Saturday, September 30, 2006

A Cure for Tardiness

The last day of September - now where did that month go?

Yesterday I realised something - I have a big problem with time. It has an infuriating habit of just running through my fingers. For instance yesterday I was supposed to be picking up a friend from her house across the city at quarter to twelve. I knew that, I had it in mind. I remember telling myself it was time to get ready at 11am and made a few attempts to move in that direction...but the next thing I knew it was 11.39, my hair was still dripping wet and I was just surfacing from wondering about the spot on the back of a caterpiller I had found on SNAILS TALES.

The friend and I discussed my problem after I had arrived at her house with my hair still wet and my shoes still undone (I also realised later that I had been in such a frantic rush to get into the car that most of my skirt had been caught in door and had been billowing out in the rain - which may explain the honking of a couple of cars that overtook me). Looking back at my life my sense of time has always been deficient. When I was a teacher I would frequently be startled by the the end-of-lesson bell and we'd have to rush to finish; burning vegetables is something I do so frequently that we have had to disconnect the smoke alarm just outside the kitchen; and I have been so late for talks and aerobics sessions that sometimes it has nt been worth going at all. My friend says she has never any problem with this - in fact she is one of those people who can guess the time even when she wakes in the middle of the night. Hodmandod Senior can do this too. He quite often guesses the time to the nearest minute - which I find amazingly impressive because I usually have no idea whatever.

Now I am just wondering if this innate ability to know the time has ever been investigated by psychologists or biologists. Perhaps it is connected with melatonin levels or whatever it is that controls our circadian rhthym. Whatever it is I would love to know there is something I can do to improve - rather than check the clock more assiduously than I do already.

Another alternative, I guess, would be to buy one of these dogs featured on Newsbiscuit. I have been following this site ever since it started a couple of weeks ago - and generally find something to keep me sniggering until lunch every time I visit.

Other sites I have noticed are Science Book Blog (because the author, Jon Turney, was kind enough to mention one of my books - having reviewed it in the Independent when it came out three years ago). From this I came across ABSW (Association of British Science Writers) which looks like it might be worth a regular visit. The main author, Michael Kenward, used to be editor of the New Scientist for many years.

Moving on from this I see that L Lee Lowe has managed to post the next chapter of her YA novel MORTAL GHOST despite temporarily relocating to Florida (I think this novel is getting more and more involving and intriguing each time I read), Pete Wild has started serialising his novel ESPIONAGE on Dogmatika (it uses the metaphor of a jigsaw to great effect), and Adrian Benson, a member of Chester Writers, has started a blog of his stories on SOMEWHEN ELSE. I have known Adrian's writing for about fifteen years. It is always wonderfully moody, enigmatic and evocative so I am very pleased to see it published here so I can dip in whenever I feel like it.

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Chester Literature Festival

Next week is the start of the Chester Literature Festival. Looking at the programme the planning committee and the administrator Katharine Seddon must have worked hard to build such an impressive programme. There is something on virtually every day with very few clashes, which is quite an accomplishment.

The events I have booked to see are:
Tuesday 3rd October: the poet UA Fanthorpe reading her work.
Wednesday 11th October: the geneticist Steve Jones tells us 'Why evolution is right and creationism is wrong.'
Thursday 12th October: Chester Poets read their work with guest poet Cliff Yates.
Friday 13th October: Joan Bakewell contemplates aging in her new book The View From Here.
Tuesday 17th October: George Bonbiot considers new politics to stop the planet burning.
Wednesday 18th October: the amazing writer Professor David Crystal considers 'Language and the Internet'
Wednesday 25th October: Patricia Duncker presents the Cheshire Prize for Literature awards and will offer observations on the pleasures and pains of writing.

And finally on Friday 27th October George Alagiah (who I worked with to produce an alternative prospectus when I was a fresher at the University of Durham - an event I recall with great clarity but which he sadly doesn't remember at all) will give a talk about his autobiography 'Home from Home'. Having read his account of news journalism in 'Out of Africa' I would expect this to be excellent.

There are many other interesting events as well and I would love to go to all of them - but it is possible to have too much of a good thing, I find - and after a while exhaustion sets in...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

An Amsterdam Journey

Yesterday morning at 4am it was strangely warm.

'Been like this all night.' the taxi driver said. He was a noctural specimen, apparently - preferring the dark over the light and the empty roads over those unappealingly full of traffic. 'Strange for this time of year. Unnatural.'

In late September there is supposed to be a bite to the air, we agreed - something to distinguish the outdoors from the inside - but stepping into the air outside Liverpool airport that morning was like stepping into a warm room. Everything was still, and apart from the lilt of some distant Liverpool voices, quiet.

As I flew over northern England an hour or so later the street lamps below me shimmered as wisps of cloud drifted across them like ink dispersing into water. It was ghostly; flying always seems to be an unreal activity to me and if I think about it too much - if I allow myself to know where I am - I feel terrified.

By the time we reached the Netherlands fifty-five minutes later it had become light. The fields were perfect long rectangles - one green patch and then another, evenly abutting the straight lines of canals. Even the irregular features were artificial - a golf course fitting in neatly between two lakes and a road - and everything so flat.

'Is global warming a worry?' I asked Marjolein a little later as we travelled by taxi alongside one of the river dykes.

'Yes,' she said, 'two third of the Netherlands is below sea-level.' And I looked around me -thinking about what would be lost. Amsterdam is such a beautiful city. Each canal seems to tell its own cheery little tale of houseboats

and bridges that conveniently lift to allow water-traffic through

with waterfront houses like tall slim bricks shoved together - each one with a fancy facade, and floor upon floor with a hook at the eaves. This is the preferred method of transferring goods to the upper floors, apparently - not by carrying them up the narrow winding stairs inside but simply by hoisting the load via this hook and pulley through windows. Very sensible.

I think it was Auke who told me about the pulleys. He told me it had been an unseasonably warm September for Amsterdam too - although August had been cold. We met, as arranged, at the cafe, and, finding it too crowded swiftly marched through the streets to the haunts of Auke's student days - to a cafe and then onto Rembrandt's House nearby. It is Rembrandt's 400th birthday this year and Amsterdam is celebrating. There are exhibitions throughout the city on various aspects of Rembrandt's work and I found it very interesting to explore where he lived.

