Thursday, 22 September 2011

Am I publishable?

Recently a friend suggested to me that instead of stressing myself with the long slog of trying to find an agent, I should self-publish online.  It was a useful suggestion, in so far as it helped me to clarify why I don't want to do that.  This may sound odd, because goodness knows I don't write with any expectation of making my fortune, and fame isn't much of a stimulus to me either.  I write for love; the love of writing, the love of story-telling, and the love of words, and so on the surface the suggestion I should self-publish electronically was not unreasonable. 

But it is the second of those three loves that gives me the clue to my answer.  I am a story-teller first and foremost (or at least, I think I am! - but that's another question...).  I don't mind if I have to have a "day job" for the rest of my life, I'm not in this for the money.  But if my writing is published, I want it to be read.  I want it to be available to anyone who might enjoy it - and I mean available in a genuine rather than a superficial sense; I want people who enjoy reading to be able to find it, obtain it and read it, through straightforward and familiar routes and normal outlets, and via channels where there is a certain guarantee of quality.  At the moment, that still means conventional publishing and conventional bookshops, and the online equivalents such as e-book sales as offered by conventional publishers.

In twenty years' time it may be different, but at the moment, as I see it, that's the state of affairs.  Indeed, I find it hard to imagine it changing significantly for a long time, if ever.  I don't mean that I think electronic publishing generally is going nowhere - that obviously isn't the case.  But online self-published material comes without the safety net (from the readers' PoV) of having received an objective assessment; anyone can stick their writing online, and if it's no good (or even absolutely NBG) that is no impediment to them.  At the moment, I can't see how a framework can ever develop, within the field of online self-publishing as a whole, for guaranteeing the quality of the writing.  Perhaps eventually there will come to be recognised "better" online self-publishing outlets, alongside places where anything at all can be issued.  Yet any system administered by the writers themselves has many possible problems and weaknesses.

In conventional publishing that framework for assessment already exists, and has done for years.  It may be flawed in places (is any system devised by and administered by people truly flawless?) but it's there and by and large it works. 

So if I want to be read, by more than a handful of people, I need to be published, and so I am left with the slog. 

Dear XXXX, I enclose the synopsis and sample chapters of my novel blah for your kind attention... Followed by a three month wait (or longer) to get another polite "No".   And this is when I find I am asking myself again if maybe I am unpublishable.  I simply don't know if what I write is sellable.  I think it's readable (I know I would, but still, trying hard to be unbiased, I think it is).  But is it commercially viable?  Because that remains the bottom line for the conventional publishing industy.  It was in the nineteen-fifties, when my mother worked at the Bodley Head, and it still is now.  Will I ever get anywhere, or am I wasting my (& everyone else's) time?  My lack of self-confidence drags me down into another patch of mild, insidious depression at the thought.  And I give another sigh and then I plug on, because in the end there is nothing else I can do.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Oh England, my England...

How grey and damp it feels here, how cold, how flat.

The temperature on Thassos was about 33 degrees C, almost fifteen degrees hotter than here, and the humidity was about half this.  The sky was huge and blue and the sea like sapphire (albeit rather rough at first - I was semi-surfing rather than swimming for a couple of days).  My studio had a view across olive groves to the sea, one way, and across olive groves to the mountains in the other direction.  At night, the full moon shone on the mountainside like fairy dust, and fireflies hung in the trees.  Swifts and swallows, which had left the UK a couple of weeks ago, swooped over the valley at morning and dusk, and the terracotta roof tiles housed a cheerful sparrow colony.

I ate too much, and probably had too many cold beers.  I swam (or hurled myself about in the breakers) every day.  I did some rather bad watercolours, and read a nice fat fantasy novel, and did a bit of walking and a lot of sitting looking at the view.  I took a tour into the mountains by jeep, bouncing along unsurfaced tracks to a deserted village, a beautiful country church with a fifteenth century painted iconostasis, a hidden mountain lake, spectacular stands of old-growth forest full of birds and wildflowers and with resin-perfumed air, and finally right to the very top of the tallest mountain, Ipsario - which is slightly higher than Mt. Snowdon. 

England feels so grey, so dark, so damp and cold in comparison.  London seems all grey concrete and grey faces, yellow brick and yellowing leaves.  Greece is blue and white and brilliant gold and clear green.  Greece is light itself, and England is dimness and the approach of winter.

Last night I had booked a ticket for the first night of a new dance adaptation of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis".  I had a feeling I might have post-holiday blues (and boy was I right!).  It was good to remind myself, with supper at Patisserie Valerie and a trip to the theatre, that after all it is not the end of the world to have had to come home. I think there are probably very few minor blues that would not be eased at least a little by eggs benedict and buttered spinach, fresh-pressed orange juice, tarte aux framboises and a hot chocolate, followed by Edward Watson being a giant beetle.  Edward Watson coated in treacle, what's more.

