by knowing about the class I did, eventually, help one woman. Stuck in the back of a cab late one night, I started talking to the driver. She was bemoaning the fact that she couldn’t read to her little girl and how upsetting it was now that her daughter wanted a bedtime storyevery night. At first I thought it was being out at work that was the obstacle, but then she explained that she’d never learnt to read. In passing I mentioned the classes I had been involved with, and suggested that she investigate local adult education in her area. She thanked me, and we moved onto some other topic of conversation.

I thought nothing of this until three years later when I got into the woman’s cab again. She asked me what I did for a living and, having told her that I was a teacher, extraordinarily she relayed the story of having met another teacher in the back of her cab a few years earlier who had told her about classes and how, as a result, she had learnt to read…the teacher we realised was me and whereas she was full of thanks I was amazed that having known one small fact, I had helped her change herlife,and hopefully her daughter’s.

It’s a very small story but for her it was a very big one and it showed me how little knowledge it took to change a life for the better.Not having that knowledge is something affecting a large proportion of our population, their children and, to be brutal, the future of publishing.

Also, as two of the biggest films of the New Year so far -The Reader and Che- point out, in fragile political times, when economies are stretched and jobs and livelihoods threatened, an illiterate populationismuch easier to control and influence. And not always for the better. I’m not suggesting that the current economic climate is equivalent to 1940s Germany or 1950s Cuba but these are strange days indeed…

Just as we cant help having favourites among our children (come on now, who really loves them all the same?) we cant love all aspects of our job equally. And Im sorry to say the unloved runt of my professional litter is picture research. I have spent hours trawling obscure websites in the increasingly vain hope that somewhere, deep in the bowels of the internet,I’ll findthe perfect image of the Duke of Rochester, or the human heart, or a monkey playing a banjo, or whatever it is my author desperately requires. Its a fiddly, time-consuming and often frustrating job.

Until recently, however, I had given no thought to how much worse it must be for the hapless picture archivists whose desks we regularly deluge with implausible, bizarre and ill-thought-out requests. There are several libraries we regularly hit up for images, such asthe Bridgeman, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Galleryand, of these, the Getty picture library is probably one of the biggest, with about 65 million images in its collection. No doubt sick of receiving idiotically broad briefs from editors such as myself (We need a painting of King Richard. Which one? Umm, all of them?) last autumn they sponsored a competition through regular London short film evening Short and Sweet aimed at illustrating the many ways in which the archive could be used. Check out the four very different, very entertaining results, particularly the winning entry, Photograph of Jesus, which provides a wonderfully rueful insight into the often ludicrous lot of the picture archivist.

Jonathan Franzen

In the first of our two-part interview with world renowned author, Jonathan Franzen, and to launch our 25th anniversary programme of articles on 4th Estate classic titles, the writer talks frankly about the social novel, politics and the importance of writing to maintain the integrity of personal experience in an increasingly digital world.

One of the things I talk about in the essay that I prefer to call Why Bother? (From How to be Alone) is the relation between the supremacy of the novel in the 19th century and the fact that it had no major competitors.Its not necessarily fair to measure our cultures engagement with political reality by the health of the social novel, now that we have shows like The Wire and now that we have CNN. One thing the Obama candidacy has certainly made clear is that a lot of people are still engaged with electoral politics.And yet its hard for me not to let my sadness about the decline of the social novel affect my judgments of the culture as a whole.Theres no question that the ambitious program of Proust, Dickens, Tolstoy, Trollope is simply not present in the same way any more. Its been transferred to a non-literary realm, and this is a big loss, because the novel is the greatest art form when it comes to forging a connection between the intensely interior and personal and the larger social reality.

As for my own ambitions for the novel nowadays, I make fun of the ambitions I had when I was 22 and thinking, I will write the book that unmasks the terrible world, I will cause the scales to fall from the publics eyes, and they will see how stupid the local news at 11 is, and they will realize how clich-riddled the pages of their local newspaper are and how corrupt their elected officials are.And they wont stand for it any more. Exactly what kind of utopia I thought would ensue was never clear.

In the 1980s, I think what I was really reacting to was my sense of isolation and loneliness and having this body of perceptions that I didnt feel was widely shared.I was so young that I actually thought I was the only one with this particular body of perceptions.My enemy was everybody and my allies were nobody.I think the difference now is that I recognize that theres a small but non-zero segment of the population that feels and thinks in all of those literary ways, and that my task is to reach them and to participate in the life of that segment of the population.This is what Im writing for, for the people who want a literary experience.Im no longer worried that nobody besides me can have that kind of experience, but Im also not imagining that, in any conceivable twist of history, everybody will want that kind of experience.So its a weird and possibly selfish-seeming form of communitarianism: Ive ceased to care much, as a writer, about people who dont care about books.And the world of readers is thankfully still not tiny. We may lose a little more ground each year, but were still creating new readers who are excited about good stuff.

We may just be little specks.As a percentage of the total world population, were ever smaller specks, and what we are is ever more mediated by the structures weve created for ourselves to live in.And yet, as you go through life, you still hit these points of crisis where something genuine is happening. A choice is being made, or a life is being destroyed, or hope is being regained, or control is being relinquished, or control is being achieved.These moments may be utterly insignificant historically, but theyre still hugely meaningful to the person experiencing them as meaningful as everything else in the world put together.To try to connect with what might formerly have been called the soul, and what I might now describe as some interior locus of privacy and reflection where moments of personal significance are experienced: this, I think, is the job of the fiction writer.As great as our various glowing screens may be at capturing vividness and complexity, youre still always on the outside and just looking at them.Youre never within.Even if you were to construct a very fine virtual reality device, you would be literally insane if you mistook a manufactured and mass-produced experience for a moment of genuine human importance. If you could believe in the simulacrum enough to think you were having a moment of genuine personal meaning, it would mean you were insane.

Only written media, and maybe to some extent live theatre, can break down the wall between in and out.Youre not looking at your feeling from within.An Alice Munro story rushes you along in about 25 minutes to a point where youre imaginatively going through a moment of deep crisis and significance in another persons life. I know Im expressing this in very vague terms, but I think these epiphanic moments have a social and political valence as well, because theyre what we mean when we talk about being a person, about being an individual, about having an identity.Identity is precisely not what consumer culture says it is.Its not the playlist on your iPod.Its not your personal preference in denim washes.The moment you become an individual is the moment when all that consumer stuff falls away and youre left with the narrativity of your own life.All the things that would become impossible politically, emotionally, culturally, psychologically if people ever were to become simply the sum of their consumer choices: this is, indirectly, what the novel is trying to preserve and fight in favour of.

We would like to thank the interviewer Chris Connery, and the magazine
boundary 2, where this interview is published in full, as well as, of course, Jonathan himself. Come back in a fortnight for the concluding part of our Jonathan Franzen interview, and keep checking back for The Corrections themed posts in the interim.

A special edition of The Corrections, created to celebrate our 25th, and featuring limited edition cover art by Michael Landy, is available here.

25th Estate

As 2009 gets in to gear so do 4th Estate’s 25th anniversary celebrations. As well as our very popular short film, we’re also going to be celebrating with articles on some of 4th Estate’s biggest successes. We begin this month with Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant The Corrections, with new titles being explored in subsequent months, so look out for more 25th Estate posts in the weeks to come!

The end of the year is traditionally loaded with book recommendations and, this time round, HarperPress was celebrating. In The Weeks digest of the Books of the Year four of Press books from 2008 appeared in the top five: Netherland by Joseph ONeill was first (with 13 votes), Miracles of Life, by J.G. Ballard was second with 11 votes, The Rest is Noise was joint third (along with Zoe Hellers The Believers) with 10 votes each and The Age of Wonder was fifth with nine votes. We also had two selections in the nine best cookery books of the year, The New English Table and The Clatter of Forks and Spoons.

As Robert McCrum pointed out in the Guardian book recommending in the London literary world is difficult since, at its worst, it can be rather self-congratulatory and incestuous. Most are scrupulous (The Economist wont even review books by its writers, except when asked) but for those who are not the satire of Private Eye lies in wait.

But recommendations, whether by a friend of a writer, or others, and whether taken with a pinch of salt or not, are always helpful as far as Im concerned. How else is it possible to negotiate the sea of available books (or films, or hotels, or whatever youre choosing) if you havent already ripped out a relevant scrap from the paper (or, in the new world, bookmarked the relevant site)? I start, and end every year with a sea of bits of paper, recommending books that Ive missed, places I want to go and restaurants Id like to try. I rarely manage 10% of them but I love collecting and storing the ideas, and then trying as many as possible. Finding and sharing the information is as much part of the fun as using it. And Im not the only one. So, in that internet-spirit of sharing as much as possible, here are my favourite reads from 2008 (including a few, naughty, publishing-insider early reads); Id love to read yours.

From 2008:

Netherland, Joseph ONeill
Sorry, inevitable and predictable but theres a reason it got all those votes.

Run, Ann Patchett
It’s a shame shes no longer published by 4th Estate because shes brilliant. The description of a priest realising that, perhaps, life on earth was wonderful and aspiration enough and that aspiring to life eternal was a lure is worth the price of the book alone.

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri
Im with the Frank OConnor shortlisters; there is no competition for her although I still think The Namesake is her best.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
An off-the-wall story about an intellectual concierge, a teenage girl bent on committing suicide and a rich Japanese man. Told you it was off-the-wall… It reminded me of films such as Amlie and Delicatessan: funny, wise, appealing and somehow totally French.

All the Living, C.E. Morgan (publishes March 09)
If you like Annie Proulx you will love this. But, actually, if you like good writing (of the tight, sparse, precise sort, nothing flowery or overwritten) this is a dream come true. The story of a relationship, and of the nature of desire, its a first novel thats full of the wisdom of years of experience. This is one of the few books that made me want to get on the Tube so that I could read.

The Street Philosopher, Matthew Plampin (publishes Feb 09)
I generally dislike historical fiction (too many monarchs and family trees to negotiate) so this novel, set in the Crimean War, was a complete surprise. Another first novel, pacy, clever without being showy and a brilliantly satisfying story. Reminiscent of Andrew Taylor and Sarah Waters.

Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
Yes, I know its been out for years but 2009 should be its moment, unless the films dire. How apt that the Winslet-DiCaprio duo should come together for another tale of doomed love.

That was my contribution to the One Life, Six Words competition currently running at Foyles. Following on from the online competition in the Guardian, Foyles is offering you the chance to write your own memoir, and win a personalised copy of the book in the real world. The exhibition, in their Gallery space, is really worth a visit, not only so that you can pin up your version of a six-word life but also so that you can see the fantastic posters of some of the short lives, designed by our very own Steve Boggs. Its running throughout Christmas but, if you cant get there, you could always be much more 21st-century and submit your story here: Submissions can be added to the exhibition in person or emailed to

Foyles 6 Words

Foyles 6 Words

Just a quick reminder that you have until the 2nd of January to vote at Spread the Word to find THE book to talk about in 2009. Needless to say we’re a little biased over here and we currently have four Perennial titles in contention. These are: Broken by Daniel Clay, Maynard and Jennica by Rudolph Delson, Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen and Zoology by Ben Dolnick. So if you haven’t done already get over there to vote and spread the word!

After months of hard (and somewhatsecretive) work, it’s rather exciting that we can finally talk about the imminent release of 100 Classic Book Collection for the DS games console, which we’ve produced in partnership with Nintendo.

From Boxing Day, the millions of Brits lucky enough to own one of Nintendo’s handheld DS machines can now load it up with the complete texts ofsome 100 classic novels andplays, all carefully plucked from the HarperCollins lists and archives and lovingly crafted into digital facsimile editions…

A Nintendo fan since the ’80s, it’s been huge fun to watch the iconic, colourfulcovers of our Collins Pocket Classic series…

…get whipped wholesale into the video games world. Scrolling the virtual bookshelf with the DS stylus and touchscreenis a particular joy…

You can see the full list of titles included on the amazon page, but we think we’ve dropped in something for everyone. Treasure Island, Sherlock Holmes, Pride and Prejudice and more – it’s been enormous fun to pull out our definitive list of legendary literature. And if the 100 titles still aren’t quite enough, you can also hook you DS up to the web and download some bonus books we’ve been keeping in reserve…

Alongside the stories themselves, we also commissioned brand new introductions to each book and each author, and there are all manner of ways of navigating your digital library- tell the DS what you like and it’ll even make suggestions for you.

There are plenty more features beside – if you’ve a DS yourself (or you know someone else who has) you can hop over now and preorder. Happy Reading!

A converted church in NW1 wasan appropriately acoustic venue for the Guardian First Book Award ceremony this week.

Fourth Estate has a particularly good history with this prize so we were absolutely delighted when Alex Ross was able to add his name to the honours board.

His book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century has had countless rave reviews since its publication so it was a real pleasure to see it receive this accolade.

The judges described it as ‘a triumph with a magisterial quality and marvelous scope’ andwe couldn’t agree more.

Alex has also created one of the best blogs in the business to accompany the book, his audio guide takes you through the decades and will have you clicking onto iTunes to download in no time.

A fantastic book and an extremely worthy winner.

Congratulations Alex!

2009 sees the 25th anniversary of 4th Estate’s publishing.

In the summer of 2008, 4th Estate asked my company, Apt Studio, to create ’something stunning’ that would help them celebrate this anniversary, as well as celebrating books and their own ground-breaking, international, literary agenda.

4th Estate Logo
Apt has worked with 4th Estate, and parent company HarperCollins, since 2002. Over the years, we’ve made a few films for them and also built the Fifth Estate blog that you’re reading this article on, as well as some other webby and creative projects – such as the recent Golden Notebook project for Doris Lessing.

Given this history we had a pretty open brief – just that whatever we did would touch on 4th Estate’s own history, as well as the sheer joy of books and the world they create.

We pitched a crazy, beautiful, and ambitious 3-minute animation to 4th Estate’s managing director, John Bond, and marketing director Ben Hurd. The animation would take place in a city made – literally – out of books, and we would pass through the city like a bird flying down the streets, witnessing scenes from these books taking place in lots of different districts over the course of an afternoon, evening and early morning.

Museum District

Each district would loosely represent part of their publishing programme – from ‘Museum District’ made up of non-fiction, to the ‘edgy fiction’ part of town (Soho and the red light district) to the European cafe district in the early morning referencing work in translation.

All of the buildings and people would be made out of books, and the pages of those books, influenced in part by artists Thomas Allen and Su Blackwell.

For an added twist, the animation would feature only 4th Estate titles, and be shot ‘stop motion‘ – like Morph – at 15 frames per second. At three minutes long, that means we would have to set up and shoot 180 x 15 = 2700 separate photographs…

Luckily, 4th Estate loved the pitch and we teamed up with our mates at Asylum Films to put the film together. Over two weeks, more than twenty animators and model-makers worked with over 1,000 books to build a world, and an everycity made from the world’s literature. (You can see more production stills over at our blog, Times Emit.)

The film (’25th Estate’) incorporates works from many of 4th Estate’s acclaimed authors: Jonathan Franzen, Jean-Dominique Bauby, Fay Weldon, Simon Singh, Dava Sobel, Nigel Slater, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Alaa Al Aswany, Giorgio Locatelli, Robert Fisk, Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes, Francis Wheen, Alexander Masters, Joan Didion, Michael Chabon and many others.

My personal favourite moments are those of almost hidden detail: zebra crossings made from the paperback jacket of The Corrections; the Imperial War Museum modelled from Robert Fisk; the Greenwich Observatory made out of Longitude; the cinema made out of all the film tie-in editions, and the homage to The Corrections when the father falls out of the boat. The film is stuffed full of these references, and whilst they were a labour of love, they are (to me) what makes the film sing.

If you visit the site we’ve set up for the film you can also see a load of production stills, and time-lapse films of the animations being shot. And furthermore, it’s all been shot in glorious high definition.

Let us know what you think.

‘25th Estate – This is Where We Live’ – 4th Estate’s 25th Anniversary

Cameron on Cameron cover

Fantastic news for Fourth Estate’s Dylan Jones – author of Cameron on Cameron – his book has been shortlisted for Channel Four’s Political Book of the Year Award. In August the book made headlines everywhere from the Guardian to the Daily Mail – and proved to be the most talked-about book of the summer. It’s great to see Dylan’s hard work rewarded.

In late May he was on the ground covering the by-election in Crewe and Nantwich for the book, and still managed to have his manuscript ready for publication in August.

Other authors on the Channel Four shortlist include John Prescott and Cherie Blair for their autobiographies, and the late political journalist Hugo Young, whose posthumous papers have been published.


Next year we see 25 years of 4th Estate publishing and we’re going to be celebrating…

We have lots of special surprises planned and we’ll be kicking off early in December. So keep watching this space for news of 25 years of 4th Estate.

bedtime reading
At times like these, even though I’m surrounded by books all day and should be paying attention to how much I’m spending, I still find myself sloping into bookshops (and, no, not for Katie…). Last night on my way home I got off the Tube early to go to my current favourite. I told myself that I was looking for next year’s diary but, since they didn’t have the required format (these things are important…!), I had to have a little wander around. Twenty minutes later I was off to the bus, with a small paperback stuffed in my bag. As I sat on the 134, considering the fact that I now had three books in my bag, one new, one started, and one unread, I was reminded of a blog over at the
Telegraph, in which Peter Robins noted that he quite often bought a book twice, having lost the first copy in his double-shelving. His solution? Reduce buying. Increase reading.

Obviously that isn’t one I would advocate, since I work in an industry that depends on both increasing, but I do wonder why I buy books and then don’t read them. New books in my flat go onto the bedside table, but somehow even though this is my treat pile often the acquisition of them can be enough and they never get read. Or only partially. For example, this is what I currently have:

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi [love it so far, but can't face it at night so keep abandoning it]
How to be Free, Tom Hodgkinson [my newest acquisition; love the format and so far have spent more time admiring that than reading it]
Nothing to be Frightened of, Julian Barnes [got it signed, talked to the author, love him, his writing and the idea of the book but haven't even glanced at it since I got it home]
Les Ames Grises, Philippe Claudel [yeah, right, I'm really going to read that before going to bed]
Madness, Marya Hornbacher [loved her first novel, haven't started this; think it may be a bit like Satrapi in its suitability for bedtime reading]
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon [I keep reminding myself that I really want to read this but somehow never get to it]
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen [third time, have abandoned in the middle of the cruise passage; again not sure I can face the enormity of the story faced by the oldies just before sleep]
Do Secrets Count as Sabotage, Helen Salter [Helen's a friend; loved her first book but I've not started this]
Engleby, Sebastian Faulks [mother left this behind on last visit, haven't enjoyed his writing since The Girl at the Lion d'Or and Birdsong so this one is waiting for the next charity shop trip]
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray [borrowed from a friend, have always meant to read it]
Varjak Paw, SF Said [also borrowed, not sure kids' books are what I want at night either]
The Piano Teacher , Janice Y. K. Lee [proof copy from work; perfect bedtime reading but again not started]
The Elephant Keeper, Christopher Nicholson [proof copy; have heard raves about this at work]
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski [this one nearly gets into my Tube bag every week, and again raves at work but I keep putting it off]
The Spanish Civil War, Paul Preston [a period that fascinates me but obviously not that much since I've had the previous edition from work for four years and now I have the revised edition and still haven't read it]
The Almost Moon, Alice Sebold [another mother abandonment; think she finished this one tho]
Something Might Happen, Julie Myerson [halfway through].

So that’s 17 books, several of them from work, several bought and not even started, several abandoned but not yet given away. Is this a classic bibliomaniac disease? Or am I along, with Robins, one of the only sufferers? Why, with books, is owning the object enough of a treat when with everything else, be it music, food, clothing, consumption is all?

Perhaps it’s the promise of what they contain (whether knowledge, pleasure, inspiration). Or perhaps it’s simply that books remain desirable for their own sake, in a way that CDs are not, because their mere presence is attractive (furnishing a room with hardbacks is somehow much nicer, to me at least, than furnishing it with plastic CD cases, reassuring (the unread promise future knowledge, the read remind us of what we already know) and comfortingly low-tech. And having watched the terrifying remake of Survivors on Sunday night (and being old enough to remember it first time round, when power cuts were a daily reality) it’s that last characteristic that seems most pertinent right now.

If all the lights really did go out, which is the next drama facing us this winter according to the Today programme yesterday morning, many other forms of entertainment, from TVs to mobile phones, would simply cease to function. But you could still get into bed, switch on a torch and read a book…which is more than can be said for an iPod. If you think about it in those terms, stockpiling books is as important as stockpiling water in times of crisis. A book, after all, is the most portable and energy-efficient of entertainments; once it’s produced it needs neither charger nor batteries (unless, of course, read under the covers). I was going to ask if there was a cure for my acquisitive tendency, but actually I’m not sure I want one…

Katie Price typing The first three bits of news on today’s booktrade news round-up made depressing reading this morning. Random House US freezing pensions, Woolworth’s shaky status and Barnes and Noble’s sales dropping. Thank God Katie Price is still selling strong…; there’s hope for us all.

Halfway through Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star at my daughters nursery I heard the news. Youve won! whispered a little voice down the phone. Good job that I had decided to take the call in the toilets I screamed so loudly the teachers assumed Id seen a mouse.

In early 2007 Id entered a competition. Win a 20,000 Book Deal said Waitrose Food Illustrated on its cover. And, inside, our beloved Nigel Slater made a plea for a new food writer: someone who would give even him a run for his money (yeah, right). Encouraged by family and friends I entered, along with 2500 others. We had to write a piece on what made us love food and include at least one original recipe. Having found out I was in the last sixteen, a full book proposal (with more recipes) was the next hurdle. And then there were only three of us left. It was time to meet the judges. I am sure I made a wonderful impression: I tripped over the step on entry, accidentally dropped my bag on the floor and then gabbled for Britain. Hardly winner material.

But, somehow, win it I did. The phrase about pinching oneself suddenly made perfect sense; mystifyingly I had entered a world where dreams do come true. Since I was a child I have longed to write and, having married the Vicar, this wish morphed into a passion for creating recipes and writing them down. It isnt that I am a rabid foodie (well, okay, maybe a bit). Its more that I love to celebrate the people in my life with suitable food. Perhaps the Cousin is round after a hard day at work, crying out for a bowl of comforting and creamy pasta. Or The Vicar has his mates over for rugby-watching, beer and some appropriately solid fare. Or maybe its dinner with hitherto strangers: the food needs to be something that brings cohesion, a talking point. Rabbit legs in ros anyone? Choosing food that pleases, something that comforts, calms or changes our state of mind; what a privilege to offer that to those we love.

I confess it hasnt been easy, the whole book-writing palaver. A sensitive soul, my emotions have risen and fallen like the tides. I dreamt about the book at night and ingredients floated round my brain like flotsam. The Vicar would wake at two in the morning to find me scribbling down a particularly delicious combination. The cooking, the writing, the thinking made me feel I was on the edge of madness. But then, serving up something I had dreamt up to people I adore would put the smile back on my face. And writing about the dear friends I cooked for made me smile even more.

Cover of One Life, Six Words

Hemingway was once bet that he couldnt produce a story in just six words. He wrote For sale: baby shoes, never worn. He won the bet.

But if an entire story can be told in just six words, what about an entire life?

In One Life, Six Words, Whats Yours? hundreds of the famous and not-so famous attempted to do just that, producing six-word summaries of lives lived. Some are heartbreaking (I still make coffee for two; Zak Nelson), others wry (Not quite what I was planning; Summer Grimes) and some rather worrying (I do not intend to mellow; Jeffrey Archer). And over at the Guardian you can join them, creating your own mini-memoir. So far my favourite is Nick Baileys Grumpy bastard. Until wife came along. Whats yours?

Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton died on Tuesday, and though hes not a 5th Estate author, his legacy, at least for me, bears remembering.

If you’re environmentally minded then Crichton isnt someone youre likely to admire. He spent a great deal of his latter years concentrating on disputing claims about global warming, postulating that environmentalism was a religion and even testified to Congress on the behalf of climate change skeptics. How much of this was his genuine belief and how much at the time was used to publicise his book State of Fear we’ll never know. However, before all that occurred, he was a master at delivering action-packed, some might say B-movie concepts and packaging them in scientific believability. And I loved him for it.

I first read The Andromeda Strain in the very early nineties, probably because I’d heard of the movie (brilliantly directed by Robert Wise, it’s hard to think he’d done The Sound of Music some six years previously). The genius of The Andromeda Strain lies in its back pages. Crichton fabricated the entries for the scientific journals in the novel’s bibliography and even created his own scientific crisis decision-making process called the Odd Man Out theory. All of this is glorious nonsense, but as you’re reading the book it makes you suspend your disbelief and project the story into the real world. Crichton did it with a reading list and the sort of supporting material we’d nowadays put into a Perennial PS section.

The success of The Andromeda Strain brought Crichton to Hollywood’s attention and so MGM let him exercise his imagination with an idea about a theme park. The result was Westworld, a movie about a holiday resort populated by robots where ‘nothing can possibly go worng!’ (geddit?). Needless to say it all does, the robots go haywire and the humans are hunted by Yul Brenner, playing ‘The Gunslinger’ in a chase to the death. Yul wore his Magnificent Seven outfit, proof that the movie business had to cost-save in the early seventies as well as today.

Crichton’s greatest moment came in 1990. When Steven Spielberg learned that he was writing a book mixing dinosaurs and DNA, he got Universal to snap up the rights for $2m in a bidding war that included Tim Burton, Richard Donner and Joe Dante. Not bad for an unpublished book. Jurassic Park is, of course, about a theme park where dinosaurs are genetically recreated and ‘nothing can possibly go worng!’. Ignoring the by now familiar thematic similarities in Crichton’s work, it’s easy to see why Jurassic Park was so successful.

The movie is markedly different to the book, but contains so many stand-out sequences and trademark Spielberg touches you hardly notice. At first glance it’s easy to dismiss as a piece of enjoyable Hollywood hokum and in some ways an uneven film. It’s forty-five minutes of pseudo-science followed by a chase sequence; however I’d urge you to look again. The late Bob Peck looks like a raptor, look at his eyes and nose. The dinosaurs, comparatively early CGI nowadays, look ghostly, like they’re not supposed to be there. Look for the moment the raptor breaks into the control room and has GCTA coding projected over its leathery skin via a computer monitor. I’m not saying it’s art, but there are moments in Jurassic Park handled with more subtlety than some in Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan.

I didn’t get on quite so well with the later Crichtons. Rising Sun was accused of being quite openly racist about Japan. Disclosure was an attempt to mix gender and sexual politics with a techno-thriller edge. Airframe was probably specifically designed to be bought by people at airports and then be terrified as they read it in their passenger seat. Timeline was Crichton tackling time-travel and another theme park. Genetics and nano-technology were the science du jour in Prey and Next. While Crichton never quite achieved the heights of the early 90s again he has left behind a legacy of work that will stick in people’s minds for some time to come.

And if you’re thinking ‘Michael Crichton’s not for me, I really don’t think his legacy will stick in my mind’ I have two words for you: George Clooney. If George hadn’t been cast in Crichton’s TV series ER, he’d have never have shot to fame and never be best mates with Brad Pitt or topped a hundred most-wanted man polls. So you can at least thank the Admirable Crichton for that.

The South Bank has been running a series of talks with American writers for the last few months, making explicit the importance of the current moment in American history for all of us. I saw Paul Auster, as I mentioned here, and then last week I saw Toni Morrison. As far as Im concerned Morrison is a genius. She was the first black woman to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, one of only 11 women out of the 105 awards since 1901 (our own Doris Lessing was the 11th woman to win it last year) and her work, though challenging, seems to reach beyond the media literati and academics.

The event was a stark contrast to most author readings. Sitting next to me in Queen Elizabeth Hall was a young woman who lived in London and yet had had to print AA directions to find the South Bank, explaining her journey from Turnpike Lane in great detail to her friends. She was, like many of those present, much younger than the usual literary fan. Whats more, for once the audience was not overwhelmingly white, and those who asked questions were not mostly men. Morrison received standing ovations on her way in, way out, on her way to, and from, the podium. The atmosphere was unlike any other reading Ive been to, one of whoops and cheering, rather than whispers and clapping. This mostly female, black audience that, even forty years ago, would have been invisible, considers Morrison a god.

Which is probably how another prominent black American is feeling today: god-like, powerful, as if history is about to change forever. Morrison challenged the literary landscape, by writing about experiences that were once not worthy of comment and Barack Obama has done the same, for politics. Whatever the result, he has changed what seems possible in a country that, when he was born, outlawed his parents mixed marriage.

In January Morrison switched from supporting her old friend Hillary Clinton, to endorsing Obama, a switch that could be seen both as a desertion of her feminist principles as well as that of an old friend. Was she abandoning her audience and everything she had ever believed? Had race trumped gender in her priorities? Her letter of endorsement suggests that neither race nor gender were at stake for her; her change of heart was determined by who, not what, he was:

you exhibit something that has nothing to do with age, experience, race or gender and something I don’t see in other candidates. That something is a creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom.

As I write it is predicted that about 50% of the North American population agree with her. But when asked last week if she felt confident about the results, Morrison was candid. She had, she said, seen too many elections stolen to take anything for granted. She didnt know what shed be doing tonight, bar hiding under the bed I, for one, am hoping that she doesnt have to.

Apache author Ed Macy who won the Military Cross in Afghanistan explains why the Army Air Corps is right for Prince Harry and what he can expect to experience on the tough selection procedure.

Two Apache pilots in cockpit

Hes a Target!
For Lt Wales to continue his operational role as a Blues and Royals Officer in Afghanistans current climate is deemed too risky to him and his comrades. He is too much of an important target. And yet the Talibans highest priority target is the British Apache AH Mk 1, so why put him in one and send him back to fight? Because its a flying tank and although these British Apaches have received many hits since May 2006, they absorb the fire, turn around and destroy the unlucky fighter that chose to dent it. Despite costing more than 40 million each they always get back to base, patched up, and sent back out to fight. Due to their cost they are flown to and from high security bases within Afghanistan, so the threat to Harry and his new aviation comrades is negligible.

The Apaches Hellfire Missiles in action

The Threat
Arguably, the biggest threat to the young prince is not the Taliban but the tough selection procedure hes about to embark upon. Only the very best of the best make it through Army Air Corps Pilot Selection and get the chance to move onto the Army Pilots Course. Even then the failure rate is high before being assessed as to what helicopter they will fly operationally. If he manages to get ahead of the pack he may even realise his dream of becoming an Attack Pilot on the Apache helicopter.

The First Hurdle
Hes due to attempt Grading on Pilot Selection in a fixed wing single-propped Slingsby Firefly 160 aircraft. Grading is a process that assesses a potential pilots ability to listen, absorb and replicate simple flying manoeuvres. Its a baseline test including ground school to see if they have the aptitude and ability to cope with the Army Pilots Course. Its monkey-see monkey-do. He will be given a perfect flying demonstration of say, a loop. Then the instructor will fly the same manoeuvre again with HRH holding the controls with him to get a feel of it. Then the test begins, ‘Lt Wales, perform a loop please’. His ability over twelve instructional sorties and one test flight will be graded. If he makes the grade, he will be interviewed before being offered a place on the Army Pilots Course.

The interview will be a given; after all, who wouldnt want a Royal in their regiment? On the other hand, the Grading is not. More than 50% of potential candidates fail and every one of them has been screened for their ability beforehand.

Chopper or Chopped?
If he wanted to become a pilot as a figurehead, hed do an abridged pilots course that he couldnt fail, like his father. Unlike other members of the royal family, Prince Harry wants to return to Operational Duty. If successful, Harry will be in charge of an Apache helicopter capable of wreaking devastating havoc on the enemy. If he gets it wrong he will kill innocent civilians and troops at worst and be non-effective at best.

The Director of Army Aviation will have no problems failing the prince if he fails to meet the current standards in his training at any stage. With great firepower comes great responsibility.

I wish him the very best of luck.

Ed Macy MC

Attack Pilot and author of APACHE

Marcus du Sautoy, author of The Music of the Primes and Finding Moonshine, has just been appointed as the Simonyi Chair for the Public Understanding of Science, replacing Richard Dawkins. The Professorship aims to ‘communicate science to the public, with elements of scholarship that bring true understanding’ and having heard him put John Humphries in his place on the Today programme this morning, it sounds like he’ll be perfect.

Apache cockpit - credit: SSgt Carl Bird

Apache author Ed Macy who won the Military Cross in Afghanistan explains what attracts Prince Harry to the Army Air Corps and what itll take for him to make it as an Apache Pilot.

The news that Prince Harry wants to join the Army Air Corps to be an operational pilot has been released by Clarence House and newspapers have confirmed that he wants to be an Apache Pilot.

Prince Harry is a real life Action Man and has proven himself in combat in Afghanistan. Working as a Joint Terminal Air Controller he was responsible for controlling the bombs from fast jets and the awe-inspiring firepower of the Apache helicopters onto Taliban positions. Witnessing first-hand the speed, agility and deftness of the Apache helicopters is an experience beyond expectations. The accuracy, loudness and deadliness of the cannon are frightening when used close to troops in contact. It was that loud we thought you were engaging us the Paras exclaimed. Having called the Apaches in for rocket attacks on Taliban hiding in the bushes, trees and irrigation ditches, he knows that few escape the hundreds of deadly Flechettes they spit out. And watching the Taliban take refuge in buildings with walls three feet thick, the Prince knew that they had played their last card and he was holding the ace. The Apaches Hellfire Missiles are capable of defeating all known armour and on his very words they unleashed the missiles into the buildings, extinguishing all life. The aftermath of an Apache attack reveals the clinical damage they impart on the enemy and the young Prince, having witnessed this, would struggle not to be impressed.

Bravery, good military knowledge and a love of the machines is not enough to pass the stringent grading and flying course. He needs dedication, calmness and an unprecedented amount of co-ordination. If successful he will be given the choice of the Gazelle, Lynx and Apache but the pressure is on. The self-induced pressure hes about to experience will test him in ways he cant have experienced before. If he wants to fly the Apache hes going to need to show extremely high levels of ability, far beyond the average. Not only will he be doing his utmost to survive the course, he will be competing for the chance to convert to the Apache whether he likes it or not. Only the best are successful.

The Apache is the most technologically advanced attack helicopter in the world and by far the hardest to master. Having seen it, studied it and been given the opportunity to fly it, would Harry really want to become an Attack Pilot in the AAC? Who wouldnt?!

Ed Macy MC

Attack Pilot and author of APACHE

World Book Day LogoWorld Book Day isn’t till March but the build-up is already starting. Last week the organisers launched a list of fifty titles, described as the books most worth talking about. To make their initial selection they asked publishers:

to submit books they thought deserved to reach a wider readership most specifically those that would make good subjects for discussion, those that dont merely entertain, but give greater food for thought.

From the list of 50, a shortlist of ten will be selected in January, before The Book to Talk About in 2009 is chosen in March. What is great about this prize is that, although the initial choice was made by the publishers (as is often the case with book prizes), via their submissions, and the fifty-strong longlist was chosen by the WBD organisers, the shortlist of ten and the final winner will be selected by readers votes. Readers go to the website (the address is but watch out for those hyphens: Google throws up another, similarly-named website which promotes London writing), login and comment on/review the books that they love. Each week one voter/reviewer will win 100 worth of Book Tokens.

Its a wonderful, publically-spirited initiative, and obviously Im delighted that there are four Perennial titles, all first novels, on the list (Broken, by Daniel Clay, Maynard and Jennica by Rudolph Delson, Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen and Zoology by Ben Dolnick but what is even more exciting, and encouraging is that there are many books and publishers on the list that are completely new to me and an awful lot of first novels. There are some big writing names, like Matthew Kneale, Emma Freud and A.M. Homes, and most of the biggest publishers are represented, but Ive never heard of a lot of the books nor of some of the publishers (such as Burning House, Gomer or Marion Boyars. That could be my own ignorance but it underlines the fact that publishing remains, happily, a constant surprise.

The list also defies the moans, particularly amongst bloggers, that publishing and publishers are not interested in new and different writers. Yes, its difficult, as two of the writers on the list – Sade Adeniran and Nasreen Akhtar, who self-published their books – must have discovered but its not impossible.

Whats more the subject matter of many of the longlist titles would cheer the heart of any cynic convinced that celeb memoir was taking over our bookshops: novels about the Byzantine Empire, 1970s Rhodesia and Sicilian gypsies sit alongside a study of prion disease, a journey and discovery of wilderness and a social history of our habits.

In fact, the only problem I have with this list is how on earth can there be just one ‘Book to Talk About in 2009′, when there are patently so many worth a conversation…

Picture of a kangaroo on a beach…over in Australia, 4th Estate has been winning plenty of other prizes. The People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks bestselling novel published in January, won the Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA) Book of the Year Award and Literary Fiction Book of the Year. Then a week later Steven Carroll won the 2008 Miles Franklin Award, the most prestigious Australian literary award, for his novel The Time We Have Taken, the final part of a trilogy now known as the Glenroy novels. It was third time lucky for Carroll, who was nominated for the other two novels in the trilogy. Finally, Steven Conte recently won the 2008 Prime Ministers Literary Award for his first novel The Zookeepers War . This is a brand new prize, worth A$100,000 (44,000) to two winners (one fiction, one non-fiction) which the PM announced in his election manifesto.

Im not sure I can imagine either Brown or Cameron launching a literary prize in their next campaigns but in the current climate I wouldnt rule anything outthanks to Lizzy Kingston of HC Australia for the report.

Frankfurt map

Do you remember your first time? I do. The corridors of Hall 8 at the Frankfurt Book Fair were rammed with air-kissing publishers, shrieks of recognition and whispers of gossip I didn’t remotely understand. I thought they were all terrible show-offs and swore I’d never be one of them. But now that I’ve happily given myself up to the dark side, I’m pouring myself a glass of champagne, greeting you with a ‘mwah’ and offering the eight tips I think you need for your first Frankfurt. I’m going to assume you know the basics usually covered by this sort of guide drink plenty of water, wear comfortable shoes and focus on the things I wish I’d known back in the day.

1. Book Appointments Before The Fair
Rights people from the major publishers will be fully booked up for Frankfurt from the middle of July. That means 9am-6pm every day with no lunch breaks. Editors schedules are a little less punishing, but still pretty busy. So attending the Fair in the hopes of getting a chance meeting with someone you aren’t already acquainted with is not likely to work. And accosting someone in the five minutes they have spare between meetings is rarely a popular move. If you have a query but no appointment you may find it best to ask staff at reception on the relevant stand if you may leave your business card for the appropriate person write your query on the back of it, and expect an answer after the Fair.

2. Know Where Your Meetings Are
If your schedule has you running back and forth from Hall 8 (where all the English language publishers are based), to Hall 6 (where the Agents’ Centre is), you had better be prepared to be a) late b) exhausted c) greeted somewhat frostily by those who have been waiting for you for fifteen minutes of a thirty-minute appointment. Try and arrange your schedule so that you are in the Agents’ Centre in the morning, and Hall 8 in the afternoon, or vice versa. Or else you will really need those comfortable shoes.

3. Be Culturally Aware
I’m not talking about being PC here, but do learn a little about how to greet people. For example, the Dutch kiss three times, the French tend to kiss just on greeting, not on departing and Americans kiss just once (if you know them) but may unexpectedly grab you in a hug. And best not to kiss Germans unless you know them well already. Business cards are important to Japanese people, so you must receive a card from them with two hands, and look at it properly don’t just grab it and shove it aside.Try to remember this sort of thing to avoid uncomfortable clinches or flinches.

4. Do Some Homework
Don’t go pitching misery memoirs to someone who only buys literary fiction. Do some homework beforehand and pitch accordingly. If you are really stuck, ask them roundabout questions before you start pitching have you bought anything big recently? What’s been doing well on your list? If you’re buying, make sure you’re seeing the right people they may have sent you a delightful email asking for an appointment, but do you really want to meet that Dutch publisher of encyclopedias when you could have been seeing a hot US agent instead?

5. What Is The Book of the Fair?
Everyone will ask you if you’ve heard about The Book of the Fair. Dont panic if they’re asking it’s because they don’t know what it is either. Turn the tables by asking other people first. But the last few Frankfurts have been devoid of a truly huge book that every publisher is fighting over, so you’re probably safe with ‘It seems fairly quiet this year, don’t you think?’

6. Deal With Your Hangovers
With 2am considered an early Frankfurt bedtime, just accept that you’re going to have one possibly every day if you’ve really been larging it. If you know you need five coffees before you can face the world, don’t schedule meetings for 9am (it’s hard to forgive someone who stands you up for the first appointment of the day). If you feel like you may be sick, a polite email or text excusing yourself is infinitely preferable to being forever remembered as the person who threw up in a meeting (you know who you are). Ultimately you are here for work, and even if you’re up until four, you still have to be charm itself in your first meeting.

7. Avoid The Frankfurt Flu
You will probably be shaking hands with at least 100 people over the course of the Fair and no matter how delightful your customers, there are going to be some germs exchanged. If you know you’re susceptible, try taking zinc, vitamin C and echinacea before and during the Fair. If you’re a little more paranoid, some people swear by antibacterial handgel applied after every meeting (but its probably best to wait until your customers are out of sight before reaching for the bottle).

8. Enjoy It
Though it is accepted form to dread Frankfurt from July onwards and to moan about it for weeks afterwards, once you’re on the treadmill just give yourself up to it and have fun. The first time is the worst next year you’ll be air-kissing and shrieking along with the rest of them.

Man Booker Prize

Congratulations to Aravind Adiga on winning the Booker Prize for his first novel last night. Commiserations to our own Philip Hensher.

The HC team, those that weren’t at the dinner, watched the results with the winning publisher at a club in Soho and though we cheered their book when it was shown on the TV, just before the announcement, they booed ours! We were not amused bad form Atlantic!

Banzai betting man
It’s that time of year again, when the literati turns its eyes to the world of the Man Booker Prize and the bookmakers…

The relationship between the Man Booker and the bookies has always been strange. In 2002 an announcement stating that Life of Pi had won appeared on the Booker website four days before the awards; consequently all betting on the prize was suspended. Officials went on to say that in fact six ‘winner’s’ webpages were prepared prior to the announcement, it was just pure chance that the one accidentally uploaded to the website was the one for Life of Pi. Could this possibly have affected the outcome of the prize? Life of Pi did go on to win after all and while we’re sure the judges would say the book deserved to win, could it in fact have been a case of expectation and exposure skewing the results?*

Then in 2006 bookies reported a massive upsurge in betting on Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, hours before it was announced as the winner too. This leads one to suspect that there’s some very literary, and perceptive, punters out there.

This year we’ve already had the ‘Best of the Booker’. Betting was suspended again five days before the outcome when William Hill saw the correlation between bets and the voting pattern for Midnight’s Children . Public voting continued nonetheless, however in the eyes of the bookmakers and press it was already over: Rushdie had won.

So if you fancy a flutter, why not check out the latest odds here? The results will be announced just before half past ten tonight…

*See Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science for more of this sort of thing.

Paul Auster

Waiting in the queue to see Paul Auster last week at the South Bank, I met a man from Bilbao. He had not travelled from Spain, as I first thought, but from Scotland to come and hear the author speak.

Having caught a plane at 3.15, which was delayed, he was unlucky enough to be lumbered with a cabbie who didn’t know where he was going and missed half of the event. He was then heading back to Heathrow to stay the night, before returning to Scotland in the morning. Auster was fascinating but not a day and half of travel fascinating, and this man almost missed it thanks to a late plane and lost taxi. I can’t imagine going that far. Would you? Or have you? The best story wins three books of their choosing from the Press Books list. Send your stories to us here by October 31st 2008 and please read the T&Cs here.

The Impoverished Gastronome

It costs $60000 per minute for a supplier to stop a General Motors production line, a figure that makes the costs of book production seem laughable. Car manufacturers work to much tighter just in time deadlines, and every minute wasted is a dollar lost. But soon one in Michigan will be stopped for two weeks, because there are no sales, and therefore no work. Whod have thought that Americans would stop buying cars not because of Kyoto but because of lack of credit? Then yesterday I, along with several thousand other savers, watched as various Icelandic banks into which I, sensibly I thought, stuffed my savings, teetered, and eventually fell, into bankruptcy. Today, who knows; if we could predict what was next then we would be making money rather than losing it

Apparently the effect on the publishing industry is already being felt and some of it is positive. The how-to guide and the billionaire bonkbusters are the winners so far; it seems that in hard times we like reading about the superrich. Reading for solace or succour is nothing new; indeed at the moment there are even bibliotherapists at the rather grandly named School of Life, a very small shop with very big ambitions, which promises to take exceptional care and effort to create a reading prescription thats perfect for you (a standard consultation costs 35). But the Bloomsbury shops experts, who include Alain de Botton and Robert McFarlane, werent the first: GPs have been using bibliotherapy as a treatment for mild depression for the past few years with some success; in the US one of the most successful forms of treatment for depression is a book, as Alan Yentob found out when investigating whether self-help really did, well, help.

Im not sure that a few sessions with Alain de Botton could do much for our failing banking system but, unlike the economy and the economists, most of us are not beyond bibliotherapy. For a start, compared to a cinema ticket in London, a 7.99 paperback is still a bargain, since, if loved, it provides several hours, or even years in the rereading, of pleasure. Having scoured my shelves at work and at home I came up with three suitable books for this current climate: two practical and one pleasurable.

The Impoverished Gastronome is, according to the author, a book about Mean Cuisine. Having been sacked from his job, David Chater rode around London on a bike asking top chefs for three-course dinner recipes, to feed six people for 10. The book was published in 1996 and Ive no idea what the equivalent of a 96 tenner is (anyone?) but it still makes interesting reading. Some of HCs authors, like Richard Corrigan are in there as are still famous names like Fergus Henderson and Bruce Poole, several famous restaurants and lots of inspiration. In the days of lavish full-colour and TV cookery books, this plain text-only B-format paperback looks strangely unassuming but somehow it seems more in line with the sense of the 1970s that encroaches everyday.

My second is Love Is Not Enough, a guide written specifically for women to help them understand finance. Much of the early chapters on saving and investing no longer feel very helpful but the last section is still pertinent. The author examines our notions of happiness and criticises the misplaced notion that it can be found in stuff. Since none of us will be able to afford much soon, that is if anything is still produced, it seems cheering to remember this. She also offers 53 money-saving tips which range from the obvious (drink less coffee out, stop going to the gym, cook from scratch) to the less so/more amusing: get all your condoms free from family-planning clinics; buy your bike at (after all, you wont be able to afford petrol let alone a car) and keep your weight constant (if you dont change size you dont need to change your clothes).

My final prescription is for a novel, for my favourite life-affirming, light at the end of a tunnel book: The Shipping News. If Quoyle can survive his various depressions and disasters on the bleak Newfoundland coast then so can we all

But what would you prescribe? The solace of great writing, the specificity of self-help or Standard and Poors?

Hay Segovia sign

In the last week there have been at least three: Hay Segovia, Berlin and Warwick. Next week sees the start of Cheltenham, the continuation of Beverly and Manchesters. Im talking, of course, about literary festivals. New ones seem to appear in the most unlikely of places and yet there seem to be no end of consumers ready to hand over a few pounds to see both the famous and the less so talking and reading about their work. Whether in a tiny Scottish town or a big international city, the events proliferate, the banners are hung and the audience comes. Plant a literary tree it seems, and it will grow.

And for those towns where a festival works, Hay being the most notable, the economic effect can be astonishing. Ten years ago Wigtown in Scotland won the bid to call itself Scotlands book town. Another, Dalmellington, lost. Whereas the former has seen over 10m of public investment injected into regenerating the town, and has just welcomed names such as Janice Galloway and Louis de Bernires at its tenth festival, its once rival laments the loss of the biggest hook to get people off the A713. Having just returned from Segovia, where I watched the city fill with Madrids middle-classes, students from the University of Valladolid, and a smattering of British media, I can see that even in this already well-known tourist destination, the burnish of a literary link can bring rewards. The trains from Madrid and the nicest hotels were all fully booked and the streets and venues were crammed with visitors clutching the programme, queuing to see the famous and the less so. Even though most of the audience were Spanish-speaking and many of the events were being translated from French, German and English, everyone listened with patience as a question was spoken in one language, translated into another, then replied to in the second for the reply to be translated back into the first

And all of this effort and activity for books. Whilst we publishers wring our hands about what will happen to our consumers in the future, as e-readers and digital content dominate our conferences and trade magazines, the audience is still there, still growing, and busy filling wet tents in Wales and beautiful buildings in Spain. What the popularity, and proliferation, of these events, suggests is that there remains a large, and growing, appetite for literatures practices and performance. Whether writing, reading or debating, there remains a desire to know both the writer and the written and such festivals show that even though the book industry is constantly looking for new ways to widen its markets, often the route to inspiring and holding a reader, and hopefully a consumer, is the same as it has always been: tell a good story, in person or on the page.

Yes, the future of publishing might lay in new, and as yet unknown, products, but its past and present ones still resonate. There are those who love, and buy, the object, others who want just the words, but what they share is a desire for narrative, for a story created by a writer who can describe human, or not so human, experiences anew. We are one of the few industries, along with the music industry, that maintains a commercial imperative but offers a cultural experience. The literary festival already understands that the relationship between reader and writer, whatever the means of delivery, remains one of interest, fascination and enjoyment. Instead of bemoaning the loss of our past, and fearing our future, we should celebrate the privileged present that we occupy the fact that we not only create new books but also new writers and readers and find new ways, as festivals do, of exploiting it.

When The Friday Project published Caroline Smailes debut novel In Search of Adam last year, we wanted to really capitalise on the huge web following she has. We wanted to find a way to reach all those people and more and even better, to find a way to plot how many of them we were reaching and where in the world they were.

What we were looking for, in short, was a successful web marketing campaign and such a campaign is often thought of as the Holy Grail of marketing. Relatively low-cost yet with almost unlimited potential if successful, it is as elusive as a ray of sunshine in an English summer.

We managed it in a small way with In Search of Adam. A blogger and friend of Carolines (Lindz) created a brilliant widget whose code could be added to any blog. The widget allowed people who were searching for Adam to plot where they were in the world. This created a bit of buzz around the book and allowed us to define the audience for it. However it lacked that certain something that makes it go viral.

Black Boxes is Carolines second novel (and the second book we have published as an imprint of HarperCollins) and it was a great opportunity to put into practice what we had learned from the map widget. In Black Boxes the theme of the choices you make moulding the direction of your life runs through the book and we wanted to create something around that. Back to Lindz who, genius as she is, immediately outlined an idea for a new widget. This time one that she felt had what it takes to go viral.

The simple explanation behind the complex bit of widgetry is that you make a series of choices within the black box and these choices determine which blog you will be sent to. Youre encouraged to comment on the blog and enter your own choice suggestion and your url. Hopefully, if this has worked OK the widget will be below and you can have a go.

The widget was launched on 8 September. Within a day Carolines hits had soared, 4000 people had run the widget and 351 had added their url. Two days later the Americans were playing and by 14 September the server was out of bandwidth due to the amount of data passing back and forth between ‘blackboxers’, who were doubling every 30 hours and ever-faster. Lindz – conveniently holed up with a troop of alpha-geeks (her words) in Boston worked late into the night to create a super-charged-version that allows the widget to handle up to 100 users per second. Yesterday alone the widget was displayed 9000 times, 600 new choices were added and bloggers used it to make 15000 visits to mystery blogs. Uptake continues to double every two or three days and this weekend Lindz will put the next level solution into place to support this rapid growth.

But will this interest convert to sales? That really is the Holy Grail and its difficult to tell at the moment. We need to keep the momentum going and make the jump from online buzz to offline buzz. Will we make it? I dont know but please spread the word if you can and once the book is available and we can see how sales are going I will post an update.

