Sunday, 27 December 2015

It's a strange world.

It's all over now. (Wasn't that  a Rolling Stones hit once upon a time?)
Christmas is a very strange time of year when the days are short, dark and dismal so we fill the place with bright, twinkling lights almost as if we're afraid of the dark. Sunrise is around 8.30  and sunset about 3.30 thanks to Summer Time fiddling with the clocks. We need the surge of energy that Christmas brings - the rush to buy presents, to fill the fridge, freezer and store cupboard so we can eat and survive the freezing weather, to keep ourselves busy doing energetic, happy things. It's an instinct to come together, to herd together instead of trying to survive on our own. In ancient days, it would have been vital for survival. Today, with electricity and abundant food, it is a psychological need for bright lights and companionship. The urge that strikes people to rush out and buy "bargains" in the post-Christmas sales - which used to be "January sales" - could be considered as relief and affirmation that we're still alive.

The shortest day has crept by, almost submerged in the floods that afflict the north of England. Those who live on flood plains must now be counting the cost as rivers, delightful in summer, now metamorphose into raging torrents of brown, muddy water. Trees that soak up gallons of water a day have been ruthlessly felled to provide grazing. Streams clog up with debris, branches and leaf litter and no one clears them. Water has soaked into the land all through autumn, and now runs straight off the hills and into the river systems. The river Tyne was rising again yesterday for the third or fourth time this month. So much rain has fallen in so short a time there is little anyone can do. News bulletins tell me the same is happening in South America, while Australia suffers bush fires. It's a strange world we have today.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015


Image result for the bridge actress sagaHave you been following the Bridge III? I have and found it riveting. It's one of the Scandi noir tv productions with a heroine who is "different" - her words, not mine. She has troubled understanding jokes, and tells the absolute truth, seems unable to lie. This makes it difficult for her to socialise and she is regarded by many of her colleagues as an oddball.

A workaholic, she is the best Malmo police station can offer in the way of detectives and by that I mean she is brilliant. The other important factor in the series is the Oresund Bridge which links Sweden and Denmark, Malmo and Copenhagen. I depend on the English subtitles, but it may be that the language changes as the locations switch between Sweden and Denmark. I was also unaware that the two countries did not always get on, for want of a better word. Culturally they claim to be world's apart.

The Bridge has its own Facebook page, and the actress who plays the part of Saga is a fragile looking blonde who wears a khaki coloured coat, waistcoat, sweater  and leather trousers. Even her vintage Porsche is khaki. Fragile she is not, in a gun-toting, catch the crim way. But in personal relationship, yes, very. As troubles she does not know how to deal with crowd in on her, we fear that she will follow her sister and throw herself under a train. A colleague haunted by the disappearance of his wife and two daughters is the only one who can possibly save her.

It really is magnificent acting and thought the criminal acts are best viewed through hands over the eyes, I recommend this series to you as essential viewing. Check out BBC4 The Bridge III.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Write like Reacher

I've recently become a Lee Child fan and read half a dozen of his books, so when I saw this article (in the Independent newspaper, on Monday, 5th January, 2015,) I copied it here so I can re-read it for my own pleasure any time I want. Plus which anyone who missed it can also have the pleasure.
Here's the link:

·        Andy Martin is the author of the article and his link will show you others he has written - including one about Stephen King and Lee Child.
      Novel approach: Andy Martin observes quietly in the background while Lee Child works on his latest book Jené LeBlanc
"This isn’t the first draft, you know." He’d only written two words. "CHAPTER ONE."
"Oh," I said. "What is it then?"
"It’s the only draft!"

Right then, he sounded more like Jack Reacher than Lee Child. More Reacher than writer. "I don’t want to improve it. When I’ve written something, that is the way it has to stay. It’s like one of those old photos you come across. From the 1970s. And you have this terrible Seventies haircut and giant lapels on your jacket. It’s ridiculous – but it’s there. It is what it is. Leave it alone."

