Even Further North of the Book
Chaz has given permission for North of the Book, the regular column he wrote for Prism, the newsletter of the British Fantasy Society, to be reproduced here. Earlier columns appear on this page, later and still later ones on separate pages, and there is a full list of topics on the North of the Book home page.
T S Eliot famously said that April is the cruellest month (breeding lilacs out of the dead ground, if I remember correctly, mixing memory with desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain). This is exactly April, and all that stuff is going on; sunshine is battering at my windows, no doubt somewhere little bleaters are bouncing about in green pastures, and I am moved to write a meditation on hope.
Actually, this has little or nothing to do with spring, except that hope seems to me to be inherently a springy sort of thing. All that surging and renewal, it always comes tainted with promises and dreams. But let me not run ahead of my thesis.
All this came about at this time because the mills of Granada move bone-crushingly slowly. Long, long ago I wrote a novel called Shelter; there was a certain amount of TV & movie interest even before the book was published, and Granada was first in the queue. Time passed, the queue drifted away, Granada remained. My agent poked, prodded and otherwise encouraged them; eventually, two years on, they decided to buy an option. Still took them another nine months to produce a contract, but it is finally a done deal, and so I have started telling people (hey, look, it's my first TV option, okay? I'm entitled to strut, just a little).
Specifically, I wrote a wee piece for my newsletter (to subscribe, go and follow the instructions on the front page; it ain't hard). But because some of my readers know even less about TV than I do, I thought I ought to stress that it is just an option, and doesn't mean they're ever going to make a programme. In the process of hammering that point home, I urged people not to get their hopes up, because hope corrodes, and absolute hope corrodes absolutely. Just one of those neat little phrases we like to toss out now and then; I felt casually pleased with myself, and nothing more.
But among the correspondence I got back was a message from a Canadian writer-friend asking me to expand on that: did I really think that hope was corrosive, and if so why? It is the chief penalty of being glib, that every now and then one is brought up to the front of the class and called to account. I could have been glib again, settled for pointing out that Pearl is the eternal optimist and I am pretty much the other thing; but in fact I thought it was a fairly interesting question, and deserved a serious response. Which turns out to be this.
Do I believe that hope is corrosive? Yes, I do. I think that's irrefutable. I live and work within a business that not only encourages, it depends on hope; waves it like a banner on the long march to draw ever more recruits, even while the tired and disillusioned drop away. Publishing is a game of promises and dreams, where most of the promises are false and few of the dreams are realised. We all know this, and yet we go on hoping; we hope to be among those few who are lucky as well as talented. Even now, even after twenty-five years I still rise up hopeful in the mornings.
Yes, but that's good, isn't it? I hear you cry. Up to a point, Lord Copper - which, you will remember, actually means no. Hope is irresistible, like water; it's penetrative like oil, it seeps into the heart and will not be dislodged; but like rust it's a corrodent, it eats away inside, unseen and unexpected.
Hope carries with it a certain expectation of success, an anticipation of good result, and that's what is fatal, that's the killer. Many are called, but few are chosen. Hope runs counter to experience; it is in the nature of life to disappoint. Disappointment is no doubt good for us, body and soul. Learning to deal with it is crucial; learning to expect it, understanding that this is the way the river runs, from cradle to grave and it's downhill all the way - that would be a more useful lesson yet, but that's not what we're taught. Instead we are given hope, we are exhorted to hope, we are encouraged to nurture hope in defiance of all evidence. That's what hope is, it's an act of faith against the evidence, and as such I think it's pernicious. Disappointment rules, so hope must fail; and that constant failure, that cycle of collapse and resurgence and collapse again is destructive to the spirit, in a way that simple acceptance never could be.
Is this a counsel of despair? Only in the most literal sense, that despair is the absence of hope. It's not actually that bad - or it wouldn't be, if one were truly capable of getting there. This is a losing battle, though. Blame nature or blame nurture, hope seems to be inherent. I like to blame God myself, its being one of the three prime Christian virtues; the whole ethos of Christianity is predicated on enduring now against the promise of a better life to come, which is as good a definition as you'll find. We may live in a post-Christian society, but from law to literature, the culture is still saturated with those precepts and ideals. It's not just that I can't persuade people to abandon hope; I can't even do it myself. I had hoped to win a major new literary award, that I was shortlisted for. Those hopes have just been dashed, but not before I heard that a major US publisher was interested in my work. Will that interest convert into contracts? I can't say, but I really, really hope so. Damn me for my weakness.
