A writer writes his dairy, part two.

Random jottings

December 15

 

Days Without End

 

Late in the year, I read Sebastian Barry’s novel, Days Without End, a sometimes harrowing and brutal story of two Irish men who emigrated to America around 1850, and enlisted in the American army, finding themselves fighting native Americans in The Indian Wars and ultimately the Confederates in The America Civil War.

 

Shocking in places, but so well written, and softened with a delightful love story that it became my No 1.

 

Here’s part of excellent review by Robert McCrum in The Observer.

 

‘Some novels sing from the first line, with every word carrying the score to a searing climax, and Days Without End is such a book. It has the majestic inevitability of the best fiction, at once historical but also contemporary in its concerns.

 

The story opens in 1851 Missouri with the laying out of the dead after battle, then settles into Thomas McNulty’s tale of his early life with bosom buddy John Cole, through the Indian wars, the Lincoln presidency, and the tragedy of the civil war to the safe haven of Tennessee in the 1870s. McNulty is a Sligo-born Irish American. His story becomes Sebastian Barry’s salute to the socio-cultural marriage between Ireland and the New World, expressed in prose that contrives to be both Irish and American, a remarkable sleight of hand.

 

Barry is an acclaimed playwright. He knows how to put his audience on the hook, but he’s more than just the dramatist of young men’s lives. His inner ear is tuned to a frequency that makes music with every sentence. A lyrical novel is a risky proposition, but he gives it breath in describing a very dark subject: how America came into its own on the frontier.

 

The American west of McNulty’s superb narration owes something to Twain, Whitman, Crane, and even Cormac McCarthy, but Barry is not content merely to pay homage to these masters. He transforms the blood-red landscape of middle America into the embodiment of the American myth – violent, transgressive, passionate, timeless and a little bit mad – a place that becomes both the subject of song and the song itself…’ Robert McCrum, The Observer.

 

The season’s best wishes to all.

 

My hope for next year is for peace and stability throughout the world, good health to everyone, and relief for the world’s poor, dispossessed, and the millions seeking refuge.

 

 

 

November 27

Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railway, is not for the squeamish. I finished it two or three weeks ago, and left shocked by mans’ inhuman treatment of his fellow man. Well researched, it’s a brutal story about slavery in the Deep South in the nineteenth century. Cory, a young girl slave, victim of several violent beatings by her master, and a misfit amongst her fellow slaves, flees the cotton plantation where she’s been held, and escapes on an illegal underground railway that takes her to the northern free states. In shocking detail, Whitehead doesn’t hold back on leaving the reader fully aware of the cruel, inhuman treatment the slaves had to endure, and why they would risk days in the dark, underground, travelling in a railway truck, and unaware of their destination to gain their freedom.

Wonderfully written, The Underground Railway adds to many volumes of undisputed evidence that recounts the wickedness of slavery, only abolished in America in 1865 and 1833 in Great Britain and the then British Empire. A book that will leave you stunned, if you can take its brutality.

The book I’m writing.

I think I’m about a third of the way in. I’m beginning to feel more confident about it, although I have a long way to go, and I don’t know how it’s going to end.

Otto – given three months to live, and now close to death – knows Holly, his wife, had an affair with the wife of his best friend. Holly, also, thinks he knows about her lover. Both want to talk about it, but find it difficult, unable to find the right moment to bring up the subject. Meanwhile, Lucy, Otto’s daughter who he hadn’t seen for twenty years until days earlier, takes over from her father when he collapses at a talk he was giving. Jan, a friend of Otto, shows an interest in Lucy, supposedly in a relationship with Paul, who lives in America.

I’m getting more in the swing of sourdough bread making. I try and make a loaf whenever we have something going on in the house, like when friends and family stay. It’s a lengthy process: two day proving and a lot of stretching and folding, but worth the effort – therapeutic, and noticeably tastier.

Our daughter has announced she’s becoming a vegan – she wants to do something to make the world a better place. I applaud her, and am thinking of having a vegan week in support. I think I could become a vegetarian, but not a vegan.

Soggy leaves on the pavements, bare trees, summer and autumn shrubs finally wilting, and log fires. Autumn’s almost gone; winter’s beginning to stretch out its long, icy fingers. But Christmas is coming.

 

 

13 November

 

A cold start this morning, autumn leaves around my study door, two shots of espresso to get me fired up.

 

Now the family and all our grandchildren have returned home, and it’s quiet in the house, I’m back to writing, head down, and trying to write a few more chapters of A Noble Exit. Holly, one of the main characters, is having trouble with her past.

 

Last week, thanks to the generosity of my daughter, I went to a talk given by Richard Flanagan, author of Booker prize-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He was promoting his latest book, First Person – a novel featuring the story of Australia’s greatest conman. Richard Flanagan came across as the most unassuming author I’ve listened to, saying in answer to a question on why it takes him so long to write a book (four to seven years) that he’s a bad writer, and wants to get it right. He’s a likeable and compelling person.

