Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 30 July 2013

The Kids are All Right...

... It’s the parents I blame.

At least once a week, one of the red top papers carries a story about some kid in some school who’s had draconian measures taken against him for some minor infringement or other of some ridiculous school policy.

The story is generally illustrated with a  photo of the kid and his hair cut or colour, the shoes  or skirt she was wearing or, in this case, the sweets she smuggled into a hotel room.

The whole thing stinks.

When did a bit of discipline suddenly become such a bad thing?

When did teachers stop being able to rely on parents for a bit of support?

It’s one thing having one cheeky, charming teen bending the rules, especially when it’s your own; it’s something else trying to impose some sort of order on 30 self-important oiks who think the World owes them.

I don’t care how arbitrary a rule seems to an individual, the point of rules is to impose boundaries and to ensure good discipline. If the rule is that kids don’t dye their hair or take sweets on a school trip then kids dying their hair or taking sweets on school trips are breaking the rules and they should be punished.

When kids sign up to the rules and when they know what the punishment is going to be for breaking the rules, and when the parents also know what their children have signed up to, the school is even more within its rights to impose whatever sanctions it sees fit.

Last week someone posted this story on FaceBook:
Holli McCann, sent home from a school holiday
A case of bad school or bad parent?

This child signed an agreement not to break the rules of her school holiday, including not eating sweets in the hotel rooms. She smuggled in sweets for herself and her three room mates, and consumed those sweets in the hotel room, knowing that the penalty would be that she would be sent home.

First of all, it isn’t up to the school to take kids on holiday, for crying out loud! This wasn’t an educational excursion, this was a jolly! Teachers were giving up their free time, time that they could be spending with their own families, to take other people’s kids away for fun. I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t send my kids away on those sorts of trips, either.

I’m one of those parents who actually wants to spend my free time with my kids, who actually wants to have the pleasure of my kids’ company on holidays. Having said that, if I did send my child on holiday with its school, and my child signed the good behaviour agreement, I’d expect it to stick to the rules.

If my child broke the rules, as the child in the newspaper article did, not only would she be sent home, she would get a damned good dressing down from me, too, for letting me down and for letting herself down. She’d get a damned good dressing down for failing to keep a promise, for breaking her bond, and for lying and cheating. 

I certainly wouldn’t be charmed by her behaviour or defend her actions. I wouldn’t attack the school, and I absolutely would not take the story to the newspapers.

Why isn’t this parent ashamed of her child, and why isn’t she ashamed of herself for raising a child who is dishonest?

Why is this parent too stupid to see that putting her child in the newspaper gives that child a horrible reputation going into secondary school in September? I’m sure her primary school is very happy to see the back of her, and I’m sure that her new school is dreading her turning up for the new school year. How can that be good for this child?

This might all sound old-fashioned to you, but this parent has taught this child that she doesn’t need to keep a promise, that signing her name to a document means nothing. It doesn’t bode well for the future does it? I don’t know how many times I’ve heard parents say, ‘Kids will be kids’, but what happens when this parent has got a recalcitrant fifteen year old on her hands? What happens when this kid needs help, because she’s on a downward spiral into sex and drugs, or booze and shop lifting, or whatever it happens to be, and this parent can’t impose any discipline on her, for the good and simple reason that she never has?

There’s a way to be a person, and there’s a way to teach a child to be a person, and this isn’t it.

These news stories are bad enough, and, let’s face it, none of this is really news, is it? But what’s worse is the fact that, after it was posted on FaceBook, this story got more than a dozen people agreeing with the basic tenet that the school was heavy handed. I was a lone voice in the wilderness, as I so often am. The school was not heavy handed, it was implementing its policies, policies that parents and children had signed up to. The rest was foolishness and it was bad and indulgent parenting that will come back to haunt them. 

It’s my guess that when this kid gets into real trouble the red top that ran this story won’t be revisiting her and the sorry state that she gets into, because nobody wants to be proven wrong. We reap what we sow, though, and that’s as true of parenting as it is of anything else. This kid’s school might have made a difference in her life, if only her parent had worked in partnership with it, as she should have done, as no doubt, she signed up to do.

I’m glad that my kids are grown up and I don’t have this to go through now, because I did have rules and routines, and I did expect my kids to do as they were told, and I expected any child coming into my home to do as he or she was told, and I still do. What’s more, I still have kids that visited my home over the past twenty years coming back to visit now, happy to see me. I still have kids speak to me in the street that visited my home when they were friends of my kids over the past two decades, and they still show me as much respect now as they did then.

I didn’t have to be anyone’s friend, because I was somebody’s mother. That didn't stop my kids having midnight feasts at home, giggling under the bedclothes with batman torches, but, then, they hadn't signed a good behaviour bond not to... And it didn't stop me doing a bit of finger wagging when I found the sweet wrappers in the morning, either.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Sunday Sunday

Today is VAT day, the day I get to be an unpaid government tax collector. It’s not my favourite day of the quarter, as you can probably tell, but it has to be done, so I’m going to do it. 

It is also Sunday.

I generally do the VAT on a Monday, but I’m doing it today, because the dort’s off doing her Sunday rehearsals, and the husband is flying back from GamesDay US in Memphis, so I’ve got a quiet one.

I often work on Sundays, so it’s not out of the ordinary, for me, but we do have other rituals for Sundays, too.

