Thursday, 29 November 2012

What to wear for your Oxbridge interview

Nice bag. (Photo from Telegraph piece.)
What ho, I've written a blog for The Telegraph about what to wear for your Oxford interviews. Try a morph suit. Or maybe not.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Goodbye Marion Lloyd

Marion Lloyd: Brilliant
The Hospital Club in Covent Garden was abuzz with almost-weeping authors and publishers last night: the excellent and redoubtable Marion Lloyd is retiring from publishing. I've been a great admirer of her books for years: sometimes doing a round up is very difficult, as hers always warrant more attention. She's picked and nurtured many excellent authors  - Philip Pullman, Frances Hardinge, Sally Nicholls, Eva Ibbotson, Georgia Byng and dozens more - and her books have won every prize going. Her husband and children (who include the actor Harry Lloyd) were also in attendance. It was on her advice that I read Peter Dickinson's fantastically good The Ropemaker.

The head of Scholastic said in a speech that when Marion, as a descendant of Charles Dickens, was introduced to the Queen, the Queen said - "You're Marion Lloyd. The publisher." Which, as accolades go, is up there with the best.

In a warm and funny speech, Marion said that she was very lucky to have got her job at all - she began as a shorthand typist. It is a sad indication of the world today that someone "without qualifications" would not be able to get into the publishing business as she did. In her day, she could buy a book for a thousand pounds and sell 25,000 copies; these days, it's more likely that you buy one for £25,000 and sell a thousand copies. She joked that retirement sounded like slippers and cardigans, and that she didn't want to do anything like that; so let's hope that we still see more of her in the book world in the years to come. A hearty cheer for Marion, for her wonderful imprint, and for all the excellent books that have stimulated and challenged children's imaginations over the last forty years.

The "Next Big Thing" Blog Meme

I'm working on a number of projects at the moment, so I thought I would talk about something that, whilst very dear to my heart, has fallen by the wayside, as projects do; perhaps one day it will pick itself up and find itself a home. It's a book called 'Cave', which is set in a boarding school that is besieged by ecologically motivated terrorists who want to use the power of the monstrous spirit at the centre of the school to aid their world-dominating plans. Yay!
What is the title of your next book?

Where did the idea come from for the book?

There’s something quite numinous about schools, and I always imagined that they would have some kind of inhabiting spirit. I like the idea of a school as an isolated hotspot - sort of like the film If... in which the boys begin to rebel (and start a killing spree, although that doesn't happen in my book.) The school in Cave is based on my old school, Lancing, which sits on top of a hill - I always used to imagine that it would somehow become cut off from the rest of the world. You can definitely feel something different in the air. And I thought - what if there was something underneath the hill, which began trying to contact the boys? What if it wanted something? And what if some other people wanted it? So the book was born...

What genre does your book fall under?

It's a book aimed at twelve year olds and up. I'd call it a philosophical fantastical novel.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I wouldn’t like to go that far...

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

A school lies besieged; a monster awakens.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’s lying in my drawer... one day I hope it will be published by an actual publisher.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I don’t really know. About six months, I think, but then you don’t write all the time. I can never answer this question. Writing has to fit in around other things - it's not as if you sit down and write all day every day until it's finished. And then you redraft and edit.

What other books of the same genre would you compare yours with?

It’s not really like anything that I can think of. Catherine Fisher’s excellent recent book, Obsidian Mirror, has a few scenes set in a similar school.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I think the idea of a school as a microcosm of society, under pressure from within and without, seemed to me very attractive. And I wanted to do something that showed that teens under pressure would not necessarily collapse, like they do in Lord of the Flies. I wanted to write something about a boarding school that showed what people at boarding school were actually like, rather than the kind of people you normally get in children’s books who tend to be snobby or uber-rich. 

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s got love scenes, friendships, rabbit-skinning, catapults, guns, a duel, and a ferocious multi-dimensional monster. What more could you want? 

I now tag the following excellent writers:

Monday, 26 November 2012

Telegraph Books of the Year 2012

I've done my books of the year for The Telegraph - take a gander here.  I'll be doing my own list at the end of the year, as usual. (Sighs, and thinks "Doesn't it come round faster every time?")

Where Have You Been? by Joseph O'Connor

Joseph O'Connor: Irish
I've reviewed Joseph O'Connor's short story collection, which spans decades of Ireland, for The New Humanist. Check it out here.

I reviewed his last novel, Ghost Light, for The Telegraph, which you can read here.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

How to be Danish by Patrick Kingsley: Meatballs and jumpers

A famous Dane
"The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge." (Hamlet)

 To Elsinore! I cried to my squire as he saddled up my raging steed. The sledded Polacks were attacking, and it was time to do some smiting... Well, maybe not quite. To the Danish Embassy! I cried, rather grandly, to my cabbie, who said he thought it was somewhere near Harrods, which it was. Of course I am not always popping in and out of embassies - I was there for a reason, which was to celebrate the launch of Patrick Kingsley's book, How to be Danish.

