Young Writer of the Year Shadow Panel

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I’m on it! Hooray!

This is going to be a short and probably flippant post, written at work in between deep-breathing sessions and feeling like my heart is about to leap up through my throat and strangle my brain, a la that terrible poet in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Work is a lot.

Anyway, the announcement embargo has been lifted now, though the shortlist is still under embargo until the 29th because reasons. I can tell you that it’s a diverse and exciting bunch of books in terms of genre and technique, that I haven’t read any of them so far, and that I’m anticipating some great discussions with the other members of the shadow panel.

(They are: Annabel Gaskell of Annabookbel.net, Rebecca Foster of Bookish Beck, Dane Cobain of Social Bookshelves, and Clare Rowlandson of A Little Blog of Books.)

For more information, plus complete biographies of the shadow panel’s glamorous selves, check out the official website: http://youngwriteraward.com/#

And keep your eyes peeled for the shortlist announcement and reviews! This is the prize that recognised Andrew McMillan, Max Porter, Benjamin Wood and Jessie Greengrass, amongst others. (So, you know, all the cool kids are paying attention.)

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Of men and land

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Once I wrote a poem, and called it “to all the men I’ve slept with”. It wasn’t the sort of poem you might think. It was about leaving the city and going North, as far North as you can go in this country, to stand on a green cliff and look at the sea. I wanted, when I wrote it, to be able to walk with someone, quietly. “Shiver/in your sleep,” I wrote, “and we’ll wake each other warm./Up there the sky throws salt to tell a fortune/you can’t read.” It did not seem necessary to imagine conversation, or interpretation; we would see what was in front of us, we would see the land and know it, and that would be enough.

I have always wanted to show the men I loved a piece of land. I have taken them to the top of the South Downs and made them see the green turf and the white chalk and the trees in the valleys, demanded that they love it and understand it as fiercely and fully as they loved me. I have wanted to take them to the place I grew up, where the grass reaches to your waist in the summer and the sky bakes white, but the mountains loom blue. One of them, at least, wanted the same, and I obliged him by loving the naked hills and cold streams of Cumbria with all my heart. For some of us, it is land that makes and ties us—even those of us who belong not to one place but to many—and I wonder sometimes how a person might turn out differently if they were born to more or less dramatic landscapes: to mountains or plains, plains or deserts.

Owning the land is not important. A title deed makes no difference one way or the other. It is not a legal right that I claim, but a spiritual one. My heart owns a place in front of a spinney on top of a hill in Sussex; it owns a field spanned by curving mown paths and dotted with tangles of blackberry vines; it owns one particular fell, at one particular violent sunset. I have no more of a right to these places than anyone else, but I certainly have no less.

And why is it that places to which I truly have no right, places I have only ever entered as a guest, seem to have a claim on me? That, for instance, a freezing chateau west and south of Paris, where I sat on a green sofa and wrote part of my book by candlelight with numb fingers; where I went so hungry that it felt like sickness, until a late supper—steak and pasta, nothing fancy, but still perhaps the most welcome meal I have ever eaten; where I drank French whisky and talked about concert pianists with the friend who owned the place; that it should feel as terrible a loss, now that I can never go there again, as the loss of a person does? Why should the smell of cigarettes and the taste of weak tea and cold February morning sunlight make me think of this place with what I can only call homesickness? How can merely having been happy—even as happy as I was there—have such a long half-life?

It goes the other way, too, of course. Places have been poisoned for years. There are buildings, streets—there are whole towns—which have been so out of bounds to me that even seeing the names of the places written down, or hearing them in passing on the news, was sharply painful, so that I would have to stop, or sit, or turn away. To lose a place has always seemed a peculiarly terrible punishment. It is not only the past that is taken from you, then, but the future too; you must shape your steps in other ways, take different roads home or avoid a certain intersection at a certain time of day, and you feel you will never walk whole and carelessly again.