If you spend as long as I have reporting from the trenches, from the front line, I suppose it is inevitable that sooner or later you have to talk about the wounded. Maybe it's inevitable that you will yourself be wounded; maybe it's your duty to seek that bullet out, for the sake of your despatches. All the best war reporting, in prose or poetry and from the Crimea to Vietnam, has come from men who brought scars back with them, when they came back at all.
In fact - given that I started out metaphorically there, even if the metaphor broke down into fact before the paragraph's end - I suppose I have already written in these pages about my own wounds, the damage I've taken in the long fight to be a writer. Most of that damage, though, has been social or psychological. I may perhaps have mentioned the RSI that I've had so long it used to be called tenosynovitis, but I learned to live with that years ago. Necessarily so: the one time I took it to the doctor - and this is, ooh, seventeen years ago, when I bought my first computer - he said, "Hum. Tenosynovitis. There's no cure, you know. Had it myself, in my ankles; too much cycling. Nothing to be done, except walk around flat-footed for a while." So I tried that, but it didn't help. I grew so used to the pain that I used it almost like a meter, a guide to how well or how hard I was working, damn, I'm not hurting enough... I've barely talked about it in recent years, let alone sought any treatment.
Perhaps I should have done; perhaps I should have done both. A few months back, while I sat here typing merrily, I had a sudden attack of pins and needles in my fingers, like coarse sandpaper being dragged across my skin. The grown up word for this must lie somewhere between urtication and paraesthesia, but I haven't found it yet; till I do, pins and needles is what I got. And it came and went, and I thought little of it. Until I got it again, next time I was typing; and again the time after that. Ah, I thought, it's new-variant RSI, something I haven't had before. Okay, I thought, at least it doesn't hurt. This I can live with, as I have lived with other symptoms.
And yes, I could; I can. But it isn't just the pins and needles in my hand, it's the ache up my arm and the pain in my shoulder. And it isn't only when I'm typing. It's when I look up, when I bend down, when I lean forward and when I stretch out. Usefully, it's also when I'm sitting up straight at a dinner table. Twice in a week I was out for meals with doctor-friends, and both of them caught me rubbing my hand. They asked, I explained, they independently said "Chaz, that's not your hand, it's a trapped nerve in your neck. You need physio. You could get it on the NHS, but you'd have to wait six months. Go and see Karen, she'll pull it for you and you'll be fine."
Of all the unexpected things in the universe, the sight of Chaz heading into a Sports Injury Clinic must come fairly high up the list; but I went, cash in hand. And behold, Karen talked to me for five minutes and said no, she wasn't going to pull my neck for me. Turned out I was right at the start, or right-ish. Rather than being simply and conveniently trapped where a swift tug might release it, she thought the nerve was all tangled up in scar tissue between my vertebrae, resulting from infections caused by chronic RSI, sloppy posture, general abuse and neglect over years and decades. Serious and long-term treatment, she prophesied; and she was not wrong.
Twice a week for months now, Karen has been thrusting her steely fingers deep into my neck, my ribs and arm. It's quite extraordinary, how much pain she can cause with so little apparent effort. The good news is that several of my joints now bend in directions they barely remember; the bad news - for you cannot have one without the other, that is the nature of narrative, it's what I do - is that my arm still tingles, aches and fizzes. It's a finer grade of sandpaper, perhaps, but nothing more.
So now she's sending me to an acupuncturist as well; me, who am famously cynical about all things alternative, who regards complementary treatments as though they were Cavaliers (that's Wrong but Romantic - come on, keep up...). Feras is fascinating, I absolutely adore going to see him, and his treatments get more intriguingly radical each time. It's a sort of techno-mediaevalism: last time he both electrified his needles and then bled me. Honestly, truly. Bled me. With blades, not leeches, alas, but the blood remains the same. And is any of this making any difference to the fizzing in my arm, the ache in my shoulder? No, of course it's not. Tomorrow I'm going to see Karen again, and she's going to put me in traction. The way she's talking, this seems to mean two tractors pulling in opposite directions. The frustration of therapists is a wonderful thing, when their patients refuse to get better. If this columnist falls suspiciously silent next issue, ask Karen where I am. And then cremate me, in a closed coffin...