A narrow steep staircase led from one narrow deep room to the next: each one seemed to contain a cupboard bed and a fireplace, until, near the top floor with a series of windows that let in the ideal, unchanging northern light, was Rembrandt's studio. The light slanted in and hit the easel with impressive precision. On the table were small earthenware pots filled with ochres and one which contained a brilliant and striking lazuli. In the next room was a display of all the artefacts Rembrant kept to add interest to interiors and portraits: busts of Roman emperors, many sorts of corals, a pinned out skin of a snake and unidentifiable big cat. Then, on another floor, a demonstration on how Rembrandt made his etchings while one floor contained some of his portraits; each one as accurate as a photograph but conveying much more character.

Outside the clock towers chimed - not a simple counting of the hour but a tinkling rendition of a scrap of Beethoven or Mozart - and Auke showed me the way to the Ambo Anthos offices where I was to meet Marjolein and Else den Boer for lunch.

Sadly Wanda Gloude, my editor, had had to attend a funeral for her uncle so Elsa, who is another editor at Ambo, took her place. Here is Marjolein on the left and Elsa on the right.

I had a traditional Dutch dish of croquettes and bread in a rather splendid restaurant decorated in the Art Nouveau style - I think Hercules Poirot would have felt quite at home - and then went on to a nearby bookstore to see my book in vivo.

Which made me very happy.

Then, after saying good-bye to Elsa, Marjolein and I went onto a nearby hotel for my interview with Marnix Verplancke and also have a huge number of photographs taken in the hope that in at least one of them I will not turn out to be blinking. (Update: And there was! The photographer, Thomas Schlijper, has posted one up on his website here.)

After that I was free to walk in a warmth that now was beginning to feel a little sinister - past ancient turrets

and flower markets

and more bells marking out time.

Sometimes I feel like quickening my pace - a city like Amsterdam used to feel timeless and permanent and it is very hard to believe that perhaps it is not.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Early Flight

I am going to meet my translator Auke Leistre in Amsterdam tomorrow - in the 'Noord-Zuid-Hollands Koffiehuis' - which he tells me is a wooden building, a little to the left of the central train station, on the waterfront - which sounds very charming. Although of course it might be completely different from the sweet little picture I now have in my mind.

I'm also looking forward to meeting my publicist Marjolein van Doorne and my editor Wanda Gloude as well as a Belgian journalist called Marnix Verplancke who is intending to interview me for a newspaper called De Morgen - I also intend to do a little interviewing of my own.

So this afernoon I packed my handbag because now it is time for bed. I have to get up at 4am tomorrow morning to catch my plane - which from past experience is a bit of a challenge.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

An Email

There has been a slight delay in postings due to various matters viz: someone I knew from aerobics suddenly dying from a heart attack which I found very sad because he was so full of life and not terribly old; my agent needing me to indicate the changes I'd made to my novel because the publisher of my last book has asked her to send it to her next week (this was easy once I'd found that Word would do this for me); and the filling in of the tax form (always something I put off doing for as long as possible). I also have to 'revise' my novel 98 Reasons for Being because I am going to be interviewed about it by a Belgian journalist in Amsterdam next week and do some editing to a short story (just remembered about this one).

So in the meantime I am posting this - an email that I found in my in-box this morning:
clare, judging from the title of one of your books i think you might be able to answer the following question:

what are some of the misdiagnoses of women who were labeled "insane" & committed to asylums at the turn of the 19th century? i ask because my son just found that my paternal grandmother was listed on the 1907 u.s. census as "insane", & her residence is listed as an insane asylum. my mother spoke of her as a sweet, kind, gentle woman who died of stomach cancer many, many years before i was born.

i'd appreciate it greatly if you would reply to this email, but hopefully not with, "well just buy my book, you silly woman!".

i think my son is ill-informed about the problem but doubt that he's reading anything other than child-rearing books at present.

thank you in advance for any help you can give me.



and here is my reply:


Thank you for your email.

Of course I have no idea what happened to your relative and I wish your son luck with his investigation, but I can tell you that women in general were misdiagnosed as insane for the following reasons: eloping with an unsuitable man (nymphomania), becoming pregnant out of wedlock, suffering from what we would now call post-natal depression, or just plain depression (when they couldn't afford to marry the right man, or were forced into a loveless marriage).

Women were thought to be more susceptible to going insane than men and doctors were on watch throughout their lives. One particularly dangerous time was the 'critical age' ie the menopause - when a loveless woman might make an unsuitable match or was thought to have strange compulsions.

They were locked up in asylums for all these reasons - and once they were in some of the treatments were sometimes so barbaric that what might have been a temporary neurosis (or just falling in love with the wrong man) could well have become something more permanent. Some became institutionalised. As a result several found it difficult to get out.

However I feel I ought to point out that no doubt there were some that actually were insane and incarceration in an asylum might have been the best thing at the time - for both themselves and the rest of society.

I hope that answers your question. My book would too, but only in a roundabout way because it is a novel. I do hope you buy it and read it though (and tell your friends about it) because writing books is what I do to earn my living, and they take a long time to research and write. But more importantly I would hope that you would enjoy the book - and at just 49 cents (plus P&P) from's other sellers is quite a bargain!

Best wishes,

Clare Dudman.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

A little celebration

I am going to continue with my Oxford posts tomorrow, but just now I am celebrating. Since I've been back from Oxford I have been entrenched again in the novel. Yet another revision had been suggested by my agent which I have now completed and I hope and pray that that is it - the manuscript is finally ready for submitting to publishers. Here is the wall above my desk which has inspired me through this final version which I started last November...

and here are some of the books...

and my notes...

Each novel generates a similar amount of material which eventually is consigned to the loft. There are now small bulges in the plaster of the ceiling of our bedroom where the boxes are gradually sinking through the joists.

Tomorrow I shall send the manuscript off to my agent and then I am going to have a day indulging myself looking at other people's blogs. Since I haven't looked at bloglines for well over a week this may take some time.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

'Writer in Residence' at the Institute for the Future of the Mind (part 2)

Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams (who is also a pretty wonderful poet) took up last week's call to investigate the effects that modern living has on our children's mental health.

