Tag Archives: creativity

Work In Progress – Section: The House of Grain – an extract

Grain in a basket

Here’s the latest from the strange pagan novel I’m writing:

The sun is already climbing by the time we set out along the rough track from the fields. It is not long before heat combines with beer and my head is a hot ball of discomfort, jostled and jolted on rutted roads. I sit up to peek out over the raised sides of the cart, my head swimming. Broad fields in strips, those already furrowed are lines of bare wounds open to sky. Between each strip earth baulks strewn with weeds and low hedges. And the ox teams work on.

The alewife sees me looking out – a sharp admonition – back down, blanket pulled over face.

I think I must doze. Awake again, sweat is soaking rough cloth. I uncover to gulp air, head aspin, staring up. Not a cloud, clear blue. The oppressive air makes my is head flush with heat, and my skull develops a steady throb like the slow grinding of a quern on oats. Spots of rain fall. Surprised, I look up and around. Still no clouds. Am I drunk, then? Wherever the rain is from, I am grateful for its washing over the cart. It builds to a sudden squall, clearing my head and soothing its pain. A rainbow arches across the clear sky. The alewife huddles against the rain and stares down at me a moment, thoughtful.

The squall passes as quickly as it came, followed by the fresh nose of persichor, deep pungency of clean green: scent of spirits imbuing every bush and watching from every plant. I feel them huddling around me, growing living things. I know they sense me.

I sit up again. Ahead, in the middle distance on a low flat plain by a winding river, a low settlement squatting behind an encircling moat and palisade. Others dotted away into the distance behind it. The track we are on skirts its edge. At four points around the circumference, a tall white pole, each adorned with its own emblems. Passing the first, I see animals carved along its full length – wolf chases bull chases dog chases cat chases mouse. The next is populous with carved insect life – bee, fly, moth, wasp, ant, beetle in thousands of iterations. The third is luxuriant with carvings of wheat and barley, the fourth with sheep, cattle, goats, swine, oxen and horses. From the tops of each, blue and white cloth streamers – aflutter in the wind.

The alewife turns to me and tells me once more: “Cover up, girl”. We enter beneath a high gateway. Inside, through a crack in the cart’s side I slice the village into stolen glances: low thatched cruck houses made with arching beams rising from the ground. A woman stooping over a sheep pinned helpless between her knees beside a pile of yellow fleeces brandishes shears in sunlight. Elsewhere, a group of women gently drawing wool onto drop spindles, another leaning over a large barrel filled with red dye, holding a bolt of cloth under the water..

As we grind through, the air is thick with greetings to the alewife. Neighbours call and hail, the women asking after their menfolk in the fields and for news from other steads. It is a bright and cheery scene, far different from the sombre village of my distant boyhood that seems now only to come to me in flashes and feels as if it were never mine.

At one moment, a shadow falls and we travel in a silent place at the heart of the village. I am cold and I pull in under my blanket. A presence here, dark, brooding. Something vibrating in the air that my gossamer sense can read. Rage and repression waiting to break and destroy if it can. I quiver in my skin until the shadow that falls over me passes, and the cart continues on its way. But even though the malevolent presence dies away, the air around me vibrates my nails and hair, teeth and skin with the residue of anger.

I steal another glance. At the farther edge of the village stands a place unlike the low cruck houses we have passed. A two-storey building, dun-coloured daub over wattle walls hung between thick oak uprights, some of the ground floor panels infilled with rough clay brick. A tall lean-to barn built onto one side. Painted in black on the brown daub above the oak door: a sheaf of barley.

“Here it is then,” the alewife says cheerily under her breath. “The House of Grain. You just stay tucked away, and you’ll see.”

She drives the cart through the barn door. Here, the air is rich with the smell of malt and the dry presence of grain that sits high in the nose and at the back of the throat. She closes the door and comes to me.

“Come,” she says, helping me climb down from the cart with a gentle hand on my arms, then guiding me through the grain store loaded with sacks and guarded by three black cats who stare down at me with green, unblinking eyes. We step through a low door to another room, where a copper vat as wide as my outstretched arms is set in a rough brick block, a blackened opening below revealing its purpose for heating the copper. In the vat, a sweet-smelling liquid with a thick foamy crust and the acid smell of fermentation. I resist a strong desire to plunge my hands into that creamy surface.

The vat room is tall stretching up through both storeys. On a network of beams sits a a life-size doll, resting in a place of honour high on one beam, where it presides over the room. She is a woman of corn, braided hair winding over her head in long plaits that give the illusion of a glow like the rising sun. Her arms are outstretched towards me, palms upward, in a gesture of welcome. She is enthroned on a seat carved with ears of corn and overlooks a raised vegetable kingdom: the beams across the ceiling hung with green nature – herbs and leaves, dried or quick, some still curling and drawing sap through their stalks that wind around upright beams, growing up from where they are rooted beneath the earthen floor. Other plants are cut and hung to dry – a vista of living and once-living things: broad leaved and narrow, thick-stalked and slender. One plant has roots in the shape of a man, arms and legs splayed, head set back as if ready to shriek. Among this hanging garden, pairs of eyes of mice tremble, docile, wide eyed. Throughout all, the strong nose of grainy sweetness, and a coolness here that raises goosebumps on my arms.