It got me thinking. It got me thinking about what Sundays used to be like, before Sundays were like every other day of the week.

Sundays used to be special for all sorts of strange reasons.

Sundays used to be special, because the shops were shut and there was church parade, because there was no school and no work, because if my parents were going to have a row that was the day they were going to do it on, because no one hung out washing on a Sunday so the gardens also looked pretty, and no one was allowed out after Sunday tea. Sundays were special, because there was nothing on the telly except bloody Songs of Praise. Sundays were special, because that’s when you went to see your Gran, and because that’s when we ate hot sausage rolls and baked beans for tea, in the winter, for reasons beyond understanding.

Sundays used to be full of rituals. 

I’ve said it before, but it’s still true, that our lives are not like other people’s, because we work from home, together, and we set out own, very busy schedules, and it’s nice to work weekends when the phone doesn’t ring and e-mails aren’t constantly winging their way into our in-boxes. The truth is, though, that it’s nice to stop and read the Sunday papers, and it’s nice to eat a breakfast of bagels with cream cheese and smoked salmon, or the husband’s amazing Eggs Benedict, and I’d soon get fat if I did that every day of the week, and, besides, doing it too often would take away the ‘special’.

Sundays are still a bit like mini-Christmas days, they still have an atmosphere all their own, and I still wish the husband was home, and I still wish the dort didn’t have Sunday rehearsals, and I still wish someone was here to share the papers and eat breakfast with me.

Nevermind... I might have the VAT to face, today, but there’s also a plate of cupcakes that the dort made yesterday, and the promise that she’ll be home for supper and a movie tonight, and tomorrow, the husband will return, the conquering hero. I think I’ll save the Sunday papers for him, who knows, maybe I’ll even take him out for breakfast, so that he doesn’t have to make it. 

Sunday just got very, VERY special... While I was reading this back, before posting, I got a call from my sister to tell me that she got engaged last night! HUGE CONGRATULATIONS and best love to Zoe and Stuart!

Saturday 27 July 2013

Romance Really Is Dead

I was thrilled to hear that a young friend of mine is getting married. Her boyfriend proposed to her while they were away on holiday. She was beginning to wonder whether it was ever going to happen, but, as it turned out, he planned it beautifully, chose the ring himself and picked the perfect moment. Bravo Rupert!

Wedding plans are afoot, and I have my suspicions that the two of them are going to be very happy.

I don’t always feel like that about people getting married, and, apparently, more and more young people are doing it.

We were all sitting around sharing a drink with Katie and discussing her plans, such as they are, since the engagement is brand new, and I was introduced to a brand new concept, one that proves, once and for all, that real romance, that a belief in something that might actually endure, is finally dead.

We’ve all had our share of heartache, and some of us have been married more than once. Let’s face it, we’re not all perfect, and to err is human. My own life has been a rich tapestry of mayhem and madness, happiness and misery, love and anger, and... well... you name it. There are some things, though, that I have come to know and trust, and that, while I hope I don’t take them for granted, I have some faith in, even through the tough times.

I’m a great believer in being two people, two individuals, first, who each stand on their own two feet, who can then form one strong relationship. If two people believe in that and commit to a future together, I think it’s only natural to believe that love can and will endure.

The first great blow to romance was delivered by the Americans, of course, when they developed the prenuptial agreement. What the hell is that thing about?

Who goes into a marriage preparing for its failure?

I suppose there are those who would say that the answer to that question is pragmatists. It’s nonsense, though, isn’t it? What about love? What about passion and romance? I hope that by the time two people marry they have spent enough time together to know each other’s quirks and foibles, and possibly each other’s weaknesses and maddening little habits, and I hope they’ve spent enough time together to know that those things aren’t going to turn out to be deal breakers. I also hope that the day any two people walk down the aisle there is still room for butterflies in their stomachs at the sight of each other.

There shouldn’t, in my opinion, be room for the sort of doubt that allows for a prenuptial agreement between two people who claim to be in love. If a man ever said to me, “If you really loved me, you’d sign a pre-nup," I’d know he didn’t love me enough to marry me. Likewise, if I ever found myself consulting a lawyer about a pre-nup, I’d know I didn’t love the man enough to marry him.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the final death knell was finally sounded on romance over a nice glass of wine at Katie’s engagement celebration when the words, Wedding Insurance were spoken in front of me for the first time.

It had to be explained to me. 

I’m middle-aged. I might not feel it, and once in a while I’m even told that I don’t look it, but apparently, strictly speaking, I do qualify, so I’ve been to quite a lot of weddings, and, over the years, I’ve seen a fiasco or two. I’ve seen bridesmaids’ dresses that puckered in the rain, a venue that burned down two days before the wedding was due to happen, a best man that missed a flight, another best man whose suit was three sizes too big, a bride who was so nervous she lost ten pounds in the last week before she was married, a groom who vomited in church, and a wedding cake that fell off the show table at the reception.

All of those problems were solved, or became great stories to tell the grandkids, or couldn’t have been helped by insurance. The wedding venue was moved to one of the guest’s very large, very grand houses, and local guests all brought something to eat. The day was really special. There’s no way a new venue could have been found with a day to spare for a Saturday in the middle of June, no matter how much insurance money was involved.

I had it explained to me that the real reason for wedding insurance is so that everyone gets his money back if either the bride or groom cancels the wedding.
John and Ann Betar from Connecticut, married 80 years
I bet they didn't have a pre-nup or wedding insurance!


