Saturday, June 28, 2008

Farting Around

I've spent the last six months or so doing the literary equivalent to farting around as I've struggled to get my next novel off the ground.

When I started the book the only thing I knew was that I wanted it to be humorous, a complete change from by previous novel, the bleak and downbeat A Half Life Of One. I quickly discovered that setting out to make something funny is a bit of a downer in itself. Deliberately creating amusing scenes and sub-Dickensian characters; inventing witty dialogue; while all the while weaving an hilarious plot round this loveable cast of characters turned out to be a pretty depressing business. By the time I'd called myself back after fifteen or so false starts and twenty thousand crap words I was almost suicidal.

After every false start all I was left with was the central character. A misogynist, alcoholic, hapless, feckless, incompetent, selfish, unhappily-married, ageing dreamer. Me, obviously. A subject I know a lot about. And a vague but unlikely plot set in Edinburgh, revolving around the world of publishing. About which I know nothing. I have been to Edinburgh though.

I discovered that I could never get past the second chapter after I introduced the second major character, a young, unpublished aspiring novelist. Each time the old man and the novelist would enter into a conversation designed to move on the plot and each time it would go nowhere. The problem was that I couldn't get into the young man's head and worse, he couldn't get into mine. I was making him up as I went along, trying to lure him into some kind of situation round which I could hang the plot.

I was also trying to make him witty but that was like being at one of those parties when you get stuck with the bore in the corner and try with increasing desperation to liven up the conversation. All you end up doing is getting drunk and falling over. That's what I kept doing in the book, in a literary sense of course.

And so it went on until about a week ago. Then the young man said something I wasn't expecting and the scene took off in a completely unexpected direction. To be honest I was a little annoyed at his presumption. And a little scared. I was no longer in control. I embarked on each new session with increasing circumspection. Some sessions I wrote only a sentence, deliberately pulling the guy back. It was like we were fighting each other. The thing is, there's nothing worse than trailing up a blind allet, particularly if it's a hundred pages long. So a stalemate developed.

And then the other night I had a dream. More like a revelation. I saw the young guy talking and I eavesdropped on his conversation. What he said was so surprising and outrageous that I woke up and burst out laughing.

I was still laughing in the morning. As a result of what the young guy said I've suddenly got a plot. It seems that for once, being a dreamer has worked in my favour. It's not a complete plot by any means but it's enough to get me through the next hundred pages or so. After that, who knows? I'm sure I can trust the young guy to take me somewhere interesting. I'm certainly curious to find out. Excited too. God, I love that young man. He's some character. In fact, I'm sitting here just now chuckling with pleasure at what he's about to do next.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Twice mugged in Rome

It was my sixtieth birthday the other week and my wife took me to Rome as a surprise present. The surprise turned out to be that I had the unexpected pleasure of being mugged twice.

The first time was the result of Gordon Brown's mismanagement of the British economy when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. It turns out that his long and gloomy interregnum has caused the stealthy devaluation of the once-mighty Pound Sterling abroad. As a result, in Italy at least, a pound is now worth the equivalent of two mouldy lumps of gnocchi against the Euro, and falling fast. We discovered this when we stopped for lunch at a charming tratoria off the Via Dei Gracchi on the way back from Castel Sant'Angelo. A modest lunch for two of sardines and a bottle of white wine followed by several digestifs cost us nearly eighty pounds. After my wife had picked me up from the piano - where I lay feeling like I'd just been run over by one - it dawned on us that her extravagant birthday present to me was going to be exactly that.

For the next three days we wandered listlessly around Rome cursing Brown and envying the free-spending Romanians, Lithuanians and Poles who seemed to be everywhere having a good time. We survived largely on pizza (although once, feeling light-headed with hunger we indulged in spaghetti alle vongole, a few moments of mad prodigality that left us both unsatisfied and appalled at our reckless gourmandising), while we saved up our budget for one final, decent culinary splurge.

That evening on the way to the restaurant - our final night in Rome - we decided first to visit the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, built mostly upon the imposing ruins of the third century Baths of Diocletian. It was on the exit from this enormous building that our second mugging occurred in a manner that was far more professional and slick than any of Gordon Brown's hamfisted attempts to relieve us of our hard-earned cash.

I thought it quaint when - after we had crossed the main transept gawping at the enormous marble pillars - we were suddenly ushered out through a back door in the sacristy by a fag-smoking "caretaker" and found ourselves alone and disoriented in a dusty back alley. "I think it's this way," I muttered when I realised the door back into the church had been slammed shut behind us.

