Wednesday, 29 February 2012

How long does it take to make a picture book?

Finally! This week I am picking up a box full of copies my picture book from the printers. I’m not sure quite how I am going to get them all home, but that is a minor practical issue compared with the obstacle course that has been getting this far.

This book really began when I went on my first writing course at Ty Newydd, the National Writing Centre for Wales. The course was entitled 'New leaves on an old tree; rewriting myth and legend.' I took along a short story I'd written that had the feel of a folktale about it, and got my first proper critical feedback from Kevin Crossley-Holland. He also advised me that if I wanted to use the story for a picture book, I had to reformat it fit 16 pages and edit it down to under 1,000 words.

It was on that course that I first felt like a writer, largely thanks to Kevin, and I took his advice seriously, cutting more than 50% of the word count and dividing the story into 16 chunks. At the time, this was incredibly hard. I wasn't used to this business of 'killing your darlings' but I forced myself, driven by my first tiny taste of self-belief.

I half-heartedly looked out for illustrators over the next couple of years, but I didn't really know what I was doing. I thought about submitting the words alone to publishers to find an artist, but I wasn't sure whether I wanted my words to end up accompanying someone else's images. I considered commissioning someone to do the artwork for me, but I wasn't going to be able to offer them much in the way of payment. Because the story was one of my first that I really felt pleased with, I was too attached to it to let the world take over.

Then in 2011 the talented Suzy Taylor taught me how to papercut at an evening class at The Make Lounge, and everything clicked. It was the perfect medium to illustrate a folktale, and I could sort of do it. That in itself was odd, given that my drawings are hopeless, but something happened when I held a knife instead of a pencil. It felt like a sign.

Sixteen papercuts later, I thought I was done. How I laugh at that innocent earlier version of myself. Since then, there have been photographing sessions, many weeks of grappling with versions of InDesign, forays into fancy fonts, print trials and proof copies, more InDesign tutorials from my patient brother, the kind of fury that only Windows print drivers can produce, and now, three years since I wrote that story, a book.

Where this story will go next, who knows? Some publishers will be receiving copies of my hand-made book in the post. If none of them like it, I might just get myself an ISBN and send it out into the world myself. For now, I’m happy waving it my self of three years ago and saying, you didn’t expect that, did you?

Monday, 27 February 2012

The student, the police woman and the big bad bank

A friend of mine recently stopped a police woman on the beat in Dalston, East London. “I need to make a complaint,” he said. “What about?” she asked. “Theft. My bank, Lloyds, has been stealing my money from me for the last two years and nothing I do seems to stop them. I want to report it.”

“Oh, I’m very sorry,” came the reply. “I don’t think we can deal with those kinds of complaints. You’ll have to take it up with the bank.” When my friend retorted that he had, repeatedly, but Lloyds continued to force him into positions where they knew he would incur further charges, the police woman laid a sympathetic hand on his arm. “You know, I’ve had the same problems with my bank,” she said. “I know what it’s like, but there’s nothing that we can do to help. Good luck,” and she went on her way.

I’ve watched the saga of this friend’s bank account with Lloyds from the sidelines and their treatment of him has been nothing short of outrageous. Despite three years of being a full-time undergraduate student, they refused to provide a student overdraft, instead levying a £35 charge every time an automatic payment put him even £1 into the red. They would then take a further charge for every single day that he remained over his limit, making it harder and harder for someone with a sporadic part-time income to make it back into the black and thus halt the charges. Students are supposed to be prioritising their studies, not fighting daily battles with bank managers.

The last time that he asked, yet again, for an overdraft of a measly £100, the bank said that the only way they could consider this was if he deliberately let himself go overdrawn, thus incurring another £35 charge, so that his need for an overdraft would be evident. Of course there was no guarantee that upon doing this he would be granted the overdraft, so he was being asked to pay at least £35 for the chance that his request might be successful. The likelihood of this looked extremely low on the basis of three years of overdraft refusals from the same bank. The request from Lloyds that he do this looks as though it should be illegal, if it isn’t already.

Yes, there are financial ombudsmen. Yes, customers of some banks are now being given the opportunity to claim back unfair overdraft charges. But if English is your second language, and you are a student with little experience of the personal banking system, it seems completely unfair that the onus should be on you to chase after the money that has been unjustly taken from you by a bank. Especially one that is awarding £375m in bonuses to its staff after a year in which it has made a loss of £3.5bn.

Even the hardiest and most experienced account-holders amongst us find it difficult to navigate the labyrinth that is so-called customer service from many high street banks. My friend has spent many, many hours in branches of Lloyds, trying to understand what they are doing with his money and why. It is reasonable to expect that a customer be aware of terms and conditions that come with financial services, but trying to stop the bank from taking half of his miniscule wages has become like a second part-time job for this unfortunate Lloyds customer. We know he is not the only one. Personal banking structures and charges hurt most those who can afford it least – those constantly negotiating the line between the red and the black. My friend was right: this should be a matter for the police.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan... Ulysses take two

Reading Ulysses is like plunging from a cliff into deep water

I have not read War and Peace. Nor Crime and Punishment. I failed to finish both Midnight’s Children and A Suitable Boy. My Proust box-set of A La Recherche... is still pristine, waiting until I am old enough to enjoy it rather than lose patience with the protagonist halfway through book one. 

