News & Stuff #5

Hi there.

It’s been a bittersweet few days here in the eyrie.

First came the very welcome news that one of my stories was to be published in Gramarye, the journal of the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction. The Centre, based at the University of Chichester in West Sussex, is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in traditional (or not so traditional) storytelling in the SFF / magical realist / folklore-influenced mould (and all its various permutations), and since its founding in 2012 has held a number of conferences, talks and exhibitions on figures such as Mervyn Peake, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, Robert Heinlein, Arthur Rackham, Stephen King, Terry Pratchett and JRR Tolkien, as well as publishing Gramarye once or twice every year. I am delighted that my story, “The Broken Isles”, is appearing in Issue 15 of Gramarye, and if you would like to order a hard copy (ebook versions will be available later, I will post again when they are), you can do so here. Here is a link to the latest “Gossip & Tales”,  the Centre’s newsletter, which gives a flavour of what it’s all about:

Sadly, earlier this week came the news that Professor Bill Gray, the Centre’s founder, had died, and, although I hadn’t seen him in nearly 25 years, he had been a very kind and supportive tutor to me when I was a student of his back in the early Nineties. He was one of the world’s leading authorities on fairy tales and fantastic literature, and was folklore adviser on the 2012 film “Snow White and the Huntsman”, and I had always hoped I might meet him again some day. For me, to see some of my work published in the journal he set up makes me enormously proud, and I dedicate “The Broken Isles” to his memory, and I hope he would have enjoyed it.

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News & Stuff #4 – Tolkien, Narnia & “Alien”

Hello again.

Just a quick update, and some links that might interest you.

The final Glenaster book continues to tick along, and I am still aiming to have it ready by the end of this year – the final shape is all there, it’s just a question of steadily removing the scaffolding and (hopefully) unveiling the building beneath!

I think this post by Adam Roberts on The Lord of the Rings – in which he discusses the effect of the Great War on Tolkien’s writing, his attitude to memory, and the relationship between fantasy and modernism – is excellent, and I highly recommend it. Roberts also pops up in this article about Francis Spufford’s ‘new’ Narnia novel – genuinely exciting for fans of CS Lewis’s invented world, though, as the piece explains, it may never be published.

Ridley Scott’s evergreen classic Alien is forty years old this year, which seems difficult to believe – and it’s a movie which continues to provoke much discussion and controversy, as this article illustrates. Like all the best horror, it plays on some of our most primal fears, perhaps the greatest being our fear of the unknown, of what we can’t control or understand (or stop). Its feminist and Freudian themes have been examined in detail over the years, as has its bleak view of corporate capitalism (personified in the film by the chilling android, Ash, arguably the real villain of the piece), and it unnerves because it neatly identifies the limits of human wisdom, and of our inability to recognise those limits. That our reach often exceeds our grasp is what has led to so many of humanity’s greatest achievements – but, as the news every day reminds us, it is also what may prove our undoing. Scott himself has explored these questions in his more recent Alien prequels, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, but ultimately I felt those films were disappointing, weighed down by their own ponderousness – I will always prefer the brisker approach of the unimprovable original.

News & Stuff #3

Hi there.

It’s very windy here in London as I write this, and I hope it finds you all well.

I was away for a couple of days last week, but otherwise I’ve been working steadily on the latest Glenaster book, which – and I imagine this is true for any novel anyone’s ever tried to write – is proving trickier than I might have hoped, with knots to untangle in the plot, a whole new character having popped up to resolve one of said knots (a really promising character, one who is going to play a vital part in the story’s denouement), the motivations of several other characters to be ironed out, and just generally trying to tie up all the loose ends, especially as this is the last book of the series.

Forgive me if I’m a bit chary of saying too much else at this point, but describing the writing process can be tricky at the best of times, and I’m also extremely superstitious about talking about work in progress, lest I talk it into the bin. But the editing / revising is ticking on nicely, and I will keep you regularly updated on how it’s going.

Otherwise I’m really enjoying Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, and so far I like the way he approaches the imagined emotional and psychological burden of living for a really, really long time. As a writer he has a deceptively light touch, and he keeps everything (just) the right side of sentimental.

