Today’s word is: CACKLING FART – An egg, late 17th-18th century. A cackler is a fowl so it should really be CACKLER’S FART but it isn’t. Incidentally a CACKLER was also a blabber (18th-20th century). A CACKLING-COVE was an actor and a CACKLE-MERCHANT was a dramatic author (1860). A CACKLE-CHUCKER was a prompter in the theatre. Hence CUT THE CACKLE! to shut up. Which I am not going to do because although I am not a dramatic author, I am a historical fiction writer in London which is in shut down because of COVID-19, so expect more cackling for your entertainment tomorrow. After all what is a gal to do when she has time on her hands but read her Dictionary of Historical Slang from cover to cover and visit her local Co-Op and discover that there is not a cackling fart to be had for love nor money.
This is a fantastic book. Perfect to read if you’ve been to see the recent film and want to find out more about the author and her famous work. The full title (a bit cumbersome for a blog post title!) is Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and why it still matters. Anne Boyd Rioux, a professor in English at the University of New Orleans, is a great writer, informative and entertaining and with an enjoyably light touch. The book is packed with fascinating details about Louisa May Alcott and her famous book.
Here are some to amuse you:
- Readers as varied as Hillary Rodham Clinton, Patti Smith, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, JK Rowling and Caitlin Moran have all been inspired by it.
- In My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, Lila and Lenú meet every day for months to read chapters of Little Women together.
- Ironically given the readership of her book, Alcott wrote in her diary that she, “never liked girls or knew many except my sisters.”
- Her first title for the book was My Pathetic Family, a name she used for her own family!
- Her father, Bronson, was, depending on your point of view – a philosopher with his head in the air, a religious fanatic or a manic depressive. He seems to have felt under no obligation to financially support his wife and four children. He was friends with Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson. On the plus side he was a transcendentalist who thought that genius was innate in each child, male or female. On her 14th birthday he gave Louisa a journal into which he had copied her own original poetry, showing he took her writing seriously. He built her a desk. He told her: “You have the genius to write a book that would reach the wider circle of readers.”
- Bronson did not go away and fight in the American Civil War. Louisa was the one who went away to nurse wounded soldiers in Washington. It was she who came down with typhoid fever, which was treated with mercury, which badly affected her health and contributed towards her death.
- Marriage? She did not marry and she did not want Jo to marry but was pressurized by her publisher: “They insist on having people married off in a wholesale way which much afflicts me.”
- She wrote the book when she was 35. It was published in 1868 and sold 2000 copies in 2 weeks.
- By the mid 1870s the book had been translated into Russian, Swedish, Danish, Greek and Japanese. The Dutch title was Under Mother’s Wings, the French title, The Four Daughters of Dr Marsch [sic]. The father was turned into a doctor for the French version because being a catholic country it was thought that his profession as a pseudo-minister would not go down well. The Japanese title was A Story of Young Grass – young grass representing adolescence.
- She did not like being famous: “This sight seeing fiend is a new torment to us.”
- She died in 1888 of a stroke, two days after her father. They both shared the same birthday, November 29th.
- The first sound film to be made of the book was directed by George Cukor in 1933 and had Katherine Hepburn playing Jo. When the film opened it broke box office records. 3000 people turned up at the theatre with 1000 gathered outside. 30 mounted policemen were called to manage the crowd. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and won for Best Adapted Screenplay.
- The book has been turned into a play, radio plays, films, TV series, a musical and opera [1998 Mark Adamo] and it’s been translated into a huge number of different languages.
Finally, a question to entice you to the book:
1.What connects actors William Shatner [of Star Trek fame] and Gabriel Byrne [The Usual Suspects/ In Treatment] in the context of Little Women.
Read the book to find out!
Here are the links:
I’m going to concentrate on self-criticism because in my experience the most tricky part of editing is managing your mind. In this context it’s good to remember that we have two sides of the brain. Right hand side: emotional, imaginative, creative and intuitive. The left hand side: logical, analyzing, language processor, critic. If the right hand side has been largely in charge during the creative side of writing, during the editing process, the left hand side comes to the fore.
And you want it to.
You want it to see structural problems, examine patterns, assess the believability of characters, and you want it to pick up on spelling and grammar mistakes etc.
So you want to utilize it but you do not want it to destroy you.
