50 Not Out

Today, 28th August 2018, marks a personal anniversary. Fifty years ago, on this day, I started my career as a fulltime freelance writer, unsupported by anything other than what I could earn with my typewriter and my brain. I had no private income, no hoard of shares, no wealthy family. I never imagined that I would be able to keep going for fifty years, but it seems I could, and did.

I am usually vague on dates, regularly forgetting anniversaries and birthdays, sometimes my own, but this particular date has always stuck in my mind.

On 28th August 1968 I was single, living alone in a cheap bed-sitter in an expensive part of London: it was close to Gloucester Road underground station, in South Kensington. The condition of becoming a freelance had been initiated by two straightforward words uttered by my last boss: “You’re fired.” For several months before this I had been wondering endlessly if I would ever have the guts to give up working in jobs and try to survive as a writer, but suddenly the decision was made for me. Rather than trawl around London looking for another dead-end job, I decided, with the support of the young woman I was soon to marry, to give it a go. I had almost no money – in fact, I had only my final month’s salary, paid on the Friday of the previous week, together with a few savings I had scraped together. The total was about two hundred pounds, which I reckoned could with care keep me going for about four or five more weeks. My wife-to-be was a student and was receiving an annual maintenance grant of ninety pounds. (That’s £90 a year.) She too had a small flat in London, and at the end of September, after a minimal wedding, we moved together into another rented flat, this time in suburban Sutton. The rent there was £9 a week, or £39 a month, payable monthly.

On that first Monday morning, still in Kensington half a century ago, I walked down in bright sunshine to the local Post Office and with a feeling of symbolic significance bought myself a self-employed National Insurance stamp. (It was the first one I ever bought, also the last. I never did it again – years later, the authorities caught up with me and I had to find a substantial back-payment.) I then walked back to my tiny bed-sitter and started writing.

I didn’t have many prospects but I did have a plan of sorts. Part of it was for the short term. In previous months I had sold a few short-short stories to a tabloid-type magazine, which paid £20 a time for twist-ending crime fiction, and I reckoned that if I could sell one or two more of those a month, that would keep the hounds at bay. I was also in touch with another young writer who was overloaded with writing hack articles for a group of ‘glamour’ magazines – constantly bored and fatigued by the mindless garbage they wanted, he sometimes let me chip in and write a few of the terrible things for him, for which I received tiny payments. Even so, I needed every penny I could lay my hands on.

The other half of my plan, the long term bit, was to develop the serious side of my writing and try to sell some short stories and, if possible, a novel or two. During the final months of my employment I had sold a 10,000-word novella called “The Interrogator” to the New Writings in SF series, edited by E. J. Carnell. Thirty quid flat. Mr Carnell was cautiously encouraging, so I wrote a sort of sequel (same characters, same setting, story different) at another 10,000 words. With great speed, and immense courtesy and gentleness, Carnell rejected it, explaining that his occasional book series disallowed sequels. On the day it seemed like a bitter blow, but soon afterwards I rallied. I put the two novellas together, drafted a kind of emergency plot outline for more of the same, and my brand-new literary agent, Janet Freer, submitted it to the Gollancz publishing house. Not long afterwards they rejected it. Ms Freer, more optimistic than I was, then sent it to Faber & Faber, the only other major publisher who was publishing this kind of material at the time. I saw Faber as a class act way beyond my hoped-for level (they published Brian Aldiss, Kit Reed and Edmund Crispin, not to mention their profoundly literary authors like Golding, Beckett, Larkin, Durrell, and so on), but in it went. In the meantime I hacked away at my short term survival plan: cod horoscopes and filler articles pinched and rewritten from the tabloid newspapers. Awful, shameful stuff, but my initial two hundred quid had almost all gone.