I’ve also been reading Dreams Must Explain Themselves, an excellent, career-spanning collection of essays, reviews and talks by the late Ursula K. Le Guin, probably my greatest literary hero. She talks in one of these pieces about the difference between fantasy (the genre she predominantly worked in) and “realistic” fiction:

“The lifeways, the language, the morals and mores, the unspoken assumptions, all the details of ordinary life that are the substance and strength of realistic fiction, may be obscure, uninterpretable to the reader of another time and place. So writers who want their story to be understood not only by their contemporary compatriots but also by people of other lands and times, may seek a way of telling it that is more universally comprehensible; and fantasy is such a way.”

This lovely piece by Yassmin Abdel-Magied illustrates well, I think, what Le Guin is talking about, and why fantasy matters – “to think beyond the world I lived in”.

I also love this observation, also by Le Guin, on what the writing process can sometimes feel like, and here I will end this week’s update:

“The Writer is liable to feel like a little, tiny person all alone in a desert where the sand is words.”

Mark Hollis – The Search is Enough

 

I rarely post about music on this blog, which seems odd given the important part it has played in my life for the past 35 years. By now I must have spent weeks, if not months, of my life, listening to music, either with friends or alone, and, as I grew up a long way from the nearest big city, my friends and I rarely got to see our favourite bands play live, so we would gather at each other’s houses to listen to something new, something that one of us had found and just had to share with the others, and our shared love of music probably bound us together more tightly than anything else, and still does.

And for me, there are a handful of artists whose music has been integral to my life, that I simply can’t imagine being without. And one of these, perhaps the greatest, has to be Mark Hollis, who sadly died on Monday at the relatively young age of 64.

The news of Hollis’s death, filtering out over social media and confirmed on Tuesday morning by Keith Aspden, his former manager, hit me, as I know it did many others, hard. I like to think I’m pretty thick-skinned, and the death of people I never knew doesn’t usually affect me deeply; but this particular loss I really felt, because Hollis’s music had soundtracked my life since my teens, when I first started listening properly to his old band, Talk Talk, in the early Nineties.

Hollis founded Talk Talk in London in the early Eighties, and in the beginning their record company tried to present them as another Duran Duran. And indeed their first album, The Party’s Over, is perfectly good, New Romantic synthpop, an enjoyable listen, but nothing special. It was with It’s My Life, their second album, that Hollis began his fruitful partnership with Tim Friese-Greene, the band’s producer and unofficial fourth member (along with highly talented rhythm section Paul Webb and Lee Harris), as the songs became slower, the lyrics more reflective, and Talk Talk began their journey from mainstream Eighties pop to something else entirely.

It’s My Life isn’t a masterpiece, but contains some beautiful songs, not least the title track, with its graceful bass line, which became a big hit in the US, and has a memorable video (which their record company apparently hated):

But it was with 1986’s The Colour of Spring that the music really matured, with a deep, expansive sound that produced hit singles – “Life’s What You Make It”, “Give It Up” – and two pieces, “April 5th” and “Chameleon Day”, that, in retrospect, plotted the way forward. But though the music could be sombre, even dark, it was never bleak, and the engaging videos they made with Tim Pope (who also directed some great videos for The Cure during the same period) brought out the band’s visual and playful side (also reflected in the gorgeous sleeves painted for them by the illustrator James Marsh), and I especially like the video for “Life’s What You Make It”, filmed at night on Wimbledon Common:

The success of The Colour of Spring led their record company, EMI, to give Talk Talk carte blanche (and a huge budget) for the next record, something they would later regret when the ensuing album, Spirit of Eden, endured a long gestation – months and months of improvised work in a darkened studio – and yielded no hit singles, and Hollis refused to play live anymore, weary of being away from friends and family, and of the painful logistics of touring. Spirit of Eden was critically acclaimed in many quarters, but didn’t sell in huge quantities, and EMI released a “best of” compilation in 1990 – which did sell – followed by an album of remixes, which led the band to successfully sue for using their material without permission (the remix album was subsequently deleted).

