In my part of north London—but it could be the gentle suburbs of any city now—when you take a walk on a Sunday afternoon, close your eyes and take a deep breath, you can imagine yourself in the grounds of a Bisto factory. I live in the epicentre of four pubs which on Sunday now solely exist to serve up traditional British roast dinners; and the omnipresent fug of the stuff drifts through the streets and greens of the suburb. It is but one piece of evidence of the restuarantification of the traditional English pub. Others being you can’t get a seat simply to have a beer, screaming children, and the deathwalk maze of their buggies and toys on the way to to the bar.

Last week we decided to go for a walk through our local common, do some sketching and generally enjoy the fallen leaves of autumn. But the real focus was a visit to a historic pub and to sit by the fire with a traditional pint of ale. Since I have never been to this pub I was greatly looking forward to it, but on arrival the cutlery on the tables advertised another story. Each table in the main saloon was laid out for diners, and even the satellite rooms were stuffed with punters stuffing themselves. Each table in the saloon was empty: but to stop us sitting at these empty tables the staff invoked the magic word “booked” as if that justified their emptiness. The pub had become a restaurant. When I challenged the staff on this point they did not deny it (and did so curtly). That anyone should come into a pub solely for a pint of beer was evidently both beyond and beneath them. My partner whose walking stick advertised a disability was given short shrift. No, they would not find her a seat by the fire (and there was room); no, she could not sit at an empty table, and if we wanted ONLY a drink we should have to go outside. And it was cold.

Outside a dismal congregation of tents of no character covered the lawns which would have been beautifully awash with autumn leaves were they not drowned in a flood of tents. These had charmless wooden seats and inefficient heaters and cold people trying to pretend it didn’t matter. And thus, one of the glories of England, the traditional pub, dies.

And with them go the little knots of social fabric where neighbours gather, now and again, not to do the blitz and binge drinking of the young but to catch up on gossip, see what’s happening in the neighbourhood, see old friends, mourn those recently departed, to tighten the knots of the social fabric and keep our communities alive: this is far more beneficent than email round robins.

Of course the publicans will tell you economic necessity is forcing this trend. A steep one evidenced by CAMERA’s claim that 21 pubs are closing a week. Governments attack them with  duties and taxes, landlords rip them off in leases and rent (along with houses too) and Supermarkets undercut them on prices. The British Beer and Pub Association (PBA)  claims we have 14 times higher tax rates on beer than Germany. It has now come to the point where a bottle of wine, which will keep you and a friend happy for an evening, is cheaper than meeting a mate for a pint. The intent by consecutive governments to get us to ape the cafe societies of the Mediterranean in a country bereft of a suitable climate is removing the one traditional guard against that climate: beer by the settle. Another wound caused by these closures or restaurantification is a concomitant blow to the fragmentation of our society. Roughly pubs reflect the demographic of their area but they were still the last bulwark against stratification where people of different jobs, classes, educational levels met and where the academic could take advice from the mechanic, and more importantly remind each other that the other exists: that there are those outside our limited social network who are of equal value. In days when we are all mourning the loss of social mobility the loss a place where social mixing was effected and encouraged should be equally worrying.

Over the past ten years this decline has been dramatic. A decade ago I would saunter up to a local in my area to see the place packed with a cross section of the community. Now—on a Friday night even—the place has empty seats and I have never been in, sometimes on consecutive nights, when I have seen the same bar staff, thus removing a constant, where the landlord or lady would know your drink and welcome you by name. Not all of us can be members of a Piccadilly club  but having a good local with  good company was pretty damn close if not better.


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The Amateur Lord of the Rings

In an interview in the British newspaper, The Guardian, to coincide with the publication of the Children of Hurin in 2007, Christopher Tolkien was asked what his father would have made of his tremendous popularity. In brief Christopher replied that he thought his father would have been absolutely and comprehensively astounded. That the wrestlings and cogitations with dead languages and poetry should produce a work of art that seventy years after its appearance is still selling well and in such vast quantities is indeed astounding. No other work of literature in the 20th century can claim such influence among so many, and indeed now on the frontier of discovery, an area of Pluto’s moon Charon has been named—temporarily—Mordor. One has to ask why, what are its peculiar qualities? Time and again it tops, or is a runner up with honours, in various best book/favourite book reader-voted contests. What is in it that it reaches out to so many. For it is a book not taught at school, nor is it short unlike To Kill A Mocking Bird (which is taught in schools), and which frequently achieves high honours in similar beauty pageants. One can list the wide scope of Tolkien’s imagination, his narrative strength, the many vistas (in some ways the book is a travelogue of wondrous lands), his strongly defined characters or the consistency of his nomenclature which has a subtle and strong contribution to the verisimilitude of the imaginary world. We can tick these off but we can tick these boxes with other authors going back to Jonathan Swift and now coming up to Game of Thrones, which probably has more in common with the Hundred Years War than The Lord of the Rings. There are people who say that they love the book; but there are those who say it has changed our lives. What is it about the book and its writer that pierces and reaches so many?