 

In 1991, as a young writer trying to finish his first book, he found himself faced with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

 

“I was offered $10,000 to write [an autobiography] in six weeks,” Flanagan told Guardian Australia. The book, ghostwritten by Flanagan, was Codename Iago: the autobiography of John Friedrich, one of Australia’s most notorious conmen. “I was labouring at the time, broke, and my wife was pregnant with twins, and we were in pretty desperate straits. So I took the job. In the third week, John Friedrich shot himself dead and I had to finish the book…” Richard Flanagan at The Guardian.

 

He went on to talk about the truth, lies, and the fake news phenomenon that’s infecting today’s media, and on the so-called death of the novel he said, ‘There’s this idea that a novel can no longer represent reality … And I think that’s a nonsense.’

 

When I came home, I raved about the evening to my daughter-in-law. The next morning, to my surprise and delight, she went out and bought me a copy of First Person, now sitting on top of my to-read pile. Thanks Margot.

 

 

 

The book I’ve most enjoyed writing

 

Truth is not always true is available as an e-book and in print on 30 November.

 

Jen is a young doctor working for MEDICINS SANS FRONTIERES (MSF) in Yemen. She’s married to Joe, an investigative journalist writing about humanitarian issues. They’re their own best friends, and undeniably in love. When Jen is killed in a bombing raid on the hospital, Joe is devastated. But, surprising his friends, and claiming relief from his heartbreak, he marries Mia – an opposite in every way to Jen – within months of Jen’s death.

 

But Jen wasn’t killed. Although believed to be at the hospital when it was bombed, she was out visiting a patient. Captured by terrorists, raped by them, and made to treat their wounded for six months, she manages to escape and find her way back to London. When she finds not only is her husband married to Mia, but rumoured to have been sleeping with her before she was supposed to have been killed, she’s left desolate and destroyed, and struggles to find sanity and a new life.

20 October

 

Otto and Holly take over…

 

Otto and Holly, two characters in the book I’m writing, are giving me a hard time. They both know about Holly’s secret, and want to share it with each other, but neither seems up to it, baulking when they get the opportunity, sliding off and regretting it later. Their behaviour seems to be taking over the plot. Soon, I guess, I’ll have to bring them in line.

 

I’ve had to change the book’s title from After the end to A noble exit, as it was being used by someone else. The new title seems to work at the moment. The story deals with the last months before Otto’s death. I’ve only written about 23k words so far of what will end up about 80-90k words – and Otto and Holly may drag me off in a direction that needs a different title. We’ll see.

 

Ben, my son, and his family are coming back to the UK this weekend. We’re seeing them all for his birthday on Sunday, then his wife, Margot, and Louis, our grandson, are staying for a week before Margot and Ben go to New York for a week for him to run the NY marathon. Louis stays with us! We’re a bit scared we’ll cope.

 

10 October

 

You might have missed me!

 

I think not, but I haven’t posted one of these diary jottings since 21 July. Knowing I’d be unable to write in September and early October because the house would be crammed full of our children and grandchildren, I worked on the book I’m writing, After the end, leaving these jotting to later. Well ‘later’ has now arrived, and here’s a short update on what’s happened.

 

Late July. Several friends came and stayed. The weather was good enough to eat outdoors, and the sea just about warm enough for a few quick dips! Actually, once you’re in the water, it was crisp and refreshing, like a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc on a hot day, just not so moreish!!

Even if I didn’t swim, we walked along the beach at least twice a week. Some evenings we’d take a snack and a bottle of wine, and watch the sun set over the sea. Because of the changing tides and weather, the view of the sea, the beach and the sand dunes changed almost every time we’d visit: an occurrence I find uplifting.

 

August. We went for a few days with our daughter to Bath, a city I’ve been to many times before, and one that I always enjoy. We walked around the historic streets, ate and drunk well, and found two good independent bookshops, housed in old, interesting buildings, coming away laden with books we wanted to read. A few artisan cheese and bread shops popped up here and there, enticing us in, tempting us with samples of their delicious offerings. No hard sell here. We were easy punters; and went back on our last morning to stock up, driving home with mouth-watering smells of fresh bread and aromatic cheese wafting around the car.            

 

By the end of August, I’d managed to write about 23k words of After the end, and think I know where it’s going. Then I stopped. See the ‘work in progress’ link above.

 

September – the invasion. We’d planned it some time ago, but were still taken aback when it actually happened. My four children, their wives and their children descended on us early September, staying – not all the time with us but nearby – until last week. On one day we had twenty-one for lunch, all related in some way. We were graced with a warm dry day, mostly spent in the garden. Much fun.

The eight children, aged from sixteen months to fifteen, seemed happy in their own company, glad no doubt to be rid of their parents, who were equally happy to slurp the afternoon away.

For most of the rest of September, we had no fewer than eight in the house every night. Before they all came, we’d hired a beach hut for a week, hoping we’d be able to use it at least on one or two days day. We used in for almost a week, two of our sons and their children swimming in the sea. Too cold for me!

 

October. They’ve all gone, one family back to Australia, one to Beirut, and one further along the coast. We cleared up, it’s strangely quiet, and we miss them. I’m back to writing my book.

21 July

 

With three chapters of After the end written, I’m left questioning if it’s going in the right direction. In the past, I’ve written to a plan, detailed in advance. Now I’m trying a more informal, make-it-up-as-I-go-along way. The old way was easier, I knew what I had to write on any certain day, but too rigid. It’s early days; I’ll get the hang of it in a week or two.