No sooner had we emerged from the alley onto a marginally wider but still deserted road than a car pulled up alongside us. The driver wound down his window and beckoned us. "Where is the main railway station?" he muttered, "Quick, senor, we will miss our train."

I couldn't help even though we'd walked past it a few minutes earlier. I was lost myself. "It's not far but I'm not sure which direction."

"You English?"


"Where from?"


"Aberdeen! My wife's from Aberdeen!"

"Really! What a co-incidence." We beamed at him. There was a guy sitting beside him with his nose buried in a newspaper. They were both wearing sharp suits. They looked like businessmen.

"You know who I am?" asked the driver.


"I'm the boss of Armani. You've heard of Armani haven't you!"

"Of course!" My eyes widened. I was impressed. The boss of Armani was someone rich and famous, wasn't he? A jetsetter. Monaco. Supermodels. Fabulously rich. I'd never met a really rich person before. I wanted to curtsey.

"My friend I have a problem. Will you help me?"

I didn't hesitate. It would be an honour. Besides, who knew where it might lead? No harm having friends amongst the rich and famous. "Of course. What's the problem?"

"I've just been at our annual company sales conference. Five hundred of our top guys. My Bentley wouldn't start so I borrowed this car but it's got no petrol left. Of course I don't carry money just like your Royal Family. I must get to the train station before the petrol runs out. Lend me some money for fuel, will you?"

I looked at my wife. Since the first day in that restaurant I didn't have any money. "Give him some money," I said, "Come on, help the guy."

She hesitated.

"For God's sake. He's the boss of Armani. Don't be stupid."

She looked confused but took out her purse.

"How much you got?" said the boss of Armani, leaning forward to peer into her purse.

She held out a five euro note.

He looked unimpressed. "Give me more!"

She looked at me for guidance. I couldn't believe she was acting so churlishly in front of such a distinguished and wealthy businessman, one of the richest in Europe. "Give him more," I urged her, mortified.

"Here's ten," she said reluctantly.

"More," he demanded, "Give me all."

"I've only got a hundred," she protested.

"For Heaven's sake, give him the money!" I exhorted her.

He reached into the back of the car. "Here, look, it's your lucky day." He held up two leather jackets. "Genuine Gucci."

My eyes widened. Real Gucci. They must be worth a fortune. Wait a minute though, didn't he say Armani? Did they own Gucci too? I couldn't remember. Must be. "Give him the money," I implored. I could already picture the envious looks from our friends when we got back home. Maybe he'd even send us a Christmas present or invite us to one of his holiday homes.

Reluctantly my wife handed over sixty euros.

"These jackets are worth five hundred each! Real leather. Hugo Boss!"

"Give him some more!" I said, appalled at her meaness.

She gave him another fifty euros. The driver looked at her, hesitating. "Okay. Good. Take the damned jackets. See you in Scotland!" He flung the jackets at our feet and drove off at high speed.

We stood there looking at the thin, brown jackets. Even to my unpracticised eyes they looked rather shapeless. "Let's try them on," I said hopefully, fighting my misgivings.

They didn't fit us. They wouldn't have fitted anybody. We stared at each other. Gradually it dawned on me. "We've just been mugged," I said slowly, a sinking feeling developing in the pit of my stomach.

My wife stared at me, her eyes full of resentment. "No," she muttered through gritted teeth, "I'm the one who's been mugged. By three men. And one of them was my husband."

She was right. I was such an idiot. How could I act like that towards my own wife? A stupid, willing collaborator. I felt so ashamed. Even the slap-up meal I bought her later with my credit card couldn't erase the bad taste in either of our mouths.

I left Rome feeling a lot older. Wiser too. But the wisdom came at a high price indeed.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

On writing when somewhat pissed

I have absolutely no problem with writing the first draft of a novel when I'm squiffy, always provided of course that I can still see - and hit - the keyboard. When I am revising, however, which is most of the time since I need to do plenty of re-writes, I need to be absolutely stone cold sober. I guess that's because it's a totally different process. At the moment of creation drink is the catalyst as I drown in the primordial soup; during the stern revision process when I slice through the silliness and drivel drink is the reward to which I look forward with eyes filled with longing. Naturally this leads to a certain asymmetry in my writing productivity, but if it's a fine full-bodied red that's interrupting the creative process , so what.

On the other hand I'm perfectly content to write - unrevised - entries into my blog after a few glasses of red and I'm usually quite pleased with the result.

Until I read the blog again the next morning, that is. Still, maybe it's better to write something -anything - than drown in wine-filled silence.

I guess I'll find out - somewhat fuzzy-headed - tomorrow.