Thursday, December 29, 2011

Six things that must happen to reverse this headlong rush to an illiterate British generation

Halfway through 2011 came a horrifying National Literacy Trust survey of more than 18,000 children.

It listed the following staggering statistics:
  • one in four children is unable to read or write properly when they leave London's primary schools
  • three in ten live in households that do not contain a single book
  • one in six people in the UK have the literacy level expected of an eleven year old
  • in 2005, 1 in 10 of the children and young people surveyed said they did not have a book of their own at home; but by 2011 this figure had increased to an incredible 1 child in 3.
Why is this not seen as a national scandal?

I believe it's because we have two cultures in this country. Those of us who are educated and read all know other people like ourselves who encourage their own children to read.

For these statistics to be true, we must be outnumbered by those for whom reading books is virtually an unknown pasttime.

All my life, newspapers have been wringing their hands about the levels of childhood and adult literacy.

Successive education ministers of every political hue have experimented with different teaching methods.

And all this time the problem has been getting worse and worse.

I believe that it's a root problem of our British culture; a culture that is leading to the closing of so many libraries.

Library closures

I learned my love of books from my local library.

But the latest figures on closures are that 415 libraries (323 buildings and 92 mobiles) are currently under threat or closed/have left council control since the beginning of this financial year out of around 4612 in the whole country.

Librarian professional body CILIP forecasts are even worse: it says that 600 libraries are under threat (inc. 20% of English libraries).

This does not include school libraries. Here, as this article from the Guardian reveals:
  • school libraries are facing drastic funding reductions
  • many school librarians are being downgraded or even made redundant
  • School Library Services are closing
  • some children’s book awards have folded
  • book gifting schemes have had their funding reduced
  • some schools have postponed author visits.
Every month brings bad news: in December we learnt that Hertfordshire Schools Library Services, one of England’s largest and most respected Schools Library Services, is set to close in the New Year.

The latest library visitor figures, covering the year to March 2011, showed overall library visitor numbers down 2.3% to 314.5 million and book issues down 2.9% to 300.2 million.

Although this is a reduction, it is less than what you might expect given these closures.

In November, Alan Gibbons called for a moratorium on the closure of libraries.

Tackling illiteracy and library closures was also the subject of Patrick Ness's Carnegie Medal acceptance speech, which he won with Monsters of Men, the third of his Chaos Walking series.

Too often, writers are told by publishers (I was told myself this year) that teenage boys don't read books and so we can't publish your book.

What can we do?

As writers, we must join with Ness and Gibbons. We can no longer be complacent. Our livelihood is at stake.

Yes, we have to keep writing compelling books. But we also have to act.

Here are six things that need to happen:

  1. We must be prepared to occupy libraries faced with closure, just like the occupy movement.
  2. The government must stop closing libraries and encourage more children to read in every way possible; even if it comes to giving away books. This happens in developing countries where the level of literacy is higher than ours, for God's sake!
  3. Publishers must reconsider the pricing of books. Books are expensive compared to other media which children enjoy, much of which is free, like television, the Internet, radio, music and video games. There needs to be a range of cheap books aimed at less literate children to get them reading so they can later migrate to more difficult books for their age group.
  4. The pricing of e-books needs to be much, much cheaper (for the iPad etc.), with all kinds of promotional tools like the vouchers used by iTunes, which would be the modern equivalent of book vouchers.
  5. Reading books must be made more cool. Celebrities rated by children need to come out and encourage children to read.
  6. You should get involved in CILIP's advocacy work on school libraries and schools' library services, if you aren't already.
It's going to take a lot of effort to turn this devastating trend around. But for the sake of the next generation, we have to do it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Welsh music is refreshed by a wind from the east...

Several Welsh bands are experimenting with the Eastern European Klezmer tradition and finding intriguing parallels.

Klezmer is a strong part of a musical tradition that originates with the Ashkenazic Jews of Eastern Europe. It is lively dance music, infectious and laden with emotion - both happy and bittersweet but ultimately lifting the spirit.

Like traditional Welsh music, it has been largely passed on from generation to generation by example rather than written down.

Several Welsh bands are now experimenting with playing Klezmer and, in one notable case, hybridising the style with Welsh music.

Cardiff's Klezmer Kollectiv are an eight-piece who play all around the Cardiff area. They employ the traditional instruments of clarinet, accordion, bass and guitar, but also add cello, sax, trombone and cajon (a box containing a snare for percussion) to give a full, romping sound.

Similarly the Llanidloes-based Klezmonauts, while gigging less often, are educating audiences in this infectious dance style.

Machynlleth-based ex-Ember member Rebecca Sullivan is also experimenting with Klezmer at the monthly Ceinws acoustic sessions.

South Wales duo Fiddlebox, however, are unique in trying to meld that tradition with the Welsh one, and in so doing to redefine the boundaries of Welsh traditional music.

Fiddlebox claim to have invented a new musical style, which they call 'Klezreig' - a synthesis of Cymreig and Klezmer that is proving highly popular with audiences everywhere.

