Sunday 31 January 2021

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I love this picture, taken from Hot Date with a Good Book. My friend, Paul Magrs, started an online writing group. I was asking in there for examples of an unreliable narrator to show my students, and a lady called Kate Mandalov recommended this.

Shirley Jackson's beloved gothic tale of a peculiar girl named Merricat and her family's dark secret

Taking readers deep into a labyrinth of dark neurosis, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously unsettling novel about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when a cousin arrives at their estate. 

It was, indeed, delightful.

“Merricat," said Connie, "would you like a cup of tea?"

"Oh no," said Merricat, "you'll poison me."

"Merricat," said Connie, "would you like to go to sleep? Down in the boneyard ten feet deep!"

I was surprised to discover it's from 1962, as it has a very contemporary feel about it. Little bit like a darker Graveyard Book

It's hard to know how to describe it. It's very original. Full of implied menace rather than graphic. Certainly 'modern Gothic,' though good Gothic is ageless. It's about two sisters and their infirm uncle, living alone in a large house after the rest of the family were accidentally poisoned... or were they? 

Just a captivating read.

Tuesday 26 January 2021

The History of Swear Words

Oh look, Nicholas Cage.

I'm quite enjoying this. My friend's daughter has just reached the age where she's really anti-swearing. She even slaps people for swearing! To which I had to point out that violence is a far worse crime than profanity. Besides, hitting someone is hardly going to make them less likely to swear.

Anyway. It's all good fun, and it is true that profanity has painkilling properties and that it can also be a sign of intelligence. Another fun way to research swear words - in fact, any word - is through Etymology Online.

Saturday 23 January 2021

The Order of the Good Death


Oooh, I found this! It's Caitlin Doughty's channel

I read her book a while back, Smoke Gets in your Eyes, and highly recommend it.

She covers everything about death, from strange disasters and tragedies, through to iconic corpses such as sleeping beauty, the Romanovs and Jesse James, weird stuff such as suicide shaming, Cotard delusion and coffin births, and all things to do with facing your own mortality, such as ask a mortician.

There's loads more resources on her website, The Order of the Good Death.

Monday 18 January 2021

Kill Someone


This was an interesting one by author Luke Smitherd (Twitter). I picked it up because I thought the blurb sounded interesting:

 Here are the rules.

Method: you can't use a gun. You can't use explosives. You can't use poison. It has to be up close and personal. You don't have to worry about leaving evidence; that will be taken care of.

Victim: no one suicidal. No one over the age of 65. No one with a terminal illness.

Choose your method. Choose your victim.

Chris Summer was a 21-year-old call centre worker. A dropout. A nobody, still living at home with his parents. Then one day the Man in White came to his family's house, offering a seemingly impossible choice: kill a random stranger - one of Chris' choosing - within 12 days in order to save the lives of five kidnapped siblings. Refuse, and they die slowly and painfully.

The clock is ticking, the Man in White is watching and Chris has some very important choices to make.

This is a tale of fear, indecision, confused masculinity and brutal violence - a story of a coddled young man thrust into a world of sharp metal and bone. Ask yourself if you could do it. Then ask yourself who you would choose. 

Wasn't too sure when it first began, as there was really no preamble - right in there with the ultimatum - but, as it progressed, it really pulled me in. Really good writer. Felt very believable. Can't give too much away, but the lead character starts out with all the first thoughts you or I might have: could you take out a fascist extremist? What about a total arsehole of a boss? Obviously, 'myself' came to mind, but that's classed as a suicide, so breaks the rules.

The option he eventually goes for was pretty gruesome and rather clever. 

It isn't for the faint-hearted, there's some vivid stuff in there. I love horror, so I'm fairly desensitised, but it successfully made my stomach turn at one point, so recommended if you're into that.

Just a generally good read, and it did leave you thinking by the end. Who would you kill if you had to?

It's a bit like that philosophy dilemma, the Trolly Problem:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options:

1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track.

2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

 Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do?

 Also reminded me a little bit of Scythe.

I wasn't totally convinced by the reasoning for the whole thing at the end, but it was a good ride getting there. Some nice one-liners along the way:

...the smile crept back onto his face like a spreading puddle of sewage.

