A book has come out recently on the subject of bestsellers:The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel. In it the authors, two Stamford academics, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers, describe how they created an algorithm and then used it to scan 20,000 New York Times bestselling novels, in order to find out what components they have in common. Among the topics you should focus on apparently are marriage, funerals, guns, schools, children, mothers and vaguely threatening technologies. I wonder what that last one means? These are the topics you should avoid: sex, drugs and rock and roll. Makes you wonder about where Fifty Shades of Grey fits in, doesn’t it?

I would propose that one of the simplest predictors is the presence of a name like ROBERT HARRIS on the cover of a book.

His most recent book CONCLAVE is set in the Vatican.  The skeleton of the plot is this: The pope dies, the cardinals gather for the Conclave, the cardinals vote and keep voting until three quarters of them agree on a successor, the pope is chosen, the book ends.

Not, you might think, particularly promising material. The book however is very entertaining – both page turning and wickedly funny. Along the way  you will find out all kinds of things about the Catholic Church that you probably didn’t know. It also has a very modern twist at the end that I am not going to divulge but which amused me.

Part of the pleasure of Robert Harris’ books is the combination of elegant writing, gripping hooks to make you want to know what happens next, and some excellent jokes.

Here’s a lovely description of the recently dead Pope as Lomeli, the Dean, leans forward to kiss him:

Often the faces of the dead, in Lomeli’s experience, were slack and stupid. But this one seemed alert, almost amused as if interrupted in mid-sentence. As he bent to kiss the forehead he noticed a faint smudge of white toothpaste at the left corner of the mouth, and caught the smell of peppermint and the hint of some floral shampoo.

But later Lomeli frets about the treatment of the Pope’s body and thinks about some of the unfortunate things that happened to the bodies of previous popes. In 1978 the face of Pope Paul VI’s body in St Peter’s

. . . had turned greyish-green, the jaw had sagged, and there was a definite whiff of corruption. Yet even that ghoulish embarrassment wasn’t as bad as the occasion twenty years previously, when Pope Pius XII’s body had fermented in its coffin and exploded like a firecracker outside the church of St John Lateran.

Here is the description of the Pope’s apartment. He had insisted on living in the Casa Santa Marta rather than the Apostolic Palace.

Fifty anonymous square meters, furnished to suit the income and taste of some mid-level commercial salesman.

Lomeli casts a somewhat jaundiced eye over his fellow cardinals. Here he is in contemplation of Cardinal Tremblay, one of the more ambitious ones:

Despite the hour, his appearance was fresh and handsome, his thick silver hair immaculately coiffed, his body trim and carried lightly. He looked like a retired athlete who had made a successful transition to television sports presenter; Lomeli vaguely remembered that he had played ice hockey in his youth.

And here is Cardinal Simo Guttuso:

His personal chaplain struggled behind him with his three suitcases.

Lomeli, eyeing the suitcases, said, ‘My dear Simo, are you trying to smuggle in your personal chef?’

Little wonder if he was, given the appalling descriptions of the food the Cardinals suffer. Someone needs to give the nuns cooking lessons. ‘Veal scallopini – the meat looked rubbery, the sauce congealed’. ‘Chicken wrapped in Parma ham. It was overcooked and dry but they were eating it none the less’. ‘Some unidentifiable fish in caper sauce.’

If anything forces this Conclave to a swift conclusion, thought Lomeli, it will be the food.

Lomeli, the Dean in charge of the voting, is struggling with his own faith, as he struggles to run the Conclave. There are, of course, various twists and turns along the way.

My feeling is Robert Harris could probably conjure a bestseller from two elderly crumbs playing dominoes inside a paper bag but until he writes that one, I suggest you read CONCLAVE. If you buy the hardback, it has nicely blackened edges to the pages. It’s a new fashion this and I rather like it.

If you’re interested in what makes a bestseller you’d be better off buying a few Robert Harris books and making careful notes, rather than buying a book about an algorithm. To my mind, it is thorough research, lightly used, combined with a finely honed talent to amuse and entertain in words. Incidentally, he does conform to one bit of data that the algorithm throws up; apparently a disproportionate number of bestseller writers have worked in journalism and advertising and Harris  was a political journalist before turning his hand so successfully to writing fiction.


What do you use as a bookmark? Having worked in a second hand bookshop for a few years let me tell you that you do not generally use these below.


