07: July and August, 2016

July 11th, 2016

I’ve been going through some scenes narrated by dear old Charles – Charles Fox, sixty-five years old and looking back on his comfortable well-paid life in ‘public service’. It’s just as well that he’s retired, as he’d hardly fit in a modern office. Here’s one of his various reminiscences:

Let me tell you, life was not always so damned constricted. Back in the day, the Seventies and Eighties, the Christmas office party was a very different affair – indeed, a lot of affairs started at the Christmas party. (Some didn’t last much beyond Christmas, but there you are. All done by New Year’s Eve, and no harm done.) At those parties there was rather a lot of kissing and fondling – harmless fun – which gave you the opportunity to get your hands on that little typist you’d always had your eye on. (The typing pool was awash with eager minxes, I often found.) You could give her a smacking good kiss for Christmas and – how shall I put it? – feel the water, try your luck, see if she might care to hang her Christmas stockings up at your place. That’s what I call staff relations. All changed now, more’s the pity. You had something to look forward to – and the girls looked forward to it too, you bet they did: it gave them an opportunity to snog the boss and do themselves a bit of good ahead of the salary review. Why not? A little enterprise does no one any harm.

Now, who could take offence at that?

July 25th, 2016

Again and again I return to the same dilemma – what to call my book.  Not as common a dilemma as some may think; like many writers I usually have the title decided early on (often before I’ve begun writing the story) and to me that title is the only one possible.  An author’s caprice, no doubt, as publishers can reel off a long list of books we know by one title – the ‘only one possible’ in our opinion – but for which the author originally came up with something quite different.

All the while I’ve been writing this book the title that keeps returning (as the only one possible?) is Mother Naked  but isn’t that a little too stark?  Doesn’t it suggest a quite different kind of story – a hard-bitten crime novel or a soft-porn shocker?  I like the title because it plays with the fact that the central character (a mother celebrating her one hundredth birthday) was in her youth a stripper and that now, when the family has gathered for what should be a celebration, they each in their own way condemn and deplore her supposedly scandalous past.  In their biased and condemnatory accounts each of them strips her naked and lays her character bare.  (They don’t realize, of course, that in doing so they expose their own characters to the reader.)

large ladyPerhaps a compromise is called for.  My Mother Stripped Naked perhaps (Our Mother?) or Mother Stripped Bare?  Yet even as I see these alternatives set out in print I feel that they lack the power of my two-word original.  I shall have to ask some of you, my faithful readers, for your opinions.  Should I use some close variation on my original title or move away and view the stage from an entirely different viewpoint?

August 8th, 2016

Rose Tremain was saying recently that readers seem surprised her books are so different from each other – modern-day versus historical, set in Britain or abroad, told from male or female points of view.  She’s a fine writer and deserves her high status, even if the price for that is that she occasionally has to exchange small talk with the likes of our Prince Charles.  What was she writing now, he wondered, and she explained that her latest, The Gustav Sonata, has a teenage male narrator.  So does she herself have a son, he wondered and, when told she didn’t (she has a daughter), the Prince asked with some surprise, “Does that mean you make it up?”

Well, yes, we do.  My books, like hers (not that I dare compare myself with Rose Tremain) vary greatly from each other.  Mine now (since the early ones set largely in Deptford) take place in different locales, at different times, to wildly different people.  Rose made the point that her books are not autobiographical and she doesn’t revisit scenes from her life.  She’s glad she doesn’t, she declared, for while one’s own life might provide material for a few books, it can’t be exploited time and time again.  The source inevitably runs dry.

What then?  Plenty of writers – as she was too tactful to point out – seem content to go back again and again over the same old ground, making the same old points, airing the same old grumbles, but she and I do not.  My life has seldom informed my books.  Readers of the first ten (the crime novels) may be relieved or disappointed to learn that I have not lived the life of a south London gangster.  It wasn’t until around the twentieth book (Exit 39) that I visited my own past at all.  That book was to have been based on the family I grew up in but, as authors frequently have to explain, the characters quickly took on a life of their own and strolled determinedly off-piste.

