Kennedy

Much talk over the last couple of weeks about the new Bob Dylan song, Murder Most Foul, which he’s released out of the blue. His first new song in a few years. You can catch it here: https://bobdylan.lnk.to/MurderMostFoulTA

I’ve listened to to it quite a few times. I think it is wonderful, a mordant love letter to America and American art (with the Beatles thrown in as a sideshow). It’s less about the politics of Kennedy’s death, less about the conspiracies surrounding Lee Harvey et al, more about the sustaining quality of American artistic life which, in retrospect, Dylan sees as being anchored to the memory of the optimism of the brief Kennedy years, before Johnson took over and began the wholesale mendacity which was his disgraceful conduct of the Vietnam war.

And I thought about the song too this evening as I played Kennedy by The Wedding Present – available here from the usual sites, although do take a gander at https://scopitones.co.uk/ to support the band. I play this song on average about three times a week. It is for me the perfect pop song. David Gedge, singer and songwriter of The Wedding Present, is one of the greatest songwriters our country has produced, and is woefully underrated.

So I started thinking about the two songs. Ostensibly utterly different: the former, a languid, meandering but piercingly angry song which, over 17 long minutes, takes us into the heart of the American artistic soul; the latter, a snatched four-minute post-punk savaging of nostalgia and sentimentality, in which Gedge snarls: “too much apple pie.”

How eloquent both songs are, about our relationship with politics and art. I see Gedge and Dylan, both remarkable songwriters, edging towards each other on a highwire stretched over the Hoover Dam, singing for us about our pasts and our futures. God bless them both.

Ten Tips For The Idle Writer

To publicise the new online course in self-publishing I’ve done for the Idler magazine, here are some tips to encourage you to get going at that book while you are stuck at home. The Idler is here: https://www.idler.co.uk/article/ten-tips-for-the-idle-writer/

There is something terribly exhausting about disciplined and productive writers. Graham Greene divided his day up into sections, writing what he referred to as his serious fiction in the morning, his entertainments in the afternoon, and knocking off a couple of book reviews before the first cocktail at six. The great Thomas Wolfe would stand up all day at his fridge, writing maniacally in longhand in pencil into ledger books propped up on the top.

It doesn’t have to be like this and indeed, the very thought of that level of hyperactivity quite rightly puts many people off the whole prospect. So here are ten tips for getting that book finished without breaking into a sweat.

  1. Set yourself a civilised and regular time to write every day. Two hours will probably do it. Knock off what you can in that period then stop and think about something else. The forgetting and daydreaming of the rest of the day will actually be fertilising the next day’s writing.
  2. Turn off all distractions during those two hours including social media, children, husbands, wives, debt collectors and most of all, your mobile phone.
  3. Do not waste any time worrying about whether your book is any good. If you do worry about that, then the chances are your book isn’t very good. Just say to yourself: my book is brilliant.
  4. Stop looking at the inside flap biographies of other writers to find out if they were younger than you when they published their first book.
  5. Take up yoga. Two hours sitting at the computer is not good for your posture.
  6. Don’t join in any ghastly Twitter hashtag things like #amwriting or put up awful self-serving pleas to other writers like “Hey, who’s having trouble with their second chapter out there?”
  7. Spend time in second hand bookshops admiring how beautiful books used to be and start planning how yours will look.
  8. Banish the jabbering fizz of contemporary politics from your mind, it will only exhaust you and pollute the purity of your creative art. Content yourself with the consolations of philosophy instead.
  9. Never think about money. J.M. Barrie once said that a poet was someone for whom £5 was quite sufficient, and any decent poet finding himself with two £5 notes on his person would immediately fold one of them into a paper boat and set it sailing on the Round Pond in The Kensington Gardens.
  10. Carry a notebook and pencil at all times. Not every bon mot that occurs to you as you sit in the sunshine on a park bench will prove to be useful, but some will. A notebook is a sure sign of a civilised life.

Simon Petherick is the author of several books including English Arcadia and The Damnation of Peter Pan, and spent much of his career in publishing.

Self-Publish With The Idler

Those cheerful people at the Idler magazine asked me to prepare and present an online course in how to self-publish your own book to professional standards. The course is launched today and for the first week is half-price: £21 rather than £42. The course is here: https://www.idler.co.uk/product/self-publish-your-book-with-simon-petherick/. In these strange and concerning times, maybe this is your opportunity to release that excellent manuscript out into the world in fine clothing.

The Good Soldier

I was really pleased to have a short essay about my favourite novel, The Good Soldier, in the latest edition of Last Post, the literary journal of the Ford Madox Ford Society. You can find out about the society here – http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/ – and join up to receive the biannual journal.

This is the piece:

Some speculations on convents in The Good Soldier

Most devotees of Ford Madox Ford’s finest achievement, The Good Soldier, will agree that the search for autobiographical clues is ultimately a fairly redundant exercise when one compares the satisfactions to be had from allowing the text to speak for itself. As the late Roger Poole noted in his celebrated essay of 1990 (The Real Plot Line of The Good Soldier, Textual Practice, Volume 4 Number 3), the “deconstructive disbelief in a locus of originating intention is more ‘essentialist’ than any form of questioning of it.”

