Monday, July 28, 2003

Holiday Reading 

Not the best of holidays for reasons I'd like to have been able to leave at home, but in between driving and eating far too much, I did read some good books. Most of the holiday book lists you see consist of either: people trying to impress their readers, talk up their mates or (at best) mention books they read ages ago that they think others might enjoy. Here's what I actually read (along with catching up on back issues of the New Yorker, Uncut and the TLS that we took with us), in order of how much I enjoyed them.

1) The Nashville Chronicles: the making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece by Jan Stuart took me over a year to track down, by which time it had a new publisher. It still hasn't come out in the UK. This is a completely engrossing, superbly researched and pretty well written account of the making of my favourite movie, a 1975 film I've only ever seen on video, inexplicably unavailable on DVD. The account's so fascinating, I rationed myself to 80 pages a day to make the book last the best part of a week. You find Altman living in a lush ranch house, drinking heavily and smoking dope like it's about to go out of fashion, while his cast are holed up in shoddy motels. The actors are invited over to party after watching the 'dailies' most nights. They make up much of the movie as they go along. Full of great gossip. The director isn't as likeable as a fan might hope, but geniuses rarely are.

2) English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. I know, I know, everybody else read this two years ago but I'm not keen on books about the sea. This one's funny, absorbing, informative, superbly plotted. And, I believe, a first novel. I'm jealous.

3) The Blue Afteroon by William Boyd. This one's even older. Boyd writes so well that he can get away with starting a novel as one thing, changing it into another then throwing in an unconnected side story about the early days of aviation to boot. A really good read. To my mind, he botches the ending, though.

4) L.A.Requiem by Robert Crais who used to write for my all time favourite TV show Hill St. Blues. This is the third Crais thriller I've read, and the best. It's from a series, featuring LA detective Elvis Cole and his tortured sidekick. Really well written and plotted - OK, it's full of familiar genre stuff and his books repeat themselves a little, but it was perfect for reading on the boat and the first couple of days away.

5) In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright. The third novel I've read by him, too, and the worst. Not to say it's bad (Booker shortlist etc) but that nothing dates as quickly as the recent past. While there's plenty of good writing here, the thrillery bits read like TV and the end of the boom yuppy obsessed with Nelson Mandela is a little too like a two dimensional Martin Amis character for us to give a monkey's about his fate.

No I didn't read any YA or children's books. I was on holiday...

Monday, July 21, 2003

and not a drop to drink 

When we arrived in the Gers last week, it hadn't rained for two months and a hosepipe ban was being considered. Within a day we'd had an overnight storm. Now we're in the French alps, where it hadn't rained for three months and the water is cut off for several hours a day. Last night, there was a storm and it's been chucking it down for the last hour, too. Call me Rain Man. Only trouble is, the reservoir is so leaky that it's completely out of water and the whole village's water is now cut off all day. So we're in the only village in the entire country with no showers or flushing loos. Just like Glastonbury then...

Wednesday, July 09, 2003


I've just finished Michael Frayn's Spies, in which two prepubuscent boys concoct fantasies about the secret lives of their neighbours and relatives, accidentally uncovering sadder secrets than the ones they suspect. It's a very well written Second World War tale covering slightly over-familiar ground. Many readers will see the ending coming (if not the extra, final 'twist' that Frayn doesn't quite succeed in bringing off) but so what? Originality is over rated - give me predictable but convincing over shock/stretch the credulity endings any day.

I finished the book in bed, before turning off the light (most novel reading, I suspect, takes place on holiday, or in bed). When I thought about the book again in the morning, one thing confused me. What made it an adult, rather than a children's or Young Adult novel?

The length, possibly. I'd guess Spies is about 70,000 words long (or a quarter of the new J.K.Rowling) but I've had a couple of longer books for Young Adults do well. It can't be that.

The difficulty of the prose? Hardly. it's a sophisticated read but anyone with a reading age of twelve shouldn't have problems with the lucid, uncomplicated writing.

The content, then? There is a fair amount of sex, but it's all well below the surface, hinted at, part of the mysteries of adulthood that the protagonists try, and fail, to fathom. The book has a redundant framing device in which the narrator is in his sixties. Stephen's rather world weary and sorry for himself, keen on emphasising the huge distance between his current self and his younger self. This might be a little offputting for younger readers. There's a little humour around the child protagonists' inability to understand certain adult rites, but decoding these situations would appeal to most young readers.