Then I see her. In the shadows at one side of the room frozen in the act of cutting herb stalks is a frail young woman of the most startling beauty. White as the snow of my home, she has platinum hair and the most piercing blue eyes that settle on me with an unreadable expression…

The After-Effect of Paul McKenna – and Relearning Skills

The strange thing about having Paul McKenna hypnotise me to get me writing again was that my creative power was out of control. I had this unregulated emotion to write, which over the last 4 years I have been honing into a skill. I have just finished rewriting The Tube Healer – the story I wrote after he worked on me. I have to say that I am now satisfied with this. It took time to relearn the skill. It is better than it ever was, now.

This I think is really important in the work you do with hypnosis and NLP. What it does is switch on the desire to do what you want to do again. It doesn’t necessarily make you brilliant at it – it doesn’t teach you the skills. But it gives you the emotional drive to be fascinated enough to want to improve – to work with the skills that you have – and to improve them over time.

There is still hard work to be done after being motivated by NLP. It is just that after it, you feel that the work you are doing is not hard. It is enjoyable. That is my experience of the way NLP works.

This, I think is one of the key things that people leaving Prac courses don’t get: that there is still a whole load of application, skill building and work to be done after the course. You may believe that you are a genius at NLP, but you will also need to build up and acquire real experience before you become really competent at it.

What you have learned is a whole series of attitudes and beliefs that will help you on that journey.

Man In The Moon – Draft 3

The latest version of my sonnet on the moon.  In my previous version I identified rhythmic problems to do with the shift from iambic pentameter to trochaic pentameter in the second quatrain.  It meant the loss of a syllable at the end of the iambic lines in order to keep the meter fluid – a compromise I was not willing to make.  At the same time, it was conceptually clunky, failing to segue adequately between quatrains and sextet.  This one is closer, still, to where I am heading with this:

Man In The Moon

The More Modern Man In The Moon
The More Modern Man In The Moon

“When witches long ago beheld the moon
they conjured up a man hunched with a pack.
Astronomers spied ‘seas’ that would maroon
A sailor in a tranquil well of black.
Later, truer lenses picked out craters
ringed by nightbound mountains. Violent meteor
storms had tattooed deep on Luna’s face a
shadow-man – an ink-blot human creature.”
A woman, thinking, as she travels, weaves
her moonbug’s track through lunar rocks and dust –
“Technology sustains life and relieves
our need for faith or guesswork – even trust…”
The Cosmos is a mirror to each mind:
Look long upon its glass: What will YOU find?

Copyright (c) 2011, Matthew Wingett

A Mashed Potato Race

The minute we sat at the dining table, six-year-old Charlie and I started having fun.  The truth is, I love sitting with kids at dinner tables.  They are so much more enjoyable than the adults.

Within a few minutes, we had discussed the lobsters that live on the ceiling, and sometimes lose their grips and fall on the heads of the diners, and we talked about how the dwarf fireman comes in with a high power hose to wash the lobsters away, and the little-known fact that the hotel we were eating in every night put out trampolines for the lobsters to exercise on, and cleared them away in the morning before the diners came to eat. And we talked about the bizarre nature of monsters.

I carry a notebook around with me most of the time, and Charlie and I started drawing monsters.  He started first with a velociraptor, which was an okay kind of a monster, with big teeth and big eyes, and a pointy tale.  But I wanted to show him one of the ways his imagination might work, and how he could get to make up the rules – so we drew monsters with all sorts of extra bits: one with wheels on the ends of his 6 legs so that if he got too scary, when he fell asleep we could push him off a cliff.  Another with a fierce looking hook for one hand, and a rather civilised salad server for the other, a snake for a leg, and a hedgehog for the other leg that made him go “owww!” when he walked. Another that rushed at you shouting “I will eat me!” and then did exactly that when it attacked you, so that there was nothing left, except yourself, blinking at how a monster could turn into nothing in such short time.  Soon Charlie was howling with laughter and started adding bizarrenesses of his own to his monsters.  A roller-skate monster with the weirdest face and a leg growing out of its back was the starting point.  He was alight, and I was loving it.

When it came to ordering our food, I decided that we were going to get along famously, so when he ordered sausage and mashed potato, I did the same.  This made us little conspirators at the end of the table, while the grown-ups talked about all the things that grown-ups talk about at their end of the table.  Our mood  was so much better then theirs, I thought, and we laughed even more, and had to quieten down a little because we were getting a bit raucous.

