Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Love ‘em or Loathe ‘em – Creating Characters. Guest Post by Jenefer Heap

Without characters, there can be no stories. Whether your protagonist is Sherlock Holmes, Emily Dickenson’s dog, or a dining room table, they have to be believable within the realms of their fictional world. So how do writers go about creating satisfying, rounded characters?

The stories in my collection The Woman Who Never Did are mostly character driven, so I’ve spent a lot of time trying out tricks to bring them to life. There’s plenty of advice out there in books and on the internet to help you develop your character, whether they originate from real life or your imagination or, most often in my case, both. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Create a character profile sheets to flesh out them out as physical and emotional beings, their relationships, where they live, their tastes in food, literature, even what sort of shoes they wear. In Gloria, the character of Jean is epitomised by her ‘gorgeous’ shoes which are very high and often embellished by a bit of diamante.
  • Look at your character from all angles – 360 degrees and inside out. What’s the image they present to the world? To themselves? If they’re happy or angry or sad? What do they look like from behind when they think nobody’s watching?
  • Give them a signature song or binge on their favourite music – Mike, who features in Belvedere Road and The Green Tie, is very fond of The Beatles.
  • Write them into different social situations, how would they handle conflict/unwanted attention/being on display?
  • Get them in and out of bed. What’s the first thing they do in the morning and the last thing at night?

Sometimes I draw pictures (not very well, as you can see). The lady in the hat is Amanda from The View from the Penthouse Apartment and the heavily bearded man is Beastie, whose story isn’t finished yet. Annotating the drawings helps me focus on specific details and the effect I am hoping to achieve through physical appearance. There are lots of other tips and tricks. Just google ‘character development’ and take your pick (other search engines are available). Even though a lot the details won’t make it into your short story, or even into your novel, the work you put in will help to make your character live beyond the page.

But do these living breathing characters need to be likable? In particular, does the hero/heroine/ main protagonist need to be likable? Ask Brett Easton Ellis – I thought Patrick Bateman, the (anti)hero of American Psycho was the most unpleasant character I’d ever come across, but that didn’t stop me engaging with the book. I don’t feel I need to like the main character, or characters, so long as they are compelling and I feel strongly about them. I want to care about the outcome of the story – even if that caring manifests as a desire to see them come to a sticky end. I certainly wished such an end for Patrick Bateman, but my feelings towards Mervyn Peake’s Steerpike (of Titus Groan and Gormenghast) are more complicated. Early in the narrative, I’m firmly on his side against the suffocating and repressive society in which he is trapped. But, as Steerpike’s resentment festers and his mind becomes as twisted as the dark passages of Gormenghast Castle, my sympathy seeps away.

Besides, likability is such a subjective quality, very much in the mind of the reader. There are some characters most readers would agree to be engaging and likable, JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, for instance. Yet I have a friend who can’t stand Bilbo Baggins and finds himself rooting for Gollum every time! As a writer, I’ve experienced a similar reaction to one of my own characters. A few years ago, I was involved in a project run by Andrew Killeen (author of The Khalifah's Mirror and The Father of Locks) to produce a book called Cityscapes. A group of writers came together to write short stories inspired by exhibitions at the Barber Institute in Birmingham. When I came to read my story, Lulu’s London, opinions were divided. Lulu was a character with a chequered past and a confused present – half the room loved her and half the room hated her, but no one was indifferent which made me very happy.

Personally, I have a soft spot for characters who seem nice, but whose nastier traits are gradually laid bare as I read (or write) further into the story. And that leads us back to the importance of creating characters who are satisfying, from all 360 degrees. Perhaps the key is the understanding that nobody is totally evil or totally good. Nor should we expect our characters to be. The scales may shift as the plot progresses and, as in real life, the balance may not ever be fully resolved.