If the left hand side of the brain is a tiger, we want it to be The Tiger Who Came to Tea, (at the beginning of the story) an urbane polite beast that will point out difficulties and illogicalities in what we’ve written and present solutions. We do not want it to be Sheer Khan in the Jungle Book. We do not want it to look like this one below, as if it is going to pounce on us and eat us alive. We want the the tiger on our side; we do not want to be its tasty snack. Excuse me, I hear you cry, How the hell do you tame a tiger?
The only answer to that is with practice.
A sign that the left hand side of the brain is snacking on us is if you have some of the following thoughts going through your head when you consider your book:
- it’s rubbish
- I’ve no idea where to begin
- what was I thinking of
- I’m ashamed of it
- I’m stupid
- no one will be interested in this stupid story
- I’ve wasted so much time on this rubbish
- am I completely nuts
- it will never be published
- I will die in poverty
These kinds of thoughts which can have a certain taunting playground quality are I would guess very common to all writers at some time or other. Writing them down helps because it brings perspective and stops them rolling around unaddressed in your brain. So write them down, tear them up and crack on.
However, there are likely to be times when the tiger gets you and you stop and simply don’t know how to proceed. It might be helpful at this point to remind yourself that writing a novel is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Most writers have been at this point. There’s a reason why people give up. It’s now a question of whether you are going to be one of them.
If the tiger has its jaws at your throat there are a few things you can do:
- go for a walk. I know, I know but there’s all kinds of evidence out there that suggests this is a very good idea. For example a 2014 Stamford study suggested that walking increased a person’s creative output by an average of 60%. Twenty minutes of walking increases cerebral blood flow. etc, etc. Look at it this way, it’s free and it’s unlikely to do you any harm so why not give it a go.
- talk to someone you trust. This is a bit like writing down the criticisms. Getting things out in the air helps reduce their power over you.
- get someone you trust to read it. A proviso to this is that you are clear what you want and clear about time frame. For example I might say: ‘Would you mind reading through it for me. I’m not quite sure if it’s holding together and I know it’s not quite there yet. Could you tell me if my plot seems OK and if there any points where you get bored or feel it’s losing it’s way. Also if there are any things in it which are irritating/cliched/ unbelievable/repetitive… Be clear on the time frame because if you’re hoping someone will read it in a fortnight and they end up reading it in a month you might be pissed off.
Finally, a few random thoughts. At some point or other you will be confronted with the question of why you’re doing it. Why write? Why put yourself through it? Only you can answer that for yourself. It seems to me that one of the reasons is that we are story telling beings – homo fabula and stories are one way we make sense of the world.
I love this quote from Ben Okri:
“Nations and people are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves lies they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths they will free their histories for future flowerings.”
Good luck with the tiger. Mine is currently looking a bit like this because it views this post as relatively acceptable. Not tamed just resting. Now I’m going to take my own advice and go for a walk.
A very common piece of advice for writers is to put their first draft in a drawer and wait. I’ve seen a month suggested as a good length of time. The thinking is that after that time has passed you will see it with fresh eyes and the editing will be easier.
Ha, ha, ha …
Now this is all very well but what the hell are you supposed to do in this month? In my case probably a week…
Here are a few ideas for you if you are facing this challenging period of time:
- buy paperclips [What? Well, it’s something to do, isn’t it?]
- buy coloured clips [ditto]
- buy coloured pointy things [double ditto]
- colour coordinate your books [no, don’t actually, people will think you are disturbed]
- dead head and water your … oh, good lord they’re actually dead so instead …
- throw out your dead geraniums
- phone your friends – oh, you haven’t got any
- think about cleaning the kitchen floor [but under no circumstances actually do it]
- pick up a passing poetry book and try and convince yourself that you are more poetic than you are currently feeling [being acutely aware that you want to inject a sense of poetry into certain parts of your book]
- if all this fails to do the trick place a cat in a deck chair on the printed out draft along with spider man [you will require super powers to edit it] a glass eye [it happened to come to hand] a red heart and the oldest book you own, a 1799 history of the tower of London volume 1 price sixpence [No, I have absolutely no idea where it came from but here it is].
- take all your loose change [if your knees can take the strain] to one of those machines where it swallows it all up and gives you a voucher to spend. Feel the weirdness of not having one 1 pence piece in the flat apart from the one the machine rejected. Enjoy the weightlessness that goes with having no coppers anywhere near you.
