Bloody Good Reads: The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81

When I was in my twenties, I spent a considerable amount of time jumping up and down in fairly mindless fashion to the excitable rock-and-roll stylings of a beat combo with the tireless moniker Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine (or, for the purposes of the BBC censor, Carter USM).

There was no other band quite like Carter. There were only two of them, for a start: a fellow in shorts and a baseball cap who played the guitar and was called Fruitbat, and another fellow called Jim-Bob who also played the guitar and sang.

They were backed by a fearsome wall of synths and drums, and came along at the same time (at least, in my memory) as a bunch of other bands who seemed to make one want to jump up and down a lot in old baseball boots, with one’s hat on backwards and cheap lager sloshing around in one’s belly. They were huge, massive, relentless FUN.

What made them different to those other bands, though, was the content of their songs. E.M.F sang in abstract terms about someone being unbelievable, Jesus Jones had some hand-wavy hippy nonsense about how great it was to be alive right now. Carter (lyricist: Jim-Bob) sang about an altogether more down-to-earth bunch of gypsies, travellers, thieves, grebes, crusties and goths – a list which I have mercilessly stolen from Carter’s own song, The Only Living Boy In New Cross.

Jim-Bob’s lyrics were filled with pop-culture references – The Only Living Boy In New Cross features, among others, David Frost, Evita, Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. There were puns – the Evita  reference is ‘fill another suitcase with another haul’, which in a song about life at the bottom end of the heap is fabulously on it – and there was a good deal of anger about the state of post-Thatcherite Britain and its dreary selfishness. Perhaps their most famous song, Sheriff Fatman, is an early one from 1989, which rails at slum landlords, including Rachman and, in Jim-Bob’s own deathless adaptation, ‘Nicholas van Whatsisface’.

Oh, and they headlined Glastonbury.

But I come here not to praise Carter USM, but to bury them. Their last ever gig will be this November (and I can’t go, chizz chizz chizz), and these days Jim-Bob is a solo recording artist. His last album, What I Think About When I Think Of You, is fantastic and I commend it to you.

So Jim-Bob hasn’t gone. But he has begun to change, like Seth Brundle in The Fly, into an altogether more disturbing creature: a novelist.

There have been two novels under Jim-Bob’s name already: Storage Stories and Driving Jarvis Ham. I commend them both to you. His third, though, is under a new name: J.B. Morrison. I don’t know why he changed it. Perhaps it’s considered more grown-up. But I’m delighted to say the novel, The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick Age 81, is full of everything that I loved about Carter and everything I love about Jim-Bob, but without the wall of synths and the beer in the belly. It’s a charming story, beautifully told, about an 81-year-old man living on his own and the relationship he develops with the woman who comes to care for him for an hour a week.


I couldn’t help feeling some sadness reading this; my dad died in 2008, and he’d be touching on the same age as Frank Derrick by now. And Frank’s story does have its sad moments and its tiny tragedies. But Frank’s brain is as sharp as those old Carter lyrics – as sardonic and bitter but also as witty and affectionate. His hair is too long, and his best mate is an ex-punk called Smelly John. He loves films and had once planned to build a cinema in his shed. His wife Sheila died years ago, lost to dementia – and Jim-Bob/Morrison’s use of sea-swimming as a metaphor for the loss of Sheila’s mind is as fine and terrible a piece of writing as I’ve read this year.

The novel rescues the elderly for us, paints them as just older versions of ourselves, with the same anchors in shared popular culture and the same wish to be interested, involved, inspired. There are no easy answers in Frank’s life, and the novel doesn’t pretend there are. At one point, I thought the novel was going to settle for a bleakly obvious ending, and it does toy with us as if it might. But it doesn’t. It carries on – Frank carries on – with warmth and acceptance and, ultimately, love. It made me realise, actually, that love was what Carter were on about, a lot of the time, too.

I put it down, and I phoned my Mum.