People are now planning weddings they might not even turn up for, let alone planning marriages that might not last. How bloody cynical is that?

Katie doesn’t plan to take out wedding insurance, but I wonder how many people do, and I wonder if they give it a moment’s thought, and, if they don’t, I wonder if they realise what that sort of cynical attitude might mean for them and their relationships and their lives and their futures.

We don’t believe in Gods anymore, and we haven’t for a while, but I, for one, didn’t realise how little we believed in love, and I think it’s a crying shame.

Friday 26 July 2013

Comfort Food or Sh*ts and Gags part ii

I’m hoping to high heaven it won’t be a repeat of the squits. I haven’t eaten since Tuesday.

It didn’t matter until this morning, because until now, I haven’t felt hungry, I’ve felt positively rotten, but, this morning, I’ve woken up feeling somewhat recovered. Thank goodness.

A tummy bug is not a happy experience, and when a 24 hour bug becomes a sixty hour bug, a girl can really start to feel like crap. The roiling guts were bad enough, but the headache was worse, and, in this heat!

Well, I’m not going to moan about it any more, because it’s over, and I can start to think about eating something.

Here’s the problem, though, and there’s always a problem... Here’s the problem: I want comfort food. I feel hollow and empty, and tired and pale and I want to be comforted.

I’ve never been much of an eater. I’ve always been more of a control freak, more comforted by an empty stomach than a full one. The first time I ever comfort ate was in July 1994. I was thirty and it came as a total shock to me when I found myself eating a bag of crisps for no good reason, with tears rolling down my face after my grandfather died. Heartache had always made my throat close, up to that point, and there I was eating and crying at the same time. Weird.

I’m not your average girl. Comfort food isn’t usually sweet. It generally isn’t muffins or ice-cream. It might be a big bowl of macaroni cheese, but my very favourite comfort food is the potato. I never met a potato I didn’t like. The husband even makes a potato recipe that we call ‘favourite potatoes’. You can mash them, fry them, chip them, sauté them, crush them, jacket them, do what you will with them and I’ll eat them. Serve them hot or cold, new or old, in a salad or dauphinoise and I’m happy.

Gosh, I’m salivating.

I know what I’d love to eat today, and I know I’ve got some in the freezer, and there’s salad in the fridge. I might not manage a whole one, because I haven’t eaten since Tuesday, and the portions are generous, but I’m very tempted.

One of my current favourite ways to eat the humble potato is in a Homity Pie. 

I hadn’t eaten a homity pie for years. My grandmother used to make them when I was a child. It’s a peasant dish, I suppose, made with left over potato and a bit of onion and cheese. It’s not fancy or special, and it’s not grand, but it is properly wonderful. It’s comfort food. It reminds me of my grandmother and of proper cooking, and of being in her tiny kitchen, warmed by her aga, watching her cook. She served her homity for lunch, on its own, but sometimes to accompany a game bird, too, which my grandad would shoot and hang for her.
Riverford Organic Farms's Homity Pie

It sounds romantic now, their lifestyle, but it was bloody hard work. He was the man whose death caused me to comfort eat in the first place. I wonder whether it was because she was such a wonderful cook, and he grew all the fruit and veg they ate, and shot all the game. Perhaps it was, and perhaps it was fitting.

I don’t make my own homity pies, although I’m a pretty good cook, too, so I easily might. I found really good ones from Riverford Organic Farms, and they’ve become a regular supper treat for me and the husband. We eat them with a bit of salad, because with all that potato and pastry, you really don’t need anything else, except, maybe a nice glass of white.

It’s going to be good to eat something, again, and maybe it'll give me the strength to go out for a walk tomorrow. I have no idea how people manage on starvation diets, or even to do a day’s work on them. I’m shattered and feel horribly wobbly. I need a great big dollop of comfort, and, today, that’s exactly what I plan to get.

Thursday 25 July 2013

For Sh*ts and Gag Reflexes

I’m having a duvet day, today... my second in a row.

I don’t take days off, but I’m going to learn to, after this.

I’m poorly... properly poorly!

The dort woke up with a sore stomach on Tuesday, and she had what we onomatopoetically refer to as the squits, the poor lamb. It’s horrid for her to come down with this sort of ailment, because, after a particularly unpleasant episode as a child, she now suffers terribly from emetophobia, so vomiting isn’t really an option for her. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that, and after a lazy day and a bit of TLC, she began to feel much better.

Sadly, by Tuesday evening I was beginning to suffer, and early on Wednesday the husband got up to hurl copiously. He got all his trouble over in one mammoth session, although he felt fragile all day. Me? Forty hours later, I’m still not in great shape. I’m still on clear liquids, everything aches, and I daren’t be more than one staircase from a loo.

There’s more than one downside, although, honestly, I could stand to lose a pound or two. This sort of illness messes with meds, work isn’t getting done, and it’s no fun at all feeling this horrible.

The worst thing of all, though, is that if I was going to take time off, I wish that it was to have some damned fun! I bloody resent that I’ve been forced to stop everything, that nothing’s getting done, and I don’t even get to enjoy myself. When was the last time that I took some time out for me? When was the last time I spent a fun day with the husband? Or the dort? Or both?

How can it be right that I’ll now spend time catching up on what I’ve missed doing these last couple of days while I’ve been sick? The truth is, it can’t be right, can it?