The duo are fiddle-player Helen Adam and George Whitfield on accordion. They have just recorded their second important album, On The East Wind, and will be launching it on 30th November at a special concert at Burnett's Hill Chapel, Martletwy, Pembrokeshire, at 7.30pm.

Nowhere is the Klezreig style better exemplified than by a Klezmer version of the traditional song 'Machynlleth' which, by being played in a Klezmer scale, immediately gains emotional poignancy.

This version arose from an improvisation at a party in Machynlleth, between Helen and Tony Corden, the guitarist and organiser of the politics and music festival El Sueno Existe.

I interviewed them at George's house in Narberth, Pembrokeshire, and wanted to know first of all about the story behind the title.

Helen began her answer by referring to one of the album's key tracks, The Girl From The East: "The Girl From The East takes its starting point as an English folk song, The Girl I Left Behind Me. I wrote three variations on it... the first of the variations is written in the Klezmer style".

George has a more poetic attitude to the identity of the Girl From The East. "She's got her eyes on her own country in Eastern Europe, but is dancing in these green hills of Wales!" he smiles. "The Girl From The East is actually Helen!"

Helen Adam is a quarter Lithuanian Jewish, and a quarter German, on her mother's side, a part of her heritage of which she is increasingly aware. So you could say she arrived in Wales on the east wind.

A recent visit to the Jewish Museum in Berlin led her to reconnect to her Jewish heritage.

"My grandmother emigrated to Germany and converted to Buddhism to marry a German Buddhist writer!" she says. "Then she left him and came with my mother to England and became a Catholic. But she ended her life in a convent in North Wales! The Klezmer track Hora Dorothea on our first album called, simply, Fiddlebox, is about her."

If you didn't know Fiddlebox was a duo, at times you'd think there were four of them, especially since they both sing.

This is in many ways also due to George Whitfield's ability to make his custom-made accordion, which is vital to the unique Fiddlebox style, sound like two instruments at once.

George had his accordion specially constructed by a top craftsman, Claudio Beltrami, in Stradella, Italy. It employs a unique bass switching system, designed to his specification, with an electric midi on board (that he doesn't use for the purely acoustic Fiddlebox), three rows of bass buttons that permit more complex bass lines and four sets of hand made reeds.

Together these produce a big sound with chunky chords, that is usually only achieved with larger concert accordions.

The bellows have a short delay time enabling a punchy reverb effect, which George uses eerily to open his song Simply Fly.

Helen and George are both immigrants to Wales, where they met, but they have made it their home.

Helen is fluent in Welsh and has represented Wales at the International Celtic Congress. Fiddlebox are a regular at events at the National Botanic Gardens and the Royal Welsh Show.

So, the Girl from the East "is happy to be here, but remembers her country," says Helen. "She feels an interloper, but that's how I present the Welsh material we play because I don't think I can pretend to be Welsh."

"We are trying to channel Welsh music through the prism of our own identities."

George nods. "We are doing what no one else is doing. I think it's a shame that Welsh culture has a lack of extension outside Wales, unlike Irish culture which extends all over world. One of the reasons for this is that there is a perception that Welsh music is just scales and arpeggios and we are trying to say it's not true."

Helen attributes this to the point at which Welsh music was written down. In fact, its historical development up to date seems to have gone through two phases.

Firstly, before the advent of Methodist religion, Welsh music was highly social, just like Klezmer, and centred around community celebrations, both seasonal and familial. It was jolly and upbeat.

In the eighteenth century, however, Methodist ministers frowned on such profane practices and the music became more sombre, or overtly religious. There are stories of musicians' harps being stowed away and falling into disuse.

Secondly, there is a feeling amongst some historians of music, such as Phyllis Kinney, author of Welsh Traditional Music, that the scale in which Welsh music was originally played was the Dorian scale, which contains notes similar to those used in seventh and minor chords.

However, when it came to be written down, by collectors such as D. Emlyn Evans and Llewelyn Alaw, there was a tendency to regularise it to fit with accepted musical theory. For example, seven-bar phrases might become eight-bar, and Dorian might become minor. This is how it is now played.

A further change is that originally tunes were closely associated with the lyrics, and thus followed the stresses and cadences of the Welsh language. Often, the original words are now lost, and this has contributed to a further regularisation of the tunes.

Therefore, in the past, it is likely that Welsh music would have had more emotional depth or breadth than it does now, perhaps something like the blues and gospel music.

Fiddlebox's Helen Adam offers her own angle on this: "For me, Welsh music must be robust enough to stand it own against others, and not have too much preciousness about it," she says.

The implication is that we need to keep an open mind about how to present this material. A culture is not static, instead changing in reaction to the times. Just as it has been forced to change in the past, nowadays, as Wales opens up to welcome visitors from abroad, this is bound to influence its culture and its music.

But Fiddlebox's new album is not entirely Klezreig. George Whitfield cites his influences as rock, country, blues and folk, while Helen also is classically trained and practices contemporary composition.