 

The wonderful summer we’ve been having down here on the south coast has gone away for a while, leaving us windier, more unsettled weather, but we’re still

able to take long beach walks in the evenings. See picture.

 

Baked a sourdough loaf today for a friend coming for the weekend. I think I’ve finally solved the uneven rise problem I had before.

 

 

5 July 2017

 

Forgive the absence. A holiday in Mykonos, an enchanting Greek island where the sun seems to shine forever. Blue cloudless skies and shining blue seas with water so clear and clean you want to dive in. We ate fish so fresh it tasted as though it had been caught the same day – as fish should.

 

Walks on the beach here, days out with our daughter in Brighton, and getting fired up for my next book, After the end, took up the rest of June.

 

Oh, and then we had an election. Young people I know now seem hopeful of a change coming and a brighter future. I see that as important. If the young generation can’t look forward with hope and optimism that surely is wrong and negative. Governments in my opinion should lead us forward in a positive direction, looking after its citizens and providing an improving outlook for all.

 

 

 

1 June 2017

 

Today and for the next four days, I’m giving away my latest book, Night Running, FREE to download. It’s about a troubled man who goes running at night. amazon.com, amazon.co.uk.

 

Time has whizzed by since I last made an entry. Time spent eating and drinking with friends and trying to keep the garden in trim – all well for marinating my thoughts for the next book. I think I’m there, but a short holiday and a little more time before I start on the first process at the beginning of July.

 

The image on the left is of a good old friend contemplating what to eat or drink next. Our daughter is in the foreground. She made the delicious cake nearby and many other things – she’s such a good cook.

 

 

16 May 2017

 

It’s audition time. I have to think up an outline, idea for my next book. As always at this time of in between books, several ideas pop into my head. I mentally audition each one, the best ones I work up in some sort of draft plan. I’m inpatient, and like to start on a new project almost as soon as I’ve finished the last, but I must chose the right one, and nothing has, as yet, stood out. So the audition goes on.

 

While I’m thinking, I’m going back to bread making. We’ve some friends coming for supper on Friday, and I’m making a sour dough loaf. But it’s a bit of a performance. You have to make the starter a week in advance (last week) and then let the leaven and dough do its proofing and fermenting for another three days before you bake it. It goes in the oven on Friday morning, and by 10:00 a.m., I should have a good-looking and, hopefully, tasty loaf.

 

A few days ago we went walking through the woods at night, and what a treat it was. We’d been to For the birds, an immersive walk through a secret woodland location in Brighton, as part of the Brighton Festival. We walked deep into the woods and came across, in the words of the installation director, ‘various different sound and light installations all sharing a common theme based around observations and love for birds and all things avian. A spectacle of flight, bird-song, movement and other narratives based around extinction and migrations, but also a celebration of their life and beauty.’ I hadn’t known what to expect, and found the hour or so it to stroll through the installation a unique and entertaining experience. Well worth seeing – and we managed an early fish supper overlooking the sea.

 

Trump. I’m running out of adjectives to describe his stupidity, so I’ll just say dumb.

 

 

 

 

10 May

 

The wisteria’s now at its best. Soon it will be gone and start dropping, sticking to our shoes, and leaving blue splodges on the wooden floors inside. But it’s fabulous at the moment, and I enjoy the magnificence of it everyday when I’m down in my study at the bottom of the garden. Its ending heralds the end of spring and a time when summer blooms are bursting to open. I love this time of the year. Something new happens everyday.

 

The death of a little girl yesterday on a school outing to a theme park is so sad. She’d left home to have fun, no doubt waved off and wished well by her family, and then tragically killed. My thoughts go out to her family.

 

We went to see Alan Bennett at the Chichester Festival Theatre last night. What a treat. The author Kate Mosse, who lives nearby, introduced him. He was hilarious, reading extracts from his latest book, Keeping On Keeping On – his diaries from 2005-2015. I read it early this year, and laughed at almost every page. He has a rare talent of being able to recount an everyday tale in an original and interesting manner then add a sharp cynical comment: relevant but oh so funny. He’s a little frail at 83, but sharp as a button, and talks in a lucid, precise way that’s eloquent and forthright. I’m a great fan of his, and have seen many of his plays, but I’ve never seen him live and listened to him talk. I’m glad I did. My already considerable respect for him has climbed even higher.

 

Ten days ago Mary and I and our daughter went to see Bob Dylan in London. I’d heard and read he doesn’t say anything or engage with the audience during a gig, and he certainly lived up to those comments. But his performance was brilliant, showing that after sixty-five years of recording music he’s able to perform his classics with a new twist as well as putting his own interpretation on many of the old swing songs of the thirties to fifties. As one critic said, ‘Dylan reinvents himself again.’ Seeing him live had been on my bucket list, now I can tick it off, and grateful for the opportunity.

 

Congratulations to Emmanuel Macron, the new president-elect of France. He’s a European, a progressive, committed to togetherness, and a refreshing change from the nationalism of Brexit, Farage, and Trump. The road ahead of him will be tough, strewn with obstacles and opposition. I wish him well. His election gives progressives like me some hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

25 April

 

Home-made sourdough versus home-made bread maker: no comparison – sourdough wins hands down.

