Crazy week, crazy weekend. Five days of flower-show-porta-cabin-working-for-a-living culminating in two days of heavy-metal-electronica-noise-with-a-bit-of-folk-too-many hyphens-here; I feel strange. I'm also reading The White Tiger and feeling pretty unimpressed so far, but we'll see where it goes. I'm working again this week and then heading to Norfolk on a mini-retreat from Saturday to Tuesday with some delightful internet people, and I can't wait for that; I might even get some words on paper (read screen) on the hypothetical novel. The characters are starting to form anyway, so that's a start. But now I need to find clean clothes, and that's the hardest thing of all. While I do that, you guys wish Nik a happy birthday.

field report

Two more days and one more night away with work, and then I return for the Supersonic festival back in Brum. It's all action with me. I read Candide on Tuesday, and am kicking myself for not reading it sooner. So funny. I should catch up on more classics; I like this business of being pleasantly surprised. I get through so many books on these weeks away that the rest of the crew have taken to asking me at the start of each job if I've brought my library with me. My luggage must be considerably heavier than anyone else's, though some people were smart enough to bring a change of shoes. I'm just tramping around in the mud getting messier by the day. Reading fancy schmancy Voltaire. Back to it.

busy busy

Posting's been slack here. I thought I had a clear run at a lazy week, but I got unexpected work on Wednesday and Friday, went gallivanting about the country on Thursday, visited my partner's parents Saturday and went dog-walking and toddle-wrangling today, and tomorrow I'm off up North for five more days of porta-cabin fun courtesy of the on-again employer. Curses.

I got back this evening to an acceptance email from the Battered Suitcase - very pleased about that, so I'm going to eat some cake in a minute. I also read Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting over the weekend - it's brilliant, I adore it, it's perfectly constructed, and I'd love to chill with those characters. I'm sure you've read it already but if not, do! It's dead short, anyway, a total quickie. And now I'm in the middle of Caroline Smailes' In Search of Adam - misery central! What a voice she's got going on there - I'm impressed and jealous.

Yesterday we went on a day trip to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford - my saints, that place is fantastic. You could wander around for years peering at all sorts of oddities and curiosities. They've got shrunken heads. SHRUNKEN HEADS, PEOPLE! Saturdays don't get much better.

I'm wiped out.

July Pank

I haven't read all the stories in the new Pank yet, I just flicked to the familiar names, but I'll get to the rest very soon - big fan of Pank. If you've got five minutes, check out Joel Wilan's story, One Long Queue of Zeros - sharp!

I'm officially self-employed now, finally rang the tax office and set it up; celebrated by not getting dressed til 4pm. Work!

better late

I finally got around to buying a copy of 6s, Volume 2 a couple of weeks ago, and it was waiting for me when I got back from work on Friday. It's a fancy thing to see yourself in print. I've got two short pieces in there, and now I'm looking forward to wading through all the other contributions. Nice!

home again...

... after a week in a porta-cabin in Hampton Court Palace. Things learned this week: the RHS Rose of the Year is called Absolutely Fabulous, but bears no resemblance to Joanna Lumley; high-vis jackets are effective replacements for access-all-areas tickets, but Kingston-Upon-Thames doesn't have many places worth the effort of sporting said jacket all day; there are people out there bearing the noble surname 'Pustygina.' For serious.

Anyway, I got much reading done during the week, and much drinking, ate many a Kit-Kat and triangular sandwich, and wrote not a word. Today I've mostly eaten cake and ice-cream and popcorn, and weather-dependent, might head to the pub soon. It does feel like a well-deserved Saturday.