Between them they offer the full emotional range and some very catchy tunes, from George's upbeat Simply Fly to an update of the gruelling traditional English song Pills of White Mercury which is about syphilis in the 18th century.

George observes, "On the whole album, nothing was recorded that wasn't played live first, and much of it was played live for 6 months beforehand to make sure we had it down".

Fiddlebox were insistent that they wanted no special effects like echo or distortion. It would all sound exactly as it would at a live gig (watch them playing live below).

The album was recorded in an old Welsh chapel by producer David Unlimbo. The chapel also contained nesting swallows, and the mikes picked up their chirruping songs. Listen closely to the album and you can hear them, deliberately left in.

The swallows are gone now, blown on the east wind far away for the winter. Perhaps they are like the Girl from the East, and dream of their homeland. Except Fiddlebox's girl has made Wales her home, and Welsh music is all the more enriched for it.

Friday, December 09, 2011

An e-book, Hybrids update and more...

Boulder TV logo Here's a round up of recent news! Besides moving into my own custom built eco-studio, which I designed, and where I can now work surrounded by all my books at the bottom of the garden and be lovely and toasty warm with the superinsulation, triple glazed windows and underfloorheating, I've been a bit busy on other stuff:

• Boulder Media has now started work on visualisations of Hybrids in preparation for the proposed TV series. We're very excited and can't wait to see them!

• I've been commissioned to write an e-book on solar photovoltaics by a new publisher, Sedition. This will be a pilot for a whole series of e-books on sustainability topics. It only has to be finished by the 1st week in January!

• I'mNew Welsh Review December issue cover in discussions with Earthscan/Taylor & Francis for a new non-fiction book to be written next year on solar architecture.

• I've written an article on graphic novels, called What Pencils Were Made to Create. It's in the current issue of the New Welsh Review.

• I've finally finished the latest draft of his novel Stormteller (this is a link to a special website I made about it) which, along with my other recently completed novel, We Can Improve On You, is currently being read by the excellent David Fickling books. Fingers crossed!

• I gave a talk on solar PV at last month's Solar Flair '11 conference.

Solar Technology, The Earthscan Expert Guide to Using Solar Energy for Heating, Cooling and Electricity by David Thorpe
• My new book Solar Technology, The Earthscan Expert Guide to Using Solar Energy for Heating, Cooling and Electricity is doing well, as the seminal introduction to all solar technologies and practices, and solar energy itself. It covers solar space heating, architecture, water heating, solar cooling, solar power stations and photovoltaic electricity. It's full of pictures, and easy to read!

• You can now buy copies of this and my other books direct from me on my website's bookshop page!

• Of course, I am still producing daily news and weekly opinion pieces for the Energy and Environmental Management website.

On discipline...

These days, writers are supposed to be a brazen brand - masters of mobile and internet wizardry; and magicians of marketing!

It's easy for the time required for the craft of writing to be squeezed, and this has led me to consider the nature of 'discipline'. (And I don't mean perverse sexual practices!)

"Discipline" is a frequent topic of questions in interviews, as in that awful one: "It must take a lot of self-discipline to write a novel/be a writer..?".

Well, no, we tend to answer patiently... self-discipline is not an issue. If you really want to be a writer, actually you can't help it. In fact, you go crazy if you DON'T get the time to write.

Like, when unable to write for prolonged periods, I get to feel that I will start scraping the wallpaper off with my fingernails or yelling something deeply regrettable if I can't get back to it very soon.

OK, others might call it a form of mental illness, but, as anyone will know who has read biographies of many top entrepreneurs (like Steve Jobs), scientists or artists, this kind of obsessive-compulsive behaviour goes with the job description in many fields.

This is not to be considered weird! 

Now, I'm one of the lucky people who make most of their living from writing. I have to do several different kinds of writing to survive rather than just write fiction (my favourite form), and I feel that I've worked hard to be in this place.

Discipline as craft
Another meaning of the word 'discipline' is craft or skill.

For the past year, my work pattern has changed, involving a new discipline, and this has had an interesting effect on my writing.

Every weekday morning, I have to write an article, as soon as possible and usually within two hours, of about 700-1000 words, and post it on a web site.

This is an enforced discipline, but one that pays off well in terms of developing the discipline of the craft.

Typically, I have no idea before I start what the subject will be, and have to research it as I write it.

This type of journalism, for a specialist, largely business, audience, demands many qualities apart from accuracy and readability.

In particular, there is an instinct for what people want to read that no one else is providing, which can only come from knowing the field intimately.

There is also the kind of fluency that comes from being able to trust oneself that the process of writing at speed will result in something that isn't completely unintelligible and is of great interest to my readers.

This is a very different process from writing a novel, partly because it operates on a totally different timescale. It is topical, and so consumed, like a meal, within hours of preparation, after which it is likely to be forgotten; although one hopes that it will have greater influence, just as a top chef's creation may be talked about for long after it has disappeared.

