On Writing 2

 

 “But there are also, odd, offbeat, happy days when something does happen as you write and your characters take surprising turns, sometimes revealing themselves to you on the page in a manner other than you expected them to be. You discover that you know more about life and your characters than you thought you did. Such days are gloriousthere is also the sense of a governing hand (not necessarily and altogether your own.”

 Norman Mailer

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If you want to write then write. Most of the time you feel that you cannot do it or what you write isn’t any good. All writers have days like this. If you persevere you do get days like Mailer describes, and writing is always worth it.

So do it.

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On Writing 1.

 

On page 18 of Andy Martin’s book, Reacher Said Nothing, (Reacher’s most common ‘utterance’) he asks Lee Child, the author of that novel:

 

“Do you have any kind of strategy for writing, or rules or whatever?”

 

Child replies:

 

“I don’t really have one. You should write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.”

 

xxx3

 

Now, I’m not sure what Child means here, although I’m sure he does. What I am sure of is that Child has “strategy…rules or whatever.” He may not be conscious of his  rules, but he most certainly has them. He is not naturally talkative and (I think) reluctant to give his secrets away. He does, after all, sell a book every 7 seconds. Why tell everybody how you do it?

 

I am not generally a ‘thriller’ reader. I do like most of Louise Doughty, Gillian Flynn, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Josephine Tey, Dorothy L. Sayers, John le Carré, Don Winslow, Elmore Leonard, Arthur Conan Doyle, James Elroy and James Lee Burke’s books, among others – though I’m well aware that some of these are not strictly ‘thriller’ writers, just good writers. But I have to admit, when I want something easy to read, that I know I will enjoy, of quality, that will certainly not be rubbish or rushed out for the money – I turn to Lee Child.

 

Make Me was the twentieth novel in the Jack Reacher series; starting in 1998 with Killing Floor. He writes one book per year, spending 6 months on it, taking the other 6 months off, but no doubt thinking about the next book – that’s what writers do. Firstly, to emphasise the work and conscientiousness Child puts into his novels, let me note what he relates on page 28. Child had been employed in some dismal jobs in his youth. He didn’t like any of them. It wasn’t so much the work he didn’t like, it was the workmanship. One of the jobs was in a Jam factory where he says:

 

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“It was all sugar paste, nothing but sugar paste. If you wanted apricot jam you just threw in some orange colour. Strawberry – throw in some red. It was like you were painting jam. What about raspberry with all those little pips? No problem – we’ll throw in some tiny wood chips.’

 

He was outraged at how bad it was:

 

“Nothing was real. Nobody cared.”

 

Child felt responsible for people eating trash pretending to be jam. He wanted to produce good jam, whatever the flavour. He went on to mention other jobs and his main observation was:

 

“Nobody cared. That’s how it was.”

 

That is an attitude he brings to his writing. An understanding of life and a desire to produce the best possible result, every time, in twenty plus novels; novels which are basically the same – in the same way that Conan Doyle’s and Dorothy L. Sayers’ books are the same. What these books have is an engaging character, a character who meets all kinds of situations and observes life as he/she sees it in each novel, and it is these observations that set the books apart from other ‘thrillers’, because they are they are terminally exciting, interesting, surprising – each one is new – readers really want to know what their character is up to.

 

And Jack Reacher, like Sherlock Holmes, Dave Robicheaux, Peter Wimsey, George Smiley and Art Keller, is one hell of a character. Men want to be him, women love him; he has a bad ass attitude but he is not a criminal, although he will break the law when he believes it’s right – he is tough but fair. He lives as I, and many other men, would love to live. He has no possessions, lives mostly on his army pension, usually has no particular destination in mind, just goes where fancy takes him in the U.S.A. He doesn’t bother washing clothes, just buys new and cheap ones every few days (although he is scrupulously clean). He used to hitch-hike but at six-foot-five in dangerous times has taken to Greyhound buses instead. And, in the U.S.A., there is no shortage of adventures for him to get mixed up in.

 

He is as free as a man can be.

 

xxx4Take no notice of the ridiculous decision to cast Tom Cruise in the films. Reacher is 6′ 5″, Cruise is… . This is Reacher.

 

It is this character, conscientiously created every year by Lee Child for nearly twenty years, that justifies the popularity of his books. I have read nearly all of them, possibly there have been a few misfires, but the quality is generally very high. Few writers can do it every time, for so long.

 

Child is highly intelligent. I do not have the space to say all I would like to say, but will quote him a few times to illustrate my opinion.

 

Shane a great work of art. Realistic fiction tends to be bureaucratic: it fills in all the forms, ticks the boxes about identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, chronology etc. Some writers like to deploy spreadsheets and graphs. They over-explain. I, in contrast, prefer to under-explain. Shane was a mysterious stranger with no past and no future. Reacher is a little like that, at some level, at some level nobody could know anything about him. He was a blank.”