Gosh, I do feel sorry for myself, don’t I?

I tell you what, if I didn’t love what I do, there’s no way that I could do this... There’s no way that I’d put up with working all the hours that God sends and then using up my down time as sick days.

It’s funny what you’ll do for the love of your job.

Since the dort got home from college she’s been going back every weekend to teach classes on Saturdays and take classes on Sundays. By the time she’s paid her train fares and for somewhere to stay on Saturday night, she spends a lot more money than she earns, but she does it because it’s good experience, because she loves it, and because she’s loyal to the people that she dances with on a Sunday. She leaves home at eight on Saturday morning and returns at eleven on Sunday night, and it’s all go, non-stop in between.

To do what you love, you have to make sacrifices, and, honestly, apart from when you feel like shit, those sacrifices don’t seem like the end of the World. Of course, when you feel like I do, today, it’s a different story, but, tomorrow, I’ll be on top of my game, again, with a bit of luck, and I won’t come out here and snark at you all... Promise!

I’m going to cheer myself up by watching the dort doing a bit of dancing, second left with the purple hair. This from her end of year recital:

Tuesday 23 July 2013


Who would have thought that such a large baby would have emerged from such a slender little woman. Eight pounds six ounces! Crikey! That’s pretty big for a first baby, and isn’t it a little strange that he was measured in pounds and ounces? Doesn’t that defy EU weights and measures legislations?

It’s an odd phenomenon watching the growth of this dynasty. It’s an odd phenomenon having a monarchy in the twenty-first century. I was first aware of all this around the time of the Prince of Wales’s investiture. Before that there was no one. Essentially, the monarchy rested on The Queen’s head. I think there was a huge sigh of relief when Prince Charles reached his majority and everyone could relax about an adult heir.

How times have changed.

Since the birth of William in 1982, and certainly since the Queen reached retirement age in  1986, the talk has been of the accession. When would Charles be King? Would the Queen abdicate, and, if so, when? That was the better part of thirty years ago, and the Prince of Wales turns sixty-five next year. Will he take the throne post retirement age? Will he hand over to Prince William and continue in his Welsh title? Would that be a popular move with the masses? Does the nation want Camilla anywhere near the throne?

If the Queen should die while the Cambridges are still raising a young family would Kate want the added responsibility of being a full-time mother and consort?

Need history repeat itself? The Queen’s two oldest children were three and eighteen months old when she ascended to the throne and she had two more children during the first dozen years of her reign. Would she advise that any one else take on that sort of life if they didn’t have to? And in the modern age? I very much doubt it.

Diana, Princess of Wales
The Ultimate Celebrity
Victim and late grandmother
Monarchy, it seems to me, is the ultimate celebrity, and since the British monarchy happens to have the longest pedigree it is probably the most celebrated of them all. Look what celebrity has become, though. Look at the damage it does, the havoc it causes, the misery that follows it around. We don't have to look very far into the monarchy's own past to see the pain that celebrity has caused in the Windsor family. Princess Margaret suffered in the newspapers, and Princes Charles and Andrew have both been targets in the past, not to mention Sarah Ferguson, and, of course, many blame Diana, Princess of Wales's death directly on the news media.

The World’s media was concentrated on the birth of a single child yesterday, simply because it thinks it knows that child’s fate, and perhaps it does, but what has Prince Charles or Prince William or the Duchess of Cambridge ever done that was remotely noteworthy? And what do we expect from this child, except to look good in a suit when it’s papped, to head up a charity or two, and to take part in a few minor scandals before, eventually, sitting on the oldest throne in the first World?

We can’t guess what some of the other children born yesterday might turn out to be, but I hope that one or two of them might become the great thinkers, movers and shakers of their generation. I hope that they might become the great statesmen, leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, inventors and artists of the next century, and I hope they earn their places in history.

Birthright and heredity are funny things, but this child is not the only child who is born with them, although his might be written all over him. Every child has a birthright, every child inherits his wit and his imagination, his sense of humour and his intelligence. With the right stimulus, with good parenting and wise and sensitive teachers every child can meet his potential and capitalise on his natural birthright, and I hope that all children born yesterday, and every day have the opportunity to do exactly that.

Monday 22 July 2013

Amo, Amas, AMIS

They say no news is good news, and that’s all very well, but I do like to address something in the news for my Monday blog, and if there’s nothing in the Sunday papers then I’m on a bit of a sticky wicket.

Yesterday’s papers were a bit of a desert, if I’m honest. 

There was one small irony. 

Frankie Boyle has gone on hunger strike to publicise the horrors of Guantanamo, and in particular the plight of the last remaining British prisoner, Shaker Aamer, who has been detained without trial since 2002. This piece of news appeared in the gutter on page ten in the paper I read. It took about two inches of column space at the bottom of the left hand page, without pictures. So Frankie Boyle singularly failed to get any real publicity for his cause out of that Sunday paper. Perhaps he should have told an off colour joke about a celebrity instead, and somehow incorporated the information he was trying to get out there. Comparing a hunger striker to whoever qualifies as the latest skinny, in-vogue celebrity might have done it. Perhaps he should have stuck to what he knows and courted controversy instead of sympathy.