My favourite bookmark is the woman with the big hair. It’s for  Sparkle Hayter’s books featuring Robin Hudson. She is, if you read her website, ‘The funniest thing to have come out of Canada since the moose.’

  • Boarding passes – are by far the most common.
  • Photos as well. I always find that sad. Here am I staring at a photo of someone that means nothing to me. Often the temptation is to see if the person in the photo matches the book in some way but that way madness lies.
  • Postcards.
  • Bookmarks are occasionally used, giving a rather mournful history of the British booktrade: Ottakar’s anyone? Or Books etc? Or Borders? Or Dillons? I had a fondness for Borders in Oxford Street. Occasionally a bookshop I worked for back then: a cheerful yellow owl waves a wing at me from Bookcase or a Silver Moon glints at me. Since the bookshop is in West London, Daunt’s is a favourite as well. Daunt’s are impeccably rigorous about never letting a book go out of their shop without a bookmark in it.
  • Once a crude cartoon of a hairy cock and balls fell out, that came in with a whole load of Spanish books. I imagined a bored air steward (or stewardess?) from Almodovar’s I’m so Excited sketching it to pass the time.
  • Then there’s money – an old one pound note, uncashed premium bonds and even the odd cheque.
  • Bills – the other day the bar bill  from a cruise – oof, those antiquities must have been pretty blurred.
  • My most worrying one was a Happy Easter card figuring a weirdly feminized rabbit with rather a smug smile and worryingly long eyelashes; it had a purple bow round its neck. The book was Mother Angelica’s Answers not Promises and on the card were the written the words, ‘to help you to become holy.’ You may not be altogether surprised to learn that the book was in the same pristine condition it must have been in when it first came fresh from the presses.
  • The dust of crumbling pressed leaves or flowers fall out of gardening books, especially the old ones.
  • Nothing falls out of cookery books because the pages are usually stuck together with cooking splatter/old tomato sauce and when they are like that unfortunately we have to throw them away.
  • One of my all time favourites was a brochure for the 8th Puffin Exhibition. It’s not dated but it’s signed by Barbara Willard a writer I read as a child. As a proud member of the Puffin club I too waved flags and said Hooray!
  • Old bus tickets. Once a very old one for the number 14 bus route, one I happen to use quite often.


So, a little advice when you take your books to a charity shop. Give them a quick thumb through and a shake, or a stranger will be looking at your photos, with a degree of regret, or puzzling over your bar bill on that cruise, or wondering who bought you that religious book. Or staring at a very old note and wondering who’s going to take that to the Bank of England.

What do I use? Receipts often, old envelopes, bank statements, little pieces of torn off newspaper, the odd Caffè Nero loyalty card, the stubs of theatre tickets. I don’t think I’ve ever used money, although the new fivers look hard wearing enough. Very rarely, I might actually use a bookmark. I’ve got a few to choose from.

Let’s end with a poem from a Blackwell’s Bookshop bookmark, originally designed in 1939. Blackwell’s incidentally was the first bookshop I ever used so you’ll have to excuse this nauseatingly sentimental poem!

There, in the Broad, within whose booky house

Half England’s scholars nibble books or browse.

Where’er they wander blessed fortune theirs:

Books to the ceiling, other books upstairs;

Books, doubtless, in the cellar, and behind

Romantic bays, where iron ladders wind.



I know, I know but you can’t say I didn’t warn you. Now then how about you? Confess all. What do you use?


vena_largerI’m delighted to welcome the crime writer Vena Cork to the blog. She is the author of the Rosa Thorn trilogy (Thorn, The Art of Dying and Green Eye). Her most recent books are The Lost Ones set in Notting Hill and Toxic set in Willesden. This Q&A is about Toxic set in Yew Court, a block of flats in North West London where dark forces are unleashed.

Q. I loved the Prologue and it reminded me immediately of Alan Garner’s books. I wondered if you’d read them and been influenced by them at all? That feeling of there being something ancient in the land just waiting to burst out!

A. I read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen many years ago, but I can’t remember  anything about it except being totally gripped. So if there’s an influence it isn’t a conscious one.  I love Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, though, which tinkers with the reality behind reality, so that may have rubbed of a bit, even though it’s a different genre.  When thinking about Toxic I became fascinated by old photographs of places in London that in the very recent past were little villages in the countryside but are now part of the city. It  made me envisage a time when there were no villages at all, just  primeval forest, and then all that history flowing in between.  It’s exactly the same place on the planet throughout, but forever changing. I do feel in certain places that the ancient past is still there lurking just under the concrete.