While I was at the institute last week a letter Professor Baronness Susan Greenfield had signed, together with 109 others, was taken up by the media. It had also been signed by eminent children's authors such as Jaqueline Wilson and Philip Pullman. In essence the letter expressed concern about the effect today's lifestyle was having on children. It reminded me of a post I saw on Minx's blog(scroll down to Sept 7th) about a child who couldn't or wouldn't talk due to overexposure to the television - which I guess must be an extreme example but a salutory lesson to us all.

As a result of this letter there was an article on the front page of the Daily Telegraph and Susan Greenfield was interviewed on the Today programme on Radio 4 (by telephone from her office by the side of my desk), and then on various TV and radio programmes throughout the day (see here for links). At around lunch-time she was whisked off to London and ended the day on Newsnight on BBC2 - about 17 hours after her first interview in the morning. An exhausting day, I should think, but very interesting (for me, at least) to observe. Apparently a session on the Today programme usually leads to such frenetic activity, and that is part of the remit of the Insititute - the engagement of the public with science.

Martin, meanwhile, was a support to her in all this but even so managed to show me a powerpoint presentation he has given to groups across the country. This included footage showing the effectiveness of an electronic devices which had been implanted into the motor centres of patients suffering from Parkinson's Disease. Half way through the film the device was turned off and the patient who had hitherto been walking quite steadily started shuffling and careering around; while another who had been successfully threading small wooden shapes through rods started to shake so much that all control was lost. It was dramatic and quite moving. It must be very gratifying for a surgeon to know that he or she can make such an incredible difference to the quality of a person's life.

But it wasn't just surgery that could affect a cure. Martin then showed me a man shuffling along slowly, weaving a little from side to side with his head down - until he reached the head of a line of paper sheets spread out along the floor. As soon as he saw these his stance was transformed. He stood upright and marched confidently and quickly along - but only until the end of the paper squares whereupon he would again assume the stance of the Parkinson's patient. Apparently this effect has been mimicked using patterns of blocks on spectacles but it only works in a proportion of Parkinson's patients. Interestingly the technique was initially thought to help more but the effect wore off in some patents after several weeks. The conclusion was that being the centre of attention can in itself be something of a temporary cure.

A little more care and attention may have been the reason that on second day I received no ghostly phone messages. When at lunch time I checked to find out if all was well an enraged relative answered the phone: '29 out of maximum of 30!' he announced, 'She's been having us on.'

Apparently a mental health nurse had visited in the morning to carry out an assessment - and when presented with the possibility of confinement in a hospital the confused ghost had returned to the land of the cognisant with spectacular rapidity - performing the small mental tasks required of her with impressive fluency. So that was a big relief.

It seems to me that the brain is a hugely mysterious organ and the more we learn the more there is to learn. It is like that bottomless purse in fairy tales - but instead of being a dependable source of a few coins this one holds a more substantial stash that is continually becoming heavier.

Just a little snippet...

Pete Wild's story THE WOMAN ON THE UNDERGROUND which I love so much is now published here for all to see...

Sunday, September 17, 2006

'Writer in Residence' at the Institute of the Future of the Mind (part 1)

Just as I was arriving at the Institute for the Future of the Mind at Oxford university my phone told me it had picked up voicemail from the home phone; five messages recorded at regular intervals. As I climbed the steps up to the building I listened: 'Clare...Clare...' The voice was confused, creaky and ghostlike. Each time this voice was followed by a pause and the receiver would go down, a few mutterings would follow and then the line would go dead. I knew who it was, of course.

On the train I had been reading about the brain in Susan Greenfield's book THE PRIVATE LIFE OF THE BRAIN. I had got to a place that described how important potassium and sodium ions are in making sure the electrical signal travels along the neuron - how they are pumped in and out and this is one of the things that makes the whole thing work. I had found this piece of information reassuring because if a person's potassium level had fallen then this would surely cause much confusion - and no doubt things would return to normal as soon as that potassium was regained.

After making a few phone calls and ensuring that all was well, at least for the time being, I went on with my day. I met Dr Martin Westwell, the deputy director of the Institute for the Future of the Mind, who seemed to put aside most of his week almost entirely for my benefit, which I much appreciated. We went for coffee at the top of the building which has a balcony and penthouse-like views and talked intensively about my work and his. One thing he said which interested me particularly was that they had found that scanned the brains of people who were being kept alive in a coma and found that talk of activities such as tennis caused activity in the same parts of the brain as people who were fully functional.

This haunted me through the rest of the day and night. I thought about a remarkable book I'd read a few years ago called THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY written by Jean-Dominique Bauby - dictated very laboriously by a code involving the blinking of his eye since the author was suffering from 'locked-in syndrome' as a consequence of a stroke. Then I thought about the dying - how I'd heard that hearing was the last sense to go and have wondered many times how anyone knew - and Martin told me about the beheaded - how for a few seconds they would continue to live and remain conscious until the blood drained from the brain...

In earlier times there was a constant fear of being buried alive - there were known to be cases of people who were thought to be dead and yet 'came alive again' before burial. Maybe there are worse things than going mad. Maybe remaining sane is sometimes a more fearsome penalty.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

An Interlude

I am going off to Oxford for a short while.
Bye for now...

Thursday, September 07, 2006

An Interview with Peter Wild

Peter Wild is the editor of a forthcoming series of books for Serpent's Tail, the first two of which - Perverted by Language: Fiction inspired by The Fall & The Empty Page: Fiction inspired by Sonic Youth - will be published in 2007. He is also editor of The Flash, which will be published by Social Disease in February 2007. His fiction has appeared in Word Riot, Pen Pusher, Scarecrow, Thieves Jargon, Rumble, The Beat and a bunch of other places. He also runs the Bookmunch

It is through Jeff Vandermeer's recommendation and the Bookmunch website that I have got to know Peter Wild. This is how I have got to know most of my writerly-acquaintances - all virtually - through websites and reviews and interviews.

Pete Wild is used more to conducting interviews than giving them so I thought I would turn tables on him and ask him a few questions about his life and he kindly agreed. The result is highly entertaining and interesting. But first I thought I would get to know Pete a little more through his fiction.