Anyway, that wasn’t what I decided to talk about this morning, and maybe this blog should more appropriately have been titled The Cult of Celebrity part ii, because I was only talking about names the other day when I talked about JK Rowling and Robert Galbraith in my blog The Cult of Celebrity.

Martin Amis, not smiling because of his teeth
Martin Amis got an outside column, full length, on page three of the same paper that Frankie Boyle’s hunger strike was mentioned in on Sunday, talking about his name. There was a little photo of him, probably from stock, and a strap line about his teeth that, frankly, I thought redundant.

The thrust of Hannah Furness’s several inches, as the headline indicated, was that Martin Amis regretted using his name and felt that, in hindsight, he might have been better off adopting a pseudonym. “Heredity became a kind of taint,” he said.

His name caused people to question his “legitimacy”.


“It’s become somewhat of a burden,” he said.

In 1973, when Martin Amis published his first book, The Rachel Papers, aged only 24, Kingsley Amis, his father, published The Riverside Villas Murder. There were at least a dozen more novels before he died, more than twenty years later. In that time Martin Amis wrote a further seven books.

Who remembers The Riverside Villas Murder, or for that matter The Crime of the Century or Russian Hide and Seek. We all remember Money and London Fields. We all remember The Rachel Papers for that matter.

I can’t help thinking that Martin Amis protests far too much.

Even in the early 1970s when publishing wasn’t quite in the fix that it’s in now, it wasn’t altogether easy for a man in his early twenties to have his first novel published, and having a famous name and an even more famous father could not have hurt Martin Amis’s chances with publishers or with the public.

It might not have been an entirely cynical move on his part, at the time, after all, as he says, it was his name, but I don’t believe for a minute that someone didn’t say out loud, “and of course it doesn’t hurt having your father’s name and reputation behind you.”

The rest is history. Martin Amis made his own name in this business, and is now, surely, the more famous of the two writers, the more literary, and certainly the writer taken more seriously of the two.

It is churlish, at this stage, to talk about his father’s legacy, churlish and disrespectful. Martin Amis says that it was not an issue in the early stages of his career, but I beg to differ. I think it was an issue. I think that he had a helping hand, and I think he should be grateful for that and respectful of it. 

Of course he was always going to be the writer that he became, but if it came to a choice between Martin Amis and Martin Bardwell (had he taken his mother’s maiden name as a pseudonym for example), I suspect an agent or publisher would have been more likely to pick up his manuscript if it bore the name ‘Amis’ on the title page. 

Every ladder starts with a first rung, and the first rung on Martin Amis’s career ladder might well have been his father’s name.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Any Advance

A writer’s lot is not always a happy one.

On the other hand, most of the writers that I know are very happy to be writing and to be paid to be writing.

Publishing seems to have fallen on hard times, and I know that writers are taking smaller and smaller advances. I know, too that there is still decent money out there for the big hitters. I wonder, for example, what Robert Galbraith will earn on his next two or three thrillers. Thrillers sell well, and his first novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling” is set to be a big hit. Do you detect a hint of sarcasm in my tones? Of course you don’t. I’m a pragmatist. I have to be, after all, I’m a writer, too.

I believe it was Victor Gollancz who said,

Let’s publish it all and hope we’ll make enough money on the swings to pay for the rather more important roundabouts.

You see, I want the JK Rowlings of this World to sell well, because without them no one’s going to take a risk on my little novels.

The truth is, right now, no one is going to take a risk on my little novels, anyway, because publishing appears to be in trouble.

That’s why I’m not altogether impressed with Vikram Seth.
If I was Vikram Seth, I'd be looking
pretty worried too!

I ask you... How hard can it be?

The news, as I understand it, is that Mr Seth has been invited to hand back the 1.7 million pound advance that he was given to produce “The Suitable Girl”, a sort of sequel to his epic 1993 bestselling novel, “A Suitable Boy”.

One novel, twenty years, £1,700,000.00

How is that NOT a no-brainer?

As a writer, it’s hard to understand how Mr Seth has not met this obligation. He’s an intelligent man, he’s a writer, and he’s done this before. I’ve done this before, I’ve failed to sell my novels, and I’ve failed to raise an advance for my next novel, and I’ve still managed to sit myself down to write another book.

Perhaps he simply isn’t hungry, literally or intellectually. Perhaps Mr Seth is happy living off the royalties that his work has produced over the past quarter of a century. I don’t know. Perhaps he simply doesn’t have it in him.

He might have let someone know something about that before now, perhaps? If there is 1.7 million pounds in the kitty, perhaps that money might have been spent elsewhere. 

The problem is, that was a sure fire investment. That was money that was going to make money. That was the swings money. If Mr Seth doesn’t deliver his novel, that 1.7m will go back in the pot, but what about earning out that advance what about royalties, what about seed money for new writers. The publisher might have reasonably expected to double or triple its investment on that advance.

Some would argue that 1.7m pays for a lot of first novels by a lot of first time writers. OK, say three thousand pounds per first novel, thats 566 new books by new writers. How many of them will earn back their advance? Even if its half, which is unlikely, and half of them make three thousand pounds worth of royalties in their first year of sale, which is also very unlikely, the publisher is still nowhere near making back its investment, let alone making any money. 

If one of those 566 new writers has a huge hit on his hands and sells, say, the same number of books as The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling in its first year of sales, it’ll sell about 350,000 copies. That grosses about 2.8m. Sounds like break even point to me, more-or-less. What, though, do you suppose the chances are that one new novelist in 566 is going to be the next JK Rowling, or that he or she is going to do it with his or her first novel in its first year?