A few years ago, a man showed me a place. I didn’t know what to expect; we knew each other well enough, as these things go, but I could not guess what he might want me to see. We drove for an hour or so, quiet almost all the way, because I was afraid to say something that might sound stupid. And then we crested a hill, and this valley opened out—all steep sides and soft grass, with sheep grazing in it, and a little river running through it, and some half-hidden stone houses—and I have never felt so much as though someone were tossing me a gift. How can I explain it? I had probably said, in passing, that I liked this sort of thing: open hillsides, swift water, that feeling of being both outdoors and within a space as structured, in its own way, as a great cathedral. But to be taken to such a place, almost without explanation, by someone who also loved it… It was as though a friend, pawing through clothes to take to charity, had found a ballgown and handed it to me.

There is something of sex and something of death in this obsession, I’m well aware. The giving of precious things doesn’t have to happen in bed—or at least not always—and the bestowing of a beloved prospect is an act of trust, as much as taking off your clothes is. The love of a place is intensely bound up with a sense both of freedom and of safety. Love itself is the mixing of those things: a beloved person is one with whom I feel both free and safe. And where I feel free and safe, I feel I could die with perfect happiness. In every place I’ve loved, at some point I have had the same compulsion—whether I act on it or not—to lie down on the ground, to try to melt and mingle into the earth. To consummate, or be consumed. Sex and death. Would it be so bad? Like Wordsworth’s Lucy: “roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,/With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

I am still a young woman, still seeking a future. Maybe, every time, it is simply a way of posing a question, an idle curiosity that is also—as all questions are—a test. Will you come away?

Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, II

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image credit: Heywood Hill

“Can you get it today?”

There are a lot of reasons to find Amazon unappealing. I know that they have done some valuable work in the sense that they provide a much bigger platform for self-published authors, and even through a veil of retained snobbery, I can recognise that that’s a good thing for a lot of people. It’s pretty clear, though, that they also engage in deeply unsavoury business practices (the Hachette price wars); depressing – though evidently unsuccessful – attempts to break into bricks-and-mortar bookselling; and services like Mechanical Turk, which lets you hire humans to do jobs that computers can’t do, which sounds great until you actually try to sign up for it as a worker, at which point you realise that the tasks are generally painfully menial, you have no way to negotiate with prospective employers, and you’d have to do six hundred of these tasks per day in order to make anything like a decent wage.

They contribute, in other words, to the service economy that we now have, which convinces consumers that anything, any commodity that you can possibly imagine, should be available to you within two hours. Services like Quiqup, Deliveroo and Uber are entirely reliant on this. Amazon drone delivery is a service designed with this in mind. It fosters the idea that you should never have to wait for anything, ever, if you can afford not to.

These are companies that are built on hundreds of thousands of backs, mostly belonging to people who provide unskilled and low-paid labour. It is the only way this particular business model works; the only way that you can get a pizza, or a pair of shoes, physically delivered to you in under an hour is to have an army of people standing by, just waiting for you to order it.

Small, independent businesses do not work like that, and so it always baffles me when a customer – piqued that we cannot, in fact, special-order something for delivery in under an hour – chooses to vent their distress by informing us that they “only shop here to support small businesses and fight Amazon.” You cannot support a small business if you expect it to be doing what Amazon does. If you support a small business, you have to understand what you are sacrificing, and what you will receive in return. As a consumer, you sacrifice a lot of your power: you can only walk out of a small business with whatever is on the shelf at the time; if you order something, you will need to wait – probably no more than 24 hours, because deliveries happen once a day, but waiting is an anomaly for consumers now.

But what you get in return is something magical: people who love what they’re doing. People who will spend half an hour with you, if you are friendly and interested, picking out books that they think you would like. People who will talk to a regular customer about her dog, her kids, her holidays, what she’d like to read next. (Although this deserves a caveat: we’re at work, and just like you in your office, we don’t always have all the time in the world for a catch-up, particularly if you’re regular, but not always a regular customer, if you see what I mean. More on this in another post.) People who know what’s over-hyped and what’s underrated; people who can size you up the second you walk in the door; people who, on their best days, can pluck exactly what you need from a shelf you didn’t even notice. If you have a good independent bookshop nearby, that’s what you’ve got: a building full of witches, of knowledge and instinct and experience. That’s the edge we have over Amazon: you should buy books here not because it’ll make you feel better about your lifestyle, like a smug purchaser of farmer’s market aubergines, but because the results in the long-term are generally better. We can introduce you to authors and books that an algorithm might never have shown you; that sort of thing can change a person’s life.

