Sunday, 28 October 2012

Now here’s a funny thing

My friend Paul has taken to telling me off for putting ‘sad bits’ in my novels. Why don’t you just write out-and-out comedies, he says. You’re very funny. I try to explain that life encompasses tragedy and farce and all points in between, and that I want my stories to do the same, but to no avail. He just wants me to make him laugh.

I take it as a compliment that Paul believes me capable of writing comic novels, but I think he underestimates the difficulty of the task. Very few authors manage it successfully. Here’s my personal top five (in reverse order, naturally).

5) Tom Sharpe
Like many people, I suspect, I discovered Sharpe’s scabrous novels in my late teens and used them as light relief during my A-levels and beyond. Sharpe’s comedy is propelled by a righteous fury at the idiocies (and worse) of the world, and his best books (the two set in South Africa spring to mind) are satirical masterpieces.
Recommended reading: Indecent Exposure

4) Douglas Adams
Another favourite from my schooldays and student years. True, the Hitchhikers’ Guide… series ran out of steam by the end, but the first three books are glorious, full of clever ideas brilliantly realised. One of those authors who managed to plant ideas in the heads of a generation – not least the answer to the ultimate question about the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
Recommended reading: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

3) Jerome K Jerome
The Edwardian era may be the golden age of English comic writing, and the oddly-named Jerome was its master. There is (gentle) satire in his work, but mainly he created funny situations for his characters to bumble through. Ignore the over-rated Three Men in a Boat, which is too sentimental for my taste, and start with its sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, in which the hapless trio go on a bicycle tour of Germany. I’ve read it more times than any other book I own.
Recommended reading: Three Men on the Bummel

2) Matt Beaumont
I’m not entirely sure Beaumont belongs in this list, as some of his more recent books have moved away from out-and-out comedy. But at his funniest, he is the most hilarious writer of the modern age, and the way he uses contemporary communications to send up his stupid, venal characters is genius. e is told entirely in emails, and in its successor, e squared, he broadens his palate to take in instant messaging, Twitter, texting and more. It’s one of those ideas other authors must have kicked themselves for not thinking of first.
Recommended reading: e squared

1) PG Wodehouse
Who else could be number one? The undisputed master of comic writing, the man who created a wonderful, unchanging world of his own where (let’s be honest), we’d all like to live, despite the fierce aunts and intractable romantic complications. There is satire in Wodehouse’s work (Roderick Spode and his Black Shorts is a delicious send-up of Oswald Mosley), but most of the humour is gentle, and all the better for it.
Recommended reading: anything, really – but Summer Lightning is a great introduction to the Blandings series, usually overshadowed by the Jeeves stories

Saturday, 8 September 2012

A brief commercial break

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve contributed to an anthology of new writing about Watford FC, edited by Lionel Birnie and called Tales from the Vicarage. It’s out later this month, but it’s available to pre-order now. You can read full details here, including a list of the contributors and a summary of each chapter.

It’ll be the first (and almost certainly the last) time I’ve ever appeared in print alongside an England international, and I’m really looking forward to reading his and the other contributions.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Bits and pieces

It appears that I haven’t posted anything here for three months, which is a bit of a shock to me – especially since ‘Write blog entry’ appears on my to-do list every week.

It’s a reflection of the fact that work has taken up an increasing amount of my time and – equally significantly – energy in recent months. As a result, I haven’t done a great deal of creative writing, and my new novel has stalled at chapter 7.

I will get back to it in due course, but in the meantime I have got a couple of things coming out this autumn. One is a contribution to an anthology of new writing about Watford FC that will be published at the start of the new season. It’s an extension of the sort of thing I write on my other blog, but much longer  – around 5,000 words – and more nakedly autobiographical. I’ll be interested to see how it fits in with the other pieces in the book.

The other is much shorter – a song which will appear on the new album by Blue Angel in the autumn. As I wrote last year, my friend Jason suggested I try writing some lyrics for him to put to music for a solo project he was working on. He also sent me a tune with a title but no words, and asked if I could supply something suitable. I took his title (‘The colour of summer’) and ran with it, and it’s this song that he and his collaborators have recorded for the Blue Angel album. I can’t wait to hear it.

More details on both projects when I have them.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

It’s in the trees

This time last week, I spent much of the morning queueing at my local Royal Mail sorting office to pick up a package the postman hadn’t been able to fit through the letterbox. It was worth the wait, though, as the package included a shiny new copy of Even More Rock Family Trees by Pete Frame.

Literary heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and even though he deals exclusively in facts rather than fiction, Frame is one of mine. I first discovered his work just after I’d left school, and during a long, lonely summer spent working in a factory in Germany, his first book of rock family trees was a constant companion. I would spent hours poring over the minutiae of bands’ careers, tracing the developments of famous (and not so famous) musicians’ careers. The accompanying text was every bit as engrossing, a winning blend of fact, anecdote and opinion. Last, but not least, Frame’s family trees are works of art, hand-drawn and carefully planned to make even the most convoluted genealogy comprehensible. Thirty years after I first encountered them, I still find them as fascinating as ever. (If you want to find out more, check out the Family of Rock website.)