 

shane

 

Lee Child is very good at what he leaves out.

 

I like Lee Child a great deal, as you may have gathered, but not only is he a good writer – I like the person. He drinks too much coffee, as does Reacher, he smokes too much and doesn’t care, and he is basically on the side of the decent hard-working man:

 

“It is the duty of the citizen to stand up to the state. Bureaucrats can’t get anything right. And they shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.”

 

There are many ‘good’ writers who like Child’s books, Antonia Frazer, Kate Atkinson and Haruki Murakami, for example; and many that don’t, Julian Barnes, Harold Pinter and Edward Docx. The writers who don’t like Child are mainly humourless, take themselves very seriously. He says:

 

“I’m too low-falutin for them.”

 

It was an axis that stretched from the Radio Times to the Sunday Times:

 

Colin Dexter and Morse had broken through, thanks to Oxford and the opera; then when he stopped writing, it was Ian Rankin and Rebus. They were the anointed ones; the intellectuals had permission to read them. On Radio 4 one of the artsy women panellists said ‘I would never dream of picking up this book’”.

 

To her surprise she enjoyed it, as millions of readers from all walks of life do.

 

If you are prejudiced against Lee Child and his books about Jack Reacher, don’t be, you’ll enjoy them.

xxx5   

 

 

 

 

                                                           

Reacher said nothing

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading in Bed 2

 

I started a December 2013 post with the following. I was angry at the number of unreadable books being produced, and went on to name a few and why.

That anger remains. Nothing has changed, the situation has worsened. What prompted me to write again on this subject was one book. Read on after the introduction…

Reading in Bed

Posted on December 6, 2013

Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you may think of its contents, will probably agree that it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we have come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the eBook, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

Julian Barnes

From Julian Barnes’s acceptance speech at the 2011 Booker Ceremony, on winning with his novel, The Sense of an Ending.

 

A Guardian article states at length how the book buying public are now being seduced by a book’s appearance as well as its content, how more care is being taken in the production and appearance of books. Generally, I don’t believe this is true.

 

The Sense of an Ending is a physically beautiful object; a compact hardback with dust wrapper containing a nice but simple design, all put together with good quality material.  I think all books are beautiful in their own way, but that is another discussion.  Barnes’s book is a beautiful object, but how practical is it?  By that I mean how well does it do its job, perform its practical purpose of being read, and being read with ease, without unnecessary hindrances?  The answer to that is: not very well.

 soae

 

Reading in Bed 2

 

I had been struggling for a couple of months to find some decent fiction to read, starting and not finishing several books. While I found the books disappointing at some stage, they were at least readable as physical objects: mainly they had wide inner margins, would lay flat on a table without springing back and could be read comfortably in bed.

 

I was thus relieved to find that Zadie Smith had a new book in paperback (she hasn’t had that many in sixteen years). Here was one of my favourite authors whose book I would surely get through. I ordered it from Amazon and looked forward to it.

 

The book, Swing Time, duly arrived, and due to me writing a novel during the day, I saved it for bedtime. Attractively bound in red, yellow and black, it was a beautiful object, one would be proud to own it, display it on one’s book shelves. The trouble was that the person who designed it had given no thought to the people who would actually attempt to read it.

 

swing-time jpeg

 

The inner margins were narrow, and the book would not flatten out. On every page the inner third of the text was constantly on a curve because of this. The narrow inner margins accentuated the problem. I know many books are like this (wrongly) but this is the worst case I have seen. It made the book hard to read anywhere, but in bed, almost impossible. The book had to be forced open as far as it would go to read the inner text. Not only that, depending on the light source and direction, reading either left or right page threw a shadow over the opposite page, so not only was one having to constantly bend the book back as far as it would go, it was also necessary to keep shifting the page to catch the light upon the shadows.

 

Every page was like this, all 453 of them. I took two months to read the book because I was never comfortable; two or three short chapters a night. Consequently, I never really got in to the flow of the book. The surprising thing is that this title was published by Penguin, who are usually (not always) pretty good. They have a long history of publishing physically readable books. Penguin do not say who designed the book, they give a cover designer and not much else. The last page includes a short history of Penguin, boasting of their dedication to reading; they also say:

 

“We still believe that good design costs no more than bad design, and we still believe that quality books published passionately and responsibly make the world a better place.”

 

 images

 

The above is stated at the end of Swing Time – ironic or what? Penguin certainly forgot any design principles with the design of this book. What is the problem? Do designers have no connection with reading? Do they have no idea that the book is going to be read? Have they never read a book? Should Penguin be aware of this?

