Many places we don’t know


A familiar London landmark

Here is what two thirty-something-year-olds, who have spent a lot of time in many various types of churches and who have often travelled into London by rail, sound like watching the last two episodes of Around The World With Willy Fogg:

– King’s Cross? From Liverpool?

– Westminster Cathedral? Really?

– Well, this is a Spanish programme. Maybe they’ve decided he’s Catholic.

– Why is he wearing vestments in the street?

– At least they’ve got the colour of the stole right.

– No, that’s Westminster Abbey. They’re just wrong.

You may well point out that the hero of Around The World With Willy Fogg is a lion who wears a top hat, and that’s a fair point. This is children’s television, and one might as well put the increasing price of stamps  down to the fact that Postman Pat now has a two vans, a motorbike, and a helicopter as expect logic. But sending the Liverpool trains to King’s Cross requires me to believe not only in a world where animals wear clothes, but also in one where all the northbound trains leave London from one sole station. Which would make much more sense than the real world, but there we go. Actually, thinking about it, I can’t fault Willy Fogg’s decision to avoid Euston. It’s one of my least favourite stations, ahead of Birmingham New Street and only slightly behind Gatwick Airport.

One of the other eyebrow-raising things about Willy Fogg was the way that Fogg’s acquaintances at the Reform Club seemed to know about his movements almost as soon as he does. This despite the fact that the action is set during a period of history where news cannot travel across the sea any faster than a human (or a top-hat-wearing lion) can. I can give Willy Fogg a pass on this one, but I’m less indulgent when Joseph O’Connor makes the same mistake in Star of the Sea.

We all have our own areas of expertise, our own sensitivities, our own knowns that may well be authors’ unknowns. And so, when a character is meant to know more about a particular subject than their author does, and when a reader knows more than the author, any mistakes are likely to come to the surface.

Apart from how to get to the North West and the difference between Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral, I know enough about the career of Kathleen Ferrier, for example, to know that she was singing the role of Orpheus when she broke her leg on stage, not Eurydice, as Rose Heiney assumes in The Days of Judy B.. And that wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that it’s Judy B.’s singing teacher, who really ought to know better, who says that. I know enough about the Church of England to know that it’s unlikely that a bishop would wear a ‘soutane’ to a secular function, as Kate Lace assumes in The Chalet Girl, and very unlikely that he’d call it that.

I know enough to know that I’ve almost certainly missed something myself.

And so, as I wait for the edits to come in on A Spoke In The Wheel, I am nervous. I am nervous about what I may have got wrong about professional cycling and about disability benefits and about how flood defences work. I am nervous about what I may have got wrong about the road to Preston and about doping and about working for a charity. I am nervous about what other people will see that I cannot.

Where possible, I have asked people who know more about those things than I do to read the manuscript and advise me, but I know that it’s inevitable that something is still going to slip through the gaps. I can only hope that it’s not going to be something too embarrassing.


Down the rabbit hole: reading in 2017


I’ve read some great books this year. In fact, I can’t remember enjoying a year’s reading so much since I was a teenager. I started out with a whole lot of comfort reading to get me through the New Year virus and the associated sleepless nights (fanfic; the Richard Hannay series), and… kept on with the comfort reading. No, not necessarily comfort reading. Some of it was distinctly uncomfortable. But this year I’ve read far more things just because I wanted to read them.

I picked things up because they were old favourites that I wanted to revisit (White Boots), or because I’d heard of them years ago and had always meant to get around to reading them (The Towers of Trebizond), or because someone gave them to me (A Good Hiding), or because someone mentioned them in passing on something totally unrelated and I liked the sound of them (The Hare with Amber Eyes). I read some new things by authors whose work I’ve enjoyed in the past (Trouble for Lucia and Meet Me at Beachcomber Bay), and I experimented with some new authors (Four Steps).