- consider the fact that with all your other 8 books you had that phase when you hated them and thought they were rubbish, hated yourself, thought you were… This is just another of those times so aren’t we maturing and isn’t this fun?
- consider therapy
- play this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARt9HV9T0w8
- no, no, no if you’re thinking of rollerskating
- do not under any circumstances start following the news because the toxicity of the national debate [UK/Brexit/October/2019. One month to go etc] will bleed into the toxicity of your relationship with your book and you will want to set fire to your hat [if you have one] or your head if you haven’t
- don’t read quotes like this because Calvin was obviously feeling exactly like you are now
“The shelf life of the modern hardback writer is somewhere between the milk and the yoghurt.”
CALVIN TRILLIN – THE NEW YORK TIMES 14 JUNE 1987
- iron everything you can find including the cat and the hamster
- try to ignore the 147 random pains that may have sprung into your body at the moment you typed the words THE END
- under no circumstances dwell on that weird dream you had about Boris Johnson wrecking your car and denying it, the one where you woke yourself up shouting in a rage OR-DAHHHHH, OR-DAHHHHHH…
- do not practice mindfulness because you will sink into the existential nothingness that is your life without writing and it won’t be pretty
- don’t open that drawer which contains packets of old strepsils, a torch, batteries which may or may not be flat, an ancient camera, a belt that you once put round your waist but which now fits the top of your thigh, many odd gloves and your great aunt’s handkerchief holder, currently containing no handkerchiefs, three old conkers and miscellaneous christmas cracker gifts including a tiny green frog which is supposed to hop but … Wheeeeeeeeeee…oh my god that’s brilliant I’m never throwing that out. DO NOT OPEN THE DRAWER because it will make you feel like falling asleep for 100 years.
- on the other hand that’s the best idea you’ve had so far. If you can, sleep for a week, it’ll save your liver and it’ll prevent you buying paperclips and then you can get up and start editing. Good luck and don’t forget to use the pointy things but don’t worry if you don’t there’s always that drawer to put them in where they can point pointlessly at the pointless things in there which you have just discovered include two f*****g bags of coppers [coins not policemen] and that tiny green frog.
THE END (although unfortunately as any fule kno, it probably isn’t).
I’ve been thinking about Prime Ministers recently and thought you might have been too. So here’s a handy list of trivial things you might not know about past British Prime Ministers. To cheer you up, or not, as the case may be. Since we’ve all had enough of you know what, I’m only dealing with Prime Ministers up to 1975. Here goes:
- The First PM was Robert Walpole in 1721.
- Shortest holder of the office was William Pultney, Earl of Bath who lasted from 10-12 February 1746. A contemporary commentator reported:
“And thus ended the second and last part of this astonishing administration which lasted 48 hours and three quarters seven minutes, and eleven seconds; which may truly be called the most honest of all administrations; the minister to the astonishment of all wise men never transacted one rash thing; and what is more marvellous left as much money in the Treasury as he had found it.”
- Youngest to take on the office – the younger Pitt at the age of 24 in 1783
- Average age of PMs on first appointment 52 years and six months.
- Educational backgrounds: (1) Schools – Eton 20, Harrow 7, Westminster 6, and the only other school to boast more than one is Glasgow High School with Campbell- Bannerman and Bonar Law. (2) Universities – Oxford 24, Cambridge 14, Edinburgh 2, Glasgow 2. (3) Colleges – Christ Church – 14, Trinity (Camb) 5, St John’s (Camb) 4.
- Wealth of PMs on taking office? Wealthiest probably 14th Earl of Derby with a rent roll of £100, 000 pa in the 1850s. According to A.J.P. Taylor one of the few to ‘leave office flagrantly richer than when he entered it’ was Lloyd George.
- Sexual morals – highly variable. When Melbourne was cited in a divorce suit his brother wrote to his sister: ‘Do not let William think himself invulnerable for having got off again this time. No man’s luck can go further.’ Lloyd George lived openly with his mistress.
- Responses on becoming PM: Churchill felt he was ‘walking with destiny’. Stanley Baldwin asked people to pray for him. Gladstone who was cutting down a tree when informed of the arrival of the Queen’s Private Secretary said it was his mission to pacify Ireland. Disraeli was flippant and slightly cynical announcing that he had ‘climbed to the top of the greasy pole at last’. Melbourne said it was a ‘damned bore’ and was minded not to accept until his secretary ‘Ubiquity’ Young said: ‘Why, damn it, such a position was never occupied by any Greek or Roman, and if it only lasts two months it is well worth while to have been Prime Minister of England.’