 

After making – and devouring very quickly – the sourdough loaf last weekend, I went back yesterday to using my bread maker. The bread was good; I ate a slice for breakfast today, but the hand made sourdough was excellent, so tasty, and wins any contest hands down. So I made a monumental decision: it’s bread maker bread during the week, hand made sourdough most weekends, holidays, and when friends and family visit. Nobody in the household disagreed.

 

This means keeping a live starter going, and having messed up and thrown away the starter they gave us on the bread course, I have to make another one. Oh what motivation the flavour of sourdough has on me!

 

The wisteria at the back of the house is out. It’s a pale lilac version, more subtle and misty than the dark lilac, but equally impressive. It’s only started to break into flower in the last few days, and will take a few more days to reach its full bloom when it will be truly magnificent. Wisteria is hard work; it needs pruning twice a year, which means ladders and stretching – not so easy for an old guy like me. M has to come and hold the ladder, but for all that, the show we get is worth it. So much so that we try not to be away for the three weeks when it’s at its best. I’ll post more pictures later.

 

I’m being taken to see Bob Dylan live in London on Saturday. What a treat! He’s touring his Triplicate set of three albums, all covers of classic swing albums. I don’t think we’ll hear any of his classics, but I’m still excited. He’s a few years older than me, impressive that he’s still touring and making albums.

 

I’ve been away. It’s been Easter, a time for relaxing, seeing friends and family, spring walks, chocolate and good food. We did all of that.

 

For me, it started the week before Easter when I went on a bread-making course at the e5bakehouse in East London, an artisan bakery and coffee shop, well worth a visit for their bread, cakes, coffee, and enticing food shop. Undoubtedly the best food course I’ve been on – I’ve done quite a few. Hands on, informative, and leaving me with a feeling I wanted to go home and bake bread, which I did. I own a bread maker, which I use two or three times a week, but this was something else. E5bakehouse bake sourdough, the real bread. Together with the nine other participants – all equally appreciative – we each made to take home one loaf, four ciabatta rolls, four bagels, and the dough for another loaf to bake the following morning. We had visitors that weekend; otherwise M and me would have become fat as houses!

 

M’s away this week, seeing her friend in Yorkshire then going on to visit her brother in Edinburgh, so I’m left hobbling around the house and garden – bad knee that won’t go away – and making my first attempt at bread after the course and without the watching eye of the tutor. It’s come out looking okay, if a bit elongated. I don’t think I stretched it enough, but tastes well.

 

We went to London for a couple of days and saw Imelda Staunton in Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf. An excellent play: Imelda Staunton outstanding as usual. I’ve seen her in several performances, both film and stage, and never has she been less than first-rate and unforgettable. It’s a long play, three hours with an interval, but utterly compelling.

 

I see we have another election. Not too pleased about that. The PM lied yet again about not having an election until 2020. She won’t have my vote, but then I’m not sure who will? For once I’m one of the many ‘don’t knows.’ With the world scary and unstable, the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, Brexit, and the NHS, the care service, and our schools cripplingly underfunded, shouldn’t Teresa May and the government be focusing on these, rather than being opportunist and seeking a blatant party advantage.

 

 

6 April

 

I’ve just finished reading The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Steadman. I didn’t know much about this book, hearing about it from a friend. It blew my mind away, the best book I’ve read in the last twelve months, and probably in my top ten best reads ever. It’s the story of a husband and wife who live, and work the lighthouse, on a small rocky island of Australia. One day they find a small baby and a dead man in a shipwrecked dinghy. They bury the man, and look after the baby as their own. Well written, moving, and sad. I read it in about two and a half days, not in one sitting, but whenever I could.

 

Terrorism is in the news again: so sad for all those bereaved and injured. My thoughts go out to them. The world needs some good guys to run it. I hope we find one or two or more soon. Present crowd are grave.

 

My recent work, Truth is not always true, has gone off to the publisher. Now thinking and beginning to plan the next one.

 

28 March

 

Roy, Steve, and Eric are working in the garden making a lot of noise and mess. They’re great guys, happy to do anything we ask, but our back drive has turned into a large pile of rubble, about four foot high, with several large mechanical diggers parked all over it. We’re having a new brick-paved drive, and they assure me that all will look lovely, and back to normal next week. I hope so. Our neighbour, although well warned has complained several times. She thinks her house is about to fall down! It’s not, but I understand her concern. The noise is loud, continuous, and scary, and I can’t work in my study. I went in a few minutes ago to collect a USB disk. It was cold, dusty and with no light.

 

We spent last Sunday in Brighton with our daughter, celebrating Mother’s day, which she so well organised. A great lunch and, as always in Brighton, an interesting and exciting wander. Brighton never ceases to delight me with its independent shops, restaurants and coffee shops, its mix of diverse, friendly people who amble, as we did, through The Lanes. We live in an old Roman city that has its own individual charm, but all the shops are branded, selling the same products that can be bought anywhere else in the country and online, the restaurants are part of a chain, and the coffee shops, numerous as they are, are all part of a larger organisation. There are no individual greengrocers, butchers, fishmongers, or delicatessens.   Brighton is the opposite, an abundance of different and varied choice. So uplifting.