However, as part of the process of taking authority away from the author and allowing primacy to the text, the trail of clues and red herrings – a trail of such complexity that it has perhaps never been bettered in English fiction – inevitably leads us to speculations which return us to the more prosaic grounds of autobiography.

I would like to offer a few thoughts in that vein on the subject of convents in the novel.

What do we read? Firstly, the doomed Maisie Maiden writes to Leonora in her valedictory letter: “You should not have done it, and we out of the same convent…” Secondly, we know that Leonora attended a convent in England up until she returned home to Ireland aged 18. Thirdly, we know that Nancy attended a convent in England from the age of 13 to 18.

What of it? Well, for a start, of all the many quite extraordinary (many have said unlikely) plot components of the novel, the fact that Leonara and her husband should decamp to India for a few years to allow her to restore the family’s damaged finances, and while they are there Edward should take a sentimental fancy to the wife of a brother officer who just so happened to attend the same convent school as his wife…And then, of course, the poor woman must die.

Let’s move on. The text very much encourages us to believe that Nancy attended the same English convent as Leonora, without being absolutely explicit on the matter. The biggest clue is when Dowell as narrator says of Leonora’s youth: “She had been one of seven daughters in a bare, untidy Irish manor house to which she had returned from the convent I have so often spoken about.” Up until this point in the text, the only convent that Dowell has “spoken so much about” is Nancy’s.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion, therefore, that the text is encouraging us to believe that all three women attended the same convent. This, in any other novel, might be construed as being unlikely; in The Good Soldier, it should set us on our toes and encourage us to be extra vigilant.

Dowell, in his sentimental conversation with Nancy in Nauheim, reports that the girl provides us with some clear identification. Firstly, she says “our school played Roehampton at Hockey.” In 1904, a convent school hockey team would not have travelled far for a competitive game, which must place the school within a reasonable distance of Roehampton.

A page or so later, Dowell indulges in one of his nod-and-a-wink giveaways: “Just for the information I asked her why she always confessed, and she answered in these exact words: ‘Oh, well, the girls of the Holy Child have always been noted for their truthfulness.'” [my italics] Why does Dowell make such a point of signposting this information?

Back to autobiography. We know that Ford’s two daughters were educated for a time at a convent on the south coast: the Convent of the Holy Child, St Leonards. Max Saunders, in Volume One of A Dual Life, reports that Ford visited his daughters there in 1910.

The Society of the Holy Child Jesus was founded in England in 1846 by Cornelia Connelly. Cornelia, née Peacock (1809-1879) was the daughter of a Presbyterian Philadelphian (ring any bells?) named Ralph William Peacock. In 1831 she married the Reverend Pierce Connolly, an Episcopalian Protestant who quixotically decided, quite soon after their marriage, that he would convert to Catholicism. This both he and Cornelia did in 1835, confirming their new allegiance by relocating to Rome.

However, the Connelly’s faced the problem of celibacy: they already had two children which would make Pierce’s chances of enrolling as a Catholic priest pretty slim. So they moved back to America where Pierce got a job teaching English at a Jesuit college and Cornelia taught music. At this point, their lives became yet more complicated (in a positively Ford-like way). Firstly, their fourth child Mary died aged six months after being pushed into a vat of boiling sugar by the family’s Newfoundland dog, a development probably beyond even Ford’s imagination.

Then Pierce decided that his vocation lay as a Catholic priest and the only way for him to pursue this was to renounce his marriage and family and assume the life of a celibate. Back they went to Rome, where the helpful Pope Gregory, after gaining Cornelia’s approval, formally annulled the marriage, thus freeing Pierce to pursue his ordination which then led him to England and a job as Chaplain to Lord Shrewsbury. Cornelia, now herself avowedly celibate and formally separated from her husband, followed in his footsteps with the children and set up her own household in Derby.

Here, Cornelia set up the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, a Jesuit-informed convent for young girls. Pierce, meanwhile, became so infuriated by Cornelia’s independence that he kidnapped his children from her and took them to Rome with him to try and persuade the Pope to put him in charge of the Society. Cornelia moved her convent from Rugby to St Leonard’s and was then obliged to defend a notorious legal case, “Connelly vs Connelly”, initiated by Pierce in an attempt to bring Cornelia to heel and return her to her previous conjugal status.

The case became famous in England. Cornelia ultimately won a Pyrrhic victory after the intervention of the Privy Council but still lost guardianship of her children whom the increasingly demented Pierce trailed after him from Rome to America while he fulminated against the Catholic church in a series of ever more furious tracts.

Ford Madox Ford would have been very well aware of the Connelly vs Connelly case. The parallels with his own life must have struck him: his wife Elsie’s legal case against him to restore their conjugal status was almost a precise mirror image of Pierce’s against Cornelia.

Cornelia established one more convent in England, that of the Holy Child at Mayfield, in Sussex. It was here that she died in 1879.