Bertrand Russell on the pre-Socratics

I’m reading Bertrand Russell’s mammoth History of Western Philosophy, and just read these two gems on the pre-Socratics, for whom the old fellow had a very soft spot indeed.

‘The atomists, unlike Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, sought to explain the world without introducing the notion of purpose or final cause. The ‘final cause’ of an occurrence is an event in the future for the sake of which the occurrence takes place. In human affairs, this conception is applicable. Why does the baker make bread? Because people will be hungry. Why are railways built? Because people will wish to travel. In such cases, things are explained by the purpose they serve. When we ask ‘Why?’ concerning an event, we may mean either of two things. We may mean: ‘What purpose did this event serve?’ or we may mean: ‘What earlier circumstances caused this event?’ The answer to the former question is a teleological explanation, or an explanation by final causes; the answer to the latter question is a mechanistic explanation. I do not see how it could have been known in advance which of these two questions science ought to ask, or whether it ought to ask both. But experience has shown that the mechanistic question leads to scientific knowledge, while the teleological question does not. The atomists asked the mechanistic question, and gave a mechanistic answer. Their successors, until the Renaissance, were more interested in the teleological question, and thus led science up a blind alley.’

‘What is amiss, even in the best philosophy after Democritus, is an undue emphasis on man as compared with the universe. First comes scepticism, with the Sophists, leading to a study of how we know rather than to the attempt to acquire fresh knowledge. Then comes, with Socrates, the emphasis on ethics; with Plato, the rejection of the world of sense in favour of the self-created world of pure thought; with Aristotle, the belief in purpose as the fundamental concept in science. In spite of the genius of Plato and Aristotle, their thought has vices which proved infinitely harmful. After their time, there was a decay of vigour, and a gradual recrudescence of popular superstition. A partially new outlook arose as a result of Catholic orthodoxy; but it was not until the Renaissance that philosophy regained the vigour and independence that characterise the predecessors of Socrates.’


Bloody Goodreads: Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo


My good friend Jon introduced me to this book, via my wife – in as much as she swiped it off me when I first bought it, read the first 50 pages and discarded it, saying it wasn’t her thing at all.

This surprised me, because I think it’s a wonderful book – a very, deeply French Raymond Chandler, with jazz and pastis instead of big bands and hooch.

It’s set in Marseilles in the 90s (I think), a racial melting pot filled with resentment, racism and rancour. A local detective investigates the deaths of two of his oldest friends, 20 years apart, and finds himself elbow-deep in conspiracy, gangs and organised crime.

Izzo writes beautifully, and his main guy, Fabio Montale, is a fabulous creation, a recognisably tragic figure who loves women and honour and booze and food and is doomed to destroy himself with his appetite for life. Montale very much reminded me of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux , and I can think of no higher praise than that.

There’s two more books in the series, and I’m definitely going to read them both.


Goodreads | Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists.

London, UKIP and English freedom

A week or so ago, UKIP super-chump Nigel Farage raised eyebrows (in some places) and glasses (in other places) with his observation that he’d sat on a train leaving London for Kent and had not heard a single person speaking English until he was well clear of the metropolis. This was intended as an illustration of how terrible things are, how the English lost England, and how UKIP are the only ones telling it like it is.

Now, apart from the fact that Nige’s story is almost certainly just that – a story – it did serve to illustrate a new and rather wonderful fact about modern England, and it’s this: you can choose the environment you want to live in (as long as you can afford to live anywhere, that is). Want an all-Caucasian English-speaking village? We’ve got lots of those. Want a semi-urban environment with religious facilities with a distinctly South Asian feel? We’ve got those. Want a deserted windswept wilderness? Yep, go ahead.

And want a multicultural metropolis where English is the lingua franca but not the monoglot essential? Yes, we’ve got a few of those, too.