* * * * *

Jenefer Heap started writing in hotel rooms to keep her out of the bar. Then she won a competition, had two children, and published her own book, The Woman Who Never Did. As Jenny Heap, she is a founder member of StoryVine and writes rhymes about toast and poorly pythons for a younger audience.

Jenefer also comperes the ‘Words’ open-mics at The Globe in Warwick and is currently putting together a collection of pieces written mainly for performance, working title Women in Shorts, which she hopes to publish later this year.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Always Leave Them Wanting More: The Joy of Writing Series of Books - by Debbie Young

Celebrating the joy of Sherlock Holmes with BBC Radio Gloucestershire earlier this year  (Photo: Dominic Cotter)
A great way for authors to build readership and to enamour loyal fans is to write series of books about popular characters and settings. It's much easier to sell stories about familiar heroes and heroines than to persuade readers to try new ones. 

As the author of the first in a proposed series of seven Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, I have naturally been happy to learn of easy marketing tactics to sell series:

  • You can offer the first in the series at a reduced price to get the reader sufficiently hooked to buy the rest at full market price.
  • Even better, if you're marketing ebooks (and most indie authors, like me, will make the bulk of their sales in digital form), you can even offer the first in the series for free, because you have no production costs to cover once you've set up the digital file.  
  • Then there are the prequels you can use as mailing list magnets or special offer giveaways, and the seasonal specials. (I'm currently planning Murder in the Manger for my Christmas release.) 
  • You might even run to spin-off series about subsidiary characters. (I'm thinking of the back story of Great Auntie May, who has died before my first novel, Best Murder in Show, even begins.)

Acquiring the Habit

I sometimes refer to marketing series as "the drug-pusher's tactic", because all authors of series hope their readers will become addicted. 

But there's a downside too: you may end up enslaved to your readers, obliged to keep churning out stories about the same old characters, when you hunger to move on to new territory. After all, there are only so many books we can write in this life, no matter how many thousands of words a day we can set down. (And there are some authors out there who claim somestartlingly productive daily habits.)

  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, weary of writing about Sherlock Holmes, with some relish pushed him over the edge of the Reichenbach Falls, Switzerland, in "The Final Problem". Baying fans enforced his return, however, and he carried on solving crimes for another twenty-five years.
  • M C Beaton, now in her eighties, is still contractually bound to write one new Hamish Macbeth novel and another Agatha Raisin one every single year, and there are plenty of readers who will automatically buy each new one as it comes out, or even preorder it prior to publication date, because they can't wait to return to their next fix of their favourite characters. 

Having fun with M C Beaton at the Nailsworth Festival a few years ago
Of course, it's early days yet for me, having published just the first book of my proposed series so far. I'm still at the honeymoon stage of loving my characters (hero and heroine are aspiring author Sophie Sayers and bookseller Hector Munro) and my setting (Wendlebury Barrow, a small Cotswold village similar to the one in which I live in real life). Every time I sit down to edit Trick or Murder?, the second in the series, I feel a warm rush of comfort like plunging into a hot bubble bath. 

The beginning of a journey with the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries

One of my male readers told me he loves Sophie Sayers so much he wants to meet her. Female readers seem to fall in love with Hector Munro, and I confess I rather fancy him myself.

Early reviewers are already saying that they can't wait for the next one. A neighbour even told me I'm not allowed out of the house till book two's finished.

At this rate, my writing arm won't need much twisting to launch into books eight and nine and ten... 

But watch this space: you never know, a few years down the line I may be buying Sophie Sayers a one-way ticket to Switzerland...

Other Book Series That I Love Reading

Lucienne Boyce's Dan Foster historical mysteries, starting with Bloodie Bones
Celia Boyd's English Civil War "Reason From the Stars" series, starting with First Dry Rattle
Anita Davison's Flora Maguire historical mysteries, starting with Flora's Secret
David Ebsworth's Spanish Civil War mysteries, starting with The Assassin's Mark
Helena Halme's Anglo-Finnish romance, starting with The Englishman
JJ Marsh's Beatrice Stubbs detective series, starting with Behind Closed Doors
Rosalind Minett's WWII Relative Invasion series, starting with Intrusion
Alison Morton's Roma Nova alternative history series, starting with Inceptio
David Penny's Thomas Berrington historical mysteries, starting with The Red Hill
Dorothy L Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey classic detective stories, starting with Whose Body?