The last thing any publisher wants to do is take back a big advance from one of its top earners. These writers earn big money for themselves, because they earn big money for the publisher, and that’s what allows the publisher to speculate on the next big thing.

I believe that Vikram Seth has a responsibility to himself and his family, but also to his agent, his publisher and to all writers everywhere.

I also think that publishers have a responsibility to remember Victor Gollancz’s words. I realise that it’s tough, but the swings pay for the roundabouts, and speculation is part of this business. If no one speculates on new, exciting writers there’ll be no future for publishing at all, because the whole industry will stagnate under the weight of derivative pap that seems to be de rigueur right now. As readers, we want the next great story by the next great writer, not just poor imitations of things we enjoyed last year or the year before. Safe is not always sensible.

I don’t know what the outcome of this story will be. I suspect that negotiations will continue, but the bottom line is that Vikram Seth owes all of us a book, and there is no one who can fill his shoes. I do hope he doesn’t let us down, but I fear that he might.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask of one man, and perhaps the cult of celebrity is too much of a burden to put on a writer. Perhaps the publishing industry should look more closely at its reliable middle ranking writers and back them a little more, and perhaps it should  do more to nurture its first time writers rather than let them sink or swim with their first two novels and whatever publicity they can self-generate via FaceBook and Twitter and blogs like this one. While I'm at it, perhaps first time writers shouldn't sign contracts that don't include royalties. Where did that trend come from? If a book earns out its advance, the publisher loses nothing by paying a royalty to the novelist. Everyone earns. That's how it has always been, and that's how it should continue to be.

I don’t know. I guess there are no right or wrong answers.

When my time comes, though, when I get my share of Mr Seth’s 1.7 million pound advance and my very first independent novel hits the bookshelves, I hope I can rely on you lot to, at least, ensure that I sell more than the average of 18 books... I’m banking on you.

Thursday 18 July 2013

The Dating Game

Once upon a time, I sold ad space for a living. It was actually my first job out of university. It was the ‘80s, the City was full of wide boys, Thatcher was on the throne, almost literally, and we were all about consumerism.

We were also all about sex, despite the AIDS epidemic; trust me, that’s what they were calling it, then, and believe me when I tell you, we were taking it very seriously.

Anyway, one customer I could always rely on for block bookings of ad space was a dating agency. Dating agencies have existed for a long time, and I imagine they’ve always made money, because those ads kept running and running, month in and month out.

We used to laugh about them, scoff even. We couldn’t imagine the sort of people who would need to use a dating agency, and, now everyone’s at it. No one seems to have the time any more. Everyone seems to move around all the time, from place to place, and from job to job, and we’re all so much more cautious of strangers than we used  to be, so making friends is more difficult. Meeting someone new is always meeting a stranger. Now, we always know someone through social networking before we meet them face to face, and we almost never speak to a complete stranger, at least not voluntarily.

We think it makes us safer. I doubt that it does. How well do we know anyone, after all?

I’ve been following Willard Foxton’s blog 28 Dates Later. Neat title, cool concept, and I thought he was bonkers. Will is a journalist, so he’s nothing if not intrepid. He and I follow each other on Twitter. His politics tend to the conservative for my tastes, but he’s an all around good guy, so far as I can tell, and the blog appealed to me. The premise was that he would date twenty-eight different women from twenty-eight different dating sites.

Crikey! I had no idea there were twenty-eight different dating sites! Blimey! There’s no way on Earth I’ve ever dated twenty-eight different blokes in my entire life! Other than with the husband, I couldn’t swear that I’ve been on twenty-eight dates, total, in my entire life.

Do people just have much busier love lives than I did? Is there something wrong with me?

You see, I think they do, but I don’t think there is, or was.

Apparently, as modern relationships go, people who meet on-line are now more likely to have longer more successful relationships than people who meet under more conventional circumstances. Having said that, on-line dating does seem to be the convention, these days.

Of course the statistics are skewed in favour of relatively short relationships, because people have only really been meeting on-line for about ten years, and, for example, the husband and I have known each other for thirty years. However, if you’re comparing like with like, of those people who’ve met in the last ten years...

I feel a theory coming on...

I wonder if people who meet on line take a little longer with things? I wonder if they talk a little more and communicate a little more fully? I wonder, in short, whether they actually get to know each other a little more thoroughly before other things start to kick in, like sexual attraction, for example.

I’m not going to bang on about promiscuity. I’m not going to sound like a prude. It’s not as if no one was having sex in the 80s... It’s not even as if I wasn’t. I do wonder whether the goal posts have moved, though.

Kids spend every waking moment together, either literally, or texting or e-mailing, or social networking. They never get to grow into themselves. Heaven forbid they should ever be alone with their thoughts. They never get to find out who they are, so when any kind of separation occurs, their fledgeling relationships disintegrate.

When people meet in clubs and bars, and they hook up and fall into relationships, how much do they know about each other? How often do two people find themselves sharing a home and a child before they realise they know nothing about one another? I know it happens. I’ve seen it.

I also know people who’ve met over long games of World of Warcraft. I know people who’ve met on-line and chewed the fat for days about the minutiae of some esoteric subject or other. I know couples who’ve argued over everything from the merits or otherwise of the films of Scorcese versus Stone, to who would win in a fight between He-Man and the Hulk.