A short Review of Peter Wild's Work
There is a list of Pete's on-line publications here. The range of work is wide - in content, style and scope. Some pieces, like STONE ROSES are brief amusing vignettes or in the case of In HER STICK FIGURE smartly-written pieces of social commentary; while others, like PUNK ROCKER, are much longer, running into several pages. The majority of the pieces published on-line though are suitably short. Even THE PUNK ROCKER is broken up into very short chapters. This works really well on screen - these sharp little pieces deliver their message quickly and seem ideally suited to on-line reading. The PUNK ROCKER, like the majority (but not all) the pieces is about the vagaries of love. It is set in Japan and told from the point of view of a young man who loses one lover but finds another called Shiina:
Shiina was slight. She had a tendency to withdraw. Take a picture of any crowded room and you will glimpse Shiina obscured by the shoulders of others. Every photo of her I have, there are shoulders. She is one who hides. But, importantly, she has the intensity of those who wait for their moment, who think carefully before speaking and only say that which they think you should hear.
This gives such a vivid picture of a character so tersely. Through concentrating on the shoulder I not only see her but feel I know her and like her. Throughout the piece the narrator is slightly distant; things seem to happen to him rather than involve him and this gives a strong sense of alienation.

In THE SPIRIT IS WILLING the voice is completely different. This narrator is angry and more direct but the descriptions are just as powerful:
She's thin. Her ribs stick the fuck out. Her skin is white. I mean white. Her legs are like pieces of string with I don't know - fucking knots in the middle where the knees should be. Her chest is flatter than mine. She doesn't have a lot going for her is what I'm saying. But then the way she says the word American makes me almost blind with wanting her.
He turns things around: he doesn't like thin but in trying to persuade us of just how much he doesn't like thin he somehow succeeds in making the knots in string one of the most attractive things imaginable. As in BUTTERFLY (a piece of flash fiction) the feelings of love and lust come over clearly.

There is a similarly strongly emotional voice in RUCKUS. This is experimental - names start with lower case letters, and there are words misspelt. It evokes violence as if the words have been spattered out on the page.

In DOWN BY THE RIVER the narrator is a 14 year old girl, and like the thin girl, apparently has little to offer. She is ordinary, and all she is doing in this piece is walking down to the river - but even this is made into something sensuous and interesting:
Prising her way through the bitter tangle of vines and bare trees down by the river, feeling the cold on her bare legs the way the trees no doubt felt it, losing their leaves.
The story is about the start of love, but love can also end and BRYTER LAYTER is a gritty arresting story about the hurt felt when love ends - a subject he approaches in a satisfyingly oblique way:
He tried saying the word aloud –
but his tongue was sluggish. So he thought the word instead, repeated it in his head, clung to it as if it was a straw and he a drowning man.
In Peter's work love can also stagnate, as in THIS NIGHT HAS OPENED MY EYES (which is one of my favourites):
Awkward angry seconds pass like bruised dog years.
This consists mainly of conversation between the two and gives an incredibly effective feeling of being trapped.

And love can change. TOM VIOLENCE (which is a much longer piece not on-line) is a story about the changing relationship between a married couple and starts audaciously by stating:
The Violences were a couple much like any other. They often went weeks without sharing a civil word, intermittently touched parts and rarely if ever gave a kind thought one as to the other.

The naming of the couple at once lends the piece a deliberately surreal distant quality and in writing that reminds me a little of Angela Carter's modern fairy tales, he proceeds to tell an unusual and rather dark cautionary tale about a tumultuous relationship. Peter ventures even more into the surreal with SOMBRERO FALLOUT which is a recent work and very topical.

In WOMAN SEATED IN THE UNDERGROUND, another of the longer pieces which is not on-line, there are more changing relationships. It seems to me to be Peter's most ambitious piece and it is reminiscent of Michael Cunningham's THE HOURS in miniature. A life story told in first person is interspersed with a story told in the third person set during a few months in the present day. They glance off each other very effectively and the link - the London Underground - is used as a repeating motif. The section which deals with the depression of one of the characters is convincing and moving:
Another day, she found herself in the middle of the dining room with an active vacuum cleaner snoring at her feet. It was a feeling akin to misplaced keys. Misplaced keys to the power of ten. She had no idea, really and truthfully no idea, as to how she came to be standing there, in the dining room, with the vacuum cleaner. After all, she had no desire to clean. There was a moment of nausea and dizziness during which she wondered, comically, if she was about to collapse, and then the noise of the machine and the dull muffled numbness in her head and the telling toll of days met, and she roared, actually roared, and moved to raise the vacuum cleaner above her head.
Another life story is told succinctly in LEBENSRAUM, retelling a piece of history from a soldier's point of view:
You should've seen their eyes. That is something no history book will tell you.

The result is surprising and involving.

Another old tale is retold in YOU'VE GOT EVERYTHING NOW. Part of the enjoyment of reading this piece is the final realisation of the original basis of the tale - the rest comes from the slow and bewitching way the father and son's relationship evolves as they work together on the business of fishing.

GARAGE GERBIL - another one of my particular favourites deals with the relationship between two men. It also illustrates what I think I love the most about Peter Wild's writing. Apart from the tale, the life commentary and the entertainment there is a gift for finding just the right word:
...a birdlike man with a bent back and balsa day bleeds into another...silence mildewed between them...
This, I think is how prose becomes poetry. The right word allows even the shortest piece to grow into something more. It provides a metaphor which immediately suggests new ideas and links.


CD: What is Mansize and what is Bookmunch? How and when were they conceived?
PW: Bookmunch is my baby. It stumbled, half-cocked, into the world a little over five years ago. I was working for this crappy magazine publisher in Stockport, sharing creative duties with three other like-minded creative types and we each of us spent an unholy amount of money on books and we thought, we should do something that gets us free books. I'd written for City Life and The Big Issue and knew that you could get ahold of review copies if you had a vehicle and - it struck us that a website was a way in which we could do that. So free books was very definitely the impetus. But then, as is sometimes the way with these things, it sort of got a wee life of its own. We went from just reviewing books to interviewing authors and (very occasionally) ranting on about whatever it was that stuck in our collective craw. As time has gone on, the core of Bookmunch shrank from four to two and then, relatively recently, from two to just me - so now it's me and maybe a dozen other contributors. And it's great. During the last five years, I've got to interview a whole bunch of people whose books I greatly admire - and it's laid the foundations for all of the books I'm busy editing for Serpent's Tail and, more recently, Social Disease... Bookmunch has very definitely saved my life. It's crowbarred me into the life I want for myself. So God Bless Bookmunch is what I say!