Leviathan by Phillip Hoare

For years, Moby-Dick defeated me. I think I was put off the book as a child when I watched the 1956 John Huston film made two years before I was born – on our tiny, old-fashioned black and white television. Seeing it on the ghostly cathode ray tube, housed in a veneered cabinet, was more like viewing some Edwardian or Victorian apparatus for contacting the departed spirits.

Hustons film promised so much; the rearing White Whale, the monster of my deepest imaginings. But it merely delivered a wordy worthiness. It took me thirty years to discover that this was, in itself, a genuflection towards the greatest American novel a book which, to some people, is as much unreadable as it is unfilmable.

It still seems strange to me that such a great work of literature should begin with such a famously terse and concise opening line – Call me Ishmael only to follow it with 135 chapters of allegory, digression, fantasy and, sometimes wilful detail.

Ive since realised that the mistake is to try and read Moby-Dick too young. It is the kind of book you have to be ready to read. You cant pick it up lightly its 600 pages tell you that much. Its true power lies in wait, ready to reveal itself.

It wasnt until my mid-thirties that I discovered the wonder, and subversion, of Melvilles novel. I have written a wicked book, Herman told his friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, himself a writer obsessed with the abiding nature of evil, and I feel as spotless as the lamb.

I would carry about with me a tiny, Oxfords World Classics edition of Moby-Dick, anonymously bound in blue cloth, to be studied chapter by chapter as I sat on the Tube or on an aeroplane. Through its pages, I submersed myself in a world of men without women in pursuit of the whale, an epic designed to reflect Americas first imperial venture – the getting of the oil which lit and lubricated the western world.

At first Melville intended his book to be a rip-roaring romance of the high seas. But his meeting with Hawthorne on the peak of Monument Mountain, in the land-locked Berkshires of Western Massachusetts completely altered the course of the book. That meeting of minds, and souls, turned Melvilles book from an adventure story into what he called his counter Bible. It was as if he and Hawthorne had taken flight like birds of prey wheeling about the summit of the mountain, following the updrafts and the hand of God, rather than the directions of gravity-bound humans below.

During a difficult personal time, Melvilles writing became, for me, a kind of solace. I read Billy Budd, Sailor and Bartleby. Their power stayed with me too, but it was Moby-Dick to which I returned, again and again. The utter involvement it required yet the fragmentary quality which allowed one to read it almost like a daily sermon provided something more than mere escape.

My interest in whales had meanwhile became an obsession. On my visits to Provincetown in Cape Cod, I saw whales in the wild for the first time, and found myself returning there again and again. My friend, the film director John Waters, was soon accusing me of spending more time with whales than with humans, of circulating whale porn when I showed him my latest cetacean snaps, and of generally being a whale-stalker.

To me, the 85 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, in all their infinite variety, became a kind of living bubble-gum card set, to be collected and admired. Off the coast of New England, I saw humpbacks breaching and feeding co-operatively, blowing bubble-nets below the surface to trap their prey of tiny sand eels.

I saw fin whales, the second largest animal on Earth, and so fast that they were once known as the greyhounds of the sea. And I saw the most endangered of all whales, the north Atlantic right whale so-called because its thick blubber meant that it floated when dead, and was therefore the right whale to hunt. Fewer than 400 of these whales remain, and their species may well be extinct by the end of the century.

I saw white-sided dolphin racing off the bows of our ship; pilot whales swimming in great schools; and minke and sei whales. Each had their own discrete beauty. It seemed extraordinary to me that, within my own lifetime, humans had hunted these animals; or that, in the Southern Ocean and in the sub-Arctic, the Japanese and Norwegians still do.

Nor were we British innocent. Even as I was a boy in the 1960s, British fleets were still joining those of Russia, Norway, Japan, South Africa and Australia, hunting the whale. Indeed, this was the peak of worldwide whaling, when more whales were killed in a single year than in 150 years of American whaling.

Melvilles book is perhaps the greatest guide we have to the heyday of Yankee whaling. His fascination with the techniques of catching whales the product of his own whaling voyage, begun in New Bedford in 1841 and ended, rather ignominously, in desertion in the South Pacific certainly cater to what is perceived as a peculiarly male taste for facts and figures.

Yet I also know plenty of women who delight in the book and who have discovered its humanity and its humour. Melvilles uncertain narrator, for instance, is entirely inconstant, wry and sarcastic, satirising and denying, even, his creators attempt at cohesion and his attempts to keep the story moving along.

No sooner will the author get into his swing sending Ahab off towards his ultimate target, of revenge against the beast which scythed off his leg and dismasted him than the sly Ishmael will take the reader aside to supply some arcane cetological detail. How the whale supplies the oil for the coronation service of the British monarch; or how, once butchered, its foreskin is worn by a chosen sailor as a kind of sacerdotal guise which Ishmael punningly refers to as a archbishoprick. (I note that the new Ripleys Believe it or Not exhibition in London boasts a whales foreskin).

Moby-Dick boasts one of the most extraordinary passages of homoeroticism in Victorian literature: the extended scene in which Ishmael shares a bed with a naked tattooed cannibal, Queequeg, and over a shared pipe the morning after, declares himself and the native to be man and wife. In another chapter, A Squeeze of the Hand, Ishmael and his fellow whalers sit around a vat of spermaceti, smoothing out the lumps and occasionally caressing each others hands in what one modern critic has described as a circle jerk:

Yet just as Melvilles passion for Hawthorne went beyond sex or intellect Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality, Herman told Nathaniel – so its product transcends any kind of limit or definition we attempt to place upon it. It is comparable only to another idiosyncratic work of genius with which it is contemporary Wuthering Heights.

In Emily Bronts gothic creation, published five years before, in 1847, the monster is the wild heath almost a living thing in itself. For Melville, living through an age of questioned faith in God, Nature becomes itself a kind of challenge. To the new republic of which he was the literary product and ambivalent champion, the enemy was the wilderness. Old Europe was still fighting amongst its states and principalities; for the new world, the great swathe of unconquerable land, even as the unchallenged ocean lay around it.

For the new United States, there were no border enemies: only the wilderness itself, its peoples and its animals which were quickly being pushed to extinction, be they the buffalo or the Sioux. It is an abiding paradox that huge stretches of America do remain unconquered, untamed – a sensibility evoked both in last lines of Melvilles final chapter, then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.

It is clear to me that F. Scott Fitzgerald was echoing Melville in the famous, near-mythic ending of The Great Gatsby, in which the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the nightSo we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past. In my mind, Moby-Dick was equivalent to time-travel just as the White Whale itself is deemed immortal, able to be present in two places at the same time.

Melvilles book was also a political allegory (not least on the issue of slavery which was even then provoking internecine war), religious metaphor (signifying Melvilles struggle with his inherited Calvinist guilt and his romantic adult persona), and literary masterpiece. But when it was published in 1851, it met with largely antipathetic reviews. So much trash belonging to the worst school of Bedlam literature’ said the Atheneum; ‘rhapsody run mad’, said The Spectator. The first edition of 3,000 copies never sold out, the remainder being consumed in a publishers fire in 1853.

Melville, who had been lionised for his sensual, sexy travel books, with their accounts of dusky natives in the South Seas, found that the book which he knew to be his masterpiece had no audience. Rejection made him an exile in his own country. For the last half of his life, he met literary obscurity with ever more obscure verse, written whilst working as Deputy Inspector No. 75 of the US Customs Office in Manhattan.

When he died, in his Gramercy Park house in 1891, writers such as Edith Wharton confessed that they had had no idea that the man was still alive. Glued to the inside of his writing desk, where the manuscript of the unpublished Billy Budd, Sailor lay, was a clipping: Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.

It would take another generation to discover the power of Moby-Dick. When it was republished in England in the 1920s, D.H. Lawrence declared Melville to be ‘a futurist long before futurism found painta mystic and an idealist, author of one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world, closing up its mystery and its tortured symbolism. E. M. Forster called it a prophetic song.It lies outside words. Virginia Woolf and W. H. Auden joined in the hymn of belated praise. Soon the book had taken its place within western culture, to the extent that it is now as much shorthand for impossible ambition as it is for the whale.

To contemporary readers, Moby-Dick seems startlingly modern, not only in the way it was written, but in its subject matter, too. Ahabs wanton chase has been evoked in the war on terror as the west attempts to pursue an uncatchable foe.

Only a few days after the 9/11 attacks, Said wrote, Collective passions are being funnelled into a drive for war that uncannily resembles Captain Ahab in pursuit of Moby Dick, rather than what is going on, an imperial power injured at home for the first time And if you had any doubt about its presicence, just read the last page of the first chapter, in which Ishmael satirises his own self-importance in mock newspaper headlines:

Grand contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.

American literature and the great American novel remain measured by Moby-Dick, and Melville still continues to fascinate other writers. Ive just read, and can recommend, Sheridan Hays new novel, The Secret of Lost Things, (HarperPerennial) in which her modern-day heroine, working in a thinly-disguised version of the famous New York secondhand bookstore, Strand Books, becomes obsessed not only with Moby-Dick but also with the relationship between Melville and Hawthorne.

Ironically, the book which failed its author in his lifetime succeeded in exporting American culture around the world, just as the Yankee whale-ships took America to the furthest corners of the globe. In the same way, the influence of Melvilles book is transcultural, going beyond history and literature.

Where would we be without fish and chip shops called Moby Dicks; without Starbucks, named after Ahabs recalcitrant first mate; without the music of Richard Melville Hall, better known as Moby and a distant relation of Melville himself, whom I met in his lower Eastside tea shop, and who directed me to Herman Melville Place, the street named after Manhattans sometime resident?

We would be without the literary incarnation of the whale, something so huge it seems beyond description; an entity which haunted Melville as it did Ishmael, and which continues to haunt our collective imaginations:

the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purposethere floated into my inmost mind, endless processions of the whale, and, midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.

Arena: The Hunt for Moby-Dick
, written and presented by Philip Hoare and directed by Adam Low, airs on Saturday 20 September. See

Sunday 21 September, is Whale Night on BBC 4, featuring classic whale films from the Natural History Unit, and four new short films on whales from Arena.

You find the source notes to Phillip Hoare’s book at as well as photographs of whales taken by Phillip during his research.

On Saturday 20 September, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich is presenting a Whale Day, including lectures from Philip Hoare, Nick Selby on Moby-Dick; Richard Sabin on the National Cetacea Collection at the Natural History Museum; Janet West on Scrimshaw; and Elizabeth Evans-Jones of the Natural History Museum on the Cetacean Strandings programme. See
Thursday 2 October at National Oceanographic Centre, Southampton, Philip Hoare will be giving an illustrated talk on Leviathan or, The Whale, 7.30, free. See

August. If youre posh, its time to start hunting for grouse, and if youre not, its time to start hunting for a place to hide from Other Peoples Holiday Photos. And, of these, as we all secretly know, the most interesting ones are a) the technically brilliant ones but really b) the ones with you/your beloved in the picture.

And why should publishing be much different? Personalization, making an activity or object relevant to oneself, is key to determining value.

So, a good week for some of us: the BETA website, has finally come of age and brought in its rankings system which is key to the whole thing. (Bit of disclosure/background: Im part of the development team setting up the site to help a lot of unpublished and self-published writers and readers.)

With a lot of luck, authonomy will allow people to step into their own picture of the book world and post up their manuscripts (budding authors) or lists of discovery (budding critics) for the public to read.

Its early days yet because were still about 2-3 weeks away from removing invite code and allowing open access on the site. To be honest, were as interested as anyone to see what precisely people will make of this service and how far it can go to help them achieve their goals.

Gratifyingly, one of the digital tribe who really knows his stuff, James Long, has some generous, encouraging things to say over at The Digitalist and even wonders . is Authonomy relevant to his Big Question of what brings people to a publishers website.

Now Authonomy is not really the kind of publishers website I have in mind for this question – usually Im thinking of the catalogue and marketing site – but it presents such a clear answer. You come to Authonomy because you want to get published. And now, the mechanism for achieving that (or having a good stab at it) is in place.

I think the user group / market segment that Authonomy is serving is a bit different to the group relevant to my Big Question; this is, in my mind, the middle ground: folks who are more than just readers (aint nothing wrong with being just a reader!) but not quite writers yet (in the sense of being published, especially within the publishing establishment).

Cheers for that. Agreed we definitely didnt develop authonomy to market HC books so we’re not at the same party as a publishers marketing site…but now you’re mentioned it: about those folks who are more than just readers.


The people who inexplicably want to do more with books than just read them.

Its this group of people who have dogged my (and probably your) thoughts ever since someone dad-danced up to us and mumbled “web 2.0″ in our ears, isnt it? Weve clearly all been wondering if todays book lover might want an active role or (great word this) conversation, from tagging through to list-building to writing erudite reviews and recommendationsto attending a book group and now even dating (link). 2.0-tastic!
Do we know the answer yet? Hello – does anyone want to talk to us? to each other via us? Not sure.

Its been said that authonomy is the obvious development of this 2.0 lark. I’m not sure if we could have ’schemed’ for it in such terms, but Ill admit authonomy’s proposition is certainly more extreme and involved than asking book lovers to dedicate themselves to tinkling round the edges, listing, recommending and tagging heavily-protected and -copyrighted material for the sheer joy of it. Possibly more fun. Hopefully with a reward a lot more commensurate with the effort.

Well, authonomys fledgling BETA community are an amazing bunch of people. Committed, creative, enthusiastic, supportive, (and, my god, active), and I dont know much about this ‘underground‘ but some of our members are certainly pretty leftfield.

I recently ran a little group interview/survey, Writing and You, to serve as something of a group photo before our community meets our public. (to anyone interested, Ill post the full results on the authonomy blog soon.)

What exactly are these 1300+ people doing at authonomy for such a generous amount of time per day? Why the hell are barristers secretly staying up at 2am to recommend other peoples books to the community and policewomen sending encouragement to fellow crime afficiados?

Well it might come as no surprise to learn that the majority in our community are what marketeers would call heavy book readers and consumers, and care passionately about words and writing.

What might surprise you more is the authonomy communitys stated ambitions. Whilst half of us have eyes on the prize and, if we havent got one already, are going all out for a nicely rewarding publishing contract (and I really hope authonomy gets these people there) a healthy number of us (34%) are writing for other reasons as a hobby, a creative enterprise, or simply to communicate. One member writes

The process of creating a piece of writing is utterly absorbing, and the best way to spend my time.

And according to the survey, some of our members, by nurturing their hobby, are creating stuff they’re pleased with, which in turn drives an ambition to take their creativity beyond a secret pasttime. This passion and drive is truly exciting.

And Ill tell you what. People interested in books and publishing really like using words. If youve got access, take a look at the average comment on a book at authonomy and youll see what I mean. Rarely do we get a comment shorter than 100 words (some stretch for pages of involved and committed feedback).

If all that doesnt get you feeling better about publishing-and-the-webs long term prospects, you and I have different reasons for being here.

But, granted, whilst it’s not to be counted part of the recent tranche of publishers’ consumer websites, authonomy does not come into the world without its own ambitions. Its not to sell books, print money or steal book ideas, or market HarperCollins existing product.

Ultimately, our own aim is to help authors get their work promoted or published, help all publishers recruit new talent, and help readers/critics discover at grassroots some exciting and eclectic new writing voices. Why?

Its simply that we recognize that in a world where reading is in danger of becoming a minority sport, where government-funded reading campaigns are fast-adopting the same tone as a public health announcement, we have an interest in nurturing, fuelling and encouraging that passion for the written word. Even Apples Steve Jobs, the man with the power to put a copy of War and Peace into the pocket of most people in the developed world if he so wished, said books arent that big a deal. We so need to prove him wrong.

Obviously Id be lying to say, after the months of development work weve put in, it doesnt feel absolutely fantastic to have a decent handful of people say theyre admiring what we doing. But my own (personal) opinion is that if authonomy site comes to anything, its not primarily to be seen as a point scored for HC, but as a point scored for reading and writing.

If youre in the industry and youd like to know how authonomy can help you, please do drop me an email some time its my pet subject. I suspect if authonomy is functioning correctly and doing its community justice, itll be used as a tool by agents and publishers all over the shop to spot talent, to keep the passion alive and to keep us all in the picture.

Having worked as an editor and contributor on various online literary sites, it appears to me that the mainstream publishing is finally waking up to the power of the internet and more importantly, how to nurture a lasting relationship with the millions of people worldwide who read these sites every day.

In the past few years there has been a distinct divide between the literary underground (where most of my own experience is based) where self publishing and viral marketing has caused a new hive of creativity to establish itself in various pockets of the internet – and the mainstream publishers sites, many of which tried to jump onto the digital bandwagon without too much consideration. We are in a new digital age, and, like it or not we are witnessing a huge revolution in the author/reader relationship which has occurred over the past five years.

I am currently visiting the world of mainstream publishing and looking into ways that we can help authors build relationships with their own readers online. My opinion is that blogging works the best when it is personal, and that corporations and blogging dont really mix. My advice to mainstream publishing houses would be to work directly with the authors to provide high quality content in a magazine format – which was in fact part of the original vision of 5th Estate. Trying to emulate established blogging sites is a ploy that web savvy readers are more than aware of. But the advantage that publishing houses hold is that they have some of the best writers and journalists already working within their ranks. My point being: that an organic growth of publishing sites will attract more readers and longevity. By using exclusive material from authors and providing an area in which debate, communication and opinions can be swapped I think there is a bright future for mainstream publishing websites; they just might need to be a little more conceptual in terms of development with stronger editorial direction and ideas.

I have looked at various online literary sites in my quest to develop ideas for a new look Fifth Estate, but also a few other sites that provide excellent forums with vast amounts of visitorsI think these are all worth considering in terms of the future of web publishing and how to make this an engaging space.


Susan Tomasellis respected Dublin based site mixes features, poetry, reviews and opinion from a wide spectrum of literary sources – from Harry Crews to Cormac McCarthy and back again via Mohamed Choukri.


The Daddy of literary blogs. Andrew Gallixs site was officially the first literary blog and has a wide array of essays, prose, music, and literary contributors. 3:AM is the bible of underground blogging.


Cult American writer Dennis Cooper has created a huge community of followers from his regularly updated blog containing in depth articles on Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Utopian Architecture, through to Alexandro Jodorowsky.


This American site is clearly laid out and helps to promote new writing from the disenfranchised leagues of international writers. The regular Virtual Round Table debate manages to engage readers and writers on hot literary topics, within a structured diplomatic invite system.


Head honcho of the hugely influential Rebel Inc imprint continues to write and publish, yet reviews books and posts opinion on this popular blog. Kevin has transferred this concept into a Radio Show, The Scottish Patient, which focuses on Scottish literature and music.


Sites such as Melissa Manns Beat the Dust are trailblazing in terms of providing a magazine format with video clips, a monthly chapbook & podcast, and a variety of poetry, prose and experimental fiction from writers across an international stage.


Steve Finbows blog is visually stimulating, contains a plethora of fascinating book reports, whilst providing an interesting view of Londons live art & literature events.

The dawn of the internet has provided a freedom of expression for writers who have never had the capability to reach such a wide audience in previous years. Once confined to the small presses and counter culture publications, there are online communities where readers of supposedly niche writing have crossed the stepping stones from the internet into print. One blogger in particular, Chris Killen, has recently seen his debut novel The Bird Room picked up by Canongate – other examples include Lee Rourkes Everyday (on the Social Disease POD imprint) and Tony ONeills Down and Out on Murder Mile (Harper Perennial US). Rourkes main Scarecrow blog is now infrequently updated but featured many of ONeills short stories that eventually lead him to a signing with Perennial US – its main strength was a thriving community of readers, potential writers, and essays on major icons and undiscovered cult classics within literature.

Of course, I am looking at the mainstream publishing world with underground rose tinted goggles the reality of a burgeoning cult literature scene only gives a small view of the potential of writers to connect with their readers. But by applying some of the principles of these websites (that mostly run on no budget if any at all) both areas could potentially feed each other through RSS and digital feed connections.

Considering that many author sites are now inspired from the Web2.0 developments, the ability to edit and layout their own work without anybody elses help or interference has liberated writers in the form of Blogger, Wordpress and countless other DIY blog sites. These sites contain the facility to broadcast video clips, images, pod casts, and help forge links via cross pollination with other like minded literary sites on a global level. Add into the mix the potential of social networking sites to post articles from external sites into personal profiles through folksonomy the ability to spread a buzz on new titles has now potentially been given a massive boost through the democratisation of internet publishing within the Web 2.0 vision.

Cameron on Cameron

A white van man once attacked David Cameron and that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to 4th Estate’s new book.

As you may have seen in this article, Cameron was ambushed while on his bike. It’s just one of the many stories that Cameron had to tell GQ editor Dylan Jones who interviewed Cameron over the course of the last eighteen months for Cameron on Cameron.

Well, we’ve decided to interview the interviewer. Watch Dylan Jones talk about the man who would be Prime Minister here:

book tombola at innocent festival

As I kid, I was always lucky on tombolas. It just to drive my brother mad with jealousy. My most memorable prize was a bottle of Mead won when I was 8. My dad promised me I could drink it when I was older, but he secretly donated it to another tombola. I’m convinced I’ll win it again some day.

A book tombola is a very different thing to the usual selection of unwanted Christmas presents (so that’s what happened to them before eBay) as pretty much everyone has a book lying around at home that they would happily swap for the thrill of spinning the barrel and fishing out some scraps of paper. All weekend 4th Estate has been running a book tombola at the delightful, yet slightly damp, Innocent Village Fete and the donations have been extraordinary. The Wag’s Diary and books by Ian McEwan are at odds as probably the most popular books donated. A few old-fashioned hardbacks, including what has to have been the original misery-memoir, Cripple Jess, (sorry Dave P) formed a mountain of well-thumbed books alongside literary classics, science fiction and, god forbid, some Richard & Judy bestsellers. Over the weekend, I guestimate nearly 2000 people bought at least one book along in return for a go on the tombola and pretty much every one of them walked away with a new book to explore. Books make for an excellent currency and are much more fun to talk about than money. So if used in the right way, could the next Dick Francis or used Lonely Planet Guide have more impact on the credit crunch than ever possibly imagined? Im off to try and buy my lunch with a paperback.

Innocent Fete
The 4th Estate branded literary tent at the Innocent festival this year is going to look fantastic with hay bales to sit on, bunting and balloon arches around the entrance, trestle tables laden with prizes and books hanging from the ceiling on wires to look like a book wonderland! Authors taking part in the festival and performing on the main literary stage are Gautam Malkani, Nathalie Abi Ezzi and Joshua Blackburn.

We also have a Dangerous Books for Boys / Daring Book for Girls activity corner as well as a tombola where festival goers can win HarperCollins goody bags! Its taking pace this coming weekend in Regents Park so if youre planning on going to the festival please do come by and say hello to us.

The Socialist Bookshop
What sets Glastonbury apart from other music festivals? Apart from the size it has a variety of political and social messages to listen to, with this in mind I ventured to the Left Field and the Socialist Bookshop…

Sometimes it easy to be overwhelmed by the right-on nature of Glastonbury. Everything is so green, you’d think Kermit was in charge. Messages about clean water, the evils of big business and Greenpeace promotional videos play inbetween each act either side of the Pyramid Stage. The Guardian’s branding is more ubiquitous than Hay. Oxfam are there in force, even the workers in the bars donate their money to charity.

Visiting The Left Field is almost refreshing in this respect. Not far from the Pyramid Stage, the Left Field is a vast tent with a big stage that flies in the face of convention and starts its music line-up on a Wednesday night. Bands like the Levellers may headline, but a lot of unknown and up-coming acts also perform. Our own Dockers MC for example. However when I visit the stage on Saturday it is mainly empty. This apparently is an on-going problem for the venue. The Guardian festival guide, received by everyone entering the Festival (and subsequently worn around the neck for easy-reading), does not list their vast number of performances, simply because they can’t buy-in to the space required by the Guardian. So much for solidarity. Consequently, the Left Field remains a great surprise for many festival goers, but does still not attract the numbers it deserves.

Becky Reese

Tucked into the corner of the tent I found Bookmarks, the Socialist Bookshop. Founded in 1971 as an independent bookshop dedicated to political and left-wing thinking, the Shop is now affiliated to the TUC as their official book-selling partner. I met Becky Reese, who’s been with the Shop for six years and she explained to me the Shop is a special kind of independent. “It doesn’t just travel to Glastonbury, though this is our fifth year here, we also visit other events like Tolpuddle or the Durham Miners Gala. Otherwise we’re permanently based in Bloomsbury, round the corner from the TUC head office.”

I ask Becky what sort of thing sells well at the Socialist Bookshop while at the festival. She thinks that people are looking for answers. “We always do well on books about the environment or different ways of thinking, authors such as George Monbiot and Noam Chomsky get bought. I think Glastonbury is inspirational in helping people think about changing the world.”

Thinking about changing the world, in an increasingly combative marketplace where does she think independents will stand? “It’s very difficult. We’ve just set up the Friends of Bookmarks as a means of ensuring support for the business, and also helping to update and overhaul our website, which we do increasing amounts of trade off. Publishers can help I think by showing more support for independents, but also by helping link to our sites. We realise most online purchasing will be done via Amazon and that’s a shame… They don’t have a good record with trade unions, in fact an attempt to set up a union presence within the business was met with heavy resistance from management.”

As I leave the bookshop I’m delighted to see two of our own titles Six Degrees by Mark Lynas and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany prominently displayed. Two titles that will certainly challenge the way you think, if the Left Field tent doesn’t already.

book covers

Enough of society. Summer is the time for freedomwoods and meadows, the ocean, the river or the road. During July and August, I suggest you read
Huck Finn by Mark Twain and On the Road by Jack Kerouac. They will make you restless to the point of pain! Here are the rogues and tricksters of the picaresque, slipped free from the codes and constraints of civilization, wandering from one adventure to another on a continent so vast that most human activities seem trivial, apart from surviving to continue the journeya journey which takes on mythological significance.

Through the heart of Huck Finn drives the great wide Mississippi, unstoppable, imperturbable, unpredictable. Huck and Jim on their ramshackle raft, in fair weather or ferocious storms, are continually at the mercy of the river, but they are insulated from the feuding, frauding, preaching, lynching, and family life which they stop in and out of along the shores they pass. The life of the raft is more vivid and more intense than anything in these hillbilly and planting communities. By contrast to the aimless meandering typical of picaresque novels, in Huck Finn, you feel the constant and forceful tow of the Mississippi, like time itself, pushing the action along, carrying Huck, carrying Jim forward, delivering them inexorably–to the South, to the sea, to their destiny.

Each is making a bid for freedomHuck from his sadistic, drunken father, Jim from a kind but nonetheless enslaving master. Slavery is a deeply uncomfortable theme in the book, portrayed as an evil produced by society, not by mankind. On the river, Huck feels certain of his friendship with Jim; in a house, on a farm, or in a town, he is reminded that Jim is property on the run and fears he will go to hell for failing to assist in its return. When the bizarre and extravagantly complex denouement crafted by Tom Sawyer to set Jim free proves to be irrelevant, you can understand that Tom must suffer for it, but you wonder why Jim must suffer, too. This is civilisation at its most self-indulgent, a boy inventing a fictional crisis of imprisonment and liberation based on books hes read and of which he has no practical understanding. Better the boy had never read a book at all. Is this really the message from Mark Twain, the author of such a good one?

Instead of the river, Sal Paradise holds the tires of Dean Moriartys Hudson to the white line in the holy road, whizzing south to New Orleans, West to San Francisco. Did Kerouac choose a car named after another great river on purpose? Huck and Jim each dies a kind of death before they are reborn into their life together on the river; Sals life on the road begins with the end of his marriage and his own feeling that everything was dead. Dean Moriarty, sprung from jail rather than slavery, is always in danger of being recaptured by the police. Dean, too, is on the run from his wino dad and his untutored childhood, seeking liberation through all forms of knowledge–intellectual, spiritual, carnal.

In his first few paragraphs, Kerouac introduces so many other characters that youre afraid youll forget who they are before the story gets going. Its fine if you do. This is a book and a country peopled by hundreds, by millions, and they are all on the move–by train, by truck, by bus, by car–criss-crossing the country in a continual and promiscuous migration. New York, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and back again. Everyone is hitching a ride, sharing their last bit of food or whisky, giving away their only warm shirt, sleeping with someone elses partner.

The hobos of the Depression Dust Bowl and the draftees of the vast mobilization of World War II seem to haunt and energize the novel with a communal enthusiasm and generosity now lost in America; but desperate poverty and universal duty have given way to Kerouacs post-war moment of threatlessness and possibility. Service men are permanently at ease. They want to share, to learn, to dance. Sal has a little military pay; he goes to college on the GI Bill. He and his gang are idealistic, footloose; after decades of necessity and fear, their optimism has the fervor of religious conviction.

Sal is misunderstood by one of his girls because I like too many things. He wants to stay up forever at the party that is the whole United States. All I wanted to do was sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere and go and find out what everybody was doing all over the country. The lines of transport and communication laid thickly over Twains raw frontier have not yet spoiled Kerouacs American landscape; on the contrary, they make its enormity and its beauty more evident because they make it accessible, coast to coast, at seventy miles an hour.

If slavery offers a problem in Huck Finn, the women in On the Road are in another kind of chains. Neither book has any mothers. There are only aunts, trying to civilize all the lost boys or feed them sandwiches, and honey-thighed girlfriends to be slept with, shared, cheated on, condescended to. Romantic love hardly figures except as a prominent clich. (Surprisingly similar to P.G. Wodehouse, though far more hip.) Ah, fiction! Reading these books will not make you feel distressed that you are a woman or a man, a child or a slave in a role forced on you by society, it will make you imagine you are on the raft or behind the wheel of the Hudson, breaking every bond to get outside of what you already know, having an adventure.

Let me know when you get back; Ill have some more books for you to read.

1623 Theatre Company

While rocking in my wellies at Glastonbury, I was fortunate to see some very special Shakespeare performed…

The 1623 Theatre Company is dedicated to the performance of Shakespeare’s works in non-traditional spaces. Treading the boards, no. Treading the floor of a cave, yes.

“We did Macbeth underground,” 1623 director Ben Spiller tells me. “It was a cave in the Peak District.” Sitting in the theatre and performance field on a rain-swept Friday afternoon at the festival, Ben looks quite comfortable and jolly in his boots and hat, despite emerging from a tent that contains the rest of the players and is the size of a tiny shed.

1623 Theatre Company Ben Spiller

In front of the dressing-room-come-backstage-tent, I had just witnessed a selection of Shakespeare’s most famous love scenes performed by a trio of performers, battling on through the rain and the sound of Arabian music coming from a belly-dancing demonstration at the end of the field. The show entitled ‘The Course of True Love’ runs smoothly enough, surviving the coarse observations of two drunk youths who insist on standing right next to the actors. In a little while they’re bored of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the rest of the audience stays to applaud.

Spiller seems unfazed by such challenges though, hoping to strike a deeper chord with audiences by making them think about the spaces that theatre occurs in. “Titus Andronicus should be performed in a slaughterhouse,” he comments. “We want to generate a sense of foreboding about what’s going to happen and make that connection.”

Having worked with schools and colleges and regularly performing the shows ‘Sinful ShaXXXpeare’ and ‘Stand Up Shakespeare’ as well as ‘The Course of True Love’ the next major event for 1623 is Hamlet, being performed in Poole’s Cavern, Buxton.

“We hope to give Hamlet a downright Victorian, gothic edge,” says Spiller. The play is being performed in one of the Peak District’s biggest caves as part of the 2008 Buxton Fringe Festival. Spiller’s enthusiasm is hard to ignore “It will be a truly extraordinary evening, make sure wrap up warm and look out for ghosts!”

And that’s perhaps what 1623 does best, making Shakespeare more accessible, but with oodles of atmosphere to go with it.

Books at Glastonbury

It’s called ‘Books’, the tent it’s in isn’t very big, but it does deliver a good read or two. I caught up with the Glastonbury Festival’s oldest bookshop in an interview unexpectedly cut short…

I was at Glastonbury Festival not only to blog it, but also to experience what this massive event had to offer in terms of literary delights. I decided to begin at grass-roots level with ‘Books’. Perched in the Jazz Field amongst shops selling hammocks, noodles and hats, ‘Books’ looks fairly inauspicious, but actually held a neat, little family-run business.

“We’ve been coming for twenty-five years,” explained Polly, a charming woman in her sixties with an Irish lilt to her voice. “We were the first bookshop ever to come here.” Polly is a pleasure to talk to, happily watching the stall with her middle-aged daughter Zoe, while plucking at her banjo and attempting to duel with a drunk young man clutching a ukulele. I had previously approached her husband Ben who had no idea what a blog was and seemed very reticent to talk to me. “He’s a grumpy, northern curmudgeon!” said Polly trying to focus my attention while Ben, clearly agitated hovered behind me.

“I don’t want you to do this, Polly!” he warned, upset at my pen and paper.

Polly did her best to ignore him and carried on. “People thought we were mad, setting up a bookstall here, they said ‘Who’s going to buy books at a music festival?’ but people do you know, it’s nice to sit in the sunshine and read.”

“What sort of things sell well?” I asked.

“Here we go,” Ben harrumphed behind me.

“Good literature mainly,” continued Polly.”People also like buying poetry, I think something gets into their system here.” Something had certainly got into Ben’s system who was now circling me with an angry look in his eyes.

“I’ve had this before you know, one year, the tax man came down, I don’t like people asking questions. This interview is over!” I assured him, I wouldn’t use his real name. “I don’t care, leave now, please just leave.”

Thanking Polly, I requested one last opportunity to photograph the stall. I’ve no idea how long Ben and Polly have left in them, but if you ever go to Glastonbury, visit the Jazz Field and say hello. Just don’t ask them any questions.

Ben, Polly and Zoe’s names were all changed to protect them from the clutches of the evil Inland Revenue.

Earlier this year, HarperCollins asked readers to design a cover for Sean Dixon’s The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal – and found a winner. Sean’s top ten moments?

1) First thrill of seeing submissions. (Look! Theres my name! Look at all the pretty pictures!)

2) Look theres my name take two: discovering comment postings by someone pretending to be me (Sixon), pompously explaining why I like or do not like a particular submission. It was all I could do not to defend myself, as I felt that would open the floodgates (Im Brian, No Im Brian, Im Brian and sos my wife.) I also worried that the same thing was happening to some of the artists.

3) The bust of Bob Marley, The End of LoveyAll (submitted everywhere I guess); the painting of a running man with the head of a rabbit; various other surreal submissions, landscapes, sculptures, revenge fantasies, protests again prostitution or starvation, all tailored not to compete but to provoke. What else is an artist going to do? Most such submissions were later taken down, so they could be freshly posted elsewhere I imagine.

4) B&W photo of a nude woman lounging on a hardwood floor, the striped shadow of a blind falling across her body. Comments on the page accused it of being smutty and irrelevant but I saw it as a surprising effort to depict the character of Emmy Jones evidence the submitter had read the book. (Still, it disappeared after a week or so, without explanation, leading me to wonder whether the artist had posted without the models permission.)

5) Hugh Thomas. Early in the contest, someone with this name posted a comment. A glitch in the system picked up his name and used it every time a poster did not identify himself. Since the great majority of anonymous postings were shall we say cutting, Hugh Thomas became vilified as the ubercritic of the whole contest. In the closing days, someone posted a cover with the title The Last Days of Hugh Thomas, and was roundly praised as the winner.

6) The epic battle over the appropriateness of Raluca Costaches submission, with the title written delicately across a series of sanitary towels. This passionate argument with its outrageous assertions, noble defenses and outspoken protagonist mirrored for me a session of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Womens Book Club. To me, the submission was appropriate because it was reminiscent of the books central character, Runner Coghill, and her questionable social behaviour.

7) Posting a comment. I finally broke my silence when artist Rusty Gladdish described the book as depicting a single male protagonist followed by a group of prim ladies. I decided to be offended on behalf of the novels narrators and posted. However I didnt fill in the your name line for fear that Jennifer H & Danielle D would replace Hugh Thomas as the default name, and so was identified, naturally, as Hugh Thomas.

8) Unsung favourites: the girl falling away from the yacht, papers flying, by James Lawley; also the green foot by Zuzana Kerdova.

9) Among the finalists, I loved the city and the girl in the boat with Saddam Hussein toppled behind her, but more as art-art than cover art. Was glad to see that a submission with a spelling error (Cabul) made the short list. I also loved the disqualified finalist, whoever she really was.

10) I liked the winning submission a lot, by Becca Thorne, but was completely blown away when I saw it on the finished book.

The Fifth Estate Tent is here. More over at our special Glastonbury blog.

Last night at supper a novelist friend said that Mansfield Park is Jane Austens one failure. The problem being that the reader falls in love with the Crawfords and simply cant get on with the high moral tone of the hero and heroine Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price. They are too fine, too grave, hopelessly old-fashioned, no fun. Wed all rather flirt with the wit, the charm, the risqu sophistication and personal beauty of Henry and Mary Crawford, and, nowadays, none of us would fear the consequences.

Of course, part of me agrees with him. But when I reread Mansfield Park a few months ago, it reminded me of one contemporary, unsquare couple who not long ago were acting out the themes of the novel before the eyes of the press. (Who knows what was actually going on in their personal lives, but the public narrative, true or false, is a story in its own right.)

Say Fanny Price is Jemima Khan. Say Henry Crawford is Hugh Grant. She is a journalist, and something of an intellectual, despite her beauty and her beautiful clothes. Her columns in the press and her public protests in Parliament Square bespeak a character preoccupied with justice, goodness, adherence to the truth, to actual facts. Her public deportment, inviting as her face and figure may appear, is poised and self-contained. And her marriage was to a man of religion for whom she converted. She is a serious person.

You may object, But her father was a billionaire, her husband a great cricketer. And so they were. Her father, with his many and far flung attachments and entanglements, must have loved and ignored her by necessity just as Sir Thomas Bertram did his penniless niece Fanny. And her husband turned his sporting discipline into a commitment to public life so rigorous that it seems in the end to have excluded even his pretty Western wife, though she evidently remains loyal to many of his beliefs. She is a bluestocking, with an inner purity that matches Fannys. Okay, she loves a party, just as Fanny loved her ball.

Hugh Grant may have seemed like a challenge at first. Everybody wanted his undivided attention; nobody could get it. But perhaps like Fanny with Henry Crawford, Ms. Khan paid him no attention at all, and consequently he elbowed his way through all the flirts hed helplessly attracted in order to get to her. By his own admission, she really got to him. Rumor had it that he was so in love he would give up acting. It was boring anyway compared to Jemima Khan. Henry Crawford was transformed.

But how was he to keep himself busy all day? Mr. Grant travelled. He read books. He started writing a novel (which he read only to her). But a day is long. A week is longer. Henry Crawford likes to stay entertained. Golf took up quite a lot of time, until he went to Dubai, hooked himself up with electrodes, and saw on a screen what his swing actually looked like. It was so ugly, he said, that he could never play golf again. t wasnt important to him how far the swing made the ball fly, just how it looked. Clearly the man is born for show. We love him on the screen and that is where he is meant to be. So Mr. Grant made another movie, and another.

In my memory, the end of the Khan-Grant relationship was prophesied by those billboards depicting a bubbling romance between Drew and Hugh in Music and Lyrics. Fanny Price would not have been able to stand it. The man of her heart, super life size, pretending to fall for someone else. And Ill bet Ms. Khan couldnt stand it. Its not about being insecure or unnaturally jealous. Its her moral character: just like Fanny, she would have found it agonizingly indecorous, undignified, inappropriate. A public pretence of an emotion which in her own experience, as she has written in the press, has religious qualities.

The month after filming began, Mr. Grant acted out a public love scene with Ms. Khan – the famous balcony scene in Venice. As if kissing her billboard high at the end of countless camera lenses could obliterate the images he knew would soon be appearing of him with Ms. Barrymore. Fanny would have died of shame! But it cant have had any effect on whatever images were in Ms. Khans own head; after all, being in the balcony scene, she couldnt watch it. And one suspects she might not have liked it any more than Fanny. What she appeared to want was an authentic life, in private.

Theyve long since split, like Fanny and Henry. Over and over again, but, supposedly, finally for good. Presumably Ms. Khan will find herself an Edward Bertram (for all I know, she already has, but such a discovery would have to be tested by time). Meanwhile, the Maria Bertrams are happily ruining themselves over Mr. Grant everyday. Just check your tabloids. Nevertheless, it still gives the heart a twinge that he could never prove himself good enough for Ms. Khan. This is where Jane Austen had it right and Hollywood would probably pretend its otherwise and marry them off to one another anyway. Two things are for sure: Mansfield Park, far from being outdated, portrays two character types still very much alive in England. And if this blog turns into a movie, Ill be rushing to buy my ticket to watch Hugh Grant play Hugh Grant.


I went to see Persepolis last night, a truly wonderful animated film based on the graphic novel of the same name. It was so wonderful that I made a mental note to buy a copy of the book as soon as I could, something I have never done before. Not only do I never read graphic novels, I also very rarely buy a book or DVD after having seen a film; I know the story, I dont want to revisit it. So why, then, did this animation inspire me to go out and do what every publisher, including my own, wants a consumer to do: to buy the product, even when I already know the story?

Ive been mulling on that impulse all day and it seems to me very similar to the impulse behind hearing a song, downloading it for free and yet still wanting to buy the CD. Some products, whether songs, films, or books, demand more than one consumption, they need to be owned, to be repeatedly listened to, watched and read. And the desire to own a physical book is one that publishers will need to exploit more and more as the content of that book moves into and onto different media. If the content can be downloaded free, whether via a legal offer or an illegal server-sharing system (the book equivalent of Napster is sure to appear soon if it hasnt already) why would you pay either for the online content or for the self-same content between the covers of a 14.99 hardback?

One of the answers, at least for me, and its one that interests me from a professional and personal perspective, is right in front of me, on my bookshelves. My books, like my record sleeves, CD cases, and even, now, the bought tracks on my iPod, bear temporal and personal significance way beyond their content. The Penguin Classics, read and reread, are dog-eared and littered with the marginalia of my student and teaching days. The used guidebooks are bookmarked with tickets, restaurant cards and free maps from local tourist offices. And the cookery books not only list the ingredients but are spattered with them. I keep these books because they are memorable, or useful.

So, in the first instance I want the object. But I dont keep everything. That is partly a question of space. As anyone who has ever worked with books knows, there are very few people with houses big enough to store all the books read, almost read, about to be read. But its also partly, and always, a question of quality. Those that get bought, those that remain are, well, ones that I think are better. Im currently devouring Netherland by Joseph ONeill or, rather, I say devouring when actually I mean eking out for it is so good that, like a favourite food, I dont want to rush it. Im finding myself going back over passages, rereading them, and though Im sure some will consider this an interested party shouting about their product (I do, after all, work for the publisher, and this is a corporate blog), I actually dont think that matters. If I didnt work for the publisher Id have bought a copy. This is a book that will remain on my bookshelves, pages turned down, passages reread, character traits compared to concrete reality. For me, this is a novel that deserves my time and money; it deserves to be owned.

From a publishing perspective the shift that I experienced watching Persepolis, from someone who is happy to consume something once borrow a book, overhear a piece of music, watch a film in the cinema and never again to owner is crucial for both new and old reasons. New, because the challenge for the books industry is how to sell content, in multiple formats, even when that content may also be freely available, and therefore not necessarily enough in itself. Old, because the quality of the writing, and the story, are still paramount. Some stories, like this one, demand to be kept, and hopefully the reader will always find them. If the publisher concentrates on finding those stories, those writers, that content, it seems there will always be a market, there will always be readers who want to own not just consume. That, as both reader and publishing professional, is an incredibly reassuring thought.

Glastonbury Festival

We’re going to Glastonbury Festival! And it’s time we unveiled our little side project – 5th Estate Blog Glastonbury

The Friday Project logo

It was inevitable that when The Friday Project became part of HarperCollins, there would be much hand-wringing in the trade, as well as both negative and positive comments from those who stood to lose most from it, but, from the perspective of one on the inside of the behemoth that is a large corporate publisher, I wanted to offer a different take on what it might mean, and represent, both for us and for the small company that has just become part of our operation.

The Friday Project is tiny compared to some lists in a company of this size, an imprint amongst dozens now, and perhaps as one person commenting points out we, in-house, and the staff of The FP believe that, like the TARDIS, they can be bigger on the inside than on the outside. But I think this is much bigger than adding a few books and staff to our lists. It raises the sort of questions that the likes of other book-bloggers are asking all over the net, and have been for a while: how can publishers, in a notoriously slow-to-market business, with massive overheads and tiny margins, make the most of the exponential changes offered by the internet? How can we find the best writers and help them reach their readers as efficiently, as profitably and as successfully, as possible? How can we mimic the success of the music business, and find new talent, and new ways of distributing that talent, worldwide?

The Friday Project has, as far as Im concerned, been trying to do just that, discovering writers in non-traditional ways, in ways that are much more akin to the way new generations are discovering them, via blogs, websites and social networking sites. From inside the very traditional iron gates that adorn our offices, where advances and agents generally still rule our acquisition process, that is a challenging, disturbing and yet refreshing approach.

It questions how we publish on every level. Why do we usually pay advances, sometimes unearnable ones? Why pay so much for a book that it creates a publicity splash but also a backlash if the book doesnt work (the inevitable ner-ner-ner that follows the failure of a high-profile and expensive purchase) and prevents us buying the next one, because the unearned is so huge? Why do we often publish into hardback first, even when the writer is unknown and many consumers will wait for the paperback, or forget and move onto another, available in paperback now, title? Why do we still distribute our titles primordially through shop retailers, rather than our own online channels?

The Friday Project hasnt answered all these questions for itself, but it was, and is, actively asking them. And being so much smaller, it can try out possibilities faster than a larger corporate. Because publishing is an incredibly slow machine, with what I sometimes think are far too many cooks. Writer friends are always asking me why it takes so long from the delivery of a manuscript to its publication and sometimes when I try to explain that process, I ask myself the same question. Some of the answer comes from the fact that, by the mere fact of working in such a large company, a lot of different departments have a say and a stake, mostly, but not always, for good reason. We also have systems that were developed in the past, and need moving into the future. The Friday Project will gain TARDIS-scale from us, but Im hoping that well gain from learning how a smaller company operates, how it produces books on time with fewer people, digitally and with shorter lead-times.

In some ways the arrival of the likes of the Friday Project in the publishing trade is reminiscent of the rapid development of internet business models in the late 90s. Cities like Cambridge in the UK and San Francisco in the States were full of start-ups and every venture capitalist with money to spare was throwing money at them, determined to be part of the revolution, even if the business plan consisted of nothing more than an attractive website.

Few of those initial businesses survived: Amazon did but who remembers BOL now? Many of those eager vcs lost thousands. But that insane period of development gave us the internet sites and companies that do work, sites that have changed the way we consume everything, from food to news, the ones where the business model was not just based on a dazzling website with no idea how to make money from it.

The Friday Project was, is, a pioneer, an attempt to re-shape a publishing model that desperately needs it. Yes it hasnt worked, yet. And although it may be the first and most high-profile publishing company to suffer for trying something new, it wont be the last. The new models that spring up outside the established and slow-moving infrastructures that most publishing houses inhabit, will eventually be at our gates, not behind them. Those who learn from and embrace different models, and the possibilities of change that they suggest, may still be here in twenty years. Those who dont, well, they will go the way of the written letter, into history.

Don't Panic

During the current Doctor Who story, The Doctor and Catherine Tate have ended up in the biggest library in the universe. “People never really stopped liking books,” The Doctor comments, giving an optimistic point-of-view for publishers everywhere. However, reading Pan Macmillan’s ‘Book Publisher’s Manifesto for the 21st Century‘ it would seem that the book is as dead as the Dodo and no amount of DNA jiggerypokery will bring it back to life. Sara Lloyd’s piece is an interesting, if wordy (it’s heavy on the 2.0 marketing lingo) wake-up-and-smell-the-digital-coffee call for publishers everywhere.

Amongst the long tails, vertical niches, and prosumers, Lloyd raises some very pertinent points. This is a world beyond the eBook reader, where everything is online, accessible from any device. It’s not far off. Distribution will become irrelevant, Search will be king and the content of a piece will have to be networked to every other piece of content. Your book is no longer a unit, it’s a fluid gathering of information that changes the more people write and comment on it. Publishers therefore need to safeguard the information that they distribute, but if readers want that information and authors want to be read, why bother with a publisher in the first place?

Alright, let’s assume that the whole publishing landscape was level. Everything would be User Generated Content, distributed everywhere. Where would you start? With Search perhaps, so you’d need at least a subject heading. You find a piece of writing on a subject you like, you note the original author’s name. Only, this piece was first written 100 years ago and has been modified, mashed-up and hacked about so many times that the original no longer exists. How does that make you feel? Does it matter?

From a historical perspective it matters entirely. Keeping of the past is key to learning in the future, a constantly altering text is not a fixed point, therefore you have nothing to compare the ‘now’ to. How would you learn? Preservation is therefore part of what a publisher needs to address in order to offer something unique to the digital table. It’s all very well to make a book’s content available for manipulation, to allow ‘generation upload’ to play and comment, yet conservation must also be maintained. It may not be ‘now’, but it’s state is kept as an asset both intellectually and commercially.

In Lloyd’s manifesto crowdsourcing will become an absolute must of the future. She writes: as a new generation of readers interacts with texts online publishers will be wise to place themselves in a position to harness the network data and collective intelligence produced by social annotation and media creation, the sum of the Wisdom of Crowds, and to apply this to its future content development and to its marketing. Cisco Networks are currently showing this in a TV ad. Wise old man builds skateboard, he gives skateboard to skateboarders, they refine the product by altering the look, the wheels, sawing a bit off, all results transmitted over the internet. Wise old man takes board to the, erm, company board, big smiles and high-fives all round (one imagines). It’s a simplified view of crowdsourcing, so much so it’s more like an author nervously punting a few first drafts around to his mates waiting for reaction and considering changing it accordingly. Crowdsourcing has its inherent problems, generating interest is one, will people like your product enough to care? And hey, if they’re supplying all this input to you, shouldn’t you be paying them? And finally, anyone who watches ITV should know how easy it is to rig the results of a crowdsourced decision. What’s to stop the Wise old man telling the skateboarders that they’re actually wrong and that it should be done another way? Nothing… after all, the crowd hasn’t said it will buy your product, it’s just a tiny bit more likely to.

Lloyd comments: There will still be a place for that deeply immersive solitary reading I hope in the future. Notice the emphasis is on reading and not writing, the author doesn’t seem to enter into it… The manifesto seems to suggest that content can still originate from authors while at the same time forecasting the death of the single unit book. Well, surely the author will have something to say about this? You don’t spend years lovingly crafting your masterpiece only to have others change it into something they prefer. Also notice she uses the word ‘hope’, it’s all so gloomily prophetic!

It’s not only the book and author as units we need to watch, but also the publishers. We’re moving from a world where the consumer didn’t care about a publisher’s name to one where the publisher will have to stand up speak out to avoid getting swallowed by bigger media agencies. Not only that but in order to create new revenue streams via direct selling, people will need to know who you are. If you don’t have a brand identity, maybe it’s time to get one. That doesn’t stop you working with other media partners, but from an intellectual and conservation perspective publishers will still have a standalone job to do. Publishers become guardians, authorities, they make recommendations, as Lloyd puts it the input will be more qualitative.

Pan Macmillan’s manifesto has certainly been a thought-provoking exercise in talking about the future of publishing (and driving more people to your blog). However the destruction of the singular book, the singular author and the singular publisher is by no means as guaranteed as the doomsayers believe.


Be sure to check out our Hay gallery! Lots of pics from Louise and a few from me. In the meantime, here’s my experience of my second day at Hay…

It was looking pretty grim. The water had was rushing down the pavement’s side, pooling at the bottom of the lane to feed into the river below. Why hadn’t I bought some wellies? My trainers were still damp from the night before, squelchy.