But oh, how dark and damp it is in my own country.  A part of my heart belongs in Hellas, and cannot credit it has to live here... 

Friday, 9 September 2011


On Sunday morning I’m flying out to Greece for a week; after eight years, I’m finally going back to the lovely northern Aegean island of Thassos.   I would have preferred, truth to tell, not to fly this Sunday, as I imagine that airport security will be even more hectic than usual on September the 11th.   But as things worked out, that’s the day the holiday begins.  Charter flights to Thassos are on Sundays; end of story.

To be precise, it’s a charter flight to Alexander the Great Airport, which is on the mainland at Kavala. From the airport there’s about a thirty minute journey to the small port of Keramotí.  From Keramotí, opposite Thassos, another thirty minutes by ferry takes one to Limenas, the main town of the island.  From there, about another thirty minutes takes one to where I am staying, the resort of Chrisi Amoudiá, aka Golden Beach.  The name says it all, really; Chrisi Amoudiá has one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen.  I tried to upload a picture, but blogger has come over all queer and won't let me.  Never mind...

In forty-eight hours I’ll be there - what a blissful thought.   I will have stood at the bow of the ferry, watching the silhouette of the island approaching; the little white and terracotta town, the green hills behind, the central mountains soaring above.  I will have walked down onto the white marble quay, and been put in a coach and driven up across the nearest ridge of hills, and have been deposited at my studio.  I will have discovered what the view from my window is like, the view I will live with for the next week.  I will have sorted out how far it is to the nearest minimarket, to the nearest cafés and tavernas.  And I will have walked down to the beach, and swum in the warm, blue Aegean Sea.

See you all when I get back!

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Mists and mellow fruitfulness...

Or not-so-fruitful-ness, as the case may be...  It is quite misty today, and there are distinct signs of autumn foliage appearing, but fruitful is one thing this year ain't.

So far this summer I've had a good crop of beans, some rather wambly Swiss chard, and about eight tomatoes from the garden.  Of the eleven tomato vines I planted, two succumbed to blight a couple of weeks ago without ever producing a single fruit, three more now appear to be going down with blight, with fruits at no more than pinhead-size, four are producing a small number of very green, undersized fruits that by the looks of them ought to be swelling into big Marmande types (but aren't, because of the weather), and two are bearing, albeit only modestly.  

The two that are bearing are producing a bland, golf-ball-sized tomato like something from a bad supermarket.  I bought the plants from someone at work who thought they were a yellow cherry tom; sorry, Class 47 Student, wrong tom. 

The four that are attempting to make tomatoes were a gift from The Crazy Intern; she wasn't sure what variety they were, as she'd had a label-mix-up at the seed sowing stage.  Hi, TCI - by the looks of it they're a slow and deliberate cousin of Marmande.  I doubt if they'll produce anything before October, though.

The ones that died, and their sibs that are possibly also dying, are in theory Sweet Millions, a favourite of mine, but they look nothing like it.  SM usually makes a thick vine that splits into two or more stems very early on, has rather sparse foliage, and produces prolifically, with long racemes of forty or more delicious, scarlet cherry toms per raceme.  What I have got are lanky, sickly, one-stemmed vines with big, potato-like foliage and a few tiny clusters of flowers, growing in bunches rather than SM's usual slender, necklace-like racemes.  I'm not sure I would want to eat the fruits even if they did produce any, they look so odd.

So I am not a happy veg gardener this autumn.  And as I'm going away for a week from Sunday, I'm going to scrap the sick vines altogether before I go, in the hope of salvaging something from the others when I get back.  There may not even be enough to make green tomato chutney...

Still, Jane gave me a huge bag of apples from her garden, and they are superb.  If nothing else, it seems to be an apple year.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

A shaggy dog memory

In my lunch break I was looking for a picture of a cute dog to send to someone, and I found this handsome fellow. Isn’t this a beauty? It’s a breed called a Schapendoes, originally a sheep-dog from the Netherlands.

We had a lovely dog when I was a kid; he was a mongrel, but he was very like this breed, so much so that the picture above gives me a lump in the throat. It could almost be Goodie. I have such happy memories of Goodie...

Goodie was half Welsh Border Collie, half unknown. He stood a bit less than two feet high at the shoulder, and had a long, plumy tail and a thick coat in a mixture of white, blue-black and brown, in blotches. In a snowy field he was perfectly camouflaged. He had a droopy moustache, like a Schnauzer, a stocky body and “feathers” on his legs, like a Springer Spaniel, and the copious facial hair of an Old English Sheepdog. Up through that thick hair a pair of melting brown eyes would stare up at you; the great plumed tail would begin to thump the instant he knew he had your attention, and if you said “Double you, ay, ell kay” he would begin to bound around the room with excitement, having long ago learned to associate the syllables with their meaning.