No, the reason that Spies is an adult novel is that Michael Frayn is an adult author, who expects adult sized advances. His novels are read by adults who find his books on the two for a fiver or three for two stands in Waterstones and WHS, where they won't find books by say, David Almond or Celia Rees (or me) that they might enjoy just as much. Lots of younger readers will find Spies too because they don't restrict themselves to YA fiction. Having enjoyed it, their parents might even pass the finished copy over on holiday. But such traffic tends to be one way. Few adults will take one of the YA novels that their children bring with them - they'd be embarrassed to be seen with it on the beach.

For this reason, I can't understand why one of my favourite adult novelists, Michael Chabon (author of the excellent Wonder Boys) has published a Young Adult novel, Summerland. I can guess why he wrote it. Serious writers generally write what they have to write, as against what they want or ought to write. I look forward to reading it. But why has he let it be published as a YA novel? The genre is supposedly hot at the moment, but even so, sales are miniscule when compared to adult fiction. Maybe Chabon's gambling that, since his last book won the Pullitzer Prize, he can do whatever he likes. Financially, maybe he can. But when he sees the dip in sales, I doubt he'll do it again.

Adele Geras has an article in the current issue of The Author (quarterly journal of The Society Of Authors, which I belong to) where she describes the joys of writing adult fiction after years of children's and Young Adult. At the end of it, she concludes that, when she next has an idea for a YA novel, she'll turn it into an adult novel instead. Why don't I do that? I asked myself after finishing the piece. It's a question I'll doubtless ask myself again and again over the next two weeks in France, when I'll be plotting my next novel. What would make the idea I'm toying with into a YA/adult crossover title? More sex or violence? More words? More sophisticated writing, or ideas?

Don't send in your answers. I already know what it comes down to: marketing. My former publisher (we both moved on), David Fickling has recently taken to publishing YA versions of novels that also appear in an adult guise, with the result that the writer gets two sets of reviews and, maybe, sales (inevitably, the adult books vastly outsell the YA ones). My adult agent has told me to put a clear distance between my YA and my adult work, to establish a separate, adult Belbin brand. But maybe the opposite is true. I should write exactly what I want to write, then try and sell the novel to two different publishers.

A wild dream, I know. My brain must need a rest. Time for a holiday.

Friday, July 04, 2003

When is a book finished? 

As I type this, the Ms. of my adult novel is slowly seeping out of my computer into the world wide web, from whence it will be retrieved rather more quickly by my agent's broadband connection. In the old Amstrad days, it would have taken me at least two days to print out an Ms. this long, and I would then have to photocopy it before posting, as two copies were required. Today I generally send one paper copy of the first draft and later, revised versions by e-mail. No wonder my local post office is closing down. (Sending books by attachment is actually a pain if you're a Mac user, like me, as different people find different formats incompatible - but that's another, frankly rather boring story).

Ping. There it went. I've been working on this novel, on and off, for more years than I care to remember. I thought I'd finally cracked it a year ago, when it was enthusiastically taken on by the first agent to read the whole thing (I use a different, specialist children's books agent for my YA fiction). However it quickly became apparent that I'd screwed up the second half. The ending was too clever by half. So it's taken me several months to come up with a more satisfying new one. I then had to rewrite the rest of the book to take account of the new ending, and, in doing so, found a whole bunch of other things to improve. Then I needed somebody to cast a fresh eye over the new version, make sure it worked (thanks, Georgina) and do another rewrite in the light of her comments.

Is the book finished now? Not really. Presuming a publisher eventually accepts it, an editor and a sub-editor will each want to have their say. (I'm told that adult publishers don't have time for the editorial process any more, hence agents have to do more. However, for the moment, I'm assuming this is an ugly rumour. I like being edited. Writers have to be humble, to accept any help that will improve their work. And at the end of the process, we get all the credit.) But I've done all I can to it. The more often you rewrite, the longer the gap between drafts has to be, or you can't see the thing fresh. Some writers are said to have become too baggy since the advent of the word processor. I'm old enough to have written my first two novels before I got a computer and, for me, ease of redrafting has had the opposite effect. I keep cutting. My novels are liable to end up too short. You could fit my last eight novels into a copy of HP Sauce And The Secret Of Fried Eggs.

This afternoon, I'm doing the last tweaks on Denial, my next Young Adult novel. I've been at this book so long that my editor has, first, been promoted, then left the publisher for a more senior post. She's done a terrific job, but, at first, we nearly fell out over the ending. I agreed to take another look at it. The original ending was strong, very effective, but possibly (as with the adult novel) a bit too clever-clever. It was one of those endings that forced you to go back and reread the whole book in a different light, like my favourite YA novel, Robert Cormier's I Am The Cheese. The teenagers who read it loved it, but the publishers weren't happy - they thought it might get them (and me) into a lot of trouble (I tend to gravitate towards the edge of trouble: my publishers and agents tend to keep me from falling off it).