Back to the text. We know that we are to understand that Leonora and Nancy and Maisie all attended the same convent, a convent which came under the Order of the Society of the Holy Child and which was geographically close enough to play hockey against a Roehampton School. It is possible therefore, either that the convent lurking within Ford’s creative subconscious was the Mayfield convent (a distance of 50 miles from Roehampton); or that he elided his knowledge of the Holy Child Order (both from his own daughters’ education and from his awareness of the Connelly vs Connelly case) with another Roehampton convent, that of the Society of the Sacred Heart. I suspect that latter is more likely and that the convent which still stands in Roehampton is in effect the subconscious model for the convent in the novel.

But more importantly, what of the significance of this tangled web for our own appreciation of the text? Firstly, I would suggest that the apparently unlikely statement that Maisie attended the same convent as Leonora is in fact a signifier: it encourages us to associate Leonora and Nancy with the same convent, even though our narrator very deliberately refuses specifically to do so. And why, therefore, would our narrator wish to encourage us in that speculation? Could it be because he wants us to identify a reason why Nancy attended the same convent as Leonora? Did she in fact attend it because her true mother – Leonora – insisted upon it and placed her there in order that she could watch over the spiritual development of her own child?

Let us allow the text to wash over that speculation and return us to the endless sea of possibilities which the novel, to this day, represents. One thing is for sure: when Ford wrote The Good Soldier he quite literally threw everything of himself into it to create his masterpiece.

Butlins Bound

Butlins wasn’t a holiday destination ever considered by my parents when I was growing up in Plymouth in the late ’60s/early ’70s. My Dad had been an Army artillery officer, my Mum an Army nursing officer and Butlins didn’t form a part of their world, just as ITV was seldom aired on the wood veneer television set in the sitting room and ketchup never allowed on the breakfast table.

There was a slight frisson of rebellion, therefore, as I drove through the gates of the Bognor Regis Butlins last weekend for the three-day Rockaway Beach festival. In my 60th year, I still feel the disapproving glances between my two late parents as I queue up to collect the key for our Seaside Apartment.

As I look around, I recognise kindred spirits. It’s a long time since any of us have tried to provoke our parents, and it looks like most of us are now the other end of the generational seesaw, with kids of our own no doubt shaking their heads with bemusement at what the old folks are up to this weekend. Traces of teenage rebellion remain as a spiky-haired old boy patiently unpacks Sainsbury carrier bags filled with booze from a Vauxhall Nova and crimson-dyed punkettes smoke roll-ups and talk about retirement options.

This impeccably curated festival brings about two and a half thousand music lovers down to Bognor in the chill of early January to share war stories and survival strategies. It feels like we’ve all been through it: successes, failures, joy, heartbreak. We’ve done plenty of time and there are heartwarming nods of recognition between 50+ strangers: yes, we’re still going; no, there’s nothing wrong with opening the Jack Daniels at tea.

One of the first bands on are the Cambridge art setup Black Country, New Road, whose David Byrne meets Captain Beefheart arrangements see saxophonist Lewis stare at us with cocky insolence and keyboardist May look satisfyingly bored as she rests her chin in her hand. They are perfect in every way, a glorious reminder that this whole rock ‘n’ roll thing is in fine hands still.

Later that night, the 77-year-old John Cale rips through an almost two-hour set, indulging us with White Light, White Heat along the way. Halfway through, the plaintive organ chords of Hedda Gabbler remind me of the summer of 1977, when my father’s achilles heel accident had required me to drive my parents and their caravan to south west France, a couple of months after I’d passed my driving test. I’d managed to broker an agreement with them earlier that year that I’d come on no more family holidays, but Dad’s accident meant there was no-one else to drive. Filled with teenage angst and resentment, I insisted on sleeping outside in my own tent, and one night was interrupted as I sang Hedda Gabbler by Cale on my acoustic guitar.

‘It’s two in the morning,’ he pleaded, standing outside my tent in his jimjams. ‘No-one can sleep.’

I’d just got hold of a copy of Animal Justice, Cale’s new EP with the Jill Furmanovsky cover, and was indignant that anyone should consider my weedy-voiced cover of the gloomy masterpiece anything other than artistic boldness:

Hedda Gabler
She’ll go down in history
Hedda Gabler
Down in all her misery

The following night, when they were tucked up in bed, I crept out of the campsite and hitchhiked to the nearest town where I spent a couple of hours wandering around the streets, trying car doors and finally finding one that opened. I sat in an unknown French car for half an hour, wondering what I was doing. After a bit, I hitchhiked back to the campsite, getting a lift from a cool drunk couple in a Citroën DS Estate who thought it was funny that this unhappy, skinny little ginger-haired English kid was walking around on his own in the middle of the night. I got back into my tent just as I heard Mum put the kettle on inside the caravan.

Sleep… sleep…. sleep, Hedda Gabler.

We dance to Debby Harry in the late night disco in Bar Rosso in the Skyline Pavilion and then we play on the amusement arcade machines which bleep and rattle under fluorescent lights. It’s two in the morning and the Pavilion echoes with old punk songs and ska. The arcade reminds me of Las Vegas: the sticky carpet, the endless rows of clattering machines, the pasty faces of us middle-aged punters as we triumphantly indulge ourselves way beyond our bedtimes.