My anger disappeared like piss in the rain.

And the author makes a very heartfelt appeal at the end for people to review his work online if they liked it. This is something all authors can get behind - it really does mean a lot. People checking you out for the first time often make a decision based on reviews, so please do take a moment to do that for any author whose work you enjoy.

Sunday 17 January 2021

Down Among the Reeds and Rushes...


Yeah, you've got that song in your head now, right?

Well, I'm a failure as a writer. My ability to tell a story appears to have died alongside 2020. 

I was on a roll before Christmas, now that roll has rolled off.

I've got more time than ever to write and it just isn't coming. I need Senokot to squeeze out a thousand words. Not sure what broke. Maybe whinging about it in a blog post will help?

In the past two weeks, I've gone from 50,000 words to 54,000 words. 

Maybe that's a bit harsh... I did bash out 5,000 on writing competitions, but that's not the novel I was supposed to be writing. 

It all made so much sense when I was writing a love story, but now I'm starting a war and - gods, the research. It's running away from me and I'm still worried about the wordcount. It's definitely two books. No way you can have a 50,000 word introduction to the main story. I accept that. Now it's just a question of whether I can get all of Sargon's story into a sensible number of pages.

Blah. All questions for the edit, not now.

Now, I actually have to keep writing those words. What happened? Where did the magic go? I usually love killing off characters. There's a big murder scene on the horizon. Why am I not running towards it? Currently fumbling around the Ebla/Mari conflict. One kingdom, Ebla, had access to the Mediterranean Sea and all the trade routes, the other, Mari, owned the inland waterways and restricted trade. I didn't know anything about the conflict, but the moment I saw their positions on a map, I guessed exactly what it was about. Went on for generations. 

Incidentally, the Mari people were called the Mariotes... and now own a global chain of hotels. 

But that's why you're getting so many book reviews at the moment, in case you were wondering. Which you probably weren't. I would never go so far as to say that a book is a distraction, but they've certainly been occupying my time more than writing at the moment. 

As I haven't got much new worth posting, I thought I'd take a step backwards. Last time, you got to meet Baby Sargon. This time, here's an excerpt from the very beginning, explaining how it all went down... 





Akki stood, lost in the mist of early morning. He placed his hands on his hips, as much to keep them warm as anything else. In less than an hour the sun would break the horizon and the world would turn from white to dark emerald. For now, though, he could hardly see a cane’s length in front of him, and what he could see caused him to frown.

Surely, this was not the great and holy Puzur-Suen’s plan.

Even as he hoped, he knew the truth. Of course it was. Puzer-Sheun was great and holy precisely because his plans spanned the heavens and the earth. He was as wise as Enlil, as radiant as the sun god Utu, and as unrelenting in his ambition as Nergal, god of plague.

Akki sighed and scratched the back of his head. The canal was little more than a shallow stream. The bullrushes grew so thick they almost met in the middle, where water, black as tar, congealed in a foul-smelling concoction. These waterways had not been dredged in his lifetime. It would take all his men, and all the surrounding villages, many months to open up this channel. It never ceased to amaze him that the flowing waters of the magnificent Euphrates, that life-giving mother of creation, could pool and still in such a forgotten pasture as this.

It was a matter of some pride to him that he should be the one to guide her currents, to shape the course of her fertile presence, transforming this little backwater into a centre for trade and agriculture. He would bring plenty where once there was famine and coax the barren earth to throw forth its feast. Akki loved being a canal inspector. His father had been one before him, and his father’s father had been one of the first to irrigate the clay pits of Kish. The soil turned the water to rivers of blood. That clotted earth had been shaped into bricks to form the Red Ziggurat at Uhaimirt.

Whereas the sight before him was unfortunate, it was also a challenge, and Akki never shied away from one of those. Already he was counting the number of picks they would need beneath his breath, calculating the hours in the day it would take one man to widen the channel by a forearm and three fingers. Just as he started to contemplate the issue of poisonous river snakes, Koru began to bark.