And here's the first of the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Best Murder in Show

What's your favourite series of novels? Please feel free to make a recommendation via the comments box!

I'm hoping this will leave you wanting more...

For more information about Debbie Young, 
visit her website
follow her on Facebook
or track her on Twitter at @DebbieYoungBN.

Monday, 29 May 2017

The unbearable inevitability of repetition: N M Browne

I've been writing for a while. Long enough to recognise its patterns. I blogged about them on my
own blog

One of the patterns is to forget about the patterns.
I started a new blog and a new business as a 'book doctor' and writing tutor as yet another form of procrastination and I was going to write about procrastination. To procrastinate I checked if I'd ever written about it before.

Yep - another pattern I'd forgotten- at some point in the blogging year I write about procrastination Here is one from
way back in 2008:

'I have a confession to make: I am a procrastinator and a time waster and there is no twelve step programme to help me.

I waste a lot of time reading blogs and I mean a lot of time. I love the clever ones with multiple links, the erudite ones and the guilt-inducing ones that demand I lend support to obscure causes. I adore the witty ones and the bitchy ones, but most of all I like the ones that read like a private diary, that let you into a secret life.'

Even my own secret life which I seem to have forgotten. There is another one posted here almost a year ago:

Every serious writer is a master of procrastination. I am sure that, if you are reading this, you are already on track. However, if you are running out of ideas, I would like to share with you my top procrastination tips. I can guarantee that if you follow these, you will never finish a novel again.
1.     Make a ‘to do’ list.
If you think list-making helps avoid procrastination, you are doing it wrong.
2.     Research.
Before writing a book you must research broadly, particularly if you don’t know what the book is going to be about. Under no circumstances have a plan.
         In order find the best agent/publisher and sell your book in shedloads read all the posts on internet chat rooms that deal with writing and the publishing industry. Sign up for mailing lists and join online writing communities. Blog and read other bloggers. Post compulsively about your ideas and worries. Ask for advice and dispense it. Get into arguments. 
         Change your mind about the marketability of the book you might like to write. Think about writing another one. Repeat as necessary.
So the only conclusion I can draw is that we writers live on a hamster wheel of repeated cycles, like a goldfish in a bowl we conveniently forget that we have been here before. Either that or it's just me and I am once more quietly losing the plot. I've blogged about that before too.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

ERIK SATIE, MOVIES and the PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE of having to WAIT by Enid Richemont

Every Monday morning I go to a class at my local Health club. The class is called Chi-Balls, and is a very satisfying combination of T'ai Chi, Yoga and Pilates. It's performed against a background mix of someone's idea of other-worldly and meditative music, which certainly works for me. One of the pieces it uses is the very-well-known "Gymnopedie No 1" by Erik Satie. If that sounds a bit obscure, google it and listen - the chances are slim that you won't know it, as it's used - over-used - in so many TV dramas, especially the mystical, atmospheric, and deeply psychological kind.