Then the food came, and the thing happened that I remembered had happened to me when I was a boy.  When Charlie started eating the sausage, a change came over him.  His eyes puffed up, he pulled a face and looked longingly down the table at the burger and chips someone else had ordered. “I should have ordered the burger,” he said, sadly, and his throat tightened as a lump formed in it, that was made of all the grizzles and struggles he’d had with food he didn’t like at other dinner tables on other days.

Oh, I remembered all that from when I was a kid.  Not liking the taste of a partcicular food, and being told to eat it, I had turned the food into an instrument of torture with which I had made dinner times a living hell – not only for me but for my parents, too.  I saw Charlie pick up the sausage and start trying to pull out the bits of herb that he took exception to, and realised that if I didn’t act quickly, we might have a bit of local difficulty.  I smiled at him and gave him a wink.

“What do you think of it?” he asked me.

I prodded a piece of sausage on to the end of a fork and put it in my mouth, chewing theatrically.  “Scrummy, yummy, scrummy,” I said.  It was the first moment at which our rapport had been dented, and I saw him internalising a struggle.  I imagined it as follows: Everything I had said up to that point had been reliable and fun, now he was a little sad that he was on his own.  I jumped in quickly as he put his head on his hand and looked at the bowl of sausage and mash as if he were gazing down a mineshaft at an afterlife of eternal damnation and proddings with tridents.  And I said, really quickly:

“Remember when you had really good times and laughed?”

He looked up at me.  “When?  I can’t think of any…”

“What about when monsters have salad servers for hands and lobsters live on the ceiling?”

He brightened up and smiled at me.

“That’s amazing, isn’t it?  The fun of it.  And then there were all the times you’ve played and had a really good time.  And when you put that piece of sausage in your mouth, you’ll remember them.  I don’t know if you know it, but if you taste a food you thought you didn’t like 11 times, your body starts liking the taste.  It’s like magic.  And when that sausage goes in your mouth, you’ll remember sunshine, and play and laughter, and all the fun you’ve ever had will explode across your mouth, and it will be amazing!”

He had gone quite quiet as he thought about what I had just told him.  He tried the sausage again, with a little bit of uncertainty.  He didn’t like it so much, but he was fascinated by the future pace of 11 tastes and the possibility that things might change.  It just needed one more element to shift it all the way.  And it was further down the table: a little pot of ketchup.  I grabbed it.  “Dip it in there, first!”

He dipped with some pleasure, and when he put the sausage in his mouth I pulled a funny face and said crazy things, and he laughed as loud as he could.  Then he ate some more, and every time he did, I told him what a great guy he was, and gave him a big “well done” in a light and friendly way.

Later on, his mum asked him to eat the mashed potato, and I could see that it wasn’t that he didn’t like it, but just that he was full of sausage.  I had paced him, and had left my mashed potato, too.  And so, we just needed to do one more thing to make sure that he had eaten enough food to get him through to the evening meal:

“On your marks, get set… go!”

Yes, we had a mashed potato race, as the invisible trampolining lobsters and the roller-skate monsters and the self-devouring beasts looked on, shouting for one of us, or the other, to win.

And Charlie was obviously very good at mashed potato snaffling, because, when I looked at his empty bowl, it was clear he had beaten me.  Hands down.  And all around us, staring from the little nooks and crannies of the ceiling, and beneath tables, and from behind chairs, the monsters and lobsters were cheering!

Vanity and Bad Breath – What Your “Self Publisher” Won’t Tell You

Bad breath at parties is a bad thing.  And I know, because many years ago I used to have bad breath.  I don’t any more, for good reason – but there was a time when people backed away from me or turned their heads unexpectedly and buried their noses in their wine glasses.  It was not a good place to be.

But more of this later, because right now I want you to imagine we are somewhere else completely.  We are at a party, watching a female figure approach across the room.

See her now, coming near, this woman in her fifties with the tinted blonde wavy hair, proffering a bottle of wine as if it is some kind of magic talisman, or a piece of bait to get you hooked.  Notice the lean frame and the sharp eyes that seem, at their centre to have a vacuum, and notice that friendly enough smile.  She seems interested in a conversation… so why not?

The next few minutes are spent in prattle and intros – so how do you know x, and isn’t y lovely (notice how good she is at digging around, and notice again yet more vacancy behind those eyes) alongside calculations about property and people, and where do you live, and so on.

Then there’s the inevitable question:  And what do you do? Suppose now that she tells you that she is a publisher.  Then after a while, imagine that she tells you she is actually a “self-publisher”, which, you establish, doesn’t mean that she only publishes her own work.  You might get a feeling that she would never be quite that careless with her own money.  Nope.  She publishes books for other “selves”.