He tensed, reaching inside his robe to place a hand on the pummel of his knife. It slid out again when he saw the familiar, lurching figure of Sepu approach. His foreman materialised like a shade from the underworld, holding one fist to his mouth as he coughed.

“Cursed weather,” he said, spitting into the reeds.

Koru was close on his heels, the only one of their party who seemed genuinely pleased to be up at such an hour. She sniffed about Akki’s boots before bounding off into the wilderness.

“What do you think?” Akki asked, already knowing the reply.

“I think it’s a mad man’s job,” Sepu said. “What even is the point? We’re leagues from Kish. These people choose to live out here, that’s their business, but I don’t see as anything’s to be gained by digging them a canal. Who’s going to come here to trade? What are they going to trade even if they do? The soil’s hardly good for growing scrub. I just don’t see the point.”

“The point is, we don’t have a choice,” Akki replied, patiently. Sepu raised the same objections whether they were five leagues from Kish or one. Anything beyond the city gate was too rural for him, but he was the best overseer Akki had ever known, so he went through the ritual. “Our gracious and rightful king wants a canal here, so a canal he shall have.”

“Does he want it in this lifetime?”

Akki shot him a warning look.

“Well, if you don’t need the money, Sepu–”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Right, then we start work next month. Though, first, we need a full survey of the tributary canals feeding into these ditches.”

“I’ll put Gadalu and Purkullu on it.”

“Not Gadalu, that boy brings bad luck.”

“His mother is my brother’s wife.”

Akki pinched the bridge of his nose and was about to argue when he heard Koru barking again. At first, he wasn’t sure. The dog had only just left them, yet she sounded far away. As her barks became whimpers, he turned in the direction of the noise, calling her name.

“Koru? Koru, come here. Come here girl.” Her yelps of distress only got louder. “Shed, where is she?”

Akki began stumbling in the animal’s direction, Sepu limping along behind. His leg had been crushed when a cart overturned in his youth. He could still walk, but not very fast, and the cold air caused him pain. Akki was caught between wanting to race ahead to find Koru, and not wanting to lose Sepu in the mist.

“Go on,” Sepu said, as though reading his thoughts. “Go find your dog. I’m right behind.”

Akki squelched across waterlogged land, picking up his feet so as not to stumble on the tussocks. “Koru,” he kept calling. “Here girl!”

With no sense of bearing, it felt as though he was walking an age. When he finally came upon her, he couldn’t understand what was wrong. She didn’t appear trapped or injured. She simply raised her slender face to look at him, then let out another loud whine.

“What, Koru?” he asked, annoyed. “Why have you brought me all the way over here?”

She looked down and began to yap.

At that moment, a faint breeze shifted the fog and he saw that they were standing on the edge of another drainage ditch. If he hadn’t stopped, he would have fallen right in.

“What is it? What’s she found?” Sepu asked, coming to stand beside them and breathing heavily in the moist air.

“Don’t go any further,” Akki said. “It’s another tributary. Sounds like it’s flowing a bit faster than the others.”

“Ah, it’ll just be a snake then?”

“Yes, or a water rat or something. Come on Koru, we really need to get back.”

“Nintinugga didn’t birth that one with any sense,” Sepu said of the goddess of dogs. “She’d lead us right to the underworld if we let her.”

Akki smiled and bent down to cusp Koru by the neck. She resisted and he wrestled with her, but she stubbornly refused to move. “Fine, have it your way,” he eventually said. “You stay here in the cold whilst Sepu and I go back to the village for baked fish and bread. You’ll be sorry to miss that.”

As they turned and began walking, a sound made them stop.

The two men looked at one another, and then back.

“Hush now,” Akki commanded, silencing Koru’s whimper.

“Is that what I think it is?” Sepu asked, reaching for a bullrush and pulling its thick stalk free of the mud. He pushed it into the river.

“How fast is it flowing?”

“Not too fast.”



Akki took a stalk of his own and they edged closer to the water, gently tapping the surface. Just as they began to doubt themselves, the sound came again, and Akki’s stem tapped against something hollow. Sepu stepped into the water. It was deeper than he had expected, reaching to his waist, but he did not hesitate. His fingers closed around the box and passed it up to Akki, who placed it on the ground before reaching back to help Sepu out of the water.