Before starting down at Hay – Tom had some more authors to see, I wanted to distribute some more books – we decided upon getting some breakfast. The nearest cafe we found didn’t open until 10:30am and already, with half an hour to go, hopeful types in cagools peered in for signs of a kettle boiling. We then found Xtreme OrganiX, the original cafe which had bred the marquee we’d seen at the main site. I’d like to take this opportunity to thoroughly recommend their breakfast and the next time you go to Hay, head there for the Full English. It was at this point I made out the black-clad, fag-carrying figure of Mark E Smith, lead singer of The Fall across the road from us. He put his shopping down, lit up a cigarette and took in Hay town centre. I peered carefully at the shopping bags, they seemed full of Stella Artois. Having seen The Fall on a number of occasions I would have recognised the drawn face and scowl anywhere. That it was on the streets of Hay made it all the more bizarre.

Mark E Smith of The Fall
MES considers buying a new rucksack.

The rain was slowing things down at Hay. People hurried by to get inside, but that made the rate of sampler pick-up drop. Punters clutched at bags and umbrellas. I decided to head back for town.

The night before we’d spotted something called ‘The Real Hay Festival’ taking place in the grounds of Hay-on-Wye Castle. The castle itself, part mansion, part ruins of an 11th century tower, features some of the oldest Norman architecture in the whole of Wales. It look magnificently brooding in the weather. Sadly the storms had also given the ‘Real Hay Festival’ a battering. It looked abandoned. Huge wooden garden sculptures intended for sale sat unconsidered, damp and dripping. The odd caravan optimistically advertised ‘Fortune Telling’ or ‘Free Massage’, but you’d need waders to cross to them. The worse the weather got, the less people were going to come to town.

The Real hay Festival

I ventured into the bookshops and had my suspicions confirmed. Whole corridors of paperbacks were empty, shop owners rested their chins on their hands, cupped mugs of tea or rolled another cigarette. Musty smells mingled with gently steaming waterproofs. One employee had a terrible cold and wanted to go home. Inside the ‘Murder and Mayhem’ bookshop (5, Lion St) I met a lovely woman who explained that “while the weather was never great for the Festival it was hardly ever like what we’ve seen today” (I considered once more that I was the cause of the rain, then decided I’d been working on this book for too long…). She went on to explain that yes, moving the Festival site had had the effect of local shops losing business. The bookshops would do alright, but the ice cream parlours, art galleries, furnishing stores would all lose out. The guys selling tea and cake down by the river had “given up”. Surely though this must be your busiest time of year, I enquired. Well business had been dropping off “since 9/11″ came the reply. Hay-on-Wye had depended on a vast influx of American tourists that had just vanished since the attack on New York. No one wanted to fly over. So how on earth do businesses here keep going? It was easy for the bookshops, she told me. “We have the Internet.”

I’ll have to admit I was surprised, but it turns out that the Hay-on-Wye bookshops, including ‘Murder and Mayhem’ (part of the Addymans Books empire) do the vast majority of their business online, especially during the winter months. I have to admit I felt heartened by this. The Internet was providing a means of survival in a time of fear and terrible weather. All of a sudden I looked back up at the skies and dreamed of getting back to Second Life. Who needs damp feet and the ‘Real Hay Festival’? In future ‘The Virtual Hay Festival’ could well become more important.

Hay Festival logo

Rain, basically. What is it about me and festivals? I act like some sort of precipitation magnet. Clouds seem to gather without warning, winds whip up in all directions wherever I walk, rain from some vengeful event-hating god lashes my back. It can only be a party in British Summertime.

Hay is a two-week long book party. The dress code is wellies and wax jackets. Children are optional. Plastic bags are a no-no. Your bag must be woven from some sort of soya-flax mix. If you’re smart, you’ll put a flask and some lunch in the bag, as the prices inside would frighten the guy who dreams up the cost of sandwiches at Starbucks. You don’t put books in there, you carry those. How else would people know what you’re reading?

Tom and I arrived on Tuesday in the Fifth Estate Estate, after an abortive trip towards Hereford (it’s not our fault the A465 branches in two separate directions) we cruised into Hay under leaden skies and took a look at the white marqueed compound that the Festival now occupies half a mile from the town centre. We were greeted with a fanfare. A circus band (yes, a circus band) were marching through town headed up by a woman wearing a squire’s outfit on horseback, worrying those trudging towards the festival entrance. A donkey brought up the rear, its forlorn head making the spectacle look like a Nativity pageant, obviously in Hay there was no room at any inn.

Luckily we were put up in the Harper Collins house (made entirely of Harper Collins books, that’s sustainability), occupied by a cat called Tom whose owner only communicated via a mobile phone, like some-sort of concierge informant. We found the house after several attempts and a stop at the local Co-op which was staffed with some terribly helpful people. We settled in, grabbed some copies of the Fifth Estate Sampler and the laptop and set forth.

Tom the cat
Tom the Cat relaxes after helping with our 4th Estate bags.

The first thing I noticed approaching the entrance to the sprawl of wooden walkways and tents was the security on the door. Huge blokes with snarls and ear pieces actually looked like they were going to block our way in, before parting and allowing us through. With its covered, white marquees and muddy open spaces, the event looked like some sort of vast archaeological dig, staffed by energetic children. It reminded me very much of a country show, without the smell of manure or a crackly PA system you can only half hear. One didn’t hang around in the entrance for long lest you were harangued by a group of market researchers wanting your email address, so they could ask you questions when you got home (so it’s a big “Hello!” to all the guys at QRS Research! I’ve got your survey and when I get five minutes I’ll think about filling it in!).

Tom had an appointment with Louise Rennison, leaving me to roam around the festival. The Most Unusual Promotional Stall award goes to the Spanish Tourist Board, who must have done some pretty smart business considering the apocalyptic weather. They still use that Espana logo developed for the 1982 World Cup… Other big organisations were also inside for sponsorship, Sky Arts had its own TV zone, garishly painted to excite the most sedentary six year-old. The Barclays Wealth area was the Mann’s Chinese Theatre of event venues, reception desk, huge waiting area, stylish – you could have suddenly been in the Ideal Home Show at Earl’s Court. Importantly for Hay-on-Wye, local businesses were also present, top notch soup from the Granary, a local restaurant as well as superb food from Xtreme OrganiX (more on them later). It didn’t dawn on me until later that as the Festival had moved from the town centre, businesses were missing out so it was important for them to be present on the Festival site.

I had then decided I was going to give out some 5th Estate Samplers. I wasn’t keen on distributing them inside the Festival gates. Wearing a large rucksack was already attracting the attention of security, ever-alert for some sort of suicide bomber wanting to go after Salman Rushdie or Jeremy Clarkson. Rather than risk being thrown to the floor, I decided to move outside to the only bit of pavement not desecrated with mud. I stood up and began to distribute. Reactions to the sampler were mixed. With its bright cover and ‘Blog on. Blog off’ title some people were justifiably nervous. “Sorry, I don’t own a computer,” came one reply. “My hands are too small” was another unlikely response. Slowly, but surely I gave out the goods. It then occurred to me, I’d become the literary equivalent of those people who stand by the exits after a club night, thrusting flyers into your hands, complete with magazines full of interviews with DJs you’ve never heard of. But it was catching on. “So this is what everyone’s reading?” commented one chap and I felt better, at least they were looking at it. In the pub later, Tom and I saw people flicking through it, some excitedly, others trying to balance 3 PARA with Maynard and Jennica in their minds.

At the end of the day there was nothing really wrong with Hay at all (and we’ll come back to V.S. Naipul’s well argued and thoughtful criticism of it later), apart from the trudging and the mud. It couldn’t get any worse, could it? I awoke on Wednesday morning to the sound of fast running water outside…

Eating For England by Nigel Slater

Ah, the great British summer. Its a permanent tease. One minute were lunching in the park getting gently sunburnt, the next were soaked to the bone wishing wed kept that umbrella in our bag (especially if you were in a flooded Hay last weekend).
With weather as changeable as ours, us Brits have to adapt our tastebuds at the drop of a sun hat and every Summer seem intent on treating ourselves to such delights as burnt sausages, watery strawberries, sticky Pimms and warm ros. No one gives us a better insight as to exactly why we insist on indulging in such eclectic eating than one of our favourite food writers, Nigel Slater, in his new book Eating for England. He explores the reasons why toast is so comforting whatever the weather, what makes for the best outdoor British lunch and why seasonal eating can be so complicated for us these days (remember the snow in April, anyone?).

To celebrate our summer in all its guises, we are bringing a taste of the seaside to London town and on Saturday 31st May, kindly gentlemen in stylish straw-boaters will be handing out free sticks of rock to lucky passers-by in the areas of South Bank and Greenwich Park. Lucky, not only because theyll get to test their teeth on one of Britains most distinctive sweets, but theyll also get 40% discount off Eating for England at and the chance to win dinner for two at a top notch British restaurant where they can eat, and drink, for England.
There is some sun forecast for Saturday, so get out there, grab your free rock and celebrate summer until the clouds open again!

Discount T&Cs

Fifth Estate Sampler

Rejoice! The Fifth Estate Sampler has arrived, straight from our brains to your eyes…

Some of you will have already encountered the sampler at Hay and hopefully you will have been prompted to visit us online here, if so, “Hello!” and we hope you enjoyed flicking through it. The sampler contains excerpts from top-notch Press Books titles and articles from our very own 5th Estate, including JG Ballard, Doris Lessing, Patrick Bishop, Daniel Clay, Rivka Galchen, Matt Frei, Rudy Delson, Nick Pearson, Graham Tattershall and, erm, me. All lovingly put together by our office superstar Sam Shone.

We’re dead proud of our first book, and we’d like everyone in the world to know about it, so we’re giving it away! If you want a copy, let us know and we’ll send you it. If you’re a bookshop and want some for your counters, we’ll send you a bundle. Needless to say it’s printed on FSC paper and is the same attractive yellow and black colour that makes people walk up to you and say “Gosh, you look like an interesting person reading that.”

The Fifth Estate sampler. Blog on. Blog off. Get your copy now.


Do bring sunglasses and wellies

On Saturday afternoon, the garden of deckchairs was full of Guardian-reading festival-goers, licking icecreams, drinking fizz and shading their eyes from the sun. But the wind whipping through the colourful flags around the site was a warning…on the midnight news on Radio 4 the announcer forecast 60mm of rain…So, on Sunday, instead of shading themselves from the sun, said festival-goers were sheltering from the rain. The fire brigade were pumping the entrance, Ariane Koek was watching the waters rise towards her stage, and it was the welly shops, not the bookshops, that were seeing the most trade.

Do book tickets…and accommodation…early

The big names, Jimmy Carter, Christopher Hitchens, Cherie Blair, Naomi Klein were sold out as were the big addresses. The Swan Hotel is full for the next four years, and even the stars can’t get a room: when Andrew Davies decided he wanted to stay for another night there, he couldn’t keep his room so the hotel receptionist had to give up her newly-bought and flatpack-full flat for him…and friends from London were eagerly anticipating their 750 per week ‘cottage’ to be sweet and beautiful. Instead, it was a starter home on a rather drab estate, with no volume on the smaller-than-a-publishing-handbag tv, no shower, and no charm. And they booked in August…

Do be pleasantly surprised by the stoicism and sanitation

Even when the water is lapping at the audience’s feet, the tents are leaking and the audience is steaming under plastic macs supplied free with the Observer, the events are still full. There is no such thing as bad weather at Hay, only bad clothing. I don’t own wellies, since they’re not often needed in North London but I’m tempted to buy some. Mid-morning on Sunday I decide to head back to my accommodation to put on some more clothes, since I’m freezing, but though my body is now warmer, my legs, after the 20-minute walk in each direction, are not.

And, unlike those at so many festivals, the Hay loos are positively otherworldly: Portakabins decorated with fake flowers, wood-framed mirrors and wooden toilet seats, barely a queue and plenty of loo roll and hot water. I think they’re the warmest and driest places on site, probably because they’re the only ones not under tarpaulin.

Don’t expect the town, even after 21 years of this, to be as organised as the festival…

On Saturday night, probably one of the two busiest nights of the year for this town of 1900 residents, the fish and chip shop runs out of fish. They’ve sold 400, as opposed to their usual maximum of 250. Apparently they don’t like to defrost too much, in case it doesn’t sell…They have everything else though, including battered Mars Bars which don’t tempt anyone, not even my Scottish friends. At 9am on Sunday, two of the three cafes in town aren’t open for breakfast so everyone crams into the one that is. And later that day, The Swan Hotel, which is the nearest hostelry to the festival site, with a lounge full of dripping and cold customers, is not serving hot drinks. This could just about be excused on the basis that the staff are focusing on lunch service but, after dinner eight hours later, the request for some coffee sends the waiter into a near-paroxysm….’it’s pretty bad back there’ he says, referring to the kitchen. Perhaps after-dinner coffee in a restaurant is, like fish in a fish and fish shop, just too much to ask…

Do expect to be exhilarated…

I saw two events on Saturday, and six on Sunday. The best, and I say this sans bias, despite the fact that both of them include HarperCollins authors, were Ffion Hague and The State of the Union debate (Matt Frei, Jonathan Freedland, Jacob Weisberg). Ffion is obviously Welsh, speaking in Wales about a Welsh (tho, ahem, born in Manchester) Prime Minister and so, technically, she’s amongst friends which makes it easy to work the audience. But, like her husband, she has a great sense of comic timing, she speaks for exactly the right amount of time and with warmth as well as knowledge. By the end of the talk, I’ve learnt something yet I don’t feel patronised (neither of which could be said of the Rushdie lecture). And all this in a tent whipped by so much wind that it sounds like Cyclone Nargis is about to take off the roof.

However, her success seems to have a strange effect on some of her audience: one woman overheard on the way out said ‘oh she was very good wasn’t she’ to which her friend replied ‘yes, he would have made such a good Prime Minister’. It doesn’t matter that Ffion has just delivered a brilliant lecture: her success merely reflects on her husband. Political women, like those in Lloyd George’s life are, it seems, still only mere appendages to their men; hence Cherie Blair is grilled in the press over her book and her loud-mouthness (keep quiet, it’s more seemly) and, as Matt Frei points out later in the day, Hillary Clinton is suffering from the same relationship – both benefitting and losing through her marriage. Some things never change.

…and exhausted

The organisers leave 30 minutes in between slots which, on such a small site, seems like quite a lot. But since it takes a good five minutes to get out, another five minutes to shuffle to the coffee stall for a shot of heat, fifteen minutes to queue for said hot drink and another five minutes to shuffle back to the next event (the distances are short, but the congestion is worthy of the Northern Line on a Monday morning), a hot drink starts to seem more attractive than heated discussion. On Saturday, in the sunshine, a few hours between events (from Ffion to World-Class Fiction) was too long (if you’re here, then it seems pointless not to see something all the time) but, on Sunday, in the rain, back-to-back events seemed too much. However, without sunshine, there are very few places to sit and keep dry on site: in one cafe a staff member told me that many festival-goers were coming in, sheltering from the rain and not ordering: one woman was incensed by the request to move, until the staff called security and she ran, which cant have been easy in wellies I wish I’d seen that.

Do expect to be both impressed and irritated by the organization

Its a Herculean feat to bring so many people to such a small place without many complaints. The shuttle bus runs well, the box office staff are cheery and the stewards manage to shepherd hundreds of people in and out of tents, in all weathers, without incident. However, the logistical brilliance is sometimes overshadowed by the ineptitude of the literary types. Some of the chairs are hopeless, not realizing that the audience wants to ask questions and using up the whole hour on their own, not always interesting, comments. Ariane Koek, not wearing her glasses, at the Jhumpa Lahiri and Emily Perkins event, asked for questions then, putting her glasses on and looking at the clock, said Oh, actually, weve overrun and I couldnt see the time. So, if youd like to thank The audience, or at least this member of it, was not amused.

Do, if youre in publishing, be reassured that there ARE still readers.

Over 70,000 people are expected to make the journey to Hay for the festival. Yes some will be drawn just by the location and the big names (John Irving, Kathleen Turner, Louise Rennison) but there arent many other places where short story writers can pull a crowd as big as political biographers. And, no, theyre not all grey-haired and sitting on shooting sticks. There are teenagers at every event, as well as pensioners, and though Michael McIntyre declared at his event that Hays colour was khaki, I think it is, thankfully, kaleidoscopic.

Dont expect all the treats to be literary.

I was thrilled to discover that I was spending the days in Wales, but the nights across the border in England, delighted to hear a Sevillean flamenco band (Son de la Frontera) who were the only people on Sunday to break out into a sweat and thoroughly enjoyed eavesdropping: There arent many pubs in this town are there? Lots of bookshops, but not enough pubs said one young woman walking through the town, which is rightly famous for its bookshops. Its a bit like going to Lourdes and wondering why there are lots of statues of the Virgin Mary

Those of us who work in literary fiction are used to hearing, and moaning, that it is increasingly difficult to sell any books without winning a prize but every so often there is a book that catches a wave and manages to sell through nothing more tangible than buzz and word of mouth.
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Back in 2001, for instance, Jonathan Franzens The Corrections arrived here in a blaze of publicity and ecstatic reviews from the States, and it has turned out to be one of the very few undisputed classics of the 21st century. The Corrections went on to win prizes, but not before it had topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic an impressive feat for a 600-page literary novel.

We at Fourth Estate are hoping for a repeat of this all-too-rare occurrence for the publication this month of Netherland by Joseph ONeill, a book that has just received in the States some of the most astonishing reviews Ive ever read, and that has been jumping up the bestseller charts over there since.

The bar was set very high last Friday by the first review to appear in the New York Times, by the reputation maker-or-breaker Michiko Kakutani, who described it as a stunning new novel.

This was then topped on Sunday by a review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review by their senior editor, Dwight Gardner, who raved that Netherland was the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction weve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell, that I devoured it in three thirsty gulps, gulps that satisfied a craving I didnt know I had, that ONeill seems incapable of composing a boring sentence or thinking an uninteresting thought, and that Netherland has more life inside it than 10 very good novels.

Surpassing even this, however, was the daddy of them all: a 4-page review in this weeks New Yorker by James Wood, one of the most important critics alive today (an accolade that still has force in the United States, even if it might now be considered laughable on our increasingly acritical side of the pond). Netherland, Wood wrote, is an exquisitely written novel, a large fictional achievement, and one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read, and he concluded that if Netherland pays homage to The Great Gatsby, it is also in some kind of knowing relationship with A House for Mr. Biswas. These are large interlocutors, but Netherland has an ideological intricacy, a deep human wisdom, and prose grand enough to dare the comparison.

Although he now lives in New York, Joseph ONeill was born in Ireland, raised in Holland and was educated in England. Netherland is set predominantly in New York, but it is a book about all the world. We very much hope that it will win prizes, of course, but it would make us proud if a prize was the cherry on the cake of an extremely well-deserved success, rather than the only reason for that success. Netherland is not just a good book; it is a great one. Please read it.

Joseph ONeill is in the UK this week; he will be appearing at Toppings in Bath at 7.30pm on Wednesday, and at the International Fiction event at the Hay Festival, at 6.45pm on Thursday. An audio interview with him will appear on Fifth Estate on Friday.

The biggest literary festival in the UK is now on and for a few days and Fifth Estate is going to be there.
The Fifth Estate Estate

With Mark currently running our social network writing site Authonomy, I’ve recruited some new authors to cover our few days in Hay. Louise Tucker has blogged for The Guardian and worked across the publishing industry. Louise’s going to be there for the Bank Holiday weekend, so if you see her say hello!

Tuesday 27th and Wednesday the 28th will see the Fifth Estate Estate arrive in Hay and I’ll be there with Tom Conway, digital guru for Children’s books here at Harper. Be sure to stop us and ask for our new Fifth Estate Sampler too. Also writing for us is Mark Richards, one of 4th Estate’s bright young things. Mark will be there most of the week and we welcome him to the Fifth Estate team.

We’re looking forward to catching up with everyone involved at Hay and look forward to seeing you there too!

Book-crossing, swapping, erm, book-swinging? The idea of exchanging your books for others has been around for a while, however I’ve yet to see it done in as straightforward a way as…
John Buckman of, set up by Californian based book lover John Buckman, is a nice and simple way of getting rid of books you don’t need and getting the ones you want. However, in order for you to participate in the community Bookmooch uses a points system to insure that in order to receive, you have to give first. Plus if you don’t want your points, you can give them to charity!

There are two things which I love about the site in particular – 1) The commitment to working with websites for information. Bookmooch has its own API page which means that all the data you’ll ever need on what’s available currently on Bookmooch you can get as XML. 2) The most available list. This lists which books people are trying to get rid of. The first four titles belong to Dan Brown, nuff said.

It’s a nice idea and gives marketeers like myself another way of looking at how ‘demand’ for certain books is going. A lot of people want to read The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, according to Bookmooch and we’re the UK distributor… hmm, lots to think about perhaps…

Can you really stop the global fight against spam AND help to publish books online? Yes, using a nifty website called reCAPTCHA…

reCAPTCHA logo

reCAPTCHA is a neat little idea from School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Everyday internet users encounter CAPTCHA boxes when filling in web forms. The box asks the user to decipher an odd-looking series of letters from an image and enter it as plain text, this prevents automated ‘bots’ from filling in a form and causing spam, as humans are much better at recognising letters than software.

As if to prove this point, the OCR software that ‘digitises’ scanned pages into plain text sometimes can’t read the pages of a scanned book. Typefaces can be feint or smudged, in short it needs a human to decipher it. So, what if you could take undeciphered words, serve them up in a CAPTCHA form, ask the web user to tell you the word and then serve it back to the digitisation project corrected? Well that’s precisely what reCAPTCHA does, currently helping the Internet Archive to digitise scanned pages of books. So upload reCAPTCHA to your website today, kill off spam and make books available online. Awesome.

Classics Paired May and June Title CoversJane Austen and who? You may not be familiar with the eighteenth-century Chinese master, but if you are intrigued by adolescents striving to discover their emotional and sexual affinities in a society which aims to marry them off before they learn too much about themselves or one another, then I recommend you spend May and June reading Mansfield Park and Dream of the Red Chamber.

Edward Bertram and Fanny Price, Pao-yu and Black Jade: the reader can tell early on that these pairs of cousins raised in the same households are meant for one another. But they are confronted with so many obstacles – social codes and ceremonies; religious beliefs and duties; elaborate daily routines of eating, grooming, sleeping; teenage moodiness, doubt, pride, and shyness; fine sensibilities and senses of decorum; the ambition and cruelty of those who live with and supposedly care for them; above all the threat of other, perhaps more suitable, richer partners.

Can the lovers ever discover and grow sure of their feelings for one another, let alone persuade the adults who hold sway over them to let them marry? All the while, the claustrophobia of the domestic setting intensifies the erotic energies coursing beneath the surface.

In Mansfield Park, the characters play whist in the evenings and ill-advisedly try to put on a play; in Dream of the Red Chamber, they gamble at mahjong and establish a literary society. In both novels, there is a lot of sewing and walking around in the shrubbery. The repartee is subtle and pointed. Delicate emotional tendrils creep out through the dialogue, testing, hoping, only to be crushed by misunderstood replies, intervention from outsiders, interminable delays for illness, for travel, for study, for service to others. Every nuance is agonizing and delicious.

Wealth and refinement mean the characters are perilously free of necessary occupation. In Mansfield Park, the long absence on business of Sir Thomas Bertram, the patriarch, leaves a vacuum of judgement and authority at home, so that the burgeoning appetites of his daughters fix themselves wildly and inconsistently in all the wrong places. The Park becomes a wildernessrampant with greed for attention and pleasure.

Chia Cheng is as irresponsible toward his family as Sir Thomas Bertram, for some of the same reasons. And both households feature a wicked sister-in-law with an unscrupulous hand on the purse strings. The governing hierarchy of wives and concubines at the Chias is more numerous than at Mansfield Park and more intelligent. You can decide whether they are any better at supervising family life.

A surprising aspect of the Chia household is the number of maids attending each family member, and the intimacies both emotional and physical that occur between maids and their masters and mistresses. Beautiful young women with names like Pervading Fragrance, Bright Design, Patience, Purple Cuckoo, decorate and infinitely complicate the plot. Pao-yus dreams sometimes merge with his waking life; no longer a boy nor yet a man, he is afforded the liminal luxury of privacy for surprising sexual experiments. This unofficial layer of sexual experience is reflected officially and prominently in the story of the daughter of the household who leaves her family to become a concubine to the emperor.

The possibility of choosing the wrong spouse through lack of discrimination and self-restraint is not the biggest calamity on offer in either of these novels. Flirtation can lead uncontrollably to the bedroom, to the shattering of taboos, the ruin of reputations, a life enforcedly spent outside the margin of the milieu, death from loss of honor, or from a broken heart.

I liked Chi-Chen Wangs abridged translation of Dream of the Red Chamber (1958, not 1929); there is also a Penguin, complete, in five volumes, titled The Story of the Stone. Even if you have to learn Chinese, dont miss this extraordinary book.

As an unpublished writer, one of my biggest fears was that Id never get a novel published. Then, once I knew I was getting a novel published, one of my biggest fears was that my first novel would be published without anyone actually realising it was out there.

This is why I was so keen for Broken to be involved in Amazons Project Vine, a scheme where pre-publication copies of selected novels are made available to Amazons most consistent reviewers in the hope theyll post positive reviews and create a word of mouth buzz.

Like everything else, there are risks involved in being selected for Vine. Once Amazon make a title available, they exert no influence over the reviews that get posted good, bad or indifferent all get equal billing. Its the same for the publishing house and the writer. Once youve agreed to be featured, you have no power of veto unless a review is deemed offensive. Its as above board and honest as that. So although I was delighted when Broken was selected, I was nervous as well.

My first review came through in the third week of January. I was skiing in France at the time it was posted, so only found out when an e-mail from a friend came through on my phone. Helpfully, my friend didnt tell me what sort of review Id had, just that Id had my first one. Suspecting browsing to Amazons site on my mobile would cost me more than Id been paid in advances, I immediately ditched my wife and friends and skied off in search of an internet caf. As it hadnt been the best days skiing Ive ever had in my life hung-over, terrible weather, and our ski-instructor kept sending me down black runs I had no wish to go down I was fully expecting a one star slating to top the day off. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to get my first ever five-star. The skiing improved after that.

Somehow resisting the urge to spend the rest of the holiday in internet cafs waiting for more reviews to come through, I popped back once in a while to see how things were going. Luckily, my expectations were realistic. Ive always enjoyed reading reviews on Amazon and, not belonging to a book club, have often gone on there after reading a novel to see what other people have thought of it, so already knew opinions and ratings could vary and that some reviewers could be scathing about novels other reviewers had loved. Two days after my first five star, and following a three and a four star, I received my first ever one star. It had just been a matter of time, and it was a relief to get it out of the way.

Getting feedback good and bad is part and parcel of being a writer, whether you manage to get published or not, so although it felt quite strange seeing Broken dissected on the internet by total strangers, it didnt feel like a completely new experience. Possibly the strangest thing was seeing myself referred to in the third person: Daniel Clay this, Daniel Clay that, took a bit of getting used to at first.

Another strange thing is that a couple of reviewers referred to Broken as reflecting life on a modern sink estate, whereas its really a novel about people in a relatively affluent area trying to cope with one set of unsociable neighbours. Given the fictional setting is around the corner from the street I actually live in, it felt very bizarre to see that. Another strange and brilliant thing is how one person wont like a certain aspect, yet another will pick it out as a favourite theme. As an example of this, my first five star reviewers only criticism was that she couldnt see a loving father calling his daughter Skunk. A few days later, however, a four star reviewer asked how you could fail to love a novel where the main character was named after an obscure nineties pop-group.

Over the last two months, reviews have flooded in from Amazons Vine readers. Whats it been like to read them? Sometimes brilliant, sometimes nerve-racking, but always interesting (and, yes, addictive as well). Im not going to quote any specific reviews here as theyre all available to browse on Amazon but, at the time of writing, Ive had 81, including 39 four stars and 21 five stars (and, in the interests of a balanced article, 2 one stars as well). My editor will kick me for saying this, but knowing how fierce Amazon reviewers can be, I expected much harsher treatment than this. So far, Im relieved and delighted.

Has being part of Project Vine worked though? Has it translated through into sales? I dont know, is the honest answer. I havent asked and suspect its too early to tell. But given some reviewers have included phrases such as this isnt normally the type of novel I read but I think its definitely been worthwhile, if only to have gained these readers alone.

Cover detail from Bill Bryson's biography of Shakespeare

Despite the scrutiny of generations of biographers and scholars, the Great Bard’s life is still a dense thicket of myths and traditions.

Even Bill Bryson – travel writer, polymath and a master of research – found the world’s most famous writer a rather slippery character: in his new biography Shakespeare: The World as a Stage he declares him at once “the best known and least known of figures”.

In this short extract from the book, Bill begins his quest for the Bard by tracking down the only three existing (and contested) portraits of the great man – and examines what these few uncertain images can tell us about a life.

Click the arrow above to play – and you can download the entire audiobook over at…

Atmospheric Disturbances

“Last December a woman entered my apartment who looked exactly like my wife…”

So begins Rivka Galchens funny, moving and mind-bending new book Atmospheric Disturbances. The story of Doppler radar, doppelgangers, climate manipulation and secret organisations that control the weather, the book centres around Leo, a psychiatrist who believes his wife Rema has been replaced with a identical replica.

If youd like to read some of Atmospheric Disturbances we suggest you head over to the website, submit your email address and wait to be contacted. Otherwise we have THREE copies to giveaway (its all we could find in the building, theyre gold dust) all you have to do is review the book for us. Simply email me and in twenty words or less tell me what the weathers like in your part of the world and dont be afraid to get creative!

Richard Fortey

Last week I rounded off my visit to the Oxford Literary Festival (more pics here) with a talk given by Richard Fortey about the story behind the work of the Natural History Museum.

Dry Store Room No 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum is a delightful book exploring the back-office workings of one of the UKs most famous institutions. Fortey was for many years the Museums Trilobyte Man which is not only a great sounding Super Hero name, but allowed Fortey access to the many weird and wonderful treasures that the Museum has to offer.

But it wasnt just the rare books from James Cooks expeditions or the thousands of specimens accrued in the drawers and cupboards that Fortey illustrated, he talked about the immense importance of the scientific work carried out by the Museum. Nomenclature, the naming of new specimens, produces enough amusing stories on its own (slime eating bugs named after the Bush administration for example), but this cataloguing is vital for conservation, environmental and medical research right across the world.

Fortey himself is of course extremely knowledgeable and is able to tell anecdotes relating to the Museum at the drop of a hat, its a shame he couldnt be allocated further time at the Oxford talk, as it was clear he had more to say, with more stories to tell.

So if you want to read about the discovery of lost Mozart masterpieces, cursed gemstones and how a man with an interest in flies saved the world then I thoroughly recommend giving Dry Store Room No. 1 a try.

Detail from Northern Clemency Cover

“There aren’t many novels about people simply growing old” declares novelist, columnist and critic Philip Hensher in an upper room off Christ Church Quad.

Hensher’s certainly been keen to challenge himself – The Northern Clemency is an ambitious novel tracking the adventures of two ordinary families in a quiet Sheffield suburb, and allowed him a very exciting sense of embarking on new territory – territory that “hadn’t already been written about millions of times before”.

Set over twenty eventful years – from 1974 to 1994 – and weighing in at an impressive 700 pages, the book’s an impressive chronicle of an eventful era. Hensher admitted that he’d been fascinated to revisit the changing face of British society over that relatively short period – a country that within twenty years turned from a manufacturing nation (he quotes the words of Winston Churchill, “built from coal and surrounded by fish”) to a service culture in thrall to the banker and the hedge fund.

And yet in his three lively readings – from a whistlestop tour of a 90s London PR Agency to a brief encounter with 80s Sheffield anarchists “The Sparticists” (”So left wing they smash up CND meetings”) – Hensher reveals that much of The Northern Clemency’s success lies in his peculiar eye for the small and personal details of life in the very recent past…

Going Dutch cover detail

Every good schoolboy knows that the indominatable British mainland has only been conquered twice – first by the noble Julius Caesar; secondly by those perfidious French. Lisa Jardine wants us to call it three.

As Tom Tower rang it’s 101 chimes, Jardine explored the conclusions of her book, Going Dutch for a curious Oxford Festival audience – making the case for 1688’s Glorious Revolution as “the invasion we’ve chosen to forget”. The British like to imagine that William of Orange’s ousting of the Catholic James II represented the UK ‘hoovering up’ the Dutch royal family; for the Dutch, Jardine claims, the south coast landings were a bold military manouevre that very nearly united the crowns for good.

It’s no great surprise the revolution has been swept under the rug of history – the invasion launched by William (and wife Mary) was an oddity from the start. Marching furiously north with his impressive landing force, he suspended operations to enjoy a peaceful tour of Wilton House and it’s delightful gardens – thus leading the first army ever held up by topiary. And they say the English always stop for tea.

Of course, it was also a family affair – which might also go some way to explain why we Brits so limply handed over the crown to a foreign force. Outgoing monarch James II was Mary’s father; William and Mary themselves, married aged 9 and 14, were terrifyingly closely related (or ‘very first cousins‘, as Jardine generously puts it) and a good ten minutes lecture time is spent unravelling the horrendously entwined, quasi-legal love lives of the British, Dutch and French royal families – only to conclude, rather vaguely, that everyone was related to everyone else.

And of course it’s family affairs, not force of arms, that ultimately decided Britain’s future. From 1668, the Orange Dynasty’s control over British power and even British culture was so strong that had William and Mary not died without an heir, Jardine very seriously suggests, we’d all now be speaking Dutch…

Climate Xchange Re:versing the Damage Notes from the Climate Journey was described in the OLF programme guide as a creative journey through climate change. This lead me to suspect an audio/visual aspect to the event. To some extent this was true.

When I arrived there was a bloke chancing it with a guitar. My alarm bells started ringing. Then I saw the guitar had stickers on it. Shit – I was hemmed in. The chap next to me wondered if I was a poet. Arse, this was getting worse…

Let’s get something straight – in my house, I am the guy who insists Climate Change is happening. I think projects like ACME Climate Action are fantastic. And I have plenty of sceptical friends – would a night like this really have changed their minds?

I dread to think Introduced by the funny and affable Steve Larkin the evening was a mix of poets and writers, working in conjunction with Climatexchange, a DEFRA sponsored thinktank at Oxford University, telling us that climate change was a clear and present danger and that were all going to fry.

Many of the spoken word artists came from Oxford wordsmiths Hammer and Tongues ( In particular, Danny Chivers was dextrous with his rhyming and very funny with it, hes a star in the making.

Pete Bearder took the idea of beat poetry a step (literally) further by having the audience beat on the floor for pedestrian power and shout throughout his performance. This alerted the authorities downstairs where the chaps from QI were trying to have a conversation about animals. Pete bravely continued with his piece while a steward, complete with prefect-esque blue sash watched him from the door and winced every time he stamped his feet. The audience continued to join, but now more muted. You can change the planet – just do it quietly.

A lot of it was funny and intelligent. Some of it was dull; some of it tiresome. A rant against Richard Branson fell flat for me; people cheering “government lies” made me roll my eyes and when it got to the guy in the hat singing on the stickered guitar about ‘dancing on the body of a multi-national corporation’ Id just about had enough.

Poetry and Song can change the world, we know this. Just not these particular poems and songs Still, at least someone is making a stand in the Arts – we must, I suppose, be grateful.

Cover art from Nemesis

In the impressive surroundings of Christ Church’s Great Hall, bestselling historian Max Hastings admits to feeling a great sense of privilege that he’s able to “spend hours on end in the four corners of the Earth” listening to the personal testimonies of history’s survivors.

While there’s clearly enormous amounts of library work compacted into his comprehensive histories, vivid eyewitness accounts have always been central to Hasting’s books – and latest title Nemesis is no different, attempting to recreate the experiences of civilians and soldiers of all the sides entwined in World War II’s pacific battlefields.

Setting out to challenge some of the myths around Japan’s notoriously brutal campaigns, Hastings explained that his research only confirmed for him that the Japanese conducted themsleves ‘even more hideously than the world knows today’. By way of illustration, he details the fate of one captured British troop. From 1000 men, 35 died in combat – but only 278 survived internment in Japanese camps.

Not surprisingly then, Nemesis also contains a spirited defence of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fired up with what he calls “the ferocity of despair”, Hastings confidently states that the Japanese troops would have fought on till the last man – and that even as little as a few more weeks of fighting would have led to much greater loss of life.

His book also takes a specific interest in the role of women in the Pacific War, (”Another side of the story that’s just as interesting as life on the front lines,”); emphasises the frustration felt by Allied troops suffering immense losses while the war in the West looked all but finished; and underlines how unharmoniously the American, British and even the Australian forces cooperated.

But it’s the Japanese who bear the brunt of Hasting’s lecture: “Japan is a glittering example of economic success and democracy,” he concludes, “but it’s hard to think of it as entirely part of our normal world as long as it continues to deny it’s own history.”

I was pretty surprised to run into Dragon’s Den winner (and forthcoming Collins author) Levi Roots at an event with Dragon Peter Jones – and even more surprised to find them deep in conversation with legendary four-minute-miler Sir Roger Bannister. Things have clearly moved quickly for the musician, entrepreneur and now celebrity chef since the dragons bought into his Reggae Reggae Sauce…

While Roger disappeared (at speed) I dragged Levi into the Green Room for a chat about his million selling sauce, his new book and the forthcoming Reggae Reggae Car – click the button to listen in. Rastafari Bless!

Levi Roots

Books on our car

100 books, 15 minutes and an eager Oxford crowd: today the Fifth Estate Estate rolled onto the Literary Festival Site to give away a boot-full of the finest literature – and the good people of Oxford turned out to cheer us on.

Lit fans old and young scooped up modern classics from our beautiful new Perennial Collection, leaving our alarmingly yellow vehicle considerably lighter within a speedy quarter hour. Our JG Ballard, William Burroughs, Carole Shields and quite a lot more disappeared rather swiftly into the throng outside Christ Church college, and even The Times turned up for a gander…

Car at Oxford

With our guerilla giveaway well underway I took the chance to grab some cheesy snaps of Fifth Estate’s newest fans, books in hand. Hope they appreciate it – between negotiating Oxford’s notorious one-way system and scraping through Christ Church’s narrowest of gates, I think I might just be getting a ticket…

Happy people with Perennial books at Oxford
Happy people with Perennial books at Oxford
Happy people with Perennial books at Oxford
Happy people with Perennial books at Oxford

Finding Moonshine Cover Art

I always thought I had the measure of symmetry. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve never been a fan of algebra, and I’m regularly stumped by long division, but symmetry? Shapes and mirrors, right? I think I even know what tessellate means.

And yet part way through his enthralling lecture on the history (and future) of symmetry, mathmetician and author Marcus de Sautoy asks how many symmetries a Rubik’s cube has – and not only do I not have an answer, I don’t even understand the question. It’s 2.1×1024, by the way, and I couldn’t have been more confused if he’d told me the answer was brown.

Clearly there’s much to learn – and Marcus is an excellent guide. De Sautoy’s fascinating lecture, and his book, Finding Moonshine begins with the intriguing story of Evariste Galois. Rejected by the mathematical community, and aged just twenty years old, Galois met his death in a duel in Paris – the cause of which remains unknown – leaving behind a stunning and prodigious body of work in the field of symmetry, and a theory that now bears his name.

It ends, two hundred years later, with The Monster – the latest, most alarmingly named development of Galois theory. The Monster is the most complex symmetrical object yet discovered – an object which can only exists in 196,883 dimensions – and which boasts more symmetries than there are atoms in the sun.

No, I don’t understand either – but De Sautoy’s passion for the subject is abundant, and incredibly infectious. His lecture conveys brilliantly the excitement of working at the very forefront of modern mathematics – and introduces us to some of the very quirky characters who’ve been similiarly drawn the to the ‘moonshine’ surrounding the many remaining enigmas of The Monster.

Literature and symmetry make unusual companions – never fully forgiven for its part in the worst rhyme in English literary history, Thomas Mann bizarrely claimed to find in symmetry ‘the very marrow of death’. Marcus de Sautoy might just be the man to put the record straight.

Cover from The Post Birthday World

Lionel Shriver loves snooker. Apparently shes been a fan for fifteen or twenty years. In her new book The Post-Birthday World Shriver makes one her main characters a snooker player. For her lead character, childrens illustrator Irena, this man represents the exotic.

Ive come to read smut! Shriver announced to the audience sat in the stately Upper Library of Christ Church. Eyebrows were raised. This would be exotic. Shriver began with a tally of how many people had read new book: a few. How many had read her most famous book We Need To Talk About Kevin? Almost everyone.

Since Kevin went nuclear in the UK its clear that Shriver has wearied of answering questions about it. She even prefaced her question session by stating that she would answer questions about the Orange Prize-winning novel even though she was firmly planted in her current work.

And the questions came. Where did she get the idea for Kevin? It was, Shriver stated, a personal and public fusion. Publicly, young American males kept shooting people. In private, Shriver had an internal debate over whether to have a child. She chose not to. The result was an extraordinary success that has followed her everywhere since.

So would the audience engage with her new book? Shriver certainly hoped so, explaining that the novels structure was composed of alternating chapters describing what happened to Irena and Ramsay (the snooker player), in two alternate sets of circumstance – both what would happen if the two shared an illicit snog – and what would happen if not. She then read two of the sexier passages from the book. Shrivers interests lay in what happens to us mentally when we have sex; the mental betrayal that occurs, thinking about someone else while being engaged with your partner.

Im not sure anyone was quite prepared for explicitness of the readings Shriver chose – and I’m pretty positive the Upper Library has never heard some of those phrases before. A lot of the older audience members maintained their cool, after all this was literature. One woman giggled at blow jobs. Oh my.

Nervous audience chuckles aside, Shriver is clearly a very intelligent writer, pouring hours into her work, crafting her sentences with extreme care and keen to explore literary devices that keep the reader guessing. Her performance at Oxford may well be remembered for the sauciness, but most audience members should be thankful for a chance to meet a thoughtful novelist keen to try new techniques and subjects – and one who is philosophical about success.

The Fifth Estate Estate

The Fifth Estate Estate is finally here – and it’s got its own page. Click over for more pictures – and find out what all those scribbles are…

We’ve loaded her up with a boot-full of books, and we’re in a generous mood. Over the next few days we’ll be cruising the mean streets of Oxford with our windows down and our system on, well, medium, blessing the city with the gift of free literature. So if you spot us around give us a wave – you might just get a book out of it.

Qi Animal Ignorance Cover

“So you’ve come to the funny one?” said the girl taking my ticket to the talk led by the team behind TV’s trivia riot,Q.I.

While John sat through the horrors of rising tides and shrinking lakes on “a creative journey through climate change” just the other side of a creakingly timbered ceiling, I took the chance to hear QI creator John Mitchinson’s tour through the weird and wonderful of the animal kingdom, from pigs that glow in the dark to woodpeckers with ears on their tounges. I think I picked the right one.

Dressed head to toe in comedy sheep suit (”I’m very keen on sheep – and they get a lot of bad press”), Mr Mitchinson imparted unlikely fact after unlikely fact, from sheep that need to be peeled not shorn to self destructing angler fish and rats that giggle in ultrasound.

But his greatest admiration was reserved for the tiny tardigrade. Also cutely named “water bears” or “moss piglets”, the tardigrade’s fame lies in it’s curious ability to freeze itself entirely for as long as a hundred years – and become virtually indestructible in the process. Scientists love a challenge, of course, and in the name of research have tried every method imaginable to dispose of the tiny creatures – they’ve been boiled alive, frozen to absolute zero, blasted with radiation and immersed in liquid helium. Always keen to go one better, the Russians even shot one into space. All to no avail, of course: the Rasputin’s of the animal kingdom, tardigrades just wont die.

So much better than sheep, as it turns out – though comedy tardigrade costumes are, I suspect, quite hard to come by.

Charlie Higson
Charlie Higson, still perhaps best known to adults for his comedy, has for the past three years been responsible for the Young James Bond series of novels and judging by the number of children who arrived to see him speak yesterday, it would seem Higson has found himself a whole new audience.

Not that Bond, didnt have an audience already. The estate of Ian Fleming, apparently impressed with the success of Anthony Horowitzs Alex Rider novels, realised they could be doing the same with their super spy. So, in 2005, Silverfin the first of five books by Higson was published. The fifth By Royal Command is due to arrive in September.

In a talk that was primarily for da kidz, Higson outlined the life and career of Ian Fleming, about whom the Imperial War Museum will be running a centenary celebration later this year. Fleming had written the Bond novels after a career as a spy and assassin in MI6. He had achieved Double O status after kills in New York and Norway and had realised his life was one amazing adventure. The James Bond books have gone on to sell over 100 million copies worldwide, not to mention the 27 movies However its for the Bond books that Higsons purpose was to connect with, not the movies. Therefore the Young Bond is relatively gadget-free. The action of the book is set in the 1930s prior to Bonds initial action with the SIS during World War 2. Most interestingly, Higson points out the only source material he had to go on was an obituary printed in You Only Live Twice which only gives small tidbits of information. Bonds parents were killed in a climbing accident when he was aged 11 (a godsend, claimed Higson, kids cant have adventures when Mum is wiping dirt of their faces with a tissue), he went to stay with an Aunt who sent him to Eton. After two terms Bond was expelled for an incident involving a maid at the school and was sent to Fetters for the rest of his education. Higson points out that Etons current most famous son is David Cameron, while Tony Blair attended Fetters. Bond should have gone into politics.

The incident with the maid (which Fleming no doubt had an adult connotation, Higson will deal with it as a matter of national security in his new book) highlights one of the problems faced by Higson while writing the Young Bond books, that Bond is a very adult character. He drinks, he smokes, he drives fast cars, he kills people and he sleeps with lots of women. Sex is something of a no-no as far as the Young Bond books are concerned, parents dont want kids reading about it, kids dont want to read it anyway. However the more violent death there is the better. To Higsons credit he has tried to bring a 1930s Bond into the 21st century. His female characters are not simply evil or Bond bed-fodder, they are there to act as foils for the young James who really is only beginning to take a passing interest in the opposite sex.

Higson went on to reveal the merest hint of melancholy that Young Bond had taken over his life and while being a writer was a truly fantastic job, getting paid to use your imagination, Higson did say that you look back on a year and wonder what exactly youve done with it and who youve seen, hunched forever over the computer in a small room.

Its not all bad though, as part of the Fleming centenary, the Imperial War Museum sent Higson to Jamaica to stay at Flemings house where the original books were written.

Who can tell me what the name of Ian Flemings house is? Higson asked his captive audience.

Silence descended on the room. Children shuffled nervously. Adults brows were furrowed. Suddenly I was back in class competing with all the other pupils.

Goldeneye! I called from my seat, which was at least fifteen rows back.

Mr Higson looked up and then fixed me with his best Paddington Bear stare, put his fingers to his lips and said: Shh!

He readdressed the question to the audience.

I shrank back in my seat dreadfully embarrassed. Id a) deprived some child of the chance to appease their favourite author, b) proved what a huge Bond nerd I was and c) been put in my place by a member of The Fast Show.

Thank god the Doctor Who event is on Saturday after Ive left. Then Id really be in trouble.

Congress of Vienna

An interesting morning down here at the Oxford Literary Festival. Dreaming Spires sit gloomily beneath leaden skies, its grey and peaceful. The streets bustle in an orderly fashion, birds sing. Right now the only thing upsetting me is a rogue car alarm, set off at the smallest provocation. But that didn’t stop some half-decent history…

The good news is that the OLF appears to be a well-organised, fun and entirely proper affair. Old women sit politely through talks while old men feel compelled to complain prior-to and after each session, usually something about having to queue for seats. As with the Cheltenham the average age for the morning sessions is over 60. You cant help but think that if Literary festivals are to expand then the audiences they attract must be more diverse. However this only seems to happen in the evenings currently.

The festival marquee sits on the bank of the Christ Church Meadow, the college sweeping up behind the temporary auditorium. Further back lurk the best festival toilets Ive ever seen. Wood panelling, clean floors and little paintings of coffee cups stolen from the nearest Caf Rouge adorn the walls. This is upmarket. The attendants are helpful and friendly, the rooms well sign-posted.

All of which helps you to marvel at the level of organisation exhibited by the Austrians during the Congress of Vienna, the subject of Harper Press author Adam Zamoyskis latest book Rites of Peace and also his lecture this morning in Christ Church Colleges Upper Library.

In the autumn of 1814 the various of powers of Europe decided to come together and dissect Europe as Napoleons empire began to finally crumble. Zamoyskis traditional knowledge of the event was that this was a dignified affair with heads of state and diplomats engaged in some of the most intellectual political manoeuvring of the age. The truth, as Zamoyski found, was very different.

The problems arose when all the main parties fell-out with one another. What was supposed to take four to six weeks in fact took around nine months. So both diplomatic fatigue and boredom set in, which is when the naughtiness began.

The Congress of Vienna was not simply a group of men in a locked, smoky room, thrashing out Europe between them, it was a full-on festival in its own right. Each head of state had brought family and friends, who all needed entertaining, transporting and feeding. Therefore more staff were brought into Austria, more merchants, more suppliers of booze, song and, yes, sex. In short Vienna was headed for a nine month party, causing an enormous hangover headache for Europe.

We know much of the debauchery thanks to Zamoyskis fantastic research into documents collected by Mitternich, the Austrian Chancellor who at the time was operating the worlds largest secret police force. Spies from every level of the event were drafted in to report on the activities of anyone doing anything. Low-level court members were under surveillance or if Tsar Alexander I of Russia spent too long out hunting, Mitternich knew about it.

Not that Mitternich made best use of the information, rather the culture of gossip and intrigue he had arguably created instead rebounded back on himself. While attempting to organise the drawing up of the new Europe, the Chancellor found himself suffering from the worst teenage sort of puppy love for Wilhelmina, Princess of Sagan. A fact that was used against him by Alexander during negotiations.

Thankfully our own Prince Regent wasn’t allowed anywhere near Europe remaining on the mainland UK, though Im sure he would have enjoyed the partying. Rather the British contingent was lead by the good-natured but not politically savvy Castlereagh and latterly by the Duke of Wellington himself.

Zamoyskis skill in crafting this book and indeed his lecture was to point out that each history of this event seems to be written in favour of the country from which the account was presented. Zamoyski has managed to brilliantly shape these numerous reports in to an exploration of what made these men tick and why Europe is the way it is.

Why Britain is the way it is was sort-of the subject of the first afternoon session conducted by Medieval expert and sometime tv presenter Marc Morris on the life and times of Edward I a great and terrible king. Being a fan of Medieval history myself Id been waiting for Morriss book for a while and it does not disappoint. Neither does the man himself, who delivered a fast and often funny talk on the subject of Edwards life while trying to correct a few myths about him along the way.

As one audience member asked, why do we know so much about Henry VIII or Elizabeth I and so little about Edward I? Well he is, in short, problematic. On the one hand he travels further than any English monarch until Edward the VII. When he talks about going to Crusade he actually goes. He has peace with Scotland for most his reign, there is peace with France for most of his reign. He builds amazing castles and flushes out corruption from the judiciary. He loves his wife and has 15 children with her.

So far so impressive, however the problems begin when you dig deeper. There was also war with Scotland and France. Welsh independence was crushed and Wales occupied via those amazing castles. His crusade attempts and wars cost the English people heavily in taxation. He was a raging anti-semite (though, like much of Englands population) and eventually has the Jews expelled from the country. One historian has gone as far as to compare him to Hitler.

Morris has done a brilliant job of trying to reconcile Edwards great and terrible moments and asks the questions, in order to be great, does one have to be terrible as well? After all Henry III (Edwards father) was pretty poor by comparison and caused much bloodshed with little end result. Edward at least got things done. What results is the image of King who held the ideals of chivalry most highly, but knew the power in deceit in playing a political game. And, of course, when push came to shove, the power of an almighty catapult too.

