Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Children's Round up For Literary Review December / January issue 2014

Happy Advent! My children's round up is in this month's Literary Review, featuring:

Shadow of the Wolf by Tim Hall
Mountwood School for Ghosts by Tony Ibbotson
Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman & Chris Riddell
Buckle and Squash and the Monstrous Moat-Dragon by Sarah Courtauld
Cakes in Space by Philip Reeve & Sarah McIntyre
The Imaginary by A F Harrold
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge
Salvage by Keren David
Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick
Snow by Sam Usher

Lots of enjoyable Christmas reading to be done.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Article on mythology for Books for Keeps

Brighten up your dreary Monday with this article I've done for Books for Keeps on mythology in children's books. Read it here.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

A reading: Fire From Heaven

This is a recording made by Izzy Mathie, of my poem, "Fire from Heaven," about the Titan Prometheus.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Interview with Philip Womack

Here's an interview about Greek myths, children's books and writing, conducted by Izzy Mathie:

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Laurie Lee's Rosie

Morning, I've written a little piece for The Independent about the pitfalls of inspiring a literary work. Read it here.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A Bluffer's Guide to Greek Mythology

Chairete! I'm giving a short talk on Greek Myth for the How To: Academy. Come and join! Details here.

Autumn round up of children's books

Here's my autumn round up of children's books for the Telegraph. Read it here.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Bath Festival of Children's Literature & War Girls review

This year I'll be appearing at the Bath Festival of Children's Literature; the Telegraph asked me to do a round up of some of the authors who are also doing events, from September 26th to October 5th. The round up is in the paper today, (not online yet - I'll post it when it appears) and features:

A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond
Terror Kid by Benjamin Zephaniah
Wild Boy and the Black Terror by Rob Lloyd Jones
The Tornado Chasers by Ross Montgomery
Secret Agent Mummy by Steve Cole
Boy Face and the Tartan Badger by James Campbell
Papa Chagall, Tell Us a Story by Laurence Anholt

My review of War Girls, a collection of short stories about girls in the First World War, published by Andersen, was cut, so I've pasted it here below:
 War Girls: A Collection of First World War Stories (Andersen Press, 258pp, £6.99), is a welcome addition to the reams of books commemorating the Great War. The nine stories here cover a wide range of the feminine perspective: among them Berlie Doherty’s outstanding “Sky Dancer”, in which a young singer goes to the front to entertain troops; Anne Fine’s tightly-wound “Piercing the Veil” which deals with spiritualism; and Theresa Breslin’s finely-cut “Shadow and Light”, about an artistic ambulance driver. All nine engage thoughtfully with the battles that girls faced: to love, to work, and to become themselves whilst all around the world exploded.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Launch of Dan Jones' The Hollow Crown

Dan Jones: Moody
Evenin' all! Despite the fact that it seems like no time at all since his last book, last night I went to the launch of Dan Jones' new historical tome, The Hollow Crown, at the Rook and Raven Gallery near Tottenham Court Road. It was very hot. As these photographs on the Tatler website will attest. Obviously, both Anna Friel and Heston Blumenthal were in attendance. I wonder if I missed the canapés because they were all shaped like something else? Oh well.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Summer reading 2014

Samuel Pepys: salty
These are the books I'm lugging with me for my week away. I'll be delving, as usual, into Samuel Pepys, and savouring his salty, vivid prose, although it does sometimes feel rather Sisyphean. Henry Green's first novel, Blindness, was written whilst he was still at school; I hope to be left very jealous. I'm revisiting Aldous Huxley, having chanced upon After Many a Summer recently; I'm taking Eyeless in Gaza, his most sincere novel. A classic I've never looked at, and timely given the publication of the final volume, is Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts.

Concerning contempory fiction: Continuing my attempts to catch up on Hilary Mantel's backlist before her next book comes out, I've got Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, a study of isolation in Jeddah. I love those sinister, eerie earlier works. Having loved, as many did, Middlesex, I've left off reading Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot for ages, so that's coming too, and for similar reasons, Don DeLillo's Libra, another author whose works I'm hungrily devouring. Zadie Smith's NW friends assure me is brilliant so she's along for the ride.

I'm also very much looking forward to two works of non-fiction: Peter Stothard's Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, and Helen Macdonald's already bestselling H is for Hawk. I've  read T H White's The Goshawk in preparation, and am tempted to get my own hawk. I wonder if they'll let it through customs?

