Monday, November 4, 2013

Notes from a Strange Island: new blogs at Asia Literary Review


What to see at the Hong Kong Lit Fest 2013


Justin Hill on Hastings, Sequels and How to Find an Agent part i & ii




Halloween, Fancy Dress, Bonfire Night, and thier Ancient Roots



On this day in 1605, a man named Guy Fawkes was found in an undercroft, in a house belonging to John Whynniard, Keeper of the King's Wardrobe, with twenty barrels of gunpowder.  His plan had been to blow up King James when he came to the House of Lords for the opening of Parliament and in England we still celebrate the failure of his plot by lighting bonfires, shooting off fireworks and eating toffee apples.  But we’re also celebrating something much older; a comforting fact for me as I’ve never quite had a simple relationship with the burning of the ‘Guy’, or the celebration of Protestantism over Catholicism.    
For one, like Fawkes, I come from an old Northern Catholic family, but more than that, we went to the same school: St Peter’s, in York.  He was and remains our most famous old boy: an odd example for young boys trying to emulate our famous alumni. 
At our school we didn’t burn a Guy on our bonfires, but we did light bonfires because it is the perfect way of fighting back the gathering gloom of northern climes.  This festival makes sense because it’s a celebration much older than 1605, and owes its origins to a festival that marked the end of the Harvest, and the onset of winter.

Bonfires were originally lit five nights earlier, at Halloween.  Halloween was the beginning of Hallowmas: (from the Old English halig, which meant ‘Holy’ or ‘saint’; and mas) - a Christian festival where the souls of the dead were honoured on the festivals of All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween); All (Hallow’s) Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.

But that too had older, deeper roots.

The Celts called it Samhain: a three night festival which marked ‘Summer’s End.’  It was a time when the boundaries between this world and the other were at their thinnest.  Bonfires were lit to hold back the darkness; people dressed up (mummers); and the Wild Hunt was rumoured to ride through the skies terrifying children.  How little things change….!

Yes, we still dress up, still feel night spirits in the darkness; still scare ourselves with ‘ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night’.   What we’re really celebrating is something much more integral: the onset of the dark, and our innate reaction against it.  And that I find very comforting. 

Call it Bonfire Night, Halloween, whatever you like: it’s a festival with many names that marks the same half-way point between Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.  We celebrate it the same way they did, dressing up, scaring ourselves and lighting fires.  It is a tangible link us to our unknown ancestors who have disappeared into the dark before us. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

How novels are like girlfriends: my personal relationship with writing...


I found this old print of the only photo of my office circa 2000.  Some things haven't changed: though the 1995 Toshiba Satellite sadly gave up the ghost.

I’ve often thought that my relationship to my novels is similar to that with various women in my life. 
 
Other novels were those that needed working at.  Some that just hit you out of the blue, and some that were never really working out and were doomed from the start.  And then there are some which come like a bolt of lightning.  DDTH was like that.The Drink and Dream Teahouse (I've always called it DDTH for short) was my first novel, and so it has a very special place for me: it was my first love. 
It was as incredible a time for me as being a teenager and falling in love for the first time.  Writing it was an intense, all-consuming love affair.  It was like the story had been bottled inside me and suddenly burst out.  I could barely keep up. 

It took me six months from first line to putting the mss in an envelope, already sold for what was then a record breaking amount for an unfinished novel.
I had spent my twenties working abroad with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and I had already written two books about my experiences in rural China and Eritrea, East Africa.  But I found travel writing a little stilted.  Travel writing is an odd business, and it turns all the locals into foreigners in their own country.  I was dying to break into fiction.  I said 'graduate into fiction' then, and I still feel that fiction is a higher art form than Creative Non Fiction. 

What fiction gave me though, was a freedom to not have 'me' in the story, and this was so liberating.  I found, oddly, that I could be much more honest in fiction than in nonfiction.  And I could get much closer to the truth as well.


I came back to England from a last stint in China at the age of 29, to do an MA in Creative Writing in Lancaster.  As the leaves began to turn (autumn still seems like the best time to start a novel) I sat down to write a story that I wanted to put all my feelings about modern China into. 


I'm glad DDTH only took six months to write, because like your first love affair it was an unguarded and complete fall for me.  I would be out in the pub, thinking of my characters rather than listening to what anyone was saying.  They would wake me in the middle of the night.  I became a little obsessed.  The lives and challenges of the characters felt real.  They still feel real.  When I look at China now, the book is as relevant as it was ten years ago.
It's flawed of course.  It was my first novel and I had no idea what I was doing.  But there is a freshness and an honesty and a ballsyness to the writing that now I look back and admire. And I wonder if I still write that confidently, and fear that I dont.  Much in the way that after the first cut, you're never quite so open to others again.  I wonder if other writers have the same feeling?


DDTH won prizes I had never heard of, and was banned by the government in China, which in turns infuriated and delighted me, and I'm very fond of this book, and am delighted to have it out in the world again. If you'd like to get it then there are some links below, and if you like it, or not, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

 
 
DDTH ebook is up on Amazon on a special 48 hour sale: $1.99  £1.28
 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

On this Day: Classical Legends and the Perseid Meteors






In 30BC, on this day, the last of the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt, committed suicide.  Her name was Cleopatra VII Philopator, who famously ended her life with the bite of an asp.  It is also the first day of the Perseid Meteor Shower, which happens – obviously - in the constellation of Perseus.  Perseus was the killer of the Gorgon, Medusa, who had snakes instead of hair, and it was said that asps came from the drops of blood that rained down as Perseus carried her head to Olympus.
When I think of the Greek myths, I think of my prep school Classics teacher, Mr. Field.  He was an Old Peterite, and had come back after retirement to help out with the teaching.  He was supposed to have fought in the First World War, and to have a wooden foot.  School myth had it that some boys had crawled under his desk while he was talking, and untied his laces. 

His lesson usually started with him asking us where we had got up to in the particular story: the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, Alexander’s campaigns, Romulus and Remus.  Someone told him, and then he would stand unsteadily, and draw a map on the blackboard with white chalk.  He seemed to draw almost from touch rather than sight.  The he would sit and would not stand up again.

In year two, we started with the birth of the gods, and moved slowly forward as you graduated from up to fifth form: Greek Myths, Greek histories, then onto the birth of Rome, and the history of the Republic right up to the invasion of Britain.

Whenever I think of Mr. Field, he is drawing the map of Greece, but he could do Asia Minor, Sicily, Rome, and even Gaul as well.  His lesson was pure storytelling: and there was something timeless about it.  We were snotty little boys in the early 1980s, and he was an old man with gummy eyes and few teeth all sitting in a Victorian era classroom, with sash windows, and rugby fields outside.  But we could have been in a Victorian parlour, lit with gas lamps, or even a thegn’s hall with the light of the fire on our faces.  Those lessons were magical, and of course would never be allowed now!  But there’s something to be said for story-telling to be crow-barred into the curriculum.

Although it seems something of a shame that these classes talked of Mediterranean blue skies, rather than our own Northern ones, and the legends of Beowulf or Ingeld, or the adventures of Harald Hardrada.