As for Mansized: I was invited by one of BM's contributors to assume a Book Editor type position at Mansize. It isn't 'mine' - I'm merely a resident. I think I'm just a big mouth. This is why I feel the need to go on and on at Mansize and Dogmatika and 3AM Magazine and about a half a dozen other places. There's just no shutting me up. I won't listen to reason. This is why I drive people crazy if they have to spend any serious amount of time in my company...

CD: Have you any idea of the size and type of the readership?
PW: Bookmunch gets about 20,000 unique visitors a month... As for the type of readership. It's all over the place. A lot of young men (there's a whole strata of vaguely dissatisfied young white English and American men in their late 20s and early 30s who feel like they're as yet undiscovered literary geniuses, I think we really tap into that particular market) and then a whole lot of women. Far more women than men. Which probably goes without saying. Women read more books than men do. I get emails and things from people of all ages. We gets teens who read Bookmunch for the graphic novel reviews and then I hear from people in their 50s and 60s who think that the London literary world is terrifically insular - and that insularity is bred and supported and cossetted by the broadsheets. If I check the back end, I see that we have readers all over the world. Which feels strangely disorientating. Perhaps it's one of those goose/golden egg things. I shouldn't pry too closely! (I should say, though, that latterly I think of Bookmunch as one of a community of websites - a community led by the likes of Dogmatika - which I think is just about the best thing since sliced bread - but including the now legendary 3AM Magazine and a whole host of other literary blogs and ezines...)

CD: How did you get into the business of reviewing books?
PW: How did I get into the business of reviewing books? You have to blame Raymond Carver for this one. I spent the better part of my twenties writing (I have a sort of bottom drawer with unpublished novels in), and each thing I wrote edged me closer to being published. I remember, I must have been 27 or 28 and I was living in London and I finished a novel called Ixnay and then had interest from David Godwin and I thought - This is it! This is where it all starts! But, of course, it didn't. The interest fizzled out as these things are wont to do and I left London, got married and had children - and the thing about children is, they impinge on your time. It's really hard (when you have to work for a living, as I do) to maintain the drive required for a novel when you have a little girl who appears able to survive on 33 seconds of sleep a night. So for the last five years, I've started novels and then abandoned them. (I start writing in a feverish burst of intensity, hit a stumbling block, start to reread what I've done, think, That's shit and then kick it into touch... Then months later I'll return to it and think, hey this wasn't so bad... But by then the impetus or creative whatever that kickstarted the thing is gone so... one more abandoned novel to add to the pile.) Years ago, I read that Raymond Carver reviewed books 'to keep his hand in'. And that's the same for me. I review books so that I have something whereby I can say to myself, at least I do that...

CD: How would you describe your own writing?
PW: It feels really weird to be talking about 'my writing'. Not the reviewing side of things. I can talk about that. My view on that is - I'm honest. I have absolutely no agenda whatsoever beyond telling Bookmunch (and latterly Mansize) readers what I think about the books I read. There are no secret allegiances on Bookmunch - which has caused me odd bits of trouble in my time. Bookmunch was enthusiastic, for example, about Gwendoline Riley's debut Cold Water and we were more than enthusiastic about Dan Rhodes' Timoleon Vieta Come Home - I think that book is just an absolute wonder. But then I didn't like Gwen's second book and I didn't like Dan's Danuta De Rhodes' book and I said so and of course it pisses people off (because they think - he was so enthusiastic about the last book...). I've only really picked up on this since I started commissioning books and approaching various authors. But I guess it also works both ways. Bookmunch was pretty mean about Matt Thorne, I remember, and Matt Thorne got in touch when he heard about The Fall book and said I know you don't like what I do but I'd like to be in The Fall book all the same. And I respect that. I think Matt Thorne has balls of steel. Plus he's a bloody good bloke on top of all that, so.

As for the fiction. It's harder to say. I remember reading a quote from Toby Litt where he suggested as yet unpublished writers experiment and I've certainly been doing that over the last year. I don't think I've ever been more prolific. I'm busy trying on lots of different kinds of shoes. I try to write stories that will elicit some kind of reaction (but what a banal thing to say that is). So, for example, I had a story called 'Ruckus' published on Thieves Jargon recently and I've got a story called 'pthc' in the forthcoming Dreams That Money Can Buy - and both of those are pretty damn fierce. But I've also been trying my hand at perverse scraps of erotica (a story called 'The Spirit is Willing' appeared on Straight from the Fridge recently and 'Cruiser's Creek', my story in Perverted by Language, is dirty and perverse) and literary homage (the most recent story I finished, 'Sombrero Fallout' is a doffing of the cap to Richard Brautigan, albeit Richard Brautigan by way of the War on Terror) and .... I'm keeping busy! Some things appear in my head virtually fully formed and then other things involve months of struggle. I'm struggling with my story for The Smiths book at the moment (which is called 'Rush and a Push and the Land is Ours'). It revolves around a sort of Chav Final Solution and is at turns comic and disturbing but ... It's hard to write). And I'm writing a serialised novel for Dogmatika called Espionage: A Jigsaw in 500 Pieces which is pretty damn demanding. I have good days and bad days (which is I'm sure true for most writers and would-be writers). But I think I've had more than my fair share of great days recently. I've had about 20 stories accepted for publication in ezines and anthologies this last year and I've started to be offered readings and I'm involved with this thing called LitFest, so ... It feels like a certain amount of momentum is building up!