And what could be said to make up the mystery of the perfect Prime Ministerial temperament?
“To define that temperament would not be easy. Courage, tenacity, determination, firm nerves, and clarity of mind are some of the qualities. So too are a certain toughness of the skin and a certain insensitivity. Nor should a Prime Minister be worried too much by scruples and doubts. And if tact and the power to manage men are there too, so much the better. No doubt few Prime Ministers have had every one of these virtues, but if they have not had most of them they have not got very far.”
Robert Blake in The Office of Prime Minister *
And finally, here is Macaulay writing to his father about the death of Canning in 1827 after only 4 months in office:
“To fall at the very moment of reaching the very highest pinnacle of human ambition! the whole work of thirty chequered years of glory and obloquy struck down in a moment! The noblest prize that industry, dexterity, wit and eloquence ever obtained vanishing into nothing in the very instant in which it had been grasped. Vanity of vanities – all is vanity.”
Letters of T. B. Macaulay (ed) Thomas Pinney.
That greasy pole is currently looking – well, pretty greasy, isn’t it?
*All the above from The Office of Prime Minister by Robert Blake (aka Dad).
There comes a point in every published writer’s life when they receive a questionnaire from their publisher’s publicity/sales department. And on there is a question that no sane writer greets with any degree of enthusiasm: What writer are you like? Whereas your editor and agent may have charmed you by suggesting that they love your book because of its stunning originality, all the bloody sales department wants to do is put you in a box marked ‘Like this (hopefully a bestseller),’ and put ‘Girl’ in the title. This is the point where you realise that your book is a commodity like any other and shops need to know what shelf to put it on. Eggs go on the egg shelf. Beans go on the bean shelf.
It is dispiriting.
It is where you and your precious creation hit the market place and it’s broken egos all round and not even a tasty omelette as recompense.
But don’t despair. Here is what you will now reply:
‘As it happens my book is unique and may I refer you to page 160 of Pen in Hand by Tim Parks and what he has to say on the intensification of conformity. However if you would like to know what Pen in Hand is like I would refer you to the section of the bookshop marked: “Writers who write books about writing which make other writers laugh when they are feeling depressed in late August.” Oh, actually these books should be shelved in the “Gods and Goddesses” section and there should perhaps be a shrine in front of that for small offerings. Thank you.’
The book’s full title is Pen in Hand: Reading, re-reading and other mysteries. Here are some of the chapter titles to tempt you:
- why read new books?
- the pleasures of pessimism
- the books we don’t understand
- how best to read auto fiction
- in search of authenticity
- raise your hand if you’ve read Knausguaard
- the books we talk about (and those we don’t)
Do I have to go on? Buy it now. That is all. You don’t have to be a depressed writer to enjoy it but if you are it will certainly cheer you up.
This last bit from the ‘authenticity’ chapter made me laugh:
“The artist,” Simenon remarked, “is above all else a sick person, in any case an unstable one.”
To which I would reply: Speak for yourself you sex-crazed loon.
But to which Tim Parks replies:
“This is not an easy concept to teach in a creative writing course.”
Well, at least I’m not trying to do that.
P.S. When I first replied to that question, I was writing crime and as I remember it I said I was like Sara Paretsky, a writer I greatly admired. But to be frank the only thing I had in common with Sara Paretsky was that my main character was a female private investigator. And there was one really significant difference between her books and mine. Mine weren’t nearly as good.
Have you been watching? Have you given up hope? Are you marching on Saturday? Do you just want it all TO BE OVER. My apologies to non-British readers because this first paragraph is about Brexit, it is not about spring cleaning. I watch. I give up hope. I say things like, ‘Just don’t talk to me about it.’ I stop watching and then I start watching all over again. I read endless articles but by the time I reach the end of the article I have forgotten the beginning. Last week I watched all those votes (were they indicative? I’ve already forgotten) and became completely confused. However, I did enjoy watching the Speaker, John Bercow shout ‘Clear the lobby!’ at frequent intervals. Bercow is a man who could stick his head into a badger’s set and pull out its inhabitants with his bare teeth. He is a man not to be cowed and he seems to have managed to infuriate the entire British media, who have plastered deeply unflattering pictures of him across their front pages today. It strikes me that he is a man who doesn’t give a damn.