So it might seem odd that I am spending considerable time this year poring over James Joyce’s Ulysses for the second time in my life. I’m sure I only finished it the first time thanks to circumstances.

Ten years ago, in Zipolite on the West coast of Mexico, I stood in the traveller’s book swap stall surrounded by discarded Grishams and ranked copies of The Alchemist, my hear sinking. I was an even worse literary snob then than I am now. I had tried both Grisham and Coelho and found them even harder to digest than the endless cheese quesadillas I was shovelling down my throat. The only ‘proper’ book I could see on the tipsy shelves was Ulysses, so I snapped it up.

I lugged it like a weighty prize all the way to a finca in Guatemala, where, struck down by a kind of intense lethargy (probably brought on by an excess of melted cheese) I lay in a hammock for a week, surrounded by dying fireflies that flickered on the ground around me like Christmas tree lights in a thunderstorm. While my brother traipsed off to leap through pitch black cave networks and poke at tarantulas with sticks, I turned pages, not stopping to check notes, letting the whole cacophony of Ulysses wash over me. By the end of each day I felt barely capable of coherent conversation, my head filled with the beautiful and often incomprehensible voices of that other world as I shuffled pieces around backgammon boards with my companions.

We devised more and more complex versions of backgammon, to keep ourselves interested, as Joyce seemed to devise more and more mischievous ways to melt my brain. I left that finca with only vague impressions of my surroundings (there was definitely an enormous cage full of monkeys, another of macaws, what else?), and an even vaguer one of what exactly happened to Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom on 16th June 1904.

It’s a bit different this time. I read and re-read, check for references I did not even know were there, read up on the responses to the novel of TS Eliot, Woolf, Pound. Then along with a group of equally nervous readers, I stand sticky-handed at a microphone and try to say something useful about Ulysses. We’re going to do this every month, producing podcasts to chivvy along other reluctant readers of Joyce’s literary challenge. When the first podcast gets out there I will have a quick cringe at the sound of my voice and then tell you more.

The plan at is to tackle an intimidating novel a year, so by 2015 I might be able to look someone in the eye when they ask me, “You know that bit in War and Peace when…?” If you too harbour guilty gaps in your reading history, take a look.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Spirituality, poetry and anti-spirituality

I am an atheist. I don’t mean the aggressive, religion-bashing kind, I just don’t have faith in a higher power. That is fine; I’m not hedging my bets with agnosticism.

When someone asked me recently to write an article about spirituality in poetry, I didn’t mention this fact. I dressed it up, internally, as an interesting angle from which to write about spirituality. If you don’t have any, maybe you can be more analytical, I thought.

The first poet I started talking to about this immediately denied having any herself – a ‘spirituality by-pass’ was the phrase she used. She gets all her wonder, her sense of connectedness, her transcendent moments, from the natural world.

This struck a chord. I began to think about those moments when you rise out of yourself, when the world spins your head or brings something in your soul into sharp relief. Poetry can do this, as can encounters with nature. In a non-religious sense, these are spiritual experiences, and even for an atheist they are everywhere.

Wonderful, I thought! I loosened up my concept of spirituality, began trawling through contemporary poetry, and realised that even poems about the most mundane situations, the tiniest moments of clicking with a feeling or sensing the universality of it, can have spiritual content. And if you are open to them, the same moments can occur as you witness the world around you.

There seemed then to be so much potential spirituality about, that I began wondering how I would narrow the field for an article of finite, indeed modest, length. This problem was sloshing about in my head when I was rudely interrupted by the buzzer in my flat pulsing repeatedly, and then when I lifted the handset an even ruder postman barking at me. I’m not a morning person, this made me grizzle and I thought, maybe there is something interesting in the notion of the opposite of spirituality. What are those experiences that are the opposite of the transcendental, the soul-illuminating, the feeling of connectedness?

Having ruminated on this, apart from grumpy postmen I can fill this category largely with things that happen on cigarette breaks in King’s Cross, London. Getting called an ass-hole for no reason, being asked by an elderly gentleman to join him for an hour in a hotel room, someone you haven’t even noticed screeching “What you looking at?” in your face. These are very minor unpleasant experiences, but these moments seem to do some small, incremental damage to your sense of well-being. They very slightly squash the soul instead of very slightly expanding it.

So, if a poem can give a reader a spiritual, or at least transcendent, experience, can it also do something equivalent to an American calling you an ass-hole in the street?  I will investigate, but I rather hope I cannot find trace of any such poem.