If youve had time during March to start reading Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood or The Group by Mary McCarthy, you will have noticed that psychology and psychiatry feature in both.

Collective ideologies like Marxism and Fascism shaped the political understanding of Isherwoods and McCarthys generation; Freud, Jung and the like shaped their understanding of the mind. In characterizing a group of people, a generation, a clique, Lions and Shadows and The Group both evoke the possibility of a norm, a type, and so they raise the question, What is normal? What is healthy?

In Lions and Shadows, Isherwood tells how, after flunking out of Cambridge, working as a tutor and a secretary, and getting nowhere, initially, as a writer, he decides to go to medical school. But in fact he is more interested in mental than in bodily health. The novel concludes with his decision to leave medical school and go to Berlin where he can pursue the theories of the American psychologist, Homer Lane: Every disease, Lane had taught, is in itself a cure–if we know how to take it. There is only one sin: disobedience to the inner law of our own nature. Isherwood comes to believe that bodily ills have psychological causes: the sore throat which has plagued him on and off through the book – as Weston, the Auden character, informs him – means youve been telling lies. But what has he been lying about?

Everything. His life and his writing are sham. For Isherwood, the writers own psychology presents a continual challenge to objectivity. The closer he gets to autobiography, to factual reporting, the more aware he seems to be that his mind filters, fictionalizes, and even falsifies any true account of events. And there is something more specific. In later autobiographical books, in particular Christopher and His Kind published in 1976, Isherwood makes clear that he is homosexual and that the cure which he sought in Berlin was freedom to explore his sexuality without embarrassing his family or risking arrest. In 1938 when he published Lions and Shadows, he could not write openly about such things without chancing legal prosecution. They remain coded in the novel. It is partly this repressed sexual energy which magnetizes his group of friends, a secret excitement shared among several though not all of them.

A similar repressed sexual energy is at play in The Group. Lakey, too, goes abroad to explore her sexuality, and it becomes explicitly evident to her friends only when she returns with her lover in tow. Yet her friends all felt her love intensely, and this made the group cohere. Once the members of the group begin to pursue their separate sexual identities in love and marriage, they discover that the views of the Class of 33 are anything but collective.

Harald Petersen hates Lakeys abnormality, proving himself to be far more conventional than he pretends. He is eaten up by jealousy of her power. And he cannot acknowledge his own cruelty, inconstancy, dishonesty, and irrationality. When Kays marriage to him fails, it is Kays mental health, not Haralds, which is cast into doubt. And the doubt shimmers and changes in the readers mind. At first it seems clear that Kay has been betrayed by Haraldby his affairs as well as by his committing her to the mental hospital. But the longer Kay stays in the hospital, the more mentally unwell she appears to be. Is she suffering a nervous breakdown because she has been wrongly incarcerated? Or does the institutional setting provide the vocabulary, the context, which makes it possible for the reader to recognize and name something that was wrong with her all the time?

Mirroring her story is the story of Priss Andrewss father, suffering from authentic manic-depressive psychosis. Kay is labelled crazy on leaving her marriage; Mr. Andrews, on the other hand, is suddenly labelled sane when he divorces his wife. Sane enough, anyway, to lead a free life. Is this because he is a man?

The question of Kays sanity recurs when she falls to her death from the window of her room at the Vassar Club while, evidently, straining to look for incoming Nazi airplanes. As Libby demands to know, Did she jump or fall? Kay was, in any case, desperate to express an identity distinct from the group. And, like Icarus, she flew too close to the sun.

The year after he published Lions and Shadows, Isherwood left England for good. He emigrated with Auden to the USA partly because the literary clique which had admired and supported them at home began to feel suffocating. In addition to sexual freedom, they wanted artistic freedom. Also, Isherwood was a pacifist, and sought freedom of conscience. Their self-imposed exile can be compared to Joycesthey were both readers of his work – and indeed, on the eve of their departure, Auden wrote a poem, Muse des Beaux Arts, in which the Icarus figure suggests the anxiety of breaking away from their circle of friends. Who would care, or even notice, if they failed?

everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster: the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

( The Estate of W.H. Auden)

Is it me, or has a strange thing happened to literary festivals?

Led by the relentless expansion of the legendary Hay, the last few years have seen the British lit fest leap out of its intellectual niche – and into the true mainstream of press, radio and television. Many of the country’s major music festivals now proudly boast their own literary tents; and with broadsheet sponsors, even television rights, a new audience seems to be discovering the nation’s foremost literary events.

Oxford Literature Festival

So in 2008, armed with a mean set of wheels, the Fifth Estate team will be getting out of the office and following our authors to festivals far and wide, taking a look at the nation’s new love affair with live literature. And we’re kicking off with Oxford – this week more than 250 writers descending upon the City of Spires for the 12th Oxford Literary Festival, and we at Fifth Estate will be there too.

From Wednesday, John and I will be joining some twenty Press Books authors in the surroundings of Christ Church College. Armed with camera, microphone, and unmeasured enthusiasm we’ll be posting live to the blog from the festival site – follow it all here…

Check back here midweek when we’ll be kicking everything off – and in the meantime why not catch up on our adventures at Cheltenham last year…

So here I was at the Adelaide Literary Festival along with fifteen international writers, hand picked, cellophane wrapped and air-freighted half way around the world. Ready to frolic in the South Pacific Sea. Well almost. Flying that 747 more or less single-handedly had not been easy.

Well done, texted the family. Another triumph!

I blinked. I had travelled across continents, crossing war zones, mountains and seas; places of horror and romance; Kabul, Samakand, Denpasar. I had watched as one half of the world sank into night and the other woke up, and I had passed over the Indian Ocean for the second time in my life. (The last time had been on it and going in the other direction.) Flying below the equator into Australia I had gazed at the dark enveloping desert. Then as we skimmed over Broken Hill, a single light blinked insistently up at me from the ground, a solitary reminder of humanity. All this I had done in the space of a day.

And now this early morning Adelaide sun, unexpectedly translucent, like honey. Small birds flitted through the ghost gum trees and five fat magpies with unusual markings stalked the undergrowth as the taxi put me down. Twelve thousand miles brought to a close in an astonishing moment. I stared out at the lake and parklands, my writers retreat for the next two days. It was hard to believe I had completed last summers plans. As I stood absorbing the sunlight, into the silence there came an outpouring of birdsong, magical and fluted. In that moment, the stress of leaving and arriving melted away. England seemed further away than the moon.

On a table in the communal dining room I discovered a pile of books by the writers appearing at the festival. Mine were included. An inspirational move on the part of the organizers who wanted us to relax and by reading them, get to know each other. Slowly through the mist of jet-induced tiredness, a pattern emerged that matched names with faces. I had come here knowing no one. But now, faces hitherto seen only on dust covers began appearing across the breakfast table. Amusingly, however, few bore any resemblance to the publicity images on the books. So much so that I wondered when on earth these photographs had been taken. Twenty years ago, thirty? Walking back to my room I came across a broken birds egg.

Looks as though it was attacked, a voice suggested, close in my ear.

I looked up. The man staring at the ground beside me was an author known across the entire English reading world.

Amazing! the family agreed, when I rang to tell them. Arent you glad you went? Look what an interesting time youre having.

I agreed absent-mindedly.

Were going to see the koalas, I mumbled.

I got a B for my History mocks, the teenager said. She sounded far away and disconnected.

On the bus, a holiday air prevailed. Snatches of conversation ebbed and flowed. We were passing through a long, straggling town filled with bright, flat-roofed buildings. There was a funeral parlor called RIP, a shop boasting of Rays Outdoor Equipment, an aquarium and a supermarket. The road curved, dropping down into a duel carriageway as we sped through wide sweeps of scrubland. The bush with its drooping desert oaks, its majestic eucalyptus, and spiky spinifex was all around. A sign flashed pass. Beyond Land For Sale it stated, somewhat enigmatically.

Where are the kangaroos?

No smoking on the coach please!

Conversations hummed. The movement of the bus was sending me to sleep. Dangerously, I closed my eyes. I glimpsed the Murray River. A bridge had been built over it much against the wishes of the Aboriginal women. The area, our guide told us, was a sacred site, symbolizing the womens business. I stared at the extraordinary Australian light. Kangaroos were stretched bark-brown in the sun. All around the air was fragrant with the smell of the sea; turquoise and motionless with nothing beyond except Antarctica. At lunch we made our friendships easily over glasses of cold Australian wine and fresh Orange Ruffi fish. And naturally, as in every playground, there just had to be a scapegoat. On the coach back ours fell asleep.

Looks as though hes taken a powerful muscle relaxant! giggled my companion.

The scapegoat slept with a huge smile on his face and his legs open in a come-hitherish sort of way. Someone took a photograph amidst ribald laughter. The organizers watched balefully, presumably knowing what a group of drunken writers could be like. But it was only high spirits. Then back to base for a siesta with a novel from the authors pile. Strangest of all was the act of reading words by someone with whom I had just lunched.

The days of the retreat sped by and all too soon it was time to depart for the hotel in Adelaide. The festival was about to commence. The heat rose by several notches, the pavements were beginning to melt. At the Hilton some of the party were without rooms. I tried to connect my computer to the internet and failed. We felt cut off from the rest of the world. Struggling a little with these small irritations we walked across town to look at the festival tents being set up. I began to feel unnerving twinges of stage fright at the thought of the audience.

Then, subtly, all of us began to change. Call it nerves or insecurity, it amounted to the same thing. We began to drink too much, smoke too much, gossip a lot, and scream with laughter. Feeling more and more dislocated I rang home hoping that the familiar voices would reassure me but home was strangely removed from this new reality. Distance had defamilarized my family, giving their voices an annoying echo that unsynchronized our conversation.

What time is it? I asked.

Weve put you on speaker phone. Everyones here. Hows it going?

Although they sounded their usual boisterous selves it was hard to imagine the evening in Oxford. The heat was bearing down on me.

Ive been looking at the Pacific, I said, lamely.

Are you still tired? my husband asked.

“Mum, were all going out to dinner later.

There was a disconnected pause as I struggled to explain the experiences that had bombarded me in the last few days.

How was your maths exam? was all I could say.

Ive dyed my hair. (Such was my sense of disorientation that I let that pass only to sit bolt upright in horror in the middle of the night.)

That evening, when the room situation was sorted out, a group of us tentatively left our air conditioned castle in search of a restaurant; a subdued group of disparate people who had mislaid their authorial voice while gaining another, more anxious one. Australia was out there somewhere in the darkness. Had I flown across the world crossing ancient civilizations to arrive in 1950s England, I asked myself? Yet bemused though I was, I suspected there was more to it than I understood.

We ordered wine from this New World. Cold, white, delicious. The Brazilian writer smiled breezily. I love everyone, his smile seemed to say. My wife, my baby son, my computer. All of you. We sighed collectively, a jet-lagged, weary sigh. The air was hot as from an open oven. I felt the sky spin. Tomorrow the festival would begin.

Youre so tiny, the tall writer in the straw hat said, faintly. How can you be so tiny?

There were no cicadas here, no breeze. I had loved the retreat with its ghost gum trees rustling in the cooler breeze.

I seldom keep up with the writers I meet on my travels, the Brazilian was saying, lighting another cigarette.

Scented smoke, from a different city.

What time is your meet-the-writer session?

Mines not until Thursday, unfortunately.

I wont come to Australia again, the Irishman said with finality. Its too bloody far, really.

Such hard work.

We nodded. The wind blew hotly against our faces.

Im longing to get back to my book.

All encounters with the writer are events after the facts, said the oldest and most established amongst us, gently. And almost inevitably they are a letdown!

We were silent. Exhausted I scanned the night sky. This was the Southern hemisphere for Gods sake! Why wasnt I more excited? The bar was belting out music of the most fearful kind as the waitress brought the bill.

Here you go! she said with confusing cheerfulness.

Can we pay by card?

No worries, she replied, guilelessly.

Perhaps, said the writer with the straw hat, a shade wistfully, perhaps she really doesnt have any.

In my hotel room I stared at the pulsating neon lights and the empty tennis court below. A building of sand-blasted cleanliness stood unlit and empty. Beyond Land For Sale, I thought. But where was Australia? Where was its heart? I had come all this way; I did not want to leave until I found it.

Bemused, unable to understand the slippages of difference, I could only pay attention to trivia of the most banal sort. Names like Newcastle and Paddington and Kings Cross buzzed around my head. Subtle differences are harder to grasp at the best of times. Now all I could do was worry over my meet-the author session. So no, Australia did not reveal itself to me. Not then. Relentless blue skies and flat David Hockney buildings, the sheer scale of the place, everything, was too much; I struggled in a suffocating blanket of heat- riddled tiredness.

Perhaps, I thought having finished the dreaded talk, I should not have come. Perhaps this place was too vast, too puzzling for me to understand? But then as I began the book signing, people began to talk to me. From all across Australia stories began creeping tentatively out. Of loss and migration and always, they mentioned distance. Of families, separated not by war or need, but by intermarriage or a desire to live in Europe. The feelings of separation were the same. Feelings are feelings.

In Sydney there was an electrifying storm. The sails of the Opera House merged into the sea. Fruit bats dive-bombed across the city. There followed, a dozen radio interviews and later, the desert. The red heart of Australia, looking like a series of Hockney drawings. A child must have invented Australia, painstakingly blocking in its colours. Very soon I would be on the long flight away from this translucent sun.

Youll have a shock, they warned me at home. Its freezing!

In this way, touching briefly down in a night-bejeweled Bangkok, I returned wearily home. To the rain. Leaving the sunshine behind.

All was as before. The cat threaded himself between my legs, purring. The teenager reverted to childhood at the sight of me. All was as Id left it. Only I, with my strange waking hours and crippling tiredness was different. Memories disturbed my sleep. Life would go on in Australia, I realized with unexpected sadness, the sun would rise and set over the great planes of the red desert, changing from flame red to soft-crayon, purple in Ayers Rock. Small birds would utter their liquid sounds, fruit bats would fly in their thousands at dusk, but I would not see any of it.

At that, a curious transformation appeared to take place within me. For memory, that impossible inner measure of the mind, began working its magic. Here in rain-washed Oxford, the sunset on the yellow Cotswold stone reminded me of another place. The impenetrable distances, the monumental emptiness I had witnessed, began to invade my thoughts. Silently they expanded. More saturated and vivid than I had believed possible. The eyes lens having refracted the images, pasted down the experiences and began replaying them. Clearly it appeared to me, unforgettably; Australia, recollected in tranquility.

Lucy Lum was only a small girl when the Japanese invaded Singapore in the early forties, and already a victim of violence within her own home. Born into a matriarchal Chinese immigrant family, Lucy suffered for years at the hands of her fearsome and superstitious grandmother – a firm believer in the old ways, in stomach-churning herbalist remedies, in the dubious fortune-telling of mystics…and in mischievous little girls like Lucy knowing their place.

Originally self-published by her family, Lucy’s memoir The Thorn of Lion City, is out in paperback next month – we asked her a few questions about her incredible experiences…

Detail from the cover of the Thorn of Lion City

Could you tell me when you first decided to write your memoir, and why you wished to share your story?

The events of my childhood have never been far from my mind and for a very long time I wanted to write about my experiences but did not know how to begin. So there never was a sharp decision point it was over many years. As a child I didnt understand why my sister and I were treated differently from my brothers. I was whipped with canes and burnt with wicks but my brothers were always fussed over and never had even a harsh word spoken to them.

I wanted to tell my story about what it was like in my home where superstitions and painful traditions were the norm; where animal charts and astrologers, and divination sessions at the temple in Chinatown for the deities to answer my grandmothers questions were the bases for huge life-changing decisions and for even the little things like winning at mah-jongg.

Watching my grandmother, my mother or my aunt banging the muichais heads against the floor or beating them till they were black and blue reinforced the questions I had about the horrible ways imported by my grandmothers family, from Canton in China, that seemed to say, This is how it has always been and will always be. No one is going to change it.

But sharing my story meant more to me than just a revelation of these things. I wanted to remember my father who had succeeded in protecting his family from the Japanese occupiers persecution of the Chinese in Singapore, but was powerless to stop my grandmothers and mothers brutality.

You mention on your website that you joined a writers group. Can you talk a little about how that helped you to tell your story?

I remember reading the first pages of my memoir to the students in my writers workshop I was very nervous: it was about my life, about my father, about strange Chinese customs and traditions and, surely, no one would be interested. There was criticism but, unexpectedly, I had the first Whats going to happen next to question.

Week after week I read the pages I had written and it was perhaps a few months into the class when I felt that I could complete the work. The interest and curiosity shown in my class encouraged me and helped me to believe that, perhaps, others may also be interested and I could get my memoir published.

Could you share with readers how you came to leave Singapore and come to England?

When I was abandoned by my mother I never got the education I needed to be like my father and I promised myself that I would not let that happen to my children. I resolved to send them overseas so that they could have a wide choice of universities and I left Singapore to join my son in London.

Its unusual for someone to start publishing in their seventies. Can you talk about the experience of trying to find an agent, and a publisher, for your book?

When I felt that my book could be published it never occurred to me that age was a barrier.

It had taken several years of polishing and editing, and perhaps I shouldnt have been surprised but I was that after a rapt audience of a group of students at my writers workshop had convinced me my story was worth listening to, I was rejected by every one of the eight literary agents I had sent my chapters to.

I had no intention of giving up but I didnt know what to do next. My son saw my disappointment. Although he had no experience of publishing he managed to publish my memoir and sell it into a major chain of book stores in England. It was my good luck that the buyer at the book chain felt that my memoir needed a far wider audience than a small publisher could offer and sent a copy to a large publisher in London. They liked it and decided to publish.

Has writing this book, or perhaps the years that have passed since their deaths, made you feel any differently towards your mother and grandmother?

After I had moved to England I visited my mother in Singapore many times to find answers and reasons for the things she had done but there was no resolution. When our conversations touched on these things we ended up in quarrels and I would leave and return to London. Its easy for me to say Forgive and forget, but it would sound hollow. When I could not take my eyes off the maggots on my grandmothers face at the funeral parlour all those years ago, a huge sense of relief did overcome me.

The memory of the pain, both physical and psychological, inflicted by them on my father, my sister, the muichai and me can never be erased. My mother and grandmother were, indeed, evil people. Although I have found peace with myself through writing my memoir, my feelings towards them remain the same.

Daniel’s debut novel, Broken, chronicles the havoc wrought on one British housing estate by a single uncontrollable family. Narrated by eleven year old Skunk Cunningham – trapped deep inside a coma – Daniel’s tragic comedy follows one community’s reaction to the neighbours from hell…

But how exactly can you pull off a novel that dares to cross the humour of Shameless with the emotion of To Kill a Mockingbird? Daniel’s been posting regularly on Fifth Estate in the run up to Broken’s release this month – last week I dragged him into the Filing Cupboard for a rather cramped discussion about the book, and about his own decade-long path to publication…


Broken Cover Detail

Apparently there’s a bit of Climate Change going around – so say our friends at Provokateur.

ACME Climate Action isn’t just a book – it’s a tear-out mission ‘to challenge the forces of Grievous Climate Behaviour’. Use it correctly and youll be posting, making, clicking, inspiring, reducing, campaigning, recycling and doing this book wont just tell you what to do, it will give you the kit to actually do something about climate change. And you can even turn the cover into a picture frame.

We’re publishing ACME Climate Action in June – and this short, fun film neatly sums up our very unusual project. Wed love to know what you think.

As an editor, you can shout your passion for a book from the rooftops and sometimes it just gets caught up in the cacophony of the hundreds of thousands of other wonderful books out there waiting to be read.

We try to come up with new ideas to make sure that each new book reaches a reader wholl love it and so, when The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal landed on desks at HC HQ, we were inspired to launch it as creatively as we could in the hope of making it stand out from the crowd.

Missing Cover Image

We thought about how to reach the imaginative and interesting people we felt sure would love the book and came up with two main ideas:

  • We would thrown the gates open to any aspiring artists and budding designers out there to flex their creative muscles and come up with a fantastic cover design for the hardback;
  • We would approach the Saatchi Gallery to see if they would like to come on board with us. Luckily they thought this was a great idea too.

    The design competition has been open for a little while now and, very excitingly, weve been inundated with entries already. Theres still plenty of time to add your design; the competition is open until mid April. Visit the Saatchi Gallery for all the details including extracts of the novel itself.

    I really love this book – so Ive been inspired to see the visions that artists and readers have had for it. If I could, I’d press a copy of the book into the hands of everyone I met. No, why stop there? Make that everyone I ever sat next to on the bus, everyone who was sitting alone at a bar waiting for a friend, every unsuspecting person soaking up the sunshine in the park, whispering, Try this one; youll love it.

    And Im not alone (luckily; its never a nice feeling). The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal has been voted one of the best novels of 2007 in Canada where it was first published (its known as The Girls Who Saw Everything over there).

    Bloggers in Canada have taken it to their hearts: Every chapter is filled with biff, bang, pow surprises! Suspend your disbelief and thrill in the oddities says She Does the City – and the impressively named Three Squirrels in a Pressure Cooker declared it the most enjoyable book that I have read this year’:

    I loved it start to finish, and lost a full day devoted to doing nothing but following the adventures of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Womens Book Club. If youre to buy one book this year, make it this one. Seriously, there is magic here, beautiful magic.

    Were all invigorated by working creatively and imaginatively on this book but dont tell our bosses that really were pretty hooked on the competition, checking back for new entries when we probably ought to be doing something much less exciting.

    Its been a fantastic journey so far and were still some way off publication in July. So please, come, join us, and be part of the magical world of the Lacuna Cabal.

  • The governor of New York state closed down at least two escort agencies during his former incarnation
    as Attorney General – yet he chose to shop for sex on the Internet. Was he trying to get caught? Or
    was he really that arrogant?

    I talk about it here on the NY Times opinion page.

    How do you want to get your financial advice? If you are remotely like much of the population the answer is for free. And youll like the sound of Otto Thorsen.

    Thorsen has spent the last 14 months working on a Treasury sponsored review into financial advice for the general public. His conclusion? That 49m a year be spent on establishing a nationwide service offering free generic financial advice on matters ranging from mortgages to simple household budgeting – to all UK citizens. It would be called Money Guidance.

    Our financial needs are really quite simple

    I rather like this idea. Independent Financial Advisers are big on the idea that all of our lives are terribly different (or complex as they like to put it) and that we all need individually tailored advice – but it isnt really true. Most of us have remarkably simple finances. One current account, one savings account, an ISA if we are lucky, credit card debts if we are not and a pension.

    So we dont need complicated tax planning advice and we dont need to learn about the derivatives markets or compare. We just need to know where to go to find the highest interest rates for our savings, how ISAs work, why we should pay off our debts before we start saving, and a bit about the pension system so we dont end up getting too ripped off by the scores of rogue providers out there.

    The truth is that my finances and my financial priorities – are pretty much the same as those of most other thirtysomething women. So a website which I could visit regularly clicking on a button that said perhaps female, 30s, mother or some such and get updated information on childcare vouchers, the best ways of keeping pension contributions going during career breaks, a rundown of how to make a proper will and a review of the cash ISA deals on offer would suit me just fine.

    A better use of 49m a year?

    However much as I like the idea Im afraid that I still think it might not be the best use of the 49m a year. Why? Because a huge percentage of the UK population is too numerically illiterate to make any use of it at all. A recent report from KPMG showed that more than a quarter of UK adults struggle to add up prices in their heads when they are out shopping and a fifth do not know that 8 is the square root of 64. 39% of fathers say they struggle to help their children with their maths homework.

    No wonder most of the population is incapable of comparing credit cards or debt and no wonder most people havent a clue how their pension works. Given this might it not be better to hand the money over to maths teachers in an effort to incentivise them to actually teach their students something? Or failing that to the Every Child a Chance charity which aims to help children having difficulties with simple numbers as early as seven. Adult innumeracy is one of the greatest scourges facing the country, its chairman John Griffith-Jones told The Times.

    I dont suppose this is a particularly likely outcome given that to work to improve the teaching of mathematics in schools would be to admit that it is currently shockingly bad (which I wouldnt do) but I suspect that long run it would serve the country rather better than setting up an internet site to offer information that most of us are perfectly capable of finding elsewhere.

    Why avoiding the commission system is getting easier

    In the meantime those of us that do want complex financial advice should accept that it isnt free. Ive written many times about the evils of the commission system whereby you pay nothing upfront for financial advice but allow your IFA to help himself to often overly high commissions on everything you buy so Im pleased to be able to report that it is getting easier and easier to find advisers willing to take hourly fees instead.

    We have our own list of the ones that have contacted us on the MoneyWeek website but many more can now be found via the Forum for Fee Based Advice founded in November last year: it has 70 member firms and is lobbying hard (and quite rightly) for the FSA to create a market structure where by a clear distinction is made between what it calls sales firms where product sales and commission income are the primary drivers of consumer contact and advisory firms defined as those free from conflict of interest.

    They hope to have a search engine up and running so you can find a good adviser near you in the not too distant future – but in the meantime you can contact the head of the forum John Lang at Tower Hill Associates.

    For more tips and advice, visit the personal finance pages of the MoneyWeek website – or check out Merryn’s new book, Love is Not Enough.

    Over the weekend a Guardian article on the 50 most powerful blogs pointed me back once again to – one of the most rewarding, insightful and fun literary blogs around.

    Since September 2003 web designer Phil Gyford has posted the daily entries from Samuel Pepys famous diaries in ‘real time’ – now nearly five years into the experiment (and passing swiftly through Spring 1665) the site includes an impressive bank of articles, comments, annotations and maps, all linked into the great man’s idiosyncratic scribbles…

    Samuel Pepys

    Pepys needs little introduction: his disconcertingly detailed diary of daily London life in the 1660s also covers many of that century’s greatest events, from the restoration of Charles II to the Great Fire of London – and its charred aftermath. But if his ten volumes have always seemed a little too intimidating, the blog’s the perfect chance to dip casually into a decade’s worth of writing. Here’s just one choice excerpt last week’s posts:

    And so home, and there find our new chamber-mayde, Mary, come, which instead of handsome, as my wife spoke and still seems to reckon, is a very ordinary wench, I think, and therein was mightily disappointed. To my office, where busy late, and then home to supper and to bed, and was troubled all this night with a pain in my left testicle, that run up presently into my left kidney and there kept akeing all night.

    Head over to find out how the testicle situation develops – and if you’re versed in the dark arts of RSS you can grab Sam’s feed for a daily dose of seventeenth century living. According to my calendar, we’re about three weeks away from the start of London’s Great Plague

    Rudolph Delson’s debut novel, Maynard and Jennica, has provoked strong reactions since it was released late last year – just check out the fimo if you need any convincing.

    Packed with a cast of eccentric characters, not to mention the peculiar voices of more than thirty different narrators, Maynard and Jennica is a very modern New York love story. Rudy’s been a regular contributor to Fifth Estate: when he passed through London last week I dragged him into the filing cupboard for a conversation, and for what must be one of our most unusual readings…


    Maynard and Jennica

    Along with a reading from fictional rap star ‘Puppy’ Jones, Rudy explained the appeal of living with so wide a cast of characters. We also discussed the challenges of using 9/11 in fiction – the final third of the book sees the attack on the Twin Towers weave it’s way into the lives of all the characters. And while Maynard and Jennica may be Rudolph’s first published novel, it’s actually his third completed book: I asked how rejected writers find the strength to keep going…

    The Easter Holidays are approaching – and unless you can lay hands on a flying nanny with a suitcase full of wholesome activities, the kids will need to be entertained. So now – while you still can – might be the best time to get stuck into Cristina Odone’s The Dilemmas of Harriet Carew.

    Better yet, of course, would be the chance to pack the little darlings off to grandmas house and retreat to a spa with a good book in hand. So just to be extra specially nice this cold and windy March, here at Fifth Estate we’re giving you the chance to win a one-night break at a Champneys Health Spa.

    Detail from cover image

    This gift-giving frivolity has been inspired by Observer and Telegraph columnist Cristina Odone: Cristinas novel follows working-mum Harriet, her husband and their kids, as they struggle to make ends meet (and the arrival of a wealthy and single ex-boyfriend throws a bit of a spanner into the works too).

    To enter, all you have to do is follow this link to another bunch of nice people dedicated to helping you deal with those smaller and more troublesome members of the household and fill in their form.

    Best of luck!

    Back when I was six years old, the teacher of the class I was in made us produce our own novel. We had to write a story, illustrate it, come up with a title, write a blurb for the back and, of course, produce a front cover. The winner got five stars.

    While everyone else rushed to get scissors and glue and crayons, I got on with writing my novel, a multi-layered psychological thriller about a dinosaur eating all the kids in the playground.

    As ever, the writing process took longer than Id imagined and all Id produced by the end of the lesson was a ten page story called ‘Run’. I did try to put a cover together at the last minute, but as Id never been any good at folding, the front ended up three inches longer than the back, which detracted from the quality of the writing (I can still remember the teachers sigh now).

    Everyone else in the class, on the other hand, had perfectly bound manuscripts with colour drawings on the front to go with their two or three paragraph stories. Needless to say, even though mine was the better novel, I didnt win the five stars. The injustice still haunts me today.

    So I dont have a great track record with covers. Ive never picked up a novel because I liked the look of a cover and, in many cases, the cover has put me off reading novels Ive gone on to enjoy. For me, the magic of a novel lies in the strength of the story, the writing, not the way its been packaged, and Id be happy if they all came in black.

    Which is a pity, because Ive had every opportunity to be involved in the decision making process for Brokens front cover, and havent been able to come up with a single useful idea. The publishers have had to do all the thinking themselves.

    The first idea, in the UK, was to commission an illustrator to draw Brokens main character, an eleven year old girl named Skunk, spelling out BROKEN with objects that feature in the novel. They had an illustrator in mind and e-mailed a couple of examples of the illustrators work through for me to look at. Straight away, I thought the idea was completely original, loved the illustrators style, and couldnt wait to see the finished product. Several weeks later, this came through.

    First Broken cover

    I saw it in e-mail format first, and can still remember watching it roll out on screen. Despite my general apathy towards covers, it was brilliant to think someone had produced this off the back of something Id written, and I fell in love with it straight away.

    Sadly, there are so many things that have to be taken into account for a cover who it will appeal to, what sort of age bracket it suggests the novel is aimed at, what its saying about the type of novel it is that getting an image is often the starting point of the debate, not the end. There are also so many people who need to agree the editor, the artist, the art director, the writer, the agent, sales and marketing, the buyers for the book-stores who will be involved in promoting the novel that its a miracle any decisions ever get made. The more this image was discussed, the more it was felt that it wasnt quite right.

    Which led to attempt number two:

    Second Broken Cover image

    Again, I fell in love with this straight away, mainly because the girl in the photo looks exactly as Ive always imagined Skunk. I also really like the grittiness of the background, and the fact Skunks dressed in contemporary clothing. Unlike the split opinions on the first cover, everyone seemed delighted with this one, so it looked like our decision was made.

    Then, as more feedback came in, doubts were raised that the image was again not quite the right look – and it was back to the drawing board once again.

    While all this was going on in England, Id also been getting e-mails from the US and Canada asking for my thoughts on the cover for their markets. Again, I didnt have any, so I left them to do their own thing. My editor in Canada said they were thinking along the lines of an illustration and my editor in the US said their art director wanted to do something contemporary and edgy, maybe using cigarettes as part of the image.

    What the Americans actually came up with was this:

    Broken Cover

    The moment I saw it, I knew. Even though its not contemporary, its got an edge of mystery, an edge of danger, and the girl, to me, looks really scared. I want to know what shes thinking, I want to know that shell be ok. This, for me, is the essence of Broken. The reader knows from the first page that the narrator is in a coma, and the drive of the book is to find out whats happened to her and if shell decide to pull through. This was the cover I wanted.

    Happily, I wasnt the only one to think this, as the UK and Canada have decided to go with it as well. Given it will go on sale here this month, its going to be a strange experience to go into a bookstore and actually look out for the cover of a novel.

    Its going to be even stranger thirty-two years after my last disastrous attempts at creating a novel to get my hands on something Ive written thats been so beautifully produced.

    To celebrate the release of Miracles of Life we’ve been showcasing lots of Ballardian work, from our Times Online competition to design a cover for Crash and’s video interview. Now we can now add to that list the First Ballardian Home Movies Festival.


    Simon Sellars, chief archivist over at decided to create a competition where people could post short, one-minute movies, created any way they liked, relating to the subject of ‘Ballardian’. He got in contact in with us and asked if we’d be able to help.

    The result: we’re supplying some books as prizes and I got to do some judging. You can see the results here and see my attempts at some equally arty criticism. Clearly J.G. Ballard continues to inspire some truly imaginative work…

    At the start of this year, I suggested you read Willa Cathers The Song of the Lark and James Joyces The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, two novels which trace the development of artists in opposition to the provincial communities in which they grow up. During March and April, try two very different accounts of the artistic sensibility: Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood and The Group by Mary McCarthy. These novels are about circles of friends who discover themselves through one another.

    March's Reading Selections

    Isherwood subtitled his novel ‘An Education in the Twenties’. His generationMcCarthy was six years younger than Isherwood–came to maturity just in time for the Thirties. On leaving university, they were greeted by the Depression, and many of them were attracted to communism, the ideology of the group. They were concerned with the material condition of society, and as artists they were aware of themselves as part of a wave of events moving in a broad historical and cultural context.

    To them, the Romantic individualist was a forlorn, old-fashioned figure. Theirs was a rebellion of all youth against age, of children against authority. They shifted fiction closer to fact, inventing the new genre, reportage. And despite what may seem like earnest political inclinations or journalistic preoccupation with accuracy, they dared not take themselves too seriously. Their wit is aimed most mockingly at themselves; both of these novels are very funny.

    Lions and Shadows is an autobiography, but Isherwood introduced it by saying it contains no `revelations; it is never `indiscreet; it is not even entirely `true. Yet its impossible not to recognize their real life originals in his extravagant portraits of himself, Edward Upward, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, among others. Isherwood fictionalizes in order to enhance his impressions of life, and he thereby achieves a sharper truth, a set of insights about how his generation thought and conducted themselves at school, at university, and in young adult life.

    He shows the way in which their shared obsessions, their taste, their jokes, their excited, highly literary sense of humour, the peculiar style and slang of their clique, began to evolve into the predominant artistic language of their time. It was the bond among them which gave them the nerve to defy established values; when Isherwood writes joke answers on his Cambridge exams and is asked to leave the university (just as he hoped), he is thinking all the while how thoroughly his recklessness will entertain his friends when he tells them.

    McCarthys novel The Group is about eight women who graduated from Vassar together in 1933as McCarthy herself did. It opens at the determinedly unconventional wedding of one and proceeds, almost as a group of linked stories rather than a novel, to cover the various milieus and social strata into which the young women disperse in their new lives in, mostly, Manhattan.

    The characters are individuals, but they are also types, and they illustrate a broad sociological spread, considering they are united by possessing a diploma from Vassar. Their sexual adventures are told with candour that, even now, is both shocking and heartbreaking. Lions and Shadows seems comparatively shy, but Isherwoods book appeared in 1938; McCarthy published hers in 1963, by which time Isherwood was writing even more outspokenly than she about sex. Plenty of McCarthys material is surprisingly up to date; her episode on breast feeding could easily appear in a novel published today.

    The Group is fraught with the jostling tensions of a female clique in which the struggle to join and to stay in never really abates. It portrays a Vassar education as about the most progressive and challenging a young woman could receive at the time, yet, perhaps paradoxically, this very education leaves nearly every member of the group convinced that her Vassar classmates are the only members of her generation who really matter. The men they keenly pursue cant make the inner circle, and most of the women are more concerned to impress one another than anyone outside the clique. For some, their obsession with one another is more destructive than supportive. Only a few break free of it.

    If you find that The Group lags a little in the middle, persevere; the ending gives the book shape and reveals with a predictable but satisfying twist what kind of love formed the epicentre of the clique and made it unrefusable.

    I’m a big fan of J.G. Ballard’s atmospheric and unsettling novels. His first book The Drowned World, describes a London transformed into tropical swampland – in later works like Crash and Kingdom Come, the transformation is more subtle, featuring quiet British surburbs that seethe with hidden violence.

    It’s always tempting to pin a writer’s themes on their own personal histories – but critics have long assumed that Ballard’s curious themes would have found their beginning in his childhood in occupied Shanghai, and subsequent internment in the Lunghua Concentration Camp.


    J.G. Ballard as a young boy in Shanghai
    In his autobiography, Miracles of Life, Ballard speaks plainly about the experiences only fictionally described in Empire of the Sun. In this short extract from the book, read by Tim Piggot-Smith, Ballard describes the immediate aftermath of the Chinese defeat in 1937 – while bodies rot in the city’s verges, the international community continues its daily round of parties and daytrips. And in a scene recognisable to anyone familiar with his autobiographical novel, the young J.G. discovers an old, battered fighter plane…

    What do Nick Cohen, Max Hastings, Robert Fisk, Merryn Somerset Webb and approximately eighty other Press Books authors all have in common?

    Quite simply, they’re all journalists: and a new site has just made it easier than ever to discover the work they do away from HarperCollins. Journalisted is an initiative of the Media Standards Trust it’s a new, not-for-profit website that makes it easier to find out more about journalists and what they write about.

    Some newspapers

    Journalisted is a database of UK journalists, including articles going back to October 2007 from 14 major national news outlets (12 newspapers plus Sky and the BBC). Its still at beta stage, and as yet not quite comprehensive, but it’s certainly an admirable effort. The site aims to make journalism more transparent – creating a sense of accountability that might keep journalists on their toes, whilst highlighting those that provide the very best coverage.

    There are also some great features for readers – you can create a list of your favourite journalists, for example, and receive emails each time they write a new article. Given that the world of journalism provides the book trade with so many of its authors, a site like this could be a handy place for eager publishers to check out both leading names and emerging talent.

    You can even search journalists and articles by subject. For instance, searching madeleine reveals that from eight journalists in total, Vanessa Allen of the Daily Mail has the most bylines to date (no surprises there), as well as telling me that Vanessa has written more about ‘madeleine’ than anything else.

    Journalisted profiles also contain stacks of trivia. Whats Left? author Nick Cohen has written more about labour than anything else, and an awful lot about livingstone in the last month. If youre particularly journo-geekish, you might like to know that Nicks average article length is 692 words. Meanwhile, Max Hastings has written 44,601 words, of which britain, iraq and hussein were the most mentioned.

    New organisation bloggers are to be added shortly (does 5th Estate count? Ed.), as well as a planned increase in the number of publications from which articles are sourced. On the horizon are features giving journalists the opportunity to add further information about themselves, and a fascinating tool which should compare articles to press releases – so lazy journalists beware…

    More than eighty Press Books writers are listed on the site – head over to and have a look for yourself.

    “Stripper power! Go Diablo!”

    That’s how my friend Susan, a stripper for 15 years, responds to the news of Diablo Cody’s Oscar for best screenplay. At, a blogger known to me as MHB cites Diablo’s tattoo — “a bikini-clad + rope bound lass” — as a reminder that the screenwriter “was once a stripper.” According to MHB, Juno’s dialog is “strongly rooted in the self-aware and acerbic style of writing oft found in sex worker literature.”

    Thank you, MHB. But who is MHB? (Full disclosure: I found because a reader known as Christian Dior wanted to show me the Manhattan Call Girl reference in MHB’s post.)

    Not everyone is feeling as excited as Susan. Or myself. Some unfortunate-sounding malcontents have cobbled together a Diablo-dissing parody which was posted at SpoutBlog. Sad!

    The go-to guy, if you want historical perspective — and who doesn’t? — is Richard Porton, one of the editors at Cineaste and author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination.

    “Even the most successful screenwriters working today are not household names for the general public,” he tells me. “Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges had to become directors to become famous. So it’s great that Diablo Cody is helping to put writers on the map even as it creates a big backlash and a lot of jealousy.”

    I find this rather bracing. The price of writer power?

    “There have been famous screenwriters in the past like Robert Towne (Chinatown) and Ben Hecht,” he points out, but they didn’t have Diablo’s kind of visibility. “Of course, they didn’t write during the age of the Internet. That seems to make a big difference.”

    Film and the Anarchist Imagination is an excellent guide to anarchist thinking, some of which plays a role in today’s sex worker activism. Richard’s book is also available in Spanish.

    I was at a talk the other night given by a writer whos currently flying high in the bestseller charts, and he had a frightening story to tell.

    Several years ago he was in London discussing the novel hed just finished over lunch with his editor, getting feedback and agreeing what work still needed to be done. The writer had the feeling his editor wasnt entirely enthused with this particular novel but felt nothing had been raised that couldnt be put right.

    As an aside, however, his editor asked what he was working on at the moment, a conversation that resulted in the writer handing over a computer disk containing the first hundred pages of an as yet unfinished novel

    Two days later, the writer gets a phone call from his editor: scrap the novel we were discussing. I want to publish this one instead. And it needs to be done in five weeks. So thats what the writer did.

    Another writer, Chandler McGrew, explained how his elation at getting a six figure contract for his debut novel soured somewhat when his new editor said, in a throwaway manner, Could you add a second killer?

    Welcome to the world of the edit: if you think the hard works done when you finally get offered your contract, its time to start thinking again.

    Between your novel selling and being signed off to go to print, there are three stages it has to go through an edit where you liase with your editor to get the writing, plot, characterisation and themes as highly polished as possible, an edit where a copy-editor goes through your manuscript for continuity, grammar, plus any of the above they feel still needs to be addressed, and, finally, page-proof sign-off your last chance to spot any mistakes.

    For me, with Broken selling in the UK, the US and Canada, I had three editors giving me feedback during the first of these stages, so ended up with a page of notes from Canada, a marked up manuscript plus four or five pages of notes from the UK, and another marked up manuscript (plus another four or fives pages of notes) from the US.

    Once all this feedback was in, I redrafted until I felt Id addressed everything I wanted to address, then e-mailed the revised manuscript back to my editors. We then had two or three months where we continued to question everything in the novel in an attempt to get it as good as it could possibly be.

    The points raised at this stage typically included typos, queries on what was motivating characters to do certain things, questions on localisms in the novel (Housing Association properties alongside private residencies, for instance, are quite common where the novel is set, but not so elsewhere), and requests for confirmation that Id researched police procedures and other events in the text.

    Once this stage was complete, things went quiet for a few weeks while the copy-editor got to work. Then there were more notes and another marked up manuscript to go through before, finally, we reached the page proof stage, and a last chance to spot any mistakes.

    All in all, from the editors first seeing the manuscript to giving final sign off took about six months. Im not sure how typical this is, but Ive read somewhere that eight months is the standard period of time set aside.
    If youre ever lucky enough to go through this process, Id say have an open mind to any suggestions your editors make. Ive heard some writers talk about editors as if theyre the enemy, and Ive heard plenty of unpublished writers swear theyll never make changes to their manuscripts, but I think a writer is always going to be too close to a manuscript to have a completely objective view.

    I also think, once youve written your novel, the more feedback you can get, the better its amazing how one small query can lead you off in a completely different direction, and by the time the edit was finished, Broken had grown in length by eight thousand words, the fates of two major characters had changed, and the strength of the novel the ending in particular had gone up several notches. Although it was stressful to have my writing put under such scrutiny by three people who were total strangers to me at the start of the process, it was also extremely rewarding, and an experience Ill never forget.

    Funnily enough, the most stressful part wasnt the redrafting, it was the page proofs. No matter how often I looked through the manuscript, I never felt Id checked it enough. Even now, with the novel being physically printed at a factory somewhere in Devon, Im convinced its riddled with mistakes. Ive even got a photocopy of the page-proofs on my desk. Several times a day, I go to a random page and look for the typos Ive missed. A few times, over the past few weeks, Ive even woke up from dreams where Ive found them, and have had to get up and come in here to check its not true.

    Sad? Natural? Ive no idea, but if any other writers out there have been through this, it would be nice to know Im not insane or completely alone

    I’m delighted to learn that former sex worker Diablo Cody (Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper) won the Oscar last night for best screenplay. And very touched that Diablo thanked her family “for loving me exactly the way I am.”

    Go here to read my take on Juno, a film I enjoyed without reservation or apology. I’ve no idea why some feel the need to apologize for liking Juno. The movie is under attack for being a “twee vector”, for being anti-abortion, for its “precious” soundtrack and — most absurdly — for its witty dialog.

    Oh well. I liked it! Especially the much-critiqued dialog. As Diablo said last night, “This is for the writers.”

    I’m happy when a film has real dialog — and no, that’s not necessarily the same thing as realistic dialog.

    That a Chicago Sun-Times critic who purports to be “old-school feminist” (and a father) hated Juno only convinces me I’m on the right track!

    I recently met up with a personal finance expert who asked me if I had yet set up a stakeholder pension for my small child. I havent. And whats more, I dont intend to.

    I know that in theory its a good idea. Put the annual allowable amount of 3,600 gross into a pension every year for ten years for a child who is two now and its hard to see how they cant have a happy retirement. So why arent I doing it for mine? Simple. She wont be hitting retirement age for many decades to come and I just dont trust the Goverment not to change the rules between now and then.

    Why shouldnt a hard-up chancellor struggling with the legacy of Gordon Browns overblown public spending policy suddenly decide that the under-21s cant have pensions and claw back any gains? Whos to say that the annuity system under which any tax gains we may have made on pensions, are then ripped from us by the financial services companies, wont become more, not less, restrictive?

    And given the paucity of fund choice when it comes to stakeholders, how can I know that in the end getting her one will be any better for her than simply drip-feeding money on her behalf into a soft commodities-based Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF)? I also wonder whether this passion for investing for our children via various Government-sponsored schemes (and in this I include child trust funds) really makes sense. My own pension is far from full enough (recent estimates from my Self Invested Personal Pension provider tell me Im currently on track to get a pension of just under 3,000 a year), so surely Im better filling that up than anything else?

    Secure your own future first

    The way I see it, the best way to secure your childrens future is first to secure your own. Most people of new parenting age are in debt (the average non-mortgage debt of the under-30s is around 7,000) and have as pathetic a pension as I do. To start squirreling money away in stakeholder pensions and child trust funds before you sort this is surely getting your priorities wrong. Will your children thank you for signing them up for a pension before theyre out of nappies if the end result is that they have to spend their 30s figuring out a way to pay for your nursing home fees, because you never got round to sorting out your own savings?

    I doubt it. Therell be no toddler stakeholders in my house. Savings are going to be all about the adults at least until we own houses outright and have full pensions and Isas. That way, not only will our children never have to support us, but if theyre lucky (and one of Gordons successors is in a good mood), they may even inherit a bit too.

    So while were on the topic of managing your own savings, theres a few things you should be doing before the end of the tax year. I know its a few weeks away, but its worth being organised to make sure you take full advantage of the various tax allowances that work on a use it or lose it basis.

    Two things to do before April 5th

    The most obvious one is your Isa allowance. If you havent put away 3,000 in a cash Isa yet, then its well worth doing that the interest is paid tax free and in the current uncertain climate its more important than ever that you have an emergency fund consisting of three to six months income put away somewhere safe and accessible.

    You can also invest up to 7,000 in a stocks and shares Isa (less any money put into your cash Isa). Clearly, the stock market isnt the cheeriest place to be invested at the moment, but you are allowed to hold cash in an equity Isa as long as you intend to use it for investing. Bear in mind that HMs Revenue & Customers will still charge you 20% interest on any cash held in an equity Isa this way.

    For basic rate taxpayers, its worth remembering that if you plan to make any pension contributions, best to do it before April 5th if possible. At that point, the basic rate of income tax will drop from 22% to 20% – its good news for your pay packet, but it also means that basic-rate tax relief on pensions will fall by the same amount. So if you do have a lump sum to put into your pension, do it now.

    For more tips and advice, visit the personal finance pages of the MoneyWeek website – or check out Merryn’s new book, Love is Not Enough.

    Tonight from 18:30 GMT author and mathematician Marcus Du Soutoy is going to be speaking at the Royal Academy – and you can watch his talk live on the internet over on their site.

    Marcus’ book, Finding Moonshine, explores the weird world of symmetry – from the pyramid to the football, from insect life to architecture, Marcus uncovers an elusive concept that lies at the very heart of daily life.

    This speech is the first in a series of Fourth Estate lectures, which will give a platform to some of the very best writers of non-fiction. Please log in and join us over at the Royal Society’s website in a few hours – and do let us know what you thought. And if you can’t be with us this evening, keep an eye on their site for an ‘on demand’ version in the next few days.

    Our Fifth Estate filing cupboard may not hold quite the same influence as a seat on Judy’s sofa, but when Patrick was up from Cornwall last week we could hardly miss the opportunity for a chat.


    Notes From an Exhibition

    Patrick’s thirteen novels have long enjoyed critical acclaim, and since Notes from an Exhibition was featured on Channel 4’s TV book club this tale of the life and death of a prodigiously talented artist has become a regular sight on the nation’s tubes, trains and buses.

    Publishing Director Paul Baggaley talked to Patrick about the book, discussing some of its strongest themes: family, art, depression and the vivid Cornish setting. Patrick also reads two extracts from Notes, including a fictional encounter with the famous Cornish sculptor Barbara Hepworth.

    Take fifteen minutes with Patrick and Paul – and find out what the fuss is all about…

    When I first heard of the invitation to fly to the Adelaide Literary Festival I was sitting in a caf in northern Italy drinking a cappuccino.

    Shit! I said.

    You must understand; I have a phobia of flying.

    Language! the sixteen-year-old said, disapprovingly.

    A plane droned overhead in the bluest of skies. It was August. A difficult moment for someone who could hardly manage the short trip to Genova let alone the thought of twenty-four hours in the air.

    Oh dear, my husband said, keeping a perfectly straight face. Thats a bit unfortunate!

    The sixteen-year-old guffawed, but the dilemma was all too real. As a writer I have become accustomed to routine. I have learned to shut myself up in a room for hours at a time, to turn inward and to build an alternative world with words. And all the while nurturing a secret hope that one day what I had written would be of some small interest to others. I was always pontificating on the fact that people the world over shared similar concerns and experiences. Here suddenly was the proof such people existed. A moment of triumph. You would think so, wouldnt you?

    The rest of the summer was spent with the question, can I, shall I? suspended over our collective heads. It followed us to Rome and then further south to the insane heat of Naples. It hung around in the air over dinners in waterfront cafes, in pizzerias, popping out unexpectedly like a cork from a bottle of local wine. Whenever the family advised me to say no, perversely, I always decided to say yes. But equally if they decided to be encouraging, telling me that of course I could get on that plane, I was certain I could not. What was I to do? A collective groan began to rise like sea-heat every time the subject was brought up.

    Youre turning into a non-flying bore, one of the older ones, who should have known better, said.

    What dyou mean, turning? asked the adolescent.

    I checked my e-mails obsessively and then ignored them all. Please could you let me know as soon as possible? my editor wrote.

    Foolishly I tried discussing the problem with the teenager.

    It would mean not being around on your seventeenth birthday, I said, tentatively.

    Why do you treat me like a bloody baby all the time? was the predictable reply.

    Shes right, said one of the older ones. You do.

    Dont listen to them, my husband said, encouragingly. Do what you want. But ring your editor and tell her, soon.

    It was too hot to move. I went into the street to make my phone call trying to imagine people in Australia reading the books I had worked on so lovingly in Oxford. On cue, a plane etched a white line across the sky.

    The family were sprawling exactly where I had had left them, under an umbrella, eating ice cream. They yawned languidly at the sight of me.

    Well? Lets guess, shall we?

    Im the only one in my class with such a weird mother, declared the youngest.

    Be quiet, my husband told them. What did your editor say? Im sure she was very understanding.

    I nodded. Very, I told him, delighting in the unusual silence brought on by my words. Especially when I said I would go in spite of my fear of flying!.