He was a very bright dog, though he proved completely untrainable. When he lost my mother once on an evening stroll, he went and sat outside the corner shop, by the dog chains; mum had been carrying her shopping basket, he knew that meant she was going to the shop as well, so he was being pretty logical. Since mum had by then come home in hysterics wailing “I’ve lost the dog, he ran off!” it didn’t go quite as planned, but within ten minutes Mr Searle the grocer had rung to say “Mrs Dent, I’ve got your Goodie here, outside the shop waiting for you,” so it worked in the end.

There was something missing, though. When he was about two we discovered he was blind in one eye, and this must have affected him, yet one was only aware of it occasionally. The most obvious way his partial blindness manifested was in his inability to judge distances, and that had one very odd side effect. In the winter, if Goodie stood near the gas fire, he could only judge how close he was if it was on his good-eye side. He could be standing with his rump almost literally in the fire, but his coat was so thick that he didn’t feel the heat. There he would be, tail swaying amiably against the safety bars, with a column of smoke rising. The smell of burnt dog would fill the room, and a few moments later he would suddenly notice. By spring each year his rear was patterned with scorch marks.

I was eight when Goodie came to live with us - a gangly one-year-old, not really an adult dog but not quite a puppy anymore - and twenty three when we lost him. Sixteen is a good age for a medium-sized dog, and he had had a full life. In his last years, arthritic and white-muzzled, he could still terrify unexpected visitors with his huge, deep-chested bark and habit of rearing up in excitement. People were so taken aback by the noise and the obvious effort it cost one of us to restrain him, they seldom noticed the madly wagging tail at the other end.
He had slept at the foot of the stairs for sixteen years, heaving himself out of the way with a grumble if someone had to go down. Even now, if I’m staying at my mum’s, it can sometimes feel odd not to find my foot landing on fluffy dog in the middle of the night.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Tired again, Friday again...

Yesterday I got another rejection note. This one was not for GY but for "Ramundi's sisters" - its first. It was courteous, even friendly, and a very quick response, all of which I appreciate, but the agent in question said the writing didn't grab her imagination. For the first time, a rejection note left me feeling really, really flat.

Up until now I've been rather proud of how well I was taking the prolonged application process and all the rejections. I suppose that was bound to slip, at some point. Now a wave of depression arrives, and I find myself thinking "Maybe I'm unpublishable" and feeling altogether really low-spirited. Maybe I am unpublishable. I think my writing is good; but then, a large number of staggeringly untalented people think that about their own writing, so maybe I am simply as delusional as them. Maybe I am unpublishable despite being a competent writer, simply because what I produce is completely uncommercial. Maybe I am wasting my time. Maybe I should just hide under a stone; go in the garden and eat worms, as my grandfather used to say...

Last night I was at the Prom given by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Interesting experience... I never thought I'd see a Prom turned into a political demonstration. Naive of me, I suppose.

It was certainly naive of me not to think about the political connotations when I booked, and invited several other people; I had my cultural blinkers on, and was simply thinking "That's a fun programme, and Gil Shaham is playing; I love Gil Shaham, ergo I must go to this." It literally never crossed my mind that there might be trouble (I guess I share my Dad's attitude that "Musik ist eine heilige kunst").

There were a couple of small "Free Palestine" and "Support Israel no-matter-what" demos outside the Royal Albert Hall when I arrived, but they were both being very civilised; making their point in a calm way without any aggressive behaviour, simply reminding everyone coming in that there are complex issues involved and people who feel strongly about them. But then first of all someone handing out leaflets began to abuse my stepmum Jane after she told them she's a Quaker - I know people get very hot-headed when they are passionate about a cause, but telling someone they cannot call themselves a Christian and will be damned and spat upon by God because they disagree with you is out of line.

Then, when we got inside, we found that a good number of people in the hall had bought tickets solely in order to disrupt the performance as much as possible, seemingly with at least partly the intent of causing not only the maximum noise and interruption but also the maximum of provocation to the remainder of the audience. As Maestro Zubin Mehta readied himself to conduct each piece, people would stand up around the auditorium, and shout and carry on, condemning Israel and chanting "Free Palestine!". As each protester was escorted out (or carried out, in a couple of cases) another one would stand up somewhere else. It was a well-planned demo, I must say that for it; but a pain in the neck nonetheless.

By the time of the (I think) seventh outburst, from a guy quite near where we were sitting, the level of ill-feeling against the protests had reached the point where another member of the audience stood up and began pushing the protester down into his seat with considerable force - he was subsequently ejected alongside the protester, whereupon other members of his party began to make their own protests, the gist of which was that he had been justified, and two of them were then asked to leave as well. The bulk of the audience were just muttering and booing at yet another disturbance, and began loudly shushing both the protesters and those who were shouting at them to shut up.

