Book number 2: thank God for that!

October 12, 2016

I’ll be honest – there were times when I thought, fleetingly, that perhaps I was destined to write only one book.  That Time Travelling With A Hamster would have its brief moment in the limelight and then gracefully move along the bookshelf to make room for books by other, more prolific and successful authors.

invisible-coverI would tell myself that Harper Lee  wrote only one book, To Kill A Mockingbird.  (Then I’d remember Go Set A Watchman  and feel a little sad.)

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind was also a one-off, written in 1936, that still sells 75,000 copies a year.

(Incidentally, Mockingbird and GWTW both one-offs, both set in the US deep south, both won the Pullitzer Prize.)

Anyway, the doubts were necessarily momentary as I had a contract to fulfill with HarperCollins and – in hindsight – the problem was not that I couldn’t think of a story to write, but that the initial, enthusiastic reception to Hamster had somewhat intimidated me.  And if I felt that with the modest success of Hamster imagine what poor Harper Lee felt when her first ever book won the world’s most-coveted literary prize and was set by exam boards the world over.

Anyway, it’s done and I’m thrilled with it.  I say “done”: it’s in the final editing stage, where metaphors are unmixed, characterisations sharpened with a word here and there, plot holes that have survived so far are identified and filled in (or disguised), and the copy-editor says things like, “she can’t put it in her jeans pocket because you said five pages ago that she was wearing a skirt.”  I owe an awed debt to my brilliant editors.

The cover, once again, is by the wonderful Tom Clohosy Cole.  It really matches Hamster.

In fact, it looks just like a collection of books by an author should look.  Which means I’d better get cracking on book three…

What Not To Do If You Turn Invisible is available to pre-order from Amazon.  It will be published on December 29.

 

 

 

 

 

Whistling: top 5 songs

September 14, 2016

I learnt to whistle over the summer, and accomplishment of which I’m much prouder than it really merits.

I don’t mean whistling a tune.  I’ve been able to do that since I was very little.  (My Gran would say, “Oh, it’s Whistling Rufus again!” which I assumed to be some performer but I’ve just looked it up and it’s the name of a song.)

No, I mean whistling through my fingers: the loud shriek used by everyone, it seems, but me. Over the years I had tried and tried but could only summon a pathetic rasp of air.

Then my son learnt to do it and I gave it another go – to no avail.  “No, dad,” he said, “Put your fingers like this,” and he showed me.  “Shove them further in your mouth.”

The result was instant!  I could do it.  I laughed with delight and did it again and again until everyone told me to shut up, including my son. They didn’t realise I had nearly fifty years of whistling to catch up on.

As for whistling tunes, well I’ve always loved a song with whistling in it.  Seriously, who doesn’t?  There are more than you might think.

Rolling Stone Magazine has produce a list of the fifteen best whistling songs of all time except it’s rubbish and doesn’t include the best whistling song ever (see below) so I’ve decided to make my own top 5.

5.  Lazy Song by Bruno Mars

There’s not all that much whistling in this, really -only three notes.  But, the whistling bit  was added for the single release after the album track was recorded, so there is a version without it.  It sounds completely wrong.

4  Bridge On The River Kwai Theme

There are loads of versions of this, but this is the full whistling one.

 

3. Magic Moments by Perry Como

There are crisper recordings of this song on YouTube, but this is the only live version that I could find.

 

2.  Jealous Guy by John Lennon

You’ve got to wait a bit for the whistling in this one.  It comes about halfway through, which makes me think he was stuck for a middle eight, so just whistled the main melody instead.  Works a treat!

  1.  I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman by Whistling Jack Smith

The finest whistling record ever, if you ask me, and it comes with some added trivia.  “Whistling Jack Smith” was in fact a performer called John O’Neill, who recorded it for a set fee and received no royalties.  It’s not even him on the video.  That’s an actor called Coby Well who was hired for Top Of The Pops.  John O’Neill also did the whistling bit in the theme for The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

What I Read In My Summer Holidays

August 16, 2016

It’s odd, I reckon, that since the whole writing thing took off  for me – with Time Travelling With A Hamster,  and another one (title TBC) coming out next spring, and the zygote of a third one beginning its gestation – I have actually read less for pleasure than before.

So roll on a long summer holiday: endless hours reading by the pool, or on the beach, or – far more likely – in a sweaty departure lounge.  (Why “lounge”?  Anywhere less conducive to lounging is hard to conceive. Come to think of it, does anyone call it a “departure lounge” any more?  Holding Bay, Transit Point? The Pen Of Frustration?)

