Monday, February 27, 2006

Professor Carl Djerassi at the British Library

Tomorrow I am going to see Professor Carl Djerassi at the British Library. His talk is to be called 'NOBLE SCIENCE AND NOBEL LUST' and promises to show some of the 'pros and cons of Nobel lust' through his lecture, readings and video presentation. It starts at 18.30 in the Conference Centre at the St Pancras Library. A 400 mile round trip is perhaps a little excessive for a 90 minute talk but I am very interested to hear about his genre 'science-in-fiction'. I have already read his play OXYGEN (which he co-wrote with Professor Roald Hoffmann - a Nobel Laureate) and found it fascinating. It deals with which of the three scientists Lavoisier, Priestley or Scheele could most lay claim to the discovery of oxygen.

RSI update.

Thanks to all the tips and recommendations my RSI is now much better. It no longer hurts at night and apart from a little stiffness during the day is quite tolerable. But I have had to change my life. Everyday I make sure I stretch and take exercise, sit at the computer properly and take frequent breaks. It is quite a regime, but worth it if it means I can carry on writing. Thanks to everyone who gave advice - it was much appreciated.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The birthplace of DH Lawrence

A few weeks ago I met my mother in Nottingham. Nottingham, of course, is famous for its castle, its sherrif and its outlaw, Robin Hood. Nottingham is also the birthplace of one of my favourite authors, D H Lawrence. The house where he was born, actually in a village called Eastwood about ten miles outside the town, has now been converted into a museum. The place has been preserved much as it was when the Lawrences lived there.

It was an end terrace, the museum shop having been built on later, and here is my mother standing outside.

D H Lawrence was devoted to his mother. She was well-to-do in comparison with Lawrence's father and had been a teacher - which is probably one reason why he read and wrote so well.

From the museum shop you go into the kitchen with its range, sink (without running water), sewing machine, table and chairs and stairs off leading to the bedrooms above.
The only other downstairs room in the house was the parlour which was kept for special occasions. This had a grand fireplace, the obligatory aspidistra, dresser, a piano and bookshelves. It also had a large window and deep window sill - Lawrence's mother sold items such as baby clothes. However all shop business was done in the kitchen via the back door. The front door was kept for important visitors such as the minister and also the coffin. The table was covered with a thick cloth. Apparently this was supposed to be a feature of Victorian prudery - the table legs were supposed to remind people too much of naked legs and so had to be covered. However, according to a very interesting book I am reading at the moment (HOPE AND HEARTBREAK: A Social History of Wales and the Welsh 1776-1871 by Russell Davies) this is a myth. The table legs were covered merely to prevent scuffing by hob-nailed boots.

The Lawrences were lucky because they had their own backyard and off this was a wash house with dolly tub, a copper for boiling water, a mangle, stove and a few washboards - all very interesting.

Upstairs there were two bedrooms - one for the parents and one for some of the children, and then up some more stairs there was another bedroom in the loft. There was little in these rooms except the bed, a chest of drawers and a table with a jug and basin. People needed so much less then than they do today.

I found the street unusual - a row of terraces, the sort you generally find in the middle of town, but these led to open fields and we were able to see the same view of countryside that Lawrence would have seen because little seemed to have changed.

David Herbert Lawrence didn't live long in this house. They were an upwardly mobile family - they moved within the village to another larger end terrace and then a semi-detatched house. Lawrence didn't seem to like Eastwood or its inhabitants very much, and once he left he rarely came back. He went to university in Nottingham, and thentaught in Croydon before eloping with Frieda, the wife of one of his teachers, to the continent. Like most writers he seemed to lead an unhappy life, forever flitting around from place to place - the fact that Frieda was German and related to the famous Red Baron probably did not not help matters very much, especially during the first world war.

He died at the young age of 45 of tuberculosis. There is a very interesting website devoted to his life in Eastwood here.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Salford and short stories.

Well, I much enjoyed my afternoon at the University of Salford - a good appreciative audience at the reading and then a talented lot of students in the workshop afterwards. I felt most welcome. My thanks to Ursula Hurley and Scott Thurston who run the Creative Writing undergraduate courses there.

I promised the students that I would post some links to short story outlets on my blog so here they are:

1. Laura Hird's website has a lot of useful information on short stories and I think she has a competition most months;
2. The SEED Magazine in the US currently wants short stories of less than 4 000 words by March 15th;
3. East of the Web takes short story submissions;
4 ...and the Barcelona Review.