I doubt if more than a handful of the audience will have felt anything other than extremely angry with the cause of a free Palestine by the end. And it may be cynical of me, but I doubt very much if the irony will have registered with most of the angry people around me, that in having our normal life disrupted aggressively by strangers for no reason except their hostility towards the fact we were there, we were in fact experiencing a tiny, TINY taste of what it is like to live under an aggressive occupation.

It is a pity, though, since this was exactly the kind of situation where a positive impression could have been made on people who hadn't been really thinking about the issues. Instead the impression most of them will have come away with was of a bunch of loudmouths being arsey. Presumably the opportunity for wide publicity at minimal cost of effort and time over-rides the seriously counterproductive effect on the actual audience on the night.

I am saddened by the cynicism of attacking a soft target like the Proms, rather than the people who actually make the decisions. Governments have legal representatives on foreign soil; their embasssies. Outside an embassy is the proper place for a demo against the government of the country in question. Vide the group outside the Zimbabwean embassy in the Strand, patiently making their point, day after day. But that demo will be a long, hard slog, possibly requiring years of work to really get the publicity mill rolling... Whereas this one was loud, quick and dramatic, easily staged, and didn't result in anyone getting hurt or arrested, and I learned this morning that it achieved its goal of getting the BBC outside broadcast taken off-air partway through.

The orchestra, who I fear must be pretty hardened to this sort of thing when they play abroad, were consummately professional and played on throughout, extremely well. Gil Shaham was of course absolutely wonderful. And even in such strange circumstances, it was still good to see Jane, and The Crazy Intern, and TCI's nice fella G., and The Ginger Scotsman. And we had some fabulous Booja-Booja raspberry truffles at the interval. Interesting, weird evening.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

After the four days...

It’s hard sometimes coming back to work after a Bank Holiday weekend. I took an extra day off this time, which gave me four days to flop. The problem is that that’s enough time to begin to relax, but not really to recharge; one needs a few days to get right down the hill, as it were, before one can begin to come up again. So I came back to London yesterday thoroughly relaxed but not much recouped.

The gynae problems took advantage of my relaxing to come on again, and I ended up having to talk to my mother about them before I had planned to (I’ve learned over the years that presenting Mum with a problem without also having a solution in place is simply inviting her to worry, and then work herself into a state of misery trying to find a solution and force one to implement it). I think when my GP gets to the bottom of it (pun not intended, sorry!) the issue is probably going to come down to my age and my hormones; but as I’d feared, Mum is now convincing herself that it’s going to be cancer or coronary heart disease or some other horror. I’ve provided various samples to my doctor and have another appointment next week, at which I fully expect to be told that A) I have had a bacterial infection and B) my oestrogen levels are down. We’ll see, anyway.

It was still good to chill out at Mum’s and do very little.

My brother Steve collected me from work on Friday evening, in the middle of a dramatic thunderstorm. Strangely, despite the atrocious weather and the fact it was the eve of a bank holiday weekend, we had a very smooth easy drive down to Kent. This time last year, trying to do the same journey, the traffic heading south through Richmond and Kingston was barely crawling; after leaving Kew by 5.15 we found ourselves just outside Banstead at about 9.00pm, and parked up for a while in the large Asda supermarket there to get a sandwich and a drink, use the loo, and stretch our legs, before embarking on another two hours drive to Canterbury. Kew to Banstead, about fifteen miles, had taken us over 3 ½ hours - we could have walked it quicker. So this year we set off with a certain frisson of dread, and the speed and ease of the journey was all the more wonderful for it.

Saturday – what did we all do on Saturday? Lie in, lazy breakfast, bit of light gardening, lazy lunch, walk by the sea, tea and cake, large G&T, supper with a bottle of wine. Sunday? The same, with a giant crossword thrown in. Monday, which was Mum’s birthday, same again, only with Stephen and me doing all the cooking. And Tuesday?- still more laziness and another walk by the sea, and for me another G&T (Steve was driving). Then the drive back to London, which again went off smoothly and in excellent time.

Now I’m back at work, and the weather is okay, and I was able to spend my lunch break today sitting in the sun eating rice cakes and melitzanosalata among the magnificent semi-hardy tropical flowers of the Duke’s Garden. The taste of melitzanosalata takes me back with a lovely sensual swoop of memory to Greece, and reminds me that in ten days I’ll be flying out to Thassos for a week. The weather in Kavala (nearest weather station the BBC link up with) at the moment is hot and dry – averaging 28 degrees with about 30% humidity and clear skies. The place I’m staying is five minutes’ walk from the magnificent beach of Chrisi Amoudia. I will swim and read and paint watercolours, and sit at beachside cafés, and relax again… for a whole week… and I can hardly wait.