The self-editing process is therefore different. When writing a novel, one can leave a draft for a few weeks so that, when re-reading it, one may see it afresh and notice errors and omissions that were obscured by the afterglow of creation.

Since adopting this new work pattern, and because I cannot expect my editor to spot my errors, I have developed new techniques to force myself to both edit as I write and to see my work freshly as if I had left it for weeks, even though it was only minutes. These techniques have fed into the novel-writing process.

I continually edit as I write, checking that I've said what I meant to say. I write in a text editor, not a word processor, so I can concentrate on the words alone, not be distracted by how they look.

I re-read and correct it, then copy and paste it into OpenOffice. I do the same there. Then I copy and paste that into TextEdit (I use a Mac) and repeat the process. Both of these have spell-checks that notice different words (OpenOffice doesn't check American spellings).

Each time I paste it into different software, it looks different, and my eye is forced to notice different things.

So I'll have read and re-read, continually correcting, this blog copy several times this way before posting it. Even so, I won't be surprised if someone spots a mistake!

There we have it: two types of discipline. One, that is about finding the time to write; the other, that is about the development of the craft.

Monday, October 17, 2011

This blog post has no title

I have just changed the title of the novel I'm currently working on.


I just can't decide on the right title. I almost feel like letting the publisher decide.

Just think how important the title of a book is. A good one will not only be memorable but make potential new readers actively seek out the book.

It will resonate in your head like a tuning fork. Stick in the mind like stubborn egg stains. Have an emotional punch like Mohammed Ali.

A good title even becomes an icon or a touchstone in its own right.

Catch-22. 1984. Brave New World.

It can also signify the genre.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
could not be anything but fantasy.

The Unquiet has to be a thriller.

It can be eponymous, like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary; or signify the theme, like Crime and Punishment or Pride and Prejudice.

Or it can be quirky, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, or The Knife of Never Letting Go.

And just silly and quirky, like Puckoon, or The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.

At the same time as thinking about this I'm reading an autobiographical monograph by Haruki Murashami called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

People, he says, often ask him if, while running, he is thinking about the novel he is currently writing.

"No," is his answer. Actually, he is thinking about nothing. Or, as he puts it, The Void.

Now, here is an interesting place. I love The Void so much I have a room permanently reserved there.

The problem is, I often lose my way when trying to reach it.

The Void is variously also known as The Still Point of the Turning World (T.S. Eliot), The Supreme Point Where All Contradictions are Resolved (André Breton and the Surrealist Manifesto), and The Uncarved Block (Chinese Taoist Art training).

In a world drowning in a surfeit of words, to which we are all, writers par excellence, fatally addicted, the Void is reached by taking a Journey to the East - which is East of Eden - by jumping off Brighton Rock, following the Songlines along the Road to Wigan Pier, through the Heart of Darkness, crossing the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, at the end (where else?) of The Road Less Travelled.

Not enough people go there.

It's quiet: in The Void you can't even hear yourself think.

Here, you can try without trying, be without wanting, start without stopping.

All opposites are reconciled like identical poles of a magnet brought together as if they were north and south.

And here, as Pierre Reverdy said, is the place where the most successful poetic images are generated.

"The image is a pure creation of the spirit. It cannot emerge from a comparison, but from the coming together of two distant realities. The more the relations between those two realities are distant and right, the stronger the image will be - the more it will have emotive force and poetic reality."

Is not this also what we require from a successful book title?

So what, you're hopefully wondering, is the title I have settled on (at least until a better one comes along)?

In truth, it's not one I thought of myself. I have my fiancée, Helen, to thank.

She, being a musician and composer, knows the Void well, since music is another conveyance that transports to it the sympathetic mind.

The rejected titles were: The Drowning. The Essence. The Ending.

The new one: Stormteller.

Would you pick up a book with such a title?

Friday, August 12, 2011

How I write my novels

I'm going to share with you very quickly how I write my novels.

I did a workshop on some of this in my local writers' group and people really appreciated it so perhaps others may find it useful.

[Yes, I said novels. Okay, I know I've only had one and a half novels published, but I have written a few more, plus several unproduced screenplays and published and unpublished comics or graphic novels, and have two novels in manuscript form ready for publication. So I live in hope that at least one more will be published one day...!]

So here goes.

The idea

Firstly I come up with the ideas, which may or may not include ideas for characters at the same time. The ideas have to be gobsmackingly mindblowing, and usually there are too many ideas, because you can't have too many ideas. Or is it that you can have too many ideas?

The idea usually involves a beginning. The problem is this means you need an end - a resolution in some form of the problem set at the beginning.

And if I don't have an end then I don't know where I'm going - rather like setting out on a journey without a destination in mind. I can have a nice time wandering around, but I might never get anywhere interesting.

The summary

Then I formulate the plot in four sentences. The first sentence summarises the setup (the problem which the protagonist must solve), the last sentence the resolution, and the middle two - well, I think you can guess.