I am sure there are other websites offering publication of short stories.

Then there are magazines such as the People's Friend and Mslexia which cater to different tastes. Mslexia only takes pieces from women and I don't think they pay. In all cases the standard advice is to read examples to assess house style and to see if it matches your own - but I am sure you know that already.

Then there are prestigious competitions like Bridport and many other national and more local competitions, most of which require a fee to enter.

Jason Erik Lundberg's latest podcast has excellent advice on submitting short stories to an editor as well as important information on how to properly eat chocolate.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

University of Salford

Tomorrow I am going to be visiting author at the University of Salford. I shall be reading and conducting workshops for students on the short fiction module. Looking forward to this very much.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Living it up on a Saturday night

Just spotted this in the local newspaper. Am very excited, obviously...

In case you can't make out the writing the venue is Llay United Youth Football Club, and features 'some of the world's quckest and funniest snails'. Unfortunately it neglects to give a time but I intend to be there, camera to hand.


Andrew Holmes, author of 64 CLARKE, has organised something called SECRET SANTA'S MIXTAPE EXCHANGE. A group of us, many of whom are authors of stories in PERVERTED BY LANGUAGE (an anthology of short stories inspired by the titles of tracks by the FALL to be published by Serpent's Tail in 2007), compiled a mix of tracks on a CD then sent them to Andrew. He is now sending them on (anonymously) for us all to 'criticise'...can't wait for mine, also can't wait to hear what someone makes of my mix. It's going to be shockingly bad - but I don't care.

Sunday, February 19, 2006


Our eggs come free-range from a local farmer. Tonight there was much excitement in the Hodmandod household when I cracked open a particularly long pale egg and this landed in the pan...

Friday, February 17, 2006


This post will be brief. My arm is aching all the time now, but especially when I write and also at night when I am trying to get to sleep. I have used up a large tube of ibuprofen gel in a week. When I went to the doctor she suggested that I change my occupation but that is not possible - writing is what I love, it is much more than a job to me. So instead I have turned to books and am following the instructions in this one.

So, accordingly it was yoga yesterday, aerobics today (I'd given them up thinking the best thing to do was to rest) and stretches whenever I remember. I am also trying not to spend more than 20 minutes at the keyboard without a break, and this week end Hodmandod Senior is going to take the plinth off my desk because we think it might be too high...and I have changed from my desk computer to my laptop to avoid using the mouse.

If anyone reading this has any other tips I would be very grateful to hear them.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

The role of the Hodmandod in AS YOU LIKE IT

Some kind person (or persons) from MIT has put all of Shakespeare's plays on the internet, and since I have so much to do I keep myself awake wondering how I am going to do it all, and my arm is aching through too much time spent at my keyboard I am sad to report the start of another obsession - a study on the use of snails as a metaphor or simile in the works of Shakespeare. This is a direct result of my interview with the talented Mr Norminton so I am blaming him.

I have to report there is no reference to snails in ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL...

But two separate references in AS YOU LIKE IT.

The first is in Act 2 Scene 7 where JAQUES describes the ages of man. The snail is used as a simile for a school boy creeping to school with his satchel (amazing to see how little changes over the years). I find this piece profoundly depressing because it is still so recognisable. JAQUES makes the slow trudge to old age and the unpleasant second childhood of senility sound inevitable. But it is not, of course...

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like SNAIL
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

The second reference in Act 4 scene 1 is a lot more amusing. Rosalind expresses her admiration for the snail because although he advances slowly at least he can offer a woman a place to live (the house on his head) and also comes armed with a horn so that he can defend her honour.

Shakespeare, quite obviously, was a snail enthusiast.

Nay, an you be so tardy, come no more in my sight: I
had as lief be wooed of a snail.
Of a snail?
Ay, of a snail; for though he comes slowly, he
carries his house on his head; a better jointure,
I think, than you make a woman: besides he brings
his destiny with him.
What's that?
Why, horns, which such as you are fain to be
beholding to your wives for: but he comes armed in
his fortune and prevents the slander of his wife.
Virtue is no horn-maker; and my Rosalind is virtuous.
And I am your Rosalind.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

An interview with Gregory Norminton

Gregory Norminton's book GHOST PORTRAIT is one of the first books I reviewed on this blog. It is a beautiful book which takes the reader back to the British Civil war and the Restoration.