In the first week of the new year Faber announced that they would publish the novel. To say I was surprised and pleased would not even approach the delirious feeling I had. I immediately abandoned my shame-faced hackwork and drafted the novel. I followed the synopsis I had dashed out in a few mad minutes, believing I had to now that Faber had read and accepted it. The result was OK, but I think only just. It took nine weeks, and I called the finished manuscript Indoctrinaire.

Faber paid me an advance of £150.00 – £135.00 after Janet Freer had taken her well deserved commission. It was in three instalments of £45 each, to be paid over the next 18 months. It seemed the long term plan was going to be no more lucrative than the short. The struggle went on.

(Eventually, Indoctrinaire showed its legs. Although it has never made me much money, over the years, all fifty of them, it has produced a trickle of income from various reprints, paperbacks and translations. It was even re-issued as a paperback in 2014 by Gollancz, who appear to have forgotten they had already rejected the same book four and a half decades earlier. Good for them.)

Memories of what followed the writing of Indoctrinaire are no longer so distinct. I went on writing, I kept on writing, and I have done so ever since. Life has had its extremes of problems and satisfactions – I make no complaint about the former and do not brag about the latter. But I will never forget those early weeks, which have permanently instilled in me a general sympathy and sense of comradeship with other new or young writers who have followed me. A writer’s life is never an easy one, but now, on this anniversary evening, I do look back in the full knowledge that given the chance I would do it all over again.

Bute Scribblers

First of all, many congratulations to our neighbour on the Isle of Bute, Anne Charnock. Last week Anne deservedly won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for her novel Dreams Before the Start of Time. Only a few weeks earlier she picked up the BSFA Award for her novella ‘The Enclave’. Here is her website, where these works and others are described.

We celebrated last weekend with dinner at the house of Anne and Garry Charnock, where we were joined by Suze and Matt Hill. Here are most of us before the dinner, while there was still light on the loch outside the house (it is somewhere behind the camera, alas, but it is a sensationally lovely view — try to imagine it):

Matt Hill, Anne Charnock, Nina Allan, Chris Priest (photo by Garry Charnock)

We are coming to the end of July, in what is probably our last summer as full Europeans. The dread chaos of Brexit has induced a feeling of torpor about making entries on this website: I don’t want to keep going on about it (or about the disgusting moron in the White House), but Brexit and Trump together present such major concerns that it sometimes feels one should write about nothing else. However, forcing that deeply disagreeable stuff aside, let me update the news of my books, and a few of the personal appearances that are being arranged to promote them.

My next novel, An American Story, is due to be published in the UK and France in September, and around the same time I shall be working in Paris on a new novel (I have already started work on it, but it is presently untitled). This is fortuitously set in Paris — honestly, I was planning it before the chance of a residency at Les Récollets came along, but the coincidence could not be more propitious. Here are the plans at the moment:

Monday 3rd September, I will be in conversation with Neil Williamson at Waterstones in Glasgow (Argyle Street branch). Time: 18:30 to 20:00. Admission is free, but advance booking is essential.

Wednesday 5th September I will be available for interviews, etc., while in London. (Hope springs eternal.) In the evening:

Wednesday 5th September I will be talking with Glyn Morgan at Waterstones in Gower Street, London WC1. Time: 18:30 to 20:30. Booking must be made in advance, and sales close on 4th September. Tickets are £8 (£6 for students or Waterstones card holders).

An American Story will be published in the UK on 6th September, and will also be available internationally in the English language as an ebook from Gollancz. The publication date for the French translation (Conséquences d’une disparition) has not yet been confirmed to me, but is likely to appear at roughly the same time. Cover images of both editions appear on this website, below.

From 6th September until 10th October I shall be living and working in France, based in Paris.

Sunday 16th September, there is a meeting and book signing at Salon Fnac, in Paris. Time: 14:00 to 16:00. At present I have no information about ticketing (if any). I will update this page as details are clarified.

Weekend of 29th and 30th September I will be Guest of Honour at Les Adventuriales, in Ménétrol.