Q. Could you tell me a little about how you came to set it in the setting you did. Is there a particular yew in Willesden that caught your eye?

A. I love London and I love how each area has its own distinctive personality. My previous book, The Lost Ones, is set in Portobello Road, Notting Hill, which is a very high profile place. For Toxic I wanted to tackle somewhere that was the opposite, somewhere ostensibly without much atmosphere or known history behind it. I also wanted to tell a story about a tower on a hill, and I found a road on a hill in Willesden with several blocks of flats that absolutely fitted the bill and that also has a view over a wide open space to the neat suburban houses that I wanted Alma to be able to spy on. The yew tree came out of nowhere and became so important that in its latin form, taxus baccata, from which the word toxic derives, it even became the title of the book. Originally I noticed that the block of flats in which I was interested was called by the name of a tree and I thought that was a good idea for my block. That led on to the idea of having a sinister tree outside the flats. Then I remembered that yew trees can live to a great age, and that this would be the obvious link to the savage earth beneath the suburban concrete. Much later, I found out that not only were yew trees poisonous, but that they were also the symbol of The Furies. All this came about in a very round about and serendipitious way. In my experience this is something that often happens when writing a book: strange connections and coincidences surface that fit absolutely with what’s needed.

Q. It strikes me that what Toxic is really about is the marginalized and the vulnerable, those at risk of falling through the cracks and people who could easily disappear. You’re casting a bright light on society and saying look here. This is what can happen if we don’t take care of each other. Was there some of that feeling in you as you wrote the book?

A. Yes absolutely. We have, by and large, lost the habit of caring for our neighbours. In London the rich and comfortably off live cheek by jowl with the poor, but I don’t think there’s much communication going on. There’s a bit of wish fulfillment in Toxic because I don’t know whether in a real block of flats such a coming-together would happen. Although, having said that, I’m reminded of the play and film London Road, co-written by my son Adam Cork and the playwright, Aleckie Blythe, which tells the true story of the inhabitants of London Road, Ipswich, initially strangers, who united to repair their fractured community after the presence of a serial killer in the street had tarnished the reputation of the place.

Q. Now we’ve got to talk about Alma! She was one of my favourites. She reminded me a bit of the women in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – there was that sort of gothic horror aspect to her but she was also very, very funny and I have to say I was rather upset about what you did to her! Did you enjoy writing her?

A. I loved wrtoxiciting Alma. Inventing characters who behave very badly is brilliant fun, in a way that interacting with such characters in real life often isn’t. In a book you can laugh at their all-consuming egos without having to actually deal with them.  And inventing someone who behaves badly always feels slightly transgressive – making them do and say things I’d never allow myself to do and say.

Q. It was very brave to cast such a ghastly character as a bookseller. I’d never dare! Discuss (if you’d like)!

A. I didn’t set out to diss booksellers! I love booksellers – they sell books and books hold a central place in my life as a reader and a writer! David’s new wife was a bookseller by default. His ambition was to open a bookshop and I wanted his new partner to have something major in common with him. When I started the novel I didn’t know she would turn out to be either a bookseller, or so awful. I often find that characters go galloping off on their own path and become completely different from what I initially intended. I also find that sometimes those I imagine are going to be important end up as either minor characters or scrapped altogether, or, vice versa, a peripheral person suddenly begins to loom large and move to centre stage.  In Toxic, Gary is one such character who started out with a very minor role and just grew.

Q. I was really impressed how you marshalled such a large cast of characters together and yet made them distinct and clear in the readers mind and also how you ratcheted up the tension. Is this the biggest cast of characters you’ve dealt with in a book? As I was reading it I thought I would really struggle with this technically. It’s a really skilled piece of writing. Did that involve very careful pre-plotting before writing began? Did you have a clear idea about what would happen and in what order from the beginning?

A. I knew about the beginning of the book and I knew the end would involve the destruction of the tower, and I knew a few points along the way. But that was it. I didn’t know who would bring about the destruction of the tower, or, indeed how that would happen. I initially thought that it would be blown up! I envy writers who are able to plot everything in detail in advance. I can’t do that. I have to crawl forward painfully slowly, wondering what has to happen next and who does what to whom. On the other hand I think I’d become bored if I knew too much in advance. This is the largest number of narrators I’ve dealt with and I often found it difficult knowing which narrator would reveal which piece of information and when.  One thing I did do, though, was scribble out a plan of the tower and write in who was living where and at what number. Before I did that I found it very confusing trying to remember who was on what floor and how that would impact on the plot.