What Nigel doesn’t understand is the essential freedom that England now offers us. I well remember a receptionist I once worked with telling me she was moving out of Morden and into Surrey. When I asked her why, she said, without a trace of shame: “Too many blacks.” Shocking, yes. But she had somewhere to go to rehouse her appalling racism. She could go and live with other racists (and UKIP councillors, eh, Nige?), somewhere green and pleasant and suited to her own tastes.

That’s what’s great about England. I live in London precisely because of the reasons Nige gave for not living here. There’s room for us both. And if Nige or any of his ilk move into my street, I’ll sell up and move somewhere else. Because with that lot moving in, before you know it the whole place will be crawling with them.

Death of the book trade: more anecdotes released

Throw a paperback at a room full of writers, and chances are that it’ll hit someone with a grievance. Writing is a lonely trade, and success – the genuine life-changing success which follows a major literary hit – is astonishingly rare, not least because so very many books are published these days. There were more than 170,000 new titles in 2012, up almost 20,000 in three years. How many of these were hits? And what’s a hit anyway?

I’ve never encountered an industry as subjective as book publishing; we who work in it, and particularly we who write books, are dangerously prone to the fallacy that because we have observed something, it must be both true and a signifier of something wider. Because isn’t that what we try to do with our books – speak some larger truth, comment on some aspect of society, make the story resonate beyond the page? But when we write an opinion piece based on those beliefs, things come dangerously unstuck.

To quote the old saw: the plural of anecdote is not data.

Take Robert McCrum in the Observer today: he has written a piece with the provocative title ‘From bestseller to bust: is this the end of an author’s life’, which  caused me to fear it was going to be about the suicide of a scribbler. But no, it’s about how certain authors are struggling to make ends meet. Three authors are cited, two others (Paul Bailey and Hanif Kureishi) are yanked out of the cuttings file, and the general tone of the piece can be summed up by this paragraph:

To writers of my generation, who grew up in the age of Penguin books, vinyl records and the BBC, it’s as if a cultural ecology has been wiped out. For as long as most of us can remember, every would-be writer knew the landscape of the printed word. This Georgian square was home to publishing grandees (now retired). On that high street were the booksellers (now out of business). In those twisting back streets, you could expect to find literary agents working the margins with the injured innocence of pickpockets at a synod. It was a mutually dependent ecosystem.

Publishers were toffs, booksellers trade and printers the artisan champions of liberty. Like the class system, we thought, nothing would change. The most urgent deadline was lunch. How wrong we were. The years 2007-2010 are pivotal: first, as Thomson has described, came the credit crunch. And it occurred at the very moment that the IT revolution was wrecking the livelihoods of those creative classes – film-makers, musicians and writers of all sorts – who had previously lived on their copyrights.

This is asserted, without any supporting evidence or data. It is just fact. Computers killed books. We’re all going to hell in a handcart. But on this specific point – that technology is killing content because of piracy – McCrum is, at least when it comes to the UK book trade, just wrong. I looked at the numbers, and I wrote about it in the Literary Review. Here’s the piece, and here’s the Ofcom report that highlights the minuscule amount of book piracy in the UK.

Now, we might be hell-bound. But at least let’s be hell-bound with the facts straight. At least let’s point out that more books are being published than ever before, that just as many if not more are being bought (don’t believe me? Check the Publishers’ Association figures – they’ve got charts and everything). Let’s be honest that writing is and always has been a precarious business, that making money from it has always forced writers into queasy compromises with themselves and their art. Glen Duncan wrote a whole host of brilliant and critically-acclaimed books that didn’t sell particularly well. He decided to do something about it, and wrote something that did. What specifically is wrong with that?

I look around me at the writers who had their first books come out around the same time as mine. Some have been successful, others less so. Broadly, they’re being supported by their publishers (thus giving the lie to the old ‘publishers don’t support new talent’ canard). They’re all having to look at their bottom lines, calculate affordability, wonder where the next cheque is coming from. That’s freelance work, friends, and it always has been. So my anecdotes are entirely different to McCrum’s anecdotes. Who is right?