When my dad left home, back when I was a kidling, my mother replaced him quickly. With a dog, and a piano.
She may not have been thinking very straight at the time. The dog was at my sisters' insistence, but his care and exercise very soon devolved onto me despite the fact that I was then as I am now, a cat man through and through. The piano was more a fulfilment of social duty. This was the late sixties, and nice middle class kids like us were expected to have piano lessons. Perhaps my father had resisted; more likely, being suddenly on her own, Mum felt that she had to try harder, and to be seen to be trying. It seemed not to matter that the four of us showed little interest in and no talent for music in any form: that school choirs collapsed in wholesale laughter at the sound of us, that violins dressed up like tommy-guns to avoid us, that tuning-forks grew an extra tine and pretended to be cutlery at our approach. It wasn't so much the playing that mattered, it was the learning, the being engaged in the process. One had to have lessons, and so lessons we would have; one had to have a piano at home for practice, and so we did.
We cycled dutifully to our lessons, up the posh end of town; we were duly scathed by a succession of instructors, for having no skill and no dedication; we endured it all as children do, and fled as soon as we were let flee. And did we practice in between? Did we hell. Why sit and plink this tedious instrument when there were bikes to ride, books to read, a city to explore? One by one we rebelled, and were allowed to drop the lessons. I think my own rebellion came the week after I'd been chased and pulled over by a police car on my way home, for reckless cycling. (Anyone remember the days when the police would chase and apprehend a kid for reckless cycling?) Whatever, we all stopped playing but the piano stayed, became a part of our lives, was rather missed when we moved away. The dog probably had more influence on my life, as taking him for walks several times a day established a habit that I cling to still - walking tires the body and stimulates the mind, it's the perfect prelude to a session at the keyboard - but it's the piano and our usage of it that interests me today. After all, what use is a piano that nobody plays?
The answer, obviously, is that it provides flat or flattish surfaces, suitable for putting things on. It is in fact a very ill-designed and inefficient shelving unit. As a family, we heaped stuff upon it merrily, until it wasn't just that the lids never were opened, I seriously doubt whether they were capable of opening. The poor thing had been painted a most unfortunate cream-of-ivory, and I think the surfaces must have welded together, paint to paint, under the load that we put on them.
I'm not sure even now whether it's nature or nurture, but I have a cluttered and chaotic mind, which I keep in a cluttered and chaotic environment. Show me a piano, and I see shelving; show me anything likely to remain stationary for a tolerable period, and I will put stuff on it. Just for the moment, you understand, just till I get around to putting it somewhere else. This is a house of many stairs, and there are piles of books and papers on every step, so that going up or down demands care in the daylight and serious caution in the dark. I have tables, but I eat off my knees, because there isn't room to put a plate down anywhere. I believe I have a carpet, in the study; not sure, haven't seen it in years. I know I have a chair there, it's a wonderful chair, big and broad and deep and comfortable. I bought it especially, to sit in while I read work-books, research, that sort of thing. I still take my work-reading to the pub, and not just because I'm fond of beer. The chair is entirely buried beneath boxes, and has been for a number of years now. I love minimalist design, be it Japanese or Scandinavian or Shaker, that sense of pure living undecorated by unnecessary things; I cannot approach it, can't even come close, can't begin to consider it as a genuine alternative way to be.
For many people, I understand that storage is an issue when they're looking for a house. With me, it's shelving. I'm way past shelving for England; I could shelve continentally. A comparatively large two-bedroom house should be enough to contain one man, two cats and a teddy bear; this one's full, because there's nowhere left to shelve. If I win the lottery this week, I know where I'm moving to. There's an adapted lighthouse for sale, down at the river's mouth. Small house, attached to high tower. Just think, I could shelve it spirally, and have some fantastical machine that would carry me up and down and around, like library steps on a grand and mechanical scale...