He wrote it having wept after seeing the first episode of The Killing, and was soon drawn into the friendly, social democratic world that is Denmark, where knitted jumpers are fashionable, and judges earn two and a half times what a cleaner does. Everybody gets a chance to chill out in their teens, and they are the happiest people in the world. Or are they? These were the questions delved into as Patrick chatted to journalist Jenni Russell, and fielded by the ambassador, Anne Hedensted Steffensen, who greeted us warmly (though not wearing a jumper) as we entered the ambassadorial residence, which combined quite severe style with some odd little quirks. The Danes, suggested Patrick, became much more community based after their empire collapsed, and they realised that the only people they ruled were themselves. A lesson for Britain?

It's not all good, though; the Danes have their own problems of social cohesion and immigration, but they certainly make good meatballs, and a pretty marvellous soup, at the bottom of which lurks something that looks a bit grisly but turns out to be another sort of meatball. I must confess that I have never seen The Killing, or any Danish drama; but having spent a couple of hours on Danish soil, I shall certainly seek them out, and look to Patrick's book as an excellent guide. Although, as I left, I did hope for a little bit - just a tiny bit - more wassailing.

Tweet tweet

A short post, to announce to you, my loyal followers, that I have, several years too late, got into the whole social media networking adventure, and signed up to that behemoth of sites, Twitter. You can find me @WomackPhilip, if you so wish.

Now, back to work. But must just check my Twitter feed before I do that...

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Liza Campbell and Henry Hudson

Two private views in a week: first there was Liza Campbell, whose Black Boxes have been a feature of my life for a while now; her "Carphology & Cryptograms" were on display at the Julian Hartnoll Gallery in St James'. My favourite was "Neurotics Checklist" (left), which lists - you can guess - all the things that a neurotic might worry about, including Alien Abduction, Putrefaction of the Genitals, Quicksand, a Tsunami and a Piranha Infested Caipirinha. If you are neurotic it's probably worth avoiding it. The works have a great deal of the customary Campbell charm and wit - go and check them out: never have Linnaean taxonomies seemed so much fun.

Then today, at T J Boulting's near Oxford Circus, was Henry Hudson's "Hominidae", a series of vast portraits of his family and friends in swirling, layered plasticenes that brought to mind Lucian Freud. They're textured, striking and haunting, upright figures in all but bare surroundings, sometimes looming out of their frames (quite literally as the material rises up towards you.) To the right is a portrait of the artist Lucy McMillan-Scott (who painted both me and my mother) and her dog Piper. There's also one of the novelist Cressida Connolly and her husband Charles Hudson, both of whom were present; striking a more colourful note was Janet Street-Porter, whose hair was, I think, purple, though it was hard to tell.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

MIchael Gove, James Dyson, and French lesbian poetry

Saphho: A Greek lesbian worthy of study?
Sir James Dyson has said that reading French lesbian poetry is a waste of time; Michael Gove says it isn't. I've written about it for The Telegraph.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Literary Review Grand Poetry Prize and Tatler's Little Black Book Party

It's traditionally a sunny day on the day of the Literary Review Grand Poetry Prize (God must like books), and yesterday was no different, as hordes of ravening literary beasts descended upon Fitzroy Square for the annual luncheon.  (What's the collective word for authors? A ream? A rambling? Suggestions on a postcard please.)

Actress Samantha Bond (yup, Miss Moneypenny) sweetly read out the winning entry as authors looked on and ate the most delicious guinea fowl. I was delighted to meet my critical heroine Katherine Duncan-Jones, the august Shakespeare scholar, and to talk about family histories with Gillian Tindall. Tom Holland, the author of The Shadow of the Sword, a book about how the Koran was constructed, was there, without any bodyguards; Sarah Bradford, the royal biographer, in a red hat; explorer Sara Wheeler and many others. Alexander Waugh tickled the piano (and the guests), and gave a speech in which he remembered the 22 years of the prize. Founded by Auberon Waugh to encourage poems that rhymed, scanned and made sense - "it's had a profound effect across the world, even in China they're writing poems that rhyme and scan", the award was first given away by Alec Guinness but nobody recognised him, so they found someone more famous to do it the next year - Diana, Princess of Wales. He also recalled Peter Cook making a speech about (I think) a platinum bee.

It was a marginally different scene later in the evening at Tatler's Little Black Book party - although biographer Anne Somerset was in attendance, and memoirist Liza Campbell, though not there, is on the list. The photographers, however, were mostly interested in .... Nancy Dell'Olio, although maybe she was there by accident.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Breakfast with C J Daugherty, author of Night School

To the not-so-secret Wolseley (ahem, again this week) for breakfast with the author C J Daugherty, whose young adult fictions, Night School and Night School Legacy (both published by Atom) are gaining a large following on the web. Daugherty was intrigued by the idea of the Bullingdon Club picture that did the rounds a few years ago, and wanted to find out what it would be like to be born into privilege, with such confidence, and hence was generated her first book.