CD: How did the anthologies originate? Has there been any feedback from the Fall or the Smiths?
PW: Therein lies a tale. Me and a buddy had the idea of starting a new Manchester-based publishing house (in order to do the things that Heidi James over at Social Disease is doing, ie publish the books that were slipping through the net) - the anthologies were what I bought to the table. (I had this idea, more years ago than I care to remember, to write a book of short stories that revolved around Fall songs ... I thought: we could do that but have lots of other people I like and whose writing I admire in the book instead...) Of course, it was a hop, skip and a jump from there to the series of books. When me and my buddy were thinking of the series, we thought - we could have three related English bands and three related American bands and then, in four or five years time, release two boxsets of three books. Around about this point, me and my buddy had something of a contretemps and the whole publishing idea went up in a cloud of antagonistic smoke. So (thanks to the contacts I've built up as a result of Bookmunch) I got in touch with Serpent's Tail and they were really interested and have been really great (because obviously I'm new to all this publishing lark and need spoonfeeding much of the time). So. The Fall book, Perverted by Language, is done and progressing through the publishing process and will appear next June. The Sonic Youth book (The Empty Page) and The Smiths book (Paint a Vulgar Picture) are coming together (I've got about half of the Sonic Youth book and about a third of The Smiths book 'under my belt' as it were...). It's all really exciting. (And weird - it's weird how each band inspires a different kind of story: The Fall stories are, for the most part, pretty damn offbeat; Sonic Youth stories are dark, full of sex and violence; The Smiths stories are, perhaps unsurprisingly, tender(ish)...) I'm going to start commissioning the next three books (Pleasant Dreams: Fiction inspired by The Ramones, Incubation: Fiction inspired by Joy Division and What Goes On: Fiction inspired by The Velvet Underground) at the beginning of 2007...

As for feedback. I've had contact, of sorts, from The Fall. I'm in touch with Clayts (who runs the official Fall website) and I've had dealings with Alan Wise (The Fall's manager) and I've had a handful of text messages from Mark E Smith but that's about the extent of the feedback. Sonic Youth, on the other hand, email all the time, they make suggestions as to who they would like in there (Kim Gordon pushed for Mary Gaitskill and Rebecca Godfrey, which helped get them in the book), they are just ... everything you would want. Me and the missus are off to Paris in December to meet up with them (they're playing the Zenith, so we get free tickets and backstage passes and all of the kind of stuff guaranteed to make a fat, dumpy idiot like me froth ...). As for The Smiths... A much harder nut to crack. At least so far. I'm in touch with Warner Chappell music and permissions are progressing...

CD: What do you do when you are not reading books, writing, watching films or listening to music? Actually, thinking about it - do you have any time left?
PW: I get this a lot. People at work say, Where do you find the time?!? On paper it looks like a lot: I run a website, I'm editing six books for Serpent's Tail, another book for Social Disease; I'm writing a novel that is being serialised on Dogmatika; I'm writing articles for 3AM Magazine and Pen Pusher; I'm interviewing various authors and singers for various places; I review books and movies left, right and centre; I'm writing short stories.... I'm busy. Make no mistake. But. I'm not busy all the time. Far from it. I work full-time. So that's one thing. And work is busy. Work is hard. But then, when I get home, and after the kids are in bed, I relax by reading or watching movies or writing. It's how I turn off. I suppose I'm quite aware of time. And I keep a lot of lists. And I make sure I'm never without a book in my pocket. I always have at least one book on the go. And I can read fast (although I never ever skim - people go, 'Yeah right - but I bet you skim read' - I don't, I read fast, there's a difference).

But really, things don't take that long. I can write six reviews (of varying lengths) on a Sunday morning and have Bookmunch updated by lunchtime (after which I'll take the kids to Whale Around or Alphabet Zoo or whatever they feel like, and they'll run around like loons while I read the papers). It takes me about two hours to get to and from work each day so - that's my reading time. And then I might do an hour or two during the week after the kids are in bed. But not always. Many's the night me and the missus curl up on the couch with a movie. When I'm not reading or writing or listening to music or watching movies... I'm probably talking. I talk A LOT. Or cooking. I like cooking. Well, I like eating (because I'm a big, fat pig) which had led me into cooking and now cooking is a small perfect thing in its own right. (I just asked my wife what I do when I'm not reading/watching/listening etc and she said, Irritate me... So there you go. Further proof if proof were needed that I'm irritating!)

CD: Do you think being based in Manchester gives you a different perspective on the literary, musical and film world from if you lived and worked in London?
PW: I wrote a thing about Zembla magazine on Bookmunch about half a year ago. Zembla was an arty London book magazine. I was in Hay on Wye when the mag launched and went to the launch party and it was full of Guardian types and someone told me that this Zembla editor used to work for Cosmo and that Zembla editor used to work for - whoever... And it struck me that Zembla was just another London establishment caravan. Of course, The Observer loved Zembla because mentioning Zembla made them feel hip. But Zembla were part of the London scene. Anyway. I wrote this rant and someone on another site wrote about my rant and said, ah well, that's the thing about Bookmunch - they're real outsiders. And I loved that. It all comes back to the Groucho Marx thing about any club that would have me as a member. But it's quite a bad chip I have on my shoulder. For example, a lot of the websites I frequent are frothing about Tom McCarthy (he's written a novel called Remainder and a book about TinTin called TinTin and the Secret of Literature) and the little chip on my shoulder flares up and urges me not to read his books just because everyone is liking them so much. I'll read them next year some time and love them, probably but - right now, I positively don't want to join any club. I don't think the fact that I'm based in Manchester has much bearing (beyond the adoption of a blunt vernacular, which is my heritage). Manchester just allows me to be away from everyone and everything of any import whatsoever. (My wife wants me to say that London is shit. She wants me to say that London is shit and Manchester is not much better. She is also keen to emphasise that we don't live in Manchester we live in Stockport in order to rob me of any cache of cool I think might come my way if I say I live in Manchester.)

And here are the questions that I ask everyone...