Imagine that you ask her what she publishes, and she tells you:  Oh, anything.  Anything and everything.  And if you’ve got half a brain in your head, despite the wine she has lavished on you, you might start getting a little warning bell sound.  Especially when she describes how an author approaches her with a manuscript and she makes it so easy for them.  How she organizes the printing of the book, she organizes the layout, she organizes the publicity and she organizes distribution.  Which doesn’t make her a publisher.  It makes her a high quality printing service.

So, you might ask yourself, what about the content of the book?  It’s possible that you have friends who have self-published books that were so close to being really good, but which, somewhere along the way, let themselves down.  Books that are fantastic ideas, but just needed working up.  Books, in fact that needed a judicious eye to make them sing, but which croak at times instead – or raise themselves up to sonorous heights, only to stutter and stammer at the crucial point.  Or others again that are playing a symphony of marvellous ideas, but which suddenly have a foghorn blaring right in the middle of the performance.

Perhaps she blinks now, this self publisher.  Perhaps she talks of how it isn’t her place to comment on the content.  And perhaps, as you watch her more closely, you might begin to realise that that emptiness in her eyes is the void that comes from inhabiting a world devoid of values.  The pages of whichever book she is thinking of right now, might as well be blank, you suspect.  And without values – writing values –  she can add nothing to raise any of the books she publishes to the next saleable level, either.

What business is it of mine to dictate what you find in the pages of a book? she might well ask, with a rhetorical flourish.  These authors are experts on their subjects.  I am not.

Perhaps at this point you might consider that yes, they are experts, but not necessarily on writing.  An image might swim before you as you talk to this woman, as you consider the plights of those desperate to be published at any cost.  It’s possible that you begin to think that if ever there was a duty of care towards a client, it really should exist in this world of self publishing.

What I have written above is just a daydream – a little picture to consider, as you read this little blog.  And it can fade now, as we get back to the real point:  bad breath.

One of the best things my brother did for me was, while driving me home from a party, to open the window on his side of the car.  It was a winter night many years back, icy and cold, and I asked him to close it again.  It was then that he told me: “Matt, you need to see a dentist or a doctor.  Someone who can help you. Because there is something wrong with your breath.”

I was gutted.  I cast my mind back through the preceding year and identified a definite pattern, which up to then I had been oblivious to. It was a recent problem, I realised, that had coincided with the pain I was getting from my wisdom teeth.  Pictures came up of close conversations in which people had stepped backwards, and walked away and I had felt an unidentifiable sense of rejection.  How awful!  And all it would have taken was the right word for me to have dealt with the matter months before.

Once I was told about it, I decided to sort it out.  I went to see the experts.  The dentist edited my mouth, taking out a few unnecessary bits.  He removed my wisdom teeth and life got better.  People not only liked me, they were also willing to stand near me.  My brother had done me a big favour.

Now consider this: if I had not received that great piece of advice, I might well have ended up in friendships only with people with no sense of smell.  Or, worse, if I had a bit of money to throw around, I might have been surrounded by people who did have a sense of smell, but were willing to put up with the reek to get their hands on the wonga, and secretly sniggered down their sleeves when I left.  Either of these scenarios might have made me feel good in the short-term, but the problem of being unpopular with lots of different people at parties would still have been there.

Now let’s go back to the vanity publisher we imagined.  I haven’t made a decision about her breath in my imaginary scenario.  I didn’t stand close enough to her in my imagination to find out.  But if you are going to go to someone like her, heed this one piece of advice:

Don’t think she is interested in your precious manuscript or that she thinks it has value.  That’s not her job.  For her, the only book you have on your person of any value is your chequebook.  She ain’t going to give you advice, she ain’t going to help you make your book better.  She’s not going to sidle up to you and let you know, in the nicest, most caring way, that as it stands, right now, your book stinks and needs a proper professional eye on it – and that only that way will it make new friends.  Because although she calls herself a publisher, making a profit from sales of your book ain’t her job.  So she isn’t going to care one jot of ink.

Remember: at a dentist’s, at some point you’re going to have your mouth open wide.  When you walk into a vanity publisher’s, make sure your eyes are open wide, too.

Arts and Their Impact on Human Relations – by Maha Moussa

I have a guest writer on the blog today.  I first met Maha Moussa 10 years ago while I was working for the British Council in Cairo.  Maha was interested in learning English, and was a wonderful hostess to me, taking me around the markets and secret places of Cairo, walking along the Corniche, teaching me about Egyptian food and taking me to cultural events, including Sufi dancing.  It was a wonderful time.