Q. I think I saw that you’re writing a Rosa Thorn novella. Could you tell me a bit about that?

A. The working title is Rosa and Revenge and in it we meet Rosa ten years on.  Her children are grown. Anna is also an actor and Danny’s a journalist. Rosa’s just got her big break starring in one of the country’s top soaps, but as always when she’s around, death and destruction follow, as fellow soap stars start to die. I don’t want to say anymore about it in case I give away the plot.

Q. You can ask 5 writers to dinner which do you choose?

A. This is a very difficult question because there are so many. Would I choose the Victorians – Eliot, Dickens,  the Brontes, Mrs Gaskell, Trollope , Wilkie Collins,  or would I go for  Joseph Heller, Susan Hill, Steven King, Donna Tartt, John Lanchester, John Irvine, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Philip Pullman. Yes – I know – more than five, and added to this list would be all the writers mentioned in the next two questions. So more a party than a dinner party!

Q. Which crime writers do you like?

A. Again – so many: Currently Kate Rhodes, Lesley Thomson, Ben Aaronovich, Elly Griffiths, Harlan Coben, Val Mcdermid, Stuart Macbride, Karin Slaughter, Sabine Durrant, Mark Billingham. I could go on …

Q. Which crime writers influenced you?

A. It’s hard to say who’s had a direct influence on my writing. My first experience of crime novels and the things that have stayed with me from that time are  Agatha Christie’s puzzles, the character of Albert Campion in Margery Allingham’s books, the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane and slightly later, John le Carre’s George Smiley books. But latterly there’s   Elizabeth George, Nicky French, Tana French… The list goes on…

Q. Can you remember what book made you want to become a writer?

A. I don’t think there’s one particular book, although as a girl I read and reread Alice in Wonderland, What Katy Did, Heidi, Little Women and a collection of  Greek Myths. I also loved Enid Blyton, The Faraway Tree stories and The Famous Five. I was allowed to go to my local library by myself from about the age of seven and adored discovering all the fantastic stories that were there for the taking. It was here, aged eight, that I first came across Jane Eyre and I remember being terrified when she was locked in The Red Room, and amazed that anyone could write something so real and so gripping. From the moment I learned to read I’ve been hooked on books and I think I’ve always had this urge, both as an actor and a writer to tell stories. The first thing I ever did was a collection of children’s verse, which is sitting in a drawer somewhere along with a couple of short children’s books, and after that I wrote plays for several years. During my time as a drama teacher I was lucky enough to have a couple of these plays performed at the school in which I was working.

Q. What are you reading at the moment?

A. The Loving Husband by Christobel Kent, and I’ve just finished The Gap of Time: The Winter’s Tale  Retold by Jeanette Winterson.

Q. How do you work? Do you have a routine? Set place/hours/word count per day or is it more flexible than that?

A.I have a small study, but I don’t use it to work in. It suits me better to work on the sofa in my living room. I usually try to do an hour before breakfast, and then after a walk with my husband, who is also a writer, settle down from 10am and work until lunch time. After another walk I start again around 4pm and work until supper, and sometimes I do a late evening stint before bed. But I’m not rigid about it, and have various breaks during the week for seeing friends or doing other necessary tasks. I constantly live with the idea that I should be working harder and that when I’m doing one thing there’s another that I should be doing instead. With the novella I set myself the task of completing it in a month. I hit my target and then took another two weeks to edit, so six weeks in total, which was pretty full on, but very satisfying. Another source of guilt nowadays, is being told by the health police that if I don’t get up and walk around every ten minutes or so I’ll die. I hate doing things just for the sake of it so now I’m trying to build into my regime, little breaks where I do something useful like iron a skirt, or peel a potato. Needless to say that’s not working out brilliantly.

Thank you very much, Vena, for taking the time and good luck with your future projects.

You’ll find all the links to Vena’s books at


Beryl Bainbridge: Love by All Sorts of Means: A Biography by [King, Brendan]How much does the life of a writer you love interest you? This is what I’ve been wondering as I’ve read the biography of Beryl Bainbridge, Love by All Sorts of Means, by Brendan King. In my case it turns out a great deal. I love her writing and I worked for her publisher Gerald Duckworth for a while. In fact I was working in the warehouse when her book on Scott’s doomed expedition to Antarctica Birthday Boys came in. It was the most copies of one title that I ever packed up and sent out to the bookshops and I particularly liked the photo on the cover of the men wearing  their  big furry mittens.