This year I read thrillers (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold) and mysteries (The China Governess). I read fanfic (Blackbird). I read memoir (The World of Cycling According to G) and biography (though I’ve yet to reach the end of the giant Rudolf Nureyev one). I read chicklit (To the Moon and Back). I read literary criticism (Literary Allusion in Harry Potter). I read children’s books (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass). I read non-fiction. I read poetry (Listen to the Green; Four Quartets; Measured Extravagance).

I read fewer things for motives of self-improvement (La Dame aux Camélias). I read a couple of things just to get them off my shelves (Mulligan and The Widow). Next year I’d like to get more things off my shelves without reading them.

I followed rabbit holes and felt less guilty about enjoying what I read (pretty much everything, but particularly the Victorian and early twentieth century British stuff). I think I’ll write more about that tomorrow. The only book that I deliberately abandoned was Snuff – to my mind it’s the point in the Discworld series where the quality takes an obvious and understandable turn for the worse, and I just couldn’t bear to keep going with it. I may also give up on Will Grayson, Will Grayson before the year’s out, because I’m finding the chapters without capitalisation rather an effort to read.

Last year I decided not to bother recording my reactions to books, and just wrote down what I actually finished. This strategy continued to work this year, and I find that the memorable ones are memorable and the rest of them aren’t, and my reactions don’t make much difference, really. And then of course there are the books that are enjoyable but not memorable, and looking back at previous years’ records I can’t actually tell the difference between those and the books that I was pretending to enjoy because I thought I should.

I’ve finished sixty-six books so far, and will probably get a couple more in before the end of 2017. (Last year I managed seventy-eight, but more of those were things that I Felt I Ought To Read, either for self-improvement reasons or because I’d got them free and felt I should get my money’s worth… yeah.) Most of my reading time was on the train, with a little bit at lunchtimes or bedtimes.

I think this year I’ve come to understand that I’m not reading for anybody else – not for friends, not for colleagues, not for my own readers or even for my future self. I’m reading for me, now.

It’s fun.

No, it *is* about enjoying it


A very grainy photo of some books I’ve enjoyed. You might not enjoy these. That’s fine!

On Thursday I took part in a workshop for union learning reps, exploring ways of promoting reading and writing for pleasure in the workplace. One of the initiatives that they work with is the Reading Ahead challenge – members are encouraged to choose six reads (which could be anything from a haiku to War and Peace) and write a brief review of each of them. The idea is to make reading less off-putting, to demonstrate that it’s for everybody.

One of the ULRs told a story about someone who had managed to put one of her recruits right off joining in the challenge.

‘And what are you reading at the moment?’ he’d asked. She’d told him, had said, a little apologetically, that maybe it wasn’t the most intellectual thing in the world, but she was enjoying it.

‘But it’s not about enjoying it, is it?’ he said. ‘It’s about challenging yourself, learning something new.’

That person was wrong. WRONG.

It is about enjoying it.

I’m going to write that bigger:

It *is* about enjoying it

And if the person who said that it isn’t was the person I think it was, I’m going to tell him so when I next see him.

This person is also wrong, or, at least, missing the point spectacularly. If we try to make people read because it is good for them, they will never enjoy reading. It’s like eating enough vegetables, or getting enough exercise: if you do it because you think you should, you’re constantly fighting with yourself and sooner or later you give up because you just hate yourself so much for making yourself do it.

The world is full of things that we read because we have to. Bills. Textbooks. Contracts. Procedures. They are not fun. Why should we extend that misery to the rest of our reading life?

The more people read for fun – read because they genuinely enjoy it, because they would rather be reading than doing something else – the easier they will find it when they come to reading what’s dull, or difficult, but essential.

Can we enjoy reading challenging material? Of course we can. Personally, I have just downloaded Le Tour du Monde en Quatre-Vingt Jours – yes, in French – which is going to be a challenge, and also something that I will enjoy. As one of my friends says, ’embrace the power of AND’. We can also keep reading things that we’re not currently enjoying in the hopes that we will enjoy them eventually.