The two of them fell to their knees beside the casket. It was a short wooden box not much longer than his arm. It had been sealed shut with wax and painted with tar to prevent the water from entering. A handful of holes had been poked in a neat circle around the top, and the two men covered their mouths as they caught the scent of something.

Koru began yapping and chasing her tail, until Akki, in a moment of uncharacteristic impatience, snapped at her to be quiet. She obeyed, laying on her belly between them and resting her head on her paws.

Akki reached into his robe and drew his knife. It was a heavy skinning knife with a thick bone pommel. Sepu felt behind for a rock and handed it to him. He slipped the blade into the wax seam and began hitting the pommel with the rock. As flakes of wax fell away, they listened for the sound again, but nothing came. When at last the seal was broken, Sepu placed a hand either side of the lid and pulled it away.

The smell launched itself at them like an attacker. Both men fell back, pinching their noses and fighting the urge to wretch. Sepu recovered first and thrust his hands into the box, pulling its occupant free of the stench.

“Oh! Lord Ishum,” Akki began, “do not let this child die. Bar the gates of the underworld that he may not pass. Goddess Mami and Lady Nintu, you birthed this child as you birthed us all, let him live that he may honour your names.”

He continued to recite a litany of praise and appeasement to every god of childhood protection as he leaned forward to inspect the infant. It was a boy. The most fragile thing he had ever seen, the child’s head no larger than Akki’s clenched fist. His lips bore the faintest tinge of blue, and for all the world he appeared to be dead. What horrified Akki most was that the tiny thing was covered in his own excrement.

Without thinking, he sliced a corner from his robe and reached forward to take the child from Sepu. He sat on the bank, with the boy across his knees, and dipped the cloth in the cold water. With tears streaming down his cheeks, he began to wipe him clean. This little one would face Ereshkigal with dignity. The Queen of the Great Earth would not flinch as she swallowed him whole. He would taste as sweet as freshwater, as easy to eat as an apricot.

Akki bit back a sob as he reached again into the stream and rubbed the cloth across the boy’s chest. He was so distraught that he did not feel the slight intake of breath. The spark igniting in the child’s lungs. The body coming to life.

A scream erupted that shook the world.

Koru began to bark as though an invading army were bearing down upon them, Sepu sprang to his feet as though both his legs still worked, and Akki almost dropped the boy in the water.

Saturday 16 January 2021

Virtual Faceality


Been fixating on this a bit lately. It's not perfect, but it's very interesting. Waiting for the augmented reality version. There's so many online, but loving the Vitruvian Man and Van Gogh, old photographs like these and these, and the Tudors. I know it's helped to inspire a few writing friends when thinking about characters. Waiting for someone to do one of Sargon.


Thursday 14 January 2021

The Odyssey


A classic work that everybody should read once in their life, right?

Acclaimed actress Claire Danes burnishes an epic story of heroes, gods, and monsters in a groundbreaking translation of The Odyssey, the first great adventure story in the Western literary tradition. When the wily warrior-king Odysseus sets off for home after the Trojan War, he doesn’t realize this simple undertaking will become a perilous journey of 10 years. Beset at every turn, he encounters obstacles, detours, and temptations—both supernatural and human—while his wife Penelope fends off would-be suitors desperate to take the throne.

Emily Wilson is the first woman to take on the daunting task of translating over 100,000 lines of a three-millennium-old poem from Ancient Greek to modern-day English. Her breathtaking rendition captures the poetic immediacy of the original text, while allowing listeners to experience The Odyssey with an honesty and directness few other versions have achieved. The result is a lean, fleet-footed translation that recaptures Homer’s “nimble gallop” and brings an ancient epic to new life. A fascinating introduction provides an informative overview of the Bronze Age milieu that produced the epic, the major themes of the poem, the controversies about its origins, and the unparalleled scope of its impact and influence. 

First off, what an apt cover! It's been raining non-stop in Kigali for days. Going to start building an ark tomorrow.