Anyway moving swiftly away from politics, the purpose of this post is really to clear my own lobby. I have been asked to be one of the judges of the Historical Writers Association Gold Crown Award 2019 which is for the best historical novel first published in the UK in English and given that I am told it involves reading anything from 60-90 books this blog is probably going to go quiet for a while, since continuing with my own work in progress and reading will probably be taking up most of my time. It may be that I manage to post more than I think but I just don’t know. So, as Captain Oates said as he walked out into a blizzard, ‘I am just going outside, and may be gone some time.’ However the good news is that when I come back (unlike Oates) I will certainly be in a position to recommend some historical fiction reads to you. Be good while I’m away.
Here’s a little bit of John Bercow if you’ve no idea who I’m talking about:
Every morning on the way to work I pass a cafe which is called Truth. Each time, I peer inside and then think, No, not today. I’m not feeling truthful enough. If I had a cafe I would never name it Truth because it’s intimidating, isn’t it? I mean how do you live up to it? If they pour you a filthy coffee you might feel compelled to tell them which would be very un-English and extremely stressful. A bit further up there’s a cafe which is called AntipØde – the coffee is very nice but the music is discordant and percussive and there’s a tiny, dark seating area and often quite a long queue. I assume the music is to discourage lingerers. I quite like the idea of The Liar’s Cafe; it would introduce a whole new dimension to an everyday exchange like: ‘Have a nice day.’ Anyway, to cut a long story short this is why I often end up in Caffe Nero. There is nothing to overcome, the coffee is relatively reliable and the music is mellow enough for me to be able to hear myself think. However, if I am running late I go to Coffee Station, which is very close to the shop and where they do a mean flat white and excellent raspberry and white chocolate cake and they’re very generous in their portions. They also have a lovely seating area which has plants hanging down. I like a dangling plant on a chilly morning.
This week I was culling the crime section. I don’t think we really sell much crime but we get a huge amount of it donated and for every Ian Rankin I throw in a hessian sack there will probably be about ten in the back room waiting to be put out. I save classic crime novels, ones like Edmund Crispin’s The Moving Toy Shop and kitsch covered Agatha Christie’s published by Fontana and Ngaio Marsh’s and I also tend to save any crime in translation that is slightly more unusual like Pierre Lemaitre, Dominique Manotti etc.
A customer comes over to me while I am dragging my sack away and holds out a book. I miss what she says to me and I think she’s asking me the price. It’s an Alexander McCall Smith. I’ve probably just culled this from the shelves. ‘The paperbacks are generally £2.50,’ I say. She goes a bit rigid on me and says, ‘I do not expect to have to pay to donate a book.’ She’s so prickly and grand about her one book donation I can’t help laughing and then naturally I have to apologise profusely for having misunderstood. ‘Do you have any others?’ she asks and I show her where they are on the shelf including the copy of the one she’s just given me. It’s a mad old world. It occurs to me later while I am eating my large slice of raspberry and white chocolate cake in the chilly staff room that in about 30 years the vast majority of the books I have written will probably have been pulped.
This is what the writer Joe Moran had to say on the matter:
We are too sentimental about the physical entity of the book, and too embarrassed about its mortality. All I ask as an author is that, as I should like some say over the disposal of my bodily remains, I am consulted about what happens to my books if they are pulped. My first choice would be bitumen modifier, the pellets road builders use to bind blacktop to aggregate. A mile of motorway consumes about 45,000 books: the M6 toll road used up two-and-a-half million Mills & Boon novels. There is something pleasingly melancholic about converting unread books into the wordless anonymity of a road, like having your ashes scattered in a vast ocean.
If I can’t be a road, I would settle for artificial snow (also made of fibre pellets) falling gently in a Christmas film. At least being shredded is clean and conclusive.
Bitumen modifier doesn’t sound very glamorous but I love the idea of my books being turned into artificial snow. Well, love is probably too strong a word. Obviously I’d prefer you all to be reading them. But it would be a romantic, magical end to all the blood, sweat and tears of writing if it ended up as snow on the end of a wolf’s nose. A ridiculous but beautiful death.