Mum would have hated this place. I went with her to see Ralph McTell in the Guildhall in Plymouth in the early ’70s and I was impressed by the way she could pronounce Einer Kleiner Nachtmusik, which she always used to say was her favourite Mozart. She and I tried in vain to find an appeasement, and by the time the Ramones brought an unknown band called Talking Heads as their support to the Top Rank in Union Street in Plymouth in that summer of 1977, we were leagues apart. I think about her as we walk back to the seaside apartment under a glorious full moon:

As the weekend continues the sense of tribal familiarity grows and I sense that I’m not the only one who is touched by music’s ability to join the decades together. Peter Perrett on Saturday and The Wedding Present on Sunday remind us of past glories, but then the timeless rock braggadocio of young Dublin poets Fontaines DC with their thrash metal reinventions blow away any sentimentality. ‘Is it too real for you?’ yells singer Grian Chatten but looks almost startled himself as the 50-something-plus crowd starts a manic phase of crowdsurfing towards him from the mosh pit.

In the early hours of Monday morning we’re all still going, knocking back shorts in Bar Rosso, throwing our shapes with Butlins bravado. A few hours later, we’re obediently honouring the 10am departure time, blearily trudging back to our cars with stunned faces and smudged make-up, heading back to post-Christmas work schedules and family commitments. It’s been glorious, a genuine privilege to spend time with such companionable strangers and amazing musicians. Good night, campers.

Slow boat from Lefkas to Ithaca

A new month, a new decade: another piece for the Idler magazine, out now in edition number 70, Jan/Feb 2020, available from Idler stockists (https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/) or via subscription to the estimable magazine (https://www.idler.co.uk/join/).

Here’s the piece:

‘There’s nothing––absolutely nothing––half so much worth doing as messing about in boats.’ Well, we all know Kenneth Grahame’s sage advice but he never extended his own idling practice far beyond the Thames; he preferred reading about Greece to schlepping all the way there. Joining a boat as crew heading south from Lefkas marina south of Corfu, my main priority was to recall the method of tying a bowline knot without the skipper becoming aware too early on of my innate incompetence. A few casual flicks of the heavy helm warps seemed to convince him and before long we were set sail for Ithaca, leaving me free to begin tracking our journey against the timeline of Homer’s Odyssey in Emily Wilson’s excellent new translation (Norton, 2018).

            It is a revelation to read Homer while under sail. Our hero’s captivity by the beautiful and cunning Calypso can be read quite differently when one is becalmed by absent winds for what seems like days; Odysseus’s tear-drenched pining for Penelope on the shores of Calypso’s island (he’s never so upset that he can’t hop into bed with Calypso every night though, is he?) feels very real when yet another day dawns with a burning sun and absolutely no wind to fill the sails.

            We reached Ithaca and anchored near to a large yacht where two very fat, oiled men with bright red sunburned bellies acted out on deck the final scene of the poem where our hero slaughters the insolent men of Ithaca and Kefalonia who in his absence have been wooing his wife and freeloading on his wine cellar. Both men held knives and made slow, elaborate thrusting motions towards each other as the sun beat down upon them; a curious place to practice their self-defence skills.

            When Odysseus’s son Telemachus is advised by the helpful Goddess Athena to go in search of the father he has never met, he stocks his boat up with twelve jugs of wine and twenty pounds of fine-milled barley groats. We did rather better than that at the bakery in Vathi, buying homemade baklava dripping with honey which the young owner said were made by her mother-in-law. ‘She begins baking at four every morning,’ she told us in wonder, a feat of industry we speculated upon back on board as we ate the whole lot in an appalling moment of gluttony. Flummoxed by the sugar rush, we set sail to follow Telemachus’s route across the Ionian Sea down to Pylos.

            Telemachus is welcomed at the palace of King Nestor and astonishingly, almost three thousand years later, it’s still there. A half-hour’s cab ride out of Pylos port takes you to the beautifully preserved remains and as we leaned over one of the viewing platforms, we saw the original stone bath where Nestor’s eldest daughter, Polycaste, bathed young Telemachus, washed and rubbed him in olive oil and dressed him in a tunic and fine cloak.

            While Nestor advised the boy to head off to Sparta to quiz Menelaus about Odysseus’s whereabouts, we took advantage of a rare southerly breeze to sail out to an uninhabited island called Arpia, one of the Stamfani islands in the middle of the Ionian. Before we left, I chatted to a nice man called Wayne who was doing yoga on a ketch moored next to us. ‘How long have you been on board?’ I asked him. ‘Twelve years,’ he said. The Ionian cossets true idlers like Wayne, hiding away in ramshackle thirty-foot boats for year after year, their skins brown and salted like sandpaper.