For example, here's a stab at King Lear in 4 sentences: an abdicating king separates his kingdom between two hypocritical sisters, leaving a third, who loves him the most, unrewarded. Having retired, he and his retinue seek in turn the hospitality of the two sisters but they are not so pleased to see him. Their greed and unpleasantness is reflected in civil war in the country at large and the king falls into despair and madness. He finally realises that it was the third daughter who loves him the most, but by then it's too late and everyone dies.

As you can see, this synopsis leaves out rather a lot; it's more like a sketch.

One thing it leaves out is subplots; actually it's helpful to come up with the same kind of four sentence summary for each subplot.

Next, I draw a line and put the main plot points on the line. I then think of more plot points and add them to the line as well. I add as many plot points as I can fit onto the line!

Maybe I will draw another line that is longer.

The scene cards

Then, I dig out a pile of blank index cards. Each of these is going to contain a scene or plot point.

Using the line as a reference, I write all the points out, one on each scene card. This is the really fun bit.

Notice how both generating the line and the scene cards can be done non-linearly. This is great, because that's exactly how the creative mind works. It darts all over the place like a busy bee.

I'm looking at my cards and thinking: right, if this is going to happen in this scene, then this needs to happen in a scene much earlier, and I need to add another scene in between this scene and that scene.

Maybe I need to switch these scenes around.

And so on.

I spread all of the cards on the table - or maybe the floor if I don't have a table big enough. Now I can see the layout of the entire plot like a bird of prey scanning the landscape below!


I can switch the cards around, add more points as I think of them to each card.

To start with, the cards might just contain a quick summary of what happens at that point. Just scribbled notes. But if I think of a scintillating line of dialogue or a beautifully poetic descriptive phrase, I will add that to the relevant card rather than just hope I will remember it later.

Next, I will assign colours to characters, and colour appropriately every card in which a given character appears.

Usually, characters live only in particular plot strands. For example, minor characters usually hang out for the most part just in their little own sub-plot, suddenly popping up in the main plotline - most likely to knock it off kilter.

Now I can take out all of the cards that have a particular colour on, and check this particular character's journey through my narrative to make sure that it makes sense.

I can do the same with subplots.

Alongside all this, I will create character sheets, detailing as much as I can possibly know about each character, usually by interviewing them in my head pretending to be either a cop, private dick, journalist or maybe they are on Desert Island Disc and Jenny Murray is asking the questions!

To this, I will also add what
each character thinks of each other character. That way I know, should they meet each other in the narrative, what their attitude will be to each other.

If there is a particularly important McGuffin, that might have its own colour as well, and this is recorded on the relevant cards just so that I don't lose track of it and always know where it is. Even if my characters don't, I need to!

The first draft

Playing with the scene cards might take some time and only when I am completely happy that everything is down there and there are no plot holes, loose strands, or undeveloped characters will I embark on the first draft.

The fact that the plot and character development are already now sorted out, means that in writing the draft, I can concentrate purely on style - which words to use to best describe what I want to say, and come up with scintillating lines of dialogue.

At this rate, I can write one or two thousand words a day, either dictating or typing. (Sometimes I dictate, as I am doing now, using a voice recognition program which is much faster than typing although the style is usually more conversational.)

On a good day, if I have more than a couple of hours free to write, I can write 5000 words. This means that a 50,000 word young adult novel can be written in a month.

But that's only the first draft. I mustn't get too excited! Actually, I probably think this draft is the best thing I've ever written. But of course it isn't. The novel of which I have just sent the opening pages and summary to David Fickling, has been through 11 drafts. That process has taken three years.

A novel is not to be undertaken lightly - at least by me.


The editing process is the one which I find the most difficult. Seeing your work as others might see it is usually only possible after you have put aside for a while.

I try to fool myself that I haven't seen it before. I do the basic editing on-screen. Printing it out makes it look different and I notice a different set of things to correct.

The same thing happens when reading it aloud - an essential step - new mistakes become obvious.

I give it to as many people as I can who I think will provide constructive feedback. Sometimes this produces conflicting advice and I am plagued by indecision.

Different drafts must be given to different people so that they are reading it afresh.

Even printing it out in a different typeface in a different format can force my brain to look at it in a different way.

But there really is no substitute for putting it aside for some months and then coming back to see it, as if for the first time.

That's when I notice the really huge howlers and wonder how I could possibly have missed them the first time around.

It goes without saying that I will use a spell check, but this is a poor substitute for proper proofreading.

And it should be properly proofread after the very final draft before sending it away, and assuming that anybody could possibly have any interest in these words which I regard as vital but which in the huge ocean of words that are out there, comprise but an insignificant drop.

This is why I am never precious about my work and always open to any kind of constructive criticism and observation.

It all goes into the mix, it is all useful.

But ultimately, it is on my judgment that the strength of the finished piece finally rests.

The end - but in real life there are no endings - except the big one!