The “band”, by this point, was basically Mark Hollis – Paul Webb left after Spirit of Eden, apparently worn out from the long and stressful recording process, and, though Lee Harris remained for the next album, 1991’s Laughing Stock, Hollis and Friese-Greene were now in charge.

Laughing Stock delved further into Hollis’s musical and spiritual obsessions, and, like its predecessor, is now considered a classic of what has become known as “post-rock” – music that skims the boundaries of jazz, ambient, electronica and goodness knows what else to create a sound that, on these two albums and on Hollis’s self-titled solo album from 1998, invites the listener in and holds them up even as they travel downwards into darkness. These albums are strange, puzzling, occasionally noisy but always exquisitely beautiful, transcending not just genre but also the frightening constrictions of everyday life, to present the possibilities of a world renewed.

For the past twenty years Hollis had remained silent, bar the (very) occasional guest spot on one or two left-field musical projects. “I choose for family” he had said, and the commercial success Talk Talk had enjoyed with their early work meant he had the freedom to walk away from music and stardom. In the meantime, scores of bands, from Elbow to Shearwater to Grandaddy, have acknowledged his influence. Yet Hollis remains unique, that extraordinary voice unmistakable, and, though it was so long since he had recorded any significant new music, many fans hoped he might do, one day, and it was reassuring to us, just knowing he was still around.

Now he has gone, and, like so many others, I can’t help feeling bereft, that I’ve in some way lost a friend, however strange that might be to say of someone you never met. But his music was part of the warp and weft of my teenage and adult life, and will remain so, for it expresses, far better than I ever could, the desire for meaning – always searching, always questing, yearning for something else, something that you know is there, but is always, tantalisingly, just out of reach.

News & Stuff #2

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Hi there.

Just returned from a few days back home in Somerset, where I saw some old friends and took some long walks and generally had a fine old time. This is a landscape I have known all my life, and it continues to influence my writing, including the Glenaster Chronicles.

I’ve enclosed a few photos here, and also I thought you might be interested in this piece from the Guardian on some of the latest SFF coming out.

Bye for now.

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News & Stuff

Hi there.

I thought I’d try and keep you more regularly informed about what I’m up to, so, in that spirit, here is a little bit on what I’ve been doing so far this year –

I’m well into editing the third (and final) part of the Glenaster Chronicles, and I’m happy to say that so far – touch wood – it’s coming along nicely. Several major characters (including one very major character) reappear, and there are also some new ones, whom I hope readers will enjoy. An entire new region of the empire is explored, as well as parts of Ampar we haven’t been to yet, and some unanswered questions are answered. There’s also a section set at sea, on board ship, which is a first for me, and something I really enjoyed writing. I will keep you posted on my progress.

Otherwise, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and particularly enjoyed a couple of Adam Roberts books I have read – Yellow Blue Tibia and The Thing Itself.

Both examine the question of alien contact, and both have similarly jaded and ageing protagonists. The first is narrated by Konstantin Skvorecky, who as a young science-fiction writer in post-War Russia is recruited, along with several colleagues, by Stalin himself to concoct a fake alien invasion story that can unite the Soviet peoples. A few weeks later, they are told to stop working and forget all about it, on pain of death. But forty years on, Skvorecky encounters one of the other writers, who claims that everything they wrote about is now coming true… It’s a great premise for a novel, and I enjoyed it immensely, playing as it does with how and if aliens might make contact, wrapped in a genuinely exciting, and often very funny, thriller plot (Skvorecky has to go on the run from the KGB, and becomes mixed up with Scientologists).

Though I enjoyed The Thing Itself slightly less, it’s still great fun. In the Eighties, two men, Charles Garner (the main narrator) and Roy Curtius spend months together at a research station in Antarctica, where something goes horribly wrong and one of them tries to murder the other. In the present day, Roy is in a high-security psychiatric hospital and Charles’s once-promising academic career has hit the skids so badly he’s become a binman. But then he receives an invitation from a secretive organisation called the Institute, an invitation he can’t really turn down…

The story is told in a fractured style that leaps between genres and historical periods, and draws in Immanuel Kant and teleportation. It shouldn’t work and yet it does, and Roberts has great fun keeping all the plates spinning. All I can say is, give it a try.