We were treated, whilst consuming the most perfectly scrumptious eggs benedict, to an atmospheric trailer for the books, which concern a high-profile school and a secret society. They certainly look thrilling. Of course, I can't tell you what else happened at breakfast - that's far too secret... (although there was a representative of Books for Keeps there, who wrote a brilliant review of The Liberators, which was an added pleasure.) Daugherty's books are already bestsellers across the world - keep an eye out for them if you love young adult fiction.

Fountain pens, and Philip Hensher's The Missing Ink

A while ago I was asked to write a piece by a newspaper which never made it into print: it was about fountain pens. So when I was recently asked to review Philip Hensher's book about handwriting, The Missing Ink, for The Telegraph, I thought I might dig it out again. Here it is.

I still have my first fountain pen. At my prep school everyone used them: Shaeffers were considered the top of the tree. Mine, given when I was eleven years old, was an elegant grey Parker, with a gold nib and an arrow clip. It marked a move into the exciting adult world. My headmaster at the time carried a beautiful fountain pen which used a striking shade of turquoise ink: it represented sophistication and a little of the eccentric artiness to which I aspired.

Fountain pens are talismanic. They remind you of everything you’ve written with them, taking on deep layers of significance. They are used at moments of international importance – the treaty of Versailles was signed with a gold fountain pen. Though instruments of supreme taste (Waterman fountain pens were a favourite of the Emperor of China) they are also democratic, freely available to everyone the world over.

Writing with a fountain pen when I was child was in itself inspiring. There’s something organic about it. No more the unattractive shapes made by a ballpoint; now my stories were formed with luscious curves.

A fountain pen becomes an extension of your body. It was always impressed on us that you should never lend your fountain pen to someone else, because the nib ‘learns’ your grip, reflecting your idiosyncracies and style. 

This is in stark contrast to writing on a computer. I have the sense of another, distracting presence, that little cursor blinking snarkily. I’d lend my laptop to anyone. A computer never becomes part of you. In my experience they provide more heartache than pleasure. When you’re typing, both sides of your brain are employed. Writing means you’re only using one side, leaving the other to generate those all important ideas. With a blank page and a pen there’s nothing in between you and your story: the words and ideas flow, uninterrupted, the only, natural break coming when the pen runs out of ink. I still draft my novels by pen, typing them up every so often and editing as I go.

Writer Liza Campbell, whose memoir about growing up in Cawdor Castle was recently published, uses a silver italic Lamy. ‘I went to a prep school where fountain pens were compulsory’, leading to ‘an ever-evolving Rorschach Test of splots and the telltale blue tongue from sucking ink into the nib from a recalcitrant cartridge.’ Since she was left-handed, her teachers said there was no hope for her script, but, ‘with the arrival of an italic nib,’ she ‘became determined to conquer calligraphy. It took about a decade, but fountain pens allowed me to do this.’ The fountain pen as symbol of beauty and patience is here writ large; Campbell highlights, too, the necessity of precision and reliability.

We’ve come a long way since we first scratched letters into wax. For centuries, people wrote with quill pens, which required constant dipping, giving rise to a lovely eighteenth century slang term for writers: ‘inkslingers’. Romantic and messy, yes; but not so good on control and precision. Attempts were made at producing fountain pens: as far back as the tenth century, one was apparently constructed for Ma-ad al Mu-izz, the caliph of the Maghreb; however it can’t have been very good, as the technology was soon forgotten. In the nineteenth century, slightly more successful attempts were made, but not very much more so, as Lewis Waterman found out in 1883 in New York, when he tried to sign an important business contract with one and it failed to work; he rushed back to his office to get another contract, but by the time he’d returned, someone else had pipped him to the post.

It was this that inspired him to create what would become Waterman pens. He developed a new feed for the ink that relied on a capillary process, with air entering through the nib to create a consistent pressure on the reservoir. Which means a continuous, satisyfying flow, and cheers from writers all over the world. His company was soon leading the charge, making pens that were objects of art as well as practical. Parker, too, were constructing fabulous pens. Dave Ruderman, who looks after the Parker archive quotes founder George Parker, ‘the good thing about Parker pens is that they write in any language.’

So what’s the future for the noble fountain pen? These instruments are not dying out. Their style and adaptability ensure a following even now. Even Facebook has pages dedicated to fountain pens, with over 5,000 ‘likes’. In this digital age, it's pleasing to note that ink still rules.

May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes, review

A M Homes: Zeitgeisty
A happy Bonfire Night (yes I know it was yesterday) to you all. I've reviewed May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes for The Telegraph, a fine novel about modern life.