Wednesday, March 21, 2007

This is why we do it

If anyone wants to know why I write this is the definitive, joyous, life-affirming, beautiful answer.

I received an e-mail this morning from someone I don't know, from where I have no idea. It reads:

"Hi there :)

I loved your novel and was wondering if I could be placed on the list for a paperback copy?

Kind Regards,

Anna ******"

That's as good as any acceptance letter from any agent, better than a review in the New York Times.

I've found a new reader and made a connection. There is no better feeling in life. It almost makes me want to cry but I'm going to laugh and cheer instead.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Finding my way

The most important thing in getting my life back on track, it seems to me, is to resume work on my novel Mummy's Boy.

To help me do this I need to do two things. Firstly, I'm going to set up another blog dedicated to the work in progress. I'll post the first draft up chapter by chapter. This mechanism has two benefits. It will act as a catalyst to the creative process, allowing me to measure and discipline the amount of work I do on the book. It also allows for feedback from readers, something that proved so helpful with the re-writes of A Half Life of One.

Apart from all the external pressures that have kept me from writing in the past couple of months (okay, a month's holiday in New Zealand wasn't really ressure) I am a little concerned that the book - which tells the story of a kid growing up whose life increasingly comes to be centred around his mother - is in danger of turning into yet another "misery memoir". I must avoid that outcome at all costs. The book isn't about misery for a start. Life is wonderful even when it is challenging. It's more about the way the balance changes as children grow up. In this case, the change is pretty dramatic.

I guess I need to make sure too that the novel isn't a "memoir". Not a straight retelling of my life story. I think the best way to fictionalise the story is to let the characters really develop in an untrammelled way and set my imagination free.

Whatever the answer, the only way to solve the problem is to get back writing. With that aim in mind I have decided that my new life starts here, today, now. Whatever happens, in the next twenty-four hours I'm going to write another chapter.

That prospect is both terrifying and wonderfully exciting.

Monday, March 19, 2007

All at sea

I've mentioned in the past how I reached a very low ebb in my life when a business I owned got into serious trouble. This was back in the early nineties when the price of oil fell below 10 dollars a barrel and work dried up. Every cloud has a silver lining of course, and my novel A Half Life of One was born out of the experience.

Well, I kept that business going - I had no choice - and gradually things improved as the dollar price of a barrel of oil rose and work in the industry recovered.

Last week I sold the business. It's a pretty good business now, with a good reputation, a great workforce and a strong order book. I'm rather proud of it in fact. Negotiating the sale was a pretty emotional event for me, and not just because of the legal and accounting morass I had to wade through to complete the deal. My hand shook as I signed the sales deeds. At last I was free. A huge weight fell from my shoulders. I stumbled back into the light.

I feel like a prisoner who's been set free after years of incarceration. Disoriented. A little scared. Angry. Bitter. All those lost years.

It's going to take me a while to get my bearings. I'm a little shell-shocked right now. Yet again I'm at a crossroads in my life. I've lost my sense of direction. That first step on the road back...I don't even know if it's the right road. There are no signposts.

Not for the first time in my life I'm all at sea.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The Last King of Scotland

The recent release of humorously-titled movie "The Last King of Scotland" reminds me of a true story that has haunted my dreams for years.

The film in part purports to tell the tale of Idi Amin, the murderous dictator who ruled Uganda between 1971 and 1979. In the West Amin was considered something of a buffoon. His self-styled title "His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshall Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular", probably didn't help. In his own country he was regarded with abject terror by all his subjects.

Amnesty International reckons he was responsible for the death of 500,000 of his people. He waged campaigns of sectarian violence mainly against the Acholi and Lango tribes. He is best known in this country for his persecution of Ugandan Asians, mainly Christians, Hindus and Muslims, many of whom subsequently came to Britain where they played a significant role in our cultural and commercial development.

The story I remember depicts a particularly evil massacre that took place under Amin's rule. Readers of a nervous disposition might want to look away now. You can safely pick up this post again in its final paragraph.