But to deliberately seek out things to read that we don’t expect to enjoy… no. No, thank you.

In much the same way as one gets tired of doughnuts very quickly if one eats nothing but doughnuts, it’s unlikely that people will read nothing but [that book you’re thinking of] and [that other book you’re thinking of]. And really, if they did, would that be such a problem?

The more we read – the more we read for pure pleasure – the more we will find our horizons expanding and our tastes diversifying. If we just let people read what they want to read, and keep reading what they want to read, they’ll probably end up reading something that comes up to the exacting standards of the person who terrorised that poor potential Reading Ahead challenge participant.

But that’s not the point. Enjoyment comes first. Life is too short to drag ourselves through things we’re not enjoying just because somebody thinks they’re good for us.

It is about enjoying it. In fact, enjoying it is the most important thing.

Good reasons to read a book

  1. To see what the fuss is about
  2. You loved it last time around
  3. You loved that other book by the same author
  4. It’s very good
  5. The plot has got you hooked
  6. It’s so bad it’s funny

Good reasons for finishing a book you’re not enjoying

  1. It’s a requirement for your course
  2. You’ve got into it now
  3. You want to see if it gets better
  4. You want to see how bad it can possibly get

Good reasons not to read a book

  1. It sounds just like that other book you hated
  2. It sounds fine, just not very interesting
  3. Somebody on the internet said it wasn’t very good
  4. You would rather read a different book
  5. The author was rude to or about somebody like you on Twitter
  6. Life’s too short

Good reasons to abandon a book

  1. You don’t feel like finishing this book

There are many further variations. Add your own in comments!


Back in the days when I was trying to sell Speak Its Name to any number of overworked and bewildered publishers and agents, I was a bit wary of self-publishing, because I assumed that it was going to be a huge amount of work to ensure that you were left with a decent product. (This was, in fact, true. I did the work.)

And I’d read some advice from another author that suggested that traditional publishing was the best route to ensure quality. Once you had a publisher, they would set you up with an editor, and a cover designer, and you wouldn’t have to worry about any of that peripheral stuff.

I’ve since learned that this, as the old song says, ain’t necessarily so. For example, take a look at this:


I’m not going to name the title or the author, because I suspect they have better things to do than basic quality checking on foreign editions of their books. The publisher should be paying someone to, you know, check there are spaces in between words. The publisher is Mira Books of Chatswood, Australia, and they do deserve naming and shaming. However or whoever you’re publishing, there’s no excuse for letting a book out looking like that.

Looking forward to Kingsblood

2013 August Wells 076Ankaret Wells, whose books are great and who I credit with showing me that self-publishing could be far more fun and far less trouble than I had always feared, has teamed up with Irene Headley, whose writing is always insightful and often hilarious, to write a new fantasy series, Kingsblood. And it looks like it’s going to be fantastic:

The bitter years of the Cousins War are over… for now.
The grandsons of Kharis Sidonia are dukes and kings, and the last kinsmen of the deposed King Gilbert the Bloodless are hunted exiles… for now.
Winter holds armies at a standstill, and in Briege, the suitors of the new Duchess of Bergomance protest that they are at her feet… for now.
Before the thaw breaks, Ambrosia of Bergomance must choose a husband, and place her people in the hands of another, greater, power, By her side are two men – her uncle Thomas of Wharram, loyal to his family above all else, and Nicolas ás Ithel, who has spent most of his life as a hostage.
Thomas and Nicolas become lovers and allies…
For now.

There are extracts at Ankaret’s blog and at Irene’s. The first work is coming out in December.

I’m really looking forward to this one.

A reader’s guide to Cambridge charity shops

The fruits of an afternoon's research

The fruits of an afternoon’s research

I have always bought books in charity shops, and, so long as charity shops, books, or I continue to exist, I always will. There wasn’t much spare money around when I was growing up, and besides, I have a perverse liking for things that are out of print.