Friday 5th October, there is a meeting and book signing at La zone du dehors, in Bordeaux. Time: 17:00. Again, at the moment I have no information about advance ticketing (if any). I will update this page as details are clarified.

There is also a planned signing at Librairie Critic, in Rennes — but date and time have yet to be agreed.

Although I shall be travelling back to the UK during the second week in October, I will be returning to France for the Utopiales Festival, in Nantes, 31st October to 5th November.

Before then, an event is being planned here on the Isle of Bute, a conversation with Anne Charnock. No date has yet been set, but is likely to be before I go to Nantes.

Next year — (it still seems an acceptably safe distance in the future, but these things come along in the end …)

I will be at Ytterbium, the Easter convention at Heathrow, London, from 19th to 22nd April 2019. My daughter Elizabeth Priest will also be there, to celebrate the publication by Luna Press of Lizzy’s first three (yes, THREE) novels in her Troutespond series.

In August Nina and I will be attending Dublin 2019, the Irish world sf convention, 15th to 19th August.

At the end of the same month I will be present at the Hastings Literary Festival, 30th August to 1st September. Details of all these events will be updated on this page from time to time, and given sole entries closer to the dates.

I think that’s about everything for now, which seems extravagantly too much for anyone. I suppose I should be slowing down, ‘taking things more easily’ … but I have never seen the point of retiring, even at the advanced age I seem to have reached, so on we go …

I look forward to meeting you at one or more of these events. A bientôt!

Cat and ARC

Gollancz have sent me the first proof copies of my new novel, so I gave one of them to my most insistent reader and fan. Djanga condescended to wake up, but said she would not be able to read the book until later this year. She wants me not to keep bothering her about it.

I can’t see the author’s name anywhere …

American stories

Here is the cover from Gollancz for my next novel An American Story. It will be published on 6th September this year:


















The visual approach is interestingly different from the French interpretation of the same book, as is the title (see below), but a certain theme is consistent. On this subject I merely say: the American story is not what might seem apparent from this thematic consistency, and the consequences are the real story …

Last week I was in Oxford to contribute to a celebration of the life and work of Brian Aldiss, as part of the Oxford Literary Festival. Other participants included Robin Straus (Brian’s American literary agent), Samuel Fanous of the Bodleian Library (repository of the Aldiss papers), Thomas Lodge (actor, Brian’s grandson via Wendy Aldiss), Petronilla Whitfield (actor, and frequent collaborator with Brian), and Michael Moorcock (in a message read by Marcus Gipps). There was also an ancient television interview with Brian, where he spoke amusingly about masturbation, and a song from Ella Fitzgerald, “Cow Cow Boogie”. A second panel discussion followed, with Philip Pullman, Claire Armitstead and Sophie Ratcliffe, more general in nature, about the relationship between literature and genre.

Speaking of literature and genre, I have just read The Booker and the Best, a Kindle Single from Nicholas Clee. This raises the question of why genre writing is not taken seriously by the perceived literary establishment, and why science fiction and thrillers, in particular, never make it to the shortlists of the major literary prizes. (One could point out the paradox that Brian Aldiss, one of the finest literary stylists in the English language, was never a contender in these prizes.) Clee doesn’t reach a firm conclusion, but his discussion of the problem is interesting and involving, and full of good sense. It only costs a quid from Amazon, so do grab a copy.

French consequences

Here is the cover illustration for my next novel, from my French publishers Lunes d’encre (an imprint of Denoël). The title in English (An American Story) cannot be used in France, as there is a pre-existing book with that title in French. I like the variant title almost as much, as the book is essentially about consequences.

Publication date will be towards the end of this year, but it is hoped that advance copies will be available while I am working in Paris, in September.

An American Story will be published in the UK by Gollancz, on 20 September.

I have recently delivered another book to Gollancz: a narrated short story collection called Episodes. No publication date has yet been agreed.



