Hello to All That

The Fowlesian warning

Above the door to the room that has become my new study there is a sign: WAITING ROOM. Shades of John Fowles! In Fowles’s brilliant novel The Magus (1965), the protagonist Nicholas Urfe is warned: “Beware of the waiting room.” It takes a while for Urfe to understand the true import of this warning, and in a similar way my new room just feels like a good place to have an office. The sign stays up, but I’m on my guard.

(There is a similar sign over the door to the adjacent room: SURGERY. We quickly worked out therefore that this house was formerly used by a GP. I am currently looking around for the inevitable pile of much-read old magazines.)

From all this you may assume that we have arrived safely in our new home. We have moved out of England and are living on the Scottish island of Bute.

The Firth – Cowal Peninsula in the distance

We now have a daily prospect of other islands, of distant mountains, and of a sheltered inland sea. Bute is both romantic and workaday, wild but tamed, under-populated but busy and self-sufficient. It is situated in the Firth of Clyde, not far from Glasgow as the crow flies, forty-five miles or so, but by being an island it is naturally isolated in practice and in attitude, and is therefore a different world.

We were in Devon before we moved – you never in fact tire of being in Devon, because it is an unassertive place of natural beauty, of as-yet undamaged countryside and a quiet way of life, but we had been there for two and a half years and felt, rather reluctantly, it was time to move on.

Why Scotland? Many reasons, not least being the fact that we love the Scottish scenery, the glens and the lochs and the almost endless variety of the island and mountain landscapes, but in reality we felt it was not practicable for us to live in the Highlands, so we have not moved there. Another motivator for the move was the incompetence and dogmatic conservatism of the present Westminster government – they are cutting back on schools, hospitals, social services and renewable energy sources, yet encouraging frackers and seacoal burners, and any kind of presumed financial service they think might massage the economy. There is almost zero support or encouragement from the philistine London government for writers, painters and other artists, while in Scotland the arts are taken seriously at many levels of society. And then there is the matter of Brexit, something I consider to be a disaster, now in the process of being bungled into a disaster of historical proportions by the present UK government. Every part of Scotland voted Remain in the EU referendum. Anyway, we are not farmers or crofters – we need to be close to bookshops, cinemas, theatres, galleries, grocery stores, takeaway food, the Post Office, and more mundane services such as those of dentist and doctor.

Rothesay is the only town on Bute, and it provides all of those (and more), while maintaining the generally intangible aura of being on the edge of the elements. A mile from the centre of town is a huge roadless zone of high moor and windswept hills. The edge of the sea is literally fifty feet from where I am sitting at my desk. Ferries to the mainland come and go at 45-minute intervals all day and every day.

MV Bute leaving Rothesay Harbour

Yesterday the Firth of Clyde was swathed in thick sea fog, and as dawn came up I managed to catch this photograph of one of the ferries just about to head out to sea. Two miles in the opposite direction to the hills and the port is the gothic masterpiece of Mount Stuart House, one of the most astonishing stately homes anywhere in the UK. Less than a year ago a complete First Folio of Shakespeare was discovered in the library.

I intend to get back to writing my next novel pretty soon. The short first draft manuscript I was working on a month ago is in one of the boxes heaped up next door – I’ll keep searching.

Goodbye to All This

We shall be moving house a few days before Donald Trump enters the White House. A small domestic upheaval before a seismic disturbance of historical significance.

I fear and loathe Trump, in the same way I feared and loathed the bullies who dominated my life when I was six and seven years old. I was a middle-class boy with the London accent I had picked up from my Londoner parents (they had been exiled to the north of England by the German bombing). I was sent to a primary school largely populated by kids from the slum-clearance estate that had appeared suddenly on the edge of the Cheshire village where I was born. They too had been exiled by the bombing, in their case from the narrow, mean backstreets of central Manchester. Even at this early age they were tough kids, looked it and acted it. Few of them could read or write, many of them thought with their fists or their boots, and a nervous middle-class kid who had a London accent and liked reading books was for them a heaven-sent opportunity. I shed my London vowels as quickly as possible, but I have never been a fighter and nothing could put a stop to the violent class war that broke out around me and on me. (When I was eight I passed an entrance exam and was moved to a different school.)

Trump reminds me unfailingly of those troubled and inadequate kids, who saw me, and a handful of others like me, as some kind of threat to however it was they dimly and narrowly interpreted the world. Trump is my enemy, in the same way as those louts were my enemies. He is inexperienced, ignorant and crude. He is a sex offender, an abuser of women, a mocker of people with disabilities, a racist. He is culturally bereft. He clearly lacks the capacity for imaginative thought, for subtlety, diplomacy – or any kind of structured decision-making. Worst of all, he actually sees these major personality flaws as qualifications, as character qualities that give him the right profile to be president of the most powerful nation on Earth.