            On the way to Arpia, we racked up a decent speed, nine and a half knots with both sails full out and suddenly the flat brilliant blue was churned up with cresting waves, smashing into the hulls as we rattled along. Lord Poseidon had woken up. Whenever the great God thought of Odysseus, he became instantly enraged that our hero had blinded his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, in a particularly brutal attack––Odysseus plunges a burning olive spear into the one eye and ‘blood poured out around the stake, and blazing fire sizzled his lids and brows, and fried the roots’. Poseidon’s routine reaction on being reminded of the Ithacan pest was to call up a dreadful blast of wind to smash his ship to pieces. Luckily our gift from Poseidon was relatively benign––instead of thunderbolts, he sent us a pod of dolphins to skitter about in front of the prow–– and we made it to Arpia without harm, anchoring off the island. While we dozily digested supper, three fisherman landed their boat on the island, walked up to a rocky peak and crouched around a glass-encased icon of the Virgin, lighting a candle inside and glaring crossly through hairy faces at their uninvited spectators.

            About two in the morning, I woke up down below thinking that someone had left a radio on. A strange metallic singing noise was eerily echoing around the cabin so I crept upstairs and stood on deck. A sound unlike anything I have ever heard greeted me: swirling around in the dark, echoing from the rocks, came the plaintive singing of hundreds, maybe thousands of Scopoli’s Shearwaters. We only discovered the identity of the birds the following day when we found that we had anchored off Greece’s primary nesting place for these seabirds. But standing in the dark listening to this uncanny symphony, it was impossible not to think of the Sirens, those half-bird, half-women who seduced sailors with piercing songs, around them lying ‘great heaps of men, flesh rotting from their bones, their skin all shriveled up’ who had come too close to their island and had been bewitched.

            Returning back north towards Lefkas, we called in at Antisamos on Kefalonia, the stunning beach location for the heaving love scenes with Penelope Cruz in Captain Corellis’s Mandolin. While the skipper and his wife sipped cocktails at the beach bar prepared by the dubiously-named but very cheerful Adonis (‘I cannot tell you what is in this cocktail, that is why it is called The Secret Cocktail’) I thought about the real Penelope, languishing for twenty years across the Sami straits in Ithaca waiting for her monstrous husband Odysseus to come back home and release her from the endless attentions of the suitors. She used her wisdom and reslience to maintain her household while the big brute sacked towns, flirted and slept with every Goddess he could find and sacrificed every single one of his men to the cause of his own personal odyssey.

            While I skimmed stones into the still Ionian evening sea, I wondered who’d got it right? My money at that point, as I looked over at the green-clad rocks of Ithaca, was on smart Penelope. Twenty years of waiting, or twenty years of idleness? I rather like to think the latter.

Notes

There are plenty of ways to find crewing opportunities in the Med. The best way, as in most things in life, is to ask your friends – someone will know someone who knows someone. Or you can use one of the decent agencies like https://www.crewseekers.net/ or https://www.crewbay.com/. Or you can just get a one-way flight to Athens or Corfu and head for the marina, and be prepared to loiter and chat for a few days. Yachties are inherently sociable creatures and always keen to point you in the right direction. Probably useful to spend the winter boning up on knots and magnetic north variations by doing a Competent Crew course – the people at Nomad are very helpful: https://www.nomadsailing.co.uk/.

Animal Magic in The Idler, Nov/Dec issue

I wrote a piece for the Idler magazine on the merits of petsitting. You can read it in the latest edition, edition 69 November/December 2019, available from Idler stockists (https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/) or via subscription to the excellent magazine (https://www.idler.co.uk/join/).

Here’s the piece:

‘Hi Simon, Hi Tam. Welcome to Arizona! This is my husband, John. He thinks you’ve flown 5,000 miles from London to Phoenix to steal all our belongings. Come on in.’

This was the opening gambit from the delightful Vicki, wife of doubting John, who had engaged us to sit for their two beagles, Mojo and Fetch, in their sprawling ranch home in Phoenix while they went off to spend Christmas on Long Beach with their family.

It turned out that this was the first time Vicki had used a house/pet-sitting agency, and it was our first time as sitters. So I could understand John’s caution. Who are these limeys? And do I want them poking around in my sock drawer while I’m supposed to be relaxing with a margarita on the beach?

Well, I resisted the temptation to examine John’s wardrobe. And we had a great time, taking the dogs on walks through the Arizona desert and sitting by the pool in the back garden (the dogs had their own sunbeds, obv). We bought turkey from the organic store in Scottsdale and made Christmas lunch in Vicki’s palatial kitchen. We drank Californian Pinor Noir in a posh restaurant in the centre of Phoenix which John recommended. As it was Christmas, we’d walk the dogs late at night around the wide, deserted streets of north Phoenix and marvel at the fantastical Christmas lights displays put on by neighbours in huge crenellated mansions. On the day itself, all four of us had wrapped presents from Vicki and John to open, with Mojo and Fetch tearing the wrapping paper off theirs with their teeth.

Five years later and we’ve completed lots of pet sits now. There was Bamboo, the charismatic golden cocker spaniel in the eco-house in south-west France, who would sit down on the sofa and watch movies with us after a day running endlessly through the beautiful countryside of the Lot. There were the two grumpy cats in Cyprus who told us off each time we disappeared to the beach, but in true cat fashion ignored us when we got back. And then there was the fabulous smallholding in Devon where we looked after – count them – five dogs, nine cats, two goats, ten chickens and four ducks.