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Photographs by Izzy Mathie

These photographs were taken by Izzy Mathie, who interviewed me today as part of an ongoing project.

The interview, and videos of readings from THE BROKEN KING, will be appearing soon.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

My inspiration: T H White's Once and Future King

I've written a piece for The Guardian about T H White's The Once and Future King. You can read it here. It follows S F Said's My Inspiration piece, about Ursula Le Guin.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Julia Donaldson, smoking & scarecrows

Captain Haddock enjoying a pipe
Evening all: I've written a piece for The Independent which will be in tomorrow's paper; it's online now. You can read it here. It's about Julia Donaldson, and smoking in children's books.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Making of Mr Bolsover by Cornelius Medvei: review in Literary Review

A happy August to you all: I've reviewed The Making of Mr Bolsover by Cornelius Medvei for the Literary Review; it's in the August edition, which has hit the stands right now, as we speak, and contains lots of other lovely things.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Childe Roland and The Broken King

Just who is Childe Roland? His name is imbued with mystery. The liquid “ls” and hard dentals suggest movement, a march to the beat of a slow-moving army.

There is a picture of him, by Edward Burne-Jones, in which he is encased in armour and defiantly holding his horn. He appears for the briefest of moments in King Lear; Robert Browning wrote a whole poem about him, which ends with the stirring lines: “And yet / Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set, / And blew “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.” There is a  folk story, in which Roland’s sister, Burd Ellen, gets snatched away by the King of Elfland after going round a church backwards; Roland follows his brothers to that strange, other place, and manages to get her back.

He is a character made from many things: shifting, and yet dauntless. When Childe Roland comes to the Dark Tower, in Browning’s poem, what is it that he finds there? When Edgar, disguised as the madman Poor Tom, sings his snatch of a song, he takes Lear off the heath, off stage, into the darkness. Roland is always on a journey, into the unknown. For a character that’s so elusive, he has a great deal of power.

Whoever he is, whatever his origins, and wherever he’s going, he is the direct inspiration for my new book, The Broken King. Roland was a paladin of Charlemagne, historically speaking (though barely attested), who fought bravely for his king. He becomes transformed into a figure of fantasy in the Chanson de Roland, where he is given a horn with which to summon the emperor, and a sword that was brought by an angel.

Thus he pops up in Ariosto’s romantic epic, Orlando Furioso, which is about him, or an idea of him. Here his sword once belonged to Hector of Troy (and perhaps the process he is undergoing, from knight to legend, is the same that Hector, Achilles, Aeneas and Odysseus underwent.) In this long poem he falls in love with Angelica and loses his wits – only to have them restored to him by a knight who’s found them on the moon.

He passes on through the centuries. Surely it is he who is the subject of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, ageless, vital, still on his (and then her) quest for meaning? His journey has in the twentieth century sparked many other works: Alan Garner’s Elidor; Stephen King’s Dark Tower series; Francis King used it for the title of a 1946 novel, To the Dark Tower. Roland’s is a quest that seems to have at the same time both no meaning, and all the meaning in the universe.

When I was smaller, I imagined that “Childe” Roland was a child. Having heard snatches of his story, or stories, I pictured myself as Roland, embarking upon endless strange and terrible quests. Much later I learned that “Childe” was in fact another word for “Knight”; and so it struck me, still later on, that there is no reason why a child could not be a knight.

Children’s books are about becoming an adult, and facing up to strange and terrible things: why couldn’t my new hero be a version of Roland, setting out on a journey which threatened more dangers than he could ever imagine? What lurks in the Dark Tower is endlessly fascinating: not least because it stands for so much of our own dark imaginings; and, perhaps more importantly, it prefigures all our deaths. In Browning, it’s possible that that is what the Dark Tower is: the end of a struggle; the acceptance of the end. And yet Roland is strong in the face of it.

My hero, in twenty-first century Britain, couldn’t actually be called Roland – he’s Simon, though Roland is his middle name. The folk story was the germ of the book’s plot: I changed it so that Simon becomes the cause of his sister’s disappearance. Along the way he picks up a horn and a sword, both of which have magical properties. Having been an ordinary boy, he becomes, in effect, a knight.

His quest is to save his sister from the Broken King. But it’s also the quest that Roland performs, to the dark tower, into nothingness, into the depths of meaning and reality and existence themselves. It’s the journey that children make when they struggle from childhood into adulthood; and one that takes place, always, onwards and onwards, at the steady pace of Childe Roland’s very name, in the backs of our adult minds.