The prospect of this appalling man having any kind of political power, even for a short time, is terrifying. No good can come of it, and although in the past I have worried intensely about political leaders, and suffered by their policies – Margaret Thatcher, the Bushes, Vladimir Putin, Ronald Reagan – with hindsight the threats they represented seem laughably trivial compared with potential for the economic, political, social and military chaos that is likely to result from the bizarre prejudices and confusions of the offensive and disgusting Trump.

Our move away from Devon is not directly connected with Trump, of course, but our decision to move came after the full impact of the depressing Brexit vote began to sink in, and while Trump’s revolting election campaign was at its height. Maybe these two signal events of 2016 had an influence on our choice, but we maintain our motives are positive, not an instinct to try to flee. Devon is itself something of a refuge, of course, a place of presumed safety some people move to as an escape from the harsher realities of the modern world.

We have been happy in Devon: the landscape in particular strikes a resonant chord in me. To most people who live in Britain and who travel to the west country, Devon is a sort of rural prelude to the more commercially adept resort areas of Cornwall. There is nothing much in Devon: there are two big cities, Exeter and Plymouth, but neither of these is on the same sort of scale as the major cities of Britain, and both are well contained within their localities. Exeter in particular is a compact, attractive town. There are a few other smaller towns, but most of Devon is countryside: farms, woods, moors, river valleys, wild coastline. It is peaceful and beautiful, and although such passive countryside is openly vulnerable to exploitation, so far it has been left more or less undamaged by industrialization, by commercial enterprises, by intrusive housing developments, by the unwanted construction of trunk roads. It has not been entirely spared these modern features, but there are still large areas of the Devon countryside that have not substantially changed in centuries.

It has to be fought for. Housing estates are appearing on the edges of many villages, bringing dull modern designs to places better known for cob cottages and thatched roofs. Supermarkets are being built in many of the market towns. Even the one true wilderness in the heart of Devon, Dartmoor National Park, is at risk – many of the off-road tors are now being indelibly streaked with wide and muddy tracks created by trail bikes and ATVs, which are in any event a noisy nuisance to walkers. None of this is the reason we are leaving, because this is the modern world and people have to live somewhere, and anyway so far the damage is not irreparable.

The house we are leaving is situated on high land close to the valley of the River Taw. This meanders calmly between hills, through its flood plain, free of pollution, rich with fish, animals and birdlife. Not far from this is a tributary, the River Mole, flowing down from Exmoor to Kings Nympton, where it joins the Taw. In its comparatively short length the Mole has four of its own tiny tributaries, all more or less unknown outside the locality. They have lovely names: the Yeo, the Crooked Oak, the Bray, the Little Silver Stream.

Of any of this, Donald J. Trump knows nothing. He sees land as something to be bought and developed: he has purchased two golf courses in Scotland. (One of them was already there, but after a lengthy battle with local people and environmentalists he built the Balmedie course on formerly undeveloped coastline near Aberdeen, a bird sanctuary and a marine landscape of dunes and wild beaches.) He believes climate change is a hoax, played by China on the USA to make Americans lose their jobs – he has said that on taking office he will “cancel” all existing US climate change policies. He has “promised” to restore the torturing of political prisoners. He has discussed the possibility of using nuclear weapons in Europe. He urged gun owners to turn them on his political opponent, Hillary Clinton. He –

I have always loved and admired the USA, but some recent madness has made Americans inflict this inadequate and troubled lout on the world.

For the next two or three weeks we will be packing our stuff, moving our stuff some 800 kms (approx. 500 miles), unpacking our stuff, getting our stuff to work again … we will be off grid for a while. By the time we are back on, well – see above.

Happy New Year!

The Terror of 403

Apologies if you have been trying to reach this site in the last two weeks or so. A terrifying error-message which blazoned the word FORBIDDEN in capital letters was all you would find. A virus attack had occurred at the ISP, but it has now been sorted by my son Simon. (A million thanks!) He and I have changed ISP, and things should be back to normal.

But I ask a favour: I understand that after a change of ISP anyone who has a link to my site will not be able to re-connect, except manually. I have no access to social media, and I’d be grateful if this renewal could be made known. The URL is unchanged: www.christopher-priest.co.uk.

Thanks!

They Have Been Sent In

The image below appears on the cover of Fortean Times 347, dated December 2016.

clown
The headline beside it reads as follows:

ATTACK OF THE KILLER CLOWNS
The creepy craze that started in America and spread across the world

My copy of FT was delivered here on 8th November. Fortean coincidence, or what?

Fortean Times, the journal of well researched and sceptical reporting of strange phenomena, the bizarre and the inexplicable, is one of the most readable, intelligent and thought-provoking magazines in existence. It is also at times extremely amusing. In a world perceptibly going mad, it is a beacon of sanity. I read it cover-to-cover as soon as it arrives. A 12-month subscription costs: UK £38.98, EC £47.50, USA $88.99.