If you’re not willing to give up immediacy, that’s okay! Some people don’t need or want a high level of personal attention; they want what they know they like, right away, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s exactly what Amazon is good for. But if you do earnestly want to support local independent businesses, understand what that means.

(Endnote: I should tell you that there has been one occasion, as far as I know, in the history of the shop, where we exerted ourselves on someone’s behalf to get them a surprising quantity of the same title in the same day. The only way it was possible to do this was to literally walk to Waterstone’s and buy twelve of their copies, walk them back to our shop, and charge the customer. The customer was entirely content with this arrangement. As you’ll have gathered, this was a pretty unusual interaction.)

Meanwhile, Over At Shiny: The Pledge

pledgeShiny New Books has undergone a revamp and now sports a new look! I’m over there today talking about Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s detective novel The Pledge, reissued by Pushkin Vertigo and made into a movie a few years ago starring Jack Nicholson and my beloved Robin Wright. Dürrenmatt challenges the very foundations of the detective genre, in a short novel about an obsessed policeman whose strict adherence to “the rules of the game” still isn’t enough to overcome the factor of random chance that inheres in all criminal investigations. It’s atmospheric, postmodern, and highly tricksy:

In a mountainous Swiss canton not far from Zurich, a little girl’s body is found. She is only seven or eight, with blonde braids and wearing a distinctive red skirt. She has been murdered, brutally, with a straight razor. It’s the last day on the job for Inspector Matthäi, of the Zurich police: he is about to be seconded to Amman as a consultant working on the reform of the Jordanian police system. He does the necessary preliminary work, then hands over the case and prepares to fly out the next day. But the girl—Gritli Moser—haunts him. At the airport, he can’t bring himself to board the plane; instead he rushes back to Zurich, determined to bring Gritli’s killer to justice. The fact that someone has already been arrested, confessed, and hanged himself in his jail cell doesn’t matter to Matthäi; he believes the man was innocent. The rest of Dürrenmatt’s novel recounts Matthäi’s increasingly desperate attempts to find the real killer.

You can read the rest of the review here.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

Run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous, to whom I often forget to give credit, which is bad.

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  1. I have a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT, and it is this: I am now officially a bookseller again! I’m starting at Heywood Hill (a small but perfectly formed shop in Mayfair; you may have seen it in Vanity Fair or profiled recently in the Times) on Monday. I could not possibly be more excited. The shop runs Year in Books subscriptions (twelve or six months, depending on your preferences and budget, with a new hardback book, hand-picked by us booksellers and tailored to your personal literary tastes, delivered to you each month) and helps to build private libraries as well as just, you know, selling books. I am overwhelmed with delight at the idea of actually being paid to do this. Please, if you are in or near London, come and visit me!
  2. Over the weekend, I was singing at a gig in the church of St Mary-le-Bow (late C19 French choral music, if you’re interested), and had to run out during a rehearsal break to buy a black folder from a nearby Rymans. I also picked up a four-pack of black fine-point Uniball pens, because they’re the best pens of all time, and handwriting the novel has suddenly become extra enjoyable. Seriously, writing with these things is a sheer delight: a perfect, smooth line, a balanced weight in the hand… I love them.
  3. All of my makeup is running out. I’ve been reduced to smearing my ever-flatter lipstick stub onto my mouth every other day, instead of daily, and I’ve been hacking my mascara as a crude eyeliner for months now. (This is so embarrassing and I wish it weren’t true, but if you’re ever in an emergency, trust: you can use mascara as eyeliner. Just wibble the wand around the inside top edge of the tube, so it gets nice and thick, then make sure you hold your eyelid down hard while you poke at it. It’s not elegant but it gets the job done.) Anyway, I need some more cosmetics and that right speedily. My eyeliner is non-negotiable (L’Oreal 24 Hour Gel), but on the lipstick front, I’m thinking Burt’s Bees—moisturiser AND deep colour!—and maybe an Avon gloss stick. Any other recs? (Nb: my top limit for lipstick price is twenty quid. I absolutely refuse to pay more than that for what is basically face crayon.)
  4. Winter is always a difficult time for me to eat sensibly (“Why can’t we just order pizza like normals?” I shouted at the Chaos, as he cruelly forced me to stirfry some broccoli and mushrooms in soy sauce, in the name of getting some vitamins, this afternoon.) Anxiety this year has made it all the harder. I have a curious feeling that the new job is going to make a huge dent in the anxiety problem—I keep getting little bubbles of joy just thinking about it, which has to be a good sign—so I’m keeping an eye out for things I’d like to cook and eat soon. Spaghetti with lemon and olive oil is near the top of the list, followed by apple and honey cake from my Riverford cookbook.