The husband and I met when we were young, and we talked a lot, because we spent a lot of time around other kids and around our families. We watched a lot of movies and read a lot of books, and we studied the same subjects in different universities. We wrote a lot of letters to each other and we talked on the phone when we got the chance.

We had time, too. We had more time apart than we had together. We had the chance to be our own people first, and to bring what we learned on our own back into the relationship. We stood on our own two feet and formed our own opinions.

Dating’s a tricky thing. I suppose it ought to be fun, although the most fun dates I’ve ever had have all been since I was married with kids. I couldn’t imagine doing what Will Foxton has done. I couldn’t imagine wanting to do it.

I hope one of these days Will gets the chance to date the same girl twenty-eight times, and I hope he manages to do that before he marries her, and I hope that after he marries her he remembers to date her again at least twenty-eight times a year for the rest of his life.

He makes it all sound like a lot of fun on his blog, at least when it doesn’t sound horrifying or down right dangerous, but it’s serious stuff, too. 

Slow down Will, and I hope you find who you’re looking for.

I struggled to find a pic to go with this blog, since all the ads for dating agencies creeped me out, so I thought I'd show you a pic of a happy couple. Huzzah

Wednesday 17 July 2013

I say thee Yay! Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer has made a bit of a splash.

It’s something she’s good at, and something I admire her for... Mostly.

The truth is that Amanda Palmer is one of those women that I’m somewhat ambivalent about. I like and admire her work, her form of performance art that is often clever, witty and compelling, not to mention politically spot on. She has a kind of confidence that verges on the brash, though, an American style that I find disconcerting. Frankly, she’s a lot like I might be, and sometimes used to be when I was younger and more manic and less medicated, and when I used to scare myself.

I’m pretty sure she’s more in control of herself than I was, but only pretty sure, and that’s what makes me uncomfortable sometimes. Of course, that isn’t her fault or her responsibility, but you can see my ambivalence. People who haven’t lived with it or don’t understand it love that kind of danger, and I don’t blame them, the rest of us can still be moved by it, can still want to embrace it, but, once in a while, we also want to head for the hills.

Yesterday, I was moved by Amanda Palmer and her antics. Yesterday, I wanted to embrace her.

I’m a big, fat furious feminist, and I don’t care who knows it.

Of course, like most women, I’m my own brand of feminist, a brand influenced as much by Germaine Greer as by Erin Pizzey. I’m as likely to indulge in lipstick and louboutins as I am to sign a petition against genital mutilation, and I’m as likely to march for a woman’s right to equal pay as I am for her right to make a choice to raise her own children.

Several years ago, my daughter was asked, in class, which newspapers her parents took, and she reeled off a long list, including, at the time, the Mail on Sunday. Her teacher looked at her and asked her if she was sure, because it seemed unlikely. My daughter answered that it was fine, that we liked to know what we were up against and it was worth having something to argue with.

Amanda Palmer playing Glastonbury 2013
I don’t bother buying the paper now. I can get all the reactionary tabloid junk I care to argue with on-line and not line DMGs pockets, or anyone else’s for that matter, in the process.

Amanda Palmer is a feminist, too... Well, I suppose there’s no surprise there.

Amanda Palmer played Glastonbury, recently, and, if the footage is anything to go by, she rather enjoyed herself. She’s a vigorous performer, a performance artist, who often paints words and symbols on her body, who chooses songs with care, who fills the stage, and who struts about in her bra, not least to expose the messages on her skin. She sang Pulp’s Common People at Glasto. I thought it a rather good cover.

But I digress.

The point of this blog is what came afterwards.

The Daily Mail covered Glastonbury in its review section, and one of the acts the paper wrote about was Amanda Palmer. During her vigorous performance, I imagine while she was thrusting an arm skyward, Ms Palmer’s bra rode up, leaving her breast behind. Well, you know what? Shit happens. At some point during proceedings, Ms Palmer put her breast back. So what?

The Daily Mail’s review of Amanda Palmer’s performance  went as follows. Sorry about this, but it more easily speaks for itself than I can speak for it, and this is, in no way, me endorsing the paper,

She's never afraid to make a statement but Amanda Palmer made a bit of a boob of herself on stage at Glastonbury. 
The singer saw her breast left on show after it escaped her bra, while performing at the music event on Friday. 
Amanda's bra rode up while her shirt opened, leaving her wardrobe malfunction on show for all to see. 
The 37-year-old American singer is no stranger to performing in her underwear, or wearing provocative outfits on stage. 
Despite suffering the embarrassing wardrobe mistake Amanda managed to rearrange her bra, before ripping her shirt completely open. 
On her stomach she had the word 'YES' scrawled across it and a line of stars dotted across her chest. 
The bi-sexual singer also wore a pair of red velvet jeans and a pair of black arm bands for her set at Worthy Farm. 
Ahead of her set Amanda posted a picture of herself in her outfit to Twitter and wrote:
Fans of the singer were left annoyed at the BBC when the network failed to cover her set on TV. 
Many Amanda enthusiasts took to Twitter to voice their frustrations.  