Anyway, I stacked up.  I’m not keen on E-readers, so it was a fair chunk of my luggage allowance.

Here’s what I got through:

whisperWhisper To Me by Nick Lake.    This is, essentially, a teen romance, but it is not remotely slushy, and much more as well.  It is written as a long letter to a boy that 17 year-old Cassie has fallen in love with, an attempt to explain her strange behaviour which has driven him away.  It’s great: sad, touching, funny and totally convincing as Cassie learns to deal with the voice in her head which drives her to self-destructive behaviour.  I loved the way the author deals with swearing in a YA novel: Cassie says she feels uncomfortable writing swear-words, so she just stars them out.  There’s loads of them, but – surprisingly –  it works.  There’s a good supporting cast, too: Cassie’s grieving, protective dad, and her complex, sexy friend, Paris. (Nick Lake is my editor at Harper Collins.)

 

denisA Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  Talking of swearing, someone seriously needs to do a new translation of this extended essay on the horrors of the Siberian prisons of 20th century Russia.  It’s not so much a story as a long essay and is remarkable more for its depiction of the dreadful cruelty of Communist punishment than for its narrative engagement; nonetheless the translation (by Ralph Parker) is in many places laughable, and rooted in a late-50s/early 60s slang, where prisoners call each other “twerps” and “ninnies” as if they were not in an unimaginable prison-hell but a slightly under-heated Mallory Towers.

truthThe Truth by Michael Palin.    Amusing.  Engaging.  I still had to look up the title, though, so a bit forgettable.     Palin’s voice is unmistakable, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  (Until you start imagining him saying, “Vewy well.  I will welease Woger!” and then it all goes to hell.) It’s a good, sweet, English story and would make a cracking film.

 

 

 

The XXX XXXXX by XXXXXXX  XXXXXXX  I didn’t like this and abandoned it a quarter of the way in, but I don’t want to say say what it was.  If it was old, or the writer was dead I wouldn’t care, but it isn’t and it has sold millions, won loads of awards and it’s sort of YA-ish which means I might bump into the author and that would be awkward, so I’m not saying.  It’s Victorian and bossy and unconvincing and I sighed with relief every time I put it down.

burilaBurial Rites by Hannah Kent.  Slow to start, but I ended up entranced by this tale of a murderer awaiting execution in 19th century Iceland.  Agnes Magnusdottir has been found guilty of the murder of her lover and – there being no prisons – is billeted with a local family while the state prepares her fate and a young clergyman tries to counsel her.  The evocation of a hard, cold existence and the warmth of the people enduring it is wonderful and the massive research that must have gone into the book is worn very lightly: you never get the impression you are being told anything but a good story.

 

 

Ones I took but didn’t get round to:

The Color Purple by Alice Walker  From the “classics I should  read” pile.  Between Homer’s Iliad and The Brothers Karamasov.

The Encounter – Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu.  Saw the play by Simon McBirney which was mesmerising. It’s the true story of an explorer who has a profound encounter with a remote Amazonian tribe.

Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson.  I have LOL’d by page two at a funny simile so I’m already liking it.

Back to CDs…I think

July 8, 2016

The builders are in, and so a load of junk is out.  (How do we accumulate this stuff?  Where does it come from?  Why did I ever think that there was any point in hanging on to a broken hand-mixer?)

pileofcds

Anyway, stuck at the back of a cupboard, Mrs W and I came across our old CDs in a huge box.

The rule is: if you don’t use it, why keep it?  Years ago, I uploaded all the CDs we had to iTunes.  Then we got a Sonos player and Spotify Premium and the CDs were stacked away with a couple of old boxes of vinyl records and that was that.

Prime candidates, then, for being chucked out.

Except…

I think I’m going to reinstate the old records.  Probably not the vinyl, but several tall racks of CDs, oh yeah!  Why?

Because I miss them.  Spotify especially, but also iTunes, is completely rubbish at helping you to decide what you want to listen to.  Having the CD covers on display is a huge visual memory-jog, when you go, “Oh yeah!  Haven’t heard that for a while, let’s put that on!”

Spotify requires you to know what you want to listen to,and is brilliant for that.  Having access, at a very low cost, to virtually every song you’re ever likely to want to hear is the most phenomenal privilege (and one that’s utterly lost on our resident offspring) but I’m convinced I listen to less music now rather than more.  And certainly a narrower band of artists and albums: it’s the ones that I remember I like that get played on Spotify.  On top of the CD box was  an old Scouting For Girls CD which I haven’t heard for ages, simply because I’d forgotten I liked them.  Barenaked Ladies the same.