This was really beautifully translated, and entirely in iambic pentameter. That's pretty damn impressive. Complete labour of love by Emily Wilson

I did enjoy learning about the translation process and everything, but maybe a three-hour introduction was a little bit much. I think, if I was picking it up for the first time, I'd skip straight to chapter one and then come back to read the introduction at the end. Just because it's packed with spoilers.

I also loved Greek mythology as a kid, so I was fairly familiar with everything that was about to happen, but I'd never read the full Odyssey and was looking forward to discovering the story. In amongst interesting historical information, the introduction basically walked you through what was about to happen, complete with quotes, which kind of left me wondering why I needed to bother with the full text afterwards. For me, part of the attraction was the entire adventure of the unknown. And, it's not like the story is that complicated. It's a lot of men in boats, men crying, women weaving and then a blood bath at the end. It's translated so smoothly that any modern-day reader could keep track of what's going on. It's not Cloud Atlas or anything.

But, it was still very enjoyable. If you love Madeline Miller's books (Song of Achilles/Circe) then this, as the source inspiration, really adds to your understanding of her work. 

Some of the interesting historical nuggets that I enjoyed where that the Greeks were all about hospitality towards strangers, it was a matter of honour. However, part of that hospitality was about knowing when to let your guests leave: To force a visitor to stay is just as bad as pushing him to go.

Something worth remembering at Christmas time. I live in fear of ending up at parties or events where I cannot leave. 

The etymology was also very interesting. Obviously, The Odyssey is so named for Odysseus, the lead character (no, not the one who slept with his mother - that's Oedipus). But I didn't realise that epic comes from epos, meaning a song or story, from the root to say/to tell. There was also regular mention of a rhapsode, meaning a person who recites epic poetry. 

Um... is that where we get the word rapper from? Or is that just a coincidence? It's absolutely related to the word rhapsody.

So, that was all very interesting. If you buy the audiobook, I think you also get a PDF of the translation. 

Something else I found out - Poseidon is a dick (I'm probably going to drown at sea for saying that). I thought he was awesome as a kid, but he comes across as really vindictive in this. I know all the gods can be, but his whole thing against Odysseus was that Odysseus killed his kid. Talk about burying the lead - the kid was eating everybody at the time. Like, teach your kid some manners and perhaps people won't want to cave his face in.

Talking of which, the end of the poem took a real turn for the murdery:

The victims have no help and no way out as their attackers slaughter them. And men watch and enjoy the violence. So these four fighters sprang and struck, and drove the suitors in all directions. Screaming filled the hall as skulls were cracked. The whole floor ran with blood.

It's about a hundred pages of 'woe is me,' then 'right, everyone's going to die.' 

That's basically the abridged version.

You can flick to the end. 

There was a bit of a debate in the introduction about why Penelope doesn't recognise her husband immediately when he comes home. There's a bit of speculation around whether she truly doesn't recognise him or whether she does but decides to feign ignorance for a while. I think it has to be the former.

Like Pitch Meeting says:

'I don't understand why [insert improbable plot point] has to happen?' 

'So the movie can happen... look, I'm gonna need you to get all the way off my back about this.'

Disguise is such a major part of classical literature and storytelling. Shakespeare employed it all the time, and there's an entire Star Trek Voyager episode that goes on at length about the importance of 'the disguise' and 'the reveal' in formulaic playwriting. I mean, it's just a thing. Everybody was crazy about anagnorisis back then.

So, in that respect, this is a very nice way to experience the Poetics of Aristotle (well, Homer) in action. The way Wilson has approached it really brings it to life and gives it rhythm, and some of the imagery is really beautiful.

Very impressive work.

Tuesday 12 January 2021

The Sense of an Ending


Oh, I really liked this one:

A novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single setting, The Sense of an Ending has the psychological and emotional depth and sophistication of Henry James at his best, and is a stunning achievement in Julian Barnes's oeuvre.
This intense novel follows Tony Webster, a middle-aged man, as he contends with a past he never thought much about—until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance: one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present. Tony thought he left this all behind as he built a life for himself, and his career has provided him with a secure retirement and an amicable relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, who now has a family of her own. But when he is presented with a mysterious legacy, he is forced to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world. 