We were in the back office of his apartment on Central Park West, New York, a few blocks north of where John Lennon used to live. Lee Child was sitting at his huge riveted metal desk, his long fingers poised over the keyboard, gazing into a 27in screen. Which was practically blank. It was 2.26 in the afternoon, 1 September 2014.

He had to start on 1 September – 20 years to the day since, having been fired from his job in television, he went out and bought the paper and pencil (and a pencil sharpener) with which he would write Killing Floor, his first Jack Reacher novel. Every year, ever since then, he has started a new one on the very same day. It’s a ritual with him. Now, it’s Reacher 20.

"The first day is always the best," Child, now 60, said. "Because you haven’t screwed anything up yet. It’s a gorgeous feeling." I was about to be witness to the genesis of a new work, the Big Bang moment. I had no idea what was coming next. Nor did he.

Because this is the key thing about the way that Lee Child writes, the thing that drew me to write to him and ask whether he would mind my watching him at work. He really didn’t know what was going to happen next. He had nothing planned. "I have no title and no plot," he said. But I could come anyway. He didn’t think I would put him off too much. He relied on inspiration to guide him. Like a muse. Something very basic and mythical, without too much forethought. He likes his writing to be organic and spontaneous and authentic. But he had a glimmering of what was coming. "I can feel it. The rhythm. It’s got to be stumbly. It’s tough guys talking. I have to get their vernacular. But, at the same time, it has to trip ahead. A tripping rhythm. Forward momentum."

I was sitting on a kind of sofa a couple of yards behind him. Just perched on the edge of it, not really lying down or anything.

"It’s reverse Freudian," Child said. "You’re on the couch and you’re analysing me."

The title had popped into his head the night before. "Make Me… I don’t know, it’s not definite. But I like it. It’s got something. Sounds like Reacher, all right. Playground machismo. And then there’s that meaning to do with being under surveillance, making someone, identifying them, tailing them. And maybe a little bit erotic or romantic, too."

I could see over his shoulder. "And remember, I’m not making this up. Reacher is real. He exists. This is what he is up to, right now. That’s why I can’t change anything – this is just the way it is."

He lit another cigarette and took a deep drag and blew out a lot of smoke, then put the cigarette in the ashtray. "I was thinking: you have a high risk of dying from secondary smoke inhalation here."

I was thinking: the smoke is all part of it. Like a magic show. Smoke and mirrors. Lee Child was a magician, for once tweaking aside the curtain and saying: "OK, come on through and let me show you exactly how it’s done." Revealing his secrets.

He tapped a few keys. "Do not check spelling. Or grammar. I am going to let Microsoft tell me what grammar is?!"

Anyone who doesn’t want to know how the next Reacher book begins, look away now. The first line came out as follows:

"Moving a guy as big as Keever wasn’t easy."

I was hooked. He had me on "Moving". Participle form, verb of action. We begin with a burial. The novel hasn’t even started yet and one man is already dead.

According to Forbes magazine, Lee Child has the "strongest brand" in all fiction. More readers want to get to know this author than any other. And they clamour for more Reachers. It always takes him the best part of a year to write one. Partly because he spends a lot of time "goofing off", as he puts it: publicising the previous one; Madrid in October to pick up a literary award; Long Beach, California, in November, for Bouchercon, the annual jamboree of thriller and mystery writers from around the world; party at the United Nations in December.

Harold Pinter once said: "I cannot understand the mentality of one who is awaiting the next Lee Child." Child is denounced as the anti-Proust. But literary snobs may be surprised to learn that he is not some kind of lucky idiot savant in possession of a magic formula. He is serious about his writing. He is a poet, in the ancient Greek sense of poiesis, a maker, a craftsman, dedicated to his art, who harks back to the artisan metalworkers of his youth in Birmingham and Sheffield. (Hence Make Me.)

For example, on the night of 1 September, he explained why he was putting in a comma. He felt the need for a comma, in a sentence about some bad guys burying poor old Keever. It would make it more "rueful and contemplative", he said. Something to do with Flaubertian point of view. He was preoccupied by "voice". Later, he spent considerable time worrying about the word “onto” (he thought it was ugly). Shortly before Christmas, he announced: "I’ve just written this four-word sentence. I’m pretty pleased with it." Classic degree-zero minimalism à la Camus’ The Outsider. Meursault with muscles.