 

Should Penguin take care that their book design is for readers first and aesthetic reasons second?

 

YES!pback

 

I am aware that publishers are considering readers less and less. When I have written before my intention was to keep track of the bad publishers and expose them. That turned out to be a mammoth task, impossible. However, I will write when I find a book like Swing Time, a book that Penguin was aware would be a bestseller yet still published in a near unreadable format.

 

Were Penguin even aware that they had done this? I think not. They have actually sold shoddy goods, sold something which does not do what it is supposed to do – they have sold a book that is not possible to read without difficulty. That is crazy – publishers selling unreadable books.

 

I emphasise that Penguin are not the main culprits, they have just produced something awful here. I hope it is not the beginning of a trend.

 

It is a simple thing to publish books in a readable format. It’s not expensive. So why don’t they do it?

                        pback2

 

Lack of awareness or even care?

Keep an eye on what you read and tell publishers when they produce something unreadable. Tell them in your reviews or email them.  It’s so easy to do.

                                       

                                   “Whatever you like to read – trust Penguin.”

 

 

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Mistakes were made.

In their efforts to attain deniability on the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, the U.S. administration managed to achieve considerable notoriety for self-righteousness, public befuddlement about facts, forgetfulness under oath, and constant disavowals of political error and criminality, culminating in the quasi-confessional passive-voice-mode sentence, Mistakes were made.

This, of course, was a long time ago (1980s) but it serves to show how much worse things are now. Contrast it with Robert E. Lee’s statement after the battle of Gettysburg and the calamity of Pickett’s Charge:

“All this has been my fault,” Lee said.  “I asked more of my men than should have been asked of them.”

Lee’s sentences have an antique ring.  People just don’t say such things any more.  Honest men are no longer heard. If they are heard they are vilified.

mistakes

Mistakes were made.  Who made them?  Everybody made them and no one did, and it’s history anyway, so let’s forget about it.  What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying responsibility for their own actions?  So what if they are, in effect, refusing to tell their own stories accurately?  Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading.  Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling.  You can argue that only a coherent narrative can manage to explain public events, and you can reconstruct a story if someone says, “I made a mistake,” or “We did that.”  You can’t reconstruct a story – you can’t even know what the story is – if everybody is saying, Mistakes were made.

Every story is a history, however, and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history.  The past, under these circumstances, becomes an unreadable mess.  When we hear words like “deniability,” we are in the presence of narrative dysfunction, the process by which we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.

Fast-forward to 2004 and Karl Rove (a Bush aide). Rove criticised a New York Times journalist for working in the ‘reality based community’ with people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’.  He went on:

“That’s not the way the world really works any more.  We’re an empire now, and we act, we create our own reality.  And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you will study too, and that’s how things will sort out.  We’re history’s actors and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

I’ve studied and thought about this comment of Roves quite a lot over the years since I first heard it. My first reaction was horror. How can any human being think like that? And have absolute confidence that they are right?  I do not think someone in his right mind could have such a thought; Rove is clearly not a sane person and  ‘…what we do’ usually means murdering lots of people – for oil, money, status… and they have also created a new language to match the new reality: ‘collateral damage’ – dead civilians; ‘humanitarian intervention’ – war on civilians and, er, mistakes were made.

children at war

 Mistakes indeed.  The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that 500,000 Iraqi children died due to sanctions before the 2003 invasion.  After the invasion, estimates of civilian deaths range from 100,000 in the popular media to 1,200,000 in the Lancet. It is interesting too that if this discrepancy is pointed out to those who would rather not think about it, the reaction is outrage directed not at those who caused the deaths but at the providers of the information.  This is due to a compliant media providing the lies, and idiots believing them.

500,000 children. Perhaps another 200,000 during the war. Does anybody stop to think what that means?  I don’t think they do.  Many of you have children. Imagine your child dying of starvation or of agonising disease. Imagine your child with its arm blown off, crushed to death, blown to pieces – tiny fragile bodies twisted and torn asunder. Because that’s what happened to them, innocent children, as yours are innocent. And why was it done? Who did it?.  Who do you blame?  Who owns up to the dead children?  Are they ever mentioned?’

blair bush and clinton

Er, no.  Nobody takes responsibility. Mistakes were made. Actually, if you want to blame somebody, blame Clinton, Bush and Blair. Do you imagine any of them have lost one second’s sleep over the many child deaths in their name?  Did they ever own up to it? Do they even remember that it happened?  I doubt it.  Clinton was on the election trail with his awful wife; Bush plays golf at his ranch; Blair makes money. Blair at least has the grace to look destroyed.  While admitting nothing, his subconscious has caught up with him. His face has crumbled with guilt. He lives his own hell. He reminds me of Macbeth.  Americans just keep going on their dreadful way.