If you’re an animal lover, then the attraction is clear, particularly if, like us, you have a somewhat peripatetic lifestyle which precludes pet-owning. I have tons of photos of animals I now consider to be chums which float up on my screenserver when I’m supposed to be working.

But just forgetting them for a moment, the whole housesitting game is Idle Travel at its finest. No money changes hands for starters, so it is entirely sustainable on both sides. There is no obligation to do anything more than chill out with your four-legged friends and then wander round to a nearby restaurant to eat; the urge to tick off tourist traps never quite seems to kick in once the bags are unpacked. And perhaps most importantly, the mutual exchange of services for property builds trust at a human level which is beyond the control of any politician or capitalist. As Angela Laws, one of the founding members of Trusted Housesitters, says:

‘You look at the news, and you could be forgiven for believing the world is going to hell in a hand basket. But when you get a community such as we have, it really brings it home that there are good, kind, trusting, sharing people in this world. We’re a 70,000-strong, globally-connected community. We’re changing the world from the ground up.’

Angela is one of the brave housesitters who has turned this into a way of life. Three years ago, she sold her house in Vancouver and now has no home, choosing instead to travel from sit to sit. There are other stories of legendary sitters who have criss-crossed the globe with just a suitcase, taking advantage of the opportunities for short and long stays in the 130 countries currently signed up to the Trusted Housesitters service.

I’m not sure I’d go that far but I admire Angela’s lifestyle choice. For us, staying in someone’s home and looking after their pets feels like a really wholesome way of getting to know a city or a country, far more engaging than booking into an Ikea-furnished Air BnB which is contributing to rising house prices and the depopulation of city centres.

And if you’re a houseowner, then it’s comforting to know that you have someone in your house while you’re away, watering the plants and generally making the place look lived-in. So there is a sense, as a sitter, that you’re helping to encourage safer communities, too.

It’s been educational in so many ways. In the old days, I’d certainly have been like John, unable to imagine why I would want someone snooping around in my house while I was away. But having stayed now in lots of peoples’ houses and had no desire of any kind to snoop, I realise just how liberating it is to throw open your door. What do we have to lose? Just stuff. Everyone has stuff. It’s no big deal.

And in the process of getting to know the homeowners before and after each sit, I’ve learned a lot more about their way of life and their culture than I would have done from booking into a hotel.

When you let someone into your home and trust them to look after your beloved dog/cat/mongoose, you move beyond the confines of race, religion and politics, and you enter the slow lane of gentle community sharing. It is a delightfully civilised transaction.

To reduce the potential for ne’er-do-wells or incompetents to spoil this idyllic vision, the process of housesitting is carefully managed, so both parties have an opportunity to read reviews about each other and hold Skype “interviews”. By the time you come to the job, neither of you is really a stranger to the other, and both of you understand the value of clearly defined boundaries. If you tell me you don’t want me to look in the wood shed at the bottom of the garden, then I won’t.

When Vicki and John finally hauled themselves back from Long Beach, we made them supper and entertained them with stories about their boys while they told us about shooting craps in a penthouse casino in LA. Five years on, we still swap stories over the web about John’s new passion for organic gardening in the Arizona heat and our impossibly sophisticated London lifestyle.

So the next time you find yourself flicking through web pages showing empty villas next to a Mediterranean beach with neatly arranged umbrellas on it, imagine what it would be like to get to know the family who live in that ramshackle house at the top of the Old Town who’ve got an elderly labrador that just wants a bit of intelligent company.

This Christmas, we’re actually going back to the Devon smallholding and the mad menagerie, and I am secretly excited about pulling a cracker with Dexter, the ludicrously cheerful and enormous St Bernard puppy.

There are several house-sitting websites, but the one we use is http://www.trustedhousesitters.com. 

A belated apology to Richard Branson

In November 1974 I was the first boy in school to buy the new Roxy Music album, Country Life. It was an all-boys’ school in the middle of Plymouth and the fourteen-year-olds in my year identified ourselves competitively through our music choices. That is, those of us who weren’t strong and physically powerful enough to achieve success on the playing field; the big tough boys in the year would strut around school with their long greasy hair curled around the collars of their shirts, boasting of sexual exploits us more timid souls read about on the lyrics printed on the back of the albums we bought.

            My primary source of money in those days was the income from a paper round I did in the mornings before school. In November, it was dark as I walked my patch in the early morning with a big canvas satchel, soaked in black newsprint, bulging with folded up Daily Telegraphs. I loved the silence of Plymouth in the early morning, the sour smell of the newspapers as I tugged each one out of the crammed bag to squeeze it through a Brasso’d letterbox. When I was younger I’d collect conkers in the autumn on my route, but by the time I was fourteen I’d moved on to thinking obsessively about what Phil Manzanera, the Roxy Music guitarist, might be considering having for his breakfast, or whether it was true that Chris May had really slept with that girl from Plymouth High last Saturday night.