Several hundred prisoners are marched into a football stadium by a large number of Amin's troops. There is a carnival atmosphere. The soldiers are in a good mood, joking and making bets. The prisoners are made to stand in line. The prisoner second from the end is handed a club. He is instructed to kill the person on his left with the club and pass it to the person next to him who will repeat the procedure. Anyone who refuses will meet with a painful death. No-one refuses.

I picture myself in the line, standing round about the middle. The sun is beating down. I hear the first blow, like an egg cracking. I have only a few minutes to live. I consider the fine theological conundrum as to whether or not when I kill the man standing next to me my soul will be in a state of mortal sin. If so I am condemning myself to a lifetime in hell. Piss and shit start to trickle down my shaking legs. I am sweating in the sweltering stadium but I am cold. I look at the man on my left, trying to gauge the thickness of his skull and where exactly I will hit him to ensure a merciful death. The man on my right looks weak, he is crying, his spirit is broken. I curse my luck.

The soldiers all around are laughing and cheering. There is no blood on their hands, they are innocent of any crime. They admire and evaluate each downward sweep of the club, the spectacular eruption of brains. They are as knowledgeable and appreciative and as boistrous as spectators at a baseball match.

The man beside me hands me the club. It is sticky and slippery with blood. I take a deep breath. It is hard to breathe. I can hear the soldiers jeering far away. I remember how I used to hold a cricket bat at school. I look my companion in the eyes as I raise the club above my head. It is too late to think of my family, the world I am about to leave behind. I concentrate on the job in hand.

The film stars Forest Whitaker and is directed by Kevin Macdonald from a novel by Giles Foden. It glosses over Amin's atrocities and concentrates on a fictional love story. It has not been a critical or commercial success. But I guess things move on, and that the relative failure of the film is now the real tragedy of this story.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

I don't give a fuck...

...what anyone says, the blogosphere is wonderful.

About eight years ago I was at my wits' end. My business was going bankrupt. I had personal guarantees out for more than a million pounds. I'd put the house up as security. My wife and two young sons we going to be thrown out onto the streets. I couldn't think straight. I lost nearly two stones in weight. My hair started falling out. I couldn't sleep at night. The only thing that stopped me committing suicide was the financial mess I would leave behind.

To keep myself sane I barricaded myself in a cupboard and started writing A Half Life of One. One painful word at a time. Eventually I finished the book. Eventually, miraculously, the financial crisis passed.

A couple of years later I revised the book and sent it off to various agents, with predictable results. No matter. The book had already served its purpose - it had kept me sane. I wasn't too bothered by rejection. I shoved the book into a drawer and forgot about it.

Then I discovered blogging. Eventually I resurrected the manuscript and put it online. Several people read it and kindly gave me some valuable feedback. I re-wrote it yet again and send it off once more. Again rejection followed. No matter. By now the book had taken on a modest life of its own. The site gets around fourteen visits a day. Every day.

When I checked the stats recently I was amused to see that somebody in Hunan in China was reading it at the same time as someone from the Army Information Management Directorate in Illinois. Three different worlds meeting in the most unlikely way.

When you think what the book's fate would have been before the invention of the internet I think it's all rather miraculous.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A bit of rough

You'll recall that when I went up to university in the sixties I kind of went off the rails. No doubt there're lots of reasons why that happened but whatever the cause the net result was that I drank a lot and chased a lot of women. In a way it was kind of what you did back then, especially if you wanted to be a writer. I imagine it was our idea of pursuing a Bohemian lifestyle. I expect it's all different now. People want a career and to earn lots of money, so they need to get a good degree and they work hard to make sure they do. They don't have so much time for playing around. I guess that's how it works now, anyway.

The thing about university back then - at least in the UK - was that it was populated overwhelmingly by the middle classes. Looking back, I don't think that while I was there I met a single student who had been to a state school like mine, although there must have been some around, lurking in the shadows. Everybody I met seemed to have attended a "public" (that is, a fee-paying) school. Coming from a poor, working class background I was kind of dazzled by my fellow students. They had a certain glamour, an air of superiority, call it breeding if you like. The women were especially exotic, almost like film stars, equally desirable, and, in some cases, just as unattainable.