Did I say finished? That's a joke. I don't regard anything as ever finished. It is only the existence of the deadline enforced by the publisher that makes it so.

Why is it that musicians may keep on reinterpreting and changing a song or piece of music that they have written forever, and an artist may keep painting variations of the same image, but that even in subsequent editions, a writer is never allowed to change anything but the slightest semi-colon once it is in print?

[By the way, I'm happy to run workshops on this topic if anyone would find it helpful.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Lets celebrate a new library extension!

The new Foleshill library extension in Coventry
Here's some bright news in all the doom and gloom!

We've heard a lot about library closures - both in schools and in the community.

Earlier this month the outgoing Children's Laureate Anthony Browne warned society "will pay the price in the long term" for closing school and public libraries.

In a letter to his successor, Browne urged them to campaign against their closure. Browne said: "Do everything you can to support libraries – God knows, they need every bit of help they can get nowadays. I find it incredible and outrageous that public and school libraries are being forced to close – we'll all pay the price in the long term."

And Philip Pullman has been telling Wales Online that it's all due to the death of "post-war altruism" and everything being "measured and assessed by cost". He said: "This approach is tearing apart the invisible bonds of duty and loyalty, belonging and togetherness in the name of an ideology that nothing is more important than money."

He's largely right - but there are always counter-examples, and here is one I love - not only a new library extension but an inspiring one. Although it's not in Wales, it's not too far away - Coventry!

Foleshill library was originally built in 1913 and sits in a residential suburb.

And it's been renovated! Not only does it now have improved access for disabled visitors, the extension has created a meeting room and an events and activity room which means it can host story time and reader group sessions for children and be a base for activities hosted by a youth worker who is based at the library.

But what I really like is its curved back wall, designed to demonstrate the library's core theme of ‘imagination’.

It uses multi-coloured glazed bricks that are vertically stack-bonded to simulate library books, and to represent the multicultural diversity of the community.

Foleshill library wall with bricks in Morse code!

But the brilliant thing, which any kids interested in code will love, is that the bricks are positioned to spell a message in Morse code, with one white brick representing a dot and three coloured bricks representing a dash.

Can you work out what it is before I tell you?! Go on, have a go! The link above takes you to a page with Morse code spelled out! And if you click on the pics they will enlarge.

OK, here is comes...... See if you got it right!

The pattern of bricks repeatedly spells out the words ‘Supposing’, ‘I Wonder’ and ‘What If’!

Isn't that great? Isn't that how we all dream up our fictions, and what we hope we can inspire kids to do? Well, they do it automatically of course anyway!

Manfred Baker, a Partner at Rush Davis, the project's architect, told me: “It was important that the design of the building reflected the vibrancy of this multi-cultural area. By using coloured glazed bricks we were able to create a design that had real meaning and represented what the library was all about - imagination."

So remind me - why do we need libraries?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Richard Collins has The Quality of Lightness

Richard Collins book cover of The Quality of Light

Is it life that imitates art or art that imitates life?

Richard Collins new book, The Quality of Light [the link is to Amazon but they have the wrong cover!], out today, is his third novel, written three years ago, three years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

This beautiful, poignant work is constructed ingenuously around events that happen over six days both currently and six years previously.

It is about the effect of cities upon people, and how love can echo and change over time, constricted by the vagaries of coincidence and geography.

In fact, its original title was to have been Psychogeography for Beginners, but its final title is much more evocative.

One of the main characters, Michael, also suffers from Parkinson's. Richard writes obliquely and modestly about the effect it has on people through Michael's experience of it, although this is by no means a theme of the novel.

It is an insidious and progressive disease which punishes its victim with intermittent and unpredictable lashes.

Richard bravely fights the disease by remaining as active as possible, often cycling 40 miles in a day or walking up a mountain, yet on other occasions he can be stricken down so badly that he can't even get on a bus or stand up.

He is aware that if Waterstones were to offer him a signing, as they had before, he would have to decline, because he couldn't be confident that he could actually control his hand. I took him my copy to sign but had to leave it there until a moment arrived when it became possible for him to do so.

I love Richard dearly, he's one of my best friends. This deserves to be as much a success as his first, The Land as Viewed from the Sea, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread first novel award.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Don't buy a Kindle or shop at Amazon!

Woman reading a Kindle on the Tube
I've just been to London for a few days to promote my Sustainable Home Renovation book, and expected to see lots of e-readers in evidence on the Tube, but instead only saw ads for them.

Imagining if I had one, I realised I would probably be using it to skim read, not properly read, books with which I wanted to familiarise myself but not actually sink deeply into - which I'd still buy for real.

But if I bought an e-reader it would not be a Kindle, since Amazon is not on balance a benign influence on the publishing trade and writers' welfare.

For example, Amazon monitors your use of the Kindle. You are being watched and your reading habits reported back to their marketing department.
Big Brother is Watching You from Orwell's 1984
Furthermore, you don't own the e-books you purchase, only the right to browse them, and Amazon has the right to withdraw them from your Kindle without compensating you if its own rights over that book change. This famously and ironically happened with Orwell's 1984 - anyone who had downloaded it found suddenly that it disappeared from their machine with no compensation.