One day we will face the dark tower, if it is death. And who knows what we will find when we put the horn to our lips, and blow?

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Medea at the National Theatre: review for PORT

Helen McCrory as Medea
Medea is on at the National Theatre: I've reviewed it for PORT magazine. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Thor as Woman: Gender and gods?

Marvel Comics have announced, to much chatter, that they are going to recast the god Thor as a woman. They have stressed that the new Thor will not be a "She-Thor," or a "Thorita," but Thor him- or rather her-self.

Reactions have so far been mixed. I began to wonder: is gender such an important, indeed essential part of a god or goddess? Let us try some thought experiments. The goddess Aphrodite, for example, is the goddess of generation, passionate love, the sea. She is invoked in those aspects. Lucretius (who doesn't believe in her) calls upon her at the beginning of his De Rerum Natura  as the "alma" - nourishing - mother. It is important that she is a mother, as the things that flow from that are feminine. If you replaced it with Pater Aphroditus, you would have an entirely different set of affairs.

Some gods are resolutely tied up with gender. Juno is the goddess of child-birth, for example; it would seem contrary to endow a male god with her attributes. Others are ambiguous. Dionysus is a god who has long hair like a woman, and who hangs around with women. He is a feminine man: not, importantly, a masculine woman. Artemis, though very definitely feminine, does things that are largely considered male - hunting; she would not be the same if she were a man who did things considered to be feminine. Athena has the attributes of a warrior, and of wisdom. Compare her to Ares - he is just war, pure and simple

Thor is an elemental god, a god of thunder and lightning, and a smith god. He has aspects of Zeus and of Hephaestus; Tacitus thought of him as Hercules. What happens if you switch genders with these gods and all the stories that are told about them? The scene in the Iliad, where Thetis supplicates Zeus, works because Thetis is a mother concerned about her son; switch Zeus into a mother too, and the dynamic shifts. Thor as woman suddenly has a whole new set of attributes, relationships with her wives, her brothers, her father Odin.

There is a lot to be said for playing with mythology. It is there to be tinkered with, there to be recast in different forms, and to have variegated lights thrown on it. That is why it is still alive, and why it still speaks to us, and why we always return to it. There is no reason why Marvel should not introduce a female aspect of Thor.  But to say that Thor is a woman is to displace something fundamental about myth and its sources: in fact to disregard them entirely, for the sake of a marketing exercise.  The power of myth lies in certain unchanging elements: to change those is to deflate it entirely.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Literary Review summer children's book round up 2014

Chairete, (yes, I've just been to Greece): Here are the books reviewed in my summer round up of children's books for Literary Review.

The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones,
Tale of a Tail by Margaret Mahy,
The Box of Red Brocade by Catherine Fisher,
The Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett,
Poppy by Mary Hooper
The Blood List by Sarah Naughton,
The Night Raid by Caroline Lawrence,
Brilliant by Roddy Doyle,
Never Ending by Martyn Bedford,
The Ultimate Truth by Kevin Brooks,
Echo Boy by Matt Haig.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Titus Andronicus and J G Ballard, for PORT

Afternoon: I've written a short piece on the connection between Titus Andronicus and J G Ballard, for PORT magazine. Read it here.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Review of THE BROKEN KING in the Financial Times

Some nice news: Suzi Feay reviewed THE BROKEN KING in The Financial Times a couple of weekends ago, which someone pointed out to me. Luckily a friend had kept hold of a copy. It's not available online yet, but it's a subtle and intelligent review: ""[Womack] does conjure an eerie poetry of the subconscious, a kind of Alice in Terrorland," she says, which is exactly what I was going for.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Author of the week on Quadrapheme

PW is Author of the week on Quadrapheme: read it here.

Nick Harkaway's Tigerman: review in the TLS

Top of the morning to you: I've reviewed Nick Harkaway's Tigerman, for the Times Literary Supplement. It's available on the website (subscription only) or in the elegant print version on newstands.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Reader review of The Broken King on The Guardian

Here's a sweet reader review of The Broken King on The Guardian. Read it here.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Reviews of THE BROKEN KING on Lovereading4Kids

The week begins with something nice: a lovely review of THE BROKEN KING by The Guardian's Julia Eccleshare, on Lovereading4Kids: "A magical story full of powerful images and unexpected consequences." Read the full review, and some comments from readers, here.