I hadn't thought about it before now but I wonder what these glamorous young women must have thought about me back then - if they thought about me at all that is. In those days I was thin, six foot tall, had long blonde hair and - I hope I'm not being too immodest here - was quite good-looking. But, although I tried to hide it, I was undeniably working class. I had no polish, didn't really speak their language, had no prospects and few of the social graces. Nevertheless, I had no trouble attracting women, so I must have had some quality they found attractive. And no, it wasn't what you're thinking either. Unfortunately. Maybe it was the novelty value, the thrill of possessing an amusing divertimento before the real business of finding a suitable partner began. Or more likely it was the temporary thrill of going out with a bit of rough.

So perhaps that was me back in the swinging sixties. A little bit of rough bobbing around on a sea of alcohol. If it was, well, I've no complaints. Worse things happen at sea.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Blogging will be light today...

as the estimable Frank Wilson always says. This is because I am trying to simplify my life. To facilitate this long-planned objective I fixed up a meeting with one of my lawyers yesterday at 3.00pm. The meeting was schedule to last twenty minutes. To be on the safe side I paid for thirty minutes on the parking meter. I got out of the meeting at 8.00pm last night.

As a result I'm way behind with everything and need to catch up fast.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ten Books...

...I've started, failed to finish and feel guilty as hell about. They're scattered about the house, permanent and quietly malevolent reminders of a thousand broken resolutions, talismans of my enduring ignorance.

1 Ulysses - James Joyce
2 Invisible Man - Ralph Ellison
3 Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys
4 Gravity's Rainbow - Thomas Pynchon
5 Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
6 Lanark - Alexander Gray
7 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
8 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
9 The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
10 The Sea - John Banville

And ten more that are also lying around but will never get finished because for various reasons I really didn't like them:

1 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
2 Shame - Salman Rushdie
3 A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Maria Lewycka
4 Atonement - Ian McEwan
5 The Quantity Theory of Insanity - Will Self
6 Why Read the Classics? - Italo Calvino
7 Oscar and Lucinda - Peter Carey
8 Possession - A.S. Byatt
9 A Family Madness - Thomas Keneally
10 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown. This one's really in a category of its own. I hated it.

Actually, there's dozens more lying around that I've started and been unable to finish but those are the the most recent ones. When I was younger I forced myself to finish every book I started but now, well, maybe I value my time a little more. Or maybe my polymath dreams are over, charred embers on the altar of experience.

Dammit, no, that's not the reason. The reason is that mostly these books failed to live up to the publishers' hype and I resented being conned. Not really the best frame of mind for reading a book. Maybe one day I'll give them another go. But don't bet on it.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Happy clapping

You know how it is when you're sitting there in the STD clinic and everybody knows why you're there and you know why everybody else is there and none of you knows where to look and you want to curl up and die from shame and embarrassment.

Except of course for that young, pimply, greasy-haired youth lolling back in his seat with his hands stuck down his trousers and his legs stretched half way across the room and a grin on his long thin idiotic face who regards it as some kind of badge of honour to have acquired a dose of the clap despite all the money that's been lavished upon his sexual education in an effort to make him behave responsibly in the boudoir.

Well, bad though the pervasive sense of guilt and remorse feels after what was nothing more than a brief interlude of pure romantic passion on a moonlit night, a veritable Mills and Boon moment (or in my case, a Bill's and Moon moment), think how much worse it was in the old days before they invented penicillin*. Back then they used to treat diseases of the willy with all kinds of noxious chemicals and vile potions. Frequently the cure was worse than the disease. Much, much worse. I'll spare you the details.

All of which medical experimentation gave rise to the rather witty saying: "One night with Venus means a lifetime with Mercury."

There but for the grace of God and Sir Alexander Fleming, dear reader, go you. Console yourself with that cheerful thought next time you're sitting there miserably waiting for your number to be called.

Either that, or exercise a little more self-restraint in future and stay out of the waiting room altogether.

* Reminds me of another old joke:

Question: What do you give the man who's got everything?
Answer: Penicillin.