 

16 March

 

We spent Sunday to late last night in Venice, a city I never tire of.

 

The crumbling render on centuries-old buildings, the narrow meandering streets, hardly wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side, edged by four or five-floor-high old dwellings, and often brought to a sudden end by a canal crossing at right angles, are all part of the charm I love.

 

Then there’s the beauty: the stunning palaces and villas that line the sides of the Grand Canal, the campos, the countless artworks found in the galleries and churches, the Rialto and Athenaeum bridges, Saint Mark’s square, the Dodges palace, Saint Mark’s Basilica, and the list goes on.

 

We ate well. Some restaurants we’d researched, others were spontaneous finds that we liked the look of. We were never disappointed. Once, after a visit to The Athenaeum, we found a restaurant overlooking the Grand Canal. We ventured in, and were given a table a few feet away from the water; able to watch the boats pass as we ate.

 

I’m fascinated by Venice. A city built on water – surrounded by water, devoid completely of cars and lorries, and criss-crossed and divided by small and large canals – that functions like any other city, except it’s done by boat. Rising early, you’ll see vessels deliver the city’s requirements: food, building supplies, household appliances, mail, parcels, and more. During the day, people travel around by foot and on the Vaporettos: the waterbuses. Rubbish is collected by boat, water ambulances take people to hospital, and funerals proceed solemnly along the canals.

 

This was my third visit, and I hope to make a fourth.

 

 

 

7 March

 

Last Sunday, a delightful ‘lunch halfway’. By that, I mean we met up with old friends halfway between them and us. We went to Anthony Worrall Thompson’s restaurant, The Greyhound, near Henley-on-Thames, an old wooden-beamed pub set in a pretty garden, where the food was good, the service excellent, and time flew by.

 

I’ve just finished reading The Sellout by Paul Beatty, last year’s winner of the Mann Booker Prize. A refreshingly original book: brilliant, hilarious, unconventional, challenges the rules of writing, provocative, and with an underlining satirical message about the continued racial inequality in the US.

 

This morning, I read an alarming and disturbing article in The GuardianSyria children suffering staggering levels of trauma. It tells of the forgotten refugee children of the Syrian war.

 

‘Children in Syria are suffering from “toxic stress”, a severe form of psychological trauma that can cause life-long damage, according to a study that charts a rise in self-harm and suicide attempts among children as young as 12…’ The Guardian.

 

The West, who can do so much, understandable obsessed by Trump and Brexit, seem to have turned away from this catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Nearly six million children have been orphaned, displaced, lost loved ones, witnessed terrible atrocities, and seen their homes destroyed by the Syrian war. Unless helped now, they will grow up broken, always carrying a mental scar, and see the West as too obsessed with itself to help. This is sad, and with grave consequences.

 

1 March

It’s here. February seemed to go on and on.

 

Mary and I went to see Manchester by the sea yesterday. Wow. We were speechless when we came out. So powerful and sad, well acted, and beautifully choreographed. The part of the east coast of America where the film was set is stunning almost at any time of the year, and it was shown in all its seasons. Congratulations to Casey Affleck for winner the Oscar for best actor. Well deserved. The first episode of new BBC thriller, Replacement – shown last nightseemed tame by comparison, although compelling.

 

February 28

 

The last day of February is often disappointing. Today doesn’t seem to be any different. Just when you’re hoping for a day full of promise and warmer times, it turns out cold, winter’s icy grip holding on, keeping spring at bay, and not about to burst upon us, warming us up, and cheering us with new blooms and bursting greenery. Still, the grass is growing, the fish in the pond have shown their faces, swimming back and forth in the deepest depths. Something’s afoot.

 

Yesterday, on the spur of the moment, we dashed out, caught a train to London, and managed to see two exhibitions at Tate Britain: David Hockney and Paul Nash, the last of which finishes this week. Both were excellent, and showed each artist through the various stages of their career.

The Hockney exhibition showed his early work from the sixties – almost from when he started painting – up to his most recent works. Interesting to see how his style has changed, and how he embraced new techniques, like painting using an iPad.

The Paul Nash exhibition also reflected his different styles in his short life from painting landscapes and still life to abstract scenes.

 

 

February 24

 

Finally finished my latest book, Truth is not always true. I’ve done as much as I can to it, and have sent it off to my editor for a last run through. It’ll be out later this year. No excuse now for not attending to the garden this weekend!

 

Read some good news this week. On Wednesday, Jamie Oliver and the Duchess of Cornwall launched the Great Get Together, a nation-wide event over the weekend of 17/18 June where street parties, picnics and bake-offs are planned across the UK in honour of the murdered MP Jo Cox, killed by a white supremacist. I plan to hold one.

 

Last Friday, M and I saw the movie Denial: the true story about when the holocaust denier, David Irvine, sued Penguin Books and the American holocaust scholar, Deborah Lipsted in 1996, and lost. But he could have won had it not been for the British lawyer Anthony Julius who was Princess Diana’s lawyer in her divorce from Prince Charles. Good film; but I find it disturbing that there are still holocaust deniers at large and increasing in numbers.