There was also a nice little review on Parentsintouch: "This mesmerising fantasy is inspired by Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came ...This page turner of a novel grips throughout and will have the reader keen to read the rest of the trilogy."

Monday, 2 June 2014

First review of THE BROKEN KING, by Kate Saunders, in June issue of Literary Review

Hello all, the very first review of THE BROKEN KING, by Kate Saunders, author of many children's books including The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop, is out. It's in the June issue of Literary Review, which also has on its front cover Jonathan Beckman's book about Marie-Antoinette, and contains a piece by Patrick Hennessey and a picture from Willem Marx's book on Balochistan, amongst many other delights. Literary Review doesn't post everything online, so I've put Saunders' review below, but do check out the magazine's website here. And do get hold of a lovely print copy if you can.
Kate Saunders
“Steal the Sun”

The Broken King
by Philip Womack

Beware of what you wish for; Simon, the young hero of this spendidly engaging book, is being driven mad by his little sister, Anna. He suddenly remembers an old story that contains a “rhyme for getting rid of annoying siblings”. And the next thing he knows, Anna has vanished. This is guaranteed to strike a chord with any reader who has wished they could get rid of a tiresome brother or sister.

But of course he didn’t mean it – the thing about annoying siblings is that you can’t live without them either. Some dark force has whisked Anna away and Simon, in agonies of guilt, is force to acknowledge how much he loves her. What can he tell their parents? The family is going through a tough time – Dad has lost his job and moved them all from London to a rented cottage beside the sea.

Out walking, Simon has a dazzling vision of a golden woman who rides a golden deer with wings. “I know where your sister is,” she tells him, “in the world of the Broken King.” This lady is from the Golden Realm and she’s here to send Simon off on a magical quest – strewn with all the classic ingredients of a good quest, including prosaic objects with unexpected powers, evil knights who change into swans, and three mysteriously worded “tasks”: “Eat the shadow”, “Steal the sun” and “Break the air.” Not clichés, just your basic quest-pack.

What gives this story its zest is the charm of the two main characters – for, of course, the pack must contain a companion. Simon is joined by 13-year-old Flora, who wears smudged eyeliner and a tatty black leather jacket. Flora’s along for the ride because she made the same wish as Simon and accidentally got rid of her 18-year old brother. He’s into drugs and was tearing Flora’s life apart, but, like Simon, she is now admitting her deep love for the sibling she wished away. Consumed with guilt, the two children assume they are about to walk through the gates of hell.

The Broken King echoes with references to all kinds of mythologies, jumping effortlessly between Greek gods and the Brothers Grimm, with a classy dash of Victorian gothic. It is the first volumee of a trilogy, “The Darkening Path,” and Philip Womack tok as his inspiration Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.

The first book suddenly stops with all ends dangling – which is frustrating. Novels that are part of a series should deliver more immediate satisfaction. But I’m only complaining because The Broken King is superbly written and totally gripping, and I want the next bit now.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Hay Literary Festival: Heroes, Assassins and Dragons

The year before last, I received an email headlined: "Hay Festival." Terribly excited that at last I had been invited to speak at Britain's best-known literary festival, I opened it, only to find it was from a PR company telling me what the line-up was. So when, this year, I received another email with the same headline, I ignored it for ages. Luckily I eventually opened it, as this time round it was an actual invitation. I couldn't have been more delighted.

The train that I took from Paddington on a Tuesday afternoon was pullulating with people, most of whom seemed also to be doing talks at Hay. ("We live in a post-ironic world" was the general level of conversation.) On arrival at Hereford, I shared a car with two other authors, and was driven through impeccably lush countryside to my B and B, a charming house which belongs to an artist called Shan Egerton.

In the author's tent,  I ran into a friend who works for PEN and The White Review, and we had dinner and talked about Chilean anti-poets dancing at the age of 90, and how there's no time to read everything anymore.

Everything was muddy the next morning: hordes of people wearing sensible parkas and wellies were the order of the day, in contrast to my brogues and light summer jacket. I should have listened to Charlie Fletcher, one of the two authors I was doing my talk with (the other being Justin Somper), who advised bringing some seriously weatherproof kit. Still, I managed to make it through the day virtually unscathed, spending the time before my event sitting in the hospitality suite, and spotting famous writers gradually filling up the sofas: Sebastian Faulks was there in a smashing purple jacket.