We used to have an Erik Satie CD, but I seem to have lost it, so I thought I'd try looking for him in my local libraries and music shop with - astonishingly - no luck. I turned to the Web, where there is, of course, masses of information about him. I was grabbed by a performance of the ballet "PARADE" - a collaboration between Satie and Picasso. I knew nothing at all about his actual life apart from his music, so I looked for that, too, and was mesmerised. I think now we'd classify him as a gifted autistic, but I doubt if those terms existed in the late Nineteenth Century.  He had only one serious love affair with Impressionist woman painter Suzanne Valadon, who lived next door to him in Montmartre  (it lasted six months). As a student at the Paris Conservatoire, he was described as incompetent and useless, but he went on to become a close friend of both Debussy and Ravel, at the same time as performing in night clubs like Le Chat Noir. He lived on a personally chosen diet of only white foods, and became seriously involved with the Rosicrucians for whom he composed, and ended up inventing his own religion of which he was the sole member. Eventually he left Montmartre to spend the last thirty years of his life in a filthy, run-down suburban bedsit, but still managed to dress impeccably - he owned several identical grey suits. Musically, he was way beyond his time, influencing people like John Cage, As you can see, I've become somewhat obsessed. Made sensitively, his life could inspire an absolutely amazing movie or documentary, and I'm hoping somebody will.

Mentioning movies - well, mine drags on and on, although they've now appointed a line director and are planning to start shooting in August (will I live so long?) And now I've sent off a new book to my agent on the very day she was going on holiday - great timing. I am the world's worst waiter - I cannot bear to wait for an expected phone call, and if you're late coming to my house for coffee, you'll find me pacing the street assuming the worst, so why, given this mega-character flaw, have I fallen into a career with waiting as its main characteristic? Think publishers... I keep reminding myself of that wonderful story in which the Devil tries in vain to upset an old lady (he breaks her chair etc etc, and she simply smiles and says: "I was going to get rid of it anyway, so thank you very much.") In other words, I should bounce back, and use the waiting space as an opportunity. Oh, if only I could.

 As a child, I loathed Grimms Fairy Tales, preferring instead the wonderful fantasies of Hans Christian Andersen (which I still love) and the variously coloured fairy books which I devoured. Not for me the old women, the sad soldiers, and the ogres and demons which seemed too uncomfortable close to the human monsters beloved of the tabloids. However, about a year ago, I was given Philip Pullman's Grimm Tales, and now find myself regularly dipping into them. The latest tale to grab me is Godfather Death, with its image of a great underground cavern filled with candles, each candle representing a human life. Death has been chosen by the child's father because Death is the great equaliser. Dad rejects God, who also offers, and also the Devil, but Death seems fairer, targeting without preference both the rich and the poor. It's a fascinating book, with historical footnotes to each story, and the tales just the right length for a contemplative read on the loo.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Bill Clinton and James Patterson - So Who Will Actually Do the Typing? By Andrew Crofts

Two of the biggest names in the world, Bill Clinton and James Patterson, are “collaborating on a novel”. But who is actually going to be sitting down and doing the typing? Will there be a ghostwriter involved? Would anyone care if there was?

So where does ghostwriting end and collaboration begin? And what roles will the two “big name” editors who have been announced play in the process?

I guess it all comes down to how many megawatts of star power each member of the team can muster. How far up the billing in the global media pantomime do their names appear?

Bill Clinton is about as high as you can get in the international fame game. Anyone who might be a potential buyer of this thriller will know who he is. His name will give the book credibility because he actually knows what goes on behind the scenes – dare we say, he actually knows “where the bodies are buried”?

He reputedly wrote every word of his autobiography, “My Life”, and unkind critics complained that it would have been a less tedious read if it had been written by a professional ghostwriter. Clinton himself has always claimed that one of his greatest ambitions was to write a “good book”, so maybe he is going to be doing the bulk of the work here. I guess he has some time on his hands – possibly more than Patterson, but would he have the ability to write gripping fictional prose?

Patterson’s name will resonate with anyone who has ever glanced at an airport bookstall and he probably has the biggest following of loyal adult readers in the world; so there’s another dollop of credibility for the project. He is also, however, known to collaborate with other writers who produce the books which boast his famous name in the boldest print face, and are reportedly based on his plot lines. The sheer number of books that he produces each year mean that it would be physically impossible for him to do all the writing himself and he doesn’t pretend otherwise. Is there any chance that he will have been able to find time to actually write this one?