Child has made a fortune out of his brand of mythical realism. Just as Reacher is half-Rimbaud, half-Rambo, Child is both art-for-art’s-sake Parnassian and ruthless businessman. And he sees no contradiction between the two. He had a formative insight at around the age of seven or eight, when Ford came up with the Cortina. "It was supposed to be the first ‘modern car’. It was said that they had redesigned the steering wheel over and over again – to shave a single penny off the cost. We were divided about it. In Birmingham [where he grew up], I mean. Assuming it was true. The steering wheel was such an important part of the whole thing. The most intimate part of the car, really. And some people were annoyed that commerce was trumping art. The art people hated the commerce. The engineers hated the art people. But I realised even then that art was commerce. They’re one and the same thing. It’s not either/or."

In September 2014, when Personal came out, it was not only No 1 in the best-seller lists but was also outselling the next 10 or 15 books down the line, combined. Including, for example, Martin Amis’s Holocaust novel. When I mentioned this to another writer, he paused, reflected, and then uttered his considered judgement: "FUCK YOU, LEE CHILD!" He took the view that Child was basically annihilating the competition. Child took it on the chin. "We’re all trying our best," Child said. “I don’t have a problem with them if they don’t have a problem with me."

Broadly sympathetic to wannabe writers, admiring of Amis and tolerant of Julian Barnes and Edward Docx, Lee Child has a slight issue with David Baldacci. Jack Reacher is an ex-military cop. He is very big. He head-butts people. John ("Johnny come lately") Puller – Baldacci’s more recent recurring hero – is a military cop. He is very big. He head-butts people. "Puller," Child snarled, "is a total bloody rip-off of Reacher!"

In one novel, he has a character called Baldacci. Reacher breaks both his arms. In another, he has someone called Puller who is a total idiot. Reacher says: "Did someone drop you on your head when you were young?" In Personal, Baldacci becomes Archi-bald. Reacher shoots him in the head. "What I can’t understand is why someone didn’t take him to one side and just have a quiet word in his ear. ‘Listen, David, you realise that everyone is going to think this is pure plagiarism, don’t you? Reacher was there before Puller – and he’s better!’"

Perching on Lee Child’s shoulder, like a pirate’s parrot, while he writes his next book is an education and a privilege. I sometimes wonder why he lets me do it. Perhaps like an ageing boxer (who smokes a pack of Camels a day and once drank a record 30 cups of coffee) he wants a spectator for his last big fight. “I write on the verge of a stroke,” he says. But I begin to suspect that he likes having somebody around to take note of the occasional brilliant four-word sentence. He once wrote a short hymn to democracy, which was an acrostic: the five sentences began O-B-A-M-A. "And nobody noticed!" he lamented.

Sometimes I have the impression that, as per quantum theory, the observer changes (ever so slightly) the thing observed by virtue of the act of observation. Recently, Child’s American publishers questioned the Make Me title. He remained immovable. "I couldn’t back down. I’d told you the title. You’d only take the piss."

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Ovingham bridge

Water is an amazing thing. It comes out of our taps and showers under our control and at whatever temperature we want. It changes form - from liquid to ice to snow, fog and mist. In our summer streams it trickles over stones and forms golden pools and sometimes, if the weather is very warm for an extended period, the supply dries up and disappears. But too much of it is devastating. Click on the pics to the right and see the devastation the flood leaves behind in its wake once it has roared by.

We are lucky that we live in an area with a Tyne Catchment

3,000 square mile catchment area so we have never yet experienced the drought conditions that so regularly affect the south of England. The water takes five hours to travel from Alston to Newcastle, which is not a great deal of time to prepare for flood conditions. Usually it is a swift rise in levels, lasts for perhaps half a day and then subsides. But by then it has done its terrible work.