    Summers brave words turned to autumn. At Christmas all my presents had the stamp and flavour of Australia on them. I finished reading Bruce Chatwins Songlines and began David Maloufs latest book of short stories. I was nearing the end of the fourth draft of my next book. This new novel is saturated with images of the sea in the way the others are not. I had not been further than Europe for forty years and I knew that at some point during the long journey I would fly close by Sri Lanka. What would that feel like? Maybe I would catch a glimpse of the Indian Ocean?

    A journalist from Perth rang to interview me. We talked about both my books, out already in Australia. It was nine o clock in the evening. Oxford was dark and cold, making it impossible to imagine red earth or searing blue skies. The unknown journalist quoted back to me a sentence I had written. She spoke of one character in particular that she told me she loved. Astonished, I began to see how far the books had travelled. They were not simply mine any longer; others cared about the people in them. It was staggering. We talked and talked.

    Is she going to be on the phone all night? remarked the adolescent, caustically.

    Beside my side of the bed the small pile of books was growing. Naturally, they were all about Australia. On a visit to a second-hand bookshop I had picked up a copy of a book called Eucalyptus by Murray Bail and an out of print Sydney by Jan Morris. I had chosen my notebook for the trip. It had taken some time to do this; stationery being of great importance to us writers. Every time I start a new project I have a numbered, black, A5 notebook. The Australian notebook however would need to double both as a note and sketchbook, I declared. And then there were the pens for both drawing and writing. The family watched me doubtfully.

    Theres nothing to eat in this house any more, observed the teenager.

    With still a month to go I was too busy packing to answer.

    January drew to a close. I finished the last chapter of my new novel and wandered aimlessly about, too exhausted to start on anything new, yet unable to give up the characters I had lived with for almost two years. The sixteen-year-old continued to watch me, closely.

    Do you think youve got OCD? she asked.

    Twinges of flying-fears flitted across my dreams, like bats. The itinerary for the trip arrived and I wrote notes on what I was going to talk about. There were some literary giants appearing at the festival. Who on earth would be interested in what I had to say? Then with only three weeks to go I posted lists of instructions all over the house, finished reading Malouf and started on Coetzees Elizabeth Costello. Planes continued to scribble vapourishly across the sky reminding me there was one other thing left to do.

    I enjoyed your book, the doctor said, smiling, handing me the prescription. Have half a tablet when you take off and youll be fine. Dont worry.

    Some hope.

    But in the end it was the adolescent, (now in the best of moods since hearing her other parent was joining me for a few days holiday at the end of the trip) who put her finger on it.

    Stop going on about the flight, mum, she told me this morning, adding with the razor-sharp though random insight of her age, Didnt E.M. Forster say, Only connect? Isnt that what you writers want?

    Indeed it was.

    Over the years Ive been trying to get a novel published Ive been fascinated with how other writers got their first deal, and have probably spent as many hours day-dreaming about how it might finally happen for me as I have actually writing my novels.

    For some reason, I always dreamed it would happen with a phone call out of the blue. Something like this happened to a friend of mine who was a member of the writers group Im involved with. Her name was Virginia Warbey and the novel in question was The Ropemakers Daughter.

    As well as writing novels, Virginia was an extremely gifted poet. The custom in the group is to bring a bottle of champagne along whenever youve had a success, so when Virginia turned up with a bottle one Thursday evening we all assumed shed won yet another poetry competition. In reality, shed been sitting at home working on a poem when an editor shed made a slush-pile submission to had phoned up out of nowhere and offered her a deal. All in a matter of minutes, Virginia had gone from being an unpublished novelist to a published one.

    Someone else I know of wasnt even trying to get a novel published when he made his breakthrough. Hes a Doctor Who enthusiast and was asked to write a Doctor Who novel through his involvement with fan clubs and conventions. Hes still writing novels for Doctor Who and Torchwood now.

    Ive heard countless other writers talk about their breakthrough experiences at conferences or on TV, and the only common denominator seems to be that everyones experience is different. Alex Keegan, a novelist and prize-winning short story writer, met the editor who bought his first novel in a one-to-one at the Winchester Writers Conference. Lisa Jewell, whose breakthrough came with the novel Ralphs Party, made contact with an agent while she was writing it, kept in touch, and won her first contract like that. Slightly more hair-raising, I read somewhere that William Boyd sent a few chapters of his first novel, A Good Man In Africa, to a publishing house while he was still writing it, then had to finish in a hurry when they phoned up and begged for the rest.

    Some writers win deals through competitions the annual Debut Dagger competition seems to have an especially good track record for this. Another writer I heard talk at a conference simply turned up at a publishing house with the first three chapters of her novel, got hold of a commissioning editor, took her out to lunch, and got her first deal that way. Someone, somewhere, at some stage this year, is going to get a phone call from an editor such as Scott Pack at The Friday Project, and thats how it will happen for them. Although its incredibly hard to get noticed, there are people out there constantly looking for those of us trying to make the breakthrough, and new writers come through every year: Joe Stretch (Friction), Richard T. Kelly (Crusaders), and Carol Topolski (Monster Love) are all tipped for great things with their debut novels this year.

    For me, the breakthrough happened in a series of stages rather than the bolt out of the blue Id always dreamed of. Between making my slush pile submission to Curtis Brown and Jonny Geller sending my novel out to publishing houses, about three months went by: I was on holiday when Jonny first e-mailed to say hed like to see the whole novel, then Jonny was on holiday when I sent it in to him, then it took us a couple of weeks before we were able to meet up and discuss the next steps. I then spent a further three weeks making changes to Broken before we felt it was in the good enough shape to submit.

    Again, Ive heard different stories about the agent-to-publishing house submission process. Theres the dream scenario where a deal is done within twenty four hours, then theres the nightmare scenario where no one wants to buy your novel even though its being submitted by an agent. Ive just read an interview with one editor who gets as many as ten submissions from agents in any given week, and buys maybe four in a year. Before Virginia won through with that sudden phone call, shed had an experience like this, and I think it must be the most heartbreaking thing for an unpublished writer to cope with. All the time Broken was under submission, I tried not to get my hopes up. Although I knew I was closer than Id ever been to a publishing contract, I also knew there was just as much chance it might come to nothing, and Id have to start over again.

    While I was waiting, Broken was being looked at by editors in various publishing houses. We knew there was interest within twenty four hours of it being submitted, but Jonny was then away for two weeks, so it wasnt until he returned that I found out an offer had been made. In terms of trying to make it as a writer, these were the worst few weeks of my life.

    In the end, two UK publishing houses bid for Broken before HarperCollins clinched the deal. All in all, from slush pile submission to agreeing a deal, the process took nearly five months. It was hardly the bolt out of the blue Id always dreamed of. Thats writing, though. Its a long game. You take a year or more to write your novel, you win a deal if youre lucky, then ten to fifteen months later, your book finally appears on the shelves: Brokens release date in the UK is 3rd March, and thats virtually three years to the day since I first sat down to write it. Compared to Danny Scheinmann, who spent six years writing his best-selling debut novel Random Acts Of Heroic Love before he even considered trying to sell it, I guess the process for me was quite quick.

    Virginia Warbey died in a car accident in 2004 at the age of 35. Her two novels, The Ropemakers Daughter and The Carradine Diary, were published by Diva under her married name, Virginia Smith. To keep Virginias memory alive, the annual Virginia Warbey Poetry Prize is now in its third year. This years judge is Gillian Clarke and the first prize is 800. The closing date for entries is Monday, May 19th 2008. For any Fifth Estate readers who are poets, entry forms can be downloaded here

    Jeffrey Eugenides collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead takes it’s title from Roman poet Catullus. In this excerpt from his introduction, Jeffrey introduces one of history’s finest love poets…

    The Latin poet Catullus was the first poet in the ancient world to write about a personal love affair in an extended way. Other poets treated the subject of love, allowing the flushed cheeks or alabaster limbs of this or that inamorata to enter the frame of their poems, but it was Catullus who built his nugae, or trifles, around a single, near-obsessional passion for a woman whose entire presence, body and mind, fills the lines of his poetry.

    From the first excruciating moments of infatuation with the woman he called Lesbia, through the torrid transports of physical love, to the betrayals that leave him stricken, Catullus told it all, and, in so doing, did more than anyone to create the form we recognize today as the love story.

    Gaius Catullus was born around 84 B.C., in Cisalpine Gaul, the son of a minor aristocrat and businessman with holdings in Spain and Asia Minor, and lived until roughly the age of thirty. It was as a very young man, then, that he found his way to poetryand to Lesbia.

    Lesbia wasnt her real name. Her real name was Clodia. Classical scholars disagree over whether she was the Clodia married to the praetor Metellus Celer, infamous for her licentiousness and possible matricide. Lesbia might have been one of Clodias sisters, or another Clodia altogether. Whats certain is that she was married and that Catulluss relationship with her was adulterous. Though, like many adulterers, Catullus disapproved of adultery (in poem LXI he writes, Your husband is not light, not tied/To some bad adulteress,/Nor pursuing shameful scandal/Will he wish to sleep apart/From your tender nipples,), he found himself, in the case of Clodia/Lesbia, compelled to make an exception. He became involved with a wicked aristocratic Roman lady who used him as a plaything, orthe alternate versionhe fell for a fashionable, married Roman girl, who ended up sleeping with his best friend, Rufus. Whatever the details, one thing is clear: a great love story had begun.

    Of Catulluss many hendecasyllabics devoted to his relationship with Lesbia, only two concern us here. The first two. The poems having to do with Lesbia and her pet sparrow.

    Sparrow, my girls darling
    Whom she plays with, whom she cuddles,
    Whom she likes to tempt with finger-
    Tip and teases to nip harder
    When my own bright-eyed desire
    Fancies some endearing fun
    And a small solace for her pain,
    I suppose, so heavy passion then rests:
    Would I could play with you as she does
    And lighten the spirits gloomy cares!

    Thats poem II. Poem II A is a fragment. And by poem III Lesbias sparrow is dead. [P]asser mortuus est meae puellae,/passer, deliciae meae puellae,/quem plus illa oculis suis amabit, Catullus writes, which translates as, My girls sparrow is dead,/Sparrow, my girls darling,/ Whom she loved more than her eyes.

    (Incidentally, this poem, or more specifically, the onomatopoeia of its two central words, passer and pipiabat, did more than anything I can remember to make me want to become a writer. I can still hear our Latin teacher, Miss Ferguson, piping out in her most piercing sparrows voice, passer pipiabat, getting us to notice how much the plosive rhythm resembled a bird singing. That words were music, that, at the same time they were marks on a page, they also referred to things in the world and, in skilled hands, took on properties of the things they denoted, was for me, at fifteen, an exciting discovery, all the more notable for the fact that this poetic effect had been devised by a young man dead for two thousand years, whod sent this phrase drifting down the centuries to reach me in my Michigan classroom, filling my American ears with the sound of Roman birdsong.)

    But back to the poem. The pluperfect of pipiabat is elegiac: the bird used to sing. Now its song has been silenced. Catullus, who in the previous poem had cause to wish the bird would fly away, now changes his mind. Oh what a shame! he writes. O wretched sorrow! Your fault it is that now my girls/Eyelids are swollen from crying.

    Things were bad with the sparrow around. Theyre bad with the sparrow gone. Nothing is keeping Lesbia from giving all her love to Catullus now. But Lesbias no longer in the mood. Worse, her crying has ruined her looks.

    If Catullus gave us the confessional love story, these first two poems delineated its scope. My book, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead , which takes its title from Catullus, is an anthology of love stories. They were all written in the past 120 years. There are translations from Russian, Chinese, French, Austrian, and Czech writers. There are stories by famous, dead writers and by young Americans, stories involving, as in Milan Kunderas The Hitchhiking Game, two lovers taking a road trip in Communist-era Czechoslovakia, to the two terrifically well-groomed, adolescent TrendSetters & TasteMakers from the near future in George Saunderss Jon, to the little Jewish boy in Isaac Babels First Love who falls for the Christian neighbor who shelters him during a Russian pogrom.

    Despite the multiplicity of subjects and situations treated in the book, one Catullan requirement remains in force throughout. In each of the twenty-six love stories, either there is a sparrow – or the sparrow is dead.

    Yesterday some of our favourite book-bloggers picked their top love stories – today our authors have their say.

    We asked our willing contributors to recommend one love story for Valentines week, in any medium – whether a film, book, play, poem, or song – and the response was magnificent.

    There’s something for everyone in the suggestions that follow – read on for some valentines inspiration…

    Laura Spinney, The Quick

    Tomas came to this conclusion, Milan Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman).

    Is he pulling our leg? I dont think so. In the land of Terezas sleep, Tomas is king. Knowing when she arrives in dreams antechamber, he says to her, Goodbye, Im going now. Then he leaves. Fast asleep, she follows him. She trails him down to the first landing of his apartment building, where he is waiting for her. Taking him by the hand, never waking, she leads him back to bed. Love declared through sleep: now that is beautiful.

    Susan Arnout Smith, The Timer Game

    Jim and Della Dillingham Young get my vote. Even when I first read as a young teen “The Gift of the Magi” by O’Henry, the story was about more than perfect waist-length hair and a gold watch passed down from Dad. It was about trying to make somebody else happy; that the act of trying–of doing whatever was needed to create a moment of joy in the other–was worth any personal price.

    The great kicker in this tale is that each still gets to see that joy on the face of the other, and in the most unexpected way. They see it in the click of realization that comes in knowing that each values the other with the same deep, abiding tenderness. It’s moments like that in real life that create couples sitting in matching rockers in their eighties on a porch under a deepening sky, still talking. Still laughing. Still reaching across the fragrant twilight to find the other’s hand.

    Rudolph Delson, Maynard and Jennica

    What is it about the phrase “love story” that makes me want to barf?

    Put another way, what is it about having to name a favorite love story that awakens in me the pedantic and vindictive urge to recommend Jonathan Schell (on the epic love of politicians for nuclear holocaust) or Joan Didion (on their sultry affairs with clichs)?

    Anyway, the least barfy and most genuine love story I can think of at the moment is Nicholson Baker’s ‘Room Temperature‘. The passage about the wife’s nicknames for the husband is as sweet and sophisticated as anything I’ve ever read.

    Roma Tearne, Mosquito

    This is a true story. Once upon a time there was a young man with very blue eyes. In order to make some money during vacation from studying at Cambridge, he did supply work in a school in London. He was in his twenties and the children he taught were ten year olds. But the school was horrendous and the children badly behaved, with fights breaking out all the time. The young man had enough and left. There were other, easier ways to make money.

    Many years passed. Our hero grew older, moved on, led a completely different life. After scores of adventures, he fell in love for the last time and decided to marry. One evening at dinner he told his future wife about his brief experience as a teacher.

    It put me off teaching for life, he said, ruefully. There was one little girl in particular who was a complete and utter nightmare. Something about the story was uneasily familiar.

    What was the name of the school, did you say? I asked, casually, adding, as he fixed me with a stare, Well, your eyes dont appear to have changed colour, anyway.

    Katherine Bucknell, What You Will

    W.H. Auden’s centenary year runs until his birthday, February 21. He wrote some of the finest poems ever about love. Here is the first stanza of Lullabye:

    Lay your sleeping head, my love,
    Human on my faithless arm;
    Time and fever burns away
    Individual beauty from
    Thoughtful children, and the grave
    Proves the child ephemeral:
    But in my arms till break of day
    Let the living creature lie,
    Mortal guilty, but to me
    The entirely beautiful.

    And here is the last stanza of Tell Me the Truth about Love:

    When it comes, will it come without warning
    Just as Im picking my nose,
    Will it knock on the door in the morning
    Or tread in the bus on my toes,
    Will it come like a change in the weather,
    Will its greeting be courteous or bluff,
    Will it alter my life altogether?
    O tell me the truth about love.

    Now, dont you want to read the rest before the man reaches one hundred and one? While youre at it, take a look at some of my other favourites, This Loved One, As I Walked Out One Evening, Funeral Blues, Heavy Date, In Sickness and in Health, The More Loving One, The Love Feast, and “Amor Loci”. (Extracts © The Estate of W.H. Auden)

    Ffion Hague The Pain And The Privilege

    While researching the women in Lloyd Georges life I found stories of passion and jealousy in abundance. I also found true love between Lloyd George and his first bride, Margaret Owen.

    Their courtship, set in rural North Wales in the 1880s, was formal and chaste: Margaret was a cut above Lloyd George socially and both belonged to strictly religious families. Lloyd George, handsome and flirtatious, had his work cut out to convince Margarets parents to let them meet at all and Margaret too was no push-over. Lloyd George addressed his letters to Dear Miss Owen and proudly records the first time she ever gave me a kiss, three months after proposing to her

    Lloyd George and his Maggie were married in 1888 and she was his lynchpin for fifty-three years. He never wavered in his love for his wife although he made her jealous with his constant womanising: You talk as if my affection for you came & went, he wrote in 1924. No more than the sea does because the tide ebbs & flows. There is just as much water in it

    Theirs was a love that stood the test of time. There is nothing more romantic than that.

    Tracy Quan, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl

    Blossom Dearie’s version of “Manhattan.” I see this as a theme song for my fictional heroine, Nancy Chan, known to many as the Manhattan Call Girl. And it’s all about how she cheats on her businesslike relationship with the city.

    I imagine her taking the day off, playing hookey with a guy, but only for his charming company and his love-making. He’s a playmate — neither a client, nor a father-figure. He’s not a prospective husband and, by Manhattan standards, he might not even be boyfriend material. That’s his appeal:

    The great big city’s a wondrous toy
    Just made for a girl and boy
    We’ll turn Manhattan into an isle of joy.

    New York is the place where she becomes a woman, seeks her fortune and works pretty hard. So it’s a luxury to
    imagine the entire city transformed from a workplace into a toy, a place where Nancy can escape her obligations
    and have a pointless love affair.

    Blossom Dearie’s voice (so girlish!) evokes Nancy’s longing for a love that’s immature and non-materialistic. Do I regard materialism as an evil distraction from love? No way. I think materialism tests a girl’s character. The longing wouldn’t be so pleasurable, nor would the boy be so tempting, if my fictional heroine were truly free of materialist anxieties. And the song ends with a deceptively whimsical phrase — I’ll take Manhattan — which can mean any number of things.

    Jane Dunn, Read My Heart

    As a love story Dorothy Osborne and Sir William Temples has everything and most powerfully so because it is true.

    They met across political divides during the English civil wars: both families forbade contact and clandestine letters and occasional stolen meetings were all that sustained them through a six year secret courtship. Their letters are masterpieces of 17th century wit and deeply felt emotion and both of them recognised their own story was as full of passion and reversals of fortune as the most epic of fictional romance. Can there be a more romance story than ours would make if the conclusion should prove happy? Dorothy wrote to William, and he responded, As those romances are best which are most like true stories, so are those true stories best which are most like romances.

    Their lives were made all the more enjoyable for me to research and write by the interesting times in which they lived; civil war, a republican experiment, treacherous foreign diplomacy and finally the Glorious Revolution they enabled by promoting the marriage of William of Orange and Mary that would alter the course of monarchy and the future of Great Britain itself.

    Dorothy and Williams rollercoaster courtship of fragile hopes and thwarted desire reminds us lucky 21st century lovers how our freedom of choice and absence of constraint has lost us a certain intensity of feeling and supercharged rapture.

    Brian Patten, Collected Love Poems

    Looking through an old note book I see Ive written down various quotes on the subject of love. Amongst my favourites is Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness. Thats Bertram Russell. Also there is an old Spanish proverb: Amor no tiene eleccion (In love there is no choosing) Then of course you have Woody Allen with endless quips: I was nauseous and tingly all over. I was either in love or I had smallpox. As far as love poems go, the shortest one of my own is called ‘The Cynics Only Love Poem’:

    Love comes and goes
    And often it has paused,
    Then come back to see
    The damage it has caused.

    Who doesn’t love a challenge?

    Last week author Jeffrey Eugenides posted about the pleasures (and difficulties) of picking favourite love stories for his recent anthology. He had a whole book to fill – but what if you could only choose one?

    With Valentines approaching, we asked our favourite bloggers and some of our top authors to name their own favourite love story – in any medium. Nearly twenty responded, citing romances from books, poems, songs, films – and more besides.

    Read on today for personal tips from some of the best writers in the blogosphere… and check back tomorrow when our authors will be taking up the gauntlet. Many thanks to all our participants, and if any of these names are new to you, I can only suggest you click through…

    Sarah Crown, Guardian Books Blog

    Two friends who are getting married this summer asked me recently if Id choose and read a poem at their wedding. Many occurred – ee cummings Being to Timelessness as its to Time, Edna St Vincent Millays Love is not all, Larkins Wedding Wind – but the one I found myself returning to was John Fullers Valentine.

    A shopping list of love, he celebrates the poems subject in meticulous occasionally anatomical couplets that verge, at times, on the anti-poetical: the language is unsophisticated; the rhymes contrived, occasionally risible (I like it when you tilt your cheek up./ I like the way you nod and hold a teacup.). But dont be fooled: Fuller is a master technician, and the clunkiness sets the stage for the ringing beauty of the profoundly tender final lines I wont quote them here, because you really need to read the whole poem for the full effect.

    Suffice to say that, after laughing my way through with Fuller as he solemnly informs the object of his affections that Id like to see you ironing your skirt/ And cancelling other dates./ I’d like to button up your shirt./ I like the way your chest inflates I never fail to feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise when I reach the end.

    Ive reluctantly come to the conclusion that, given the church setting and the likelihood of a plethora of elderly relations, a poem rich in lines such as I’d like to find you in the shower/ And chase the soap for half an hour./ I’d like to have you in my power/ And see your eyes dilate may not in the end make the most appropriate reading. But as a depiction of comprehensive, real-world love, it takes some beating.

    Scott Pack, Me And My Big Mouth

    Let’s face it, love isn’t always as great as it is cracked up to be. Love can be fickle, inconsistent and occasionally just plain dull. Love goes through phases, and some of them aren’t all that exciting. We put up with the crap bits because when the planets line up, our chakras are all in order, when our lucky numbers come in love can be fucking amazing and make us invincible.

    Many writers can capture one side of the equation but not the other. For me the finest writer on the subject of love is Charles Baxter. He successfully combines the truly momentous wonder of being in love with the fiddly little annoying bits. He tells the truth, and he tells it beautifully.

    Saul and Patsy CoverThink of him as a cross between Richard Yates and Anne Tyler and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what’s in store. I would recommend starting with his novel Saul & Patsy, a book with the finest opening and closing chapters I have ever read. The bits in between aren’t bad either.


    I was a true guitar-playing folky at the age of 16-17 back in the late 1960s and there was really only one songwriter to master and that was Paul Simon. The songs gently declared our angst and our love in equal measure. I clearly remember the day Bridge Over Troubled Water was played on the radio for the very first time and the minute I hear those fulsome yet gentle opening piano chords swelling and then dipping again towards Art Garfunkels pitch-perfect When youre weary Im back there.

    Bridge over Troubled WaterMuch later I heard Art Garfunkel sing the song live at The Albert Hall with Paul Simon accompanying on piano and that was it, Bridge was welded into my psyche forever. A pure and timeless song that speaks for every single one of lifes moments.

    John Self at Asylum

    Dr Haggard’s Disease, by Patrick McGrath. As one friend of mine put it, “What kind of ding dong could read this and not be enchanted?” And it is an enchanted story, but it’s the enchantment of fairy tales, with something nasty lurking in the background… Edward Haggard is a GP living in an old house on the south coast of England at the beginning of WWII, trying to recover from a love affair when he is confronted by the son of his dead lover, and inappropriate passions begin to resurface.

    What’s wonderful about this book is how it combines brevity with a complex structure and a unique narrative voice of biblical expression. It is a tale of smoke and mirrors, where the Dr Haggard's Diseasereader always knows both a little more and a little less than the narrator. Could Dr Haggard’s love of morphine be clouding his memory? And who is he talking to as he tells the story? The end of the book provides the most grotesquely tender image I have ever read in a novel, which it would be no exaggeration to describe as a small masterpiece.

    Harry Bingham, Toasting Napoleon

    Favourite love story? Yikes. But it would probably have to be Dr Zhivago. Not the film or TV versions (haven’t seen ‘em), but the book. The amazing, haunting, perplexing, ever-beckoning book. Pasternak hooked me from his very first line (”On they went, singing Rest Eternal …”) and never let me off since.

    I wrote my most recent novel, The Lieutenant’s Lover, under the spell of those words and it would have been a better book if I’d managed to find more distance. I don’t even know if Zhivago is correctly called a love story – it’s so much more than that. And as for being my favourite, I dont know that either. Favourites are for easy things: chocolates, musicals, Jane Austen adaptations, scarves. Zhivago aint like those things. Its a love story. It bites.

    Kate Monro, The Virginity Project

    Does love ever darken the door of virginity loss? I have spent the past two years interviewing people about virginity loss, so I should know. In the case of Charlotte and Peter, it made a lifelong visit and it began in the fifties. She was fourteen and he sixteen. They were drawn to each other, very immediately and very sexually. Nobody thought for a moment what they were actually doing. Losing virginity as it happens, and the rest.

    Everything changed when his family moved away. I didnt say a thing. I simply said, yes, thats lovely, and nearly died inside. I never told him how I felt. For Peter, there was the awful realisation that actually that is quite rare. Love. It doesnt happen every day, but it can happen every thirty-two years. Which is the exact amount of time it took to rectify this situation. Hed always promised himself that when he was fifty he would get in touch with me come hell or high water. He did. And how do I know this? Because Peter and Charlotte have just told me this story together – as man and wife. Now that my friend, is the power of love.

    Mark Johnson, Fifth Estate

    High FidelityIm too tired not to go out with you, mutters the girl at the heart of Nick Hornbys High Fidelity. Its hardly Casablanca. For two hundred pages Hornbys lovers arent exactly star-crossed they’re pretty pissed off.

    When cynical record store manager Rob is dumped by his long-term girlfriend, his attempts to win her back kick off an anti-love story that in its good humour and plain-spoken realism somehow still contrives to wind up more romantic than a whole forecourt of roses.

    Im beginning to get used to the idea that Laura might be the person I spend my life with, I think, he writes, as realisation finally kicks in, or at least, Im beginning to get used to the idea that Im so miserable without her that its not worth thinking about alternatives. Coming from a character obsessed with a popular, glossy vision of love, it’s as compelling a conclusion as anything you’ll find in more literary fare…

    Emma Barnes, Snowblog

    Oscar Wildes short stories are all superb, but my favourite is ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’. It gets me all choked up just thinking about it. A girl promises a Student a dance if he presents her with a red rose but none are to be found. A Nightingale outside his window hears his lament, and resolves to help:

    Here indeed is the true lover, said the Nightingale. What I sing of, he sufferswhat is joy to me, to him is pain. Surely Love is a wonderful thing.”

    She urges the Rose Tree to produce a red rose, who tells her that the only way is to stain it with her hearts blood:

    Death is a great price to pay for a red rose, cried the Nightingale, and Life is very dear to all. Yet Love is better than Life, and what is the heart of a bird compared to the heart of a man?

    And so the Nightingale sacrifices herself for Love:

    So the Nightingale pressed closer against the thorn, and the thorn touched her heart. Bitter, bitter was the pain, and wilder and wilder grew her song, for she sang of the Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies not in the tomb.

    The Student awakes to find the perfect, blood-red rose blooming outside his window. Upon presenting it to the girl, she says that it will not go with her dress. In a fit of anger, the Student throws the rose to the ground where it is run over by a cart.

    What I a silly thing Love is, said the Student as he walked away.

    But the Nightingale! The sacrifice! The heart-wrenching song, the belief in Love perfected by Death! Like I say, chokes me up every time.

    Or at least we’re living vicariously through our author Mark Lynas, who’s found his way into the (web) pages of the hallowed digi-culture monthly to talk about his book Six Degrees. I’m jealous.

    Six Degrees, subtitled ‘Our Future on a Hotter Planet’ imagines how life on Earth might change with each single degree of global warming – chapter by chapter, the practical effects of rises between one and the much feared six degrees are spelled out with alarming precision.

    Hop over to Wired News to find out what it’s all about.

    If the property boom isnt over, then why cant interior designer Kelly Hoppen sell her much hyped flat in Battersea? Its been written about endlessly it turned up in The Sun in November last year, and in both The Sunday Times and The Times earlier this month and all in a style that appears to suggests that 5m is no big deal of a price for a two bedroom flat on the wrong side of the river.

    But all to no avail. Instead of being offloaded into the hands of a price-insensitive hedge fund manager or one of the wealthy foreign buyers we are led to believe constantly roam our streets buying every overpriced property they pass, Hoppens penthouse is still very much on the market. Last week it was in the Mail on Sunday, being described by an optimistic estate agent as a trophy flat not an investment and by Hoppen herself as a wonderful space to live in and entertain.

    Why City buyers won’t – or can’t – buy

    This sounds great doesnt it? The flat is gorgeous – I havent visited and don’t suppose Ill be getting an invite any time soon but I do read an awful lot of newspapers so I have seen a good few pictures of it. But I still dont think we have read the last about this particular palatial living space with its rich tapestry of velvet fur crystal and chain mail. Why? Because I cant quite see who will buy it.

    The wealthy foreigners, assuming they exist, are unlikely to want to buy in Battersea when they can buy in Chelsea (as they now can there is much more on the market than there was) and the City buyers have all but vanished. They now all have to worry about losing their jobs: note that even Goldman Sachs, which claims to have been barely affected by the unquantifiable sub-prime losses that have floored everyone else intends to dump 5% of its staff, something which rather suggests everyone else will have to dump more like 10, 15 or even 20%.

    Most of them will be also suffering a little from the volatility of the last few weeks; even if it hasnt hit their wallets much it wont be doing anything for their nerves nor will it put them in a spending mood. But worse than all this from the point of view of someone trying to sell a two bedroom flat for more than 500,000 in London is the fact that even if well-paid buyers were mad enough to want to take out a huge mortgage to buy a London property they probably couldnt do so.

    The banks arent just pulling back from the traditional subprime market, theyre also tightening up on the way the make their really big loans. In the early part of last year it wasnt hard to borrow 1m plus. This year it is very hard indeed. So City workers hoping to borrow a large sum of money secured on a salary that might not last much longer or a bonus that may never appear are finding their buying power much more restricted than it has been for a while. Hoppen often says in interviews how much she loves her flat in Battersea. Given that she might be living there a while (assuming she doesnt cut the price to meet her market) thats no bad thing.

    A better place to buy a flat

    Anyway, if youre in a hurry for a flat there may be a better place to go than to Aldine Honey (Hoppens estate agent): the auction house. According to Allsop, the UKs biggest property auction house, the number of repossessed homes going under the hammer has doubled since last year: they now make up around 40% of the houses sold (for an average price fo a mere 200,000) at auction. Allsops has just published its February catalogue therell be 410 lots for sale over 2 days. Will there be more in March? You can bet on it.

    A few years ago anyone who could breathe (and plenty who couldnt note the rise in mortgage fraud) could get a mortgage for 100% of the purchase price of the property. No more. Today thats 90%. Or, if you are considered a subprime borrower, more like 75%. So if you borrowed 100% on a deal that has just come to an end and you want to remortgage, you cant. And if that means that you cant make your repayments when deals come to an end interest rates and payments go up nastily your house could all too easily end up at Allsops with all the rest of them.

    On the plus side youll have the interesting experience of finding out what it is really worth. An auction is the purest possible way of finding out the right price for something. Theres no PR, no careful marketing, no estate agent lies or manipulations, no staging and no waiting for the right buyer. Theres just a man with a hammer and a room full of potential bidders. And the price one of them eventually pays? Thats the market price the right price for that house given the prevailing market conditions. I wonder if the Battersea penthouse would get 5m if it went to auction.

    While Im on houses, a word on London prices. There is a very resilient myth in the market that has it that prices in London did not fall much in the last crash. This is not true. As Cliff DArcy of the Motley Fool pointed out in a recent article, in fact they did fall. By a lot and by more than the national average. In the fourth quarter of 1988 the average London house was going for 105,234. By the first quarter of 1993 you could have picked one up for 75,983. Thats a fall of 27.9% compared to a national average fall of only 12.5%. I wouldnt call that not falling much.

    A lot of you are asking what on earth you are to do with the vast gains you have made from selling your houses at the top of the market. If you are going to be using them to buy another house in due course Im afraid there is only one answer. You must put them in a savings account and leave them there.

    For more tips and advice, visit the personal finance pages of the MoneyWeek website – or check out Merryn’s new book, Love is Not Enough.

    Since we first blogged about Ishmael Beah some twelve months ago, A Long Way Gone – his shocking memoir of his years as a child soldier – has stunned readers far outside his native Sierra Leone.


    A Long Way Gone

    Over the last year Ishmael’s story has taken him around Europe and around the world. Last week we were lucky enough to host him in London – Editor and Publicity Manager Robin Harvie invited him into the filing cupboard for a short reading, and asked him about his remarkable experiences.

    We’ll all be downing tools early this afternoon to watch Richard and Judy debate Patrick Gale’s Notes from an Exhibition on Channel 4. This prime time recognition is hard won – Notes is Patrick’s thirteenth novel. In preparation for the paperback, Bron Sibree met Patrick to talk about the book and his prolific career…

    It is difficult to decipher which comes first for Patrick Gale, his love of music or his compulsion to write. Or for that matter, his passion for Cornwall where he lives, writes and helps out on his hubbys farm, along with putting his musical and organisational talents to use as chairman of the annual St Endellion Summer Festival.

    I fell in love with the landscape here when I came down as a twelve-year-old boy to sing at the music festival, Gale says, and I sort of unconsciously promised myself that one day Id live down here. I moved here as soon as I could after Id sold my first book. My agent said to me, Well, what do you want out of life, Patrick? And I said, I just want to live in Cornwall, please.

    His love affair with the Cornish landscape has fed his fiction ever since his 1986 debut novels, The Aerodynamics of Pork and Ease, bought him his place in the Cornish sun. And it is a potent presence in his latest novel, Notes from an Exhibition. A poignant, compelling novel about family life and the tensions that both bind it and rip it asunder a theme that has preoccupied Gale across two decades and across his novels it also deals with artistic obsession, death and depression with all the subtlety, humour and humanity for which Gale is renowned.

    Revolving around the story of artist Rachel Kelly and her family as they deal with the ambiguous legacy of her life and death, her secrets, her artistic impulse and her depressive illness, the novel grew in part, explains Gale, out of his desire to write about a female artist.

    At the back of my mind I knew I wanted to write a book about a woman painter, preferably one who was a mother, and about the conflict that so many creative women have between the time they can afford to give to their family and the time they give to their art.

    For Gale, who describes himself as having a cloth eye when it comes to painting, and even put himself through a drawing course in order to write the book, the need to challenge himself with each novel is paramount. I need to be made to work, and I felt if Rachels field was something totally alien to me, Id have to work harder at it. I always need a psychological peg in a novel, which will hook me and give me a way of getting under the skin of the characters. Its like method acting, its a way of shutting down the analytical part of my brain and trying to experience something I want the characters to experience.

    Similarly, he read widely around the issue of manic depression or bipolar disorder as it is now known and its relationship to the artistic impulse before giving it shape and form in the character of Rachel Kelly.
    Gale not only transmutes the darkest of elements into a broad compelling whole, but brings to the novel the kind of insight that has seen his novels critically lauded for their emotional intelligence. In a structure reminiscent of that of his acclaimed 2001 novel, Rough Music, Notes from an Exhibition unfolds in deftly constructed layers, each chapter taking its cues from a curators notes from Rachel Kellys posthumous exhibition, and each narrated from a different characters point of view, so that it reflects a kaleidoscopic, ever-shifting view of the complex messy truths that define human existence.

    I think you stand more of a chance of getting at the emotional truth by telling a story from multiple angles, says Gale. I feel the drive to get fiction written is actually a digging down to some sort of epiphany or revelation. Sometimes the revelations are incredibly simple.

    Its an impulse, he insists, common to most novelists, but his own harks back to what he calls his extremely Protestant Christian upbringing.

    This is, he adds, why he finds Quakerism so intriguing, a notion that pervades this novel, where the Quaker tenets of truthfulness and forgiveness take on a kind of metaphorical potency. Having been raised in the much more judgemental Anglican tradition, I find Quakerism very, very seductive. The only thing Id miss is the music. Quakerisms extremely plain, but its the least sanctimonious religion Ive come across. You just have to believe in the potential for God or goodness in people. It is in many ways the ideal religion of the twenty-first century.

    Gales profile in the UK is such that he is often hailed as Britains most successful gay novelist. But given the broad appeal of his novels, its not a tag that seems particularly appropriate. Gale doesnt resent such labels, but says, The danger with the gay label is it makes it sound as if the novels themselves are going to be gay, and theyre probably not as steamy as many gay readers want. Unlike Alan Hollinghurst, he quips, Ive always been rather coy about the naming of parts.

    His novels, like those of Iris Murdoch, who was a very strong early influence on me, portray gay relationships as part of the social fabric. She was interested in exploring the question of love and passion, and, in a way, what she was doing was much more radical than what came later, in the early eighties, when there was a lot more overtly politicised gay writing. In some ways, because it was so obviously trying to make a political point, that stuff failed as literature.

    For Gale the subject that remains the most compelling lure is families. Its a very lucky obsession for a novelist, because its the subject without end. Every family, however apparently peaceful, has incredible turbulence just beneath the surface. Im particularly interested in the relationship between parents and their children, especially mothers.

    He is equally obsessed with character and says, It goes to the heart of why I write. I see it as a kind of ventriloquism. Suddenly I inhabit the character and its not me any more. And if I had to say what the single biggest buzz is that I get out of writing fiction, he adds, its losing myself.

    It’s the story that refuses to die: last year Japan’s top three bestsellers were originally composed and read on mobile phones. If you’ve somehow not read enough about this you can still check out The Telegraph the Wall Street Journal and last week’s New York Times.

    It could never happen here is the inevitable cry, and yet there are more than a few western companies banking that we’ll soon be reading from mobile screens too. While Sony and Amazon grab headlines with their dedicated (and expensive) e-readers, here’s five top start-ups who reckon the ‘ipod’ for ‘ebooks’ might already be in your home – and some simple instructions for those brave enough to have a go…

    1) ICUE

    ICUE’s simple software aims to work on all the most common mobiles. They offer classic and contemporary books through a reading programme that lets you scroll through the text or flashes up sentences and words one by one – text ICUE to 64888 to download the software and access their online bookstore from your phone’s menu screens.


    2) FeedM8

    Newspapers and Blogs more your thing? Subscribe to Feedm8 at and their service will collect updates from your favourite websites and shoot them to your phone – in a format you can easily read on the smaller screen.

    FeedM8 Screenshot

    3) MobiPocket

    As if ebooks weren’t confusing enough, curious early adopters currently have to pick between five or six different ‘flavours’ of file format – of which the Amazon-owned Mobipocket format is one of the most popular.

    You’ll need a beefy mobile to download the free reading software, orginally designed for PDAs – but once you’re onboard Mobipocket sell more contemporary titles than any of the competition and lets you store them, for safekeeping, on your computer….

    MobiPocket Screenshot

    4) Wattpad

    Wattpad is all about you: it lets readers upload and share their own material on phones. It’s also got social aspects – it lets you recommend, score and share stories with the wattpad community, all from your handset. You can download the Wattpad reader from

    Wattpad Screenshot

    5) iPhone Browse Inside

    I could hardly end without a plug – if you’re lucky enough to be packing an iphone you can peek inside some 15 of our titles by pointing your browser at – and let Steve Jobs know that people do still read…

    HC on your iPhone

    Know of any more? Tried any of these out? Convinced the whole thing’s barking mad? Please do leave us your thoughts below.

    I married a San Diegan and live now in the city. It’s a wondrous spot. From our roof on New Year’s Eve, the city spreads out in a sparkling cold wash of light, punctuated with tiny bursts of fireworks, seen from a great distance as if they were messages from miniature kingdoms.

    I love the end of the year, and thinking about the next. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time alone, and even now, living in the city, I still carry with me the stillness of the mountains, and its solitude.

    I was born in Alaska, as was my dad before me. My grandparents were immigrants who homesteaded an island. Dad was their only child. The story goes that Grandma kept a trunk packed for two years on the island, trying to get away, and finally made a run for it with my dad. In the middle of a choppy storm, she took a skiff off the island and made it to Juneau, where she stood huddling on the dock with her young son, waiting for the barge that would carry them away. The story goes blank there, a small hiccup in family lore, resuming again when Dad and Grandma and Grandpa are all safely back on the island, the trunk at last unpacked.

    I’m drawn to that hiccup, the silence in the middle. I’ve filled it in a million different ways. Grandpa follows, through the worst of the storm, as waves slam over the lip of the tiny craft and he peers through the lashing rain at the lights of the barge, slowly pulling into the dock, a barge that would take away from him everything that’s ever been good in his life. He’s young and very handsome in this version and won’t take no for an answer, pouring out his love for Grandma in a torrent of German and fractured English. Grandma looks like somebody in the English Patient in this scenario – not the guy in the bandages, the beauty who takes care of him – and my dad is small and vulnerable and clutching them both by their legs, a kid holding them together.

    Except, of course, Grandma was a real pistol – closer to the harridan Bette Midler played in Ruthless People – and Grandpa was probably secretly relieved to have had a minute of peace.

    Except I know that’s not the truth, either. They were madly in love, my grandparents, and when they fought, the deal was, they’d each strike out in different directions on the island and by the time they returned, they weren’t mad anymore. They were cold and exhausted and worried about how to get food on the table, especially if it was still running around on the island somewhere and night was falling.

    This is going to sound like a non sequitur, but hang in there. I was auditioning actors for the webisodes I put together for my novel, The Timer Game and had narrowed it down to four guys. Each had a chance to play a scene opposite Sarah Sido, whom we’d already cast. After each audition, Kai (the director) and I would ask the actors questions. Sarah could have, too, but she was cool and understood it was enough for each actor just to get through the scene, let alone have to string together any coherent sentence. Kai had already found out from Troy Zuercher that his family was from the Ukraine and that he’d been raised on a farm in, I think, South Dakota.

    It was my turn for questions. I asked him what he’d learned on the farm that he’d taken out the door with him when he came to Hollywood, and without missing a beat he said, “I learned how to live with loneliness, and not be afraid of it.”

    That’s it, isn’t it, for all of us. Learning not to fear the silence in the middle, learning how to fill in the gaps. Learning to be.

    I’m still working on that. It’s slow going. I sketch in the missing parts, delicately cross stitching a thread of continuity, a glint of wonder, fretting over the part that doesn’t hang together, worrying the ends into thready clumps of missed opportunities and righteous anger. And then when I hold it up in front of me, sometimes, when I squint at it just right, I can see the light through it, and dimly, the image of my grandparents holding each other on a windy wharf, with a small boy caught in between.

    Its imperfection knocks me out. And then I realize that’s all there is. Day by day. This small, horded treasure of raggedy bits. My story. All our stories.

    Susan is author of The Timer Game, released this month by HarperPress.

    Last month, I suggested you read a pair of novels about the development of artists, The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. Im hoping youve read enough to start thinking about why a bird is so important in both of them.

    As a lonely music student in Chicago, Thea Kronberg falls in love with a painting in the Art Institute. She imagined that nobody cared for it but herself, and that it waited for her.She liked even the name of it, `The Song of the Lark. The flat country, the early morning light, the wet fields, the look in the girls heavy face

    The Song of The Lark

    The painting is by Jules Breton, a nineteenth-century French Realist. The solitary peasant girl, barefoot, dirty, and gripping the ancient-style curved blade with which she will cut hard in the fields all day, is arrested by beauty, her soul lifted up and evident on her face. Her simplicity seems to make her the more capable of deep feeling. We cant see the lark, but we can observe the effect of its song–the dawning of rapture in the monumental figure of the girl, posed with pointed symbolism in front of the rising sun.

    For all her training and success, Thea never loses the vigor of the natural setting in which Willa Cather presents her in childhood. Her sense of personal freedom and her boundless appetite for beauty derive from the open spaces of Colorado–wild, bright, crude, animating. She is refined by sufferingpoverty, overwork, lack of recognition, a failed love affairand travels to Europe, where she becomes both cultivated and worldly, but her passion remains innocent, pure, and deeply felt. Her voice resounds with the enormity of nature, and although we cant actually hear her sing–any more than we can hear the lark in Bretons paintingwe can believe in her talent, because its offered to us in the epic terms of a whole landscape, as if Colorado were tamed within the opera house.

    There is a bird metaphor at the heart of A Portrait of the Artist, too, supplied in the name, Stephen Dedalus. The mythological Dedalus, architect of the labyrinth and afterwards a prisoner there, escaped from the island of Crete on wings he fashioned himself from feathers and wax. When Stephen Dedalus, taunted by friends, hears them repeating his name, he reflects: Now, as never before, his strange name seemed to him a prophecy.Now at the name of the fabulous artificer, he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air.

    Dedalus was a manmade bird, who flew only by the genius of his mind and the craft of his hands. Nature had no role in his achievement, apart from offering him a bird to imitate. Whereas Thea trains her voice to express the widest possible range of human emotion, Stephen wishes to escape from emotion and from his human nature. His fathers financial ruin and Irelands political impotence heap suffering and humiliation on his already delicate sensibility, and the rigidity and fearfulness of his Roman Catholic education foster a schism in him between intellect and feeling; he finds the will to disbelieve by relying solely on reason, and he allows his heart to wither.

    Thus, he develops an ascetics approach to his work, or a Jesuits, slyly mingling the humility of an anonymous servant with the proud self-confidence of the gifted, the anointed. His aesthetic theorizing is dry, impossibly complex, partly couched in Latin, so that his cronies cant attack or even fathom it, and he aims to empty his art of personal feeling and indeed of personality, as if the perfected form could act as a shield or even a cloak of invisibility behind which he will be invulnerable.

    According to Stephens theory of narrative, The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalizes itself, so to speak.The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails. This passage is sometimes used to illustrate how Modernism abandoned the Romantic obsession with intensity of feeling in preference for beauty of form. Still, creation is a process, and the artists nonchalant pose, pairing his fingernails, can be adopted only after the rage of experience and the heat of composition are finished. He must nonetheless first experience these things.

    Stephen tells his friend Cranly, I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use, silence, exile and cunning. Theas story is narrated to the height of her success and beyond, whereas Stephen is left on the brink of his ambition, praying, as befits a son of Dedalus: Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.

    Will he, like Icarus, fly too near the sun and fall into the sea? Joyce notes as a postscript where and when he wrote Portrait of the Artist–Dublin 1904, Trieste 1914–attesting that he himself made it to Europe. But in order to see how the aspirations attributed to Stephen Dedalus are fulfilled, the reader really has to tackle Ulysses and maybe even Finnegans Wake. Though he may have used exile and cunning, Joyce did not remain silent.

    Hidden in the depths of the HarperCollins archive, I’ve just come across this most incredible book.

    A Vacuum from the Collins Children's Encyclopedia

    It’s the Collins Modern Illustrated Encyclopedia for Children, a mammoth volume from another age, containing some 1200 pictures and 300,000 words – and stuffed with articles on everything from ‘Our Wonderful World’ to ‘How Perseus slew the Gorgon’.

    Even the briefest of reads has so far revealed page after page of delights: an article from the father of television, John Logie Baird, posing with a thoroughly ‘modern’ tv transmitter; a piece on vacuum cleaners under the slogan “The Monsters Whose Meat is Dirt and Dust”. Click the images below for a closer look inside…

    Television Old Vacuum Cleaner Children's Encyclopedia Cover

    Leafing through this book, you can really begin to appreciate the excitement all these inventions must have caused in their day; a feeling so easily and quickly forgotten. The talking motion picture is described with reverence; the wonders of television and radio are expounded with the kind of enthusiasm now solely reserved for the next breakthrough social networking site.

    Books like these offer a tantalising snapshot of another time, and a true record of what was significant to the people who lived though them. A fascinating insight into a culture long passed – and a resource I’m proud to be preserving.

    London’s enormous Natural History Museum is one of the city’s most famous attractions – and one of it’s most impressive sights. Yet more than half of its mammoth floor space remains permanently closed to the public. So what really goes on behind the bones, birds and beetles?

    Inside London's Natural History Museum

    Last week Richard Fortey, author of Dry Store Room No 1 and until recently one of the museum’s top experts took Radio 4’s Today programme on a tour behind the scenes – and admitted that a life lived amongst the drawers, racks and store rooms can be a fertile breeding ground for eccentricities of all kinds…

    CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW (7 mins – and you’ll need Realplayer)

    One of the many pleasures of this job is getting to work with authors whose writing I have admired for years.

    My Mistresses' Sparrow is Dead

    I have loved Middlesex since first reading it on Bondi beach, four years ago. Despite the insistent beauty of my surroundings and the offensively bronzed and healthy-looking Aussies frolicking in the surf around me, I found myself completely transported by Calliopes story and barely put the book down in the day it took me to tear obsessively through it. I have been raving about it to friends and total strangers ever since.

    I therefore leapt at the chance to work with Pulitzer-winner Jeffrey Eugenides on My Mistresss Sparrow is Dead, a quixotically named collection of classic love stories edited by the great man himself, which features work from some of the greatest writers of the last century – from Chekhov to Faulkner, Eileen Chang to Alice Munro.

    The quality of writing is stunning and the project has been a joy to work on: even the disappointment of not being able to clear permission to include Joyces elegiac The Dead in the UK edition was offset by the thrill of conversations with his grandson, which meandered impressively from Schiller through to Franz Fanon and (rather implausibly) ice hockey.

    The calibre of the contributors aside, however, in any anthology the selection is as significant to the shape of the finished book as the stories themselves. In conversation with book critic Andrea Hoag (which follows below) and in his introduction to the book (which well be posting in time for Valentines Day), Jeffrey explains how he chose which stories to include, which he particularly loves, and which ones got away

    Andrea Hoag: What was the process of elimination like? Can you discuss which stories you decided to leave out?

    Jeffrey Eugenides: The story I miss most is “Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx. I picked it, but we weren’t able to the secure the rights to reprint it, even though the anthology supports a charitable cause. The UK edition lacks James Joyce’s “The Dead” for similar reasons. (Happily, “The Dead” is in public domain in the U.S.) The first thing you confront when you compile an anthology like this, however, is the painful obligation to exclude wonderful work. Lots and lots of it. The only way I could sleep at night was to remind myself it was all for a good cause. How did I choose? The way people choose their mates: for intelligence, beauty, humor, and a sense that they’ll be around for the long haul.

    AH: You say in your introduction that “sober middle-age had made me less susceptible to [Nabokovs] lush lyricism.” In a way, editing this collection brought you back into the proverbial fold where he was concerned. Why do you feel that he is “much betterthan everybody else”?

    JG: In all honesty, I was never out of the fold. Nabokov has always been and remains one of my favorite writers. He’s able to juggle ten balls where most people can juggle three or four. “Spring in Fialta” works on so many levels: as an affecting tale of thwarted love; a reinactment of the literary process by which we fall victim to, and memorialize, our loves; and a philosophical rumination on time and fate. The sentences are perfect, the emotion deep, the intellectual scintillation nearly blinding. Pure bliss, in other words.

    AH: Ive been building up an imaginary shrine in my home dedicated to the cult of Lorrie Moore and I almost wept when I read the line from “How to Be An Other Woman” that goes “he laughs, smooth, beautiful, and tenor, making you feel warm inside of your bones. And it hits you; maybe it all boils down to this: people will do anything, anything, for a really nice laugh….” I truly believe that. Dont you think most people–smart, thinking people–would do just about anything for someone with a nice laugh?

    JG: I’m glad you like the Lorrie Moore Story. Lorrie herself doesn’t. She wrote it when she was twenty-four, and neither my own appreciation of the story, nor my assurances that many people insisted I include it, were enough to dissuade her from detesting her own “immature” work. This is a sign of a great writer, by the way. But “How to be An Other Woman” remains a great story. In addition, since a lot of the stories in the anthology share a traditional narrative structure, the Moore story comes as a nice shift in tone and strategy. I was conscious of that, too, in putting the book together, the DJ aspect of the whole thing, moving from fast numbers to slow dances and back again.