Roberts teaches Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London, and has a great blog which I would heartily recommend, even if some (OK, I’ll be honest, quite a lot) of it goes right over my head!

I’ve just started reading How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig, so please, don’t anyone tell me what happens. Slow reader that I am, I hope to at least finish it before the Benedict Cumberbatch movie comes out…

OK, that’s it for now. In the course of my research I often chance upon fascinating facts and trivia of various kinds, which often bear only a tangential relationship to whatever it is that I’m writing. But some of them may interest you. So here’s a nice little piece, by Elizabeth Morrison, on the medieval bestiary. I especially like the mythical bonnacon, which defended itself by “…spraying fiery dung across a three-acre area”!

Take care, and have fun.

Harley MS 4751, f. 11r detailA bonnacon, spraying fiery dung (British Library).

God Jul! Or, Norway & nostalgia

Hello again.

So, whatever your feelings about, you know, let’s say it, it’s Advent now so I think we can, CHRISTMAS, which for all its attendant commercial falderol is still an important, some might say vital, break that makes the long cold winter (or long scorching summer, if you’re in the southern hemisphere) bearable, and also provides plenty of fodder for folklore-themed blogs like this one to riff on old and new traditions, and muse on popular culture more generally – if you live in the Western world at least, Christmas, whatever you think of it, cannot be ignored, and as well as highlighting or underscoring our good / bad relations with friends and family, is also a handy barometer of how a society more broadly sees itself, and what it chooses to prioritise.

So – does Christmas make you feel nostalgic?

I ask because it does for me – up to a point – but I wanted to interrogate why this was. I’d be lying if I said Christmas was as important or special to me as it was when I was younger, and losing my father earlier this year has brought into stark relief just how much I have lost, including a sense of Christmas being a reassuring, comfortable time. As I have for the last few years, since my father first became ill, I will spend it with friends who are as close to me as family, and it will no doubt be a pleasant and even joyful occasion, and I am lucky to have such friends, as many people don’t; but there is no escaping the empty feeling sometimes of going through the motions, as if Christmas now is only an echo of what it was then, when I was younger, like mulled wine that has lost its warmth.

Of course, nostalgia plays its old tricks, smoothing out the wrinkles of the past, and I’m sure that, especially when I was a young child, there were plenty of Christmases where I overdosed on chocolate and excitement, and there were tears before bedtime. But we all want, I suppose, especially at Christmastime,  to feel safe, and loved, and reassured – and these things cannot be manufactured, or bought.

Back in early November, I spent a few days in Norway, and it was nice to be out of Britain, with its Brexit-related neuroses, if only for a short while, and to be a stranger, travelling from place to place, in a friendly country, like my own but also subtly different, letting some things go, and bringing others into focus.

I wandered the streets of Oslo and Bergen, big cities by Norwegian standards, but having more of the feel of large towns, and I took a trip down the fjords, which were every bit as beautiful as I’d hoped, and everywhere I went was fairly quiet, as it was out of season, but I kind of prefer it that way as I’m not a fan of crowds. From the top of Fløyen, one of the hills surrounding Bergen (with its own funicular railway – definitely a highlight if you ever visit), I looked out over the city, and wandered some of the hiking trails, and ate some Kvikk Lunsj  (the Norwegian version of Kit Kat, only nicer, and with thicker chocolate – apparently in Norway they usually have one, along with an orange, as part of a packed lunch when they’re in the great outdoors), and felt cheerful despite the drizzly weather. Back in London, I visited the various Scandinavian Christmas markets, drank glögg (mulled wine), and bought some Christmas presents. I’m told that in Norway the shops are closed for much longer over Christmastide than they are here in Britain (where the sales start first thing on Boxing Day), as it’s seen as a time for friends and family more than shopping, and I think they’ve definitely got their priorities right there. But wherever you are, it’s important, I believe, to find something at this time of year that has meaning and resonance for you, whatever that may be, and to be thankful for what you have. I hope to post at some stage about my love of the North – as a native of northern Europe – and about Norse mythology especially. But for now, a very Happy Christmas – or God Jul, as they say in Norway – and normal service will be resumed in the New Year. In the meantime, here are some photos from my recent Norway trip –