I had an hour or so to look at the bookshops, and of course bought something in every one I went into. I would like to be able to spend a day or more there. What I love about second hand bookshops is the serendipity of things: there is no bullish marketing, or bestsellers thrust into your face, but you can turn a corner and find something beautiful. I came back with a version of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex for children, with startling Indian illustrations; a PG Wodehouse novel which introduces the excellent Psmith to Blandings Castle, and with a Chris Riddell cover , and a nineteenth century translation of the Greek Anthology.

The talk itself went well, chaired by the admirable Julia Eccleshare. We discussed making magical worlds; did some readings, and then went into questions. In the Starlight tent everything took on a  gentle glow, and, fortunately, nobody fell asleep.

All too soon I was back on the train, lugging my box of Berry Bros wine, and with a white rose in my lapel. A fellow passenger took me in and said, simply, "Why?" I shrugged. "Hay," I replied. It seemed to do the trick.

Review of Constantine Phipps' What You Want in The Spectator

Afternoon all: I've reviewed Constantine Phipps' new book, What You Want, for The Spectator. Read the review here.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Article in Mandrake, Telegraph

There's a little spot about the launch party in The Telegraph, in the Mandrake column. Read it here (after something about Jude Law - hence the picture.)

Article in Bookbrunch

Article in Bookbrunch

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Launch party for The Broken King

So last night was the launch for my new book, THE BROKEN KING. Tatler have very speedily put up pictures already, which you can see here.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014


Do you have an annoying sibling? Next time they're getting on your nerves, try this rhyme*

"I call the Broken King
Walk backwards thrice in a ring
He'll come in blinding light
He'll wrap you in the night
Before the start of day
The Broken King will take you away!"

*or don't as it might work and then before you know it you'll be on a quest to another dimension. Terms and conditions apply.

Monday, 19 May 2014

King Lear for PORT magazine

Afternoon all: I've written a little piece on why I love King Lear, for PORT magazine. You can read it here.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Launch party for Raffaella Barker's From A Distance

Barker: literary lightness
Last night Raffaella Barker launched her new novel, From a Distance, at London’s book launch venue extraordinaire (Daunts Marylebone.) There were Barkers aplenty, including Raffaella’s mother, Elspeth Barker, with whom I talked about the Roman poets. Her editor spoke about how she’d known Raff since she was a girl of fourteen, dressed in Victorian clothes in a vicarage; and how her wonderful first novel, Come and Tell Me Some Lies, followed on very soon after that. This, she said, is a novel for a hammock on a sunny afternoon, both light and literary.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Luton Hoo Children's Book Festival

A cloudy Sunday in May; what better way to spend it than at a children's book festival such as the one at Luton Hoo? Last weekend saw my first event for THE BROKEN KING, in a tent with the audience perched on straw bales whilst around us the wind howled and battered. I overheard a lady in the audience: "That's a nice young man who's going to read us stories from Roald Dahl." After I'd pointed out the error, fortunately nobody left; and we had a suitably eerie setting, then, for the first two chapters of TBK, which I read out, in their first public outing; I finished with the first chapter of The Liberators. The festival is a lively, bustling event, in its first few years of existence: may it continue long.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Launch party for Constantine Phipps' What You Want

Phipps, with wife Nicola Shulman
Last night Chelsea was simply heaving with literary types, for it was the launch of Constantine Phipps' third novel, What You Want, an epic poem about life, the universe & everything. I've reviewed it for The Spectator: the piece will appear soon.

It was a roisterous, champagne-filled, wonderful party, with guests spilling out into the garden, chattering and laughing and having the ballest of balls. 

Monday, 21 April 2014

New agent: LAW, and new author pic

A small announcement: I have signed up with a new agent, Philippa Milnes-Smith, at the LAW agency.  To the left is my new author photograph: credit to Tatiana von Preussen.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Future Classics for Spear's

Spear's asked me to recommend some books that might become classics in the future. Read my recs here.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Senses: For the National Autistic Society

Last week I gave a speech at the Spectrum Ball, which is the yearly fundraiser for the National Autistic Society. It was an excellent event: Simon Amstell threw grapes at the crowd; Jack Whitehall talked about s*****ing (interpret that as you wish); Francis Boulle offered up the most enormous diamond I've ever seen (well, I suppose that's not saying much, but still); Daisy Lewis glamorously held the hat for the tickets; Fred Page sang beautifully, and Geordie Naylor-Leyland sang (beautifully too) about dwarves, cheese and fat girls.