Hungry Generations Chapter 1 is up

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If you want to read part of the book that I haven’t actually finished writing yet, the first chapter is now up on the book’s own website! (ohgodohgodohgod) I’ve edited it a little to make it fit for human eyes, but there’ll be more changes—this is still very much a first draft—but I’m very excited to share it in its current state. Here’s the first paragraph:

At the interview, Simon talked about epiphany. He’d brought a piece of work he’d done on Dubliners. It was mostly on one story, ‘Araby’; he’d focused on the boy whose point of view the story took, his horrible shame and embarrassment as he realises he can’t afford a present for his friend Mangan’s older sister. He was about to start unfolding the way Joyce’s few paragraphs of description framed the sister as a saint, or possibly even as the Blessed Virgin, when the senior English tutor, a tall woman with long white hair twisted into a chignon, leaned forward in her chair and said, “Tell me about epiphany.”

You can find out just what the hell is going on in this scene here. I would be so pleased if you did.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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Lemon drizzle is a fine thing

  1. The number of unused Waitrose recipe cards I have is approaching the ridiculous, so I am cooking my way through them at the rate of one new recipe a week. Last week was pan-fried white fish with cannellini bean purée, which was nice but not overwhelming; this week was aloo gosht, which was bloody delicious.
  2. The principle holds true for my Peyton & Byrne British Baking book, which I bought from the Hampton Court Palace gift shop in 2013 for some silly amount of money (£20? Sounds about right) and which I had barely baked from at all until this year. So far, chocolate hazelnut cookies and lemon drizzle cake have met with extreme satisfaction all round. Next, jam roly-poly, which I have had to promise won’t be “like the ones we had to eat at school”.
  3. I have never learned to cycle. So I am learning now. In London. Without a helmet. Such fun! (It’s okay, I haven’t yet graduated from riding round and round a low-traffic residential square. We’re currently working on how to signal left. My ability to do this is limited by the tendency of the bike to jink wildly whenever I remove one hand from the handlebars. I am told that I need to “learn to steer with one hand”. Sounds like witchcraft.)
  4. This book I am writing… I can’t guarantee that the above-mentioned baking and cooking isn’t just displacement activity. Likewise my newfound intense desire to catalogue all the books in our sitting room. Writing 1,000 words a day is taking a lot longer each day than it did a few weeks ago. At least it’s interesting to see where I’ve hit the wall (at roughly 34,000 words); I wonder if it’s standard. Like the mid-term depression we used to call “fifth week blues” at university.
  5. Regarding careers: at what point do you stop trying to get the thing that you want, because it’s taken you three years to even be in a position to try and you can’t afford to try for much longer and really very little is happening and everyone is telling you it’s a hard industry to get into and you’re becoming more disillusioned about the industry itself by the day but maybe that’s just the bitterness talking? I mean, hypothetically. For a friend. Suggestions welcomed with open arms.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous; link up, link back, say hi.