The blurb doesn't really do it justice. 

I was a bit concerned when it started that it was another upper-middle-class Britlit novel, like The Witches' Tree. I've solidly decided that genre isn't for me.

Thankfully, it was more akin to Now and Then by William Corlett, which is one of the most heartrendingly honest examples of British literature I've read. To my mind, it really didn't get the recognition it deserved.

This is a similar flavour, but did get the recognition.

Both focus on public school boys looking back as adults. The privileged end of the British class spectrum, but it doesn't turn their class into a caricature. People talk about 'honesty' in writing and it can start to sound like a literary buzzword. But it does exist, and you know it when you read it. This has it in spades. 

It's also exceedingly short, at around four-and-a-half hours of audio.

Funnily enough, I picked up The Witches' Tree looking for a little West Country nostalgia, and finding none. Whereas this was dripping with it: Clifton Suspension Bridge and the Severn Bore. Also, a little blast from my school-day past with the term 'get off with,' referring to kissing, or making out with, someone. Does anyone still say that nowadays? 'Did you get off with him?' 

There were so many lovely quotes, so here's a few. This first one is not dissimilar to the response I think my mum gave when I asked her about the sixties. That the sixties was something that happened in London, rather than rural farming communities.

If you'll excuse a brief history lesson, most people didn't experience the sixties until the seventies, which meant logically that most people in the sixties were still experiencing the fifties. Or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side.


History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.


When we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful; whereas when the blood begins to slow, when we feel less sharply, when we are more armoured and have learnt how to bear hurt, we tread more carefully. 


Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire – and desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which, despite what company you may muster, can only be faced alone. But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from the future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records – in words, sound, pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? 'History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.'


The time-deniers say: forty's nothing, at fifty you're in your prime, sixty's the new forty, and so on. I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory.


That last one is something that plays on my mind a lot: the relationship between time and memory. I first discovered an article on the Aboriginal concept of time years ago, when writing Lucid, and thought it made a lot of sense. Rather than being linear, the things you remember most clearly are the things that are closest to you in time. Something you did twenty years ago might have a greater influence on your life than a hundred boring, mundane things you did yesterday.

Makes a lot of sense.


I really liked this book. 

Monday 11 January 2021

Becoming Myself



I picked this up  in a sale, knowing nothing about Irvin D. Yalom, and found it very enjoyable:

Bestselling writer and psychotherapist Irvin D. Yalom puts himself on the couch in a lapidary memoir

Irvin D. Yalom has made a career of investigating the lives of others. In this profound memoir, he turns his writing and his therapeutic eye on himself. He opens his story with a nightmare: He is twelve, and is riding his bike past the home of an acne-scarred girl. Like every morning, he calls out, hoping to befriend her, "Hello Measles!" But in his dream, the girl's father makes Yalom understand that his daily greeting had hurt her. For Yalom, this was the birth of empathy; he would not forget the lesson. As Becoming Myself unfolds, we see the birth of the insightful thinker whose books have been a beacon to so many. This is not simply a man's life story, Yalom's reflections on his life and development are an invitation for us to reflect on the origins of our own selves and the meanings of our lives. 

As well as being an eminent psychiatrist, he's also an ardent bibliophile, and much of the autobiography is about books and the writing process.

I think I had decided upon psychiatry before even entering medical school: it flowed from my passion for literature and from a belief that psychiatry offered me proximity to all the great writers I loved. My deepest pleasure was to lose myself in the world of a novel, and over and over again I told myself that the very best thing a person could do in life was to write a fine novel. I’ve always had a hunger for stories, and since I first read Treasure Island as a young adolescent I have dived deeply into the narratives that great writers offer us. Even as I write these words at the age of eighty-five, I can hardly wait to return tonight to Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. I ration it and fight the urge to devour it all at once. 


Even as I find myself immersed in the present, I sense the specter of decay watching and waiting—a decay that will ultimately vanquish lived experience and yet, by its very inexorability, bestows a poignancy and beauty. The desire to relate my experience with Ginny is a very compelling one; I am intrigued by the opportunity to stave off decay, to prolong the span of our brief life together. How much better to know that it will exist in the mind of the reader rather than in the abandoned warehouse of unread clinical notes and unheard electromagnetic tapes.