It's easy at these kinds of events to lose sight of what exactly they are for. The NAS asked me to contribute a piece to their programme, so since it's not available online I have decided to publish it here. Autism and Asperger's Syndrome are areas where not much is known, and raising awareness in the general public is of paramount importance.

Here's the piece, entitled Senses:

Humans have more than five senses. We can balance. We can feel pain. We can touch our noses with our eyes closed (try it now – you’ll see if you’ve drunk too much.) We can calibrate changes in temperature. We can echolocate. (Well, maybe not the last one.)

All of this information hurls into our brains – literally at the speed of light and sound. Most people can order it, sort it, process it, and present a picture of the world around us which helps us navigate. We package up all this data and, almost instinctively, deduce things from it that seem obvious and – indeed – normal.

We can all say, objectively: we are in a room with lots of people gathered to raise money for The National Autistic Society. We can look at the person on our left, and judge if they are hungry, tired, happy or bored.

As language and society evolved, humanity developed these simple deductions into a whole, subtle code of signals and signs which tell us about other people, and, more importantly, how to deal with other people. When you catch the waiter’s eye and raise your eyebrows you’re telling him a lot; when you shrug, or fold your arms, or make a face, you are communicating without even trying.

But imagine if you couldn’t do those things. Imagine if, somewhere along the line, the information that the universe gives you got scrambled.

Imagine if the words that hit your ears became long strings of meaningless sounds, and that you could only understand one sentence in three.

Imagine if all the things you saw were so bright and overwhelming that you could only make out one major piece of information – and that that thing wasn’t even the right thing.

Imagine if everyone else in the room was shouting at you because you’d got that information wrong, but you didn’t even know why or how.

The world that we know suddenly becomes an alien, frightening place. Everybody else seems to move to a different rhythm. They know how to talk, how to race, how to win. They know how to catch a train, drive a car, do the shopping. They seem to know how to live, how to be what we call normal.

But you can’t. And what’s worse is that you yourself don’t know why you can’t.

So in order to gain some sense of order in your life, you begin to categorise what you can.

It might be the way your food is arranged. It might be a pattern of cars, or a song that you heard at a certain time. It might be a phrase that somebody said to you once, whose meaning you keep trying to unpack and unpick.

It might be a comic you read when you were 4, or a sound that a radiator makes at night.

All of these things are anchors – recognisable points in the rush of things which tell you who you are.

If these patterns become upset, then you become upset, because you have no control. You hold on to the only part of your senses that makes any sense at all.

And this doesn’t always make any sense to other people. You feel trapped, anxious, scared, alone and frightened.

The autistic spectrum is a broad one, and something that still isn’t fully understood. We have been making huge strides in our understanding of the many conditions that lie along it, and how to care for and aid those people that have it.

Really that’s what I would like you to remember. That each person who has an autistic spectrum disorder is just that – a person, like you or me, with emotions, feelings, and senses. Each case is different: there is no easy solution or “cure”.

That is why we need as much help as we can get to raise awareness and funds to help those who suffer from it.

Remember: people on the autistic spectrum disorder aren’t making no sense. They’re trying to make sense. And that’s what all of us, in this often bewildering world, are trying to do.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Half Bad by Sally Green: review

I've reviewed Sally Green's Half Bad for the Guardian. Read it here.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Cake and Consequences: First Story continues at St Augustine's, Kilburn

Yesterday I had my final First Story session of the year at St Augustine's Church of England High School, Kilburn, where we discussed the organisation and content of our anthology, CAKE AND CONSEQUENCES, which will be published in June.

Before I left, I asked them to write in six words what the First Story experience had meant to them. Here are a few:

"Provides freedom to create, without judgement."

"First Story has changed my life!"

"A once in a lifetime experience."

And perhaps my favourite:

"First Story was like a unicorn."