On the right you see the Victorian bridge between Ovingham and Prudhoe. Built in 1883, it is one carriage width wide and causes traffic queues even when it is open. It has been closed for refurbishment since June 2014 so that the iron structure can be repaired if necessary.

Eighteen months of work completed, coupled with eighteen months of frustration and lost business for the residents on either side of the river, it opened briefly on 3rd December and then closed again because the floods knocked the hell out of the scaffolding. They're waiting for normal river levels before they'll check for damage/safety.  £3 million has been spent on the bridge - so far. I expect the bridge itself is OK. At the peak of past floods, traffic has been forbidden, but when the waters recede the bridge has been ready for business again. The workmen now have a dismal job of removing the scaffolding, boards around the struts and all the accumulated rubbish. Twigs, branches, tree trunks, doors, plastic buckets and probably a dead sheep or two.

Whose to say it won't happen again if it keeps on raining? We had snow for three or four hours yesterday....

Tuesday, 8 December 2015


Over the weekend we had floods. On the national news Carlisle, Appleby and Keswick got all the attention, and of course they were badly hit again. But the river flooded at Prudhoe and the Old Station House and the house opposite must have been in five feet of water on Saturday night, and they too were hit
five years ago. Locations on the industrial estate were flooded and the Tyne was eighteen feet higher than normal. Perhaps not the highest ever, but certainly the highest since records have been kept.
The path I often walk with Tim is littered with rubbish which indicates the water would have been well over my head. People were evacuated in Ovingham, on the other side of the Tyne where the Whittle Burn comes down to the river. A horse was trapped in a field and died just after it was eventually rescued. At Corbridge, six miles away, the flood banks were overwhelmed and the new defence wall overtopped.  50 or more people were evacuated from the area around the Dyvels public House. They too suffered the same thing five years ago. Bellingham, Haydon Bridge and other small places suffered too. The suffering is the same, but the numbers are smaller so the tv cameras go where the numbers are highest. But don't think everywhere else got off Scot-free, because they did not.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

A puzzle or not?

"Scientists have settled one of the great puzzles of pre-Gutenberg commercial publishing." 
This is how the article opens in the Guardian, so I sat down to read it. 

"Pocket Bibles, painstakingly inscribed by hand in their tens of thousands in the universities of Paris, Oxford and Padua, were made of vellum taken mostly from the hides of calf, sheep and goats, and then made ultra-thin by a process still unknown."

The article goes on for several paragraphs, but right at the end I discovered that the researchers had "found evidence for the equivalent of a set of 13th-century Europe-wide industry standards, defining the raw material for a labour-intensive copying system that published at least 20,000 Latin pocket Bibles for an eager market. But the technology remains elusive."

So they haven't solved the puzzle at all.  Surely we already knew it was mainly calf skin, with a some sheep and goat skins? The article goes on:

 “It was a craft industry where the skills have been handed down from father to son, and stay within families, and we don’t know how they did it anymore,” Experiments with descriptions found in medieval literature proved unhelpful.

“Clearly the people writing about them weren’t the people doing them: they heard at second hand. As a consequence they write things down which aren’t genuine recipes for parchment production.”

I might be forgiven for thinking the journalist who reported this in the Guardian is guilty of the same thing. The puzzle has not been solved.

Se the article here:

Tuesday, 1 December 2015


New month, new targets.
Rule no 1: I must remember to promote my books.
It's difficult. There's no natural talent for promotion in any bone of my body and every tweet seems like a plea rather than a promotion. The fact that the way to do it seems to change every few months. Once yahoo groups seemed to be the answer but now they seem to be fading fast. Then it was Facebook and Twitter - much to the horror of certain people who thought promoting one's books on Twitter was beyond the pale. Didn't they realise Twitter was all about promotion, even if it was promotion of self? Funny how they rush to tell everyone how much they've drunk, eaten, spent and then condemn authors for promoting a good book.

So I shall have to do a little investigating and find out where the best people promote these days. If only I had Aidan Turner to promote for me, I'd be certain of success!