Brendan King worked for Bainbridge for many years but this is no hagiography. What he delivers here is a measured and psychologically astute  assessment of her and along the way he displays considerable sensitivity to her children, especially with regard to the effects of her drinking and her affairs, those known about and those kept secret (until relatively recently).

Bainbridge was a publicist’s dream. There was the stuffed buffalo in the hall and the hole in the ceiling from when her mother-in-law, Nora, tried to shoot her. There was the shop dummy called Neville that she placed in the window to make people think there was a man in the house. The expression one-off is overused but it seems a more than usually apt description of Bainbridge. She was a genuine eccentric and eccentricity makes good copy. And she was also a fantastic, original writer and the fact that she never won the Booker, despite being nominated five times, seems more and more of a disgrace as each year passes.

If you’re interested to know who the sweet William in  Sweet William was or who the character of Scurra in Every Man For Himself was based on you will find it all here. Along with what made her publisher Colin Haycraft kick the draft of Watson’s Apology across the floor. Interestingly, King suggests that one of the reasons Bainbridge turned to historical fiction and away from writing which mined her own life, was because the complexities of her private life were such that she did not feel she could use that as material in her fiction any more.

In his excellent introduction King is very good on the subject of memory especially when it comes to fiction writers:

“Her interviews and her written memoirs are always brilliant, full of memorable quotes and anecdotes, but that was partly because she was never hampered by the feeling that she had to be literally accurate about the facts when recounting them.”

A polite way of stating that she had no compunction in making things up!

“All memory is fiction, which is why autobiographical accounts and historical ones, for that matter are notoriously inaccurate. We censor memories by recalling only those fragments we wish to remember.”

King’s job as her biographer is sorting the fibs from the facts and he does a very thorough job of it.

There is a lot here which is amusing including an assessment of her by the psychotherapist Charles Rycroft as being, ‘a hysteric with psychopathic tendencies.’

There is also hope for novelists who have been on the receiving end of bad reviews:

“No amount of mannered writing – and there is quite a lot of it – can conceal that Miss Bainbridge hasn’t much to say.” SUNDAY TELEGRAPH on A WEEKEND WITH CLAUDE

To The Hampstead and Highgate Express she stated:

“I’ve got some really terrible reviews, so I’ve just given up reading them.”

And yet she survived and thrived.

After reading this biography I was left with the impression that it is probably best never to trust what comes out of a writer’s mouth about themselves. If you want the truth you’re more likely to get it from their fiction.The act of  writing is exposure enough. When confronted with the perils of publicity what writer isn’t going to reach for the invisibility cloak and puff a bit of smoke in the air or hide behind their stuffed buffalo while pointing at a bullet hole.

Nowadays one wonders if someone like Beryl would have broken through. You can’t imagine her synopsis and three chapters would have made it out of any agent’s slush pile, not with her spelling. King suggests she was probably dyslexic.

Here is one of my favourite examples, a note typed to a friend when she was a bit pissed after a row with one of her lovers.

“I have had a violent argument. Surprise – he takes off his bliddy galoshes and lies down. Alright if he’s paying the bills, but wot a romantic set up, if he is my sooter. I have sed his hair cut is losey . . . andd I will neffer wash his underdrawers, not if he is paralised. He ses I have holes in my jumpers. But I sed I am an orther, and they have holes.”

This book comes highly recommended. It’s well written,  emotionally intelligent and fair minded in dealing with her highly complex private life. I should imagine that it’s going to appear on a great many of the lists suggesting books to buy as presents at Christmas. An extraordinary woman and a magnificent writer, Bainbridge has been well served by this sensitive and entertaining biography. Any writer out there wondering who might write their biography should give King a call. Now I’m off to buy a buffalo.

How about you? Are you interested in the lives of the authors you admire or do you find it an irrelevant and irritating distraction?




This very beautiful Advance Proof is of my new book TITIAN’S BOATMAN which is going to be published by Black and White in January 2017. I am so delighted I have put it on a celebratory pink cushion and drooled over it. It is set partly in Renaissance Venice and partly in 21st century New York and London. Over the coming months expect this blog, on occasion, to take a sharp turn into the serpentine alleyways and canals of a sixteenth century Venice, populated with courtesans, gondoliers and painters. I very much hope you will enjoy the ride!