Says it all, really, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Luton Hoo Kids Book Festival May 11th

What ho to all and sundry: I shall be attending the Luton Hoo Kids' Book Festival on May 11th 2014, reading from THE BROKEN KING. I suggest that you come. There will be other people there, among them Piers Torday, Jon Mayhew and Julian Sedgwick. It promises to be a highly amusing day.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Rebecca Hunt: Everland review in Literary Review

I've reviewed Rebecca Hunt's Everland for the March issue of Literary Review. Not available online, only in a lovely, gleaming, real print copy.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Harry Potter and The Goldfinch: How they are related

Warning: Doesn't move
So I've finally finished Donna Tartt's mostly enjoyable The Goldfinch, which weightily discusses the purpose of moving art around. It has been widely reviewed, obviously, and its relationship to the Harry Potter series (which has got moving art in it) has already been noted. The more I think about it, the more I believe that Tartt is saying: you've had your Portkeys and your spells and your wands. True magic lies in the things that man makes.

Here, then, is how they are related.

The Goldfinch

Orphaned boy with glasses & scar

Parents killed, one in terrorist attack, one in accident

Sent to live with horrid relatives

Finds solace with wise older man

Falls for bright ginger girl

Has goofy, slightly irritating friend

Gets his kicks from magic drugs

Dates the wrong girl

Has an enemy called Lucius

Moves a painting around

Finally defeats "evil"

Nickname: Harry Potter

Published by Bloomsbury, then Little, Brown
Harry Potter

Orphaned boy with glasses & scar

Parents killed in wizarding terrorist attack

Sent to live with horrid relatives

Finds solace with wise older wizard

Falls for bright ginger girl

Has goofy, slightly irritating friend

Gets his kicks from magic

Dates the wrong girl

Has an enemy called Lucius

Has paintings that move around

Finally defeats evil

Nickname: Harry Potter

Published by Bloomsbury, then Little, Brown

Monday, 17 February 2014

Yet More Notes from Underground

Photo from Flickriver
I'm going to have another manic underground-going day quite soon, when I'll do more anthropological research into what people are reading on the tube, but in the interim I thought I'd post a simple list of books I've seen in the last fortnight. It shows a breadth of reading material that I found quite delightful.

Isaac Bashevic Singer
Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (naturally)
A book by Mark Mazower
Hester by Mrs Oliphant - this was most pleasing. I don't think I've ever seen anyone reading this, even in a library.
The American Future by Simon Schama
Hunger Games (see Wolf Hall)
The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
The Arabian Nights
Things I Don't Want to Know  by Deborah Levy - in a striking purple Penguin paperback edition.
The Bolter by Frances Osborne
Those Wild Wyndhams by Claudia Renton - the hot new history book by my old chum. I saw an old lady reading it on the bus and almost tapped her on the shoulder to tell her I knew the author. Which would have been weird.
Huckleberry Finn
Cloud Atlas  by David Mitchell
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.
A book by Richard Power.

There is a lot to be heartened by here: an eclectic mixture of the popular, the classic, the heavyweight and the recondite. Londoners are reading still, and they are reading broadly, eagerly, and, perhaps thanks to the peace-inducing state of the tube, more thoroughly than ever.

Stay tuned for a full examination. A previous assessment can be read here.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Ten Ways to Avoid the Tube Strike on Thursday

There's a tube strike on, donchaknow.

So what you need is a guide. How do you manage to get to all those vital appointments that you might otherwise miss? Well, here's a handy cut-out-and-keep list of tips for the busy commuter.

1. Move to New York.

As easy as it sounds. I mean, by the time you get there you might have just about made it to Victoria from Brixton.

2. Hire a coach and four.

In all seriousness, I don't know why nobody has thought of this. I tried it today and it really worked.

3. Dig your own tunnel.

It's quite simple, really - just find a spade and some helpful angry commuters, and you'll be away in less time than it takes for Bob Crow to get back from his holidays.

4. Parcourt.

Now might be the time to develop those urban running skills. You could be walking up the side of the Shard tomorrow. You could be arriving in your office before everyone else, looking all sleek and cool. 'How did you manage that?' they will ask. And you will  smile, knowingly, and a tiny bit smugly.

5. Harness yourself to a bus.

I suggest finding an abandoned trolley and a piece of wire, and then attaching the trolley to the bus. It might be a bit jerky, but at least you'll be able to read.

6. Sewers.

Those of you who like the scenic route can explore the delights of London's real underground. Just remember to bring a change of clothes, and hey presto! You'll be at that vital meeting looking fresh and clean and wondering why everyone around you looks like someone's died.

7. Teleportation.

Clearly by now we should have evolved this particular ability. I mean, come on. It's 2014, people! Get teleporting! If you concentrate really, really hard you can "teleport" into your office. Shut your eyes now, go on. Imagine yourself in your office. Now open your eyes! You see! Your armchair is now your office!