I mentioned at the top of this column that I was a cat man. This may not be news to any of you; it is certainly common knowledge to my friends. I had an e-mail from Vancouver this week, which says inter alia, "I may soon be a partial kitten custodian and need to draw upon your smarts, especially since I cannot afford shelving at this point." It's a strange sentence, and not an obvious thought at all, but actually I know exactly what she means...
When I was a child I thought as a child, it's true; and I also played and romped and fantasised as a child, and of course some of my games, romps and fantasies were to do with pirates. That was a cultural imperative, like Cops & Robbers, Cowboys & Indians, perhaps one or two others (though it's interesting to look back and spot those games we never played, the images we never latched on to - Smugglers & Excisemen I will forgive me for, but no Spacemen & Aliens? How could we have missed that? I'm not so old that I predate science fiction).
Pirates, though, pirates we had in abundance. I'm not sure who they were in opposition to - each other, I expect. Didn't really matter, so long as you had the tricorne hat, the eyepatch and the Jolly Roger; and you only needed them in virtue (that's a singularly inappropriate back-formation I have just coined, from virtual, obviously, and what it means is you could make 'em up, pretend, see them in your mind's eye. Though we usually screwed up one of our real eyes to indicate the eyepatch).
Childish ways for childish days; I never expected to meet pirates in my adult life. But lo, behold, black sails on the starboard bow and roll out the cannon, let's have a barrel of bangs and stand by to repel boarders. Twice now, twice in a month...
Every so often my webmistress Jean flings my name casually into a search engine, see what bubbles up that's new. Last time, what bubbled up was the US navy. Specifically, their Naval Academy. Intrigued, she went to see - and what she found was a section of the site devoted to military history. And once she'd navigated past the page that preaches against the evils of plagiarism and warns of the penalties attached thereto, she came to a page on mediaeval castles, which she sort of recognised on account of she'd written it herself. It had been ripped wholesale from the site she runs in support of my Outremer novels (www.outremer.co.uk, if you want to check out what so fascinated the navy), with no acknowledgement and leaving a trail of broken links behind it.
She sent a beautiful e-mail to the professor concerned, not a word under five syllables; he came back with a milksop excuse and a bristly denial of plagiarism, on the rather curious principle that it couldn't be the p-word because he'd never actually claimed to have written the material himself. In my book (Chambers English Dictionary is my book), plagiarism is theft, is taking without consent. If I steal your donkey, it is no less theft because I don't claim to have bred the beast myself.
Anyway, the professor says he has now taken the page down. We can't actually verify this, because that whole section of the site is suddenly closed off to public access. I love this, that the US Navy is scared of us, or at least of our lawyers. What I love more is the irony of it all; one of the motives behind the formation of national navies was to protect shipping against piracy, and now look at them, plundering heedlessly with gunpowder fuses sizzling in their beards, cutlasses in their hands and yo ho ho, my hearties...
So there I was still chuckling, when I get an e-mail from someone in Moscow to tip me off that the Russian translation of Outremer has been posted on the internet and is available for free download, and was I aware, were they licensed to do this?
To which, of course, the answers were no and no. Nor am I the only one; Tom Arden is up there on the same site, so is Simon R Green. By the time you read this, I hope my agent will be baying for blood. Funny thing, I wrote my first several novels on pirated software (shock confession! But we all did, nothing came free in those days and a word-processing program could cost as much as the computer itself) and thought nothing of it; in Taiwan I bought what is undoubtedly a pirate copy of a Ferrari cap, and felt nothing but pleased with the bargain. Now suddenly I'm on the victim side of the fence, it's my work that's being ripped off, and ooh, am I outraged...
Well, no. All right, I'm not particularly outraged. I'm kind of flattered, and interested to learn how many people actually download the novel (there's a counter on the site to tell me this), and I'd love to ask them whether they're going to print it out or read it off the screen. I don't think it's doing much harm to my income-stream, and it's nice to think that they think I'm worth reproducing. But still, the principle is important, and it is still piracy. If I had my way, I'd maroon 'em all on the Aleutian Islands. With the American navy, and no boats. That'd larn 'em...