Bereavement is a variant of ‘bereft’ – we are all bereft by the loss of Ursula Le Guin. She was a supreme writer and thinker, one of the greatest of all American writers and perhaps the best ever to have graced us with her fantasy and science fiction. She was a better writer than any of us, past or present – we have lost our benchmark of excellence.

I would feel presumptuous to claim Ursula as a personal friend, but I knew her for much of the period, in the mid-1970s, when she and her husband were living in London. She was not as famous then, but she was just as sage, perceptive, sharp-witted, kind. She was a huge influence on me during that still-formative period, and her dry comments on the few things of mine she read were shocking in their power of illumination, but also stimulating and encouraging. Whether she liked what I wrote, or not, was always irrelevant. She understood.

One of my short stories, ‘The Negation’, is a disguised but also explicit account of my meetings with her. A sequel to that story, set a few years later, appears briefly in The Islanders.

Her recent book, Words are My Matter (Small Beer Press, 2016), contains some of her best essays on literature. It includes one called ‘Genre: A Word only a Frenchman Could Love’, which is the definitive analysis of the way fantastic literature is misunderstood by those who describe it as ‘genre fiction’. Everyone the least interested in what she wrote (and also we who follow, trying to keep up) should buy and read this book. It is a fine and sustained argument – humane, eloquent, sometimes funny – expressing the beauty and importance of the fantastic.

Ursula’s acceptance speech in 2014 for the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (a.k.a. the National Book Award) is included in Words are My Matter, under the title ‘Freedom’. It can be read here. It sums her up perfectly – not all of her, but the huge bit of her that was devoted to books and literature.

We have lost Ursula Le Guin, a nice woman, a brilliant, generous, sweet-natured, liberal, skilled, inimitable woman. Now we have to go on without her, bereft.

Vision Back On

About five years ago my then optician peered closely, and said, “You are developing cataracts.” He advised there was nothing that needed to be done, nothing to worry about. Two years later came the same warning – still nothing needed to be done. Last year another optician said, “You have cataracts.”

By this time I knew: when I looked at bright lights they were surrounded by haloes, daylight from windows tended to dim the rest of the room. Reading small print in books was becoming a problem. Cinemas invariably projected films slightly out of focus. Driving still felt safe enough, unless I needed to read direction signs – as by this time we were living in Devon, where most of the road signs are still the old-fashioned wooden sort, that sometimes led to confusion. One night, driving for many miles in thick fog between the endless high hedges of Devon lanes, I became totally lost. I was ready to have my cataracts fixed.

But then it was explained to me that the NHS administrators in England required a certain threshold of foggy vagueness to be met before I could be referred for an operation, and I was still a long way below that. Six months later the result was the same. I did not meet the NHS threshold. I continued to blunder onwards, sometimes missing things, bumping into things at other times.

We moved to Scotland, a new optician and a slightly different version of the NHS. This optometrist scoffed at the whole idea of a threshold, and promptly referred me to the local hospital.

Last week (after a couple of months of nervy anticipation), the deed was done. Although I would not say I enjoyed the day of the operation, the pleasantness and professional skills of the nurses and doctors at the Golden Jubilee Hospital on Clydeside made it painless, swift and effective. Like many people who have direct experience of the NHS, which these days is endlessly at risk from the mendacity of politicians, I believe it to be a fantastic service of which the rest of the world should be envious. (Note to Trump supporters: it’s completely free at point of use, it’s open to everyone resident in the UK, it’s terrific.)

The next day I wandered around the town, soaking in the detail, my sense of visual perspective regained. Above all the colours: not just brighter and more intense, although they were, but the subtleties of colour, the shades, the contrasts. The town was under a silvery light, every tiny wave on the surface of the firth was sharply delineated. Oh, joy!

Next year, my other eye will be repaired. I can hardly wait. Here is an approximation of the improvement I am experiencing:

An American Story

At the beginning of last week I completed and sent in my new novel, An American Story. It is partly set in the USA, partly on an island – but not the Dream Archipelago. I would describe it as being at the speculative end of the spectrum of fantastic literature, rather than in the more central scientific or mythic bands.