CD: Do you have any connection with snails?
PW: I have sat and wracked my brains to think of a connection with snails but all I can think of is this: my computer (where I sit at this precise moment blathering on to you) is directly next to the porch doors. There is a wall that runs the length of my garden from the porch doors. Snails like to climb the wall. So, many is the morning I get up to see seven or eight snails busy making their way up the wall. I don't know what they do when they get to the top. I sometimes wonder if they spend their days - Incey-Wincey-Spider-like - climbing up, falling off and climbing up again. Or perhaps the old man who lives next door is having to deal with some terrible snail infestation (all of the snails in my garden driven crazy by my children stamping and screaming about all over the place). I should also say, my wife - who works part time in a betting shop - tells me that there is a snail Grand National that runs on the same day as the actual Grand National. She says it's just about the best thing in the world. Like the Guinness advert only much, much slower.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
PW: Proudest moment... When I took the Fall book (and, by implication, the other books in the series) to Serpent's Tail, Pete Ayrton - who is the head honcho at Serpent's Tail - invited me to London and took me out for lunch. We went to a seedy little Turkish place and ate - I suppose you would call it Turkish tapas, there were things wrapped in vine leaves and lots of aubergine-y type things - not that I ate. I was far too nervous. But Pete was great. We talked about The Fall book and ... Lots of things. And we cut a deal. I suppose you would say. I remember, I left Serpent's tail on Cloud 9. I talked to the wife all the way up to the tube, got on the tube to head toward my hotel, arrived at my hotel - and realised that I'd left my bag and everything I had with me at Serpent's Tail. So the proudest moment - getting a book accepted for publication - is right up there alongside my many many many other dumbest moments. Which is nice.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
PW: My kids have very definitely changed my life. My daughter Harriet is like a machine gun and my son Samuel is like a spliff and the both of them have changed my life irrevocably. The first three years of my daughter's life, she hated me. She loved her mother and hated me to distraction. We waged a war, she and I - and she won. When my wife was pregnant a second time I remember saying that I thought we wouldn't survive if a second child was as full-on as Harriet was. Thankfully - Heavens be praised! - my son is gentle and sweet and doesn't need people, is happy to toil away by himself with his cars and his zoohouse. Before kids, I got to go to the cinema three times a week, often found myself sitting in the Waterstones cafe drinking coffee and reading books, satisfying myself to the nth degree. I thought I was a nice guy. I thought I was an interesting guy. Children helped me see that I was in fact a selfish bore. And it's only got worse. I am now more selfish and more boring than I ever was. So: Part of me wants to say: You lose lots of things when you have kids (my mum and my wife's mum took a vicious pleasure in watching me lose things) but you don't care: you don't care because what you get is impossible to explain to anyone who doesn't have kids. But then a part of me wants to say: Help! Help! Children are too demanding! I can't deal with them! What do you mean I should've read the small print?!?

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
PW: Mick Jagger duetting with David Bowie on Dancing in the Street. Or Paul McCartney duetting with Stevie Wonder on Ebony & Ivory. Or Elton John duetting with Pete Doherty at Live Aid II. Duets basically. Duets are sad. They bring a right lump to my throat.

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
PW: Well, I'd say that I need to lose some weight because I'm a dirty fat pig but my wife - very kindly - informs me that I should change the fact I say 'mmmhhhh, that's nice' when I've had my first sip of a particularly nice cup of coffee or glass of wine AND I should stop balling my socks and throwing them into the kitchen when I come home from work after she has just finished getting everything nice (I should also say, my wife is finding the interview process tremendously therapeutic. She says it's like seeing a counsellor.) There are people who would tell you that I am a vain, selfish egomaniac. I should probably work on that too. I know other people who say I'm too self-effacing. What do they know?

CD: What is happiness?
PW: Happiness is very definitely peace and quiet. Peace and quiet. Happiness is me on one couch, the missus on the other, American Music Club's Everclear on the iTunes, a glass of wine (or, tonight, a very fine malt whiskey with a splash of lemonade), reading our books (the missus is on the new Maeve Binchy, I'm on Tim Winton's The Turning, which makes me sick it's so good, makes me never want to write another thing again... At least a half a dozen people in the world are reading this and saying: for Christ's sake read more Tim Winton!). That's all I need to be happy. Saying all of that, every once in a while my little boy climbs up on to me and falls asleep and there is nothing in this world quite like your kid sleeping on you, dribbling through your tshirt or whatever. That's a beautiful thing. However, lest I err too far into Hallmark territory, there's also nothing like pills and booze and sex.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
PW: I want to say that I make coffee. But. I have a routine. My little boy (Samuel, almost two years old) wakes up at about five o'clock every day. I stumble out of bed, scoop him out of the cot, shamble to the bathroom, brush teeth, wee, carry out half-hearted ablutions, stumble downstairs, pop young Samuel on the floor, switch on the TV, walk across the room to the computer, switch that on, walk into the kitchen to the kettle which I fill and set to boiling, return to the living room where I pop on whatever DVD Samuel is thrilling to at the moment (for a long time it was Pocoyo, right now it's Monsters Inc), then I return to the computer, fill in my password (which, interestingly or not, is the word BOURGEOIS) and then I head back to the kitchen to make coffee. The boy is happy watching his DVD. The computer is warming up. I have coffee. The day is ready to start.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

METAPHORS OF MEMORY by Douwe Draaisma: a brief review and summary.

METAPHORS of MEMORY is a dense and beautifully produced book by Cambridge University Press. It has been translated from the Dutch by Paul Vincent.

Although it contains many illustrations I am not sure it is aimed at the general market - however I worked determinedly through the 241 pages because I found the ideas and the conclusions quite fascinating.

Chapter by chapter the author, Douwe Draaisma, who is a Dutch academic, discusses the metaphors that have been used for memory. He explains where they come from, who thought of them, and how they fit into the theories of the mind and consciousness of the time. He then goes on to consider how well they work as metaphors - what they explain and what they don't, and how they fit in to what went before and what comes after. His conclusion, in his final chapter, is surprising and wonderfully thought-provoking.

Draaisma starts (and ends) with a brief description of Freud's metaphor for memory: the mystic writing pad. I remember something similar from childhood - a pad I could write on with a pointed piece of plastic and the writing would appear in front of me - but when I lifted the top layer and then put it down again the writing would be gone. However, at the back of this I remember seeing a piece of darkly coloured paper, which in Freud's time was waxed. The words I'd written, together with all the other words I'd written were still there. For Freud this was memory. The blank part that had temporarily contained my writing was the layer of the mind which received the stimulus - while underneath was what was retained - the memories.

According to Freud, metaphor was essential in the study of his science. 'In psychology we can describe only with the help of comparisons...we are forced to change these comparisons over and over again, for none of them can serve us for any length of time.' he wrote and this really is the theme of the book - why metaphors are used; not only to help us understand but to help us to expand on what we know and predict. The best metaphor should be heuristic and multi-layered; indicating new links and ideas between the topic (the strange new subject of the metaphor) and its vehicle (the simple, familiar thing it is like). This, I believe, is taking what Professor Roald Hoffmann said in his article a small step further; the metaphor should not just aid the understanding of science but should also lead to new developments and thinking.