It's as if the bookshop owner came into your house one night and took back a book you'd bought from them.

In its T&C, Section 3, which deals with "Digital Content" (such as downloaded books), Amazon says that "Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party, and you may not remove any proprietary notices or labels on the Digital Content."

In other words, you are forbidden to lend or sell the book you've just "bought". You can't lend your copy of 1984 to a friend or donate it to the school jumble sale.

Moreover, you can't back up your electronic books on to any other device – which means that if your Kindle fails, or if Amazon changes its technical standard, your entire digital library will disappear (where are your audio cassettes now? but books last forever).

Amazon is bad for writers

What's more, Amazon squeezes royalty rates for writers in its deals with publishers, so the more bookshops go out of business as a result of its price squeezing, the less royalty we get even if we were to sell more books.

It also encourages the purchase of second hand copies on which we get no royalty at all.

So I don't have Amazon links on my website, because they'll buy a copy that someone is selling for 1p plus postage. Instead I let people purchase directly from me using PayPal the copies I buy from my publisher at discount, so I make substantially more per sale - although of course I recognise most people opt to buy a copy for 1p from Amazon rather than a £5 one from me.

I recently redesigned George Monbiot's website and initially put in links to Amazon so people could buy his books there. After we had a conversation about this the anti-capitalist campaigner opted to remove the links and let people buy wherever they chose - and for example support their local bookshop - surely a good idea - even if he lost sales as a result.

Come on, let's not conspire as writers against our own interests, however seductive the temptation is! And readers - think about how writers need to eat before you buy that book from Amazon!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Hybrids is optioned for film/tv!

Boulder TV
The film & tv rights to my novel 'Hybrids' have been optioned by Dublin-based production company Boulder Media's rights holding sister company, Beholder. Am I happy? You bet!

It seems ages ago when I was so lucky that the novel won a competition to find a new children's author. First published in 2007 it is currently being reprinted with some very nice review quotes on the cover.

'Hybrids' takes place in the near future, when the nation is in the grip of a virus that causes its victims to become fused with technology, creating 'hybrids' - people neither wholly human nor machine.

Johnny (half-computer) and Kestrella (her hand is a mobile phone) unite to find Kestrella's missing mother as the Government's Gene Police hunts down hybrids, sending them to the sinister Centre for Genetic Rehabilitation. Their quest takes them to the heart of a conspiracy.
Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends
Boulder is well known as the service studio behind shows such as the witty and wacky (and multi-award-winning) 'Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends' and has recently completed work on Cartoon Network Europe's upcoming "live-action/animation 2D and 3D hybrid" 'The Amazing World of Gumball', which is pushing the boundaries of what is technically possible. How come young children get the most surreal telly?

The Amazing World of Gumball

Beholder says 'Hybrids' is "a compelling, thought-provoking sci-fi thriller" which it sees becoming "slick, gripping, older children's 'event' television".

[Incidentally I recently had an invitation to go and run workshops in a girls' technology school in Birmingham where the teachers, librarian and their kids had all read Hybrids. They said "We will be using Hybrids as a perfect example of a modern science fiction book". Wow.]

Anyway, Boulder's producers are Peter Lewis & Anne Tweedy and the Emmy-nominated Robert Cullen is to be the director.

I'd like to thank HarperCollins' Head of Licensing and Content Development, Melanie Beer for her great patience and help in negotiating the deal.

Look, I am trying not to get too excited about this - I have been here more than once before with a previous tv series, Doc Chaos, which was optioned and was nearly produced three times, twice for Channel Four and once for Warner Bros TV. But the vagaries of funders and producers meant the dice didn't land 'yes'-side up on those occasions.

I know that nowadays it is harder than ever to secure development finance. However I believe Anne and Pete are very serious and they have a proven track record of making the utmost effort to secure the backing required - which includes getting the toy people on board.

Just imagine model Johnnies and Kestrellas!

And, er, the computer game. Which surely undermines the watch-out-for-technology message of the book?

Let's not go there.

Pete and Annie are also open to team working, and I really hope we can keep whatever emerges true to the spirit of the book.

The tv series would hopefully encompass the whole story arc that continues from book one through the as-yet-unpublished other two books in the series. HarperCollins have indicated they will publish these when/if the series is to be broadcast.

We've discussed whether the treatment should be live action or animation. I said that although I love animation, especially Japanese anime such as Stand Alone Complex (the video above is a live-action-CGI composite from Animax TV), I have always seen Hybrids as live-action with CGI. Luckily, Pete and Anne agreed.

So now is the long wait - which could take years - to find out if Creep, the hybrid virus, will ever infect a screen near you!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Libraries are important because...

Up to 800 libraries are faxed with the axe in the coming days. The Government back-down over Booktrust over Christmas, and its watering down of tuition fees, shows that it is not immune to pressure.