I am not sure this link will keep working but you may be able to hear some more of Gregory's writing here. It is a short story about the cost of saving someone's life and was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 last Friday. It explores the debt owed for being saved and the consequently complicated relationship between two soldiers. The heat of the Malaysian jungle and the suffocating modern Asian smog is used to excellent effect.

A SHORT BIOGRAPHY (in his own words)
Gregory Norminton was born in 1976. To date he has published three novels: The Ship of Fools, Arts and Wonders (which won an Arts Council Writer’s Award in 2003) and Ghost Portrait. As well as writing, Gregory is a rather frantic environmentalist who will be featured in an Animal Planet cable television series this spring. He divides his time between a desk in Hampshire and some tables in Edinburgh, where his girlfriend lives.

I first met Gregory at a Sceptre party. Everyone that I've met who knows him says he is very clever. In fact someone, and I can't remember who, said that they would like to emulsify Mr Norminton's brains and then suck them out through one of his ears with a straw... However, as well as being clever Gregory feels strongly enough about the fate of this planet to something about it. He also has a lot of interesting and amusing things to say - as the interview below shows.

I noticed from his website two things - that he has also started his own blog and that his story had just been broadcast (something he modestly forgot to mention).

CD: Do you have any connection with snails? (or anecdotes, memorable
GN: I am fond of snails. They are triumphs of evolution; they have inspired poets from Shakespeare
(Love’s feeling is more soft and sensible
Than are the tender horns of cockled snails)
to Marianne Moore
(If “compression is the first grace of style”,
you have it);
they feed my favourite garden bird (the thrush); and they taste so good cooked in garlic that I forgive those that ravage my garden in spring.

CD: What is your proudest moment?
GN: The time when – cut by coral and buffeted by strong winds – I summoned the strength not to drown while studying the reef off Calabash Caye in Belize. (Of course to others it can’t have looked so dramatic: a red-faced Englishman floundering in the shallows. But the relief – yes, the adrenaline-charged triumph of getting back to the boat – was unforgettable.

CD: Have you ever had a life-changing event - if so what was it?
GN: Being born. It was a shock. And there’s only one known cure for it.

CD: What is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard of or seen?
GN: James Lovelock telling us the planet’s f**cked (though not in those words).

CD: If there was one thing you’d change about yourself what would it be?
GN: My tendency to despair.

CD: What is happiness?
GN: Living in the present. Being free of physical pain or discomfort. Both of these, in fact. Pain is a prison: you can achieve almost nothing when you’re in it.

CD: What is the first thing you do when you get up?
GN: Regret it.

CD: How long have you been writing?
GN: Professionally (that is, in return for small amounts of money), I have been writing for about seven years. Before my first novel I wrote a number of plays but fiction took over when I realised how slim the chances are of getting work for the stage produced. An unperformed play is half dead, whereas a short story, even if it is never published, can at least be said to exist.

CD: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
GN: My ambition for many years was to be an actor. I trained at LAMDA after university but was told I’d only get work in middle age. To act as a young man you must either be handsome – in a blandly telegenic way – or fabulously ugly. I am neither. On the other hand, I do possess a slight resemblance to Prince Albert (later Edward VII) and hence played him in a docudrama for BBC 2. It was my only acting job to date and I was upstaged by my false whiskers.

As for writing – well, I’ve always been a scribbler, a consequence perhaps of obsessive compulsive disorder when I was a teenager.

CD: What is your typical writing day - if you have such a thing?
GN: My writing day? I wake up at 8 a.m., consume half a grapefruit (without added sugar) and stand on my head for ten minutes while reciting my mantra. (The mantra was given to me by a great lama in a greasy spoon café on the Balls Pond Road.) At nine o’clock, sporting a paisley cravat and smoking Cuban cheroots, I settle down before my Olivetti (I spurn word processors as the work of the devil) and write 1000 words before lunch. After lunch (either at the Groucho Club or the Ivy) I play three consecutive games of squash with my agent, my editor and my publicist; then return to my desk for three solid hours’ composition until it’s time for supper with my wife, the celebrated model and academic Vashti Piňeyro-Cadiz.