 

February 16

 

I read recently in The Guardian about the twitter war between Piers Morgan and JK Rowley. Piers Morgan comes across as an ill-informed bully. JK Rowling, not one to be put down, corrects him on his fake facts, argues the principled case for refugees and other disadvantaged causes, and gets the better of him. I applaud her.

 

I’ve been listening to the interviews on Radio 4’s PM programme between Steve Hewlett and Eddie Mair, the presenter. Steve Hewlett, who’s been the host of Radio 4’s The Media Show, has terminal cancer. He’s shared his fight against the disease with the listeners. Last week his specialist told him that they could do no more for him, and he had only a short time to live. He then proposed to his long-term partner and they married immediately. So sad, so moving.

 

Just finished reading Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. As I predicted, a sad ending but a wonderful book. Now going to start Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which my daughter gave to me for my birthday. I’ve peaked at the first page, and are keen to start –tonight.

 

As much as I try to avoid reading about or listening to the antics that Donald Trump is getting up to in The White House, I can’t. Every night since he became president there’s a lengthy clip about him on the BBC evening news. I fear for America and the world. I think it will end in tears.

 

I think I’ve done as much as I can do to my latest novel Truth is not always true. Next week I’ll read it through one last time, and then send it off to my editor. I’ve found this story hard to walk away from, always wanting to tinker with it, change a few words, improve it where I think it needs improving, and add and delete pieces. I think I’ve put more thought into this story, and worked harder on it than any of my ten previous novels. Its core message is about fidelity, and it begs the question: is there ever a time when it’s okay to be unfaithful?

It’ll be out later this year.

 

 

 

Birthday notes and other diary jottings.

 

February 8

 

My birthday celebrations are now over.

 

They started on Saturday, when M and my daughter, Laura, took me out to lunch in an old pub (see image) in a pretty village, nearby. The staff were friendly, the food fresh and good. I had fish pie, which was delicious.

 

On Sunday my eldest son and his family came over for lunch, cooked by M and L – slow roast lamb. It was scrumptious.

 

Yesterday, my birthday, we went out to lunch again at another pub overlooking the harbour. Two good friends and M and I managed to while away about three hours: eating, drinking, and watching the tide come in. Back home later, I saw that several old friends, who I hadn’t seen for some time, had wished me a happy birthday on Facebook, and, as a result, we’ve arranged to meet up – something to be grateful to social media for.

 

Presents came in the form of The Sellout by Paul Beatty, which I can’t wait to start reading, some unusual excellent-looking wines, a top (item of clothing type) that I’ve been searching for but couldn’t find, a hamper of Cornish cheese, and other interesting foodstuffs. I was spoilt, and grateful to the givers. Thank you again.

 

February 1

 

M and I booked a trip to Venice in March: a birthday present from each of us to the other. It’s a favourite city of ours. We had our honeymoon there, and another visit since. I’m always in awe. Such amazing, beautiful buildings, built on water, functioning entirely on water, and still standing after over 1000 years. I never tire of the main sites, and think they’re always worth another visit. I’m sure we’ll find some areas we haven’t explored.

 

Halfway through reading Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. I’ve never read any of her books before. A sad, probably very real, story of two girls growing up in a poor part of London who were close friends when young but drift apart. Compelling, much to make the reader think about, and, I suspect, a sad ending.

 

Looking at the garden, seeing snowdrops all over the place, and wondering what else is about to break the surface, I feel inspired. February is that time of year.

 

Almost done with my own book, Truth is not always true. A few more tweaks, I think, and then off to my editor for a second look.

13 November

A cold start this morning, autumn leaves around my study door, two shots of espresso to get me fired up.

Now the family and all our grandchildren have returned home, and it’s quiet in the house, I’m back to writing, head down, and trying to complete a few more chapters of A Noble Exit. Holly, one of the main characters, is having trouble with her past.

 

 

Last week, thanks to the generosity of my daughter, I went to a talk given by Richard Flanagan, author of Booker prize-winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He was promoting his latest book, First Person – a novel featuring the story of Australia’s greatest conman.

The author, Richard Flanagan, came across as the most unassuming author I’ve listened to, saying in answer to a question on why it takes him so long to write a book (four to seven years) that he’s a bad writer, and wants to get it right. He’s a likeable and compelling person.

In 1991, as a young writer trying to finish his first book, he found himself faced with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“I was offered $10,000 to write [an autobiography] in six weeks,” Flanagan told Guardian Australia. The book, ghostwritten by Flanagan, was Codename Iago: the autobiography of John Friedrich, one of Australia’s most notorious conmen. “I was labouring at the time, broke, and my wife was pregnant with twins, and we were in pretty desperate straits. So I took the job. In the third week, John Friedrich shot himself dead and I had to finish the book…” Richard Flanagan at The Guardian.

He went on to talk about the truth, lies, and the fake news phenomenon that’s infecting today’s media, and on the so-called death of the novel he said, ‘There’s this idea that a novel can no longer represent reality … And I think that’s a nonsense.’

When I came home, I raved about the evening to my daughter-in-law. The next morning, to my surprise and delight, she went out and bought me a copy of First Person, now sitting on top of my to-read pile. Thanks Margot.