Maybe they will both be relying on the two editors to do the necessary “re-writing”. If so, not many people will know about it. Sonny Mehta is a legend in the publishing world but his name would mean nothing to the book-buying general public. Likewise Michael Pietsch, also rumoured to be working on the project, runs one of the biggest publishing conglomerates in the world, which means to the man in the street he is just another anonymous suit.

Because of their star power, therefore, Clinton and Patterson will be the names on the cover, (and the publicity that the project has already received bears out the commercial wisdom of that decision). The names of the editors will only resonate within the publishing trade and I imagine that the name of whoever actually sits down and pumps out the words, if it is actually none of the above, will probably be known only to those in the inner circle.

There would be no point in broadcasting the name of the ghostwriter if it didn’t help to sell more copies, and my guess is that whoever might get the job is perfectly happy with that, enjoying the editorial meetings with these global figures and relishing the challenge of creating a good read from the ideas that they are firing out. Of all the advantages that ghostwriting offers, one of the greatest must be the opportunity that you get to meet people of interest. The same holds true of “collaboration”.

Will the public care who actually wrote the words? Absolutely not. Why should they? A team as experienced and professional as this one will undoubtedly be able to produce exactly the sort of story that the readers want to buy. The nuts and bolts of how it was created will only interest other writers.

I may be completely wrong, of course. It is possible that Clinton and Patterson are spending long nights together, ties at half mast, ashtrays filled with brutally crushed butt ends, empty coffee cups covering the writing pads that are strewn all around the dimly lit room as they labour desperately into the small hours of the morning to meet the editors’ deadlines – I'd like to think that would be how it went.    


Friday, 26 May 2017

Lessons On Panelists For A Most Excellent Book Launch : Dipika Mukherjee writes from Malaysia

The very first book launch I had to organise was for The Merlion and The Hibiscus; it was an anthology published by Penguin, and designed to market the best of Southeast Asian writing worldwide. I was the lead editor with Kirpal Singh and M.A Quayum but a total newbie. I honestly thought that all my subsequent book launches would be like this, with the legendary Raffles hotel in Singapore sponsoring hors d'oeuvres, a leading statesman and writer the Guest of Honour, and a ballroom packed with people sipping wine, eager to buy the books that the publisher had imported in large quantities.

That was in 2002. I had no idea that publisher-backed anthologies are a very different beast from single-authored books and debut novels can be a hard sell. 

In 2011, at the launch of my debut novel Thunder Demons at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi, it rained incessantly. It made the bad Delhi traffic virtually unnavigable (it rained at ALL the launches of Thunder Demons, until I would joke that I’d title the sequel Sunny Angels). When my father, a career diplomat, finally made his way into the cavernous room at the IHC, he shed all diplomacy to querulously ask, But where is the audience?

People did trickle in through the evening, but not in the numbers I had imagined. Looking at the mounds of uneaten food congealing in serving trays, I was convinced that my book was doomed, I was a failed writer, and that I should never ever launch a book again.