 

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

The Day the Earth Caught Fire was a British science fiction film made in 1961. These days it has become a somewhat under-rated and forgotten film, but it has its moments. Told from the point of view of the journalists and editor of a Fleet Street newspaper (in fact, the Daily Express), the film depicts the fate of the world after too much nuclear testing tilts the axis of the planet. Severe climate change ensues. In the film, the only possible remedy is thought to be the setting off of even more nuclear explosions, which will in theory cause a return to normality. However, there is an equal risk that the detonations will destroy what is left of the planet.

As the moment of detonation approaches, and the characters face their destiny, the machine room of the newspaper is set to print one of two final editions. The closing image in the film is of the front pages of both editions.

saveddoomed

 

 

 

I can’t help remembering this as we prepare to spend the night watching TV, waiting for salvation or doom.

Ravilious (2)

New Perspectives, the exhibition mounted by Beaford Arts of
new-perspectives
photographs by James Ravilious and others, opened yesterday. (See entry below.) It runs until 12th November. The exhibition will eventually tour, displaying in several of the villages and towns which are the actual locations, but this opening is at the Goodwin Gallery, Petroc Brannams Campus, Barnstaple.

It’s a rare opportunity to see twenty-five of James Ravilious’s extraordinary black-and-white images of North Devon, beautifully printed, mounted and displayed. The exhibition celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of Beaford Arts, which holds the Ravilious archive. It was curated and organized by Caroline Preston, who with Lizzie Grant and Martyn Warren also curated the open submissions.

Nina and I went to the private view yesterday, happily mingling with the other amateur photographers whose contemporary pictures were shown alongside Ravilious’s originals, most of them from thirty or forty years ago.

goodwin-gallery

photo by: Nina Allan
photo by: Nina Allan

Ravilious

Today is UK publication day for The Gradual, but resisting temptation to put up yet another scan of the attractive Gollancz cover, let me show you an image of something else entirely.

northam-burrowsThis is a part of the huge area of estuarial salt marshes at the mouth of the rivers Taw and Torridge. The photograph was taken on the southern side of the rivers, known as Northam Burrows. In the distance there is a glimpse of the seaside town of Westward Ho! (The exclamation mark is part of the town’s name, and has nothing to do with my possible surprise or excitement about it.)

I took the photo because I had my camera with me, and because it struck me as an interesting view. I took several more that day, in July this year, and this was the best of them.

Much later I discovered that a local arts organization called Beaford Arts was running a competition to celebrate their 50th anniversary, and were inviting photographic entries inspired by the work of James Ravilious.

Ravilious’s work as a photographer is not, I think, widely known outside Devon, but to my mind his photographs are not only artistic and beautiful, but have real social worth too. He was the son of the artist Eric Ravilious, a painter whose work I had already come to admire as he was based in Eastbourne – many of his paintings were inspired by the East Sussex coast where I was then living.

James Ravilious, working with Beaford Arts for about a quarter of a century, from 1972 until his premature death in 1999, set out to make a pictorial record not only of the unspoiled, peaceful and vulnerable scenery of North Devon, but also of the people who lived and worked in the area. Many of the people who live around here remember him well – he was much liked in his lifetime. He took more than 80,000 photographs in that quarter century, and also made archive copies of around 5,000 more photos taken by other photographers in earlier years. There is probably no other area of rural England so intensively recorded by such a wealth of remarkable photographs. In my opinion Ravilious is easily the equal of great French photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson (who had originally inspired Ravilious to take up photography) and Robert Doisneau. Both of these men worked almost exclusively in black-and-white, as did Ravilious.

Many of Ravilious’s pictures can be seen on his website. The whole archive is maintained by Beaford Arts, and much of that can also be viewed online.

The other day I learned that my photo of Northam Burrows has been selected to be exhibited, and will be displayed alongside a photograph taken by Ravilious in 1977, of Braunton Burrows, on the opposite side of the estuary. I believe the exhibition will be touring in Devon soon, but I don’t think it will be shown outside the county.

So do take some time to look at Ravilious’s astonishingly beautiful photographs, and reflect, as he wished us to do, that this unique tract of England might one day be casually destroyed by those who have an insatiable need for road widening schemes, shopping malls and estate houses.

Life is a Lottery

Affirmation EksmoThis is the cover of the Russian translation of The Affirmation, due to be published by Eksmo on 6th October. It accurately identifies the book as a product of the age of typewriters …

According to my trusty Russian speaker (Nina), the title translates as Lottery, or maybe a slight adaptation of the word. In the novel it’s called a Lotterie.

As always I’m really pleased to see this particular novel given a new lease of life.

Selfie literature

Tom Hunter, current director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, wants to open the prize to self-published novels. He is at present uncertain how this might work. One way he is mooting would be to throw it open to anyone, but charge each writer the same submission fee presently paid by publishers. Another proposal is to allow the panel of judges to call in self-published books. The two could or might be combined in some way.

But it seems to me that this begs the question of what a self-published novel actually is. For example, an ebook made available by a writer through Kindle is self-published — Amazon is only the distributor. Amazon does not act or function as publisher, and the writer remains the de facto publisher.  So here is a definition that might be helpful:

Self-published works are not eligible where the author is the publisher. If the publisher is a company which has been specifically set up to publish the work in question, and/or the author is the person who owns the majority shareholding or otherwise controls the company, the work is ineligible.

That strikes me as a clear, uncontroversial and defensible statement of how self-published novels, intended to be submitted to a literary award, should be defined and regulated. It also accepts by implication that there is a difference between self-published texts and professionally published books. Although it is always unacknowledged by those who campaign for literary parity, here is the difference:

A book brought out by a trade publisher goes through various processes and tests before it is printed and distributed through bookshops.

  • The author, who in many cases has the experience of publishing earlier works, will have completed several drafts and read-throughs before submitting it to the publisher.
  • The manuscript will be read and judged by an experienced editor, and in some cases by several other people who work for the publisher.
  • After it has been accepted the publisher will almost invariably require changes, usually minor but sometimes quite extensive: parts of the book might be requested to be shortened, lengthened, clarified, rewritten, etc.
  • When the author has been given time to consider and carry out the revisions, the next stage is a close copy edit of the text. The copy editor will modify the text to conform to the publisher’s house style, and to normal printing conventions. At the same time various small but important matters will be addressed. Spelling and grammar will be corrected. Inconsistencies of plot or character or language or background will be queried.
  • After the book has been set in type, both an in-house proofreader and the author will go closely through the text to make sure everything is correct.
  • The book will be designed. Typeface and general typography will be chosen, as will page layout, chapter breaks, and so on.
  • A cover is designed by an artist, overseen by the publisher’s art department.
  • The finished book is then printed and bound.

None of these steps, or almost none, will apply to a self-published book. It is nothing to do with elitism (a frequent charge against people who know the difference). Writing is a profession. It has standards.

More than one hundred books are submitted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award every year — 113 were sent in for the 2016 prize. That’s a lot of reading to get through in a matter of a few weeks, and if the floodgates were opened and the commitment had to increase I believe it would become unworkable for most people. If self-published books were regulated as suggested above, then perhaps numbers would stay more or less where they are.

While on the subject of the Clarke Award, and knowing that no one can agree what it is actually “for”, it seems to me that over the thirty years of its existence it has tended to highlight well written centralist science fiction as well as more ambitious works which are pushing at the edges of the definition of the genre. Science fiction has always been a progressive form: it changes and improves and expands, and we look to something like the Clarke Award to reflect that unique literary spirit. In this it differs from fan-based prizes. Most of the people who have won the prize in the past have been serious about their writing, and the general tone of discussion has been, until recently, equally serious.

(Many congratulations to Adrian Tchaikovsy on his win! I hope it will have a significant impact on his career.)

L’inclinaison

L'inclinaisonHere is the cover for L’inclinaison, the beautiful new translated edition of The Gradual, from Gilles Dumay’s collection Lunes d’encre (published by Denoël in Paris). It has been translated by Jacques Collin, who also translated The Adjacent.

It is due to be published at the end of September.

Yesterday, I received my first finished copies of Gollancz’s hardcover edition (see below), which is due to appear on 15th September. Sounds like a busy month — the following events are coming up, in addition to the books being published:

Wednesday, 14th September. I shall be at Waterstones in Bath, 4-5 Milsom Street, Bath — interview and signing. 6:00 for 6:30pm. Contact the shop for more details.

Weekend of 17th/18th September. With many others of the Gollancz authors I shall be taking part in this year’s Gollancz Festival, largely based in Foyles bookstore in Charing Cross Road, London.

Saturday 24th September. I am taking part in a celebration of H. G. Wells’ 150th anniversary at Bromley Central Library (Large Hall, 4th Floor, from 11:15am onwards). There will be several talks (including mine), a chance to view selected items from the extensive Wells archive, and a walk around parts of Bromley associated with Wells. More info here.

Sunday 25th September. After a mad dash northwards I shall be giving a talk called Reality, Memory and Doubt at Brighouse Library, at 4:00pm. This will follow a free screening of the film of The Prestige, at 1.30pm. (Perhaps this is the moment to say that the “Lord Colderdale” mentioned in the film, and the book, has nothing whatsoever to do with Calderdale, the local authority which runs the library.) More details here, or if you call 01422 288060.

Finally, just a reminder of the cover images of the English-language editions of The Gradual published in September, Gollancz (UK) and Titan (USA):Gradual GollanczGradual Titan