When I moved back to the UK, we lost touch, until one day she popped up on facebook and said “hello”.  Maha has lately been studying English again, and she sent me an essay that she wrote for her teacher.  I was impressed by it, not just because of the competency of the English, but because Maha engages with her subject with a great deal of honesty, joy and optimism.  It is the second essay she has written on the course.  Before now, Maha was all self-taught – writing to friends in the West, and meeting Westerners in the markets.  I think it is impressive for that feat alone – but above and beyond that, she raises some really wholesome points and some great, uplifting descriptions.  It is very different from the way that I write – and I hope you enjoy the change!

Arts and Their Impact on Human Relations – by Maha Moussa

Music, Singing, Dancing, Drawing, Poetry, Movies, and Plays, each of them is an important aspect of the culture of different countries and their civilizations. As such, they help us to form our ideas of life with many different perspectives.

Maha Moussa - A Friend From Cairo
Maha Moussa - A Friend From Cairo

There is no need to learn to be an artist, or even to study The Arts in order to feel the beauty which we see in the painting of the great works of Leonardo Da Vinci, or in the painting of an unknown person who lives in a slum area in India, for example.  Napoleon Bonaparte said: “A picture is worth a thousand words”, and yes, this is true . There is also no need to speak several languages to be able to enjoy the wonderful music and songs that we listen to in different languages. All we need is to learn how to feel, to see, and to listen to these inspiring arts, by using our senses, our hearts, our minds and our consciousnesses.  We can follow our desires to become acquainted with other people’s cultures and deal with them on a human level through their arts. That is all that we need to appreciate art.

One of the most famous quotes by Victor Hugo is: “Change your opinion, keep to your principles, change your leaves, keep intact your roots”. Thus, to be proud of our roots, our civilization, and our culture’s artistic heritage is something truly good and healthy. This sense of pride should help us to have a deep sense of understanding and respect for the cultures and arts of other countries, too. It gives us a wonderful chance to know more about the arts that contribute in some way to shaping the hearts and minds of other people, and affects our ways of dealing with each other in life. The fact is that, the global exchange of arts between countries, such as music, singing, dancing, drawing etc., provides opportunities for humanity to open the door of knowledge, to help people to add richness to their values, their dreams, and their ambitions to create a smooth path to communicate with other wonderful people around the world, and accept their differences.  In this way, we learn to accommodate others in a way that is less severe or intolerant, regardless of their beliefs, their customs, their religions, their nationalities, or even their lifestyle. This shared gateway frees us to meet each other naturally and respectfully with more flexibility, respect, and tolerance.

Someone once said about music: “Music expresses feeling and thoughts without language; it was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words.” So, if anyone has the opportunity to watch or to listen to any of the various music performances that come to Egypt from different countries such as: Korea, America, Zambia, France, Ireland, Pakistan, or India, etc., I think that the most useful way to be able to enjoy and feel this music is to let your soul go free and clear your mind, as if you are traveling to those wonderful countries and attending these performances by yourself. This is my advice from personal experience.

A few months ago, in the last Month of Ramadan, I was attending one of the greatest and most talented performances that I have ever seen in my life, along with one of my foreign friends, who was working in Cairo at the time. This wonderful show was one of religious music. It was the international annual festival of “Samaa for sufi music and chanting“.  It was a new cultural event that started 2 years ago. It is held annually during Ramadan, in one of Cairo’s oldest and most iconic Islamic buildings, El Ghoury Dome, or Qobat Al-Ghoury. The event I attended this year at the festival had bands from many countries, such as: India, Morocco, Spain, Turkey, while the core band had members from Egypt, Indonesia, and Akabila. This wonderful performance was a mixture of Islamic religious chanting, Coptic hymns, and Opera songs, at the same time. All of these bands were glorifying God, and His messengers Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed, but with many languages and in various musical styles. They provided to the world through their music ”a message of peace“, to explain that God created us equal. Regardless of the religions or the beliefs we follow, we all are humans. When my friend and I were listening to them, we felt as if the amazing music and sounds came to us from heaven. All we could do was just enjoy the Islamic Sufi chanting and the Coptic Hymns and we felt that there was no difference between them. When the whole group said the same words together, such as; Allah, God, Mohammed, and Jesus, we became surprised at how they felt the pleasure and the power of their words, and how they transferred that feeling to us, even with our inability to understand most of the languages in which they were performed. We had no choice but to respond to their music and their songs.  Really we felt as if we had already traveled to each country.

In my opinion, there is no specific way to enjoy the different kinds of arts; every person has the absolute freedom to see, to listen, and to taste the art in the manner that suits him or her. Art and freedom are two sides of one coin. Thus, our freedom creates a sense of love, care, tolerance, and respect between peoples. So let us know and learn more about each other from our arts and our cultures. They translate many great and deep meanings in life into one common language we can all understand. Art provides us with convincing answers to many questions that we have in our minds about others, and the answer always is this: that we are all human, just human.