Does anybody own up to anything?  The police were still challenging the Hillsborough families right up to the last minute, adding immensely to their suffering.  Appeal after appeal on a mountain of lies. It took 27 years to finally arrive at a truth that was obvious from day one.  How many truths are denied and buried completely?

Would you trust a banker to tell you the truth? A policeman?  A judge?  A doctor?  A celebrity?

Anyone?

Ah, mistakes were made.

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Hillsborough

96

It has taken me 28 years to write about Hillsborough. Whenever the subject was raised it made me angry, mainly because I’ve never understood why it had taken 27 years to state the obvious – 96 deaths were caused by, at best, extreme police stupidity. The lies and cover-up that followed were of the most obvious criminality. I doubt very much that anyone will ever pay for it.

The reason I was surprised by the cover-up was that the tragedy was all so public. The whole disaster, aided and abetted by appalling police inadequacy, was on television for all to see – several million people must have seen it. I taped what should have been the game on video. I later wiped it. Why did it take 27 years for me to see those images again? Why did nobody ever show the film of what happened? It has always existed. Why was it hidden?

Too many people were herded into a fenced in pen. This caused many to be crushed and trampled. The whole situation could have been alleviated by opening the gates onto the pitch. Instead the police stood and watched as 96 people were crushed to death and many more injured.

A lie was invented at about 3.45. The lie was to cover up a chief of police’s lack of action and his force’s dreadful incompetency. The lie was that Liverpool fans had rushed a gate, poured into the stadium in their hundreds crushing those already there to death.

The chief of police froze. His only action was to position a row of police on the half-way line to prevent hooliganism. This was while people were dying. People can freeze. It’s a tragedy, but it happens and is forgivable. What is unforgiveable are the invented lies and the heartless and callous disregard for the bereaved families.

Moira Stewart dutifully repeated the lie on the later BBC news. In other words: Liverpool supporters killed themselves. She must have known she was repeating lies but BBC employees will repeat any old rubbish they’re told to repeat. People preferred the lie. After all they were football fans, hooligans; and most of all: working class. Support the police, blame the workers.

XXX

The lie was embellished: Liverpool fans urinated on brave police, they were all drunk, they stole wallets from the dead. Incredibly people believed this nonsense. This might have been understandable had not the whole tragedy been shown live on TV – the police were lying. Look at the film: that’s what happened! Why did so many believe those stupid lies?

The idiot celebrity, Terry Wogan, smugly described the deaths as self-inflicted. He once shouted at an audience that vociferously disagreed with him: “Get back to your hovels”. He also charged £5000 for his appearances on Children in Need, until he was rumbled. His popularity is one of life’s mysteries.

The police interviewed all the families of the dead. Completely lacking any sympathy, they told every family that their child, spouse was drunk. To one family who told them their child did not drink they replied: “You’ll be telling us he was a virgin next”. Inhuman behaviour.

The Taylor Report, soon after, exonerated the fans and blamed the police. But the media preferred the lie, incredibly the public did too. One fan was asked hundreds of times if he really urinated on the police. He replied: “Would you do it?” I wrote a letter to The Independent in 2011 voicing my thoughts about the police and Moira Stewart. I received an avalanche of replies, all criticising me. “You must have been there”; “You must have lost someone there” were the polite replies; “How dare you attack our wonderful police?” “How dare you attack the lovely Moira Stewart?” were more common. These are the same people now pretending sympathy for the dead and their families. I’m afraid they are the most hopeless idiots. Nothing can be done for them. They will believe any nonsense the state tells them to believe.

The police present on the day all had their written reports changed. The honest ones had any slight criticism of the police erased. There were some decent police, those few who helped the fans; most of those had the decency to leave the police, some had nervous breakdowns, broken by the sheer horror of what they witnessed. It was mainly the fans who helped, the police did precious little.

The final case against the police took far longer than it should have. The police maintained their lies to the last, prolonging the suffering. After 27 years they still could not admit what had been clear on TV in 1989. Why did that film not surface again for 27 years? The BBC must have known it existed, every TV station must have known, every newspaper must have known. How did film that proved police guilt, showed they were lying, stay hidden for so long?

The BBC, to their credit, finally made a fine documentary showing what really happened. It should have been made 28 years ago and would have avoided years and years of suffering, suffering only made possible by dozens of corrupt police, officials and a compliant, cowardly media.

The policeman or men who invented the lies should be jailed for life, along with Kelvin Mackenzie who repeated the lies in the Sun, a disreputable comic. All those police who interviewed and insulted the grieving families should be jailed for 10 years.

The massively stupid and infantile public who believed this nonsense for 27 years should be sent to an island for dim-witted people: Thick Island perhaps, where their brainlessness can only damage their unintelligent selves.

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