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that’s infecting today’s media, and on the so-called death of the novel he said, ‘There’s this idea that a novel can no longer represent reality … And I think that’s a nonsense.’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.