It’s like I’m stuck with my very own, personalised Now That’s What I Call Music double CD and nothing else gets played.

Pile-of-CDsMrs W is worse.  The only thing she can remember she likes is some weird 90s Swedish rapper called Petter and an (admittedly excellent) soul compilation by Tower Of Power.

CD covers, like the vinyl album covers that came before them, also have added value – not only in terms of the artwork, but additional information about the musicians, composers, lyrics and so on.  I know some of this is available online but it’s a right old fag to find it compared with reading it off a cover.

So back they come, row upon row of CDs, plus those stupid plastic boxes that always break, and box-less CDs littering the floor and getting scratched…What joy!

 

Happy ending for “Happy Birthday”

June 28, 2016

surprise-happy-birthday-gifts-5.jpg

After years of avoiding it, film-makers and performers can now include “Happy Birthday To You” in their work without paying a huge music corporation for the privilege.

God knows why, but I follow stories about music copyright sort of keenly.  It’s not like I have any personal interest, it’s just a curiosity.

Today’s news that a US judge has ruled on “Happy Birthday To You” inevitably caught my eye.

For years, Warner/Chappel Music has been collecting royalties for public, commercial performances of the popular song, which was written by two Kentucky sisters in 1893 and published in a collection of songs for kindergarten children.  Over the years, the rights ended up with the Warner corporation who now must pay back $14 million that it has collected in royalties.

For while the tune remained the same, the lyrics had changed.  The original was a welcome song for children to sing at the start of the school day: “Good morning to you, Good morning to all…”

US district judge, George King, ruled that the tune had long been in the public domain – i.e. no longer subject to copyright rules.  The lyrics were less certain.  The birthday words did not appear in print until 1911; it was not until the 1930s that Patty Hill (one of the two sisters) claimed to have written them at the same time as the “Good Morning” lyrics.

Anyway, King ruled that Warner/Chappel no longer had any claim over the song and must pay back money collected.

Variations of “Happy Birthday To You” are sung around the world in different languages.

  • In Spanish it’s Cumpleaños Feliz
  • Portuguese, Parabéns par Vocé, 
  • German Zum Geburstag Viel Glück
  • Italian: Tanti auguri a te

And so on.

(According to Wikipedia, the Swedes sing a version that goes, Har Den åran Idag…only I have never heard it (and I have been to a few Swedish birthday parties.) Instead they sing Ja, må han live, expressing the hope that the celebrant will live to be 100.)

Back to copyright: my favourite copyright story again involves a schoolteacher, this one in Australia.  In 1932, Marion Sinclair wrote Kookaburra (“Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree…” etc) the tune of which was substantially used in the worldwide hit Down Under by the Aussie band Men At Work. (It’s the flute part: you can’t miss it).

The supposed copyright infringement did not come to light until 2008.  Larrikin Music, who owned the rights, had not noticed the infringement, and began legal proceedings.  The protracted case which ensued cost Men At Work, and especially the song’s composer Colin Hay, a very substantial sum.

He has now rewritten the song with a new flute part.  Sadly, it’s not as good.

 

 

Game of Thrones spoilers: I give up!

June 16, 2016

gameofthrones1-large_trans++piVx42joSuAkZ0bE9ijUnGH28ZiNHzwg9svuZLxrn1U

I was watching the news the other night and the newsreader said something like: “Coming up next, news of the opening game of the Euros as England faced Russia earlier today.  So if you don’t want to know the result, time to leave the room.”

It’s familiar enough stuff; we hear it all the time.  Then it struck me: how many people still do this?  In the age of Twitter, Facebook, text and so on, does anybody anywhere watch a football game on TV that has been played earlier in the day without knowing the score?

There was an episode of Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads back in the 70s which revolved around Bob and Terry’s desperate attempts to win a bet by remaining ignorant of the outcome of an England-Bulgaria game before it came on TV.  I can’t remember if they succeeded or not.

The-Likely-Lads-James-Bolam-and-Rodney-Bewes-539563Like Bob and Terry (above), I’m engaged in a struggle not to know what happens in Game Of Thrones, except my struggle is lasting for weeks, and it’s not working.

Thing is, I’m too tight-fisted to shell out for a full Sky subscription, and I want to wait until I can buy the box set on DVD.  That way I can binge-watch and save money.

Naturally, I don’t want to know what happens before I watch it, but it’s next to impossible if you’re even vaguely engaged with the news and social media.

Before series 6 had even started I knew that Jon Snow had not died properly and that Melisandre might have something to do with his resurrection.  It’s not as if I went looking for information – far from it.  But when you see headlines saying “Jon Snow: Is He Really Dead?” then you begin to wonder.