20 October

Otto and Holly take over…

Otto and Holly, two characters in the book I’m writing, are giving me a hard time. They both know about Holly’s secret, and want to share it with each other, but neither seems up to it, baulking when they get the opportunity, sliding off and regretting it later. Their behaviour seems to be taking over the plot. Soon, I guess, I’ll have to bring them in line.

 

I’ve had to change the book’s title from After the end to A noble exit, as it was being used by someone else. The new title seems to work at the moment. The story deals with the last months before Otto’s death. I’ve only written about 23k words so far of what will end up about 80-90k words – and Otto and Holly may drag me off in a direction that needs a different title. We’ll see.

 

Ben, my son, and his family are coming back to the UK this weekend. We’re seeing them all for his birthday on Sunday, then his wife, Margot, and Louis, our grandson, are staying for a week before Margot and Ben go to New York for a week for him to run the NY marathon. Louis stays with us! We’re a bit scared we’ll cope.

October 13

A few good reads

Yesterday, I was trying to find a place on our shelves for a book I’ve just finished, and thought of my best reads this year so far. I’ve read more, but these are my favourites. I haven’t written any reviews, just copied the book’s blurb, and added a few comments. The cover image left is from my current read: more below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nicotine – Neil Zinc

 

From the much acclaimed author of Mislaid and The Wallcreeper, a fierce and audaciously funny novel of families – both the ones we’re born into and the ones we create – a story of obsession, idealism, and ownership, centred around a young woman who inherits her bohemian late father’s childhood home.

 

Funny, sparky, written in a style that tests literature’s boundaries.

 

The Sellout – Paul Beatty (winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize).

 

A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game.

 

Hilarious.

 

Keeping On Keeping On – Alan Bennett

 

Alan Bennett’s third collection of prose Keeping On Keeping On follows in the footsteps of the phenomenally successful Writing Home and Untold Stories, each published ten years apart. This latest collection contains Bennett’s peerless diaries 2005 to 2015, reflecting on a decade that saw four premieres at the National Theatre (The Habit of Art, People, Hymn and Cocktail Sticks), a West End double-bill transfer, and the films of The History Boys and The Lady in the Van.

 

Funny, warm, very entertaining, and compulsive.

 

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doer

 

A beautiful, stunningly ambitious novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II, from the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr.

 

Moving, heartrending, and beautifully written.

 

Swing Time – Zadie Smith

 

Two brown girls dream of being dancers – but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, black bodies and black music, what it means to belong, what it means to be free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten either.

 

Funny, sad, and thought provoking, with vividly, descriptive characterisation. Zadie Smith is a remarkably talented writer.

 

The Light Between Oceans – M L Stedman

 

A boat washes up on the shore of a remote lighthouse keeper’s island. It holds a dead man – and a crying baby. The only two islanders, Tom and his wife Izzy, are about to make a devastating decision.
They break the rules and follow their hearts. What happens next will break yours.

 

An outstanding novel: certainly a heartbreaker. Earlier in the year, when I’d just read it, I said it was my best book of the year. Now it’s been surpassed – see below.

 

A Life in Questions – Jeremy Paxman

 

News, views and hilarious stories from the legend of Newsnight, and long-standing quizmaster of University Challenge.

 

A little intense at times, but an interesting, enlightening read.

 

Heroes of the Frontier – Dave Eggers

 

A hilarious and heart-warming misadventure through modern America: it’s time for the family vacation…

Josie’s life is falling apart – lawsuits raining down, her business down the drain and a feckless husband long gone – so she gathers up her two kids and lights out for the wilderness. The Alaskan wilderness, to be specific.

 

Before the Fall – Noah Hawley

 

A private jet plunges into the sea. The only survivors are down-on his luck artist Scott Burroughs and JJ Bateman, the four year old son of a super-rich TV executive. For saving the boy, Scott is suddenly a hero.

And then, as the official investigation is rapidly overtaken by a media frenzy, it seems he may also be a villain.

Why was he on the plane in the first place, and why did it crash?

Gripping, fast-paced, and kept me in suspense until the end. Noah Hawley was the writer of the TV series Fargo, and has written several novels. This was the first of his I’ve read. I will certainly look for more. 

 

Hillbilly Elegy – J D Vance

 

‘The political book of the year.’ The Sunday Times

 

‘You will not read a more important book about America this year.’ The Economist

 

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis – that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of America that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

 

A masterful insight into parts of Middle America, which sheds light on the Trump phenomena.

 

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

 

After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Then when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.

 

Shocking, brutal, and wonderfully written: certainly my number one book of the year, maybe in all time.

Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

 

‘An astonishing feat.’ The Times

 

A young man arrives in the Ukraine, clutching in his hand a tattered photograph. He is searching for the woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, he is aided in his quest by Alex, a translator with an uncanny ability to mangle English into bizarre new forms; a ‘blind’ old man haunted by memories of the war; and an undersexed guide dog named Sammy Davis Jr, Jr. What they are looking for seems elusive – a truth hidden behind veils of time, language and the horrors of war. What they find turns all their worlds upside down.

 

I’ve never read anything at all like this, and, no doubt, never will. An extraordinary book, much enjoyed.