Borrowing Some Light From Author Graham Hurley

Graham Hurley is a fascinating man.  Lean, with a grey-white widow’s peak, and a slight spike to his hair, he stands before the assembled group in the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth Dockyard, among ancient cannons and other relics of Tudor life – square backgammon sets and soft leather shoes, solid wooden cups and terrifying metal syringes: a modern figure, poised, thoughtful and calm, taking a few seconds to gather his thoughts.

Graham Hurley, International Thriller Writer, and Local Boy
Graham Hurley, International Thriller Writer, and Local Boy

The Mary Rose Museum is not the most obvious place to meet an internationally published author with a string of 27 novels to his name.  And yet there is a logic to it.  Graham has made Portsmouth the subject of many of his books, including the series that has proven a real success over the last ten years.  Those are the novels with, at their centre, the “slightly woolly and not quite solid” Joe Faraday, a Portsmouth Detective Inspector involved in investigating murders and other heinous crimes in the dark criminal underworld of the naval port.  The stories are internationally acclaimed, yet rooted in the island city.  Hurley’s writing straddles two horses.  To me, a dweller in Pompey, his work is that of a local author who describes the railway stations and roads, housing estates and seascapes of my home town.  So, it is strange to think that under the magic filter of his writing, the streets of Britain’s only island city might seem to others a dark, crime-ridden place, exotic, grimy and extreme – or somehow like Detective Inspector Rebus’s Edinburgh, except with frigates and a Pompey accent.

Look at him as an exhibit now, standing among the glass cases of the Mary Rose Museum, beside him a beautifully carved metre-long model of the old Tudor warship, motionlessly plying its way across a circle of yellow formica above a sea of blue carpet.  Take in his angular figure with the prow-like nose and the eyes that seem often focussed in a middle distance, deep-set in his head.  The long delicate line of the jaw and the face that is lined with the experience of his craft, and of the people he has met who have fed his storytelling life.  Note his tight khaki jumper and his jeans slightly loose around the lean waist because, maybe, he has burned up the carbs with his obvious mental energy. And note also the calm and pulled-back manner in his movements.  Unassuming.  If I were to identify an aesthetic to his look it would be this: “Light”.

The talk he is about to deliver, in his measured voice will wash over the audience for an hour and a half.  It will be on the subject I am learning about every day.  It is “the virus in his blood” that he has made a living from, and which pushes him onwards and onwards to new creativity: writing.

…as a child, his greatest gift from his mother was a library ticket for the Clacton-on-Sea library…

With little preamble, he begins, speaking in his soft manner, intimate, pulling us in to listen to the quiet way he describes his early world.  His talk is heartening, warm, inspiring, informative and joyful.  So he tells us how he revelled in a post-War childhood devoid of television, and how those early years echoed with his father’s great love: the Third Programme.  Bach, Brahms and Beethoven were the choices he had for evening entertainment with the family, and in response to those choices he tells us how he drew into the world inside his own mind to form his own entertainment.  How he would disappear with a feigned bad head and head up to his room to read and read and read.

He tells us how, as a child, his greatest gift from his mother was a library ticket for the Clacton-on-Sea library and how that ticket transported him to whole new worlds.  He tells us how one day he took “one step up” in the library and started reading books from that “great tidal wave of writing” that came out of World War II.  Page-turning stories, page-turning documentaries that absolutely pulled him along and taught him what a book should do: hold your reader with every word.  And he tells us how his mother, avid for movies, took him every Tuesday through the snow and the sunshine to the cinema to watch “Reach for the Sky” and “The Cruel Sea” and so many others – many being films of the books he had already absorbed – and which gave him yet more insight into the way a story is made.

These were the formative years of the writer, which were followed by the apprenticeship.  When he was only 13 years old he started his first novel.  In the freezing parlour that was reserved by the family for special days he set up his Olivetti 32 typewriter with carbon copy paper on the bridge table and was faced with his first task of “getting his characters into the room”.  He tells us how that piece of simple choreography was for him an immensely difficult task.  Why?  Because it meant negotiating a door… which entailed considering what that door might be made of, and the colour of it, and how it was painted, and the tribe that sat under it in the rainforest that the wood came from…  At this time Graham’s filtering process was not yet fully developed, but this single revelation told me something else: that he had the writer’s “sideways mind” when young.  That a door wasn’t just a door, but was a portal into possibilities that others miss.  And that too, was a gift that would be immensely useful in his later writing.

Five novels later, he had served his apprenticeship, and headed for university, where he studied English Literature in the vain hope of learning something from the great novelists of the past.  But being an expert in Anglo-Saxon was not the most useful of skills for the novelist – and after returning home to Clacton-On-Sea he had no idea what he was going to do.  The first plan was to go to Paris, find an atelier high up in a garret somewhere and to write.  However, the dream foundered on the fact that he had no money, and his parents were not about to be forthcoming.  And so, after two days of being woken by his mother bearing a cup of tea that she placed at his bedside, on the third day he was instead given a copy of the Daily Telegraph – opened at the “Situations Vacant” column.