I know that Bran Stark  makes a comeback (though – to be honest – I could have guessed that much, otherwise where was he for all of series 5?)

I know that Theon Greyjoy/Reek makes it through at least almost the end of series 6 because there he was on the front of a magazine headlined “Alfie Allen – Thrones’ Great Survivor”.

And now I learn that there will be a big “Battle of the Bastards” because of a headline this morning.  I didn’t read the article but it can only be Roose Bolton and Jon Snow.

Gaaah!  Perhaps it’s all a devious scheme by Sky to get me to subscribe.  If so, I think it has worked.

The Encounter: time-travelling magic

June 14, 2016

1438630284encounter_02

I’ve written before about my, shall we say, complicated relationship with the theatre.  I take the approach once described by Sir Michael Parkinson: “I have never sat in a theatre without wishing I were in a cinema instead.”

Except…sometimes.  This was one of the sometimes.  Tempted by a friend who promised that it would appeal to my love of magic and illusion, I saw The Encounter, a one-man show with  Simon McBurney, produced by Theatre Complicite.  It was on at the Oxford Playhouse and is now touring France, a nice change for football fans tired of the Euros.  It’ll be back in the UK soon, I’m sure: it’s terrific.

This is how the programme describes it:

Inspired by the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu.

In 1969 Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, found himself lost among the people of the remote Javari Valley in Brazil. It was an encounter that was to change his life, bringing the limits of human consciousness into startling focus. 

Simon McBurney traces McIntyre’s journey into the depths of the Amazon rainforest, incorporating innovative technology into his solo performance to build a shifting world of sound.

It’s this “shifting world of sound: that provides the illusion aspect of the evening.  Audience members are asked to wear headphones and McBurney uses multiple tricks and devices to create a truly three-dimensional picture of McIntyre’s extraordinary  – and true – Amazonian adventure.

When he encounters the more-or-less undiscovered Mayruna tribe in the depths of the jungle, McIntyre realises to his astonishment that at least one of the tribe – an elder he nicknames “Barnacle” – is communicating with him telepathically – the so-called “Amazon Beaming” that is the title of the book on which the play is based.  Subsequent research reveals that this “beaming” has been a long-standing, if little-understood, mystery.

TTWAHThere was another aspect of the drama, however, that caught my imagination, and that was the Mayruna’s concept of time.  In my research for Time Travelling With A Hamster, it became clear to me that our “Western” perception of linear time was not the only one.  Other cultures viewed time as more fluid, and often “circular”.  In the legends of Australian aborigines, this is called Dreamtime; ancient Hindu texts refer to a “wheel of time”.  The Mayruna, too, regard time as cyclical.  In The Encounter, the Mayruna are attempting, in effect to “time travel” back to pre-Columbian times to escape the encroaching modern world.

McBurney is superb in this show, which is bare theatre at its best.  The set is non-existent: a desk, some sound equipment, that’s it.  It’s a bit like watching a radio play, except it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good on the radio.

 

Blackadder Rides Again

May 24, 2016

It’s hard – and painful – to think that Blackadder Goes Forth first appeared on TV in 1989.  I know.  Twenty seven years ago.

And for 27 years, those of us who loved it have wanted it to come back.  We have lapped up rumours and weighed the options.  Could it be Blackadder in WW2?  (Nah, too much like Blackadder 4)  How about Blackadder in the swinging 60s? (I’d love to see that!)

Either way, it never happened, and the likelihood has retreated still further with the debut of Upstart Crow (BBC2). Ben Elton has sort of recreated Blackadder 2 (the Elizabethan one) but instead of Rowan Atkinson playing Blackadder we have David Mitchell, whom I usually find tiresome, playing William Shakespeare.

The similarities are endless, and tantalising.  I find it impossible to watch Upstart Crow without thinking that Atkinson would make a far better fist of playing Shakespeare, or that the part of Shakespere’s rival, Robert Greene must have been written for Stephen Fry.  The actor Mark Heap certainly seems like he has Fry’s booming, bombastic Lord Melchett in mind.

What was going on?  Did Elton write this, hoping that his pals Rowan and Stephen would agree to be in it?  Could the BBC not afford them?  Did they turn it down because it would inevitably be compared with Blackadder?

And what of Spencer Jones, playing Kempe, an actor in Shakespeare’s troupe?  Jones actually impersonates Ricky Gervais.  This is not a performance “inspired by” Gervais, it’s an outright impersonation: gestures, voice, physical tics: the full David Brent.  It is very odd, and – after a minute or so – not at all funny.  Why would an actor do that?  Why would a director encourage an actor to do that?  Why would a writer as powerful as Atkinson allow a director to encourage a actor to do that?  It’s mystifying.