 

Havergey – John Burnside

 

Havergey does not feature on any maps of the British Isles. Yet this remote island is as real as any, with its limestone stacks, seabirds and human population – a mixture of utopians and nomads who have settled here to build a new kind of society. When a traveller arrives in this small land, bewildered by his long journey and disorientated by the past, he becomes an object of curiosity for the inhabitants, especially the one assigned to watch over him as he spends his first days in ‘Quarantine’.

Breathtraking prose. A beautiful read. Each page delivering a real feel-good factor. Semi sci-fi, a first for me, and one I enjoyed reading enormously.

 

Currently reading

The Underground Railway – Colson Whitehead

 

Praised by Barack Obama, and an Oprah Book Club Pick, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead won the National Book Award 2016 and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2017.

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. All the slaves lead a hellish existence, but Cora has it worse than most; she is an outcast even among her fellow Africans and she is approaching womanhood, where it is clear even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a slave recently arrived from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they take the perilous decision to escape to the North.

 

Brilliant; and even more shocking than Days Without End, I suspect this may go to the top of the list.

 

 

 

 


10 October

 

You might have missed me!

 

I think not, but I haven’t posted one of these diary jottings since 21 July. Knowing I’d be unable to write in September and early October because the house would be crammed full of our children and grandchildren, I worked on the book I’m writing, After the end, leaving these jotting to later. Well ‘later’ has now arrived, and here’s a short update on what’s happened.

 

Late July. Several friends came and stayed. The weather was good enough to eat outdoors, and the sea just about warm enough for a few quick dips! Actually, once you’re in the water, it was crisp and refreshing, like a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc on a hot day, just not so moreish!!

Even if I didn’t swim, we walked along the beach at least twice a week. Some evenings we’d take a snack and a bottle of wine, and watch the sun set over the sea. Because of the changing tides and weather, the view of the sea, the beach and the sand dunes changed almost every time we’d visit: an occurrence I find uplifting.

 

August. We went for a few days with our daughter to Bath, a city I’ve been to many times before, and one that I always enjoy. We walked around the historic streets, ate and drunk well, and found two good independent bookshops, housed in old, interesting buildings, coming away laden with books we wanted to read. A few artisan cheese and bread shops popped up here and there, enticing us in, tempting us with samples of their delicious offerings. No hard sell here. We were easy punters; and went back on our last morning to stock up, driving home with mouth-watering smells of fresh bread and aromatic cheese wafting around the car.            

 

By the end of August, I’d managed to write about 23k words of After the end, and think I know where it’s going. Then I stopped. See the ‘work in progress’ link above.

 


September – the invasion
. We’d planned it some time ago, but were still taken aback when it actually happened. My four children, their wives and their children descended on us early September, staying – not all the time with us but nearby – until last week. On one day we had twenty-one for lunch, all related in some way. We were graced with a warm dry day, mostly spent in the garden. Much fun.

The eight children, aged from sixteen months to fifteen, seemed happy in their own company, glad no doubt to be rid of their parents, who were equally happy to slurp the afternoon away.

For most of the rest of September, we had no fewer than eight in the house every night. Before they all came, we’d hired a beach hut for a week, hoping we’d be able to use it at least on one or two days. We used in for almost a week, two of our sons and their children swimming in the sea. Too cold for me!

 

October. They’ve all gone, one family back to Australia, one to Beirut, and one further along the coast. We cleared up, it’s strangely quiet, and we miss them.

I’m back to writing my book.

21 July

 

With three chapters of After the end written, I’m left questioning if it’s going in the right direction. In the past, I’ve written to a plan, detailed in advance. Now I’m trying a more informal, make-it-up-as-I-go-along way. The old way was easier, I knew what I had to write on any certain day, but too rigid. It’s early days; I’ll get the hang of it in a week or two.

 

The wonderful summer we’ve been having down here on the south coast has gone away for a while, leaving us windier, more unsettled weather, but we’re still able to take long beach walks in the evenings. See picture.

 

Baked a sourdough loaf today for a friend coming for the weekend. I think I’ve finally solved the uneven rise problem I had before.

18 July

We’re lucky enough to have an art gallery around the corner – the image left or above a sculpture in the garden, quite a good looking guy, I thought! I went there last Sunday to start the thought process on the novel I’m just starting to write, After the end. I always flail around at the beginning of a book, writing a bit, discarding it, waking in the night and making notes. Then by some magic the first two or three chapters seem to gel. That’s where I am at the moment, but it doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way. There’s quite a lot going on with us this summer and autumn, right up to Christmas. I’ll try to write a chunk now until the end of August. In September our Australian family come for two weeks and our family living in Beirut stay as well. My other son and his family live near, so there’ll be much fun. We’re looking forward to it, but no writing. I’ll manage a bit more in October and early December, leaving the race to the finish until the first six to eight months of 2018.

Earlier in July we went with our daughter to a jazz festival in the village of Glynde near Lewes in East Sussex, and where Glyndebourne takes place. A great event: well organised, good jazz, a variety of interesting food and drink, and a warm friendly atmosphere. We listened to many bands, the favourite Corinne Bailey Rae, who’s voice was silklike and songs enchanting.

BBQ’s with friends and swimming in the sea have taken up the rest of July. We’re so lucky to live on the south coast where we get the best of the weather and less rain than elsewhere.

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