8. Fly

Well, it worked for Daedalus. [NB not for Icarus. Terms and conditions apply.]

9. Use nature's bounty

Find a dozen urban foxes, train them to drag you in a makeshift sled, and bingo! You are the king of the open road! Everyone will flee from you in terror! And also want a lift!

10. If all else fails...

Try the underground. I think they have some lines running. Once every other Tuesday. In the past. And you need to upgrade your zones to go there. But your card's negative so you can't buy a monthly pass until you've put more money on it and anyway the office is closed until 2056. Better walk.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan: review

Hello all, I've reviewed When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan for The Guardian. Read it here.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

First Story: Iphigenia at Aulis

In my First Story session at St Augustine's yesterday we talked about the story of Iphigenia, which has always haunted me (and indeed it features a little in The Liberators.) There were some very interesting responses to the story, including a moving look at it from Clytemnestra's viewpoint, and a lusty Achilles. I came up with a short poem:

Iphigenia at Aulis

This morning
I dreamt flame.
The house on fire
My dress a halo.

I told my nurse.
“It’s love,” she said.
“For Prince Achilles.”

And when we left,
I saw an eagle pounce upon
A running hare.
I closed my eyes.


The fleet! The men, beery and bored,
Shouting. I caught a sailor’s
Eye. Black teeth, stunted limbs.

My father’s tent. Silken, gold,
Shimmering, a thing not meant for
War. And there he was.

Killer prince. Godborn spearstrong
Violent Achilles. My about–to–be
Husband. He took my wrist.

In his eyes, a fierceness, cold and
Bright. The men all roared.
The sea was calm. My heart.

The altar! Smoking, laden with
Fruits. My father, weeping. I wonder:
Where’s my mother?

I turn to where Achilles stands. His
Mouth is open. He points
Behind me. And then I know. 

I know the terrible 
inevitable chain has
Tightened, pulled, strained.

My father holds no wedding wreath.
In his grip a knife. My heart.
One moment. A shout, and hands

Not his, my dress ripped open,
Shadows on the stone
Everything shuts down.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Costa Book Awards: Party! Winner! Coffee! Champagne!

Last night the streets of St James' filled with carousings and calloocallays, for it was the night of the Costa Book Awards. The prize has been going for over forty years, and continues to shine lights on good books.

I was a judge on the Costa Children's Book Award this year, and took great pleasure in deciding the shortlist: Sarah Naughton's creepily excellent The Hanged Man Rises; Ross Montgomery's hilarious romp Alex, The Dog and the Unopenable Door; Chris Riddell's clever, charming Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse; and Elizabeth Wein's moving Second World War saga, Rose Under Fire.

Champagne fizzed, canapés flowed (well, there were lots of canapés) and we were treated to mini-videos of all the authors who'd won their categories and were now up for The Big One, as it's known in the biz. There were lots of scenes of authors coming in and out of doors, and sitting down, and holding pens and looking moody, which, as an author, I can say is certainly what I spend a lot of time doing, particularly the latter two. (In fact I am absolutely sure that I'm sitting down, right at this very moment.)

Lucy Hughes-Hallett was interesting about her repellant subject, Gabriele D'Annunzio, the womanising poet-prince who "told the Nazis how to be Nazis." We also got a glimpse of Chris Riddell's writing shed,  amongst other things. Poet Michael Simmons Roberts, who'd won the poetry category with his collection Drysalter, talked about his method: writing 15 lines - an almost sonnet - was enough for him. No rhyming couplets for Mr Simmons Roberts. Kate Atkinson said that whilst the premise of her novel, Life After Life, in which a woman, er, keeps living and dying all over again, each time subtly different, "annoyed" some readers; but her pleasure in it was enough to confound them.

Guests included the tv presenter Anneka Rice, whose programme, Challenge Anneka, I have fond memories of; novelists Amanda Craig & Raffaella Barker; writer Polly Samson and her husband, Pink Floyd member David Gilmour. I also spotted the actress Natascha McElhone looking all cheekbony and svelte. McCheekbone?

I will confess that I thought Lucy Hughes-Hallett was going to win it, hands bang down, but Nathan Filer got the gong (wearing a bright yellow tie) for his first novel, The Shock of the Fall, which draws on his experiences as a mental-health worker. It's a big trumpet for a debut, and I hope he goes on to great things.

Now, back to the coffee martinis.