I have been musing upon length recently - and no, this is nothing to do with all those purveyors of pills who are so kindly concerned about the size or efficacy of my, ah, male member that they infest my inbox with offers of increase. I'm more interested in the length of a story, and the length of time it takes to write it.
One of the best things about being a writer is that it gives you licence to hold two or more completely contradictory views at the same time; indeed I sometimes think that the ability to do that is the prime qualification for the job. Here is the evidence; adopt opposite positions and argue with equal passion for each of them, or you flunk the course. If you can't see the other side's point of view - and believe it, as fervently as you believe your own - then how can you conceivably write fiction? In which spirit, I offer these thoughts in answer to the implicit questions above:
A story is as long as it needs to be, and it takes as long as necessary to write it;and
A story is as long as your editor requires it to be, and it takes less time than you've been given.
Obviously these are two ideal-world scenarios, and they are different worlds: the first artistic, and the second professional. Mostly what we do in the real world - or at least what I do here in Chazworld, perhaps less real than any, but mine own - is try to juggle the two, to find an ideal compromise. And of course fail, and drop the ball, and satisfy neither my editor nor myself.
The issues have been much on my mind, through a series too happenstance to be called a concatenation. The Arts Council's splendid and necessary Save Our Short Story campaign was initiated and is run by friends of mine, based here in Newcastle; the growth of it has coincided with my spending a semester teaching on the local MA in Creative Writing, which semester has been focused entirely on the short story, so I have been talking lots about its virtues, its difficulties and its techniques.
At the same time I have been editing my Outremer fantasy series for a new American edition, which has involved doing a substantial cutting job on the final volume to make it more or less the same length as the others before dividing each volume in two, to make six short books out of what had been three increasingly long ones. My publisher, Ace Books, used to be known for binding two novels by different writers into one volume, back to back, so that you turned the book the other way up to read the other one; I cut my science-fictional teeth on Ace Doubles, and am indecently amused now to be the prototype of Ace Halves. My German publishers did the same thing for their translation (with even better reason, as German translations always come out about a third longer than English originals), and we recently turned up a review of vol one on the net that was really more of a rant against the publishers for doing this, for dividing books in apparently arbitrary places. The reviewer was so upset he was undecided whether to go on reading the series. That seems perverse to me, to allow a publisher's decision to interfere with an imaginative experience; it also betrays a fundamental disjunction between the reader's and the writer's view of what a book is. To that particular reader at least, clearly a book is what is bound between covers, a thing unto itself. To me, a book is the medium I use to deliver a story, and if the story is longer than the book can contain then fine, let's have another book. If dinner won't fit on one plate, take two. People are always accusing fantasy writers of producing endless sequels, but actually most of us don't, we write multi-volume novels, which is a very different thing. Tolkien set the trend, of course. The Lord of the Rings does not consist of The Fellowship of the Ring and its two sequels; it's a single novel that the publisher initially broke down into three volumes for practical and financial reasons. It's long been available as a single volume; it has also been published in seven volumes. The most wonderfully perverse example I know of this divisive habit is a local work about a Tyneside gangster. The author self-published it, and it is very bad. It is also very long, so he made the sensible decision to publish it in two volumes. And divided it more or less in half, and vol one ends not just in mid-chapter, but actually in mid-sentence. The text just runs to the bottom of the page, the end of the line, and that's it; if you want to know how the sentence ends, buy vol two...
Back to the subject of this column, though, which is, let's face it, me. I've just been commissioned to write a new fantasy (hurrah!), which I had intended to be a single volume of extraordinary length. By editorial request, it is now to be two volumes of mid-length each. It'll be interesting to see whether that affects the shape of it in my head as I write, whether it develops a more pronounced mid-point break. My suspicion is that it will, that I'll look for a first-act closer; these are the kinds of compromise we make.
But in the meantime I've been writing something else entirely, a novella, which turns out to be neither a long short story nor a short novel, but something entirely independent and now I don't have room to talk about it, which is a pity. Maybe next time, if nothing else arises to distract me; but next time I'll be writing this column in South Korea, which may turn out to be a distraction in itself.