Here’s the link to Joe’s book On Roads.
Another day in the bookshop. Well, the Elvis books haven’t gone anywhere. I’m in the back of the shop where we store our overstock of books and I come across one of my father’s books. It’s Disraeli’s Grand Tour.
Ahhhhh, I think … I tidy it up a bit and flick through it. Have I read it, I wonder? I come to the dedication: To Victoria. For a moment I think, ‘Who’s she?’ Before my marbles return and I remember that Victoria is me. Oh hello me, I think. Victoria. Part of the problem is that I was never called Victoria as a child, always Vicky. So even though my own writing name is Victoria I don’t really identify with the name at all. In the copy he signed for me, Dad recognized this because he writes next to Victoria Vicky with lots of love from the author, Daddy. Daddy is what he called his own father but I called him Dad. My father was a scrupulously fair man so as the youngest child I got his 6th book dedicated to me after his parents, my mother and my two older sisters had theirs. He was also quite formal so he uses my full name even though it wasn’t one I ever remember him calling me.
Despite the cold, I lounge in the back of the shop reading his book. I like this bit where my father explains why writing his original biography of Disraeli took him eight years by using a quote by Dr Johnson concerning why it took Pope so long to produce his translation of the Iliad.
“Indolence, interruption, business and pleasure, all take their turns of retardation; and every long work is lengthened by a thousand causes that can and ten thousand that cannot be recounted.”
DR JOHNSON on POPE
I think I might try that next time my agent asks me how close I am to finishing my WIP. I have the feeling that my sisters and I were one of the interruptions and hopefully one of the pleasures as well, since two of us were born within those eight years and one of us two years before.
Disraeli was as far as I’m aware the only British Prime Minister who was also a best selling novelist. Imagine that today! What kind of novels do we think Theresa May would be writing if she were a novelist, or David Cameron or Tony Blair or John Major. The mind boggles. Mind you, Bill Clinton has just written a novel with James Patterson titled The President is Missing, although I daresay Patterson did all the writing. I wonder what that’s like.
Eventually I have to do some work. I come across this book: The Reader on the 6.27 *, which is about a man who works in a paper recycling plant and every day saves some pages from the maw of the recycling machine and reads them out to the people on his commute to work.
I decide I have to buy it. Maybe I should start reading out pages from the books I chuck in the recycling sacks on the journey back home on the bus. On the other hand …
As for things falling out of books. This week it’s bookmarks of koalas, anarchists and the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction.
I like the bookmark for the Anarchist Bookfair. When I turn it over there is the phrase ‘annus horribilis’ written in biro on the back. The Queen used this phrase to describe her year in a speech at the Guildhall in 1992, so maybe that’s the date of the bookmark.
There at the top of the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist is Anna Burns for No Bones. Sixteen years later she won the Booker Prize with Milkman. Well done, Anna Burns. Well done indeed.
* I have started it and am thoroughly enjoying it.
On the way to work I’m greeted by a flattened wreath and bundles of Christmas trees all grouped together on the corner of the street. Pine needles are all over the pavements along with puddles of urine. The little dogs (they are mainly little round where I live) are back from their holidays. The bus is rammed to the rafters and it’s not helped by the fact that some bus stops have been closed and so there are larger groups of people at some of the stops than usual.
In Caffé Nero I drink my coffee and read the paper. A couple of headlines stand out. One on obese hedgehogs in need of home improvements and another saying that if you have too much stomach fat your brain will shrink. Oh dear! I wonder how much my brain will shrink when I lob the apricot croissant that I have just bought down my throat at about 1 o’clock. Caffé Nero is eerily empty. Maybe everyone has decided to save the pounds they spend on coffee in January.
All decorations are cleared from the shop and we have a tonne of deliveries.
I eye the over one hundred books on Elvis we still have. We’ve had them for rather a long time now. No one can bring themselves to throw them away. It could be said that we are caught in a trap. There must be someone out there, mustn’t there, who longs for these books? Over one hundred books on the King. Come on …
A book comes in called Mortification. The subtitle is: Writers’ stories of their public shame. Obviously I have to have it. It is followed by Michel de Montaigne’s essays. Someone has stuck a dinosaur sticker on his left ear so it looks like a rather unusual earring. It’s fab. I decide to buy this as well and I do not remove the dinosaur. I think Montaigne would approve.