I showed the third major version of Denial to a child counsellor, who told me that I'd got the aspect the publishers didn't like spot on, but another aspect wasn't psychologically convincing. I went at it all over again. I've spent most of this year rewriting Denial and I've done a fifth, more minor rewrite in the last fortnight, based on my departing editor's comments. All I have to do is press 'save' and 'send' then I can get it off my back - perhaps for good (depending on whether the new editor wants any changes). But I can't do that until I've reread the new ending and not needed to change a single word. This is my writer's dictum. When is a book finished? Only when you can look at it with a cold eye and not find a single thing that needs improving.

Wish me luck as I cast my jaded eye over the epilogue one more time.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Glastonbury 2003 Diary Day Three (Sunday) 

On Sunday, I go for a morning walk, taking breakfast at the same noodles place as yesterday - evidently local suppliers have run out of eggs (25,000 consumed - that's one for every six people - didn't the egg people know we'd want more?) so there's no fried egg or eggy bread but there is fried bread, fried mushrooms and an extra sausage (plus bacon and the excellent bubble and squeak I forgot to mention yesterday). I read my cheap copy of 'The Observer' ('REM triumph') then set off to see what's happening. In the Circus tent, the Heart And Soul Experience are beginning - an exuberant, slightly strange set from a group of young performers with Downs syndrome. I watch the first few numbers then take in The Carnival Collective on the outdoor stage. While I'm watching, a bowler hatted man with a raining umbrella walks by and I get wet (no, I wasn't on drugs - he was one of many 'walkabout performances' - a little later I see the Beatles on stilts, dressed as the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and singing Help).

Rob and I pack up our tents at midday, dumping our stuff in the other two's, then go and see My Morning Jacket. Their lead singer has so much long hair covering his face that he looks like one of the Super Furries in their Yeti costumes the night before. Other new bands have disappointed but MMJ are tremendous, with a much harder sound than on their The Tennessee Fire CD, which is all I know of theirs. The singer has a sweet, powerful Southern voice. Good songs, too. Forty minutes shoot by.

Next comes my prog-rock moment. I saw most of my favourite bands of that ilk when I was a teenager (starting with the Pink Floyd touring Eclipse, the prototype of Dark Side Of The Moon, the tickets for which were a fourteenth birthday present, if you want to work out my age). However, there were two I missed: Led Zeppelin (the story of how I failed to get tickets for the LZIV tour is one of the great unwritten tragedies of my life, but I made up for it a little by seeing Robert Plant and Priory of Brion at Glasto 2000) and Yes. I was a big fan of Yes until getting Tales From Topographic Oceans for Christmas just after it came out. I dutifully played the double album for weeks before realising that the only thing I liked on the entire four sides was the chorus on side two. I didn't listen to them again for twenty odd years.

That said, if you ignore their decidedly dodgy lyrics, Yes made some pretty great music before '74. They were playing the One World stage, their first Glasto, and I might as well see them. I wasn't alone in this. I kept overhearing people with the same plan, so all four of us got there early. Not that early, but the previous band were still playing - technical problems. It was scorching - so hot, I'd finished my drink before Yes finally came on, forty minutes late. So hot, I shoved a handkerchief in the back of my baseball cap in a crude imitation of a desert rat, to protect my burning neck. So hot and crowded that, by the time the set was properly underway, I was watching it on my own. But that's another story.

Jon Anderson is a small, irritating bloke from Accrington with a deeply unconvincing transatlantic accent and no dress sense. The band looked really old (except for Rick Wakeman, who, from a distance, looked like he'd had a facelift). Steve Howe and Chris Squire could convincingly join the pension queue in my local post office. But they sounded fantastic. I soon forgave Jon A's cosy, cloying, sub-Paul McCartney peace and love introductions. For the band played most of my favourite old songs (plus a couple of new ones and 'Don't Kill The Whale' - well, you can't have everything) climaxing with Heart Of The Sunrise and an encore of I've Seen All Good People and Roundabout. I think it was during the transcendent And You And I (written about Anderson's wife, whom he proudly announced he was still married to) that I spotted the lead singer off stage, back left behind a speaker stack during one of the instrumental sections, waltzing with his wife. Any remaining animosity for him faded away. The huge crowd (of which I was one of the younger members) went mental. Folks, forgive me for the temporary lapse in hipness, but it was a real Glastonbury moment. Theirs was also the longest set by any band that weekend. A triumph.