In my current book I am, for only the second time, delving into real-life memory – but again, my ‘creatures’ won’t do as they’re told.  The mother (almost a villain in Exit 39) approaches saintliness this time.  (That’s stretching it, but you take my point.)  Either way, she is not my mother.  My real-life step-brother (around whom Exit 39 was to have revolved) has taken on an entirely different life in Mother Naked and, in order to do so, has had to become ten years younger than I’d planned and become the youngest sibling, rather than second oldest as he really is.  He – Jack in the novel – is a man of mystery for much of Mother Naked, and he now shares none of my step-brother’s features or characteristics.  His life has become utterly different, both to my step-brother’s own and to his fictional counterpart’s in Exit 39.  So I ask myself (prompted by Rose Tremain and Prince Charles) do I use my own life in my novels?  Seldom, I reply, and when I do I find that the characters insist on choosing the Road Not Taken rather than the route I have assigned them.  They have their own lives.  I might just as well have made them up.

August 22nd, 2016

How much time do we waste saving time?  Two days I’ve lost this week (and still counting) replacing a fatally sick computer.  Not a dead machine, you’ll note, one that could be summarily buried or cremated according to choice (other options are available) but one still showing flickers of life, a machine that tantalises with the hope that some (perhaps most?) of what’s inside can be retrieved.  Hours were lost in discovering that weren’t so.  The machine pretended to output data but didn’t do so.  “At least I’ve saved the Address Book.”  But I hadn’t.  In a frustrating reverse of the usual computer etiquette, mine pretended “Computer says YES” when it really meant “Computer says No.”

So: onto the internet to compare new machines.  (More hours lost.)  On to the shop to view.  I like to see and touch before I buy – and quite rightly: the machine I’d chosen was, on inspection, less impressive than it had seemed online.  I chose another (not too much more expensive) and took it home.  I read the instructions.  That at least did not take long since, as has become standard with anything remotely complicated, the instruction leaflet (“You wanted a book?”) told me little more than how to turn the machine on.

Joy of joys, an almost instant start-up and Welcome screen – so much faster than the old machine – and “Updates Available.”  Should I take them?  I had no choice.  Within moments the machine began downloading, and continued downloading, during which time, of course, it would let me do nothing else.  Then came the parade of Accept/Decline, Press Next, I Agree, and Enter Password boxes, interspersed with worryingly long periods of blank blue screens.  Finally all was done.  I pressed Restart.

Oh.  What happened to that ‘almost instant start-up and Welcome screen’?  Gone.  Never to be seen again.  I had seen the future once but would never again.  Start-up was now no faster than on the old machine.  At least the beast worked and was panting hungrily for a substantial meal of fresh data – but given the old machine’s reluctance to spew out its contents my store of data was scantily stocked.  The main files, yes, and documents (no writer nowadays fails to back up their scribblings) but I’d lost a number of incidental programs, pictures and miscellanea, including that precious Address Book.

But wait, what was this?  Microsoft had copied it earlier (When?  Was I asked?  Did I know?) and had ‘synced’ it onto the new machine.  Well, thank you very much but…what else of my supposedly private data had I ‘shared’?  In last week’s news the nation worried (or the Press had it that we worried) about GCHQ’s plans to make itself privy to our personal data.  “We can’t have that,” we cried (or rather: “You can’t have it”) yet our Internet Service Providers, along with Amazon, Google, Facebook and goodness knows who else have already helped themselves.  As has who else?

Back when I started writing, in a distant age you won’t remember, when having a computer in the home seemed as futuristic and unlikely as having jet-packs on our backs and flying through the sky (a much-vaunted prospect in the mid-twentieth century) back then my purple prose would be keyed onto a typewriter.  Those machines never went wrong.  On the rare occasions you decided to upgrade (once a decade) you had only to slide the new machine into the space occupied by the old, insert new software (aka a blank sheet of paper) and you were set to go.  Was that really such an antiquated, cumbersome and inefficient way to live?

Perhaps I should ask the new machine.  Google will give me screen after screen of suggested answers.  That’ll be another hour wasted.