The stories I’d read in Frame’s books of rock family trees over the years (the latest is his fifth), particularly those dealing with the British Blues Boom of the 60s, were one of the key influences that fed into the plot of First Time I Met The Blues. Indeed, towards the end of planning the novel, I drew up a rudimentary family tree for The Hornets, to get a better sense of how the peripheral characters around the band fitted in. In my fantasies, when the book is picked up by a major publisher, I’ll commission Frame himself to create a proper family tree that can be included in the hardback edition. Hey, it could happen.

Friday, 24 February 2012

The dying art of editing

Do publishers not bother editing books any more? And do authors not take the trouble to check their work before they deliver their work to the publisher?

I ask because I’m spotting more and more errors in published works – both novels and work of non-fiction – and it really annoys me. I’m not talking about typos necessarily (though they’re not unknown), but about errors in punctuation or syntax, or simply instances of bad writing that should have been eradicated, either by the author or their editor, before the book was printed.

Take the opening sentence of William Boyd’s ‘Ordinary Thunderstorms’. It’s a superb novel, one of the best I read last year, but it starts unpromisingly:

“Let us start with the river – all things begin with the river and we shall probably end there, no doubt – but let’s wait and see how we go.”

That contradiction in the section between the dashes, between ‘probably’ and ‘no doubt’, pulls you up short. Any decent writer (and Boyd is a great deal better than decent) ought to have spotted it when they read through their draft, and deleted one or the other; it’s what authors do. So did Boyd not check his work? And did Bloomsbury not edit it when he delivered the novel to them?

I’ve just finished reading another excellent book, ‘The Champion’ by Tim Binding, and it contains a classic example of the kind of sloppiness I’m talking about. The narrator, an accountant, discovers that a builder hired by his employer is taking liberties with his bills. On page 304, the builder is referred to as Paul Langley. Two paragraphs later he’s become Lumley, then four lines after that he’s Langley again. Further down the same paragraph he’s still Langley, then he’s back to being Lumley. Two pages later, just to confirm the error, he’s referred to as Paul Lumley.

You can see how it happened, of course. Somewhere in the process of writing the book, Binding decided the builder should be called Lumley rather than Langley (or vice versa), but he didn’t do a very thorough job of making the change. And, once again, neither he nor his editor at Macmillan proofed the typescript thoroughly enough before publication to spot and amend the error.

Does any of this matter? It does to me. A good novel immerses you in its world, and anything that jars when you’re reading risks breaking that spell. Good writing is writing that you don’t notice – and I, for one, notice errors.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The young ones

Having written a novel about a fictional blues band, I invariably find that when I go to a gig, I end up mentally comparing my invention with the real thing, to see how accurate my imagination was.

Last night I went to The Half Moon in Putney to see Nine Below Zero, expecting to see a band at much the same stage of their career as The Hornets in the later chapters of First Time I Met The Blues. I wasn’t disappointed – and NBZ were excellent. What I didn’t expect was to discover another band right at the start of their journey.

My friend Chris and I were catching up on each other’s news and barely noticed the support act (The Aaron Keylock Blues Band) take to the stage. We just had time to register that the trio (guitar/bass/drums) appeared to be in their early teens before they launched into a hard and heavy blues instrumental. All around us, jaws dropped. This was seriously good.

Aaron himself, the singer and guitarist, is a diminutive boy whose shoulder-length hair and check shirt bring to mind a young Rory Gallagher. But I doubt that Gallagher was this good at the age of 14. Aaron can play fast, intricate solos and slow-burning blues that build to a climax, he can play slide guitar, he writes his own songs – he’s even managed to become jaded with the biz already, earnestly introducing one song with the deathless line, “This is about the music industry.” The one thing he can’t do very well right now is sing, mainly because his voice sounds like it’s in the process of breaking.

So how do they compare with my fictional Hornets? I must admit that my imagination didn’t stretch to making a bunch of lads in their early teens quite as skilful and polished as Aaron and co. Des, the Hornets’ leader, is certainly talented and pretty sure of himself, but I never pictured him as being that good – and he’s already older at the start of the story than Aaron is now. It’s quite mind-boggling, really. Check him out for yourself if you don’t believe me.

The gig did confirm one thing I got right, though. I wanted the book to demonstrate that there is something about the blues that gives it a timeless, universal appeal – so why shouldn’t a group of boys growing up in Watford in the early 60s want to play this music? The fact that a boy from Oxford like Aaron Keylock is following the same path in 2012 is further proof that the blues will never die. The torch just gets passed on from one generation to the next.