Oh, all right. My writing day is a miracle of procrastination. I consider myself one of modern literature’s most prolific nappers. I scribble on scraps of paper for one or two hours (when I’m not trying to walk off a packet of hobnobs), then type up the awful drivel for another two, print out the day’s disaster, cut out most of it with a leaky biro, and absolve myself by insisting that I really would benefit from another evening in front of the television.

CD: What initiated the writing of GHOST PORTRAIT?
GN: Ghost Portrait started life as a radio play, written over a couple of weeks in 1998. The play’s title was The Portraitist’s Commission. Nathaniel Deller, his wife and daughter, William Stroud and Thomas Digby were all there, somewhat roughly. The play was championed by an independent production company but rejected by the BBC. I moved on to other things but enough of my curiosity survived for the story to continue to grow in my mind. In 2002 I decided to rewrite it completely as a novel. Needless to say, Ghost Portrait is not a transcribed play. I wanted to find a form unique to the novel and, on the whole, I think I succeeded.

CD: One of the (many) strengths of GHOST PORTRAIT is the way you give a sense of the historical setting without being at all heavy handed. What sort of research did you have to do for the book?
GN: Research is a tricky business. I’m currently reviewing a novel which sinks under the weight of it. On the other hand, it’s a novelist’s task to make an imagined world live in the imagination and to do this one must be familiar with the sights, sounds and smells of that world. I visited Ightham Mote in Kent and explored the downs near Maidstone. I spent a glorious hour in one of England’s last post-mills – erected in 1665 – from whose bin-floor the miller and his family would have watched the Great Fire of London, and gave my experience to William Stroud. For the Amsterdam sections I consulted Simon Schama’s controversial book Rembrandt’s Eyes; I read a lot of titles on the English Civil War and its aftermath, on King Charles I’s art collection, on sex and family in the seventeenth century. I acknowledge my debt to Liza Picard’s Restoration London for all the sensual stuff. All the rest is guess work.

CD: The descriptions in your book are exquisitely terse and poetic. Do you write poetry or any other sort of fiction or non-fiction?
GN: I am no poet, though I do enjoy writing haiku. I write short stories – a few of which have been published or broadcast – and am pioneering, ha ha, a kind of miniature form, under 500 words in length, which I hope to persuade some newspaper or magazine to publish instead of a column. A novel is a cumbersome business and even the best are imperfect. While I don’t pretend to have succeeded, at least in short fiction one can aspire to perfection.

CD: Which writers do you most admire - can you give me three living and three dead?
GN: Writers whom I admire? There are so many: I’m glad you limit me to six. Dead, then (and bear in mind that next year, God willing, this list will have changed according to my reading): Paul Valéry, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett. Living: Penelope Lively, Jim Crace, Pierre Michon. Oh, but six is so little...!


I am very pleased to report that in August I am going to be a visiting author to a special interest holiday group in the Languedoc in France called 7 DAY WONDER. When I was a child I used to have a poster of a small village in the Languedoc-Rousillon area of France. It was on the top of a small steep hill and all the buildings were the colour of honey. The surrounding mountains were covered in dense green forest and I used to love imagining myself living there listening to the people around me talking in the language of 'Oc'.

98 REASONS goes Dutch

My book 98 REASONS FOR BEING is going to be translated into Dutch - the contract arrived this morning from AMBO-ANTHOS which means that my book will have some excellent literary company. I am delighted about this because it is the first time anyone is going to translate my work into another language.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Hoegbotton and Sons Bookshop in Ambergris, a fictional world of silences, spores, and an underclass race called the greycaps who are just biding their time and waiting for their moment.

The bookshop itself though is real (as well as virtual and imaginary) and open for business. Just click here.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Swedish Snail

The snail wakes - stretches out - life is too short to mope it reminds itself, and even though the sun is not yet shining does its best to slither forwards.

Here is another brilliant photo of a snail by Sandra Johnson. She found it on the west coast of Sweden. It looks as if it keeps its brains on the outside of its head.

I am pleased to report that Sandra has started her own blog 'Cathy Timberlake' which will, in due course, feature some more of her excellent photos and also, I expect some of her very funny self-effacing anecdotes.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


The snail is going to sleep for a while. Bye bye for now.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Delighted to see that the American title of my book has inspired someone to write a poem!

I particularly like the 'a confederacy of fingers gloving soft the ridges' and the ending - a strong simple command just to 'listen'.

Thank you Bombazine.