Hated By The Daily Mail

I suppose the proudest thing I own is this badge, one of a very limited collection, given to me by the warm and wonderful Phill Jupitus. Anyone who can wear it can think of themselves of flying a flag of freedom, of having been awarded a medal struck for decency, fairness, honesty and what is right and morally good.

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Ave atque Vale

Well now, this is a sort of farewell. An au revoir more than an adieu but a valediction all the same. This morning I switch off most of my connections with the outside world, for I have work to do. I must deliver a book to my publishers by the end of April or my soul and testicles will be forfeit.

Some people can write with ease in whatever circumstances they find themselves. Up a tree, on a bus, in a log cabin, a steamy-windowed café or a tropical beach. Some don’t mind noise, distraction or a broken up day. I, unhappily, am not made of this material. I need peace, absolute peace, an empty diary and zero distraction. I enter a kind of writing purdah, an eremitical seclusion in which there is just me, a keyboard and abundant cups of coffee, all in a room whose curtains have been drawn against the light. I would have added tobacco as a constant and necessary companion, but I stopped smoking some two and half years ago, so no longer will there be the pleasure of having a pipe clamped between the teeth as I grope for the Flaubertian mot juste.

I have a single appointment in London towards the end of January and another in Barcelona a month or so later. Otherwise I shall be as one wiped from the map of human existence. This is how it must be.

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Kingdom Come, Kingdom Gone

Sad news from TV-land. Well sad for me and for some others. It may well have you skipping about like a lamb on ketamine, trilling with joy.

Our masters at ITV have decided that there shan’t be a fourth series of the television drama Kingdom. I am sorry because it was such a pleasure making them in my beloved Norfolk. I am sorry because the crew of mostly local East Anglians was so cheerful, professional and delightful to work with: the riggers, sparks, grips and location; the camera, caterers, dressers, make-up and props, production assistants, accountants and co-ordinators, the sound men and the drivers, assistant directors and runners, the security, police and councillors who always tried to help. The cast of local people who cheerfully subjected themselves to the indignities of a background artist’s day. They will all be missed and their memories cherished.

Above all, the people of those Norfolk towns and villages on which we descended for days on end. The citizens especially of Castle Rising, Wells-next-the-Sea and above all of Swaffham who put up with our desire to control traffic (something of a vain, Canute-like hope in Swaffham’s central buttermarket – Norfolk’s Piccadilly Circus). They were kind to us, considerate and understanding. It was a charming and cheerful experience for us all. I am lucky to live there much of the time – for the rest of the Kingdom cast and crew it will be a sad farewell that was never properly said.

All things must pass. That is why we must be so grateful to Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, and mother of the muses. Heigh ho. Onward and upward.

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A Tale of Two Cities

I like LA. There I said it.

When Europeans come to America they are supposed to be divided into New York or Los Angeles types. When the English writers W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood crossed the Atlantic in the late 30s Auden stayed in Manhattan and Isherwood went to LA where he remained for the rest of his life. Auden was the arch New Yorker, restless, edgy, sceptical and cosmopolitan. Isherwood was more prone to mysticism and mellow introspection. When I am asked if I like LA and reply that I do, it is common for my interlocutor to say, “Really? I would have put you down as a New York type.” But you see I AM. I had an apartment in Manhattan for many years, I go there as often as I can. I adore the city. But I love Los Angeles AS WELL. And I have found I can sustain these two supposedly opposite and mutually exclusive affections without tearing myself in two or exploding in a fireball of self-contradiction. In fact I’ll go further, if there’s one thing that gets my goat, curries it and serves it up on a bed of flaming indignation, it is this habit of dividing the world in two. Which reminds me of an old geek joke. “The world is divided into 10 types of people. Those who understand binary and those who don’t.” Pause to allow you to wipe the tears of helpless laughter from your weeping eyes. But damn it bothers me when the choice of one thing is interpreted as a necessary repudiation of the other. People are always doing it. “You’re either a Beatles person or a Rolling Stones person” I’ve heard them say. Tummyrubbish. Balderpiss. Arsegarbage.

A couple of months ago someone asked me what I was up to and I mentioned I was making a documentary about Richard Wagner. “Oh, I would have thought you liked Beethoven,” they said. I was too polite to pick them up by their scruff of their necks and shake them violently back and forth, but I mean WHAT? “Why’ve you got a Norwich City shield on your Twitter avatar? I thought you liked cricket.” “You just quoted Family Guy” – I thought you liked The Simpsons”, and so on and so on. I mean, really.