There was another (infinitely less egregious) example of this in the Telegraph, in which Jamie Fewery, a publishing fellow who knows of what he speaks, wrote that there was a crisis in reading amongst young men. It was actually an interesting piece, but it opened with the following thunderous bellow of subjectivity:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that men read fewer novels than women.
Or, at least, that’s my experience, based on over ten years of working in the book industry.

Yes, Fewery’s experience is valid (and it’s a lot more trustworthy than McCrum’s misty reminiscing). And this was, after all, a comment piece, not a piece of data journalism. But Fewery’s central point – that there was once a category of books one could broadly define as commercial fiction for men, or chaplit (my horrific neologism, not Fewery’s) – is surely provable with data. Can’t we show how Tony Parsons’ books are selling?

And as for the assertion that ‘young men are reading fewer novels than they used to’, that, surely, is also demonstrable. It may even be true, though if one were to say that one should also point out that young men are probably reading more than ever, it’s just the format that has changed, from novels to games and social media.

But that isn’t the point I’m trying to make. The point I’m trying to make is that we should not continually play The Last Post over book publishing, particularly those of us who make their living out of it (such as Sunday newspaper literary editors). Being able to write books for even a semi-living is a privilege, not a burden. And finally, our individual stories of failure or non-success should not lead us to state, categorically, that everything is failing. We all of us sit on the precipice of obscurity and disappointment and the great majority of us, sadly, fall in.



Where does it all come from?

I’m just back from a session at the marvellous Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (disclaimer: my better half is chief executive) to see a truly fantastic talk by David Almond. The audience were primary school teachers (and me), and David gave us an insight into how he writes books that was at once modest and genuinely inspiring.

‘I’m going to give you a word,’ he said. ‘A four-letter word. When I tell you the word, you have to keep it in your head, but it can only be the WORD. The letters of the word. It can’t be anything else. Just that single word. Ready? Here it is. T-E-N-T.’

The point being, of course, that you can’t. Those four letters become so much more than a word – they become sights and smells and pictures and memories and sounds and everything you’ve ever thought or that ever happened to you that involved a tent.

And that was the theme of the talk: how our minds are vehicles for imagination and creativity, two words which, David said, he was scared of as a child, because they seemed to sonorous and difficult. I still remember my granny saying to me the morning after one of my regular nightmares ‘you have them because you’ve a strong imagination,’ so that imagination became a condition, like asthma or myopia, that made your life more difficult.

David Almond is one of those people who’s not afraid to talk about the magical side of writing, the spark of inspiration – catch his anecdote about when and where the first line of Skellig came to him, and I defy you not to shiver. I’m emotionally hardwired to be sceptical about this stuff, to poo-poo those writers who talk about the mystical side of creativity. But I’m wrong. It’s right to talk about that stuff, because sometimes what we do as writers does feel magical, or at least inexplicable. This morning I wrote two chapters, one after the other. One was great, the other so-so. I have no idea why.

But then, as a counter-balance and a mild name-drop, I did get the chance to chat briefly with David before his talk. What did we chat about? Freedom, the software which allows you to turn off the Internet on the machine you’re working on to allow you to write. So yes, even magicians like David Almond need the right environment.

One other Almond anecdote – when he writes, he writes in Page View, with the numbers of the pages and the title of the book at the top of each page, so he can see the book physically coming to life as he goes. I think that’s brilliant.

A fantastic writer and a wonderful fellow. He signed a book for me, too.

Character Equity and Ripper Street

A quick post while the tea brews….