As a teaser, here is an image from an old photograph, showing one of the main locations in the story, a place in the USA (unlikely though that might seem at first glance):


Here it began, here it ends

In 1962 I was working in the City of London as the world’s worst trainee accountant. I hated the job, and they hated me too. They should have fired me, but they couldn’t because we had signed articles (a binding agreement for five years) that meant I could not leave and they could not fire me. (In 1965, the articles came to an end. They fired me.)

However, early in 1962 I was still there, and a teenage passion for science fiction had suddenly made life more interesting. One of the writers I most admired was Brian Aldiss, who had written several intriguingly unusual short stories, and two or three novels which I thought were pretty good. One of them, Non-Stop, a brilliantly mad and inventive subversion of a trad American science fiction theme (a big spaceship lost in space), had so enthralled me that it had convinced me I should one day like to become a writer too. It took a while to get there, but I never forgot the epiphany of realizing that writing was a human activity that was achievable. Brian Aldiss had also published an anthology called Penguin Science Fiction. (Published by Penguin Books, and full of science fiction, of course.) In the short biography of the editor it mentioned that Mr Aldiss was the president of something called the British Science Fiction Association — I imagined it to be a place where people with mighty minds and vivid imaginations would meet in conclave.

One evening I read a review in the London Evening News of a new novel by John Christopher called The World in Winter. The review gave extravagant praise to this book, but ruined everything by going on to complain that the novel had been marketed as science fiction, which the idiot reviewer described (but not in so many words) as a despicable commercial genre that of course no one could take seriously. This is a customary put-down of science fiction (still in use, no sign yet of its fall from usefulness) deployed by inexperienced reviewers who are trying to impress readers they assume to be even more stupid than themselves. Although I was only 18 I had already spotted this type. I felt weary contempt for whoever it was. Didn’t know what to say.

Not Brian Aldiss, who had also seen this annoying review, and as president of the BSFA wrote a witty letter of complaint to the newspaper, pointing out what a dullard their reviewer was. They published his address at the end of his letter.

I therefore wrote to Mr Aldiss, complimented him on his letter, and timidly asked if it was possible for nonentities like me to join the BSFA, or was it only for writers? Brian Aldiss responded at once, complimented me on having the right attitude, said that of course the BSFA was open to anyone (and passed on the contact address) and went on to urge me to attend the annual science fiction convention, where he would love to meet me and have a good conversation.

It was a marvellous letter for an insecure and bookish teenager to receive. I treasured it and kept it, and to this day it remains the first item in my huge archive of correspondence.

In fact, I was too hard up and too shy to go the SF convention, and did not meet Brian Aldiss in person until about 1965. Then, when he found out my name, he said, ‘I remember you — you wrote me that intelligent letter! Come and have a drink!’ It was the first moment of a friendship that was to last, with the usual ups and downs of any friendship between two difficult men, for more than half a century.

This is a photograph taken in June 1970, by Margaret, Brian Aldiss’s second wife. Brian had generously invited me down to their house in Oxfordshire to celebrate the publication of my first novel Indoctrinaire. Also there was Charles Monteith, who was not only my editor at the publishers Faber & Faber, he was Brian’s too. He had been responsible for buying and publishing all the early Aldiss books, including those short stories I had admired so much, and the fabulous bravura of Non-Stop.

Today I learned that Brian had died, one day after his 92nd birthday. When someone has had such a long life, living to a great age, the end will not come as a surprise to those around, but none the less this news came as a profound and upsetting shock. I was privileged to write a long obituary for the Guardian, but a formal article is not the appropriate place to express fondness and gratitude for everything. His work shines out as an example to us all, a standard to strive to equal. His professionalism was legendary. His conversation was something to stay up all night for, and his sense of fun was marvellous. He is irreplaceable.