Thankfully, the rest of the show much better.  In fact it could end up being very funny.  So far.  I’ve only seen episode 1.

Instead of comparing it favourably or unfavourably to Blackadder, perhaps we should just accept that this is how Ben Elton writes sitcoms, regardless of who’s in them.

UPDATE: I’ve watched episode 2 now.  I don’t think I’ll be hurrying to watch more.  It was the same jokes again, more or less.  Some very funny lines and Shakespearean in-jokes that we can congratulate ourselves for understanding, but I’m still wishing that Will Shakespeare was played by Rowan Atkinson.  I suppose if there’s nothing else on…

How I dodged a bullet in Chicago

May 16, 2016

I can summon hot waves of shame just thinking about it.  It could have been soooo embarrassing…

There I was in Chicago at Book Expo America.  I had been invited by my US publisher, Schwartz & Wade (Penguin Random House) to promote my children’s book, Time Travelling With A Hamster which had been selected as one of the titles to be given extra exposure through their “Book Buzz”.

I know: nice.  Thrilling, in fact.  And definitely NOT an opportunity to squander by making an absolute tit of oneself.

burlesque-dancing_2So I’m there on Friday night with all these lovely people from the publishing world, most of them women, as well as some other authors, and it’s after dinner, and I’m a dry Martini and half a bottle of wine bolder, and I think,”Wouldn’t it be great to go to a Magic Bar?”

You see, Chicago to magicians (both pros and amateurs like me) is like, I dunno, Wimbledon to tennis fanatics.  Sort of.  It’s just that for about thirty years from the 50’s, Chicago spawned a version of close-up magic done in bars: funny, fast-talking, often card-based.  It was an influential fad, it died out, but remnants of it linger and I thought it would be fun to see it.

No one else did.  And I thank God for that.

I turned up, Billy No-Mates, at one venue where magic still thrives: the aptly named Chicago Magic Bar.  I took my seat, and eagerly awaited a performance of mystifying and hilarious conjuring.

Instead, on came a dancer, most politely described as Rubenesque.  She took all her clothes off.

I’m no prude, but this isn’t what I had come to see.  Nor was the next very curvy stripper.  Or the next…

Turns out I had got the night wrong.  Fridays are “Burlesque Night” at the Chicago Magic Bar.

I had almost taken a bunch of people I had just met, and who could make or break my fledgling authorial career, to a strip show.

“Let’s talk about adverbs,” he said, swiftly

April 21, 2016

A couple of posts ago, I mentioned Stephen King’s splendid book On Writing, and referenced his personal ban – which I think he’d like extended – on adverbs.

“The adverb is not your friend” he said, adding, “the road to hell is paved with adverbs and I will shout it from the rooftops.”  Loudly, no doubt.

swiftI’ve since discovered (because I have never been aware of it) that my own writing does include adverbs.  Not that many, I don’t think, but too many to please Stephen King (for whom I have, lest it be doubted, the utmost respect).

King’s dislike of adverbs comes down to his dislike of sloppy writing; he thinks there is nearly always a better way of indicating how an action is being carried out, which is all that adverbs do.
But I’m not sure, now, that King isn’t overreacting somewhat.  Earlier today, I wrote, “He waved his fist limply.”  Realising I had transgressed the King’s Law, I reconsidered the sentence and realised that “limply” was exactly how the character had waved his fist and that the adverb would stand.  There are others that I found.  None offended me.

To further illustrate his point, King makes reference to the favourite old game of creating “Tom Swifties”, named after the adventure books by Victor Appleton.  Appleton was probably over-fond  of using adverbs to describe how someone said something, apparently terrified of using the word “said” on its own.

“Come here,” said Tom, gruffly.

That sort of thing.  It has given rise to endless joke variations.  There’s about a million on the web, but I’ll give you a handful of my favourites.

“It’s pretty windy today,” said Tom, breezily.

“I think someone’s turned the heating up,” said Tom, hotly.

“My bicycle wheel has broken,” Tom spoke out.

“I might as well be dead,” Tom croaked.

“I’ll have a martini,” said Tom, drily.

Years ago I lived in Sydney, Australia and the Sydney Morning Herald asked readers for suggestions.  I was thrilled when mine was printed.  Obviously I still remember it and relish the opportunity to boast about it at every chance:

“There’s just no atmosphere up here,” said Major Tom with an explanatory air.