In terms of books, charity shops are good for:

  • things I have a vague idea that I’m collecting (for example, Blue Peter annuals, or John Buchans in the red Nelson edition, which is the only thing that fits on the second shelf of my big bookcase);
  • last year’s bestsellers;
  • impulse buys.

Charity shops are not so good for:

  • things that have only just been published, though you occasionally get lucky;
  • rare or specific books, though you occasionally get lucky;
  • things you need within a tight timeframe, though you occasionally get lucky.

I spend less time in charity shops than I used to, mainly because there are none within walking distance of my office – at least, not if I want to get out and back and spend a reasonable amount of time actually in the shop all within my lunch break. However, there are always Saturdays. I’ve lived in Cambridge for getting on for three years now, and have explored a reasonable portion of the city in that time. There are two streets in particular that have an abundance of charity shops: Burleigh Street and Mill Road.

Charity shops fall into two broad categories. There are the carefully curated, and the undiscriminatingly chaotic.

The latter are, of course, by far the best for books. You never know what you’re going to find; you pick up things you’d never heard of because you are intrigued by the picture on the spine or because the title reminds you of something you were looking for six months ago. You never find what you’re actually looking for, but the chances are you’ll find something else worth reading.

In the carefully curated category, by contrast, you will find two stingy shelves of books, whose contents will be unremittingly boring, and suspiciously similar to those in every other carefully curated charity shop in the street. If you’re looking for last year’s bestseller, this is the place to go. If not, it won’t take you long to scan the shelves and decide there’s nothing to keep you there. (You will also find some inoffensive and deeply boring clothes, and the ones with an ‘Atmosphere’ label will probably cost a pound more than they were originally sold for in Primark.)

A more promising subset of ‘carefully curated’ is the specialist charity bookshop. There are two of these in Cambridge – the Oxfam bookshop on Sidney Street, and Books for Amnesty on Mill Road. The great advantage of these is the fact that the books are arranged in a coherent and logical fashion, and, if you know what you’re looking for, you can be in and out within three minutes.

However, the chances are that you’ll pay a similar price to those charged by specialist second-hand dealers. Which is good for the charity, of course… up to the point where you don’t buy the book because you didn’t want it that much. And of course, if you don’t know exactly what you want, the choice can be somewhat overwhelming.

My two favourite shops on Burleigh Street are Oxfam and the RSPCA. Oxfam has  a vast range of all sorts of stuff over two floors. The books are helpfully arranged by category, and there are plenty of categories, and there is plenty of variety within those categories. The last thing I got in there was a book of poems by Luci Shaw, and the thing before that was A Murder Is Announced. It’s also, so my father informs me, good for Ordnance Survey maps.

The RSPCA doesn’t have such a wide selection, but what it does have is of good quality. I picked up the bulk of my Buchan collection there. The British Heart Foundation tends to have interesting books. Like all BHF shops, it’s crammed full of too much stuff, both second-hand and the hideous ‘new goods’, but it can be worth fighting your way to the back left-hand corner. I wouldn’t go out of my way to any of the others, and have resolved never to give books to the Scope shop, which sends them (so one assistant told me, at least) for pulping if they haven’t sold after only a fortnight on the shelf.

Mill Road has the Sally Ann, which is a spacious shop with a lot of stuff in it, and another Oxfam, this one affably scruffy. The YMCA is comparatively new. It has hardly any books, but I did get A Book of Escapes in there.

It is worth going beyond the railway bridge, if only for the RSPCA bookshop. This is less like a charity shop and more like something you’d find in Hay-on-Wye. Books everywhere, stacked on the top of shelves, on the floor. Penguins, Pelicans, Viragos, old hardbacks, old paperbacks… It’s wonderful.

I don’t recommend going round all the charity shops in one day. There are, after all, only so many books that can be loaded into a bike basket before the steering goes all skew-whiff.