I've written before in these columns about the rare but welcome perks of the writer's life, particularly the occasional chance to travel to strange & far-flung foreign parts. Bestsellers and showbiz personalities get to do the nightmare signing tours, a month or two zipping to and fro across America staying in a new hotel every night and answering the same inane questions on a new TV chatshow every morning; there are not many advantages to being irredeemably mid-list, but avoiding the promotional tour is definitely one of them.
Far better is to sit (as apparently I do) in the apple of the British Council's eye. This means that I don't get to promote my own books overseas, or not directly; I am sent abroad for my country's good, to promote the UK as best I can within the orbit of my own sphere of interest. Specifically, in this instance, I'm just back from a long week in Korea, holding forth about British fantasy and the virtues and wonders thereof.
How I got there is an object lesson, www or Why you Want a Website. The smart & lovesome people at the BC in Seoul reacted to the sudden burgeoning interest in fantasy there (riding obviously on the back of LotR and H. Potter, but stretching further than that and including some home-grown talent also) by suggesting and then setting up a Fantasy Literature Forum, to include writers, publishers and academics from both Korea and the UK. The search for candidates led them to Amazon (where a few good reviews can be unexpectedly rewarding) and from there to individual writers' websites. Mine caught & held their attention (I'm allowed to say this unashamedly, because I don't run it; it's designed and fed by the wonderful people at Cornwell Internet, for details), and so they invited me, and so I went. I was also able to nudge them in the direction of an old mate for their publishing interest, which markedly increased my quotient of smug self-satisfaction. It may be more blessed to give than to receive, but try substituting 'and' for 'than', count your blessings then and see just how many more there are...
So I'm barely back from two weeks in Orkney, and off we go to Seoul; and the first thing we do after we land is gatecrash the ambassador's garden-party, which offers all those diplomats the chance to hone their skills by being charming to us. I never hobnobbed with an Excellency before (but it's okay, socialist credentials still intact: I called him Charles. He called me Charles also, but I find it in me to forgive him. Just don't look on that as a precedent). The house is lovely too, Victorian colonial mansionette just over the ancient wall from one of the royal palaces. And the forum was really interesting, if one overlooks the dangers of hot lunch, hot lights and jetlag; I did nearly doze off on the platform, but not quite, and not actually while I was speaking.
The others all went home after four days, but not me; I'm known to like being adrift in these crazy Asian cities, so I said I'd stay on a few days extra at my own expense. They kindly found a cheap hotel for me, and then - anxious only that I shouldn't be bored, I'm sure, nor feel abandoned - they kindly filled all my extra days with extra work I could do for the British Council while I was there...
Okay, I exaggerate, at least a little; I did get a couple of days off. But I did also do a TV slot (Heart to Heart: Chaz holding forth about why books are better and British is best) and I did participate in UK Day at the second-best women's university in Seoul. More mingling with His Excellency, much posing with pipers, a swift lecture and an interesting conversation at the reception afterwards, where a university professor and I put our heads together and plotted a semester's residence for me, teaching a course on contemporary fantasy. I'm not sure how serious either one of us was, but for half an hour I was utterly committed. And could be for half a year, if he comes back to me. Obviously I won't get back to him, that's far too proactive for something so scary, I need to be courted and chased.
So assuming that I'm not, that the university thing doesn't happen, how much actual benefit do I derive from these trips? Well, there's all the ego-stroking, that's no bad thing; simple pleasure is a benefit in itself, and it feeds the self-confidence, which is also good. Then there's the food, eating unidentified objects from street stalls; I must have tried seventeen varieties of kimchi while I was there, which is ooh, ten per cent of what's available. And I had meetings & discussions with several Korean publishers, who went trotting off with copies of Outremer and earlier books. That means nothing in itself, of course - but if they hadn't met me, they wouldn't be reading me now, or not with the same degree of attention; a handshake, a drink and a smile ought not to make a difference in literary or commercial judgement, but they still do.
And over and above all of that, I spent much of the trip crying "No, no, don't ask me, it's not fair; how can I possibly know, if or when ever I'll want to write about Korea? Doesn't matter how much fun I'm having, how much I love this country, how moved and intrigued I am; it takes years for this kind of experience to filter through the system, and I'm already backed up to the hilt with work I'll never have the time to write..." - and yet, and yet here I am thinking that actually the material is all there already, if only I can arrange it properly. There is such a good book to be written about a country like Korea, squeezed as it is and always has been between one expansionist empire and another, always the battleground for others' wars; and it's so much my kind of book, how can I not write it...?