“I think England is the very place for a fluent and fiery writer. The highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark. I like the grey country. A bucket of Greek sun would drown in one colour the crowds of colours I like trying to mix for myself out of a grey flat insular mud. If I went to the sun I’d just sit in the sun; that would be very pleasant but I’m not doing it . . . I shall be nearer Bournemouth than Corfu this summer.”

DECEMBER 1938 Blashford, Ringwood, Hants

I like this quote because it’s pretty much how I feel. I’m not someone who the sun helps to write. I favour rain, cloud and a nip in the air. I’ve always thought I’d never be able to write somewhere where the weather wasn’t constantly changing. Admittedly, I didn’t manage very well one year when the scaffolders came and wrapped the block I live in in cling film and no light got in for six months but other than that one time, I too like the grey country.

How about you? Have you been nearer Bournemouth than Corfu this summer? And do you fancy taking a guess at who wrote this and to whom?


Oh, August – doesn’t it drag on?

And so, for those suffering post-Olympic blues, here are some tips from a 1940s self-help book, titled HOW TO LIVE LONG, which I came across a couple of years ago, and bought because it made me sob with laughter. I hope you will find them useful.

The book is divided into 10 chapters written by distinguished people of that time:

First up on the high bar of health is Sir William Pryke, the then Lord Mayor of London:

I am careful not to take oily fish, to avoid salmon, and indeed all cured fish. My medical advisor told me to beware the kipper, and I take his advice.

I am seventy-eight, and I enjoy a good strong Havana cigar immediately after breakfast. After lunch I take another cigar, and smoke several during the day … 

So, out go the salmon, the tuna, and the bloody sardines and in comes the strong Havana cigar!… As for kippers, they will never darken my door again.

Next up Sir William Orpen, a painter:

I believe in passing half of my life in sleep. Twelve out of the twenty-four hours I slumber peacefully away.

When I was a small boy – I suppose I was about seven years old – I began to smoke. I was not many years older when I found myself smoking the modest number of about seventy cigarettes a day. This went on until 1921 when I found I had nicotine poisoning. Consequently I reduced my consumption to about ten cigarettes …

Sometimes I walk as many as fifteen miles in a day … 

Off for a nap then … might give the walk a miss for now.

Now The Aga Khan:

I have a very strong aversion to colours when exercising. Coloured socks, coloured trousers, or coloured underclothes are, I think, unhealthy, and I am against the wearing of tweeds for the same reason.

Dump the plus-fours, Jeeves. Out with the pink pants.

Colour which is to be avoided in clothing for exercise, is a stimulant in food. A beautiful apple or peach becomes tempting because of its colouring. Fruits are adequate for breakfast; I will not even allow a piece of bread at my table for this meal.

Toaster you’re toast.

Sir Gerald Du Maurier, Daphne’s Dad and an actor manager:

At about 8 I have a foaming beaker of bromo selzer; at 9, if I feel lonely, a tiny brandy and soda; at 9.10 a cup of coffee and another cup of coffee, and round about 10 I tackle a bottle of ale – one of those that open with an instrument that looks like a primeval tooth-abstractor. Then the day begins, as it were, and that delicious glass of port is ready and waiting … 

Bloody hell! – so that’s where I’ve been going wrong.

Here is Sir Harry Lauder, singer and writer of such songs as Keep Right on to the End of the Road:

It did not take me long to realise that success means sacrifice. The way to discover the secret of success is to find what particular sacrifice is going to do you the greatest amount of good. I found I had to sacrifice peas. This may not sound very drastic, but I give you my word that it was, for me, a tremendous sacrifice. If a man can be said to love food, I loved peas. But the little beggars did not love me, and so I sacrificed them. 

Harry, dear, you must have some other suggestions, mustn’t you?

Here are my rules:

  • To eat as little as possible
  • To drink as little as possible
  • To take discrete exercise
  • To work as hard as possible
  • To eat an orange every morning



Maybe Pachmann, the world famous pianist will have some slightly less austere tips and let us keep our peas.

For diets and strict rules of feeding and living I have a monstrous contempt.

Oh, jolly good …

I never eat before I am to play, but after a concert I will have a fine supper, with champagne and all the things I like. My favourite vegetable is the giant Californian asparagus, and my favourite fruit a big juicy water-melon. I am happy to sit alone for an hour with a water-melon. I can eat it all. I smoke eight cigars a day and all the fresh air I want comes to me through the window.

So there is my life. And I am 77! But I do not exhort everyone to follow my example, for, after all, I am Pachmann, the unique.