I have always read myself to sleep, and for the past two weeks I have been reading a book called Our Better Angels by Steven Pinker. Tonight... I had read a chapter on the rise of empathy during the Enlightenment and how the rise of the novel, particularly British epistolary novels like Clarissa and Pamela, may have played a role in decreasing violence and cruelty by helping us to experience the world from another's viewpoint.

There was a lot in there that I found relatable. He talked about Gide's aphorism, that 'history is fiction that might have happened,' and wanting characters and events to have that ring of authenticity that makes them believable. I've always felt the same about my historical works, such as Rosy Hours and Angorichina. The best fiction didn't happen - but it might have done.

I felt for him when he wrote about giving up on a novel because of the amount of research involved:

For months I researched the details of daily life in Greece in that era, the clothing, the type of breakfast, the customs of daily life. I studied ancient and current historical and philosophical texts, read novels set in ancient Greece (by Mary Renault and others), and eventually arrived at the sad realization that the research required to write this and the chapters in the other time periods would consume the rest of my life. With great regret I abandoned the project. It’s the only book I’ve ever started and did not finish.

I've felt this a few times with the historical research for Rosy Hours (1850s Iran), The Children of Lir (Iron Age Ireland) and now with Akkad (Sumerian and Akkadian Empires). But the trick with historical fiction is to remember that you're not writing a textbook. I think it was Bernard Cornwell who pointed out that if a reader wanted a history lesson, they would have bought a history book. They picked up a novel because they wanted to be entertained. You don't have to be a hundred percent accurate in fiction, no one ever is. The important thing is to find the little nuggets of information that fascinate you as a writer, and include those. It's the narrative that's important, facts just add a bit of colour. They should support your story, not constrain it.

I always immerse myself in books, documentaries, music and art of the period for a good couple of months, but then I start writing. Anything I don't know, I can find out along the way as the need arises. You could spend a lifetime becoming a historical expert on a specific period and never need 90% of everything you learned for your novel. Start the story - let that guide your research. 

That's my approach, anyway. But I can see how easily research could overwhelm a writer and how, especially for those with an academic bent, the need to be factually accurate and gather information might derail the creative process. I also grind to a halt when I'm researching, which is why you have to stop at some point and shift to the other foot.

Beyond writing, there was a particularly interesting part about how therapy is changing today, and how some people prefer to undergo treatment using text messages and Skype. 

During the COVID lockdown, I was working with a couple of genocide survivors' organisations. Face-to-face counselling sessions were closed down for health reasons and we opened a national helpline instead. Although many clients preferred face-to-face sessions, others preferred telephone counselling and we gained many new clients who were phoning in to speak to somebody for the first time. They found it easier to speak honestly and anonymously over the phone, and divulged experiences and information that they would not have felt comfortable disclosing in person. There was a sense of safety for many in being able to speak on the phone without making eye contact or being observed. We were left with a sense that remote counselling certainly has a role to play.

The final chapter was particularly poignant: A Novice at Growing Old. Here, he spoke of this being his last book. At eighty-five, he felt he had written all the works he was going to. This is a particularly tough chapter to read as a writer. The older we grow, the more aware of time we become and the fewer ideas we're willing to take a risk on. It takes around nine months to a year to write a book, usually another year for it to go through editing and publication. You start to count time in terms of how many books you have left. I could imagine a time, one day, where you realise there are only a couple more to go.

On a happier note, I also really liked the publisher's copyright notice at the end. I always thought Ghostwoods had the best one, but this came very close. It ended by explaining how people could contact the publisher to request permission to use material. I wish every book was so open about this. I think, if it was made easier for people to request copyright permission, more would do so. I've spent hours of my life tracking down permission to use work, both literary and musical, in the past. Assuming that the point of owning rights is to collect royalties, then the process of identifying and paying those owners should be much simpler. This was really useful.

Anyway, a pleasant and gentle read.