I'm writing this in one of my favourite places on the planet, which is conveniently just twenty minutes' stroll from my house. Its full title is The Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, colloquially known as the Lit & Phil. If I haven't mentioned it in this column before, the Society has been around a couple of centuries or so; the building is late Regency, like so much of Newcastle, which always takes first-time visitors by surprise; and the ambience is all Victorian, despite all the earlier and later influences. But then that's what Victorian is, I think, it's a sort of pre-Modernism, it's a confluence where many paths and errands meet and are absorbed into the one great rushing road. The more alien and divergent an artefact or a philosophy, the more it brings and the more it offers, and so the more welcome it is. Which is kind of like writing, really, or it is the way I write, it's about drawing many separate strands together; you could say it's about annexation, taking possession of everything I touch and using it my own way to my own advantage, it's a kind of imperialism, the Chazian Empire. Which may be why I respond so well to a Victorian environment; though that might also be due to my childhood, where I was growing up in Oxford and spending happy days exploring the colleges and libraries and museums there. Again the architecture is mostly older, and the early colleges are more original than neo-Gothic. Again, though, much of the interiors and all the atmosphere was redolent of the nineteenth century: wood panelling and stained glass, leather bindings and ogee arches (so called, I have always thought, because the Americans I knew back then would always stop and gaze in wonder and cry "Oh, gee" when they saw them: innocent days...) and all that space and time contained and claimed, that spirit of expansionism coupled with inquiry. If you asked me to sum up the Victorians in a sentence, it would come out as a question: "We have found this, and it is ours; now what is it?"
Which is, again, what I think writing is all about; and it may be that I am a writer because I had that childhood, or partly so: at least that I am this writer because I had that childhood. What goes around, comes around. But I was speaking about the Lit & Phil, and it really does make me feel like I've come back to base. It has those same high ceilings and divided staircases, sculptures in niches, old portraits in dirty oils; domes and galleries, shelves you can't reach without ladders, cavernous cellar rooms and vast and ancient lavatories. More importantly it has books, it has knowledge and ideas and fantasies and frauds, leather cheek by cardboard jowl, and that for me is another definition of childhood, another of the worlds that I inhabited and (of course) the one I never left. Oxford is behind me now and I wouldn't go back, though I don't mind looking; the books came with, in a very real sense. I do know people with more books than me, but not many.
The Lit & Phil is a library, but it's more than that; and more than an archive, more than a venue, more than a rendezvous. "Chaz, beware the Lit & Phil," they told me when I first moved up here, twenty-some years ago. "It's not so much a library," they said, "it's more a way of life." I was good in those days, I used to listen to wiser heads than mine, so I bewore it (which is a usage I've just made up; isn't it lovely? There is no current English equivalent; it used to be legit to say 'I was ware of it', but no more, alas) until I started to write the Outremer books. Historical fantasy, set in the time of the Crusades: where else was I going to turn for research material? University libraries are not good for this kind of work, being too concerned with modern theories and reinterpretations; the shelves of the Lit & Phil are full of the classic narrative histories that I grew up with, that may be considered prejudiced or downright inaccurate nowadays but who cares if they give me the material I need?
So I joined for the sake of access, and then found how stimulating it was as an environment, as a place to come and work. So I did all my reading and note-taking here, much of my revising and proof-checking. When I needed to learn a language, first Esperanto and then Chinese, this was where I studied and where I brought my homework. I bought a little hand-held computer, largely so that I could do proper creative writing here also; I am using it as we speak, down in the cellarage, in the Silence Room. I'm actually here for one of my least favourite activities, I'm waiting to be photographed for an article I've written, in support of a season of crimewriting events we're having here in February; and this whole column was meant to be about that, about photographs and pictures and how weak they are and how dominant, and how much that says about human cultures over the last forty thousand years or so. I mentioned the Lit & Phil at the start just as a way into that, and I find that I've used up my entire allowance of words in a paean of pleasure; but hey, that's okay. Every now and then it's nice to write a happy column about something that I like...