Customers come in with tales of woe. A mother came for Christmas she caught a cold and now she has heart failure. January is always filled with death and disease. Business isn’t exactly clipping along. I could do with a little less conversation of the gloomy kind.
At the very end of the day a shifty looking man asks how much our audio cassettes are. We have a huge box of them. There is a group discussion and we arrive at the price of £1. When I tell him he says, ‘More like 50p,’ in a sort of sneering snarl and I want to hit him between his mean little eyes. It is amazing how often people come into the shop and try and bargain down our prices. Their thinking, I imagine, is that you got this stuff for nothing so you can sell it to me for less. I hate them. My colleagues are better at dealing with this than I am. I tend to shame people by repeating the phrase, ‘We are a charity…’ about 100 times followed by, ‘We have a duty both to the charity and to the people who donate to us to get a good price for the items/books they give us. We have to respect the effort they made to bring the books to us.’ Because it is an effort. And they could take them elsewhere. There are about three other charity shops along our street. But it’s never a good idea to get into a face-off and in my heart of hearts I don’t believe in shaming people, however much I might dislike what they are doing. And to be honest if you’re bargaining over prices in a charity shop you are probably beyond shame anyway, so there we are. As I leave, I see the man scavenging over our donated books which have not yet been priced up. He is also looking at the Elvis books. My suspicious mind does not think he will be making an offer on them any time soon. Oh well, the next shift can have the pleasure of dealing with him and his blue suede shoes. No, he didn’t have any but I couldn’t resist…
On the bus home I glance at Mortification and can’t help noticing that out of 72 contributors only 15 are women. The editor in the introduction says that he asked for contributions from an equal mix of men and women. I wonder if women are affected more by shame, feel it more deeply and therefore found it too painful to contribute and then I feel really, really angry.
So here is my story of writerly mortification.
The first book of mine that was published was part of a large promotion of nine debut crime writers. Four of us were from the UK, five from abroad. The ones from abroad had all been published, I think, the year before in their respective countries. One from Italy, one from Alaska, and three from America. They all had some kind of publishing history and I’ve no idea how much they were paid for their books. The group nature of the way that we were published was unusual and it meant that we ended up spending quite a lot of time together, wine was drunk etc. It emerged that one of our UK number, X, had been paid an advance roughly four times the rest of us. He was also the one most worried that he might have been paid the least, so he had gone round asking us all what our advances were. The reason he had been paid four times the rest of us was unclear – it always is – none of us had been published before. But it might have had something to do with the fact that he had worked for a well known media outlet and publishers are complete tarts for journalists or anyone involved with the media because they think they have useful contacts that they will exploit on their own behalf. In my opinion his editor or someone at the publishers should have told him to keep his mouth shut about what he had been paid but they hadn’t and he was a loose canon. It was just one of those WTF moments in a writer’s life that you have to suck up but I was younger then and naive about the publishing business and the whole thing made me feel sick, very upset and well, mortified. You see, I didn’t think his book was four times better than mine.
Later, I ended up doing an event with this same writer. It was a crime panel in Newcastle and the title of the panel was ironically Making Crime Pay. On the panel was the crime writer Sheila Quigley, who had had a very well publicized advance for a two book deal of £300,000 which was roughly 38 times what I had been paid. She had a fantastic back story was a very nice woman and I didn’t begrudge her a penny of it. But it was also clear that she had made a spectacularly better job of making crime pay than me or indeed X. It was also obvious that everyone had come to see Sheila, (her books are set in the North East) all the questions were for her and afterwards a long queue formed for her to sign her book. I remember simply not knowing what to do with myself. I started sort of spinning on the spot, maybe in the hope that I would turn myself into enough of a blur so that I would be rendered invisible or perhaps that I might turn into Wonder Woman and fly off somewhere. Does Wonder Woman fly? Or maybe I was looking for the exit. I remember desperately searching for wine and not finding any. I remember feeling as if I had lock jaw. I remember X who had a certain boyish demeanor being surrounded by a group of youngish women. One of the organisers very sweetly came up and asked me to sign a copy of my book. It was the only one I signed. Eventually they took us all out for a meal. My last contact with X was watching him insist that a taxi he was taking somewhere quite far out of town would definitely be paid for by the organisers.
Well, there we are, that wasn’t so bad was it? Give me another twenty years and I might even manage to make that funny.