    AH: Can you talk a little bit about the charity the proceeds for this book will go to?

    JG: 826CHI is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Their services are structured around the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention, and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.

    826CHI provides after-school tutoring, class field trips to our location, writing workshops, and in-schools programs–all free of charge–for students, classes, and schools in Chicago. All of the programs are challenging and enjoyable, and ultimately strengthen each students power to express ideas effectively, creatively, confidently, and in his or her individual voice. Driving the mission home are more than 500 volunteers–the professional writers, teachers and artists, to name a few, who staff each and every program enables 826 CHI to serve 5,000 students annually with a small, efficient staff of four and an operating budget of about $282,550.

    Over the the past twelve months we’ve published more than twenty articles from Merryn Somerset Webb, financial journalist and editor of MoneyWeek magazine (and you can find them all collected here).

    Love is Not Enough Cover Detail

    If you’ve been enjoying Merryn’s advice on all things money, we’re now giving you the chance to win a nest egg of your own – we’re giving away 500 to one visitor to invest, put toward debts or pension or even save for a rainy day Click here to enter our no-strings prize draw.

    Best of luck. And if you’re a fiscally challenged female (or you know one) you might well want to look out a copy of Merryn’s new book: Love is Not Enough, which we’ve just released in paperback.

    Britains big banks have rarely been less popular than they are today. Theyve been bashed by pretty much every paper and even the Chancellor himself this week for attempting to keep the proceeds of Decembers rate rise to themselves.

    According to figures from wealth management company Chase de Vere, 14 lenders have not reduced their Standard Variable Rates (SVRs the rate off which they price their other mortgages) by the full 0.25% cut in base interest rates. Indeed, its been five weeks since the Bank of England cut rates yet lenders from Intelligent Finance to Skipton Building Society not only havent cut their SVRs by the full amount – they havent cut them at all!

    At the same time 18 banks and building societies have had a go from the other side: theyve cut the interest rates they pay on one or more of their savings accounts by more than the base rate cut. points out that Alliance & Leicester have cut their rates not by 0.25% but by up to 0.5% while lots of other banks, including Natwest and the Royal Bank of Scotland have cut rates by up to 0.35%. Irritating isnt it?

    How the big banks overcharge you by 400 a year

    Equally frustrating is the way our big banks are persisting in racheting up their everyday charges. Theyve been pilloried for it all over the press with folk band Oystar, egged on by Martin Lewis of, going so far as to release a critical single called I fought the Lloyds and won about the battle to reclaim charges (it is already in the top 20) and splashing news of its progress all over the place. Yet even now even as a case brought by the Office of Fair Trading to establish the legality of bank charges is on the verge of hitting the High Court they are still at it.

    According to figures from Moneyfacts, go overdrawn at one of the high street banks without arranging it first and it could end up costing you 160 in a matter of days and thats not including the fact that youll be charged interest at something like 17-18% on the lot. Worse, thats just the start of the many ways your bank can, and will, fleece you a survey last year showed that bank small print includes a staggering 110 fees and charges for what most of us think are basic financial transactions. However of all the things that infuriate me, the biggest is the fact that so few banks pay proper rates of interest on current accounts the average is around 1%.

    This matters. If it isnt earning interest your money loses its purchasing power fast: if inflation is at 4% (i.e. average prices are rising at 4%) you need to make 4% on your money (after tax) just to be able to buy the same amount of stuff with it at the end of the year as at the beginning. If you arent you are effectively losing money every day.

    Worse however is the fact that the banks use the fact that you have a current account with them to sell you their other rubbish: once they have you handing your monthly salary over to them and you look like you might be the kind of person who tends to pay back their borrowing, youre at the mercy of their hordes of salesmen (they call them advisers) and their offers of endless loans, credit cards, unnecessarily complicated investment products and mortgages. Add up all the sins of the average big bank, says Which? and the result is nasty: they effectively overcharge customers by 400 a year each thanks to their range of rotten saving and loan products and their high fee structures.

    How not to get ripped off

    The kneejerk reaction to all this is to call for more regulation. But there is an easier way to deal with our bad banks vigilance. You dont have to keep your savings with Alliance and Leicester nor your mortgage with the Scottish Building Society (which passed on a measly 0.15% to mortgage holders rather than the full 0.25%). And there is rarely any need to run up an unauthorised overdraft: at the price they tend to end up coming in at you are better off using a credit card if you are out of money. And of course it really isnt that hard to change your current account to one that will treat you reasonably well: once you have made a request to switch, your old bank has three days to provide your new bank with all your details who should then set everything up.

    The banking market should be very competitive, particularly right now when they are all having to fight for customers in a tough market fewer people are looking to borrow less money than they were last year. There are plenty of players trying to make money out of selling us the same products and the only reason they so often get away with fleecing us on our borrowings and our savings at the same time is because we cant be bothered to do the minimal amount of work required to stop them doing so. Note that despite the fact that they offer some of the worst accounts on the market 70% of us still bank with the UKs four big high street banks Lloyds, Natwest, HSBC and Barclays. Its pathetic.

    So why do we keep letting it happen? Why dont we all just resolve not to be ripped off any more but instead to bank with organisations that treat us fairly and and this is the key transparently. Putting this into action should be easy. First find the current account that suits you best (First Direct is good), move your money into it and promise yourself you will never exceed your overdraft limit.

    Next check your savings accounts. Earning less than 6%? Then move your money somewhere better. Click here for the current best buys (but be aware that you will only get 35,000 back if your bank goes bust so you might want to click here to check the risk levels of the high payers, which you can find at the end of this article.

    Then turn to your mortgage. Paying more than 6%? Then have a look to see if there are better options out there and if there are and there should be move. Click here for best buys.

    If we all do this, all double check our situation regularly, and all shift our finances around when we need to, it shouldnt be too long before the banks start behaving a little better, court case or no court case. Theyll have to or they will find themselves entirely without customers well all have moved on.

    For more tips and advice, visit the personal finance pages of the MoneyWeek website – or check out Merryn’s new book, Love is Not Enough.

    Already struggling with your New Year’s Resolutions? is a new website that helps you achieve your personal goals by making a contractual commitment with your family, friends or colleagues at work.

    Stickk Logo

    On, you draw up an official commitment contract that binds you to achieving a personal goal, be it big or small. By agreeing to this contract, you publicly state your goal and commit to achieving it – and so stake your reputation on success.

    To make you accountable as you work towards your goal, you file weekly reports on your progress. You are also asked to appoint someone you know as a referee to verify the accuracy of your reporting, and you also enlist as many supporters as you like to encourage you. And if you want to up the ante, you can even gamble on your success. If you accomplish your goal, you get your money back. If you dont, your money goes to charity or to someone youve designated in advance.

    To make things really interesting, Stikk encourages you to make some fascinating wagers. Yes, you can choose to give your money to a charity selected by Stikk – but you can also choose an anti-charity gift, selecting a cause that you DONT believe in. For example if you believe in gun control, your losing bet would go to the National Rifle Association Foundation. The less you believe in the cause, the harder you will want to work to ensure that the organization does NOT get the money.

    “We are trying to motivate people to accomplish personal goals by having users literally put something on the line,” writes Dean Karlan, co-founder of Stikk and Professor of Economics at Yale. “Were not simply a motivational site. Were actually giving them the necessary tools for success.

    I’m talking to one of my sisters and trying to figure out what to blog about and she says, “I think you should blog about firsts. You know, the first time you. . .went ice skating or kissed somebody or had a music lesson.”

    She paused. She’s driving through Boulder traffic in the snow, trying to merge, so I give her a minute and wait for it. She adds, “And how the first time isn’t always that great.”

    And I say, “Oh, wow, that will get dark very fast.”

    And she says, and she’s riffing here, and I’m really appreciating her effort, “but, but, it’s the first…that…that leads to the second. And so on.”

    Thanks. It’s practically written itself.

    Actually, it has. I’m writing about sisters. I have three of them, all wildly funny, all beautiful. And unlike our brother, all still alive.

    Well, that took a turn.

    So maybe this is actually about my brother. Or maybe it’s just about how we all get through the worst of it the best way we can, by taking care of each other. My sisters are famous for that.

    My brother died suddenly, in Alaska, in a glacier calving accident. He was thirty-six. Our Dad had already died the year before, and it was before Bruno became part of the family when he married Mom, so Mom was handling things the best she could, which is to say, she was going a little crazy.

    All four of us sisters had come up to Alaska to help. We’d gotten through opening the door to his place. Boxing things up. Taking things to remember him by. We’d come through the memorial service, attended by so many people that there weren’t enough pews. Our brother was astonishing, singular, and even in death, people needed to talk through their stories about him, just to get a handle on what he’d been.

    Everybody from the Mayor of Anchorage, Tony Knowles, to my broadcaster friend, Herb Shaindlin, had shown up. Our brother had mowed lawns–he had a modest gardening business–and one of his clients was Tony. Geno–that’s my brother–worked for an energy auditing company and flew into native villages to figure out how to shore up houses before winter. Often he stayed on his clients’ floors. They returned the honor by attending the service, standing in a silence as deep as the redwoods at the back of the church, and slipping away just as quietly at the end.

    Geno had also guided disabled skiers, mostly women, down Mount Alyeska and they showed up. Two women actually had a heated shouting argument at the front of the church when they were eulogizing him, arguing about whom Geno had cared for the most. It had ended with them lunging at each other to find a good grappling spot before they both seemed to remember there were witnesses and in the same instant, pulled back.

    He inspired that kind of wildly inappropriate behavior.

    And of course there were complete strangers. A couple talked haltingly about how they had been part of a tour group in Fiji, and suddenly realized, there was an extra person in the group, on the bus, at dinner. Geno had just inserted himself into the tour.

    The man had pursed his lips and frowned, looking skyward, remembering. My sisters and I were laughing. It was exactly the kind of stuff Gene had been famous for.

    At first, they’d been appalled, the man continued. “But he kind of grew on us. And we ended up staying in touch, all these years. . .” His voice had trailed away.

    We were in that country my sisters and I knew by heart. The place where things take a turn. We were almost able to call it back. One sister had insisted on having the Lord’s Prayer sung by everybody, and the pianist pitched it so high that nobody could get through it. We dissolved in hiccupy laughter, and then we dissolved in tears.

    Afterward, we were completely exhausted and Mom was just revving up. Grief had made her unstoppable. After the wake, she insisted she was still going to make us dinner, just the family.

    Understand, we had been eating non-stop. Casseroles, pies, salads, people had been bringing things to the door in a steady stream of mute offerings. Mom pushed the food out of the way and cleared a place on the counter.

    “Party potatoes,” she announced. “I’m making this and you’re all going to eat it.”

    My sisters and I stared. We watched as she peeled the potatoes, layered them, her movements brisk, brittle, every turn of the scraper a little wilder than the one before, as if some delicate mechanism had come unhinged and in a moment, she would come flying apart into a million tiny pieces. She kept going. Right about the time the potatoes would have gone into the oven, it finally caught up with her and she put her head down and took a shuddery breath.

    “I just need to sleep,” she said. Her voice was small.

    We asked her if she wanted us there for awhile until she did. She nodded. We sat in the quiet dark bedroom until she fell asleep, and then the four of us, in one voice, walked out the door.

    It was a dazzling bright Anchorage day. Two teams of old guys were playing a game of baseball on the park strip, the runner pounding heavily down the baseline toward first as if his knees hurt.

    We headed toward La Mex for margaritas. We raised a glass to the little kid we’d known and the man he’d become. And then we came home and ate party potatoes.

    Susan is author of The Timer Game, released this month by HarperPress.

    Since Laura Spinney posted about Locked-in Syndrome last year we’ve received comments from more than a few visitors with family and friends suffering from the condition.

    Now over the weekend I spotted this trailer for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, confirming that this most famous, first hand account of a life ‘locked in’ is hitting the big screen in only a matter of weeks.

    Despite its familiarity Jean-Dominique Bauby’s story continues to both shock and impress. After a stroke left him paralysed and speechless, the former editor of Elle magazine could only communicate by blinking his left eye; by this method alone Bauby compsed and dictated his memoir, dying some two days after The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was released.

    By all accounts Julian Schnabel’s adaptation of an ‘unfilmable’ book is remarkably succesful (certainly the reviews from the States, where the film opened before Christmas, have been unanimously good). Looking forward to 8th February, when the film hits British soil…

    The earliest indication that my slush-pile submission to Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown was going to be any different from the countless other slush-pile submissions Id made in the past was an e-mail from Jonnys assistant, Alice.

    Dear Daniel,
    I work with Jonny and have just picked this out of a pile of reading and really enjoyed it. Jonnys away on holiday but just to let you know well be in touch as soon as possible on our decision.

    Id already had an e-mail from Jonny two weeks before saying hed enjoyed the sample chapters Id sent him so please could I send him the rest. As Id been at this stage with other agents several times before I hadnt got all that excited, but Alices e-mail finally seemed to hint at something different.

    Then, two weeks later, this arrived from Jonny himself:

    Dear Daniel,
    Ive just finished your terrific, powerful, novel and would love to meet you. I was really bowled over by the discipline and maturity of the writing as well as the story being funny, appalling and terrifying. Congrats. Im at the London book fair today but please contact Alice to fix a time for us to meet soon.

    The meeting took place towards the end of the following week at Curtis Browns offices in Haymarket, central London. I tried not to think about it too much beforehand because the implications were too huge to contemplate: Curtis Brown is one of the biggest literary agencies in the world and Jonny Geller has a superb reputation for discovering unknown writers. Being represented by him would be a massive opportunity for me possibly even life changing.

    However, something about his e-mail suggested things werent at that stage: there had been no offer of representation, just an invitation to come up and meet him, and if hed been that keen on what Id sent him I felt he would have phoned me up and got the ball rolling there and then, so I suspected he either had problems with some of the plot elements in Broken or didnt feel it was a commercially viable novel and wanted to discuss what I planned to write next.

    This was why, despite the very positive e-mails, I travelled to London expecting a cup of tea and a kick in the teeth rather than a glass of champagne and a chat about six-figure advances.

    I was right to be concerned. As soon as the meeting got started it became clear Jonny felt Broken was only sixty percent there. Although this was obviously difficult for me to hear, his feedback was extremely constructive and he was very precise about what he felt the problems were.

    My main character was an eight year old girl, which he felt was too young by several years, and the whole novel was written in the first person from her viewpoint, which he felt was too much to ask readers to cope with in places. One plot element towards the end of the novel was too dark and took away from the central thrust of the novel, and another plot element stretched credibility too far. On top of these major problems Id also strayed from the main story in certain areas and hadnt emphasised it enough in others.

    Also, why did I have five year old children and fifteen year old children running around the same school playground when primary and secondary schools were always separate, how was it possible for certain characters to get into this strange hybrid school playground when the majority of schools have security gates on them these days and, finally, would I be willing to consider a re-write as the rest of it was fantastic?

    Im sure a lot of writers would have said no to such a major re-write or dug their heels in and looked for some sort of compromise, but it never occurred to me not to go for it. For a start, Id already known there were problems with the novel and agreed with most of what Jonny was saying. Secondly, he wasnt telling me how to do the re-write, he was giving me a very honest opinion on where he felt the problems were how I went about putting them right was totally up to me.

    Finally, and most importantly, I could tell he wasnt messing me around. He wasnt saying go away and do this and maybe Ill have another look, he was saying if you go away and get this right, I think I can sell this novel for you.

    Another thing that really impressed me was that Jonny had a fixed timescale for when he wanted things to happen: so long as I could do the rewrite within the next three weeks my novel would be on submission in London within the next month and, if things went well, in Canada and New York soon after.

    Other than the fact I had to re-write forty percent of a seventy three thousand word novel in roughly twenty one days while still holding down a full-time day-job, he was telling me everything Id ever wanted to hear.

    Which just goes to show that you do need to be careful what you wish for, because sometimes its an absolute nightmare to realise the only thing standing between you and something youve always dreamed of is whether youre good enough to achieve it or not: without a shadow of a doubt, the next three weeks were going to be among the most stressful of my life.

    The money sections of the papers have been full of news of the horrors of the nations personal finances for the last few weeks. Weve heard about the rising difficulties of taking out new loans, be they from the bank or on a credit card.

    Weve heard that 41% of people paid for some part of Christmas on their credit cards; that more people than ever before will go bankrupt this year; that repossessions are likely to keep rising all year; that mortgage rates going to keep going up even as base rates fall; and that the average person only has enough cash to last 12 short days should they leave their jobs.

    Hot on the heels of this has come a plethora of articles telling us what to do about it. Anyone who doesnt know how to consolidate their loans, find an interest free credit card, cut their utility payments, create a budget spreadsheet (you can download one here), and get a cheaper mortgage by now clearly hasnt been listening to the personal finance experts properly.

    But reading and writing – all these money makeover articles this month, Ive been beginning to wonder if for many people the best way to survive the credit crunch and free up a lot of cash in a hurry might be to stop bothering with financial micro managing, dump their mortgages altogether and rent somewhere to live instead.

    Why it makes sense to rent, not buy

    Selling to rent (STR as it is now known) has made some financial sense for some years now in cash flow terms i.e. rents have been generally cheaper than mortgage payments on most properties. But now that the chances of making a capital gain on owning a house (the only reason to have bought over the last 3 years) look pretty low, it seems to make more sense than ever.

    Have a look at Here you can see the rental and sale prices of hundreds of thousands of houses. It makes for very interesting reading. One example sent in by a reader from Wales makes the point very clearly. He points to a nice looking executive four-bedroom house with views over fields to the rear and close proximity to several excellent schools. It is both for sale and for rent. The sale price is 315,000 (at least 12 times the local average wage).

    A repayment mortgage on this amount would come to around 2,000 a month and even an interest-only mortgage to around 1,500. Yet you can rent this very same house for 750 a month (offering its current owner a pathetic gross yield of under 3%), a saving of 750 a month and thats before you even factor in the fact that you dont have to be responsible for its upkeep.

    The situation is much the same in other parts of the country. There has, for example, been much talk about how fast rents are rising in central London, but theyre going to have to rise an awful lot faster for it to make sense to buy instead of renting.
    A 3 bedroom mews house in Bayswater currently costs around 1m. The cost of owning it, on even an interest only mortgage, would therefore come in at something like 55,000 a year – and thats only if you dont include the purchasing costs, (another 45,000 or so) or the maintenance (at least another 5,000 a year). The cost of renting a similar house? About 39,000 a year. Thats 16,000 less.

    Homeownership isnt everything

    I am not suggesting that people with no serious financial problems, with mortgages they can afford and with houses they and their families like living in suddenly sell up and rent instead. Moving house is an awful lot of bother if you dont have to do it.

    But if you are heavily in debt and scared of losing your home (as the newspapers seem to think everyone is), why not just sell up, move into a cheaper rented house and then pay off your debts with the money you save on not having a mortgage every month?

    My guess is that over the next five years being debt free is going to feel a lot better than being up to your eyeballs in interest payments, even if the latter means you get to keep claiming ownership of your own (depreciating) home.

    For more tips and advice, visit the personal finance pages of the MoneyWeek website – or check out Merryn’s new book, Love is Not Enough.

    Alaska is a small place with interlocking stories, interlocking sorrows. My family moved Outside when I was a child, but I came back to Alaska as a young adult and worked in broadcasting.

    I anchored in Anchorage. I also produced a half-hour documentary and could pretty much fill the 22:30 (the time allotted the show after commercials), any way I pleased. It was high stress, low pay, toiling in a land where temperatures could shatter video tape as if it were glass.

    Timer Game Cover Art

    When I first started working there, the nightly network news we saw in Alaska was actually the news from the night before. There was no satellite feed. We had our sister station in Seattle tape the network news and ship it by plane to us. The joke was, the world could end and we wouldn’t hear about it until the following night.

    By the time I left news, just a few years later, the nightly news was seen across three time zones by satellite in places as remote as Barrow in the Arctic and down into the Aleutians.

    There were stories everywhere, but some of them have stayed with me across the soft sweep of time, and one of them led to The Timer Game.

    I can’t remember her name. But I remember her energy. She lived in a place called Seward, in a log house that sounds much nicer than it was. There was a wildness about it. Dark, tangled trees, a violent sweep of sky, the Kenai River churning not far from her door down a slippery mud path limed with sharp stones.

    She was a single mom and had two kids, as I recall, a boy and a girl. Alaska attracts people who don’t like being discovered, people on the run, either toward something or away.

    Most of the ones I met were running away from something and trying very hard to stay ahead of whatever dark thing was coming after them. It makes for strange alliances to hold the bad things at bay.

    So. This woman. Alone. With two kids. Struggling. Isolated by place and circumstance. In a land were wheels get mired in muck during the rainy season and where bears forage for trash and clamber in the Kenai swiping at reds as the salmon dart upstream.

    Where things die.

    A loosely constructed family of drifters settled in a tent not from her house, and before long, the woman was sitting at their campfire, drinking beers and swapping tales, her children darting shyly in and out of the frame of light, casting long shadows in the spatting embers.

    Within a week, the drifters appeared at her door, a raggedy group of about five, laughing too loudly, looking past her into the warmth of the house. She invited them in; it was the neighborly thing to do. The man who seemed to be the leader was big, broad shouldered, with curly strange hair and wild eyes and next to him always was a woman, thin and pale. She smacked her lips a lot.

    They took a special interest in the kids, offering to take them fishing, camping, almost anything the man had said. He’d bared his teeth in a smile.

    At this point, her mother’s radar should have been screaming, but it was a dim radar, underused, the light feeble. She was happy, so happy to be included. Relieved the kids had a chance to do something fun.

    For a couple of weeks, everything was glad and good. The group would stop and visit, sometimes take the kids down to the river right in front of the house and catch a fish and everybody would sit around while she fixed it and they ate.

    And then one day they were gone.

    No explanation, no word. The grass under the tent had died and left a yellow patch and she could see the earth thorugh it. It was getting cold again, and the winter ahead looked long.

    She’d been a little deflated; even the kids were dispppointed. She made plans for them to go to a friend’s house that night and on to school from there.

    She watched them head down the path to the neighbor’s house, their backpacks bright stamps of color in the growing dusk. It was a distance away, out of sight, and she watched as they turned the corner and disappeared from view.

    It was the last time she saw them.

    There was no telephone at the neighbors’–cell phones were still years away–and when the kids didn’t show up, the neghbors assumed something had come up. This was Alaska; plans change.

    Her telephone wasn’t working properly; she had a hearing problem and used equipment to amplify voices. The school had tried contacting her about the kids’ absence, but she couldn’t hear what they were saying. By the time she’d put the pieces together, the kids had been gone almost 24 hours.

    When I interviewed her, just after Halloween, they’d been missing since September.

    She had jumpy, exhausted energy. She told me she was going crazy. She was certain the travelers had taken them, but she and the state troopers had little to go on. She remembered that the plates on their van had been muddy, the numbers obscured. They’d used nicknames for each other.

    I interviewed her in her livingroom as she sat hunched on a brown nubby sofa, her nostrils chapped from crying. She said that the hardest part was Halloween. Her voice caught. She had a wild look in her eyes, as if something huge and very terrible sat right behind her pupils, straining to get out.

    She had this crazy notion that her kids were coming to the door, in disguise, and if only she could recognize them, she could save them, bring them home. She’d had to stop herself from ripping off the masks of the kids as they held their hands out, trick-or-treating.

    I never knew what happened, and it’s haunted me all these years. When I became a parent, that story was the nightmare against which I measured everything else.

    I can’t imagine–don’t want to imagine–the awfulness of losing a child, and yet as a writer, that’s exactly the country I go into every day. Stephen King said once that he wrote about the things he did because he had this theory: if he spoke the scary things out loud, they couldn’t possibly happen in real life to people he loved.

    We write for different reasons, but Stephens’ is a good as any I’ve heard.

    I wrote The Timer Game trying to understand. Why would somebody steal a child? What would a parent do to get her back? What would I have done?

    Anything. Everything.

    I had it play out against a timer, because it seemed particularly appropriate. The FBI says that if a kidnapped child isn”t found within the first three hours, the chances of finding that child alive drop exponentially. My main character, Grace, Descanso, working CSI in the San Diego Police crime lab, would have known that kind of statisic cold.

    How would it unravel if she were forced to act alone? Without the backup of the FBI or the local police? Where would it end?

    It ends with the mask ripped off, the secret revealed. And since it’s my world this time, it ends in goodness.

    I’m a writer. My power is puny. I can’t restore lost children. But on a good day, when the words work, I can create on the page a world where that kind of ending is possible.

    Before Jonny Geller picked my debut novel, Broken, off the slush-pile at Curtis Brown, the one thing Id have loved to have got my hands on was someone elses successful slush-pile submission. What format did they use? How did it read? And how was it different to mine?

    In case you submit to slush-piles yourself and would like to see the submission that finally got me noticed, Im attaching the covering letter and synopsis I was sending out for Broken at the foot of this post.

    I admit I feel insecure about doing this because I followed an extremely dull format with my slush pile submissions, so doubt Im giving anyone any great insights. Also, Im not sure the fact I got an agent from this particular submission qualifies it as a success: if Id taken a different approach, maybe one of the agents who turned it down wouldnt have been so dismissive.

    As with any format, theres always different ideas on the best approach for slush-pile submissions. Some people like to send random chapters rather than the first three, but Ive always believed the more coherent your submission, the more chance you have of getting an agent involved in the flow of your novel, which, for me, is the whole point of any submission.

    Synopsis wise, some people like to do detailed chapter plans and others like to provide character descriptions as well. I just tried to be clear and brief more of a blurb than a synopsis in the hope an agent would move on to the opening pages of my novel as soon as possible.

    When deciding who to submit to, I always checked in the Writers & Artists Yearbook or Writers Handbook that the agent was interested in whatever market I was aiming for. If their entries left me in any doubt, though, I submitted to them anyway I always felt it was better to waste postage rather than the chance of getting representation.

    Other than the covering letter, synopsis, and the double-spaced opening chapters of whatever novel I was trying to sell, all I ever put in with my submission was a stamped addressed envelope for its eventual return.

    One area where I might have differed to other writers is that I did multiple submissions. Theres an argument that you should only ever submit to one agent or publishing house at a time, but I became frustrated with waiting up to six months for a standard rejection and eventually started to submit to three agents at once.

    Whenever a rejection came back, another submission went in the post, keeping my running total at three. If anyone ever asked to see the whole novel, I stopped sending out other submissions until Id heard back from the interested agent, then got my running total back up to three once again.

    By the time I sent Broken to Jonny Geller, however, Id completely lost patience and had about thirty submissions on the go, some for Broken, others for a novel Id written a couple of years before. The day I got the first e-mail from Jonny saying hed like to see the rest of Broken, Id just returned from holiday and had something like sixteen rejections on the doormat, and I was still getting rejections for both novels weeks after Broken had sold.

    Despite the fact I managed to get a publishing deal with Broken, I think its important not to hide from the fact it was rejected by more than thirty agents. I also think its important to be honest about the fact Ive had countless other rejections for novels written before and after Broken.

    Part of this is because I started submitting very young and had a lot to learn as a writer. Part of it, though, is because submitting unsolicited manuscripts to the slush-pile is like buying a ticket for a lottery that rarely pays out. Sometimes, even having the winning ticket doesnt guarantee you a prize: Brokens now sold in five different territories, but what if Jonny Geller had just sold a similar novel for one of his existing clients and felt he couldnt take me on, or if hed simply thought, well, how many clients do I need to keep myself busy? Is this completely unknown writer really worth my time? I could still be sending Broken out to other agents now, or I might have given up altogether. Better writers than me must have done this.

    If youve been thinking of giving up yourself, try to remember its not just a thin line between success and failure on the slush-pile, its an almost non-existent one, and whether you fall the right or wrong side of that line often depends on the mood and skill of the person reading your submission as much as the quality of your submission itself.

    Even more importantly, always try to remember that every now and then, despite the odds, someone does come out the other side of a slush-pile submission with a publishing contract in their hands. As long as you keep writing what you believe in and never let the rejections stop you submitting, one day it might just be you.

    Heres the one that did it for me.


    Dear Mr Geller,

    Please find enclosed the first seventeen pages, plus a very brief synopsis, of Broken, a novel I have recently completed. It tells the story of an eight year old girl who is in a coma. As her family sit waiting for her to either regain consciousness or die, she debates her options and reflects upon the chain of events that have led her to deaths door.

    Written in a similar style to Mark Haddons The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time, I think anyone who enjoyed Alice Sebolds The Lovely Bones would get a lot out of this book: although its an entirely different read, the mood and emotions provoked are similar.

    On a personal note, I am thirty six years old and have had short stories and poetry published in various collections. Broken is my fourth novel.

    If you want to see the whole novel, Id be delighted to send it to you.

    With best wishes

    Daniel Clay


    Broken tells the story of Skunk Cunningham, an eight year old girl who is in a coma, trying to make sense of it all – from the very first time she saw Bob Oswald being violent to the very moment she decides whether to live or whether to die.

    In-between, she tells the story of her life; beating Jed on X-Box, trying to work out what Broken Buckleys been doing in his box-room, and falling in love with Dillon, the orphaned gypsy boy who lives in Halfords car-park with his Romany Aunt and Uncle.

    Skunk doesnt just tell her own story. She tells the story of Juanita, the au-pair her father loves more than his children, and Mr Jeffries, the man Juanita loves almost enough to overlook the fact hes an impoverished school-teacher who cant give her all the things Skunks father can.

    She tells the story of Mr and Mrs Buckley, and their schizophrenic son, Arthur, who Skunk and Jed and Dillon soon start referring to as Broken. As Mr Buckley tends corpses in the mortuary he manages, and as Broken slips further and further into madness, can this family survive?

    She tells the story of Bob Oswald and his five delinquent daughters. In their Housing Association property, without the stress of a mortgage or the day to day restrictions of social responsibility, the Oswalds lot is a happy one.

    Until Susan, Bobs fifteen year old nymphomaniac daughter, accuses Broken Buckley of rape.

    And everything starts to go wrong.

    Been enjoying Daniel’s account of his road to publication? We’ve five advance proof copies of Broken to give away to anyone who who’d like an early read of this great debut. First five e-mails to take the spoils!

    In December I travelled to the Antarctic aboard the Orlova. The continent is a truly great wilderness area, possibly the most important and the most spectacular in the whole world. But there are problems, too.


    There are geo-political problems. Countries are jockeying for position and attempting to gain influence on deciding Antarcticas future. The Antarctic Treaty which governs what can and cant be done will come up for renewal; and a lot of countries are looking greedily at the potential for mining minerals and searching for oil (which are both currently prohibited)

    Tourism is having a growing impact, despite the voluntary self- regulation through the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, which specifies that nothing can be taken in and nothing taken out you are not allowed to remove a single sea shell – or even have a pee.

    There is still pristine snow and ice in the areas that tourists visit. But you can now occasionally see beer cans, toilet paper and used condoms washed up on to the shore. Many of the research stations now treat and remove their sewage (after pressure from Greenpeace). But the US South Pole base buries its sewage underground so that the South Pole itself now rests on a sea of frozen American shit.

    Tourism is growing. This year over 30,000 people will visit and over 20,000 will land. And tour operators are starting to offer packages which involve staying overnight on land. Both these are bound to create further problems.

    There is still a vast array of wildlife. But whales have been hunted to near extinction, with only 3-4% of original stocks now remaining, Krill is beginning to be caught, currently only in quite small quantities; but this could become the next marine species to be overexploited, which would seriously affect the wide variety of creatures (including penguins) that depend on krill for their food.

    Climate change. Just seeing the vastness of the polar icecap helped me understand the massive impact that its melting would have on sea levels. The problem is aggravated by visiting tourists flying thousands of miles to get to the Antarctic, and visiting ships burning several tonnes of fuel each day.

    All these problems need solutions. It is up to each and every one of us who have enjoyed and been inspired by the Antarctic to be part of the solution whether we have visited the continent or just dreamed about doing so. But there are two barriers which have to be overcome first:

      1) You may believe that anything that we can do will be insignificant in relation to the scale of the problem. But doing something is better than doing nothing. Change has to start somewhere. And your small actions can inspire others and can encourage politicians and business to treat the matter much more seriously.
      2) You have to overcome your apathy. In fact it is apathy which is the worlds biggest problem, not global warming, poverty, AIDS, conflict, corruption or abuse of human rights. If you recognise that something needs doing, change will only happen if someone actually gets up off their backside and does something.

    Getting involved is a three-stage process:
    1. You start by doing little things in your everyday life that make a difference.
    2. First get interested in an issue and then do something more substantial about it. Do this with friends, Get a sense of achievement. Let one thing lead to another, go on to do bigger and better things. Try to have fun doing something for a better world.
    3. Finally, use your brain to come up with a creative solution which makes a significant impact on the problem.

    So here are some little things to get started:

    1. Become an ambassador for Antarctica. Find out as much as you can about it. Tell people about this wonderful wilderness of a continent and its importance to the future of the planet. Encourage people to speak up for its preservation. Put pressure on your politicians so that they promote and support policies which are Antarctica-friendly.

    2. Eat sustainable fish. Much of the worlds fish has become over-fished and is facing extinction. The fish you can eat with a clear consciousness come from sustainable catcheries. The Marine Stewardship Council and Greenpeace with its Oceans campaign both have information on sustainable fishing. For a list of fish that you cant eat, click this link.

    Greenpeace is particularly concerned about the devastating impact of factory fishing on the ocean. It has just launched a new seafood research project to collect data on what fish is available at food stores. You can just sign up to be part of this campaign. Once registered, you will get instructions and a survey form to fill out when you visit your local supermarket or food store. This research shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes to complete. You then report the results back to Greenpeace, who assemble the survey data.

    3. Give up plastic bags. It is just a small step in reducing the energy you use or cause to be used, but it will also save animals and fish, who often ingest used plastic bags which makes life difficult for them. When you go to the supermarket make sure you take a reusable bag. It may not do much in itself for reducing carbon consumption, but it is a first step. Then, contact people who are promoting similar or contrary messages in the media, and try to get them to see the perspective from your point of view.

    4. Do something for World Ocean Day, which is June 8th. Check out their website, and see how you can help perhaps by doing a beach clean up for them. The International Coastal Cleanup takes place in September each year. On a single day, 300,000 volunteers in 90 countries from Argentina to Vietnam help clean up over 11,000 miles of shoreline. Cleanup Day is also about pollution prevention. Volunteers record the different types of marine debris, and analyzing this leads to a better understanding of the causes. Join in at

    5. Do something simple to address global warming. Take a first step to becoming more conscious about the issues and as a starting point doing something that will have real impact. Here are two things you might like to do:
    Search on Blackle: This saves energy by having white writing on a black screen, and it uses the Google search engine. They tell you how many kilowatts of energy have been saved as a result of people using this, It is a small step, but seeing the black screen will remind you continuously of the importance of the issue of global warming.
    Do the Green Thing. Subscribe to the website and do the simple action each month. You will find their website a lot of fun:

    6. Click and donate. The money from click and donate sites comes from the sites sponsors who pay for each click. Check out the different options, which include The Rainforest Site to preserve rainforest in central and south America and The Hunger Site to feed the hungry – you can find a full list of such initiatives here.

    7. Save your spare change each night. Before you go to bed, tip your change into a jar, When it is full then turn it into proper cash and find something to donate it to a non-profit, possibly some Antarctic conservation trust. Check out the opportunities. Also look at the idea of helping a poor person out of poverty at

    8. Give up bottled water. Ask for tap with ice and a slice of lemon, instead. Bottled water is an environmentally insane project causing pollution and congestion to get the water to you and creating an environmental hazard through the empty bottles people end disposing of. Indeed if we spent the money we as a world are spending on bottled water, we could solve many of the worlds problems, including the preservation of Antarctica, with the money saved.

    9. Plant one tree. This will breathe out more than the amount of oxygen that you will need to live. It also absorbs carbon dioxide which will do a little to address global warming. Check out the UNs Billion Trees Campaign: Plant your own in your yard or garden, or just somewhere where you think a tree is needed (this is called guerrilla gardening).

    10. Have a Whale of a Time. Enjoy changing the world. Have fun. Make new friends. If you want to find out more about whales, go to:

    Each of us can do something. Pledge to do as many of these ten things as you can. Get started; its never too early. And remember the old Quaker proverb: Its better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.

    For more information on how to change the world, read Michael Nortons two books: 365 Ways to Change the World, published in Australia, Canada, India, South Africa, the UK and the USA, and The Everyday Activist, published in the UK. You can also visit his blog, or sign up to the 365 newsletter.

    Locked-In Syndrome is about to steal the limelight again, with the release in the UK of the film of Jean-Dominique Baubys memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The condition is rarely out of the news these days. Last November, for example, another locked-in patient made the headlines.

    Eric Ramsey hasnt spoken since he was in a car crash at the age of 19, eight years ago, but scientists think they have devised a way to give him back his voice.

    The Quick cover detail

    Their approach is so close to the one I describe in my novel, The Quick (out in paperback in March), that reading Ramseys story made my spine tingle. Jonathan Brumberg of Boston University and colleagues have surgically implanted wireless electrodes just beneath the surface of this brain, in a region which is responsible for generating speech. The idea is that when he imagines speaking, the electrodes detect the pattern of activity of brain cells in this area, and turn it into synthesised speech that matches his thoughts.

    After Bauby suffered his stroke in 1995, he was left with the ability to blink his left eye. A secretary sat by his bed, reading out an alphabet that had been rearranged according to the letters frequency of use, and Bauby would blink at the letter he wanted. By this painstaking process, they constructed a book. How technology has advanced in a decade.

    But wait: Ramsey hasnt spoken yet. In November Brumberg announced that he was confident his team could recognise the sound he was thinking of 80 per cent of the time. The next step was to let Ramsey hear for himself the sound their device generated. By giving him feedback in real time, they hope he will be able to tune his thoughts to produce a sound more closely resembling the one he wants. Once he has built up a big enough repertoire (back in November, he had only a few vowels), hell be ready to practise the art of conversation.

    The concept of feedback is interesting. When a baby is born, most of its actions are reflex, but with time it learns to control and direct those actions. It learns to link cause and effect. To take an early example, if it sucks while its mouth is clamped on its mothers breast, it is likely to receive milk. Thus the baby learns to suck when it is hungry. Feedback can be positive or negative, reinforcing an action or not, but without it there is no learning. The reason congenitally deaf people speak differently to hearing people is that they have never heard their own voices (or anyone elses). They have no notion of what speech sounds like, only what it looks like, and they produce an approximation based mainly on that visual information.

    Now, consider a locked-in patient who, by virtue of being completely paralysed, has received no feedback from the world since they entered that state. In the case of my character, were talking a decade. Is it conceivable that such a person might revert to the newborn condition, and forget how to control their own actions? In 2006, a group of German researchers led by psychologist Niels Birbaumer described the case of a 46-year-old German woman who might have done just that.

    She had been diagnosed with the degenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and by the time Birbaumer saw her, she had been locked-in for a year. The researchers started to train her to use their own version of a brain-computer interface, which involved sticking electrodes to her scalp, but she was not able to shape her brain signals in the way the device required. It occurred to the researchers that she might have more success if the electrodes were implanted into her brain, closer to the source of the signals, but to perform that operation they needed her consent. Since she couldnt give it, their hands were tied.

    One of Birbaumers colleagues came to the rescue. Passing an electronics store one day, she spied a medical device for measuring the pH of saliva, and had an idea. They trained the patient to change the acidity of her spit by imagining either the taste of lemon or the taste of milk. She learned to push the pH one way to say yes, the other to say no, and using this simple method gave her consent to the operation. Three hours later, she lost the ability to change her salivary pH at will. The operation went ahead, but she was still unable to gain control over her brain activity.

    Birbaumer fears that, after a certain time, locked-in patients may lose the capacity to control anything voluntarily. Bauby was spared this ultimate humiliation, as was my fictional locked-in patient, and both were therefore able to invite outsiders into their rich, and much altered, mental worlds. The early indications are that Ramsey might have been lucky too. Fingers crossed that he regains the power of speech before it is too late.

    Fancy the sound of “A Startling Opportunity Opening the Doorway to Dimensions of Professional Satisfaction and Glory Hitherto Reserved Only for the Literary Illuminati“? Then you may be interested in checking out a January essay competition run by our friends over at Portico books. Marks for copywriting, I say.

    The folks at Portico are looking for a ‘creative’ essay of no more than 1500 words on the subject, The Pen is Mightier than the Keyboard.

    Has the internet liberated new writers? Or are blog-zombies taking over our brains? Their closing date is the end of the month, so head over now if this sounds like your thing. Just tell them I sent you…

    Blog. Blah-blah-blah? Or brain log? The word implies a certain ease of posture, if not downright laziness. Like when youre lying on a sofa reading a good book, and the supine body leaves the mind free. Relaxation can lead to some very tight, very exciting thinking. And its all pleasure.

    Our January Book Club

    For the next twelve months, Ill be suggesting a classic book for you to read or reread each month. Keeping laziness in mind, Ill offer the books in pairs in alternate months, two in January, two in March, and so forth.

    Chances are you may have read at least one of the books, and so you will have plenty of time in which not to bother reading it again. But with two whole months, you might well get through the other book. And that might start you thinking about why I paired it with the first. In that way, both books may come alive inside your head. If you havent read either book–well, you have your pleasure cut out for you.

    Start with The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather, first published in 1915. Its about a girl growing up in a small Colorado townamong ranchers, farmers, miners, railroad menat the turn from the nineteenth into the twentieth century. She is destined to be a great opera singer. She has a voice, as a writer has a voice.

    At first she hides it from her small-minded and gossipy neighbors and even from her own family, but eventually its the only thing about her that matters. Even romance is pushed aside by it; her passion is thrilling and inspiring. The novel has turgid moments, but its trajectory is so compelling that you will revel in the melodrama. The opening scenes are among the most delicate and complete I have ever read, a portrait of disinterested love which sets the readers heart on a high path, hoping, right away, for the miracle which the story proves to be.

    Why do writers write about the problem of being an artist? About how their identity, their destiny, fulfils and isolates them? Do readers need to understand this? Or do readers prefer stories about ordinary people who fall in love and marry and have children?

    Alongside The Song of the Lark, read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. It was first published in 1916. For some it defines its genre. I wonder whether you will like the cerebral Irishmans bildungsroman better than the one by the comparatively hearty American womens magazine writer?

    You can visit Katherine at

    From our Secret Weapons to our Festival Trips, we’ve always been pleased to recommend books we love. So it had to happen – Fifth Estate is finally getting a reading group…

    I’m very pleased to welcome back to the blog Katherine Bucknell, author of What You Will and Leninsky Prospekt and a friend of Fifth Estate as far back as our launch in 2006.

    Every two months throughout 2008 Katherine will be introducing and recommending a pair of classic books. One you may have read – one you probably wont have – but they’ll both be linked by a common theme.

    In addition to her introductions, Katherine will also be posting occasional thoughts, questions and updates on the titles she’s handpicked – and leaving space open for your own comments.

    Think you can handle twelve books in 2008? Think brushing up on your classics is a noble New Year’s Resolution? I’ve dropped a link, ‘Classics Paired’, into one of our side columns – there it is, over there, under categories – which will take you straight to Katherine’s suggestions in the year ahead. As always, we’re very keen to hear your comments and opinions – so we hope you’ll get involved.

    Roll on the first selections!

    In 2007 Fifth Estate welcomed quite a few new readers. Here’s a Happy New Year to each one of you, but I can’t help but wonder – who on earth are you?

    Fifth Estate on Facebook

    To kick off 2008 (and perhaps match some faces to some names) Fifth Estate now has it’s own Facebook page – where you can enjoy many of our podcasts, videos and selected articles from the last twelve months.

    If you’re a member of the facebook network you can now ‘become a fan‘ of Fifth Estate, adding your own ugly mug to our page, connecting with other readers and letting us drop the odd notification into your inbox or newsfeed. We’d love to make your acquaintance, so whether you’ve come on board in the last few weeks or you’ve been reading throughout last year, please do head over and introduce yourself.

    Here’s looking forward to another great year’s writing in 2008. Don’t forget that if you’ve any ideas, suggestions or burning opinions – or if you think there’s any aspect of the bookworld we should be covering on Fifth Estate – you’re always more than welcome to drop us a line via

    All the best for the year ahead!

    …but as our hosting provider won’t support baked goods, you’ll just have to make them yourselves. Please do click on the image for this year’s Press Books Christmas Card, featuring a classic gingerbread recipe from author Dan Lepard. Give a man a fish, etc…

    Seasons Greetings!

    Sincere thanks to all who’ve supported Fifth Estate in our first full year of blogging: readers, contributors and all those nice people who link to us. Have a biscuit on us – and do enjoy a peaceful Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

    Is it time to bring the aviation industry down to earth? Here, courtesy of campaign group Plane Stupid, are 10 reasons to campaign against flying:

    1. Aviation is the fastest growing cause of climate change
    Despite myths propagated by the airline industry, aviation already accounts for 13% of the UKs contribution to climate change.

    2. Aviation creates massive noise pollution

    Living under the flight path is like living on a motorway. Over 1 million people live under the flight paths to the Heathrow and many have to endure a plane flying over every 45 seconds.

    3. Aviation is mostly unnecessary
    45% of air journeys in Europe are less than 500km about the distance from London to the Scottish border.These journeys are to destinations easily reachable by train and bus, which are both around ten times less polluting.

    4. Airport expansion will destroy important heritage sites
    Across the country over one hundred historical buildings are at risk from airport expansion. Philip Venning, the secretary of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), established by William Morris in 1877, said of airport expansion: “This is potentially the biggest single number of destructions of historic buildings in living memory.”

    5. Aviation expansion will destroy ancient forests and woodland
    Hundreds of acres of ancient oak woodland would have to be destroyed to make way for the governments expansion plans.

    6. Airports cause illegal levels of nitrous oxide pollution
    Heathrow airport is already breaching UK and EU legal limits for the high levels of nitrogen dioxide and therefore the present growth in the number of flights is probably unlawful. The governments own figures show that if a third runway is built 35,000 people would be exposed to this poisonous gas.

    7. Aviation’s contribution to the economy is massively overstated
    The aviation industry is only the 26th biggest industry in Britain. It’s half the size of the computer industry, and just a tenth the size of banking and finance.

    8. Aviation diverts money away from public services
    The airlines receive over 10 billion in tax breaks each year because of tax-free fuel and VAT-free tickets and planes. Thats enough to buy over 30 new hospitals, build 2,000 new schools, put at least 450,000 new police on the beat, and pay the tuition fees of over 3 million students!

    9. Aviation expansion is wiping established communities off the map
    At its seven airports across the UK BAA is proposing the biggest single programme of airport expansion that the UK has ever seen. The industry is looking for new runways at Stansted, Heathrow, Edinburgh and possibly Glasgow, with significant increases in flights at Gatwick, Aberdeen and Southampton.

    10. ‘Cheap’ flights are for the privileged
    Its the rich who are really benefiting from the artificially low prices of air travel. The average income of people using Stansted Airport is 47,000 per year and its supposed to be a budget airport!

    Apart from supporting groups like Plane Stupid, what can you do to solve the problem?

    Perhaps the best place to start would be making a pledge to stop flying at the LowFlyZone There you can look for inspiration from people who are finding ways to holiday – and participate in international business meetings – without flying; and you can contribute your own experiences. You can even post pictures of places you have travelled to, without flying, on the LowFlyZone map…

    Rejection is part of being a writer the same way depression is part of being married.

    You cant be a writer without facing an element of rejection, but the sad fact is the vast majority of writers only ever get to see the rejection side of the coin. I was in the same boat until Jonny Geller picked my debut novel, Broken, off the slush pile at Curtis Brown.

    Had he rejected it, Id probably still be in the same boat today: more than thirty agents rejected the same submission he picked up on, so whos to say everyone else wouldnt have rejected it too?

    Theres no pretending rejection doesnt hurt, but some rejections hurt less than others. The slush pile rejections I received rarely offered a specific reason for why I was being rejected, so it was just a case of crossing these agents off the list and sending out my next submission. I tried to look on these as the literary equivalent of a blind date not turning up not exactly nice, but not exactly personal, either.

    The hardest rejections were the near misses, and its frightening how close I came to giving up on Broken because of one specific rejection.

    I was just putting the finishing touches to the original manuscript when an agent asked to see the whole of the previous novel Id written. She rejected it pretty quickly, saying it was too slow, too dark, and too depressing. She did say, though, that she loved my writing and would be really interested to see whatever I wrote next.

    Her rejection didnt come as a surprise. Nor did her reasons. Id had the same criticism about my writing before, so had done everything I could to make Broken as fast-paced and vibrant as possible. Thinking I was in with a great chance of representation, I sent her the whole novel and tried my best not to get my hopes up. Even so, I was stunned when she rejected it for exactly the same reasons.

    I wasnt just stunned, I was disgusted with myself for making the same mistakes again, so stuck Broken in a drawer and started to write something else. If I hadnt finished that next novel a few weeks ahead of schedule and decided to read Broken through one more time to see where Id gone wrong, it might still be sitting there now. Not the best way to cope with rejection.

    On the whole, though, my reactions were much more balanced, especially on two occasions when I was told I was wasting my time with Broken – in 2005, a literary consultant at a writers conference ripped the overall plot to pieces and said it would never work. I ignored her and continued to write it.

    The following year, another agent at another conference looked at the opening page and the synopsis and said publishers would never go for a novel like this by an unpublished writer. I ignored her and carried on sending it out. In each case, I listened to what they said, then decided I knew better. Why? Because I loved the plot and the characters in Broken while I was writing it and there was no way I was going to stop writing before I knew how it all turned out. Then, when the writing was done (and Id recovered from my psychotic over-reaction to that first rejection) I knew it was good enough to be published and wanted to make sure every relevant agent in the country had the chance to reject it before I finally gave up.

    Even if that had happened, I would still have written a novel Id taken a huge amount of pleasure in writing, and I think thats the best way to handle rejection as an unpublished writer. Write what you believe in and what you care about, and take your pleasure from writing rather than how your writing is received. You might only be pleasing yourself if you follow this outlook but at least youll be pleasing someone.

    Over the last three weeks we’ve been publishing extracts from Nigel Slater’s Eating For England: here’s the trouble with tipping; the dubious delights of entertaining aged relatives; and an ode to good British fish and chips.

    Eating for England is a collection of short, often witty essays about the British and their relationship with food – featuring rice pudding, custard creams, roast dinners and more. It’s a very different book from the Kitchen Diaries, his most recent collection of recipes, and it’s different again from Toast, his childhood memoirs.

    Nigel’s an incredibly versatile writer – so what goes into all these books? How are they put together? What role is played by the editor? Here Nigel talks about the pleasures, and the difficulties, of his writing life.

    In the US, states are often referred to as either red or blue: Texas is most definitely red; New Hampshire is certainly blue. And so, it would seem, are readers. During the build-up to the 2004 US Presidential election I came across a curious book-related diagram.

    Red and Blue Reader Chart

    Click to see the full picture. What I’d found was a network map of best-selling political books based on purchase patterns from major online booksellers. The diagram had been made by Valdis Krebs, a social-network analyst who had wondered what book buying patterns could reveal about readers prejudices – and had set out to present it visually.

    What he discovered was that readers of political books in the US were far far more polarised than he had imagined. Books in the network were linked if the same person purchased them. These results were quite easy to obtain, simply by observing features such as “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought ” on Amazon.

    The red dots in the map above represent books from the political right, or those with a more Republican agenda. The blue dots represent books with an agenda more in tune with the liberal left. (This categorisation was based on Krebs own opinion and analysis.) So customers who bought Bill OReillys The No Spin Zone also bought Ann Coulters Slander. And the same thing happens with the blue dots. Only three books that fell into neither cluster occupy the middle of Mr Krebs diagram.