But here's some good news, from The Bookseller:

A simple tweet from a Shropshire ICT lecturer musing on libraries while doing her laundry of a Sunday morning resulted in the hashtag #savelibraries trending worldwide yesterday.

"Libraries are important because ... [fill in your answer & RT] #savelibraries", Mar Dixon tweeted. More than 5,000 people responded spontaneously to her invitation, which was retweeted by, among others, Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman.

Top tweets under the hashtag include @genrelibrarian's, retweeted by Neil Gaiman and more than 100 others: "Google can bring back a hundred thousand answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one." Other most retweeted comments include @JoannaCannon's "Libraries are important because, as a child, some of my best friends lived within the pages of a book" and actor Samuel West as @exitthelemming's "Times says Govt. report wants children to be 'school ready'. Perhaps not closing libraries would be a good start?" Radio and TV presenter Lauren Laverne also got involved this morning, tweeting: "Knowledge is power and all that but our libraries need us to help defend them". So too did comedian Robin Ince, asking "do you remember the first book you took out of the library?"

Hundreds more offered personal perspectives. @flangelina_iow wrote: "Library books fed my passion for reading as a child. Please don't steal these moments from our children, they are our future!" while @bootbrush wrote: "I learned more by exploring knowledge in the library than I ever did at school."

Dixon, an American living in Bridgenorth in Shropshire, said the reaction to her tweet was totally unexpected. "It was not a planned campaign," she said. "My day was doing the laundry and going to the shops and writing my assignment and taking back the dog we'd been dog-sitting. But I read a news piece online about libraries closing which I thought was very London-based, so I tweeted to invite people to give their own take on libraries. One person retweeted it, then another, and @Ukpling [the Twitter address for campaign group Voices for the Library] also got involved. When Neil Gaiman picked it up it really took off in the US, where they also have this plight with libraries hit by cuts."

The hashtag was also picked up in Portugal and Italy, and was world trending in second or third place by Sunday mid-afternoon, Dixon said. "It's reached over 5,000 tweets and is still going today, but I've got to teach this morning so I'll check in with it tonight," she added.

The Bookseller has launched a campaign to oppose the "wantonly destructive cuts to the national library service".

Called Fight for Libraries, the campaign will be centred around a Facebook site where news about library cuts and opposition to them will be reported, and which will also function as a hub for all news, sites and information on the struggle against library cuts. The site will operate from and on Twitter at

Monday, January 17, 2011

Save Theatr Powys from the cuts!

Theatr Powys and Mid Powys Youth Theatre have just had their funding cut by the Arts Council of Wales. Please sign this petition against this act of cultural vandalism!

This group has provided consistently high quality drama for young people for many many years. They are one of the last Theatre in Education touring companies in the UK. Their abolition is part of the Coalition Government's attack on culture, education and literature.

Children's education benefits immensely from this kind of work. I've seen them many times. Their last show ever, The man who walked through walls, is on tour in mid-Wales.
poster for The man who walked through walls by Theatr Powys
Do go and see them and sign the petition please.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The ghosts of stories

We were talking in my Future Visions Book Group last night about this, at one point talking about hunter-gathering peoples and their oral traditions. Adam Thorogood mentioned The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin, and how the aborgines of Australia encode information necessary for the continued survival of their tribes and clans in ways that embed individuals in their landscape, their ancestry and the flora and fauna that surrounds them.

This type of racial memory is the trans-generational correlate of DNA - instinctive memory that promotes survival down the generations. I'm not trying to be reductionist, but it's marvellous to me how the origin of stories lies here - how the human imagination can construct a marvellous epic like an Oddysey or Gilgamesh unconsciously from this basic drive.

Songlines and other oral stories are no less great for not being written down, and it's sad to think that whenever an indigenous tribal culture is destroyed by 'development' or colonialism or commercial interests all their oral tradition is lost too.

Of course, this happened in Wales - when the Romans came and massacred the Druids in 61AD, who were the guardians of the oral tradition. Then the country was Christianised. Both of these cultures destroyed the original oral tradition which is why there are no gods in the Mabinogion, only kings, prices and bards, with quasi-magical powers.

If you squint, you can see that these characters are pale shadows perhaps of Gods and Goddesses in earlier stories, lost hundreds of years earlier in the sieve of tribal memory.

Some of the druidic stories made it to Ireland, but even there, after centuries of disapproval from Christian priests, the gods were demoted to the Tuatha de Danaan.

So the Celtic tradition has no Thor, Odin or Freya. Instead in the British Isles we take our gods from later conquerors, the Viking Norsemen. They gave us our day names - Thursday for Thor, Wednesday fore Odin, or Woden, Friday for Freya or Frigga. The Romans gave us Saturn-day. Our pagan roots are revealed in Moon-Day and Sun-Day. Tiu'sDay belongs to a Germanic God of War.

What would our day names be if the Druids and Boudicaa had never been conquered, or if they had discovered writing, I wonder?