            Loving your band was a significant and meaningful act then. Lloyd Martin had his own look at school in 1974 with his Diamond Dogs Bowie tribute: loose flared trousers, high-collar shirts and that spiked up hair which seemed so rebellious, particularly in a boy whose Dad was a crew-cut disciplinarian who taught at our school and whose nickname amongst us kids was Muscles. Then there were the prog rockers, still clinging fiercely to their turtle neck sweaters and their Barclay James Harvest albums, contemptuous of what they considered the pop choices us arty boys favoured.

            I was mesmerised by Roxy Music. They were so impossibly, outlandishly cool. Their previous album, Stranded, had a depressing, piano-led dirge – A Song For Europe – about the European cultural tradition which Bryan Ferry sang in several different European languages, and I would sing this quietly in my quavering little high-pitched voice as I tramped around the early morning streets with my delivery bag, imagining that I would run away from all my unhappiness at home to Paris, where I would smoke Gitanes and discuss Simone de Beauvoir with a beautiful dark-eyed French girl.

            In those days, the NME was the main source of information about what each band was up to so I knew in advance that the fourth album, Country Life, was due to be released and I had ascertained from the slightly intimidating and hairy staff at the tiny Virgin Records store down by Plymouth market which day they expected delivery. And so on that day, in the lunchbreak, I walked into town and spent my paper delivery money on one of the first copies of the album to appear in Plymouth.

            The cover itself was enough to cause a sensation back at school when I took it out of the plastic carrier bag. That extraordinary photograph by Eric Boman (which I didn’t know at the time featured the sister of Can’s Michael Karoli and his girlfriend Eveline) temporarily elevated me to a position of respect: it was sophisticated, it was art, but it was also incredibly horny. I sat on the wall outside the assembly hall, proudly reading the detailed information about recording locations on the back cover, pretending not to notice that the other side boasted the most erotic image that any boy in Plymouth College had ever imagined: two powerful, beautiful European women in their knickers standing against what looked like a jungle, dazzled by a parapazzi’s intrusive camera glare.

            My triumph was short-lived. As I casually flicked the album over, the black vinyl disc inside slowly rolled out of its sleeve and fell to the ground, smashing immediately into countless jagged pieces. There was mocking hilarity from those who, seconds before, had been impressed by my latest cultural statement, who had had briefly to reconfigure my position in the pecking order now that I had imported such an exotic triumph. All this lay in shattered ruins on the ground and I was immediately relegated back to being the skinny, irritating little ginger kid. It was a total humiliation.

            But here’s the strange thing. I bent down and picked up all the pieces and stuffed them back into the inner sleeve, squeezed the sleeve back into the now-ignored cover and put the whole lot back into the plastic carrier bag. Once afternoon school was over, I walked back down to the market in town and re-entered Virgin Records.

            The picture at the top of this piece is the very same shop, taken in 1975 if Pinterest is correct – I can’t find out who took the photo. Virgin Records in Plymouth in 1974 was an illicit sanctuary for those seeking enlightenment. It was tiny, dark and flavoured with joss sticks, run by young men and women with afros who looked like they had sex constantly. They had headphones hanging off the wall where you could listen to tracks from albums which John Peel had played the night before on Radio One. They also sold secondhand albums and once I sold all my elder sister’s albums there when she was away working at a hotel in Cornwall for the summer (I have apologised to her many times about this in later years).

            At about 4.30pm, I marched back into the shop, still wearing my Plymouth College grey trousers and hideous striped green, red and black blazer, and handed the album over the counter.

            ‘I bought this at lunchtime and look at the state of it,’ I said.

            He opened up the bag, took the album out and, pulling out the inner sleeve, let the remnants of the pinnacle of British art school rock scatter all over the counter.

            ‘Hey man, I’m really sorry,’ he said, genuinely concerned that I’d been sold such a travesty. ‘We like to give discounts on music man, but this is something else.’ He turned round and scanned the new albums all lined up on the wall behind him, then pulled out a brand new copy of Country Life and handed it over. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Sorry about selling you a dud. Enjoy it.’

            I thanked him, turned and left for home, where I put the perfect, prinstine album on the record player and listened to the opening guitar riff from The Thrill Of It All and stared with shocked wonder at the bodies of Constanze Karoli and Eveline Grunwald.

            Now, forty five years later, I look back on this incident with a sense of melancholy for the unhappy little fourteen-year-old boy who yet appeared to be filled with such bravura and self-confidence that he could hoodwink Richard Branson’s new employees with such careless insouciance. I know now, with the self-knowledge which age has gifted, that it was a a trick learned in the bewildering school of my late parents’ unhappy marriage, where I was tasked with playing out the role of unwilling emotional consort to my poor depressed mother, dazzling her with my brilliance in an unconscious Oedipal roleplay sanctioned by my defeated father. I carried on using this trick throughout my adult life, entirely unaware, which is how I ended up doing what seem in retrospect to be such strange things, like buying the Queen’s dressmaker, Hardy Amies, and going to Buckingham Palace for chats with the Queen on what dresses she wanted. Or organising rock concerts in Hyde Park or being sued for libel by Sharon Osbourne. Thankfully, I’ve been able to turn the switch off at last and in many ways have reclaimed the carefree little ginger boy who used to find life so sweet before he discovered how unhappy his parents were.