Divya Dubey of Gyaana Books had arranged a fabulous four-city launch, and things were much better at Chennai and Kolkata, where the event was held within the cosy confines of leading bookstores. But I was still new to the ranks of Published Authors, and found myself on panels with people I barely knew and those completely unfamiliar with my work. I had to read my work aloud -- which I still dislike -- and in those early days, each literary event meant to celebrate my work ended up being excruciating.
Then, in May 2012, the Indian Consulate in Shanghai hosted a reading for Thunder Demons. The event took place in the gorgeous historical grounds of the Shanghai Writers’ Association. And although I was still publicizing the same book by the same author, I stumbled into something that made this event glitter in a way that none had done before: there was a very special panel discussing my book.
That the panel was awesome was undeniable (it included Tan Zheng, a prolific writer & professor of English Literature at Fudan University; Peoy Leng, a Malaysian writer; Kunal Sinha, Indian writer & Regional Director for Cultural Insights, Oglivy & Mather, Asia Pacific; moderated by Indira Ravindran, visiting professor at the School of Political Science & International Relations at Tongji University). But the best part was: they were all my friends.
There is a wonderful ease to an event where literary friends read their favourite parts of your published work so that you don’t have to read anything at all. The questions often delve deeper because they know you well, but are never uncomfortable.
So when a similar event was held in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month on May 13, 2017, to launch my latest novel Shambala Junction, I had no hesitation in putting together a panel of friendly experts. This time, the panelists included Mahi Ramakrishnan, Journalist & Filmmaker; Sumitra Selvaraj, TV Executive Producer; Malachi Edwin Vethamani, Professor of Modern English Literature; moderated by Sharon Bakar, Publisher and Writing Coach.
The evening sparkled. A panel brought in a crowd I single-handedly would not be able to attract and  both the discussion (and the food!) was devoured. Books sold out completely and very quickly.
So here are a few things I have learnt from my experience of book launches over the last decade and a half:
1) Shouldering the responsibility of a book launch alone can be scary and lonely. Sharing the stage with a panel of friends who know your work helps immensely.
2) Getting panelists to focus on their favourite parts of the book works really well. Usually that leads to a discussion of sociopolitical issues or gender inequalities or the craft of writing...infinitely more interesting than having the author read out large swathes of the book. Enthusiastic panelists feed off each other’s energy and make the book look really good!
3) Academics are wonderful to have on a panel, but they should be balanced with practicing writers and practitioners in the field (in the case of Shambala Junction, this meant Human Rights activists). A diversity of experiences and backgrounds makes the panel buzz and keeps it jargon-free.

Try launching your next book with a panel of your literary buddies. Then a guest at your own party!

Dipika Mukherjee is a writer and sociolinguist. Her second novel, Shambala Junction, won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016). Her debut novel was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and republished as Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016). Her short story collection is Rules of Desire (Fixi, 2015) and edited collections include Champion Fellas (Word Works, 2016), Silverfish New Writing 6 (Silverfish, 2006) and The Merlion and Hibiscus (Penguin, 2002). She has two poetry collections: The Third Glass of Wine (Writer’s Workshop, 2015), and The Palimpsest of Exile (Rubicon Press, 2009). She is a Juror on the The Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2017 and founded the D.K Dutt Award for Literary Excellence in Malaysia in 2015.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

"How To Be Free" - reviewed by Susan Price


Life is absurd. 


Be merry. Be free.


This sentiment appears on the cover of How To Be Free and runs throughout the book.

It's a most entertaining read. Half the time I agreed with  Hodgkinson's arguments so wholeheartedly, I wanted to cheer. The rest of the time I thought them so crack-brained, I wanted to throw the book across the room. I always enjoy books like this. They make you think.

Tom Hodgkinson, The Idler
Tom Hodgkinson is the editor of The Idler and the author of How To Be Idle. From page one to the end, he rages against the 'mind-forged manacles' that keep people in jobs they hate in order to pay, often, for things they don't need or even really want. They just think they ought to want them. (In his opinion.)

Modern society, he argues, is in all but name, a slave society, but the chains are all 'mind-forged.' It forces people into a rigid system. First it educates them to believe in passing exams and 'getting a good job.' But a 'career' Hodgkinson argues, sets meaningless goals of 'sales targets', 'bonuses' and 'promotion.' People are convinced that a bigger house in a 'better' neighbourhood, a more expensive car, 'designer' clothes and kitchen gadgets are signs of success and, therefore, happiness. But none of these things are, fundamentally, what make people happy.

And, of course, in our present society it's impossible for everyone to have a high-flying career. Some simply aren't interested and they're called stupid, feckless, unambitious and lazy. Others are broken by the stultifying demands of 'career' and many are suddenly made redundant by economic shifts they have no control over. These people are labelled 'failures,' which does its own psychological damage.