After that, I tried to get a pint of real ale but the Mojo tent had sold out and was selling the same crap as everywhere else - if you could get served, which I couldn't. I went to catch some of Beth Gibbons, who was forty minutes late herself, giving me time to get a decent spot. The acoustic tent, despite having doubled in size since 2000, was crowded as hell. Beth was OK, but her folky guise doesn't set me alight, so I left early to grab a pint and a pasty before loading the car.

I was pretty replete with music by now and would have happily gone home, but one of our number is a mate of the Manics (his contacts got us the Hospitality tickets) so we had to stay for the beginning of their set. I've seen the Manics three times, so decided to check out one of my favourite new bands, Sigur Ros from Iceland, on the Other Stage, and was glad I did. They got a huge crowd and played an absolutely gorgeous set (the twenty-five minutes I saw, anyhow) of ethereal, haunting music, that left me on a Glastonbury glow, despite the encroaching rain.

We hurried back to the car, got out of the site in next to no time (a stark contrast to my four hour wait to leave the first field in 2000) and sped back to Nottingham. A big up to Rob for doing all the driving. I was in bed just after two. The large bath I had on Monday morning was one of the best of my life.

A good Glasto? A classic, most people seem to reckon. Musically, it was as good or better than 2000. The weekend was certainly shorter, making it less exhausting. I'm spoilt now. If I go again, it'll have to be with one of the Hospitality tickets, if I'm lucky enough to be offered them. Less walking, much less distance to drag your camping gear. But I guess the main point this year was that the security fence made the whole event safer: comfortably crowded rather than dangerously so, contributing to a particularly friendly atmosphere. It keeps out many of the more anarchic festival regulars as well as hardened crims, though. The fence, combined with the instant sell out meant that those who got in were, inevitably, amongst the better organised, middle class types, with more oldsters. I suspect that's unhealthy in the long term. I believe Michael Eavis is looking for ways around it. Finally, it was good to go without a book to write. Since Festival is something of a documentary novel, it covers the negative aspects of my 2000 experience as well as the positive ones, so I'm glad to offer this new diary as a corrective and update to the previous ones. Regular readers of this new web-site (please do come back) shouldn't expect such detailed entries in future though - when do you think I'd have time to write my fiction?

Glastonbury 2003 Diary Day Two (Saturday) 

On Saturday morning, there are posh loos with - joy of joys - hot running water, allowing me to wash my face before making a cup of tea outside the tent. Rob texts me to say that he and Richard have gone to eat at Lulu's in the hospitality tent. My appetite doesn't tend to kick in until later, so, when they return, we go for a wander around the site. After careful perusal of the food on offer, I go for the 'top scram' all-you-can-eat breakfast at the noodle bar at the far end of the site, near the acoustic stage - egg, bacon, sausage, eggy bread, beans and brown sauce, with a mug of tea thrown in - all for a fiver. This keeps me going until mid afternoon. By the time I'm ready for a dump, though, all but one of the hospitality flush toilets is blocked (gormless people using newspaper rather than toilet paper, evidently) necessitating a long queue, during which I read 'The Guardian' from cover to cover. By evening, they're closed down and replace with portaloos - late arrivals will probably think the flush toilets and hot water are some kind of an urban myth.

I watch a few minute of proficient urban blues from Ben Andrews on the Pyramid Stage, then go for a walk around Green Fields, the alternative heart of the festival, which includes kids' areas, healing fields, a teepee field and so on. This time, I even make it to the 'sacred space' where a single young black guy is wandering round endlessly muttering the incantation 'pills, weed'. I'm not tempted by the hash brownies, but wander over to the Mojo beer tent by the Acoustic stage for a pint of Mystery Tor (the beer in the other bars is abysmal).

Later, Tony Benn is his usual, smug, self-congratulatory self in the Left 'debate' but the others think he's great (and I agree with most of his arguments, it's his style that annoys me), so I keep my opinion of him to myself. Jimmy Cliff goes down well in the scorching heat but does one of those endless crowd participation numbers that gets on my nerves, so Richard and I head over to join Rob at the Other Stage (hence missing The Harder They Come but never mind) and watch most of The Thrills. When we watched them at the Social last year, my mate Mike said they were overhyped, but he could see them headlining Saturday afternoon at Glasto - and here they are doing just that. The frontman has got better at communicating with the audience and they're pleasant in an undemanding way, going down well despite their first album not being out for another two days.