            So, better late than never: I’m sorry, Mr Branson. I owe you a tenner.

The Idler magazine, July/Aug 2019: How to self-publish

The Idler magazine

I wrote a piece for the Idler magazine on the rise of self-publishing. You can read it in the latest edition, edition 67 July/August 2019, available from Idler stockists (https://www.idler.co.uk/idler-stockists/) or via subscription to the excellent magazine (https://www.idler.co.uk/join/).

Here’s the piece:

As will be familiar to readers of the Idler, Virginia and Leonard Woolf launched The Hogarth Press in 1917 to publish her fiction and those of their friends. They spent £19 on a printing machine, set it up in the front room and taught themselves typesetting. She justified their self-publishing adventure by telling everyone her own publisher “couldn’t tell a book from a beehive.” Now, initially printing no more than 300 copies a title, she had taken back control.

Wandering around the London Book Fair at Olympia this Spring, I discover a renewal of enthusiasm for the DIY approach which reminds me very much of the wake of the upheavals created in the music world by the punk explosion of the late 1970s. Rather than drive yourself mad trying to please The Man, just ignore him completely.

“If you’re a mid-list, non-genre fiction writer (ie not crime, romance, sci-fi, horror etc) and you’re published traditionally, the likelihood is a) you’re not earning any money at all and b) all you’re doing is acting as a content-provider for an antiquated system.” No fear of controversy from self-published poet and author Orna Ross, who is also head of the Alliance of Independent Authors. Orna took back her publishing rights from her then publisher, Penguin, and has enjoyed both creative and financial success ever since striking out on her own. She is a passionate advocate of the self-publishing road to creative fulfilment and self-empowerment.

A more cautious approach comes from Kate Pool, the thoughtful Society of Authors spokesperson who told me: “If you are not writing within a genre, then the odds will remain stacked against you if you shun traditional publishing. As well as priding themselves on quality, traditional publishers also still remain the gatekeepers: of the media, the festivals, the bookshops, the prizes. It’s very difficult to break into those areas without a gatekeeper, and if you can’t, then how can a reader find your book?”

But in an era when, as one of our leading literary publishers told me, “The Big Five are losing market share because they are cutting back on speculative fiction”, it seems to make sense to consider taking control of your own literary destiny.

The ever-positive Sam Missingham of Lounge Marketing, one of the UK’s key supporters of independent and traditional authors, points to a future where authors, not publishers, are likely to stimulate changes within the system. “The curation of books is where it’s all leading: if I trust you to recommend a title, then you are an influencer, whether you are a blogger or a celebrity or an algorithm. And influencers like authors, not necessarily their publishers.”

What would most please Leonard and Virginia is that the technology is now leaning heavily towards the self-publishers. Even ten years ago, it was very difficult to persuade one of the country’s leading printers to go much below a 2,000-copy print run on a paperback. Now, as Andrew Howarth, head of self-publishing at CPI Print confirms, it’s possible to print as few as 100 copies of a paperback to the highest quality standards without breaking the bank. “We expect you to work with us in a professional way but if you understand what you’re doing, then you can have a book that the average reader will not be able to tell from one published by the Big Five.”

The same goes for distribution: Amazon will treat you in exactly the same way as they do Harper Collins as long as you approach them in a professional and consistent way. Even Waterstones will allow you to pitch them, again if you use the right channels. You may struggle with Tesco, but that may not be a bad thing.

Which is why I think idlers should seriously consider adding self-publishing to their to-do list of dignified and soul-enriching occupations, alongside beekeeping and ukele-playing. Why?

Well, firstly, there is nothing more satisfying, let me assure you, then debating the merits of the American typographical ’em’ rule for a dash, and the traditional English use of the slightly shorter ‘en’ rule. Typography is one of the great human achievements and a few sessions watching YouTube videos on how to get started on InDesign will have you hooked for life.

Secondly, the manufacture of your own book brings you into direct contact with a range of skilled and fascinating craftspeople: illustrators, calligraphers, book binders, indexers, paper manufacturers…you will be amazed that you survived for so long without the pleasure of their acquaintance.

Thirdly, all of this is accessible to you without great lumps of cash. If you are patient and diligent in your studies, you need never pay a penny to any of these middlepeople who will tell you they can arrange for the publication of your book at such a reasonable cost. Avoid them all and devote your evenings to the pleasure of packing up a small parcel of your books to send to those nice people at the bookshop in Wales who have agreed to host an evening for you.

It is important, as Kate Pool of the Society of Authors warns, that you remain realistic about what is possible: your dystopian vision of a savaged world written in rhyming couplets is not going to be as easy to get on the front tables of Waterstones as the new Peter James.

But as Sam Missingham says, the first rule to yourself must be: define what you mean by success. If success to you is contributing to and benefiting from the great ocean which is our culture while increasing both your skills and your creative talents, then self-publishing could be for you.