The whole notion of 'a good job' and 'a career' are, Hodgkinson says, traps and enslavements. The things that make human beings happy are: friends and family, having a laugh with them, creativity, control over your own life, growing things and tending animals, and having plenty of time to be idle and think.

The book is a series of 29 short essays, all ending with a rousing slogan. Among them are:-

  • Banish Anxiety: Be Carefree - Ride a bike.
  •  The Tyranny of Bills and the Freedom of Simplicity - Play the ukelele.
  • Reject Career and All its Empty Promises -  Find your gift.
  • Escape Debt - Cut Up Your Credit Card.
  • Forget Government -  Stop Voting.
  • Reject Waste, Embrace Thrift - Shovel Shit! 
  • Stop Working, Start Living -  Play.
It's all energetically, playfully and wittily written, but Hodgkinson really means it. Every chapter has its own note at the end, giving hints on how you might practically follow up the advice.

As a grumpy old Leftie, I muttered and mumbled about public-school educated Poshos telling the rest of us how to live - haven't we had a gut-full of that, for gods' sake? And it's all right for some with their Trust Funds and the Bank of Mummy and Daddy to fall back on...

But then I had to admit that, for most of my life, I've followed most of what Hodgkinson suggests. I am, I suppose, what he likes to call 'a Bohemian.' Indeed, a rather hard Glaswegian of my acquaintance nicknamed me and Davy 'The Brummie Bohemians' when we learned that, not only weren't we married, but we had no intention of ever getting married. (I was only surprised that this friend thought it worth commenting on at all.)

I didn't plan to be a Bohemian - but then, I've never gone in for life-plans or even five-year-plans. They strike me as very odd. I had no idea I was 'stepping outside the system' or being free. Mostly, I thought I was being broke, but apparently being broke is the new rich.

I've never had 'a career' or wanted one. (My writing is sometimes called 'a career' but, well, hardly.) I've lived from advance to lecture-fee to royalty. I am very frugal and thrifty (some would say stingy.) I will spend money, if I have to, on things I really want - books, travel, plants. Everything else is cheap or second-hand and never replaced until there's not another day's use in it. Because what I don't spend on non-essentials I can put towards stuff I'll enjoy. (And of course, what's 'essential' is open to definition. Fashionable clothes and house redecoration are, for me, non-essential in the extreme whereas books, single malt whisky and trips to the Hebrides... )

I've always had plenty of time to be idle, to read, to think, to write, draw, learn, make... It's also true that I've rarely felt such satisfaction as I have with my recent (and on-going) creation of a wildlife garden combined with growing my own fruit and vegetables. Hodgkinson is a hugely enthusiastic gardener and wants everyone to garden - and I have to agree with him about gardening as a source of happiness.

Hodgkinson blames the sorry state of slavery that exists today on 'Puritans.' He really hates 'Puritans.'

In the good old, Catholic Middle Ages, according to him, we all lived in a demi-paradise. We each of us had our cosy little cottage with a small-holding and all we had to do in return for it was a couple of days' light work a week on the lord's land - and, of course, as we all worked together, there was lots of good fellowship and cheer and it wasn't like work at all really.

The rest of the time we could work at our own pace on our own business, growing our own food or working, with creativity and satisfaction, at some useful craft like blacksmithing, pottery or basket-making. (All working-class crafts, which workers had no choice but to do, all recently taken up as 'artisan jobs' by the middle-classes like Hodgkinson. Excuse my grump. My great-grandfather was a blacksmith: my grandfather was a brick-maker. Neither did the work in order to be happy. Neither had much choice about it.)

Brueghal's peasants whooping it up on one of their many carefree holidays.
The Catholic Church was a benevolent overseer to this golden Merry England, providing lots of gorgeous ritual, music and holidays to lighten our days. Life was just wonderful all the time.