The Thrills' reception is as nothing to that for The Polyphonic Spree - nearly thirty exuberant people in red robes singing sub-Flaming Lips epics to the sunshine. They're made for a steaming hot summer afternoon at Glasto and, for the first half hour, I really enjoy them, as do the crowd. I can see why friends have been keen to persuade me to go and see them at Rock City on Wednesday. After forty minutes, however, I'm getting bored, and wander off during their endless, yet-more-of-the-same final number.

Richard's keen on seeing Radio Four, punk rockers from New York, so the three of us hike up to the New Bands tent to check them out. They're OK, but, after four numbers, we've seen enough and go for a beer. Rob and I are big fans of the Libertines, whose lead singer and songwriter, Pete Doherty, has gone AWOL, and agree to check out their Other Stage appearance at 6.50. They've got a substitute guitarist and sound right, apart from the vocals, but the spark has vanished. Live, the couple of times I've seen them before, they were anarchic and very, very exciting, reminding me of the one time I saw The Clash, 25 years ago. On Saturday afternoon, we agree to leave after half an hour, even though they haven't yet played their best song, What A Waster. Then they start playing it but the performance is so uninspired, we keep going. Sad.

I decide to check out a bit of Supergrass who I'm quite fond of but have never seen live. I get a good spot, but they fail to achieve lift off, so I head back through Hospitality to join Rob and Richard for the heavily anticipated Kings Of Leon. The others think these are the bees' knees but I'm unimpressed and slink back to the Other Stage for some Arthur Lee and Love. Arthur is playing the entirety of one of my favourite albums Forever Changes and, normally I'd be there for the whole thing. But I have a ticket to see him do it all over again at Rock City on Tuesday (bought before I knew he was on at Glasto), so I restrict myself to just two full numbers, finding him on fine fettle, then head over to the Cabaret tent.

Yes, it's my mission this time to visit every single tent at the festival (except the cinema - I don't see any point in watching movies at a performing arts festival) and, while I don't like Bill Bailey's stand-up quite enough to fork out fifteen quid to see him, I'm happy to catch his act for (sort of) free. Unfortunately, lots of other people have the same idea and are standing five deep outside the tent, barely able to see. Bailey is already on, five minutes early. I slowly worm my way in until, by the end of the set, I'm standing inside the tent (where there's room for one row of standers, while everybody else sits) with a good view. For some reason, he does a short set with endless encores. It's mildly amusing rock/philosophy parody stuff, but nowhere near as side-splitting as his turn in the brilliant Black Books TV series. I leave after the positively final encore (he comes back for one more, despite having over-run). I'm having a good time, despite not having seen any complete sets (unless you count Tony Benn's contribution to the Iraq 'debate') but now it's time to see my second truly great band of the weekend.

(I should point out that, had I not seen them four times in the previous three years, I would undoubtedly have gone to see The Flaming Lips on the Pyramid Stage that evening. After REM, they're probably the best live band in the world. I don't because I know their current act backwards and also because the area will be heaving - as far as I'm concerned, it's not worth seeing even the best band in the world if you have to do so at a huge distance. Tonight's headliners, Radiohead, are the main reason that this year's festival sold out in eighteen hours, instead of the usual two or three weeks. I have no interest in seeing Radiohead. I mean, The Bends has some good moments but I don't like anything after it - I had my prog-rock period in the 70's and don't need another one thank you very much, but we'll discuss that tomorrow.)

My final stop of the evening is The Other Stage, for the wonderful Super Furry Animals. I have never seen less people at the Other Stage, even early in the day, but those of us there (many, unlike me, Welsh) love the band and greet them raucously. They play a great but somewhat low key set (it doesn't help that their video projector packs in) of their best songs. I'm much nearer the front and the crowd are much less crazed than when I saw them four or five years ago. During the closing, ecstatic, The Man Don't Give A some idiot starts throwing water at us. It's cold and I'm annoyed. Only after a couple of minutes do I realise that the huge security chasm in front of the stage means I'm a mere five people from the barrier and the water is being thrown by security minders meaning to calm the steaming, dehydrated masses who would normally be at the front for the headliner on a Saturday night. Me, I'm jumping about to get warm. The band come back on dressed as Yetis for the last, wild bit and it takes me less than a minute to get back to the tent. Rob's left Radiohead after half an hour saying they were dull. Kind of an odd end to a Glasto Saturday night.

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