And here, the main body of the story begins.  Believing he had little hope of getting the job, he applied to Southern TV to become a scriptwriter, and to his amazement, was taken on.  The world of TV was something that came as a shock to him.  I can see him now: walking from his quiet life in Clacton, and then from the rarefied halls of Cambridge University with its wide lawns and its picturesque punts by the river, into a media world of pretty girls and a whirl of people and “a bar as you went into the studios” and hence a great social life to go with it.  And I can see the realisation dawning on him that he had just entered a world that was almost exactly the opposite of the world he had imagined being as a novelist.  And one that would be indispensible to him later on.

So he became involved in writing and making documentaries, and realised that the skill that he was to learn there – one of genuine nosiness – would stand him amazingly well in learning the stories of the people who would one day populate his novels.  As he puts it himself: “The novelist builds bridges into other people’s lives.”

Around this time, Graham met Neil Slatter, a man who, as a teenager broke his neck in a motorbike crash near Petersfield, Hampshire.  Graham followed Neil around Britain with a film crew, making a documentary about this indomitable man’s drive to build awareness of quadriplegia.  And at the end of making the documentary, when he showed it to Neil, Neil’s response was a simple one: “If you want to know the real truth about my life, then you will need to interview everyone, and do it properly.”  And so Graham used that innate nosiness that he had honed do exactly that, and write a book telling Neil’s real story.

There were things that he uncovered that were certainly not what he had expected or would have wished for, and certainly not what Neil had wanted to know.  Like, for example, the way that Neil’s girlfriend had been having an affair with his best friend for 18 months prior to the accident… all sorts of details that, in a way, put Graham in the God-like position of knowing more about a man’s life than the man himself.

When he handed the manuscript to Neil, he told him he may not like it and he could burn it, if he wished.  In fact, Neil was seriously angry when Graham returned a week later to see him again, but Neil’s number one question was this: “Is it true?”  When Graham said it was, then Neil went on to say: “Then let’s publish it.”

“Lucky Break” was Graham’s first book – and as he relates its birth to the audience in the Mary Rose Museum, I realise that actually, it was my first contact with the man – or at least his work.

Lucky Break - Graham's first book

I joined, Milestone Publications, the local publisher who published his book, as a teaboy and general dog’s body about 3 years after publication, and one of my jobs had been to deliver to Neil, in his Petersfield council house, the remainder copies.  Neil gave me a copy to read, and I dipped into it from time to time with interest.  It was the first “real” book that I had been close to in production terms.  The other volumes Milestone published tended to be local photo books with titles like “Portsmouth Past and Present”, “Portsmouth Then and Now” and the ever-so-catchily titled series: “The Pubs of Portsmouth”, “The Cinemas of Portsmouth”… and so on.

Graham continues his tale, telling us how his television work took him all over the world, producing and making tv shows in all sorts of places.  He was in the team that found the wreck of the Titanic on the seabed, and in the 6 weeks on board that boat trawling around the Arctic Circle with an underwater camera, came up with the idea for a thriller about a nuclear stand-off. It would become a tv show in the height of the cold War called “Rules of Engagement.

But wait a minute..!  Back up there.  Did Graham really say he was in the team that discovered the wreck of the Titanic on the seabed?

Yes, he really did!   And yet he spoke about it as if it was nothing.  Absolutely astonishing.  I reflect on it for a moment, and I suppose this tells me more about the man.  Yes, discovering the Titanic was amazing.  But his focus now is on his writing, and on being a novelist.  Finding the Titanic is something he has done.  But tonight, we are here to find out who he is.

He talks about contacting his agent Carol Blake to land him a contract with Pan to deliver that novel, and waiting by the phone to get a call back.  And then being commissioned to produce a first draft of the novel in just two and a half months.  That’s 150,000 words and 550 pages of blockbuster novel.  And he talks about the crisis it caused in him, always speaking in that quiet manner of his:  “But I can’t do it,” he told his wife, who very matter-of-factly replied: “You have been boring me for 11 years telling me you want to be a novelist.  Well now’s your chance.  So do it.”

And he did.

Graham also talks about the wrangles he had with his publishers in producing his books. He talks about the horror that is artwork, and how it is chosen.  For example, there are reds and blacks and a silhouetted warship and plenty of barbed wire in a cinema-style “letterbox” design on the cover of his novel for “Rules of Engagement”.  The design knocks out female readers before the book is even off the shelf.  For a man who became a writer because it is “the self-confessed refuge of the control freak” it must have been a heck of a blow, putting up with that cover.