I laugh at your doctors.

So there you have it. If you’ve been lazing on a sofa watching all the extraordinary feats that the human body is capable of while the pounds blossom at your waist, have no fear. A 12 hour sleep should see you right, not to mention a Havana cigar but most important of all whip open your freezer and you will be able to join all those magnificent Olympians in your own heroic sacrifice – ditching peas. Bye bye Birds Eye.  But above all else remember this, Beware the Kipper!

And here is Sir Harry Lauder to sing you on your way. Actually rather touching.


Occasionally my writing turns into a dangerous rabbit a bit like this one …


When this happens running and hiding seems the only sensible thing to do …


But there is only so long one can hide in a tree with those damnable, smiling rabbits waiting at the bottom. Eventually, of course, I come to realize how silly my fears are and come down …


And that’s when they strike …

The illustrations come from The Romance of Alexander, by the Flemish illuminator Jehan de Grise, 1338-1344 and are from The Bodleian Library in Oxford. It’s interesting to speculate about Jehan de Grise. Did he go out for lunch, down a few too many ales and then pick up quill and ink and think to himself. ‘What am I going to do with this lower margin? Oh, I know, The Revenge of the Rabbits. Apparently this kind of thing is known as a monde renversé.

A postcard of it fell out of a book I was pricing in the second hand bookshop I work in. On it was written:

Here I am at 6 a.m. hurtling out of Oxford towards the Belfast festival and skimming too hastily through the things I had meant to do at leisure, and in pleasure. Before Christmas I shall let you know better how good and true I found your book. Love, Seamus

What a lovely postcard to receive especially when it came from Seamus Heaney.

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As for me, if you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because those damn rabbits have got the upper hand.


The Farmer’s Market:

I’ve been going to the same farmer’s market every Sunday for the last three or four years. As I stand deciding which stall to go to first, I hear The Egg Man  say something to a customer that relates to experts. Now, it could be he’s saying that stating that, ‘We’ve all had enough of experts,’ which is what Michael Gove said during the referendum campaign, is the stupidest thing he’s ever heard in his life but I don’t think that is what he is saying. I’m fond of The Egg Man, which may be because he looks like Father Christmas but has the teeth or lack of teeth you might associate with a jump jockey. He and I eye each other cautiously over the top of his eggs; he is perhaps assessing whether having a conversation about the referendum with me is a good idea. I have decided that under no circumstances must I talk to him about the referendum or I may start smashing eggs on the ground and stamping on them like a toddler. I stand there for a moment deciding which eggs to buy and then say, ‘Isn’t it amazing how well the English Rugby side have been doing in Australia.’ A look of relief passes over his face and off we go: Eddie Jones, the Under 21s, Owen Farrell, Mario Itoje, the Grand Slam, and then on to What’s The Matter with English Football and Aren’t the Welsh Doing Well. Phew! I buy my eggs and thank him.

At the bread stall a woman in front of me is wailing and gnashing her teeth. She is going on and on. The Bread Man is covered in tattoos, so while she goes on and on I gaze at them coiling and twisting around his arms in beautiful patterns. Eventually my patience snaps. Oh shut up and buy your bloody bread, I think, but then I realise that all the things she’s saying to The Bread Man are exactly the same things I have been saying to my partner for the last three days. Oh, I think, that’s why my partner told me to “FOR GOD’S SAKE STOP”. Do not talk about the referendum I say to myself. Then I overhear The Bread Man say he’s Scottish and I hear the following words come out of my mouth, ‘I’ve got a lot of sympathy with Scotland.’ And off he goes and off I go. He was not for separation but now he is. ‘Before I felt sad at the idea of Scotland leaving the Union,’ I say,  ‘but now I feel entirely sympathetic and want to move to Edinburgh.’ On and on we go until I turn and see a man with an expression on his face that could perhaps best be interpreted as, ‘Will this bloody woman shut up and buy her bloody bread.’ So I do – spelt loaf if you’re asking.

The Rocket/Lettuce Man is French and gets to the point with enviable directness. ‘Are you all idiots?’ he asks and I burst out laughing.

Finally, I buy strawberries and raspberries from an elegant zen-like Polish man with very blue eyes.  I feel a craven need to apologise for the result but I don’t. Instead I say, ‘Your strawberries are delicious, really delicious,’ in a manner that Uriah Heap might approve of and he smiles slightly.