    What might this tell us about the US? Well, the map appears to reflect a country we already know is politically split down the middle – but perhaps suggests that there is also a deficiency of intellectual cross-fertilization.

    Readers are very much sticking to books that reinforce their prejudices. It hasnt always been this way; there is a trend away from engagement and a move towards creating political echo chambers on both sides. This hostility to engage in a more progressive debate is being reflected in the bestseller lists and, acutely, in the blogosphere.

    Second Book Map

    On this more up-to-date network map there is a new group of books in purple. Krebs noticed how this purple group began by occupying a middle ground, but has gradually moved to the left, connected to the blue books. The purple books also seem to be splitting into two smaller clusters: one around books that address religion and the other around books about economics.

    Far from encouraging debate, it seems that many Amarican bestsellers might actively be engendering a disgust for proper discussion. But then look at it this way at least political books make it higher up the best-seller lists in the States than here in the UK.

    And it is for that reason Im rather endeared to the American reader. To quote Stephen Colbert, one American who knows his right from his left, perhaps ignorance is bliss Oedipus ruined a great sex life by asking too many questions.

    After Felicity posted about the Collins Crime Club last month I was curious enough to search out a few more of the classic jackets that make the books so collectable – only to find this minor masterpiece from 1935.

    25 Sanitary Inspectors

    I know very little about Roger East, whose claim to fame now seems to lie entirely in his peculiar taste in titles. Indeed, Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors had been preceeded by both Candidate for Lilies and a debut delightfully entitled The Mystery of the Monkey Gland Cocktail. I kid you not – in fact the story of the Monkey Gland is even weirder than you think.

    I was going to suggest that we just don’t name ‘em like we used to – but then that’s a hard line to pull off when our own Dry Store Room No 1 will be hitting bookshops near you in the New Year… Any other titles I should know about?

    In Japan, people use disposable chopsticks made of wood – some 25 billion sets are used each year.

    They are usually manufactured in China, and require around 25 million trees to be chopped down. Because of the environmental impact of this and the rapid disappearance of forests, it has been reported in Japan that China intends to limit or ban the export of disposable chopsticks.

    If the imports can’t be obtained from another country there’ll need to be a shift in thinking. And there is one obvious answer: reusable chopsticks made of plastic rather than disposable chopsticks made of wood.

    To highlight the issue, lingerie designers Triumph International, have launched a ‘Chopsticks Bra’. The cups are made of two bowls one for rice and the other for miso soup – and a set of reusable chopsticks is stored in the cleavage. More from ITN:

    That’s just the beginning – plenty of activists are doing equally up-front things with clothing. How about panties with a socket to store a mobile phone – or perhaps more usefully, with space for condoms?

    If you like the idea of making a difference with something as simple as your underwear there’s no shortage of options, and here are a few places to start:

    Pants to Poverty

    Pants to Poverty takes forward the ideas of the Make Poverty History campaign by selling fairly traded and organic underwear branded with anti-poverty messages – and uses slice of the income to make the world a better place.

    Green Knickers

    Green Knickers are made from ethical fabrics (kind silk, organic cotton, hemp-cotton mixes) and boast save the world messages and delightful designs.

    Toms Shoes

    Young designer Blake Mycoskie has created a range of espadrilles hoes based on a traditional Argentinian design, and for each pair you buy, he donates a pair to a shoeless Argentinian. The two pairs (but only one for you) cost $48. There is a new range for children (Tiny Toms) and shoes which you can decorate yourself along with instructions for organising shoe decoration parties.

    Why do you write?

    If youre a writer yourself, or if youre thinking of taking up writing, youve probably already asked yourself this question. You might have decided you write because you feel you have something to say, or because you want to make your living as a writer, or because you have a burning desire to see your name and your novel in print.

    In the past, Ive used all of the above and more to justify the amount of time Ive spent writing novels only a handful of people ended up reading. Its only over the past few years, however, that Ive come to realise theres only one reason why I write.

    Because I must.

    All of the rest money, success, recognition; lack of money, failure, indifference is a side-show.

    I started writing very young I knew by the time I was five that I wanted to be a writer, and was fourteen the first time I sat down to write a novel. I dont know why. No one in my family wrote. No one I went to school with wrote. Other than a few books hanging around the house, there wasnt a single influence in my childhood pushing me in this direction. Most of my friends, family, and school-teachers were dismissive of my prospects and couldnt understand where my urge to be a writer came from. Up until my mid-twenties, I received very little encouragement, and not a single hint from anyone in the industry that I had what it took to succeed.

    Looking back, it seems strange that I was so drawn to a profession I knew nothing about, but thats how it happened for me. Somehow, I just knew. And were not talking journalism or short stories or poems. Right from the off, Ive always wanted to write novels and, even though Ive managed to have the odd article, short story, or poem published in the past, its only ever been writing novels thats mattered to me.

    Having said that, though, there was a stage in my early thirties when I started to believe I would never get a novel published. Id had hundreds of rejections and lost an agent. Id invested a massive part of my life in something that continually seemed to be out of my reach. In terms of writing something commercially successful, I no longer believed I had what it took.

    This realisation, as painful as it was, never once stopped me writing novels. If anything, it was only when I stopped thinking about what I hoped to gain from my writing that my writing really began to improve. This is why I believe the single most important question you can ask yourself as a writer is not why you write, but if you would still write if there was absolutely nothing in it for you. If no one published it, if no one liked it, if no one not even your loved ones could be bothered to read whatever it was you were writing, would you still have the urge within you to sit down and drag the words out?

    If the answer to that is yes, then that is why you write.

    Because youre a writer.

    Daniel Clay’s debut novel, Broken will be published by Harper Press in March.

    Very rarely do you hear publishers lauding the slush pile.

    Anyone who has ever worked their way up from editorial assistant will have had to wrestle with the heap of unsolicited submissions at one time or another – and for the most part entirely fruitlessly. For if its true to say that everyone has at least one book in them, it can sometimes seem that this is exactly where these unwritten tomes should stay.

    Ive certainly done my time, sifting through everything from the diary of a cat (submitted as non-fiction) to a university thesis on African witchcraft – and have yet to discover any hidden gems myself.

    And yet the publishing world is full of such legends Man Booker winner D.B.C. Pierre was discovered on a slush pile, as were Tom Clancy, Martha Grimes and Val McDermid. As a result, we continue to believe in the possibility of that undiscovered work of genius with the same guilty optimism with which we once secretly believed in Father Christmas.

    We spend hours, days, weeks, reading and responding to bizarre, ill-written and often utterly inappropriate submissions, and even longer trying to come up with better ways to do this – of which is one attempt.

    There have always been detractors willing to suggest that we scrap the ’slushpile’ entirely. But to do so would, I think, be a great pity.

    Not because thousands of bestsellers currently reach us this way evidence, alas, does not support this theory beyond a very few instances but because the slush pile represents much of what I, as an editor, love about publishing. The fact that great books inspire other writers, the fact that anyone who is able and willing to pick up a pen or punch a keyboard can write (even if the quality varies wildly), and the fact that we all work with books because we love them.

    Publishing is, undeniably, a business. But it’s also at heart a romantic undertaking one inspired by a love of good writing, great stories, scholarship, insight and opinion. It is a lively, engaging and inspiring industry to work in, but it would not survive without the optimism of authors and publishers who believe in the potential of the books they publish – and importantly, all the books they have yet to discover.

    And, of course, sometimes very rarely we do find things on the slush pile. The upcoming Comrade Jim (Fourth Estate, May 2008) was an unsolicited submission. Daniel Clays Broken, which HarperPress will publish in March, was discovered on the slush pile of the Curtis Brown Agency (for publishers arent the only fierce guardians at the gate many agents wont accept unsolicited submissions). In Daniels case, his discovery came after almost a decade of working at a day job he loathed, writing at nights and on weekends and soldiering on through repeated rejections.

    Over the next few months, Daniel will be contributing regularly to Fifth Estate, with articles on every aspect of the publishing process from what it takes to keep writing when no-one it seems willing to represent you, let alone publish you, to signing with an agent, agreeing a publishing deal, surviving the editorial process and finally being published at home and abroad (Broken has also been signed by publishing houses in the US, Canada, Italy and Holland).

    The aim of these articles is to inform and encourage, but also to introduce a writer from whom we expect great things. I hope you enjoy them.

    Prizes a-plenty over at the World Book Day website, where readers are hunting for the nation’s favourite ‘hidden gem’.

    World Book Day

    The search is on for just one book to be proclaimed ‘The Book to Talk About’ on World Book Day, the 6th March next year. Head over to the Spread the Word site to vote for your favourite from a longlist of one hundred great novels by living writers – and for a weekly chance to win 100 in book tokens.

    We at Press Books have three titles in the running – The Last Town on Earth, Magic For Beginners, and So He Takes The Dog.

    If you’ve loved any of these books then we need your vote! Already publishers around the country have stepped up to support their authors – amongst them Snowbooks, who last week employed one of digital publishing’s most dastardly tricks to drum up a little more support… ;)

    Have a browse through the site – and if you’ve any taste at all for searching out the book world’s many overlooked gems (and who doesn’t love an underdog?) do check out our own Secret Weapons thread for ten very eclectic recommendations from Fifth Estate.

    Nicholas Pearson, Publishing Director of Fourth Estate, is in Sweden to read Doris Lessing’s Nobel lecture.

    Stockholm is decorated for Christmas. The windows of the magnificent buildings that border the waterfront are lit with triangles of candles, the Christmas tree near the Royal Palace is ablaze with lights, and the shops and restaurants have oil candles on their doorsteps.

    Nicholas Pearson delivers Doris Lessing's Nobel Lecture

    Even one or two of the boats bobbing on the jetties have little decorated trees jutting from their foredecks, their rails wrapped in lights. It is a terrible shame that Doris Lessing isnt here to see it and accept her magnificent award.

    Laureates and their families started arriving days ago, and since then the winners in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature have been giving their acceptance lectures at venues all over Stockholm (the Peace Prize takes place in a separate ceremony in Oslo).

    We all stay at the Grand Hotel, the glitziest in the city, where even to stare at a piece of gravalax costs about 50. In the foyer we are met by people from the Nobel Foundation, and if there could be any doubt about the achievement that is the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is quickly dispelled by a quick glance at the poster they offer, showing the photographs of all 104 winners since 1901.

    Staring at me is a roll of honour that includes W B Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, T S Eliot, William Faulkner, Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemmingway, Albert Camus, John Steinbeck, Samuel Beckett, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who was one of the first to ring Doris and congratulate her), William Golding, Toni Morrison, Seamus Heaney, V S Naipaul, J M Coetzee, Harold Pinter, and last year Orhan Pamuk. Doris Lessing is only the tenth woman to win the prize.

    On Friday evening I made my way to the Swedish Academy to deliver Doriss Acceptance lecture on her behalf. I was greeted by members of the Committee and shown the great library, where the books of all the Nobel winners are kept. I was taken into a side room and in a small ceremony presented with a book to take to London for Doris. It is a science fiction epic poem by Harry Martinson, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1974. In this well-known poem in Swedish literature, Martinson has space-travellers looking back to their beloved home, Mother Earth, here named Doris.

    As 5.30 drew near the committee and I made our way into the great hall, where ambassadors, writers, Doriss daughter and grandchildren from Cape Town, and hundreds of others had gathered for the lecture. Doris Lessing is an incredibly popular winner here in Sweden. The lecture was broadcast live on television. If you are interested in seeing it, there is a video of the whole speech on the website. It was the greatest privilege of my publishing life to perform this task for a writer I love.

    The highlight of Saturday was without question the Nobel Prize concert, in honour of the laureates, in the presence of the King of Sweden and this year conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy and featuring the extraordinary pianist Lang Lang. This was the first time these two had performed together.

    A few years ago Lang Lang recorded Rachmaninovs second piano concerto and, in his own words, had very much emphasised the darkness and anxiety in the composers soul. For this occasion, Lang Lang indicated that his interpretation would tend more towards red more heat and passion. His performance was absolutely breathtaking.

    Yesterday, there was a small lunch with the British Ambassador at his residency, for Doriss family, and for Martin Evans and his family. Martin Evans, also British, has been awarded the Nobel this year for his work in stem cell research, which he pioneered in the early 80s. More speeches, a touching one from Martin, who quoted our own Gwyneth Lewis. The British Ambassadors absence from the lecture was explained he had been on a plane going to Brussels with David Milliband. In truth, the academy had been rather disappointed. Korea had been there, and India!

    Later in the day, there was a champagne reception at the Nordic Museum, next to the Vasa Museum where the restored galleon that sank in the harbour in 1628 is housed. It was pulled from the mud and painstakingly restored over twenty years, and opened to the public in 1990. This is a must for anyone who comes to this city.

    The Vasa Galleon

    From there we were taken to the Bonniers’ great family home for a dinner to celebrate Doris. Many of her foreign publishers were there, from Finland, Holland, Germany, HarperCollins in New York (Terry Karten had flown to London and back the previous day, to have tea with Doris). Inge Feltrinelli, who had dresses made in Milan for Doris, arrived with a lovely scrapbook of photographs of her. All sixty of us wrote messages to Doris which we will take back to London for her.

    Today is the big day, the Award Ceremony at the Concert Hall. My white tie and tails are hanging in the cupboard. We think that Doris will be spoken to on the phone from the stage. And then on to the Nobel Banquet in the Blue Hall of the City Hall, where I will dance with the Queen of Sweden . . .

    Divorce season is nearly upon us. A few weeks now and well all be cooped up at home with our families for a great Christmas week. Lots of us will love every minute of domestic chaos. A large minority will start to think fondly of the peaceful times we spend in the office by December 27th.

    But some of us will hit the New Year pretty certain that we dont ever want to have to spend another Christmas with exactly the same lot of family ever again: more divorces are filed in early January than at any other time of the year.

    This makes sense. These days we all work hard (often far too hard) so we dont see enough of each other to keep our relationships working as they should: instead of talking problems out we can get away with ignoring them.

    Until Christmas. Then they surface with a vengence. And worse, Christmas is expensive. Couples row more about money than about anything else so when the pricey presents start piling up it shouldnt be much of a surprise that so too do the rows about the bills.

    The problem, of course, is that divorce takes financial problems and makes them worse. In marriage every burden is shared. In divorce every burden is doubled. And not just emotionally, but financially too. One house becomes two houses; one phone bill, two phone bills; one set of insurances two sets of insurances. Suddenly there are two lifestyles to deal with. A total income that is sufficient to run one household rarely allows two households to survive in a similar style: when a marriage breaks down everyone usually has to suffer.

    How to find a good solicitor

    So once youve decided that suffering is vital to your long term happiness, what next? First up is finding a solicitor. just as you shouldnt rush into marriage you shouldnt rush into divorce: one of the main reasons to go to a solicitor and get proper professional advice is to slow things down a bit.

    Most good solicitors will start off not by looking at a list of your assets to figure out who might get what but by asking if you can be reconciled. A great many couples are apparently shocked into sense just by visiting a solicitors office. It is possible to file for divorce online you input your details and youre off but to my mind you really shouldnt be able to file for divorce on the spur of the moment: computers dont stop to ask if you are sure, good solicitors do.

    So how do you find a good solicitor? You dont just need someone who is good at their job, you need someone you feel you can trust: if your divorce drags out you could be seeing them regularly for a couple of years. The best way, as ever, is personal recommendations.

    If friends suggest someone good, meet them but dont think you have to use them if you dont think theyre quite right. Solicitors dont take offence. Otherwise you can ask at your local Citizens’ Advice Bureau or contact Resolution, an association of matrimonial lawyers who work with a code of practice designed to help you come to a settlement in a positive and conciliatory, rather then overly litigious, way.

    And if you think you can be even the smallest bit amicable about your divorce you might want to consider something new collaborative law. This is a system under which lawyers and their clients agree not to go to court to work out a settlement but to work it out themselves. In court differences and arguments can become exaggerated, making the whole process even worse than it has to be. This system avoids the acrimony as much as possible by having the two sides meet at a round table with their lawyers and talk it out until they have a sensible settlement. Think Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall rather than War of the Roses. See for more on this common-sense route.

    Remember: every angry letter and phonecall costs

    If you end up taking a non amicable route never stop thinking about the cost. When you are caught up in a legal battle, instructing your solicitor to fire off letter after letter to your spouse, its easy to forget that the cost of every letter will come out of the final pot of cash that you both have to live off. As Imogen Clout points out in her book, Divorce, people in nasty divorces often talk about fighting for their rights, or justice or the principle of the thing, forgetting that the law is pretty clear on how assets should be divided and that divorce law is not designed to deliver abstract redress or compensation.

    Solicitors charge for their time every minute of their time. You will pay for every letter, every phone call and every meeting. You will even be charged for their travel time when they come to court. And their rate can be anything from 120 an hour plus VAT to a great deal more. Thats a cost to you of about 2.30 a minute.

    Big-money divorce can cost from 20,000 in fees. So only consult them when you really need to. Dont call them when you are angry (a therapist will be cheaper) but only when you need legal advice. And remember your lawyer probably doesnt much care about how you perceive the rights and wrongs of your case; they just want to sort it out and get paid.

    Fairness is an ‘elusive concept’

    On the plus side this, in most cases this isnt that hard. Divorce settlements used to be made on the basis of making sure the reasonable requirements of the poorer partner (usually the wife) were taken into account, but now when there are more assets than needed for just this (when there is a surplus) the ideas of fairness and equality have taken over.

    Even if there has been one main breadwinner in a family each party is still entitled to maintain their living standards post-divorce as much as possible: domestic contributions are considered as valuable to a family as the role of a breadwinner. Property is now usually divided fifty-fifty, for example.

    There is also now scope for women who have given up careers to be stay-at-home mothers to be compensated for this in the settlement. There were howls of protest from men all over the country in 2006 when Julia Macfarlane was awarded 250,000 a year out of her husbands earnings of 750,000. But was that really too much? Macfarlane had given up her career to look after her husband and her children (she was out-earning him when she stopped work) but after a decade-long break can hardly be expected to pick up where she left off. By becoming a wife and mother she gave up a huge earning potential. So why should she, because she stopped work to look after children, have a lower standard of living than her ex-husband?

    Its a vexed question. Some say she was entitled to everything she got: if you are dumped after such a long time you are due a lot of back pay as one ex-wife put it in Style magazine. But some say that giving up work was her choice (clearly the Macfarlane family could afford childcare) and that having less money now is simply the price she has to pay for making that choice. Fairness, as law lord Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead said in his judgement on the case, is an elusive concept.

    The basics of divorce settlements

    ultimately, what we think about the Macfarlane case or indeed any of the high-profile divorce cases that hit the papers is irrelevant in most cases: the assets of most married households, when divided, simply arent enough to keep two households well, let alone to allow arguments about the surplus. Settlements are less about who gets the house in Harbour Island and more about how assets can be divided so both parties can actually survive.

    The average divorcing couple in 2006 had only 165,000 in assets to divide between them hardly enough for both to be even satisfactorily housed post-divorce. So the courts have a fairly standard way of sorting out financial settlements. They will take into account the needs of each part of the family, the length of the marriage, your ages and the contributions each of you have made (making no differentiation between financial contributions and household contributions) and divide all your assets accordingly, sorting out everyones basic needs first and then divvying up the surplus if there is one.

    This is all very traumatic, but it isnt that complicated: there tend to be set answers depending on how long you have been married, whether you have children and what each party brought to the marriage and contributed during it. For basic information on all this visit which offers a good (and free!) round up of the legal process and potential pitfalls – as well as some help with the emotional issues that come with divorce.

    For more tips and advice, visit the personal finance pages of the MoneyWeek website – or check out Merryn’s new book, Love is Not Enough.

    If you’ve decided it’s time to get to grips with Doris Lessing you certainly wont be alone, but her massive body of work can intimidate even the keenest of readers. Seventy books over six decades may well be a Nobel-winning achievement – but then where exactly do you start?

    Here at Fifth Estate we’ve polled the office and hand picked seven of Doris’ finest works, one to represent every period of her career – and covered off more than a handful of genres in the process. Below you’ll find ancient fable, political thriller, futuristic dystopia and contemporary romance, all from 1950 to 2007.

    Disagree with our selection? Have your own favourites? Enjoy the tour – but don’t hesitate to leave your comments below…

    The Grass is Singing, 1950

    Doris Lessing brought her classic first novel, The Grass is Singing, with her when she came to England from Southern Rhodesia in 1950.

    Set in Rhodesia, it tells the story of Dick Turner, a failed white farmer and his wife, Mary, a town girl who hates the bush. Trapped by poverty, sapped by the heat of their tiny brick and iron house, Mary, lonely and frightened, turns to Moses, the black cook, for kindness and understanding.

    The Grass is Singing

    The Golden Notebook, 1962

    Considered by many to be Doris’ seminal work, and by some a feminist bible.

    Anna Wulf is a young novelist with writers block. Divorced, with a young child, and disillusioned by unsatisfactory relationships, she feels her life is falling apart. Fearing the onset of madness, she records her experiences in four coloured notebooks…

    The Golden Notebook

    The Memoirs of a Survivor, 1974

    Many years in the future, city life has broken down, communications have failed and food supplies are dwindling. From her window a middle-aged woman watches things fall apart.

    One day a young girl, Emily, is brought to her house by a stranger and left in her care. A strange, precocious adolescent, Emily is drawn to the tribal streetlife and its barbaric rituals – and unafraid of the harsh world outside…

    Memoirs of a Survivor

    The Good Terrorist, 1985

    In a London squat, a band of bourgeois revolutionaries unite in their loathing for the waste and cruelty they see in the world around them. But soon they become involved in terrorist activities far beyond their level of competence…

    The Good Terrorist

    The Fifth Child, 1988

    Harriet and David Lovatts life is a glorious hymn to domestic bliss and old-fashioned family values: four children, a beautiful old house, the love of relatives and friends.

    But when their fifth child is born, a sickly and implacable shadow is cast over this tender idyll. Large and ugly, the infant Ben is violent and uncontrollable – and Harriet is deeply afraid of what she has brought into the world

    The Fifth Child

    Love, Again, 1996

    Sarah Durham, sixty-year-old producer and founder of a leading fringe theatre company, commissions a play based on the journals of Julie Vairon, a beautiful, wayward nineteenth-century mulatto woman.

    It captivates all who come into contact with it, and dramatically changes the lives of all those who take part in it. For Sarah especially, the changes are profound…

    Love, Again

    The Cleft, 2007

    An old Roman senator embarks on what will likely be his last endeavour: the retelling of the story of human creation.

    He recounts the history of the Clefts, an ancient community of women who have no need, or knowledge, of men until the strange birth of a boy throws their whole community into jeopardy.

    The Cleft

    We at Fifth Estate will sadly not be heading to Stockholm for Doris Lessing’s Nobel lecture – due to a minor technicality (we weren’t invited) we’ll be cheering on our Press Books delegation from the urban comforts of London’s Hammersmith.

    We will, however, be watching live on the Nobel website: Kicking off today at 16:30 (GMT), Doris’ acceptance speech will be broadcast across the internet and around the world.

    Log on to the Nobel site later this afternoon and see in the weekend with Fifth Estate, Doris and the collected dignitaries of the Swedish Academy. See you there!

    On Monday Doris Lessing will formally receive the Nobel Prize for Literature – and tomorrow her Nobel lecture will be delivered in Stockholm.

    Over the summer, while we prepared brand new editions of her most popular works, Sarah O’Reilly sat down with Doris to discuss The Golden Notebook, delving into her communist past and development as a writer – and got a glimpse of what’s coming next from Britain’s new Nobel Laureate. Read on!

    The Cleft

    Youve written that The Golden Notebook is a book that people reacted to rather than read when it was first published. Can you speak a little about how it was written, and the unexpected reaction it got?

    The first thing to say is that the book was written at absolute white heat. It didnt take me much more than a year. I decided on the frame novel, Free Women, and then I interleaved it with the notebooks. And once I had ventured into the area of the book, a kind of pattern began to emerge in my material of which I had not previously been aware. You have to watch out for it.

    In this case, although no one will ever believe it, I was completely unconscious of writing a feminist book. I was simply writing about what I saw. For example, I had a woman friend at that time who was very bitter about men, in a way that I dont think women are now. She was a single woman, and she wanted a bloke, and she wanted to be married. But she was always having affairs with married men, and she was angry with them. Yet she was living the kind of life that invited it. I was interested in that.

    A journalist recently said to me, quite severely, You have these two women, and all the married men around see them as fair prey. I replied how very true that was. He was rather angry with me for agreeing with the statement perhaps men are more faithful now. But I do remember that at the time when I was writing The Golden Notebook there was an atmosphere of women being angry that men left them to look after the kids, had affairs and so on. I was just writing what I saw; I wasnt trying to make a feminist point with my book, although apparently I did.

    Academics and the like will never ever understand this. Theyve been taught to look at the book not as a process, which is how a writer would see it, but as a finished object with this or that message. Still, Ive always received letters from men about the book, some of whom have never even noticed that it was meant to be for women. Theyre interested in the politics. That makes me very happy. Not that I am saying an author should always be read as they wish to be that rarely happens!

    Why do you think its appeal has endured to this day?

    I think its because of the books vitality, which I find most fascinating. Im sure its because at the time I was writing everything was so fraught, difficult and contradictory. You must remember that in the 1950s there were two types of comrades, roughly: those who would rather die than admit that there was anything wrong with the Soviet Union, and those who knew it was in a terrible state and were waiting for someone to say that.

    So when Khrushchev gave his speech at the Twentieth Party Congress (which satisfied neither side) half of them became terribly upset because he had criticized Stalin and the other half were furious because the job had only been half done . . . It was a terribly difficult time. Peoples hearts were broken.

    The experience must have left you very suspicious of any form of political ideology.

    Very. I dont think its easy for any of my generation to take to political ideology. Weve seen too much of it and how it ends up. Are there any political ideologies worth believing in today? I dont think so. I just dont like these big ideas because Ive seen what happens to them.

    What I do think is worthwhile is the smaller objective, because that cant be overtaken by some lunatic or other. But there is a great vacuum at the moment. I am very interested in the growth of communities founded on religious principles thats happening now because Ive got a feeling that that is where the next ideology will come from. In terms of my lot, however, I think were immune. Or I hope that we are.

    Do you worry that younger generations are so apathetic?

    No, not at all at least youre not talking rubbish about the Soviet Union! I think its rather healthy. But there is a vacuum. I can easily imagine a charismatic chap sweeping you all away . . . and you wouldnt realize.

    In The Golden Notebook Ella is haunted by the letters she receives from women whose lives seem to have stopped dead in their tracks.

    That was what I found then. This is an actual memory from the 1950s: I was out canvassing for the Communist Party in a big block of flats near Somers Town, going from door to door, and behind every one I found a woman going crazy, a woman bored out of her mind with small children.

    I am from the colonies where women were much freer, but in England I found only a sink of misery. It was a shock. These women needed a social worker. They were talking in ways Id never heard people talk. They wanted jobs, they wanted education, but their husbands werent going to help them that all happened ten years later when the womens movement came about.

    When I found this was going on in the 1950s I went to the Party and said, Look, Ive found these women going crazy: they are bored, what are you going to do about it? and they were not interested. They did nothing, and I stopped canvassing.

    What did you read, growing up?

    When I was young, I read everything there was to read. All the classics. That was my education, really. I dont know which influenced me more than others. Perhaps the Russians: Dostoevsky, Chekhov. That is true of my generation and the one after; so many were influenced by this constellation of genius, and there hasnt been one really since, with the exception of Proust.

    In The Golden Notebook Anna writes about Thomas Mann, comparing the modern-day novel reports unfavourably to his philosophical works . . .

    Thomas Mann marked the end of a kind of literary culture which I think, unfortunately, is now gone completely. We, all of us who revere that culture, know were just a lot of dinosaurs – the past.

    Mann was writing out of an established, respected literary tradition which has been swept away. When I was writing The Golden Notebook in the late fifties I was looking back in time, and I was very conscious that things were changing, and, my God, have they changed completely. Thomas Mann couldnt be now. If he came out with one solid, theoretical, philosophical novel after another today, on and on to the end of his life, who would read him? Who would bother? I hear that a new, edited edition of War and Peace has been published, for example, which leaves out the philosophy. Its just story now.

    The Golden Notebook

    Do you regularly read anything by younger generations of writers?

    Im trying to write a book at the moment, and it is very hard to find time to think about anything else, because I have to grab an hour here, half an hour there. So reading other peoples books is more than I can stand at
    the moment! Instead they pile up, leaning against the walls of my study. Too many books!

    Do you always stop reading when you embark on a new book?

    I have stopped with my current book, because my time is running out. Im 87, Im not going to live for ever and I want to finish this book Im writing now. Ill go back to being a good reader when I finish it.

    Can you talk a little about the project you’re working on?

    It is a book about my parents, who were very damaged by the First World War. I have given them normal lives, totally ordinary lives, as if there had been no war. It is a book that I really care about, but writing it is very painful because they had such terrible lives, these people. History treated them so badly. I want to give them a good life.

    It is a very anti-war book. Though Im not setting out to write it as such, that is what is emerging. Both my parents were remarkable in different ways, but it occurred to me rather late that whilst it was very obvious that my father was done in by war, the impact on my mother was much more difficult to see. Now I propose to put that right.

    I once said in my autobiography that living is like going up a mountain: every time you go a little higher up, the view looks completely different. And that is exactly what is happening as I write this book: the view of my mother is looking completely different.

    You left school at 14 and never went to university. Do you think this unusual path has been a help to your creativity?

    Yes it has been very good for me on the whole, although I come across great areas of ignorance that would have been covered in school had I stayed. But I know many writers who have been circumscribed by academia; when youre always being taught to compare, it does stop your creativity.

    I once visited a writers group run by a university in the States, and it was a most punishing experience. It was filled with extremely bright people; they had all read everything. One of their number would bring material with them to the group where it would be criticized viciously by the others. I would never have survived a creative writing course! They savaged each other, and what they were creating was critics, not writers. Im prepared to bet on that.

    Youve written about the differences between writers and academics in the past. One would have thought the academic might have an understanding of the writer above all others . . .

    I think theres a complete gulf between writers and academics. Were just different animals. An academic will always be looking for a point of comparison between one novel and another, because that is how theyre taught. But writers start with a clean slate. They are thinking how can I use this material best? And in what way? Not about resembling To the Lighthouse.

    Youve lived through one of the most tumultuous centuries in our history. How
    has that affected you?

    Well, Ive lived through Hitler, ranting and raving; Mussolini too; the Soviet Union, which we thought would last for all time; the British Empire, which seemed impregnable; the colour bar in Rhodesia and elsewhere; the heyday of European empires. It was inconceivable to think these would disappear. They seemed permanent. Now not one of them remains and I think that that is a recipe for optimism!

    In your body of work as a whole, and in The Good Terrorist in particular, youre very interested in groups, and group dynamics.

    Very. I suppose it is because the Communist Party in Southern Rhodesia was where I started to think. Though I was too young to know much about anything back then, I did begin to notice how such groups worked, and Ive continued to notice ever since. Theres usually a boss, and a younger person who wants to be a boss, for example, and the girls are nearly always tea-makers by nature.

    When I was writing The Good Terrorist there was a squat opposite my house where all this sort of thing was going on. There was a woman who served everybody or so it would appear whilst the men were all writing up slogans and treating her abominably. I just had to look out of the window and there it all was. Ive never been in a group with a woman boss. I imagine that would be interesting.

    The Good Terrorist

    You mention the Communist Party in Southern Rhodesia. How did your friends in it react when you decided that you wanted to be a writer?

    Oh, they hated it. Anybody in the left who wants to be a writer should keep quiet, because the comrades will always do you in! They would say to me, Why do you want to waste your time on personal matters? Why are you wasting your talents on personal fulfilment? My husband in particular.

    Did anything change when you came to London in 1949? Did you feel freer to pursue your writing career thanks to the change of scenery?

    Not in the first year, but that was mainly because I had a small child, which landlords werent pleased about, and I couldnt easily find a place to live. Eventually I moved in with a group of Italians on the Portobello Road. They were wonderful. All crooks and black marketeers, but I was so innocent I didnt know how terrible they were!

    Then I hit the comrades again. They were more sophisticated than the group I had joined in Southern Rhodesia. I became a member of the Party Writers Group, which was composed of very disillusioned people whod been through the Party mill. Their dislike for the upper echelons of the Communist Party was vicious; they hated what they called King Street [the Communists headquarters in Covent Garden]. But they didnt put me down, at least, and by then Id also acquired some confidence. The Grass is Singing was out, so I couldnt be put down in the same way

    Youve written your whole life. Have you made sacrifices?

    I have. You cant have a vivid social life if you want to write. I know some writers flourish on it; they love going out every night and dancing till dawn, but I couldnt do it. London was enormously attractive then in a way it isnt now. There were wonderful clubs in Soho, full of witty, brilliant people: artists, writer, poets and painters. But I had a child who kept me on the straight and narrow. And now I give thanks for it because I wouldnt have stood up to the nightclubs otherwise. I would have been lost!

    In The Golden Notebook, Anna highlights curiosity as one of the qualities a person needs to write. What are the others?

    I think you need to have been an observant child. People say you need to have had an unhappy childhood but I dont say that. I say you need a stressed childhood; a childhood where you are taught to look at whats going on around you; where you have to watch the expressions on grown-ups faces: that is very useful experience.

    Sometimes when Im with a family or a group of kids I look out for the one amongst them who is watching and I think, Aha, yes, youll probably do it! Of course the other thing you have to have is perseverance because a lot of people have literary talent in this culture, but its no good just writing very well if you cant keep at it. I think many people write one book and then give up. You have to be a bit of a slogger to succeed.

    With the Christmas holidays fast approaching, parents everywhere are beginning to feel those first twinges of panic. Very soon their carefully organised households will be filled with the worst kind of chaos: excited children with nothing to do…

    From the Collins Childrens Annual

    I have several friends in this situation; helpful librarian that I am, I took to the archive in search of activities to amuse their little ones. And I wasn’t disappointed

    I turns out that our HarperCollins store bears an astounding wealth of hints and tips on all kinds of subjects, if only you know where to look for them. I have now learnt, for instance, how to make a zoo. Apparently it involves sawdust, three-ply wood, a fretsaw and 2 oz. of powdered alum (available from all good chemists!). How would today’s Wii-loving kids take to a fretsaw? I suspect my house would be in danger…

    Indeed, in just one issue of the old Collins Magazine I found tips on: how to tell the speed at which your train is travelling from the rhythm of the rail beats; how to build your own Aquarium; how to make a lathe; and how to set up a weather station. By all accounts, the little darlings of the ’40s seem to have been the most resourceful generation in history…

    Alternatively, if all those sound like too much hard work you could always have a go at this this simple magic trick;

    Put a paper on the table and a bottle on top of it, upside down. Now try and take away the paper without touching the bottle. It is easy if you take one or two precautions. Bang on the table smartly with the left fist and with the other had gently pull the paper away. After the paper has been removed the bottle will still be standing.

    Do not be fooled by the easy tone of this description. I tried this and ended up with a dry cleaning bill the size of my mortgage – and wasted a perfectly good bottle of wine too…

    I went back to my friends armed with all these many, helpful suggestions. They weren’t as grateful as I’d hoped.

    You file impatiently back up the carpeted stairs, past the usherettes with their beehive hairdos and the popcorn booth, and through the foyer. You go down the steps and past the long and somewhat inebriated queue for the late-night show. Your pace gradually quickens. Having safely left the rest of the audience behind, you join the short queue at the fish-and-chip shop, pull your collar up to keep out the cold, and then wait for what seems like forever to get the counter.

    People walk past clutching their haddock and chips. You can smell the warm paper, the piercing vinegar, and can almost taste the salty batter. Your breath forms clouds in the frosty night air. You rub your hands together. You wait, and you wait.

    Finally you get your hands on your own hot parcel. You find a wall to sit on, and peel back the white paper. The batter is still crisp, the fish comes away in thick, chalk-white flakes. You inhale what seems to be, for that moment in the cold night air, the most perfect smell in the world. A smell steeped in nostalgia, gluttony and national pride. A smell to beat off all comers the garlic notes of the stir-fry, the soft dough-n-cheese scent of the pizza, the warm, wet-lettuce aroma of the Big Mac. Waves of heat, acid, salt and ozone rise in a cloud into the frost-etched air. A perfect moment.

    Visitors from abroad, and indeed anyone born less than fifteen years ago, must wonder how the inhabitants of this country earned their reputation as such consummate lovers of fish and chips. Even now one assumes there is a friendly chippy frying tonight on every corner, even though it was probably long ago replaced by a branch of Starbucks.

    Those that have survived are either the best of their kind, serving fresh fish in light-as-a-feather batter and hand-cut chips to a discerning, grateful clientele, or have diversified to offer a little Chinese on the side. It is almost impossible to find a seriously good chippy in Londons West End, so the classic British night out of a film followed by fish and chips eaten from the paper is something easier done by the seaside.

    It is of course purely coincidental that the decline of the chippie started around the same time they stopped wrapping our cod and chips in old newspaper. We cant blame the health inspectors for everything, but certainly some magic was lost once your chips no longer came with something to read. The smell of hot, greasy newsprint is perhaps the best seasoning a fish can have.

    The fish-and-chip business has had more bad luck thrown at it than seems fair. The emergence of the burger bars and kebab shops, the massive rise in high-street rates that have seen off all but the biggest retailing names, the health lobby and now, to cap it all, the nations dwindling fish stocks. Its a wonder any are still in business.

    Those who peddle frozen fish clad in batter as thick as their shops Formica counter tops, with jars of sad pickled eggs and a lone, armour-plated saveloy waiting patiently for someone drunk enough to order it, are still around. They exist out of necessity. During the day they provide cheap(ish) sustenance to those who cannot cook. At night they are a safe harbour for anyone who has drunk enough not to care what they put in their mouth.

    It is difficult to know whether the fish and chip is on the brink of extinction or a comeback. Some enterprising soul may well see the gaping hole that has appeared in the takeaway food market. But what form should our fish-and-chip suppers take in the twenty-first century? We have much to learn from the Japanese, with their gossamer-thin tempura batter. Could a lighter coating, barely strong enough to hold the fish, be the future for the fish-and-chip trade? At least that would appease the health police. Should we rethink the thick, greasy chips, and offer something more delicate and infinitely crisp? Or should we simply leave it be, and hope that the few that have survived so far always will? As I write, my local chippy has just gone out of business.

    The Italians have their feather-light zucchini flowers, the French their frites, the Spanish their cloud-like churros (which they then go on to soak in hot chocolate), and the Indians have pans full of crackling hot samosas. Snacks and vegetables, starters and side dishes, the worlds kitchens are full of food that has seen the inside of a pan full of deep, golden oil, but surely the British are the only ones so far to deep-fry one of their national dishes.

    You know things are serious when the lawyers get involved.

    Last week I spent two days in Paris, the first time I had been back since Sarkozy was elected, and since the new vlib scheme has brought 20,000 bicycles to the streets. Two weeks previously the metro and train drivers had staged their strikes, enthusiastically supported by the students who had barricaded the Sorbonne and marched with a multitude of banners in the spirit of 68.

    This time barristers were marching against centralisation and had reclaimed the streets as was their birthright. Many of them would have been of an age to have chanted sous les pavs, la plage in those heady May days.

    I had arrived with a battered copy of Maupassants Bel Ami in my back pocket, looking forward to savouring the Paris of carriages and cobbled streets, salons and assignations between the trees in the Jardin des Tuileries, but now that the smell, if not of musket shot, but certainly of protest was in the air, I wanted to seek out the demonstrators.

    Paris is often described as a city to be read on foot, and it is easy to see why when, to take one street, rue Servendoni in St Sulpice, there is housed one of Dumass Three Musketeers as well as Jean Valjean, Hugos hero from Les Miserables. Such a destiny of literature has assembled in Paris that one pictures characters from centuries of literature crossing paths constantly, crowding each other out a rioting mob of heroes and villains, cads and damsels in distress all clamouring for space in the cafes and across the boulevards.

    We followed the good-humoured barristers down rue Cambon where Diana and Dodi took their last fateful trip from the back of the Ritz as they made their way to the Ministry of Justice. What the metro drivers inadvertently did by sending commuters up onto the streets was to remind people that it is possible to walk across the breadth of Paris with great ease.

    The heavy breathing of the lawyers we walked with was not just lack of exercise. It was an exhilaration of seeing again how they should be experiencing the city, as an intoxicating abundance of crowds – a huge anthology of tales or as a single novel; a salon one minute, a wilderness the next.

    The students have all gone home now, and the lawyers are back in their chambers, and it would appear that Sarkozy will not bend to them, just as he held his nerve against the train drivers. But for this generation of protesters, who may not have succeeded as their predecessors had, they have at least re-discovered the primary generative grammar of their legs, and been reminded that to experience Paris in its true form, as a collection of stories, a memory of itself made by the walkers of the street, both real and fictional, is to put one foot in front of the other.

    As for Bel Ami, it remains unopened in my back pocket. For all the parks and cafes, Paris is a city where ones feet are best left to do the reading.

    Here’s a fact – and a conjecture.

    The fact first. If you look at the UNESCO list of the worlds top 50 most translated authors, you find that British authors are wildly over-represented.

    To get a true measure of this, you first need to trim the list to kick out the slightly nonsensical entries: counting the two Grimm brothers as just one author for example, discarding non-authors such as the Bible, and so on. When I crunched the data for my book on the nation, This Little Britain, I came up with just forty-one authors left on the list.

    Of those forty-one, no less than fourteen, a full third of the total, are British. The next most-translated country is the United States, whose (much larger) population has contributed just eleven names to the list. The entire rest of the world, with sixteen names on the list, barely counts for more than our little islands.

    Here are those authors, divided up by nationality (rank in brackets, correct at time of writing):

    Most Translated Authors

    It doesnt require a very long look at the table above to see that whats in question here isnt a battle fought out between the greats of literature. Although Shakespeare and Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky all make the grade, the table is dominated by popular authors of every stripe. Hercule Poirot beats Hamlet. The Famous Five and their lashings of ginger pop have sold better than Chekhov, Kafka and Plato put together.

    Whats going on? One obvious suggestion is that the international dominance of the English language somehow translates into a dominance of English-speaking authors. The trouble with this explanation is (i) it hardly explains the disparity between Brits & Yanks, and (ii) it doesnt explain anything else either, since an international language simply acts as a kind of turntable for everything else.

    So heres my conjecture. Call me nuts, but Id suggest that British authors are the most internationally successful ones because British authors happen to be very good at writing. That sounds vaguely jingoistic, I know, but sometimes its hard to avoid the obvious.

    For whatever reason, literature seems to have been a particularly British art form ever since the time of Alfred the Great. Weve not been so remarkable in other art forms music, opera, painting, sculpture and the rest but literature has always thrived here. Its been our art form, the way that music is the German art form: just one of those things, at once inexplicable and undeniable.

    There’s more in This Little Britain, but thats the simple fact – and that’s my rather humble conjecture. Am I right or wrong? Fire away on the comment icon below…

    It sometimes feels as though there is something intrinsically corrupt about everything. In just one day this month we learnt that members of the House of Lords pocket up to 48,000 each a year in tax free expenses, money for which they never have to provide justifying receipts – and that Scotland Yard officers have recently managed to steal a whopping 1m from the tax payer via company issue American Express cards.

    But very rarely does one see something in the papers that even begins to measure up to behaviour that passes for perfectly normal in the financial industry. Look at the way shareholders in banks are ripped off by their senior management. Chuck Princes reward for making a mess of Citigroup (he resigned after the bank revealed $11bn in subprime related losses) was a pay off of $30m plus a car, driver, admin assistant and an office in Manhattan for five years.

    To the rational man in the street this makes no sense at all. Not only is $30m a vast amount to pay for failure but the provision of an office, more staff than most of us ever have and a car is bemusing. Why should the banks shareholder continue to support the ego (for this is what this boils down to) of a man they have already dumped for another five years?

    The fees that eat into your returns

    Next look at a slightly different aspect of the industry: the way we are regularly ripped off by fund managers. This is an issue at all times but particularly so in times of low returns (such as the ones it now looks like we are entering). When you are making 20% a year perhaps the odd 1% here or there doesnt seem a big deal. But when you are making more like 5-7% it really is.

    10,000 invested in a fund that returns 7% a year will be worth 14,000 in five years if you pay no fees at all. Pay 1% a year and it will be worth 13,338. Pay 2% and your money will have grown to only 12,667. Over ten years the gap widens. With no charges the money is worth 19, 670. At 1% it is 17,790 and at 2% it will be worth a mere 16,070 over 3000 less.

    Two percent is not an extreme number: the UKs fund managers are very greedy indeed and annual management charges (AMCs) on most UK funds run on average at a far too high 1.5-1.7% (some are lower and a lot are higher).

    Theres also a host of other charges involved in investing in most funds. In most cases legal fees, marketing costs, performance fees (which are becoming more and more common), admin fees and trading costs arent included in the AMC, making the full cost of owning most funds significantly higher.

    Funds are also prone to putting their fees up without much warning there is no unit holder body of any kind they have to negotiate with before doing so and, worst of all, many of them charge exit fees too. So if you decide you dont want to be invested in them any more, either because they are too expensive or they are underperforming the market (as the majority of them do) you cant even sell them without paying another fee. Outrageous isnt it? Particularly given that very few of these expensive managed funds ever manage to out perform the market as a whole anyway.

    Cynical exploitation of ordinary people

    However for the worst examples of the cynical exploitation of the general population by the financial services industry we have to look to the mortgage market. With Hometrack reporting that average house prices fell for the first time in two years in October and the Council of Mortgage Lenders forecasting that repossessions could rise by 50% in 2008 most rational people wouldnt, I dont think, feel that now is a particularly good time to be in negative equity.

    Not so the mortgage sales teams at Abbey. No, they are still happily flogging their 100% plus mortgage. This lets you borrow the full purchase price of the house or flat you want and for good measure another 25,000 on top of that. Whats more, having dumped you into negative equity with the stroke of a pen, Abby also have a few suggestions about how you might spend the extra cash on offer renovating your home, buying a new car or consolidating all of your debts perhaps.

    This is shocking stuff. The first and last ideas arent great (if you cant afford to renovate you shouldnt do it, and debt consolidation usually leads to higher interest bills in the end) but the second – buying a car with mortgage debt – is completely insane. Why on earth would you borrow against one asset that is by most accounts already falling in value (your house) to buy one that will do the same just fast (a new car)?

    Lets say you borrow 125,000 on a 100,000 property. You then rush off to spend the left over 25,000 on a purple Audi A4. Depreciation on the car after a year will be at least 6,000 (and probably more). So take one of these loans out now and assuming house prices dont fall further, next November your assets will be worth only 119,000. Thats not good, given that your debt will still be near 125,000. And if house prices keep falling, it will be even worse. Note that once you owe more on your house than you can sell if for you are trapped: you cant sell it or your debt will fall due but staying and continuing to pay interest you cant really afford on the price of a depreciating asset is usually pretty miserable too. Anyone who falls for Abbeys marketing nonsense this year will soon find that they have effectively sold their freedom for the price of a new car.

    So there you go: whether you are a shareholder in a bank, an ordinary investor or just a mug of a first time buyer looking to get yourself a home, the financial industry has a special way of separating you from your cash. What can you do to stop them?

    How not to line their pockets

    You can amuse yourself watching the market giving the remaining big bank bosses their comeuppance (there is lots of hard work and not much in the way of bonuses in the stars for the next 3-4 years). You can stop buying over priced funds and invest via ETFs. These have several virtues that should serve those who use them well over the next few years. The are cheap and easy to get in and out of; they charge low fees; and they offer direct exposure to all the most interesting bits of the market oil, gold, silver and soft commodities. You can find out more about ETFs at Moneyweek

    And finally, you can stop listening to the hype from the mortgage lenders and if you cant afford a proper mortgage on the kind of house you want to live in you can rent one instead (theres little danger of losing out on the capital gains front these days). Add that to cutting up your credit cards, never going over your overdraft limit, and not buying insurances you dont need (as discussed here before) and youll have gone some way towards protecting yourself.

    For more tips and advice, visit the personal finance pages of the MoneyWeek website – or check out Merryn’s new book, Love is Not Enough.

    On November 3rd 2007, the World Fantasy Association gave me a Lifetime Acheivement Award, in conjunction with publisher Betty Ballantine. It is almost unknown for them to give this award to a woman, let alone two. As I was unable to go to America to receive it, I sent my speech of thanks to my friend and editor, Sharyn November, to deliver for me. Here it is!

    Thank you everyone, and thanks too to Sharyn November for agreeing to read this. (How is that for getting a person to thank herself? It can be done).

    I am really very grateful for this Award. It is one of the first given to a woman, and to two women at that. When I first started getting work published, I used to have wistful thoughts at the way all important awards were given to men.

    Women, I used to think, could be as innovative, imaginative and productive as possible – and women were the ones mostly at work in the field of fantasy for children and young adults – but only let a man enter the field, and people instantly regarded what he had to say and what he did as more Important. He got respectful reviews as well as awards, even if what he was doing – which it often was – was imitating the women. But you have changed all that. Thank you for being so enlightened.

    Women, large-minded, formidable women, have played an almost exclusive part in helping my career. I have hardly ever dealt with a man – at least, when it came to publishing: when it came to personal help, I have always relied heavily on my husband, John Burrow, who has come unfailingly to my rescue during those times when I walked despairingly about the house, saying I would never manage to write another word. (This tends to happen to me a lot).

    And he was always the only person who could convince Susan Hirschman of Greenwillow that what she was proposing was illiterate. He is a professor of English, and she respected that. I need to thank him, and also my three sons, who, as children, read my stuff and gave me very frank criticisms. Richard was always very sensitive to places where I had got things emotionally wrong (’You should make this a bit nastier, Mum’) and Mick never said much, but when he did, I fell over myself to put whatever-it-was right, because he was always spot on. Colin was helpful too, when he was young, but on reaching his teens, complained that typescripts always went back to front on him and that he disapproved of happy endings on principle. Whatever, I have to thank them all.

    As for these formidable ladies I spoke of, the first I have to thank is my agent, Laura Cecil. Before I was introduced to her, I had been trying to get published for ten years, and publishers’ responses ranged from ‘Who you?’ to ‘What do you mean, breaking all our rules and protocols?’ This was over Eight Days of Luke, whose plot depends on someone striking a match to summon Loki – ‘We can’t publish this: children shouldn’t play with fire!’

    The moment Laura came on the scene, I struck gold at Macmillan, and I have to thank her for that – and for about forty more years of the same. Laura introduced me to Macmillan’s formidable Marni Hodgkin. Every other member of her family has won a Nobel Prize for something, and I often felt that Marni should have won one too, just for being herself. Robert Westall once phoned me tremulously, after Marni had had him in her office about his latest book. ‘It’s like being brainwashed,’ he said. ‘She pulled every part of the book to pieces and made me put it together differently, and I found myself adoring her for it. It – it’s unhealthy!’

    Now I don’t do being brainwashed, so my relationship with Marni was always rather stormy. This is where I learnt what literary agents are really for: they are for pulling you off the throat of your publisher. Marni always had to make a change in every book, regardless of whether it was necessary. Laura had to do a lot of work on me there, until the solution came to me.

    You see, in those days, there was only the one typescript – you couldn’t just do another printout as you can with computers – and I would take the typescript meekly home with me, find the places where Marni was insisting on changes, and cut those places into irregular strips. Then I would stick them together with tape in just the same order, utterly unchanged, and send it back. ‘Oh,’ Marni would always say. ‘Your changes have made such a difference!’ And like Robert Westall, I adored her.