My friends, my colleagues, my butcher and my bar-staff: anyone who's known me for any length of time (or indeed anyone who's been reading these columns for any length of time, which may very well include you) knows that my life as a writer is a grim and gritty affair, ever an uphill struggle for small rewards. Even after all this time (twenty-seven years at the wordface, man and boy, tho' how you sort one from the other is a question I leave to others), I'm about as secure professionally as a sea-bird's egg on a crumbling cliff-ledge: might get swallowed by some passing raider, might find the cliff fall out from under me, might get knocked off accidentally or deliberately, bad parenting or sibling rivalry. Might still hatch and thrive, of course, but the odds must be against it. I keep having to explain this to people who think that all writers are rich; sometimes I suspect I'm a bit of a bore on the subject. Certainly I'm resentful: not so much of the poverty and the anxiety and so forth, that goes with the territory and I never minded starving in garrets, but rather that the ongoing struggle has long since eroded much of the joy I used to find in the job. When I was young I loved to write, I ached and burned to be a writer. It was always hard, but the rewards outskipped the effort by a distance. In recent years, not so. Artistically, creatively it gets harder, or else my standards just go up; making a living also gets harder from year to year, and the effort to survive and do good work can blind me to what rewards there are. I always said I'd be bitter and twisted if I wasn't successful before I was middle-aged, and it's starting to turn true.
Conversely, friends and colleagues and butcher and so forth also know that I love to cook. Here's a creative challenge that also gets harder as you grow more skilled, but that only reinforces the pleasure and the sense of accomplishment. Many people who've eaten with me and then had to endure the neurotic-writer aspect offer this not just as comfort but as a second career: "Chaz, if the writing ever fails altogether, you could surely cook for a living." I used to dismiss this as purely jocular, as I'm in no sense a trained chef, and there is no easier way to lose money than to go into the catering trade. Then a friend asked me to cook dinner for his department's Xmas party, a serious sit-down meal for thirty people and of course he'd pay me.
So I did it, I cooked professionally, one night only. I planned and prepared it so carefully that there was only one half-hour period of serious stress, and I had just the one brief cheffy tantrum, screaming at a teenage waiter in fine and classic style, and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. [Menu and recipes are on the website, if anyone's interested.] And of course - if ever I chose to go that way - it defines a path that I could actually follow into cooking for a living: from my house to yours, dinner-parties for the idle or the scurrilously busy. I have enough contacts among doctors and lawyers and media grandees, people who can afford to pay someone else to cook for them.
I'm not going to do it, obviously. I'm fairly sure that as soon as cooking became work, it would lose that gloss of pleasure that my amateur status supplies. But I am in mid-life crisis here, the average writer's career is growing shorter and I am painfully aware that I've had more than my fair share already; it is comforting to pretend that I have a fallback, even if it's only illusory, even though I have no intention ever of using it.
I think in the end I'm just too stubborn to give up what I do best, despite a world of encouragement to quit. Exhausted by failure, sour and raddled with envy and spite, none the less I drag myself onward against the tide, against the current, a wee boat loose in a busy shipping lane - and sometimes I get so swamped by the history of the thing, how long and hard a haul it's been and to what small effect, that I neglect for a while to realise that the sun is playing on the water and my muscle and mind are pulling together in a deeply satisfactory fashion and I may have forgotten it for a while but actually I really deeply do love boats...
Or, to abandon metaphor and say it straight, I'm working on a new novel and it's been going really well since Xmas, not least because I've been utterly enjoying the work. Took me some time to notice, but my friends knew. When I stop going to pubs and parties because I'd rather stay home and work, that's always the giveaway. It may not be quite the old youthful enthusiasm, but it's not far off. These last few weeks I had to stop, though, I had to set the book aside and do some other stuff: a couple of short stories, some proofreading, academic work, like that. And this. Woke up this morning thinking "Hoop-de-doo, first of the month and I've finished everything, I can get back to the book at last, at long last..." and then remembered that I hadn't, I couldn't, I had to write this. Which I have done, now. So go away, leave me alone, I've got a book to write.