As time went by, writing generated its own rhythm in Graham’s life.  He organized his life to fit it: writing in the winter, between October and May, and getting out in the sunshine throughout the whole of the summer.  It is a wonderful life, the way he tells it, and he genuinely comes across as a truly happy and fortunate man.  I think what I like about Graham most is his modesty.  It is clear he is shrewd, that he observes and that he makes some very smart choices – and yet when he has success, then he is “lucky”.  It reminds me of the old saying: “People say I’m lucky. And what’s funny is, the harder I work, the luckier I get.”  His determination and persistence are a pattern and a model.  He deserves his luck.  He has worked for it.

…the prejudice that you might be quite stupid if you live in any other city than London is a kind of provincialism all its own…

As the evening progresses, it becomes clear that Graham has for many years had a fascination with Portsmouth.  When he talks about the idea of the city declaring UDI in one of his early novels, through different stories set in the city, to finally writing his Faraday novels, Portsmouth always looms.  It’s as if the city is in his blood.

He also talks about the snobbishness and petty-mindedness of the London metropolitan set.  He talks of receiving embarrassed smiles and looks of sympathy when you say that you don’t live in London, and the almost complete incomprehension when you say you live in a city like Portsmouth.  What is hilarious about it is the assumption of superiority of the London set.  Yet the prejudice that you might be quite stupid if you live in any other city than London is a kind of provincialism all its own.

The night deepens, the cold water beneath the building in the Naval dockyard gets colder still, the black night blackens further outside, and we begin to feel a chill setting in in the Museum.  Now, finally, Graham talks of the turn of fate that led Orion to extend an invitation to him to write detective fiction.  And how from that invitation, the character of Faraday was born.  He talks about researching and rubbing shoulders with the police officers of Portsmouth and of Hampshire, with all their paranoia and their suspicion – and how he decided to write a low-key crime novel, rather than the grand gestures of the “serial killer” novels. He talks about being as faithful as he can to the police officer’s life while still making a good story, about the paperwork, and about the way that in any hierarchy, the lower ranks slag off and bitch about the higher ranks.  He talks about and wrote about the reality of policing.  And then he talks about more of that supposed “good luck” that he has, which is most certainly a product of the way that he approaches his writing.

Hence, he tells us how he was contacted by the high ranking police officer Colin Smith and was told that he would be invited to attend the next “decent murder” that they had to investigate, rather than a standard “three dayer”.  All the doors in the force were opened to him from then on – and he began to observe and understand the amazing power and reach of the serious crimes unit.

Ten years and 12 novels later, Graham has finally decided to pull the plug on the stories of Faraday and Portsmouth.  He has moved away from the city, and now lives in East Devon.  But he talks at times of still being able to feel the pulse of the city, of understanding how it works, of knowing the areas of deprivation and toughness in the place.  He talks about this little island as being a microcosm for the larger island of the UK – away from which it stands across a small creek.

He talks about his “luck”, and being “fortunate”.  And I know full well that that is only partly true.  Graham has made his luck with an attitude and a definite sense that there could be no other way to live his life than the way he has done.  He has prioritised and he has succeeded.

It’s a fascinating evening, and as I step into the night and look up at the icy lights in the shape of a Christmas tree hanging from the masts of HMS Warrior, above the black, iron water of the harbour, beneath a frozen December night, I know that there is nowhere quite like this city, and there is plenty more to come from it.  Stories.  Stories.  Stories.

Thank you Graham.  You shed some light on the way you write.  That was helpful.  I will borrow some of your light, if that’s okay.

Graham Hurley’s talk took place at The Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth Naval Dockyard on 9th December 2010.  His latest book, “Borrowed Light” was published on 10th December 2010.

His website is at http://www.grahamhurley.co.uk/

“I Bought A Long Case Clock” – A Sonnet

A couple of years ago I got thinking about the grandfather clock I had picked up at an auction for not too much money.  It was a beautiful thing; built around 1820, slender and delicate, with the most gentle sound of a bell, like a ghost of time, marking out the hours.  It got me thinking about time and how it holds the universe together, and in that daydream I had the idea for this sonnet.  I hope you like it.

PS: I still don’t think I’ve got the final line right, so am working on it!

I Bought A Long Case Clock

I bought a long case clock, whose motive weight

through wheels, escapement, pendulum and gears

spins time with gravity. Now contemplate

how Time has Weight to mark our passing years;

how gravity’s a mystery whose effects

are seen in Heaven’s Movement and the Tide –

revealed by bending starlight, it directs

unseen: forever present, yet implied;

how Time’s the precondition for the chain

of causes linking future, present, past;

and how this impulse secretly sustains

our World: it was the first, it will be last.

All this my clock provokes: how this machine

the Infinite implies…

…and hands unseen

Copyright (c) 2010 Matthew Wingett in all media