That doesn’t sound much like a music journalist talking, now does it? Where’s the review? There isn’t even a list of the songs she played, for crying out loud. This is a review of a boob appearing on stage, and, what’s more, it’s chalked up as an embarrassment. Anyone who knows anything about Amanda Palmer can be pretty confident that this sort of thing is of little or no embarrassment to the woman whatsoever. Not quite sure what her sexuality has got to do with anything, either, come to think of it. Talk about the tunes! Talk about the performance! Did the audience have a good time?

The Daily Mail did a really stupid thing publishing this review, because the Daily Mail got Amanda Palmer’s back up, and in doing so, they fed the beast, and... guess what? The beast bit back.

Amanda Palmer did what she does best. Amanda Palmer wrote a song, and then she performed it. Amanda Palmer performed a rebuttal to this nonsense, and performed it to a live audience, and feminists and right-minded people everywhere are applauding her long and loudly for it. She claims that she won’t perform it again, but, you know what? She won’t ever have to perform it again, because I think she made her point, don’t you?

Tuesday 16 July 2013

The Cult of Celebrity

Oh dear, oh dear, that bloke Robert Galbraith is causing a bit of a stir, isn’t he?

I’m not sure I should be commenting on this, but I sort of want to. It’s publishing after all, and I’m spectacularly good at failing to be published... so far, anyway.

It’s topical, and this blog is quite often topical, and I’ve got an opinion about the Galbraith/Rowling débacle and you all know how I love to share my opinions all over the place.

It all began for me before the publication of The Casual Vacancy when I was having a conversation on Twitter with Ian Rankin. That conversation was reported by the Guardian; he was name-checked, naturally enough, but I was not, surprise surprise. Anyway, in that conversation, Ian speculated that, since Joanne had moved across town from him and Alexander McCall Smith, she was probably writing detective fiction. He said it partly in jest, I think; he is, after all, a bit of a wit at times.

I can’t tell you when that conversation took place, but it might well have been this time last year, in which case, The Cuckoo’s Calling was already written and Ian was right.
JK Rowling with her novel The Cuckoo's Calling

Robert Galbraith’s first novel sold around 1500 copies and got some good reviews, and Robert Galbraith could have been pretty proud of himself; he could have sat down to write his second novel in the hope that this was the beginning of a career. His numbers were pretty good by any standards.

The average sales for a first novel are 18.

I don’t remember where I got that number from, and it could be utterly bogus, but I like it. I like that it signifies something. That’s the number that I’m going with 1... 8... 18. Friends and relatives expect to get free copies from the author’s endless supply, (yeah, right!) and with 150,000 new titles published every year in the UK, is it any wonder that, for first time writers, who are paid very little and hardly publicised at all, it’s virtually impossible to get noticed by the reader?

you could argue that 1.5 billion books were sold in the UK last year, but that’s still only an average sales figure of 10,000 per title. JK Rowling has sold 450 million books. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, alone, has sold 80 million books, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo another 30 million. The Hunger Games has sold 23 million copies and The Very Hungry Caterpillar has sold 30 million copies. You see, we’re not just talking about novels competing for sales, either.  The Lovely Bones has sold ten million copies and so has The Kite Runner.

Take all that into account and the number of copies a first time writer sells is looking more and more likely to actually be 18, isn’t it?

Robert Galbraith did OK. His publisher would’ve been content with the sales on his first book, knowing that he’d spent no money on it. His second book would come out next year, and the process of building a career would begin. Galbraith wouldn’t be giving up his day job any time soon, but that’s normal for writers starting out, and it always was. Ask Ian Rankin. I sat in an office with him for a couple of years between 1988 and 1990 while he was writing his first few Rebus novels. They’ve now sold 30 million copies Worldwide.

It’s easy to say that The Cuckoo’s Calling has hit number one in the lists this week because we now all know that J K Rowling wrote it. Well of course that’s true. It’s a no-brainer. What everyone’s forgetting is that Joanne Rowling was once a first time novelist, too. Her first Harry Potter novel was once her first ever novel, and it got the same treatment as everyone else's first novel, but, for whatever reasons, it took off. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone hit some sort of nerve with people, and they bought it for their kids, and their kids asked for more.

Honestly, I never particularly liked the books. I thought they were old-fashioned, reactionary, even. I didn’t like the mix of public school and magic, it all felt a bit too middle-class, Enid Blyton to me. Clearly I missed the point, somewhere along the line, and, honestly, my kids liked the books as much as other kids did.

I wish the experiment had lasted a little longer. I wish we’d seen Robert Galbraith’s career grow a little. I wish we’d been given a chance to see what the second book did and the one after that.

The one advantage that Galbraith had over some other writers was that he’d written a number of books before. He doesn’t have that advantage over me. I probably haven’t written as many words as Joanne Rowling, but I imagine I’ve written more than most breaking novelists, and I still haven’t published a novel with my own name on it.

Weird how she managed to do that first, and it appears that it’ll be the very last thing that I ever do in this business... if I ever manage to do it at all.

I, for one, don’t begrudge her any of it, and I can’t change the cult of celebrity. Honestly, I don’t ever want to be a part of it, either, but I can’t change it, and I don’t see the point of bitching about it.

This is how the World works. Suck it up. Trust me, with half-a-dozen unpublished novels in the drawer, and second prize in a major competition, with nothing to show for it, if I can be sanguine about it, you sure as hell can be. What’s more, I have solid plans for at least another three books.

I Keep producing work, and I hope that I keep producing better work, and I keep trusting it. My time will come, you’ll see.