Another joke. A Jewish boy on his birthday is given a pair of fine silk ties by his mother. He comes downstairs next morning proudly wearing one. His mother looks at him, hands on hips and says, “So what was wrong with the other one?” Imagine if every time you ordered chicken in a restaurant someone said, “Oh, so you hate lamb, do you?”

I like LA and I like New York. And it is the fact that they are so very, very different that makes me like each all the more. They each serve and satisfy a different part of me. As do town and country, wine and beer, swimming and walking. Seems mad to define oneself, to limit oneself, doesn’t it?

One thing that New York can never offer is the sight of a great Hollywood Sound Stage. This is the one I’ve been filming in today. Marilyn on the wall. I mean, what’s not to like… Plus there’s Clarence, the security guard on one of the gates to the Fox lot. Every time I come in he reads me one of his poems and tells me and my driver that he loves us. As does Jesus apparently, which is nice of him. Well I certainly love Clarence – incredibly hard not be cheered up by such optimistic bonhomie and unconditional friendliness. “Oh but Stephen, I thought you were an atheist. How can you like someone who isn’t? Surely that’s impossible?” Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

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Dont Quote Me…

Extraordinary thing. Look at this: http://bit.ly/jraEP

I was having lunch with my literary agent yesterday and I said, mostly as a joke, that I had it in mind to blog a confession. I would publicly admit that I read fewer than one in twenty of the books to which I gave approving quotes for dust jackets and blurbs. My agent was shocked. Whether he was shocked that I might plug books I hadn’t read, or shocked that I could contemplate owning up to such a crime, I cannot be entirely sure.

I hasten to add that it isn’t true. The plan, as I told my agent, was to make this confession as a way of getting publishers off my back. It may sound ungracious, but I get asked so many times a week to read book and supply quotes for them that I’m getting a bit fed up. Not because I don’t like reading, nor because I don’t like being sent books, though mostly of course, I am sent proof copies rather than the finished article. No, what I’m fed up with (and it is my contention that I am SO not alone in this) is seeing my name on the fronts, backs and flaps of books saying things like “a beautifully paced, unforgettable thriller”, “a magnificent feat of imagination”, “a delicately realised and vividly felt journey through memory and desire”, etc etc. Yuckety, yuckety, yuck. Pukety, pukety puke.

I mean well: I really don’t think my good intentions can be questioned. It gives me pleasure to encourage writers and if they and their publishers are so convinced that a word from me makes a difference then surely it would be churlish and unfriendly of me to deny them a favour that costs me so little and is worth (apparently) so much to them? And yet … isn’t there is a law of diminishing returns at work here? “I saw a new book in Waterstone’s the other day that didn’t have a quote from you on the front” people joke to me. I am fully aware that each peal of praise trumpeting a new book must be worth slightly less. The coin gets debased: instead of crying “Wolf!”, I’m crying “Gold!”, but the effect is the same. Hence my plan to reveal that I never read any of these works in the first place. If I let it be known that my view of a book’s merit is worthless because I never read any of them, then perhaps the nuisance would finally cease? Of course my view of a book’s merit IS worthless, or at last worth no more than anyone else’s … until you come face to face with data like that in the article pointed to in the link at the top of this page.

I try very hard not to use Twitter for the purpose of plugging anything commercial unless it is an absolutely genuine enthusiasm, a discovery I feel I just have to share. Eagleman’s “Sum” is an example of this and while I am pleased that my tweeting had such a positive effect, I have to confess that the figures are a little alarming. Imagine how many books and manuscripts are on their way to me even as we speak. What have let myself in for now?

Having said which, it just so happens that a truly amazing book is being published this very day: Last Chance To See, by Mark Carwardine http://tr.im/ymyE Fantastic photos, glittering prose and a forward by one of the most prodigious book-pluggers and quote-providers in the business. “Last Chance To See is a majestic tour d’horizon ” Stephen Fry, “a work or rare power and beauty” Stephen Fry, “I loved the Foreword by Stephen Fry,” Stephen Fry, “scorching satire”, Stephen Fry, “breathtakingly erotic” Stephen Fry, “help, I’m trapped,” Stephen Fry, “let me out!” Stephen Fry……

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