    She published three of my books in one year. She encouraged me, simply by wanting to pay all that attention to those books. And all writers need this kind of encouragement. It is the best kind there is. So I have to thank Marni quite devoutly.

    The other person I have to thank is the redoubtable Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow. Susan published everything I ever sent her, promptly and efficiently, and was thereby my other main encouragment. If I was slow with the next book, there would be a gentle, steely enquiry, and that was all. That was all it took.

    Nevertheless, Laura had to work on me here too, not on plot changes, because Susan always loved stories and didn’t tamper there, ever. With her it was all about words. It goes without saying that there was the matter of translating from British English to American, which always made me restive; but the main things were often quite absurd.

    I remember particularly The Great Muesli Row, in which Susan stated categorically that there was no such thing as Muesli in the United States; while I tried indignantly to draw her attention to the shop across the street from her office, where the window was filled with Muesli. I think she must have gone and looked in the end, because Muesli was not replaced with oatmeal. Actually, I loved Susan for her categorical ways and wish she hadn’t retired. She flew hundreds of airmiles to hear me speak, and if she couldn’t get there, she alway demanded a copy of the speech. What better encouragement can a person have?

    Actually Sharyn herself gave me encouragement of a different kind the day the news about the award was leaked. It was the day before my birthday – which was both joyful and gloomy, because there is nothing like a Lifetime Acheivement Award to ram it home to one that one is now seventy-three and decidedly getting on in years. And people have letely been writing books and learned articles and student theses on my work, which makes me, frankly, feel as if I might have died without noticing the fact, or else that they mean some other Jones. They always call me ’subversive’, which in a way I am, although, looking back on my relations with Marni and Susan, I think that ‘intransigent’ is a better word. One learned article, however, described me as ‘rooted in fluidity’, which took me aback a little. ‘Good Lord!’ I cried out. ‘That sounds as if I’m a hydroponic lettuce!’

    Anyway, Sharyn said to me,’This is only an award for your lifetime up to now. Don’t you dare go and die!’ And I don’t intend to, thanks to Sharyn. I intend to go on and write the perfect book, which I know I haven’t done yet. Meanwhile, you can all feel very proud and pleased that you have given this award to a woman who is the world’s first hydroponically grown writer. Thank you very, very much.

    Aunt Elvie needs a day out. She has the last will and testament, we have the car. Its an unspoken deal. It is worth helping her out of her seat, and then up the seven steps to the restaurant (one short step at a time, stopping for a break between each riser), to get the guilt off our shoulders. This is only the third time we have taken her out this year.

    We drive to a pub that will later be thronged with the young and wannabe-young downing pints and Bacardi Breezers, but at lunchtime it is quiet, almost deathly so there are just three couples in the place. All the men are wearing cardigans and ties, and judging by their hair the women have made slightly too much of an effort. The staff is appropriately welcoming, jolly even, and the muzak is low enough not to worry Auntie, though she would probably appreciate Shirley Basseys greatest hits if she could hear them.

    The tables are as polished as the carpet is swirly, the horse-brasses are shining, the fire has even been lit, though on close inspection it turns out to be one of those gas-fed efforts that need no stacking or raking out. We order a shandy and a lemonade and lime. Auntie has a small sherry the colour of a mahogany commode. The menu is partly on laminated paper, partly on a blackboard proudly announcing Todays Specials, which are, one suspects the same as yesterdays specials.

    There is home-made soup, though of what were not told, roast chicken or beef with all the trimmings, grilled lamb cutlets, and fillet of plaice either grilled or deep-fried with lemon. Someone has rubbed out the first and last letters from the trimmings, so what we are actually offered in the genteel delights of this suburban public house is roast beef and rimming, but Im the only one who seems to understand, or indeed even to notice.

    I toy with idea of ordering the vegetarian lasagne for a main course, but think better of it, the word roast being a temptation too great to pass up in favour of something from a frozen catering-food supplier. My aunt peruses the menu and says how nice it all sounds, but we know she says it only to underline how much she appreciates the chance of looking at a menu at all. She has known she would order the grilled plaice since the alarm on the Teasmade went off this morning.

    They make a bit of a fuss of bringing round the bread rolls, which are somehow neither white nor brown but something between the two, making much of the word warm, as in Would anyone like a warm bread roll? Having taken a roll, I then find that the soup (vegetable, as it happens) comes with a roll on the side, so I now have two warm, neither brown nor white rolls to deal with.

    The meal goes on like this, with the occasional Its always nice here, isnt it? or Have they changed those curtains since we were here last?, for an interminable two hours, dawdling through pieces of plaice the size of kites and some rather good chips. The garnish is peas, of course, half a tomato and some cress. We finish with home-made pie and custard and a crme caramel. On being asked if we are paying by credit card, my aunt pipes up snappily, Cash, we dont need any credit, thank you, totally misunderstanding the point of American Express.

    We then take another age to get down the steps, after a fifteen-minute trip to the loo where she only powders her nose anyway, and slowly drive off home. On the way my aunt says how she wishes we could do this more often. Yes, lets, I say with as much enthusiasm as I can muster. Yes, lets.

    Nigel’s new book is Eating For England, a celebration of the British at Table. You can visit the book’s mobile website by texting ‘Nigel’ to 80880 – and find audio, video and more…

    The first words legendary football manager Brian Clough spoke to budding journo Duncan Hamilton were brief and to the point: “So who the f**k are you?”

    Now, three decades on, we’ve just heard that Hamilton’s gripping analysis of twenty years with Brian Clough, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, has hit the back of the net at this year’s 19th annual William Hill Sportsbook of the Year Award – bringing home the most valuable prize of its type in the world.

    'Provided You Don't Kiss Me' Book Jacket

    Duncan fended off stiff competition from the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton and HarperSport’s very own Kevin Cook to scoop the Award, which consists of 18,000 cash; a 2000 free bet from the sponsors and a specially commissioned, hand-bound copy of his book.

    Based on the story of his twenty-plus year relationship with the maverick manager, it is a strikingly intimate portrait, at times sad, at others joyous, in which one of the unforgettable characters of English football is laid bare.

    We think Old Big ‘Ed would have approved…

    Every writers dream is to be short-listed for a literary prize. Last week I was short-listed for a first novel award, but far from a dream, I would say it was more like a nightmare.

    There is a horrible secret in the scheme of things that everyone forgets to tell you while you wait hopefully for the judges to notice your particular brand of brilliance. It is a secret so well kept, so dire that, like the woes of parenthood, no one dares speak of it. In the light of this I feel it my duty to divulge certain things, if only for the sake of other writers. This is how it was for me.

    Mosquito cover

    From the moment I was told about the prize, I found that I was taking part in an initiation ceremony, chiefly in my head. There was this question, you see, that I kept hearing. Actually, I confess it sounded more like a howl of despair. The conversation went along these lines;

    What if I dont win?

    Well of course you wont win, the left side of my brain said. Why on earth should you? Youre neither good enough/well-connected/lucky/young/modish.

    Stop, stop, screamed another part, probably the right side of my brain, sobbing. What can she do?

    Do? Why nothing, said the left side, nastily. Thats life, dont you know?

    By now several days had passed. Until the moment I heard about the prize I had been writing the third draft on my next book. I had been working since September, rising early, writing until midday, walking along the tow-path after lunch, then working again in the afternoon, pairing down and polishing sentences as though they were precious stones.

    I was now only three chapters from completion. But from that morning, hearing of the short list, I could not settle. I switched on my computer and within seconds various e-mails popped up, congratulating me. Next I had a radio and television interview. Bent double with appalling desire I made my way to the local studio and talked my way through a lengthy conversation of precisely one minute 40 seconds. Back home, I answered phone calls with gritted teeth and a fake smile. My family eyed me speculatively, rather in the manner of property developers who didnt care too much for the proposed plans.

    Mosquito Cover

    Why dont you chill out? asked the left side of my brain, kindly if condescendingly, I thought.

    It sounded like one of the teenagers who inhabited our house.

    This is the end of the road for you. Personally Ive no idea what they were thinking of, short-listing your book! Get on with what youre supposed to do. Write your next one.

    But that was the problem, you see. I couldnt.

    Why not? demanded the left. Whats the matter with you? Youre a writer, arent you? So, write.

    That was easier said than done. Something had gone out of my latest manuscript. All the polish that was appearing on those lovely sentences, the rise and fall of the rhythm, was eluding me.

    Leaving my desk I went into town and headed for the bookshops. It was a cold wintry day, dank and bitter, with a sharp wind from the North. Not a patch of blue sky, no sun. I wore my shades. This is a small town, you understand.

    Idiot! said my left brain.

    You never know, snapped the right side. Someone might recognise her.

    The left side of my brain made a snorting noise, but no one heard. People in the shop were busy queuing up for a book-signing session. A famous author was in town.

    Careful, said my left side. Youre going a bit green. Woops, only joking!

    I made for the shelves. There was only one copy of my book on it. That was the good news. The bad news was – it was the same copy that was there last time I looked. I signed it.

    Boo-hoo! laughed the left.

    Oh shut-up, I said crossly.

    Pardon? asked a startled woman, nearby. Are you talking to me?

    I mumbled an apology and moved away.

    Youre going nuts! jeered the left side. Best go home back to Chapter Nine. Its where you belong.

    The worst thing about all this short-listing, said the right side, conversationally, is that while shes been fantasizing, shes lost all narrative drive, all momentum

    I agree, said the left. And now shes in danger of losing her marbles too. So you know what you should do?

    Yes, yes, get back to the plot, start concentrating on the craft of writing, remember Im doing this for me and not for fame or money or recognition.

    Good girl, approved my left side. At last youre making sense.

    Shes lying, said the right in a very small voice, sounding like a child. She is doing it for all those things, money, fame..

    No shes not! At least, if she is, then not only is she a fool but the stuff she writes will be rubbish, too.
    It all seemed a little hard to take.

    Now you listen to me, the left side said, bossily. Stop skulking around in this bookshop and go home. Take your dark glasses off and get back to Chapter Nine. In case I havent told you, its terrific. So get to work, but before you do I want you to write a speech.


    Yes, a speech. Youre not going to win, not this time anyway, so you must have your been-rejected speech ready, right?

    I was speechless.

    Remember Virginia Woolf?

    Didnt she kill herself?

    Well yes, that is a bit cautionary, I suppose, but I was thinking more of something she once wrote in her diary. Success is distant and illusory, failure ones loyal companion, ones stimulus for imagining that the next book will be better, for otherwise, why write? You see how Virginia Woolf speaks for us all? So now write.

    ‘To whom it may concern’, I wrote:

    I am of course disappointed by the outcome of this prize. When I first heard I had been short-listed I was keen to win. But I have had a voice going on in my head for several days now, and slowly I have begun to realise that winning is not what this is all about. Winning is the very least of it.

    Go on, said the left side, encouragingly.

    What being short-listed has made me realise is that at last I can take myself seriously. I may never make any money, I may never

    Less of the whine, said the left, sotto voce.

    What I have understood through a process of painful negotiation with myself is that I am a writer.

    See how great it feels to say that, said the left side.

    I am a writer who is happiest only when I am working on my next book, grappling with my characters, breathing life into them. What I want, more than anything in the world, is to be able to continue to write. Indeed, I now see, existence itself is impossible were I not able to do so. And all this jealousy, all this desperation to win is actually a distraction, a hollow thing by comparison to that impulse.

    Do you really, really, mean it? asked the left. Youre not just saying it for effect?

    I nodded. The right side of my brain nodded too, all three of us were nodding together for the first time in days. It was a great relief. Something, some danger had passed. The green-eyed giant that had been sitting on my head, squashing my characters, yawned and loped off. The air seemed clearer. I could smell the open sea even though we were miles away from it. Perhaps it was the ocean of my memory.

    I opened up my laptop and put my head-phones on. J.S. Bach, tranquil and precise flowed into my head. The Partitas. Chapter Nine, I wrote. And I didnt even see the left side of my brain smile with radiant contentment.

    Since the English smoking ban came into force last summer, pubs, cinemas and restaurants have leaked out onto the streets. Non-smokers are now free to eat, drink and watch films without breathing others smoke, while smokers get to enjoy the great outdoors – but this can leave the pavements ankle deep in cigarette butts.

    Now the Chinese have come up with an alternative. The e-cigarette is an electronic device that allows people to smoke wherever they want – without breaking the law. This new gizmo is battery-powered and creates puffs of nicotine vapour that smokers inhale to get their nicotine fix. This is produced by an atomiser, and is pure nicotine: There is no tar, no cancer causing chemicals, no carbon monoxide – no cigarette butts.

    The ‘cigarette’ even lights up red at the tip, and it comes in a range of strengths from 16 milligrams of nicotine down to nothing. It costs a mite more than a pack of ten – $175 including a charger and batteries, and will last for around 350 drags (about thirty smokes) until it needs a refill. But it does have a five year guarantee!

    For the more discerning e-smoker, e-cigars and e-pipes are also available.

    This e-cigarette is produced in China by Ruyan. If this all seems a little too wacky – but you do want to deal with the butts problem – you could do a lot worse than get a pocket ashtray from Butts Out. Use it yourself – or give it to your smoker friends…

    Last week Tom set a a challenge. Could you identify three famous authors from their handwriting alone?

    To make it a little easier he sent the three samples to graphologist Diane Simpson, (without telling her their names, of course) and we published her analyses along with each extract. Her readings, it turned out, were uncannily close to the mark.

    So how did you perform? Here are the answers, accompanied by some choice snippets from Diane’s ‘blind’ readings. And now you know who’s who, you can follow the links to read Diane’s comments in their entirety – and enjoy all the benefits of a little hindsight…

    Author 1

    Diane suggested:

    I dont think hes shy – but he chooses to keep himself to himself. I wonder whether he has a garden shed of sorts (or some other sort of world?) in which to disappear when he chooses?.

      Answer: CS Lewis

    Author 2

    Here’s Diane:

    This is a sharp minded, somewhat impatient individual who really will not suffer fools at all, never mind gladly. Neither particularly introvert nor extrovert…I suspect that people may tend more to bore and irritate than to intrigue and attract her.

      Answer: Enid Blyton

    Author 3

    And finally from our graphologist:

    She is strikingly observant…Problem solving is a real forte for this individual and she uses a combination of logic and intuition to achieve her ends.

      Answer: Agatha Christie

    A striking performance from the land of graphology: but how did you do?

    On Monday I posted the first part of an interview with Marianne Faithful – here, for your listening pleasure, is the second and final installment.


    Marianne Faithful

    After living the high life with the Rolling Stones and a whole cast of 60s celebrities, the ‘come down’ of the 1970s hit Marianne hard. Here she talks about her junky years living ‘on a wall’ on the streets of London’s Soho, an anorexic and heroin addict.

    She also talks about her own music career, which was revived with 1979s Broken English and continues today. Just as she was renowned for moving with some of the most influential performers of the 60s scene, she has continued to work with some of the finest British talent in the years since, collaborating with Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn, Beck and many other contemporary artists.

    If you’ve enjoyed these podcasts all these stories and more can be found in Memories, Dreams and Reflections – a look back on her forty years in the public eye.

    London, 11 p.m. He scans the bill, checking off each course, each bottle of mineral water, as carefully as if he was doing the annual stocktake. The words service included tucked away at the bottom stick in his throat. Had it said not, life would have been so much easier.

    Eating for England Cover

    Anyone can work out 15 per cent, even after two glasses of champagne and a bottle of Pinot Noir. Now hes unsure of whether to tip on top of the service charge or not. He decides to add a bit extra in cash, because he doesnt want to look mean. Everyone tips on top of the service charge, dont they? The problem is not whether to tip, but how much.

    If there was no tip included it would be easy to work out, but he has already paid 12 per cent, so what exactly does he put down on the plate now? If he adds another 3 per cent, it is going to look as if he forgot his change; another 10 per cent and he is going to look like a fool and his money. A fiver? A tenner? Or does he risk leaving nothing? The bill does say service is included, after all. It is a fine line between flashy jerk and tight git.

    How much shall I leave?

    Its included, isnt it?

    Well, yes, but I bet they dont get all of it.

    The waiter comes to remove the coffee cups. Excuse me, but do you get the service charge, or do they pocket it?

    The words that in his head seemed like those of a nice guy, who cares about the welfare of the person who has looked after him and his date, now hang in the air like a giant fart.

    Yes, we get the service charge, sir.

    He has been the model diner all evening, and now he feels like a sniping, suspicious weevil. He has accused the waiters bosses of ripping off their staff, and what is more, made the waiter look like a loser for accepting the situation. What had been so sweet, in the space of one short sentence has suddenly turned sour.

    He compensates by over-tipping and rushes out of the restaurant, promising himself he will get it right next time.

    Paris, Brussels, Rome. 11 p.m. He pulls out her chair, she moves towards the door and he casually takes a note from his wallet and slips it on the table. The waiter clocks it, smiles, nods and picks it up as discreetly as if he were brushing a crumb from his jacket. The note was neither mean nor cringingly excessive. It was not seen by his guest, and was done in a single, effortless move. Deal done.

    Nigel’s new book is Eating For England, a celebration of the British at Table. You can visit the book’s mobile website by texting ‘Nigel’ to 80880 – and find audio, video and more…

    What is it about scientists?

    Thirty five years back I used to go to those dreary student parties in which men (read adolescent boys) outnumber women. The kind of parties where I and my fellow student engineers would stand grimly drinking to excess in some cramped kitchen, deafened by the music and hungrily eyeing any passing girl; longing for the sex and relationships that everyone else seemed to have on tap.

    GeekSpeak Cover

    Then in the early hours of the morning we would try to neutralise the alcohol with mouth scorching food from some seedy curry house. It was there I recall a student of something extremely cool, like Politics or Peace Studies, looking round with distaste at the rest of us. You engineers all look the same kind of ugly, kind of gawky. A punch on the nose might have been the healthiest response – but unfortunately I knew what he meant.

    I dont think that physical beauty, coolness, or the ability to love and be loved are correlated with someones profession or particular aptitude. And I didnt believe it then: but to my intense adolescent discomfort I knew exactly what this child from the School of Politics was saying.

    Look at a group of twenty-something engineers, scientists or mathematicians and youll spot two things. First, they are predominantly male. Second, their social skills can be marked on a dial that starts at Fairly Normal and ends at Warning – Aspergerss Syndrome. In short, the mark of The Geek is upon them.

    Happily, if you examine the same group thirty years on most will have learned how to do relationships. Most will have at least a cycling proficiency certificate in social interaction. Most can switch off their intense interest in the shape of molecules in a polymer, the thermodynamic efficiency of a combined cycle gas-steam power station, or the power dissipation in a lap-top CPU.

    They’ll seem pretty normal, but they’ll keep one thing that sets them apart: their own secret language. There are no leather aprons or mortar trowels, but these guys can slide a single word into conversation that will prove as clear a sign as any Masonic handshake.

    Consider, for example, words like exponential – or perhaps its alter ego, the logarithm.

    Most people think that they know what exponential means and a quite a few will have some distant memory of using logarithms. But could you separate exponential from growth? Could you separate it from an ever-steepening curve plotted in a newspaper article; can you dissociate it from that familiar feeling of impending doom? Listen to a bar room bore or a politician say ‘exponential’ and it seems dull and clichd; but used by one of ‘the fraternity’ the word is more beautiful all together.

    Can ‘exponential‘ really be as full of meaning and beauty as a great painting or a piece of music? It can – but you need to be a geek to understand this. And this is where the trouble starts; the instant recognition, feeling, and understanding that are stimulated in a geeks brain by thinking of an exponential arent expressible in words.

    Thats the paradox of writing books about mathematics, science or engineering: these subjects have their own special building blocks of thought that have evolved to allow an idea to be understood without using words. And exponential is the perfect example.

    Heres the exponential function written in mathematical symbols:
    Every engineer and mathematician instantly recognises the form of the equation. Every scientist understands its properties and knows how to manipulate the symbols to reveal further properties. But thats not very helpful if you dont already think like geek. So can it be explained?

    I could certainly try. I could give you an example of exponential population growth. I could tell you that the rate at which the value of an exponential shape, quantity, or process changes is always proportional to its current value. And i could tell you that the rate of the rate of the rate…of the rate of change of its value is also proportional to the current value.

    But these clumsy words dont convey the beauty of the exponential. The function is perfect in the regularity and self consistency of its nature. It describes a myriad of processes and forms; the optimal shape of a horn on a wind-up gramophone, the diameter of a snails shell, and the temperature of an oven ring as it cools after switch-off. Coupled with imaginary numbers it provides the mathematical tools to analyse, describe, and exploit electromagnetic waves in everything from mobile phones to X-ray machines.

    That is why it is so beautiful to a geek. But can it really be understood using words? Personally, I’ll always prefer y equals e to the power of x.

    Now then – have I shown you my new USB interface?

    Not many rock stars have passed through the Filing Cupboard’s small and grubby doors (well, none in fact): so I could only jump at the chance to post up this two-part interview with the legendary Marianne Faithful.


    Marianne Faithful

    Setting out to be an actress, Marianne was swept into the 1960s British music scene – and as Mick Jagger’s lover witnessed first hand some of the most famous events of the decade.

    But as the sixties ended and her relationship fell apart, Marianne descended into heroin addiction and anorexia, spending two years homeless on the streets of Soho before the release of Broken English relaunched her musical career. Now 60, Marianne continues to work prolifically as both actress and musician.

    In this first recording, Marianne talks about her new book, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, which comes more than a decade after her acclaimed autobiography, Faithless. The book collects many more stories from Marianne’s life, from her unconventional childhood in her father’s orgiastic literary commune to the outlandish antics of her Beat friends Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs – and to her own very recent battle with breast cancer.

    Here she also discusses her life in the sixties; the excitement of those times – and her huge disapointment at how little of that decade’s revolutionary fervour seems to have lasted into the 21st Century.

    I’ll post up the second part of the interview – in which Marianne discusses her drug addiction, her music career and her future – later on this week.

    Here’s the final part of The Famous Author Handwriting Challenge: who’s our last mystery scribbler?

    CLUE: Her characters would revel in this challenge.

    Third Handwriting Sample

    Now you’ve seen all three (here, here and, um, here) drop us a line at with your three guesses. We’ll pick a winner from all the right answers – to whom a box of books will be winging out. You’ve got until next Friday, the 23rd November.

    And to help you out here’s the final ‘blind’ analysis from our graphologist, Diane Simpson:

    My first instinct when viewing this busy, untidy script was to sit back in my chair with screwed up eyes. If this was the spoken word then this would surely be a garrulous individual – not boring but simply with an overpowering desire to communicate. Regardless of all else, this will not be a one book wonder.

    The variable size and clever connections tells us that here we have someone with a vast reservoir of energy and willpower at her disposal and yet, oddly, a rather scattered motivation. So much to see, so much to do! This is a positive, very enthusiastic individual with real thirst for productivity that could well put other considerations into the shade.

    Unlikely to be happy in the role of a leader, she tends to respond in a reactive rather than proactive way. She is strikingly observant. She keeps her options open as long as is possible and is particularly alert to the shades, nuances and implications of change.

    Although apparently open, she is able to contain her reactions and responses and will deliberate in a positively Machiavellian way in order to gain her desired ends. A plotter par excellence!

    Very much a ‘now’ person, she is highly project orientated and takes immense pleasure from a completion – which is all very well was it not for the sheer number of projects she is likely to maintain at any one time. The ease of writing flow indicates she favours free expression and has a particularly adept way of improvising; if something wont work one way then there will always be another and another.

    Interestingly public and private at the same time, she is unafraid of the public arena and yet neither craves nor needs attention that usually accompanies public life, in fact, in an odd sort of way, it is almost irrelevant.

    This is a people-person who at the same time is extremely driven, independent and self-critical. Immensely creative and generally optimistic, she is almost sure to aim for a positive ending every time. Those complex links and connections point to problem solving as a real forte for this individual and she uses a combination of logic and intuition to achieve her ends.

    Today another writer gets their scribblings – and their personality – disected by our graphologist. So who does this belong to? CLUE: She has around 800 titles to her name.

    Second Handwriting Sample

    Diane Simpson, a professional graphologist, gave us this analysis :

    Here we have a somewhat intense individual. Highly driven and very intelligent, she is a controller and in turn will resist being controlled.

    She is likely to be known for successfully getting her own way. She will achieve this by relinquishing very little of herself. In a business sense this would probably reveal itself by her having an inability to delegate – her work will become her baby and not something to be handed over to another.

    Here we have an adept communicator, but there are also signs of visual artistry in this writing. Note the Greek ds, the dives and swoops of the pen as it connects entire words and the many other presentation related manifestations. This is someone with a real eye for line and design; someone able to visualise exactly what she wants to achieve.

    A real stickler for detail and discipline, she reveals a respect for both in the way she dots her is. Most people complete a word and then go back to dot any is; the further back their hands have to travel, the less accurately placed the dot – not so with this writer! Despite the writing being speedily and unhesitatingly written, the longer the word and the further back her hand has to travel, the more accurate the placement of the i dot (an unusual and frankly quite amazing indication of this womans attention to detail).

    The endings of words tend to be abrupt; she doesnt linger. This is a sharp minded, somewhat impatient individual who really will not suffer fools at all, never mind gladly. Neither particularly introvert nor extrovert, in fact showing a disinterest in how she appears to others, I suspect that people may tend more to bore and irritate than to intrigue and attract her.

    The wealth of angularity in her script suggests a certain spikiness of response in other ways; this is someone who will stand her ground in the face of opposition her first thought being to question the motivation of the opposer rather than the content of their argument.

    Creative and practical thinking are manifest in this womans writing in equal parts, leading me to believe that creativity and practicality will play equal parts in what she does.

    Check back tomorrow for our final author – and to send us your guesses…

    Here’s the first sample from The Famous Author Handwriting Challenge: three mystery authors, one graphologist and, well, you.

    So who’s behind this tiny scrawl? Clue: trust your inkling…
    First handwriting sample

    Diane Simpson, a professional graphologist, had this to say about today’s author:

    At first glance this small, neat script appears to trot unprepossessingly across the page. His exceedingly small personal pronoun does indeed suggest that this man is a modest individual; but being modest does not mean ineffectual.

    There is evidence of strong personal discipline in this angular, firm script. Here we have a man who is far more likely to harbour a preference for detailed, factual understatement than in your face floridity of wording.

    It seems to me that he takes himself rather seriously. He requires no outside criticism as he provides more than enough for himself. He is self-critical and self-monitoring he really cares about getting things right. I don;t think he’s shy – but he chooses to keep himself to himself.

    I began to trace the writing and found that it is guarded and careful rather than relaxed and freely written. This is someone who is particularly sensitive and at times somewhat pedantic; not the sort of person to easily catch unawares.

    His words tend to terminate abruptly, so hes not one for small talk. However, I do note the extra effort he has put into some of the lead-in lines at the beginning of words a reflection of his liking and need for preparation.

    His critical faculties are sharp and he seems to set himself apart from others definitely not a hearty Hail Fellow, well met type. I don’t think he’s shy – but he chooses to keep himself to himself. I wonder whether he has a garden shed of sorts (or some other sort of world?) in which to disappear when he chooses?.

    I dont think this man unduly trusts other people and their opinions, his preference being to do things in very much his own way and in his own time. He seems to relish the independence afforded by freedom of action and decision.

    On reflection I suspect that this man would shy away from the prospect of having his handwriting analysed – which makes me feel rather guilty!

    Check back tomorrow for another!

    Browse Inside our books on your iphone

    Over the weekend the iPhone came to Britain – and we announced our own mobile publishing initiative.

    We’ve made fifteen of our newest titles available on Apple’s hottest gadget. Along with sample chapters to read, there’s also plenty of audio and a few interviews too, and you can find it all at

    Wild statements seem to fly thick and fast in the brave new world of the eBook. End of the Page! Print is dead! The ecstatic tone of more than a few press features suggests the whole ebook debate is just one long shoot-out between print and screen – that the entire discussion boils down to one (meaningless) question: “Which is better?”

    A shame, really – because it means the book trade has been led into some fairly pointless comparisons. Can you put ebooks on a shelf? Can you make them smell of paper? Most often, and most persistent: can you read them in the bath? If e-books aren’t definitely ‘as good’ as paperbacks – so the current wisdom goes – there can be little point in them at all.

    The British launch of the iphone offers a somewhat different perspective. It’s striking to notice that the device’s menu offers single touch access to two of the largest banks of entertainment on the planet. One tap on the screen brings up YouTubes enviable mountain of free video. Another tap pulls up iTunes not only delivering music but now movies, games and educational materials. Despite its shortcomings, the iPhone really does offer a glimpse of a completely new way of consuming all kinds of content.

    The iPhone and the new iPod are just the first in a new wave of devices and services that within a few years will see consumers look instinctively to their pockets for instant entertainment and information. Suddenly the ebook question seems less about ‘fixing’ something that isn’t broken, and more about making sure that the book industry can take a proper stake in a rapidly shifting media world – in which the public might prove increasingly averse to products that aren’t available ‘on demand’; in which media companies of all description will be able to serve their wares directly into the pockets of their customers.

    The music, film and gaming industries are all lining up to serve travellers in the very same airports, train stations and tube carriages that the book world has always owned and directly into the hands of those members of the public now less and less likely to visit bookshops.

    Book content might not seem to make the digital transition as easily, or as obviously, as the movies and music of competing media. But if the book world is late to this party, wont publishers and authors have more to worry about than dropping their e-readers in the bath?

    These days authors and editors correspond by email – but there was a time, long, long ago, when we had no choice but to communicate by letter.

    The HarperCollins archive holds a collection of some of the most notable correspondance from our history, and if you browse through a few it’s striking is how personal and special they feel in comparison to typed correspondence. The handwriting is so diverse and idiosyncratic that its impossible not to infer something of their character from their style.

    Out of curiosity, I decided to get the handwriting of some of our more eminent authors analysed professionally. I provided Diane Simpson, a professional graphologist, with letters from our three illustrious writers, omitting – of course – to tell her their names.

    Diane had patiently explained the science of Graphology to me, suggesting it was ‘nothing more mysterious than a branch of behavioral psychology’. I have to admit I still suspected that handwriting analysis was a vaguely mumbo jumbo pursuit – now I’ve received the results, however, Im rather more impressed

    Well publish the handwriting analysis of three of our most celebrated authors over the next week, and wed like you to guess who they are. In keeping with Fifth Estate’s reputation for the finest prizes, the winner will receive a box of our finest new books.

    When we’ve published all three you can e-mail your guesses to us at – and well pick a winner from those that get all three right.

    To give you a headstart, all the authors have three things in common:

  • Theyre dead
  • Theyre published by HarperCollins
  • Their books have become part of the national consciousness
  • Best of luck!

    Recently I unwittingly sent my landlady an offensive email. My housemate had emailed her a note of complaint and copied me in. In a Monday-morning fug, I pressed Reply to All, and proceeded to call her a total pain in the arse. Woops.
    An Author Scribbles

    We no longer live in her house. We were going to move out anyway she really was a pain, honestly but no one deserves to be faced with out-and-out abuse first thing on a Monday morning, especially from a jumped up squirt like me.

    Its at times like these that I curse the ease and convenience of email. This would never have happened in the days before computers its pretty hard to think of a situation in which you could accidentally slag off your landlady by letter, isnt it?

    Putting pen to paper takes consideration, slowing the conversion from whats in your head to how you would like it communicated. With email, words and sentences seem to tumble out of your head and attain legitimacy as soon as they appear on screen. And with a habitual twitch of the forefinger theyre sent.

    It would take unusual conviction to write, seal, stamp and send an ill-advised letter to your girlfriend while drunk. Not so with email. One little click and your incoherent ramblings are in the inbox of your bemused belle. You cant really send a letter by mistake. Even if you scribble something down in the heat of the moment, you always have the walk to the letter box to ponder the likely consequences of your missive.

    When I look at my sent emails, I can hardly believe it was me that wrote total pain in the arse. No sooner had the word popped into my head, it was sent. Staring blankly at me from the screen it looks so ridiculous and over-the-top. There is absolutely no way Id have written that by hand. Apart from the fact that a letter would have taken a day to get there, when you write something pen-in-hand, its considered, pondered, and just right. In fact, my handwriting is so bad I usually need write it out again another layer of consideration.

    Essentially though, its me thats the problem, not the technology. The truth is that the incredible convenience of email communication fails to protect me against my own haste and my itchy mouse-finger. The best emails both sent and received follow the format of the letter that it has replaced and require the same care and attention. And of course, if I really want to, I can always make that special effort and put pen to paper.

    So all next week, in praise of the humble letter, Fifth Estate will be dragging out missives from some of our most famous authors – and submitting their handwriting to analysis. Well then be challenging you to identify the author from their handwriting. After days of deliberation, numerous think-tanks and heated debates, we decided to call the feature The Famous Author Handwriting Challenge. Are you up to it? Be sure to tune in on Monday

    Credit Action released a particularly nasty set of figures on debt in the UK this week. Total UK personal debt stood at 1,380bn at the end of September.

    Credit Cards

    That’s 10% higher than at the end of last September. The average household debt excluding mortgages across the UK is 8,681 and the average individual consumer debt via credit cards, motor and retail finance deals, overdrafts and loans is just over 4,500.

    And the Christmas shopping season hasn’t even started yet: every year a third of people say they go into debt to make it the ‘best Christmas ever’ and one in ten of those are still in debt by the next Christmas. This is hardly surprising given that most of these borrowers buy with their credit cards.

    The perils of plastic

    Credit cards are terrible things. The main problem is the interest rates they charge. They are far too high, of course, but they are also almost impossible to figure out. And not just for the financially illiterate, for everyone. The obvious way to compare credit cards is to look at the annual rate of interest they charge (APR).

    But the problem with this is that different companies calculate it in different ways (there are at least 14 methods according to Which? Magazine) so knowing the APR isn’t much good. Some cards start charging you interest the second you buy something, and some when the money leaves their accounts; some don’t charge you for 30 days and some for longer; some charge interest on interest accrued in earlier months; some do not; and so on.

    The result? Two cards that appear to charge the same rate of interest could in fact cost you wildly different amounts even if used in the same way. It all adds up to a slightly ridiculous lack of transparency.

    Next up on the list of bad things about credit cards is the fact that credit card companies have set minimum repayment levels so low that if you pay only what they require you to pay you will be in debt pretty much for ever.

    You could be in debt for 32 years

    Uswitch recently published research showing that if someone with the average credit card debt of 3,138 paying the average APR available in the market (15.2% at the time) made only the minimum payment each month (i.e. 2% of the balance) it would take them a shocking 32 years to pay it off. If you paid not 2% but 3% it would take 16 years and 11 months, assuming an interest rate of 15.10%. In the first example the total amount of interest you would pay would be 4,275 (significantly more than the original debt) and in the second it would be 1,969.50.

    See how much money the banks make out of letting you get away with paying your debt off so slowly? Low minimum payments make debt seem more affordable to you but to the credit card company executives they just spell pure profit.

    The final thing on the list of charges against cards is the many non-interest charges that credit card companies have invented. They charge you a minimum of 12 if you pay your minimum payment late regardless of the size of your balance. So if you owe them 70 for a coat you picked up in the sales you could end up paying out almost 30% of the price again in late payment fees if you aren’t careful.

    You’ll also very often pay a 2% charge if you use your card to withdraw cash (you really shouldn’t be doing this) and another 2.5% ‘loading charge’ if you use your card abroad. It all adds up: according to credit card customers pay a huge 116 each a year in penalty fees. Credit card companies go to great lengths to persuade you that being a card holder is somehow a privilege but once you add up all the charges it doesn’t seem so much like one, does it?

    But credit cards aren’t all bad

    Still, I’m not suggesting that you cut up all your cards. You should certainly cut up any store cards (according to research from Alliance and Leicester 23% of people say that they use store cards to pay for their Christmas shopping). They charge horribly high rates of interest, often well over 20% a year and at their worst over 25%, and there is absolutely no reason to have them.

    You usually get offered 10% or so off a purchase if you take out a store card as you buy, but why do you think the retailers are happy to do this? Because they know that like as not you’ll either forget or not be able to pay off the debt you’ve taken out. Then they’ll be able to start charging you obscene amounts of interest. And that, they know will, will soon make up for the couple of quid they gave you in discount.

    Ordinary credit cards that you can use anywhere, on the other hand, do have a few plus points. It’s good to have one for emergencies and there is also a case for having one with a very low credit limit to use when you shop on the Internet (a low credit limit reduces the level of mischief anyone can get up to with your card if they manage to steal the details and hence the level of stress you will have to deal with when sorting it out).

    Finally it is worth noting that credit cards offer one very wonderful thing, valuable consumer protection. Buy something worth more than 100 and less than 30,000 and the card company is as liable as the retailer if anything goes wrong. If your item is faulty or isn’t delivered as it should be for example you can go straight to your credit card provider instead of or as well as the supplier to complain.

    Until this week there was some doubt about whether this protection held if you had bought the item abroad but last week the House of Lords confirmed that it does. So if you are taking advantage of the weak dollar (now at a 26 year low relative to the pound) to do your Christmas shopping in New York there is a good case for doing so with a credit card – as long as you pay it off at the end of the month.

    If you want to get a credit card for occasional use and you’re sure you’ll use it responsibly – or you’re looking to save money by switching to a 0% offer – you can compare different providers by the level of interest paid on balance transfers or purchases here.

    For more tips and advice, visit the personal finance pages of the MoneyWeek website – or check out Merryn’s new book, Love is Not Enough

    Frank McCourt, the Pulitzer prize winning author of Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis and Teacher Man
    came in to see the Press Books team this week – and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pose some questions of my own in the Filing Cupboard.


    Angela And the Baby Jesus Jacket

    After a life spent teaching in New York, Frank was sixty-six when he finally completed a memoir of his Irish childhood, Angela’s Ashes, which scooped the Pulitzer and went on to sell more than four million copies worldwide.

    After two further biographies, Frank’s new book Angela and the Baby Jesus now presents another true story from the McCourt family: a christmas tale for adults and children in two editions, both beautifully illustrated by two very different artists.

    We sat down straight from a mammoth book signing to talk about the books and about his new efforts in fiction; about why it took fifty years for his writing ambitions to be realised in such dramatic fashion; and about what it’s really like for a first time writer to be catapulted straight into America’s literary elite…

    Crime Club Logo

    Ever waved at an Eddie Stobart lorry? The other day I stumbled upon one of the reasons why the northern haulage firm inspires such an unlikely popular following (which includes a fan club and ’spotters’ handbook): apparently each of their trucks has it’s own girls’ name.

    It would seem that the addition of this unusual distinguishing feature is enough to turn a weekend spotting freight into an entertainment. Which got me thinking…

    Because amongst the highlights of the HarperCollins archive are our novels from the Collins Crime Club, a famous and highly collectable publishing imprint that ran from 1934 right up until 1994 (a staggering 64 years).

    Black Cats Crime Club Cover

    Supported by a quarterly magazine (of which you can see a reproduction here – complete with crossword) the ‘Club’ built the careers of some of Britain’s most famous crime writers, amongst them Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. But the series also published the work of many unknown writers: authors who vanished into obscurity after a single Crime Club outing.

    In the collectors world, of course, this anonymity is not much of a concern in fact, often the reverse is true. Just what is it about such series publishing that makes the first editions of otherwise forgettable authors worth hundreds, occasionally even thousands of pounds? Why do forgotten books that once cost 7/6 (just over 15 or $30 in todays money) now change hands for as much as 3000?

    Undesirable Residence Jacket

    The iconic covers are certainly part of that appeal. The pre-war jackets in particular, their atmospheric paintings often incorporating the ‘crime club’ hooded man logo, have become a true archetype of crime fiction of the 30s and 40s, and indeed we’ve just re-released the oldest Agatha Christie’s in their original Crime Club covers.

    Are these covers really the attraction for the collector – or does it somehow run deeper? The answer, perhaps, is that a book in a series is like a lorry with a name. Enthusiasts will collect things simply because they can be collected – a habit I now love to call the ‘Eddie Stobart syndrome’. Whether it’s sightings of lorries, Andy Warhol prints, regency teacups or crime books, the collector’s urge is definitely in our blood.

    Howl's Moving Castle

    Whenever anything I write is adapted for another medium, I’m always astonished how many people are involved. Unlike writing, film or play or dance are all, I realise, essentially team projects.

    This realisation is followed by amazement at the way every detail is subjected to huge attention: a sort of ‘If I’d known you were going to have take all this trouble, I wouldn’t have made it so complicated!’ And then this guilty feeling is, if I’m lucky, followed by delight. A quite new work of art has been created from the basis I’ve provided.

    It is a simple fact that a book must be altered if it’s to succeed on screen or on the stage. A book is unique in being able to display the inside life of a person: all other media can only give you the outside.

    Everyone acknowledges this, although I confess that when I first saw the animated film based on my book Howl’s Moving Castle, I did feel that the director, Miyazaki, had taken advantage of this process of adaptation to introduce all his own favourite obsessions. He crammed the story full of flying machines and war scenes, all superbly animated, on the very thin basis that the King in my book was planning a war.

    Howl's Moving Castle

    Miyazaki and I were both children in World War II and we seem to have gone opposite ways in our reactions to it. I tend to leave the actual war out of my work (we all know how horrible wars are), whereas Miyazaki (who feels just the same) has his cake and eats it, representing both the nastiness of a war and the exciting scenic effects of a big bombing raid. But the faint miffed feeling I had about this was very much smaller than the sheer awe I felt knowing that large numbers of people had spent several years painstakingly drawing and painting every frame in a very long movie.


    So when Tom Armstrong and Susie Crow first approached me about making a ballet out of Black Maria, my first feeling was: however would they do it? Black Maria is a far more layered and complex story than Howl’s Moving Castle. It is full of magic. And it is a first person narrative, which makes it all the harder to adapt. But they explained that the music would contribute much – and that staging against a video background would add a further, deeper dimension.

    They did this – and it was teamwork indeed. It took months of discussion, rearranging and cutting to pare the story down to its essentials, to adapt it for the small number of dancers they could afford, and then to fit the videos to the rest. And it worked.


    I confess I was delighted. The story took a splendid shape from the sad and malignant start engineered by Aunt Maria, through her machinations and sinister tea parties with her coven and their brow beaten spouses, to the point where her schemes go wrong in the hunting scene, and then on to release, love and joy.

    Zara Waldeback’s videos certainly pulled their weight. At times they simply set the scene, or showed what the scene was about, but at other times they worked in counterpoint to the stage action – and showed what was really going on. I can think of no better way to portray magic than this. On stage, Aunt Maria was either in her wheelchair or sinisterly standing: on the screen, she was a menacing silhouette, weilding her sticks like wands of power, or a huge face, dominating. This, I believe, is how magic is.

    The choreography was at times menacing, brisk, lyrical or comical, in each case backed up by the music. There were times when I wanted to laugh, but didn’t quite like to because the man in the seat next to me was a Reporter Taking Notes, very seriously writing down each occasion when Tom’s music borrowed from Couperin or someone. And even where I knew what was going to happen, there were times when my heart was in my mouth, as in the pivotal hunting scene. The music here was wonderful, and Susie had actually gone to France and studied people hunting there – I was awed at her attention to detail – and then come home and got it right. As the browbeaten husbands suddenly turned Dominant Male, because hunting is men’s business, and all started pulling up big red socks, a small French child in the audience shouted out delightedly, ‘Ah-hah! La chasse!’ Which just shows you how much it pays to attend to detail.

    Everyone I spoke to, not only me, said they were overwhelmed by the joyful ending, where music and dance were once again a perfect blend. I had difficulty believing that all this stemmed from something I had written.

    In fact, it didn’t. It was the artistry of a whole team of people. I do hope they get a chance to perform it more than just the week they managed. It deserves much more.

    There are a lot of click and donate sites, where you click on an icon and the sites sponsors donate a small sum to a good cause. But now I’ve found a click and donate site with a difference – and a literary twist. is a vocabulary quiz. For every word you get right, the site donates 10 grains of rice to help end world hunger. When you get a definition right, the next word is harder; when you get it wrong, the next definition is easier. Continue playing, and with a wide vocabulary or a bit of luck you will be able to donate thousands of grains.

    The site started on 7th October 2007 when 830 grains of rice were donated. By the end of the month, the daily donation was nearly 60 million grains and rising rapidly. That’s a phenomenal growth rate; especially for a site presumably spreading by word of mouth alone.

    Try these two examples for size:

    Desiccant means: consultant, drying agent, beginning, level?

    Vestigial means: humid, trustworthy, shocked, rudimentary?

    After the first few words, the vocabulary level starts to rise when you get a correct definition, and it will get a bit easier if you guess wrong. The next words to come up were:

    Corsair: superiority, limb, devilry, pirate

    Dreck: junk, newsperson, lyre, burden

    Gemsbok: lodging, trophy, devoutness, oryx

    Think you get them all right? If so, thats 50 grains donated. And in case you were wondering – here’s a gemsbok…

    It goes on and on. Beware – you may find the site addictive. But you’ll be giving away an awful lot of rice!

    Great news this week for psychologist and depression-expert Dorothy Rowe, who’s been included in a list of the world’s top 100 living geniuses.

    Dorothy Rowe's Beyond Fear

    The list – which includes such names as Steven Hawking, Gary Kasparov and inventor of the internet Sir Tim Berners Lee – was whittled down from more than a thousand figures nominated in a national survey.

    A panel of six scored each nominee on a range of factors: paradigm shifting; popular acclaim; intellectual power; achievement and cultural importance. You can see the full list here.

    Author of the seminal Beyond Fear, Dorothy’s been studying depression for some 40 years, and her work has changed the lives of many thousands of people.

    She’s also a friend of Fifth Estate – twice dropping into the Filing Cupboard with Kate to record two of the best podcasts we’ve published. Click here to listen to her discussing Beyond Fear, and here to listen to her conversation with poet and writer Gwyneth Lewis.

    Says Dorothy:

    It is a tremendous honour to be placed amongst such an outstanding group of people who have had such a profound effect on the world.

    It’s also a clear recognition of the much wider understanding of the importance of psychological issues, how we interpret the world and how this, in turn, affects our ability to change things for good or for bad

    The top ranked Aussie in a list dominated by Brits and Americans, Dorothy can also now claim the unlikely title of Greatest Australian Genius – though it probably wont fit on her credit card.

    The Golden Notebook, first published in 1962, has had 50 years of an up-and-down life, after a difficult birth.

    A researcher will sometimes say to me: I was surprised what bad reviews the book got at its start. I was surprised at the sourness and bad temper of some of them, full of epithets like man-hater, ballbreaker. But there was mainly astonishment.

    Then as now there was a cry that the novel is dead, with a demand for new kinds of novel, but not one of these reviewers noticed that the book had an original structure. This word has since then enlivened a thousand academic departments, but what I said then was that The Golden Notebook had a shape, a composition, that itself was a statement, acommunication. If they wanted a new kind of novel, then wasnt this one?

    Golden Notebook Cover

    But no, embittered, unfair and so on. This writer, not long from a very provincial colony, lost any residual awe for the metropolitan literati at a stroke. What was so evident then, as now, is that the reviewers tend to be over-emotional. For any writer to criticize critics invites a yawn, but I was justified. The structure was this. A short conventional novel, which can stand by itself, is interleaved with notebooks, diaries, comments about what went into it, in itself reflecting what many writers feel on finishing a novel: despair that their neat pattern of a novel excludes so much of the life that made it.

    While most of the UK reception was hostile, I had champions. Nicholas Tomalin, a well-known journalist, wrote to me, took me to a pub and repeated his main message: Dont take any notice of them, they are an ignorant lot. The poet Edwin Muir wrote to me, with the same message. In America, Robert Gottlieb, not yet the most brilliant publisher in New York, and the critic Hugh Leonard defended The Golden Notebook.

    It was published widely in Europe, with a very mixed welcome, from one extreme the Swedish actress who greeted me with Its not your book, its mine, I never read anything but the Blue Notebook, and never will till I die to the other, such as a favourite publisher who hated it so much he said he wished he could refuse to publish it. France and Germany took 10 years to publish it, saying it was too abrasive, too inflammatory, but published it in the 1970s, just in time for the feminist movement.

    It was written in the late fifties, after the famous Khrushchev speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in Moscow. This speech, acknowledging just some of Stalins crimes, was like a depth charge under the left, large parts of which insisted that the capitalist press had invented it. I was joking, but then could no longer joke, that every time the phone rang another comrade had had a religious conversion, taken to drink, committed suicide, or turned into his or her opposite. The collapse of communism created many a fine businessman. If you have spent your life analysing the crimes of capitalism there could not be a better apprenticeship for becoming one.

    I knew this was an extraordinary time, I was watching extraordinary events. I wanted to record them. I had often wished I could read novels that had never been written. Something from the Chartist movement? A novel about Marxs household, so conventional, or, as we used to say, bourgeois, with the servant as mistress, the devoted daughter, the nasty son-in-law? I wanted to capture the flavour of 1956 and later, and I think I did.

    The novel could not be written now. Any novelist finds it difficult conveying the atmosphere of a time that has gone. Some of the tales from that surreal cold war may have a young person laughing incredulously, but at the time they meant death, torture, imprisonment.

    Meantime, other feminist bibles had appeared, Simone de Beauvoirs The Second Sex being the best. Which brings me to something no one believes. When I wrote The Golden Notebook it never occurred to me I was writing a feminist bible. The sixties feminists were not the first in the arena. The Woman Question dated from the fifteenth century. In communist circles in the forties and fifties feminist issues were much discussed. But the second sentence of The Golden Notebook is:

    The point is, said Anna, as far as I can see, everything is cracking up.

    This is what I thought The Golden Notebook was about, as its structure said. Everything was cracking up, and by now it is easily seen that we live in a fast-fragmenting culture.

    So I became a feminist icon. But what had I said in The Golden Notebook? That any kind of singlemindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not madness. (This may be observed most easily in religion and politics.) If the dialogue that so affected (and still affects) women was straight from life, then a very interesting question has to arise. Why does what is written have so much more impact than what is said? Apparently my reporting of how women criticized men was a revelation. But why? Surely not to any woman? Yet what she must have heard all her life struck her as dynamite when written down.

    Yet The Golden Notebook wasnt only a tract on feminism. I have always had letters from men interested in the politics, or in the madness issues. Another letter, a perennial, is on these lines: I have given your book to my wife/girlfriend/daughter to show her that women dont always talk about cooking and children.

    The book keeps popping up unexpectedly. The first translation in China was a muchbowdlerized edition sold as porn. What I like best is hearing that The Golden Notebook is on reading lists for political or history classes.

    The reason for its continued vitality is, I feel, not literary. When I wrote it, I felt I was living through an explosion of contradictory possibilities. The energy of that somehow got into The Golden Notebook, gave it impetus.

    JG Ballard

    More praise this week for one of the nation’s literary giants – not, this time, from the Nobel Committee (though we live in hope) but from Lee Rourke in the Guardian, who suggests that J.G. Ballard might just be Britain’s greatest living novelist.

    ‘No other contemporary writer,’ Rourke writes of the author of Empire of the Sun, Crash and Kingdom Come, ‘has engaged with modernity and our urban environment quite like Ballard.’

    In the comments, ‘prophetic’, ‘compassionate’ and ‘utterly brilliant’ run head to head with ‘affectless’, and ‘unreadable’ – Ballard’s a man to divide the crowds. Drop in on the debate and have your own say – if only to see ‘reptillian’ used as a compliment…

    Page from 'Sixteen'

    Some brilliant advice for young wives everywhere:

    If you take an interest in records, trends and fashions and have an interest in some current affairs plus some home things, like sewing, cooking, making a bed without wrinkling the sheets – then your husband is getting a lively, practical wife who can turn hand and mind in many directions.

    Lucky him. This is a gem plucked straight from Sixteen, HarperCollins indispensable guide to growing up, which also happens to include essential advice on Choosing Clothes, Shopping as a Housewife and Taking Yourself In Hand (which really boils down to losing weight).

    Click the picture</