It’s excellent, really excellent, that more episodes of Ripper Street will be made, thanks to the intervention of Amazon. The deal, according to Variety, involves Amazon part-funding new episodes in return for rights to both of the first two series, and first-broadcast rights in the UK, a few months after which the BBC will screen them. No news yet on how many episodes, or when, or the window between Amazon’s screening and the BBC’s. But this is good news – as I wrote here, I thought Ripper Street was a really excellent and lively addition to the BBC schedules, and I was appalled when it was canned.

jerome flynn ripper streetBut let’s be clear about something: Amazon’s been quite clever here. Because it hasn’t just bought a programme brand, an onscreen look-and-feel, a high-class cast and a high-quality writing team. It’s bought a set of characters. Those characters have been etched out, with growing clarity and assurance by actors, writers and directors alike, over two series. They’re now worth actual cash money.

When television drama is done right and done well, this equity investment in characters pays growing dividends (at least, it does until it doesn’t). Which is why it was so bloody scandalous of the BBC to drop the show in the first place. Yes, audiences could have been higher (so why change the broadcast night and schedule it against more popular fare on the other side?). Yes, it must have been an expensive show to make (so why change the…. oh, you get the idea). But the hard work had already been done. Reid and Jackson and Drake and the rest had had come alive. We cared about them. And that, more than anything, is I think why Amazon have come in on this.

ripper_streetBecause characters have value. Characters pull in audiences. Look at Breaking Bad, which I am so nearly at the end of (five episodes to go) that I can barely stop thinking about it enough to write the book I’m supposed to be working on. Those characters were built, knocked down, re-established and refined over five series, until I’m not sure whether Walt is evil or Jesse is good or Skyler is sly, just in the same way I’m not sure about real people. It’s the power of serial television (and, ahem, serial books). And it’s characters that drive it.

So back to my own serial. For which this has been a very, very discreet form of advertising.

Bloody Good Reads: The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris

Look, I’m going to name-drop now. Deal with it.

I bought Joanne Harris’s latest book, The Gospel of Loki, at its launch. Joanne signed it for me (look, Joanne signed my book!). Joanne also gave me some blurb for my second book, and was one of the judges when I won Literary Death Match.

Yes, look at me, I am awesome. I know Joanne Harris, and I’m hugely grateful to her as a new author who’s received her prestigious support.

gospeloflokiSo take what comes next with as much salt as you want, but The Gospel of Loki is magnificent. Take the darkly rich Norse mythology of Odin and Asgard, and transmit it through the amoral, witty and restless voice of Loki, birthed in and birther of chaos. What you get is a series of Tales and Trickery, by the end of which you are at home with some of the weirdest and imaginative beings which ever sprang from human hearts trying to explain what was outside in the Dark.

The book it reminded me of most was Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, not because of any essential similarity in the telling, but because in both a writer with a singular voice and attitude brings alive a world with such energy and assurance that you wonder how these myths were ever told without that voice. It took the endless Northern nights of telling and drinking to give birth to Loki; it took Joanne Harris to rescue the trickster from Marvel Comics and make him speak again. First class stuff.

The Count, Murray and some other guy

Because I’m a sucker for anything featuring the Count.

Benedict Cumberbatch and the Sign of Four (or is it Three?) – YouTube.

Seeing through Theo Decker’s eyes

Imagine that you could live inside another person’s mind for a week or two. See the world through their eyes, experience their sensations, their fears and their ecstasies.

Imagine that the person whose head you were temporarily residing in was a person of exquisite and detailed responses to the world, whose mind combined erudite knowledge with a refined sense of beauty and craft, such that the world’s surfaces were livid and constantly interesting.

Imagine that this mind was also fractured somehow, traumatised, living with the experience of a horror so deep, just because the mind that experienced the horror is so capable of perception.

Imagine that the dreams and nightmares of this person became, over the weeks of living in their head, so much a part of you that some nights you weren’t sure if you were being kept awake by your own cares, or theirs.

Imagine that you could see the point at which this experience would end, that it was manifest in a thinning number of pages in your right hand, and then one night it just…. stopped.

Imagine that.

To try to make some meaning out of all this seems unbelievably quaint. Maybe I’ve only seen a pattern because I’ve been staring too long. But then again, to paraphrase Boris, maybe I see a pattern because it’s there.