But then came the Reformation and the rise of Capitalism. The Catholic church and all the monasteries were destroyed. The peasants' common land was stolen from them and enclosed for the rearing of sheep. Families who'd been comfortably self-sufficient became hired farm hands in tied cottages. Land began to be something the rich speculated in to make fortunes, rather than something used by and for the whole community, to raise food.

Things just got worse and worse with the rise of industry and the dark, satanic mills. Workers became disposessed 'hands' and 'mechanics', forced to work miserably in terrible conditions, for inhumanly long hours, for a pittance. The medieval guilds where masters and men worked together vanished, and Unions were formed from the workers' desperation. Ever since then, workers and employers have been at loggerheads, one side for ever trying on some chicanery in order to make more profit and the other side forever on the defensive, trying to claw out some quality of life from the hellish urban landscape.

Wrong but Wromantic                          Right but Repulsive
For Hodgkinson, the Middle Ages and the 17th Century Cavaliers represent Ease, Joy, Grace, Elegance, Freedom.

Later centuries and the Puritans represent Greed, Narrowness, Ugliness, Rudeness, Joylessness and Slavery. It all reminds me of 1066 and All That, where the Cavaliers are summed up as 'Wrong but Wromantic,' and the Roundheads as 'Right but Repulsive.' (The beautiful drawing is by John Reynolds.)

I recognise that there are some grains of truth in Hodgkinson's account. The idea that all peasants, throughout the entire 400 years or so that make up 'the Middle Ages' were all plague-ridden, shit-encrusted and starving all the time is a nonsense. Excavations have revealed that many 'peasants' lived comfortable and prosperous lives. They did have more public holidays than we do and they could work as hard or as lightly as they chose, just as workers in the later cottage-industries could. As Marx put it, before the Industrial Revolution, work was a part of life. After, work was a sacrifice of life. (But did medieval peasants think that on a freezing cold morning when they had to go out and plough?)

The medieval Catholic Church often did serve a benevolent social role, providing work for makers of beautiful things, giving alms, keeping guest houses for travellers and taking the sick into its care.

But, but... I can't help feeling that Hodgkinson's view of the Middle Ages is seen not so much through rose-tinted specs as a shocking-pink blindfold. The Catholic Church was often anything but benevolent - the Inquisition? The witch-hunts? The Crusades? The slaughter of the Cathars? Where do these things fit into the happy, singy-dancy medieval dream?

And that cosy medieval world of Hodgkinson's, where everybody loves everybody else and they're always singing and dancing and feasting? Were there never any cold winters or hungry gaps? - How about this, from Piers Plowman, by Langland, who was actually present at the time, 600 years ago?

“As I went on my way,
I saw a poor man over the plough bending.

His hood was full of holes,
And his hair stuck out.
His shoes were patched,
His toes peeped out as he the ground trod.
His wife walked by him
In a skirt cut full and high,
Wrapped in a sheet to keep her from the weather,
Bare foot on the bare ice
So that the blood flowed.
At the field’s end lay a little bowl,
And in there lay a little child wrapped in rags
And two more of two years old upon another side.
And all of them sang a song
That was sorrowful to hear.
They all cried a cry,
A sorrowful note.
And the poor man sighed sore and said
“Children be still.”

And with all Hodgkinson's railing against 'slavery' I was a little taken aback at his description of the American Civil War as one fought between the 'rude North and the courteous South.' He doesn't mention that one of the South's 'courteousies' was the enslavement and mistreatment of other human beings. I'll take the grasping North's rudeness, thanks, over that kind of 'courtesy.' It was this kind of thing which enraged me and made me throw the book aside.

Even so, I picked it up again. I can't help agreeing with Hodgkinson more often than I disagree with him. I think he is often silly,  but still has the big picture of our society and how it needs to change, framed about right.

I recommend the book as a stimulating, entertaining and, perhaps, even world-changing read.

Susan Price won the Carnegie medal for her book, The Ghost Drum. 

The Sterkarm Handshake won her the Guardian Fiction Prize.