Despite being a professional philologist, academic and administrator, I think it was because Tolkien was an amateur writer; he was not writing for money, he was not hacking around in Grub St to pay the rent. Unlike the professional writers of his time, or those who worked in the modish literature business, like T S Eliot, Ezra Pound or Virginia Woolf, he could let the need to be seen and to be seen to be contemporary or relevant pass him by. So he could write what he liked and about what he wanted. And like a train spotter or manic gardener devoted to their fancies he just sat down and wrestled with the themes that dominated his mind; and I think we can say these were death and loss, and the passing of a more perfect time (or Age). Without a more comprehensive and deeper biography than the current Carpenter opus (Allen and Unwin 1977), it is easy to spot the seeds of these themes: the loss of his parents; the loss of his friends and so many acquaintances in the First World War. He once said in an interview that returning to the army (= going to France = a very likely death) and leaving his new bride behind was indeed “like a death”. And we can picture John Ronald in the railway carriage looking out of the window and feeling this, wondering if he would ever see his wife again. I wonder if the memory of this stayed with him all his life. And from this trauma came the great works.

Because he had no pretentions to being a professional writer—but that is not to say he had no idea of his own considerable powers—he wrote like a sort of literary everyman and these themes that touched him and moulded the great scenes in the Lord of the Rings—themes that rise from the narrative—touch us because we wonder what we would do in such situations: could we be Frodo? Or Sam? How would we face life in the trenches, or the implacable walls of Mordor. And there is terror and fear in The Lord of The Rings and at times a sense of hopelessness in the Quest. Were these feelings held by a frightened young second lieutenant all through the Battle of the Somme?

It is significant that the first story he wrote after being whisked out of the Somme by fortune was a work of imaginative literature (as Christopher Tolkien would later put it); and so often have writers resorted to works of imagination to deal with inexpressible horror or danger faced in reality. This was the Fall of Gondolin, a Tolkienian re-working of the second book of the Aeneid (remember Tolkien was an accomplished classicist before hopping courses to study English), and for the next two decades he struggled with the work that was to become The Silmarillion, a meditation on death where mortality and immorality are juxtaposed. The Hobbit was a mere jeu d’esprit halfway up this mountain but in it, where Tolkien the amateur writer = Bilbo Baggins = us, meets and deals with the issues of death and battle, and courage and fear. In Beorn’s house the warg and goblin are very truly and bloodily dead – this is just one example but it shows the reality of the emotions and ideas he is subliminally processing. The ending of the Hobbit is so different from the usual children’s literature of the period and especially the literature Tolkien grew up with – it is the ending written by a man who has seen the Western Front, the disenchantment of the 1920s and the General Strike of 1926. There are no tidy, happy endings.

The request for a sequel spawned The Lord Of The Rings; a professional writer would have given the publishers what they really wanted, another The Hobbit where mad Baggins goes off into the blue for another wild adventure, number two in a new and exciting series! But Tolkien was not a professional writer; inexorably he was drawn to his long digested internal debate on mortality, The Silmarillion, and under the shadow of war he produced The Lord of The Rings, again to process, like our parents and grandparents, the horrors of those days. Tolkien had two sons away in the army, either of which could have been killed at ay time, a true horror not only for a middle class Oxford professor, but for any parent in wartime irregardless of class. The Lord Of The Rings deals with what are the truly important things, and the truly important things to do, under induced conflict.

He himself said in the preface to the second edition of The Lord of The Rings that its effect lies in the applicability of aspects of the story on an individual reader’s situation (against the purposed domination of the author in an allegory which he said he detested). This is true but it is the topics, the hopes, the fears that Tolkien the amateur author (= us) chooses to write about as an ordinary middle class man, and no member of a vying fashionable literary elite, that gives his works their universality and power…and tremendous reach.

First published in the Tolkien LIbrary July 2015

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Wodehouse, Je deteste

Last week Salman Rushdie was heckled for giving several low star scores to well known and accepted classics on an internet reading site.  So I am going to join him. I have tried, oh Lord have I tried, but I heartily despise and dislike all the works of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. I would never have conferred the knighthood, and were I God Emperor of the Universe (I’m working on it) I would revoke it.

At school after reading Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat and heartily roaring (amongst other scenes) at the cheese story, I looked around for another humorous writer. The school library did not stock, not unsurprisingly, Tom Sharpe so I was pointed Wodehouseward. I did not understand it. So far removed from my experience was his ethereal world of aunts and japes that I was nonplussed, and it was only after reaching my majority with greater experience and knowledge under my hat that I tried again.