Freud also defined scientific creativity as the interplay between 'daringly playful fantasy and relentlessly realistic criticism'. So the metaphor embodies the idea of many disciplines coming together in order to make a new innovatory step; it needs a great cauldron of ideas for a new startling truth to emerge. The metaphor itself mixes - it causes the strange and new can be mixed with the old and familiar so that it is seen in a new way - and once it is seen in that new way then the idea can develop and grow.

The book gives examples of how this has happened in the past - and this is the meat of the book; a series of fascinating examples and anecdotes. For instance thinking of the chemical elements as musical notes arranged in octaves led eventually to Mendeleev's periodic table.

As far as metaphors of memory are concerned Draaisma says they are all found wanting, but each have contributed to our understanding of the working of the mind. There have been a large number through the ages but there is a trace of each one in the way we talk about memory today. I am going to attempt to summarise them here in a list.

Plato: writing on a wax tablet. Good wax (smooth, deep and the right impressionability) corresponds to a good memory.

Socrates: memory is an aviary. Possessing knowledge is having birds in the aviary.

Augustine: Memories come in through the doorways of the senses and are stored in a treasure house in corridors and passages - images with images, sounds with sounds, smells with smells. Some of these are present from birth.

Middle ages: memory is a library - combined the 'writing' idea of a wax tablet and the storage idea of a treasure house.

Hooke (17th cent): Recently discovered property of phosphorescence used as a metaphor for brain's ability to absorb and store light impressions. Ideas were summoned up by the soul and stored as memories in the microcosm of the brain - where the soul irradiated them - the recent memories closer to the light and thus remembered more clearly than the more ancient ones.

NB It was at Hooke's time that the use of metaphors in science were first derided by the Royal Society. Viewed as 'tricks'.

Around this time Cartesians came to the fore - man as machine from Descartes and memory part of this machine. Babbage produced calculating machine.

Carus - discover of the unconscious and a romantic (18th and early 19th century): Images and sounds are constantly projected into the mind and memory preserves them in a vast labyrinth which is also like a vast loom with a master weaver causing the bobbin to flash back and forth using threads. External appearance reflected the internal workings of the mind.

19th century: metaphors from a range of new discoveries and inventions used.
memory as a switchboard of a telephone exchange - reactivation of a trace laid down by experience.
memory as a mechanical piano - replaying sound laid in to the machine
memory as a phonograph - reproducing sound recorded in wax.
memory as a camera obscurer - like the images striking the soul and changing.
memory as photography. Retains scene and forgets nothing.

Ebbinghaus 1880: memory associations are threads spread out - with strength of memory corresponding ti the distance between them.

Mid-twentieth century development of computer. Computer metaphor for human mind. Produced lots of analogous terminology which were exchanged with psychology and continues to be widely used e.g. memory back-up. Genrally used as metaphor for higher functions - thinking, reasoning and problem-solving.

Post 1970: Hologram metaphor.
Gives good analogy for the vast storage in the brain and the distribution of storage.
Valuable metaphor for describing 'deja vu' (present image too similar to previous image) and 'tip of the tongue' phenomena (ghost images in hologram).

1980s Connectivist metaphor (Brain metaphor) . Calculations based on neural networks (networks imitating the action of a network of neurons communicating with each other).
Good to explain how mind makes matches between different objects of the same class but different in detail.
The system reaches an equilibrium so that white noise has little effect - as in mind.
Damaging the system has little effect on both mind and neural network.
Both content-addressable.
Neural network capable of producing a prototype has been made - as in mind.

The last chapter dealt with the problem of the homunculus - which originally meant an artificial human being.

In psychology the homunculus has become something else: if a theory appeals to the same process which it seeks to explain then it is said to contain a homonculous. What controls the machine of Descartes, the functions of the network, the images of the hologram or the beam of light in Hooke's microcosm? I suppose it could be the soul or God or some superior being. In popular science (and in the comics I read as a child) it is the little man drawn inside the head. It (or he) is required in each theory. So psychology without the homoncular is impossible. It causes each metaphor, in the end, to fail.

No metaphor can provide the answer to what ultimately controls and initiates the metaphor. That is the most interesting question of them all - and , as yet, there is no answer.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Memory and Forgetting.

I was reading about memory - the theories and metaphors - how one can help the other. I was learning about how people forget and people remember - going from one complicated model to the next, totally engrossed - when the phone went.

How must it be to lose your mind? As she spoke it seemed I could hear it unravelling - one plausible confusion leading to another which was much less plausible.

'I thought it was Sunday. I thought it was still four o'clock. Why are you going out? Who is with me now?'

Then the irritation and the anger: 'I should know. Why don't I know? Why can't I remember?'

How often this happens - that the pages in the book seem to come to life. I had just been reading about how neurons degenerate; about how forgetting could be images being overwritten or wearing out: the different theories, models, experiments and machines.

But this is real. All at once I am pulled into the life of someone I know and love and am offering advice and remembering another time - remembering so well that soon I am too choked up to speak at all.

Memory is a dog that won't lie down they say in the Netherlands. It wanders around where it will - untamed and sometimes biting at my heels.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

A Day Trip

This must be a sign of my brain cells finally starting to wither but half way through yesterday morning I was just composing a post for this blog when it occurred to me that Hodmandod Senior and I were supposed to be going on a trip.

It was a place of bridges and swans,

small canals with accessories built by the not-so-honest members of a community in Wormwood Scrubs (as described on the plaque here)

A place where the sixteenth century birthplace of one of the greatest writers in the world stands uncomfortably alongside more modern structures

while just down the road it is possible to have a fine lunch in a fifteenth century pub (which could well have been the place where the greatest writer drank and thought of his words)

before finally reaching your destination.

Then, pausing for a while to buy a few items in the shop and order interval drinks, you climb up to the balcony to take your seat.

And even though the main man was valiantly fighting laryngitis (which sometimes made you strain for the words)

there was a moment in the middle of a speech by Cleopatra (Harriet Walters) when you thought you had found happiness - and it is not at all what you thought it would be. It was not a victory or a triumph but this: the anguish, the pain, the wonderment of living spoken out loud and clear, precisely and beautifully.

How Shakespeare thought in the sixteenth century is how I think now - and how everyone that comes after me will think too. And it was thinking of this link, and feeling part of it, that made me realise that in great works of fiction we are preserved, and all of us in some way, made immortal.