On the other hand, I just finished reading a book (The Right Hand of Sleep, by John Wray) that I picked up following some sort of online review, but I can't recall where the review was posted, and that's irritating, because I found the book very disappointing, and I'd like to reread that review. The novel is about the rise of Nazism in Austria, and it follows the experiences of an Austrian man who had deserted from WW1 and, hearing about the Bolsheviks, went to live in the Ukraine, spent years in a Soviet work-camp, and eventually returns to his hometown (near Villach) in 1938, following the death of his Ukrainian partner - his return coinciding with the annexation of Austria to Hitler's Germany. I've only just put it down, but it annoyed me, so here are my thoughts on the matter:

It's compelling material, and the book is certainly well-written, well-composed - each sentence is beautifully formed, the imagery is fantastic, the sense of place is powerfully evoked. The author's attention to detail is admirable, and he's got a great tactile sense. In many ways it's a resonant book, but only in so far as I can lift out sentences from the narrative and admire them in isolation. The problem I had was with the characters. It's not that they're one-dimensional stereotypes, they're all complex and laden with conflicts and guilt and confusions, but they're still essentially wooden. They read as if the writer was using them as vehicles to explore the nooks and crannies of political ambiguities and nuances, and while at one level there's nothing wrong with that (fiction can deconstruct politics til the cows come home), the characters need to be more than puppets for a critique of society. We have to believe in them as real people first and foremost before we can believe in or care about their politics. This is where the whole thing came crashing down for me. The entire book felt like an exercise on writing, on creating the perfectly formed scene and the admirable sentence, and what it lacked was life, energy, blood. The narration toggles between a third person voice and two different first person points of view, and not of the three came alive for me - the two first person accounts didn't even sound especially distinct, so why bother? Despite the horrible things that happened to these people, they just didn't seem like real individuals that I'd cry about or wonder about. So I found it a very sterile read.

On the back cover, the Literary Review says that 'the clarity of Wray's prose style both belies and reveals the depth and scope of his concerns.' Okay. But the 'clarity' of the prose also acted as a distancing mechanism for me. Form over function, I'd say; if you're hoping to highlight the horror of the personal experience in a time of political persecution, you want to get down to the nitty-gritty of the personal. You want to make me care about these people; not about your ability to perfectly describe a butterfly or the ripple of of light on the bed of a stream - however beautiful those images may be. Or, on the other hand, you maybe want to push the horror of the depersonalisation of the individual by showing the vast repetition and scale of the crimes, like I think Bolano was doing in the murders section of 2666, or Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago and others. But Wray's book is about a small group of individuals in a small town, so I've got to care about those individuals, or the message is lost. The war, the Holocaust was reprehensible for many reasons, but a huge one is the way that people were ripped of their individuality, their humanity, and objectified - so, for me, if you are to write about it, the humanity, the life of your characters is the most important element, the one that ought to be the focus of the work, the heart of it.

Anyone else read it? Agree or disagree? Regardless, though the man can surely write, I'm not very inclined to look up his other two books.

End rant. Dinner, I think.


I had a lovely email from the Foundling Review last Friday - they want to reprint a flash I wrote for 6S last year. Coolio! Thanks, Anupama. And that was a great way to defer the dreaded horrors of 29. Dear me. (My birthday also involved a Beatles tribute band- fantastic!)

I'm away all this week doing a bit of work for the off-again on-again day job - I've got unexpected wi-fi in the hotel but a distinct lack of time in which to utilize it, so there probably won't be any more posting from me here until the weekend or beyond.

Have a good week, peoples.

Helen deWitt

I just came across this article, written almost two years ago now, by Helen DeWitt, about her fight to retain control of the punctuation and typesetting of The Last Samurai. It sounds dizzying. I read that book years ago - found it at the bottom of a bargain bin in the basement of a bookshop, and I thought it was fantastic - very original, very absorbing - and definitely very idiosyncratic. And now I'm kind of fascinated by her doctoral thesis. Gotta let that one go.

I'm off to Liverpool in a few minutes for a day and a night, to check out Antony Gormley's Another Place, his statues at Crosby Beach - not a huge Gormley fan, but I think that particular project is outstanding - and to see the Colour exhibition at the Tate, and celebrate my 29th birthday tomorrow. I feel old and creaky.