The Bookshop:

Later in the week I’m off to the bookshop I work in. It is near the Polish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith which was vandalised with graffiti.  When I walked down here a week ago lots of people were handing out stickers for the remain campaign. In fact I’ve still got one stuck to the inside of my bag. The people I work with are affected in different ways. A is Polish and has lived in the area for a very long time and is horrified and upset by the graffiti. B is Greek and her husband’s job in this country is partly funded by the EEC. While I am weeding the Nature section, C tells me that he is looking into Irish citizenship for his children. It turns out his father came over from Ireland when he was 14 to work on building sites in Liverpool and so both C and his children can apply. ‘That’s useful,’ I say. Then a customer turns round and says, ‘I come from Yugoslavia. I know what happens when things break apart.’


At a certain point I get an unnatural (for me) craving to buy right-wing newspapers. It’s because I’m curious to know what they are saying about everything, especially the melt down in the Conservative party, so I buy  The Daily Telegraph. My God this newspaper is huge! I’d forgotten how big it is. I wrestle away with it, flapping and struggling. You need the wing-span of a golden eagle to hold it open. ‘I wonder how The Daily Mail is going to deal with the Johnson/Gove fall out,’ I say. My partner’s eyes have narrowed to slits. ‘If you’re thinking of bringing The Daily Mail in here . . .’ The sentence is left menacingly open-ended.

If you have any post brexit blues or celebrations or domestic tensions to share please be my guest. I’m getting over it slowly and will be thoroughly open minded in my responses.

If you need a good laugh take a look at the link below: Britain’s Completely Batshit Week since Brexit, Explained for Americans



This post was going to be called REASONS FOR NOT WRITING. My reason being, on this particular occasion: a giant bee has just flown into my room and struck me on the ear. When I say giant I mean . . . But then it got me thinking about a children’s book I love – HARRY’S BEE by Peter Campbell and so that’s what this post is going to be about instead. Much more interesting than reasons for not writing, which are usually as banal and pathetic as the reasons for not putting out your recycling.

Harry’s Bee

The story of HARRY’S BEE is a simple one. Harry, a man sporting a pretty groovy hat, grows the biggest rose in England and it attracts an enormous bee. They talk. Harry offers him a pot of honey. They agree they have never met anyone they like as much as each other and so Harry makes a bee basket and they set off to see the world. There is a lovely scene, which I have thought about many times in my life, when Harry lets his bee out of the basket purely in order to have the whole train carriage to himself. The bees ego is fanned by the fact that he terrifies people and he demands to be taken to the chief bee-keeper to be measured. When he is told there is no chief bee-keeper he says Number Ten will do but he is turned away from there and then the Ministry of Food and Fish. The bee then becomes furious. Sitting on a bench with his bee buzzing in a rage in his bee basket Harry gets into a conversation with a boy, who tells him to take his bee to the Natural History Museum. There he has a very warm welcome and is measured and told he is not the biggest bee in England. He is the biggest bee in the whole world. He then starts singing with delight and drinks a cup of tea. This bee is English to his wing-tips!

Peter Campbell, who wrote and illustrated HARRY’S BEE, was also the illustrator of over 400 covers of the London Review of Books. His enchanting book is out of print which seems a crying shame given how important bees are and also how threatened they are. The great thing about Harry’s bee is that he has a tremendous sense of his own importance and bees, as we are frequently being reminded, are very important. A third of all our food depends on their pollination and a world without pollinators would be devastating for food production. The book is also incidentally rather a good advertisement for the Natural History Museum since this is the only place that welcomes and admires this wonderful bee.


Here is a picture of the largest bee in the world bombus dahlbomii, also known by the technical term of “monstrous fluffy ginger beast,” which, now I come to think of it, should probably have been the title of this post. It lives or lived (it was under threat) in Tierra del Fuego, South America.

My bee, incidentally, was not a “monstrous fluffy ginger beast” it was bombus lapidarius and it was all black with a very red bottom, probably a female because they are bigger than the males. And it got me on my feet and out of the door in approximately 2 seconds flat. Unfortunately I did not have a bee basket to hand, (where are they when you need them?) so when I had plucked up my courage, the end of a rolled newspaper was used to usher it safely back into the toxic and sodden London air.

Peter Campbell died in 2011 but if you’re interested in him and his work take a look here:

If you would like to help the bumble bee here is that link:

And if you would like to read one I prepared earlier on SAM AND THE FIREFLY another children’s book I love here is that link too: