Poor fred

I have spent much of this weekend reading and checking the page proofs of The Islanders. A long task, with all of the fears associated with proof-reading that many writers suffer. By the time a book is in proof it’s much too late to make substantive changes, so the things you belatedly notice as infelicities have to be nodded through. Most of the printing errors I was able to correct in The Islanders were tiny: a couple of missing or extraneous commas, an extra blank line that appeared mysteriously on one of the pages, a couple of my own repetitions of words. All were of the same minor ilk. Just over a dozen in all.

Because publishers now habitually set a book’s text from the copy-edited electronic media supplied by the author, accuracy has become almost uncanny, and the perfection can be a distraction. You find yourself reading along, seduced by the apparent lack of errors, and so more likely to miss any that really occur. Things have certainly changed for the better – my first several books were set in letterpress, and when checking the proofs you had to be on your guard at every moment. Some of the compositors’ mistakes were hard to spot, because occasionally one commonly used word would be substituted for another. One of my novels had a phrase that was something like it was more difficult than before … this became in the proofs it was more daffodil than before. I missed this entirely on my first two readings and only happened to spot it by chance just before sending the proofs back. The proofreader at Faber had also missed it, and later rang me up to compare notes, in case there were others.

The real worry is that something dreadful will slip past everyone. Many years ago, Private Eye gleefully pointed out a passage in some terrible old novel by Georgette Heyer, in which a Regency buck, waiting in the drawing room for his belle to appear, passed the time by peeing into a mirror.

In fact, I was late to the game. At the time I started being published, galley proofs (the long sheets with at least three pages of text on them) were being discontinued, to be replaced by the more compact and useful page proofs (either an unbound set of signatures, or, in the case of The Islanders, a stack of A4 sheets formatted with final page layout and measurements). In the old days, the really old days, writers like Charles Dickens used to see the galley proofs as a sort of convenient extra draft and would return them to the hapless publisher with hundreds of changes, huge deletions and thousands of words of additional text. I hope Gollancz will be pleased to adjust my commas.


Oops …

If since October last year you have sent me an email care of this website, it was almost certainly treated as “undeliverable” and bounced back to you. However, in reality it did actually arrive, albeit diverted to a folder on my son’s website. (Simon hosts this site for me.) Yesterday he discovered the missing mails, and they are now where they belong. The main problem is that there are several hundred of them, and it’s going to take me a while to deal with them all.

Just to say “sorry” to everyone, and to assure you that emails sent from the Contact page on this site are now arriving normally. If you have spent the last ten months thinking me a rude and neglectful sod for not replying, you might be right but not for the reason you think. A personal reply will be sent as soon as possible.


THE QUEST FOR GRAHAM GREENE – W. J. West (1997, Phoenix, £8.99, ISBN: 0-75380-136-1)

Graham Greene used to be one of my most favoured writers until I realized that I disliked more of his novels than ones I liked. The one that ruined everything was The End of the Affair. However, I think most of his short stories are brilliant, and I still like his non-fiction.

The first volume of his autobiography, A Sort of Life, remains a key text. (The standard Greene biography, by Norman Sherry, is an inferior work – it is so bad that I came to the conclusion Greene had subversively appointed Sherry as his ‘official’ biographer believing that Sherry’s long-winded ramblings would put other more effective writers off the scent, at least for a few years.) I came across W. J. West’s book in a secondhand shop and read it with some interest. I have always believed that Greene was the ‘fifth man’ in the Philby defection, and although this book does not go so far as to claim that, there is nothing in it to contradict the idea. I always found Greene’s obsession with Roman Catholicism the least interesting thing about him, but his ambivalent politics remain an enigma.


The gallery

M. John Harrison JacarandaEarly one evening in March 2009 I was walking through Mexico City with Mike Harrison, when we passed a side-street where many cars were parked in the deepening shadows of the trees. Mike and I had previously noted the profusion of flowering jacaranda trees in the city – in this road one of the trees had shed most of its flowers on a white Ford car parked beneath it. Mike, who was temporarily without his camera, asked me to take a shot of it. After we had returned to England I sent Mike a copy of the picture, which because of the low light turned out to be fairly grainy. I think the grain enhances the atmosphere.

A year later, while drafting my novel The Islanders, I began to think of ways in which certain scenes in the novel could be illustrated. I looked through my collection of photographs to see what might be possible. The M. John Harrison Jacaranda, as I’ll always think of it, quickly suggested itself as an illustration of part of Muriseay Town, the largest city on the Dream Archipelago island of Muriseay.

‘Muriseay Town’ is not Mexico City except in parts: the vast spread of Muriseay’s shanty-town suburbs could come from Mexico City, but also from other places I’ve seen. In my images of Muriseay there are memories and imaginings of Athens, Paris, Yekaterinburg, London, Kuala Lumpur, Houston and many other big cities and ports, all jumbled up together. In the same way, the Archipelago itself is not a transplant from a single place, but is an amalgam. You can find archipelagian images and recollections of Guernsey and Sark, the Greek islands, Harrow-on-the-Hill, the French Riviera, the Harz mountains in Germany, Hastings, the Pennines, even Dartmoor and the Isle of Wight. I have many memories and a few photos of all those places and others, a kind of literal or codified memory, not at all the same thing as an imagined landscape, but an interesting parallel vision.

As I went on with the novel I found ways of manipulating many of these images, linking them to certain scenes in the book and captioning them with relevant text. The novel deals with the work of a particular novelist, so I decided to design and include some book jackets for him; as other writers came into the story, they too had covers designed for them. It’s the sort of literary displacement activity that’s almost as rewarding as writing the novel, but much less hard work.

I call the finished collection The Islanders Gallery. If it interests you and you would like to find out more about it and perhaps get hold of a copy, see the GrimGrin page on this site.