Nope. Still couldn’t stomach him. I felt no empathy whatsoever with his characters, nor did his much praised humorous prose tickle me. The lack of empathy was a barrier and I forgot about him. Then a good few years later when Robert McCrum’s highly praised biography came out I tried again.

The biography was read on the radio and it was jolly interesting, old bean, what what. As a professional writer he was to be admired despite the dodginess with the Germans. And so armed with even more knowledge and a grudging respect for his professionalism I hied me to Foyles and bought a paperback.

This book nearly went out of a train window. I was about fifty pages into it when the nausea overcame me. The train was hot. We had stopped inexplicably by the Arsenal stadium and with sweat pouring down my forehead I nearly threw it out of the open window onto the track. It was only the  imagined consequences, of Wiltean dimensions, that forced me to stuff it in my bag.

Why do I  hate him? It is the lack of empathy: while he is writing about these silly bloody idiots of no perceivable income, the spoilt layabouts of the upper classes, my immediate ancestors, fathers and grandfathers, were sweating themselves to death in the coal mines of the North, to fuel the economy, the empire, and no doubt fill the coal scuttles of those social pariahs, the Berties, the Gussies and all those rebarbative aunts.

What really annoys me is that the image of England in his books ripples across the globe as an extant representation of England, one that is further fanned by the works of Georgette Hayer, Barbara Cartland etc: a narrow clichéd view of England that takes no account of its variety.

And what annoys me even more is that there are some in England who want this vision to return; but what is truly terrifying is that there are those who are actively working for it.

written on a plane to Nice

and don’t forget, for all your reading needs: Lights Over Sheel – it’s not a humorous book

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Blessed half term is sadly over and evil college looms. During the time I have been plodding on with Dragon’s Wood in between bouts of private teaching and reading. And I am getting nowhere. The tension that I hoped would be present as we approach the climax is lacking, where the disclosures are made and the horror becomes rampant. There is a misalignment in the plot in that the solution is revealed before the mystery deepens, and Margueritte’s English is almost as good as mine. But I have been here before: during the writing of Lights Over Sheel I had Michael working at McKinnon’s for some thirty thousand words; and from the ending I cut about the same during a rewrite because I did not know what I was doing while writing it.

But being stuck has yielded up some good ideas to be incorporated in the second draft and which both add to to the narrative and the texture. With this at least I am pleased. But I am also weary – oh for some encouragement. I have sold two copies of  The Dene this past month and more encouragement like this would be good.

Friend Nicola has tempted me with a opportunity for a performance for which I must write the material. Mmm will think; and indeed am tempted – but the material has to be written.

The dead months (see below) take their toll.

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back to ink

I have gone back to pen and ink in an effort to spur me on, to give me a different perspective, and I am using a pen I think I first bought at Drama School, a reliable stainless steel Parker. Now up to Chapter 22 and wildly over word budget, yet I am coming to the climax of an idea I had in Aix last year concerning Marguerite. I am  not near the end yet, but perhaps I am near the end of the middle eight and the harmonies I am weaving are surprising me, giving me a little faith in the score I have constructed.

Also glad to note I have sold two copies of The Dene and one Lights Over Sheel this month. Very gratifying and one buyer was using Canadian dollars.

go on – check them out:

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new term

…and so evil term begins at evil college and I am depressed. The place seems empty, there are missing faces and faces I sorely miss, yet the inanity of the place remains. And I wonder why I am back…

But I have not left Captain Toomey and the boys behind. I am reaching a climax of a story idea concerning Marguerite that came to me in Aix-en-Provence last summer; and this year while sitting in my favourite bar under the maple tree I stumbled upon an idea that ties up all the loose ends. When one writes one deliberately leaves in loose ends or the narrative equivalent of  an Ha-ha, to force you to stumble, to force you to think.

And perhaps with lighter (famous last words) duties this year I may see the end of this draft by Christmas.

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A Hundred Years On

exeter 1914

Earlier in the week I watched the extinguishing at the eleventh hour the candle in Westminter Abbey. My own candle in the window of my flat was put out with it, and one trembles and the resonance of the hour and the contemplation of those hundred years. When I started to become interested in the Great War it was still within easy memory, and those whose memories it was were still young (by today’s standards). And now with the last tommy some five years dead and with the passing of the centenary it is indeed becoming history.

Yet I feel there was some drama missed last night. The event was diluted by having actors read out passages instead of service personnel or public servants with real connection to the body of the state, and a prince or princess of the blood should have doused the last candle if royalty is to have any meaning. But most importantly the famous words that inspired the service, and the dimming of the lights across Britain, his words should have been read out by the current Foreign Secretary. Then there would have been resonance.

I post the above picture because I cannot look at it without a tear coming to my eye. They are the undergraduates of Exeter College Oxford, taken in the June of 1914, that glorious summer. And when I look at that picture this mantra runs through my mind: they have no idea what’s coming…they have no idea what’s coming…

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