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Felix's picture of the Moon (1)The picture on the right isn’t, as you might have assumed, a close-up of my face first thing in the morning before I’ve had time to apply the slap (although I can see the resemblance) it’s a picture of the surface of the moon, taken by my son from Greenwich Park. He was looking through the very large telescope in the Observatory at the time, but I’m still amazed by the fact that technology allows a 15 year-old schoolboy to take a photograph like this with his phone (or rather, it did, before he dropped it in the sink and it died on him; he is his mother’s son, after all). He’s now bereft, as until he gets a replacement the constant contact he usually maintains with his friends has been severed, and he has to wait as much as 17 1/2 hours before he can catch up with them again. Having grown up in a house without a phone of any description, my attitude to the constant stream of information that floods our lives is more ambivalent; there are times when I would definitely prefer not to be disturbed (my summer holiday was not in any way enhanced by the receipt of an email from my parents’ MP, for instance). The thought of wearing glasses that update you with news feeds makes me feel queasy.

No doubt it’s because of my age – and that brings me on to the latest Granta list of Young British Novelists (did you see what I did there?). I have to declare an interest, as I know a couple of them and share an agent with another, but I think they’re an impressive bunch. Having to make a selection of just 20 from the many talented young writers out there will always be contentious, but I found Theo Tait’s article about the list in the Guardian mean-spirited. His assertion that these people, 4 of whom are, or will be, 40 this year, 2 of whom are still in their Twenties, and the rest in their Thirties are in ‘early middle-age by most people’s standards’ is truly bizarre – unless the people he’s thinking of are the under 10s. Speaking as someone who took quite a while to get off the starting blocks, I am full of admiration for anyone who can complete a novel and get it published before their 40th birthday at all, let alone garner enough critical acclaim to feature on one of Granta’s lists.

As A S Byatt has pointed out in the past, many women with children don’t have sufficient time to write until they’ve passed the Granta cut-off age, yet for the first time there are more women than men in the line-up – so what’s changed? I’d venture to suggest that the increasing number of Creative Writing MAs might have something to do with it. The two writers I know were both at Goldsmiths, and I met another in between completing an MA at Royal Holloway and publishing her first novel. I don’t know how many of the others took a similar path, but I have little doubt that if I’d been able to take the course that I took when I was twenty years younger I would have developed the self-confidence to make an attempt at producing a full-length novel at a much earlier age than I eventually did.

Tait complains that most of the writers chosen have written pieces set outside middle England, but as many of them have roots elsewhere that’s hardly surprising, and I suspect that if they had written about middle England he might have accused them of being parochial and unadventurous. A writer’s subject matter is a matter of individual choice; anyone who tries to write what he or she believes the readers might want is on a hiding to nothing. It’s the quality of the writing that matters, and Tait’s conclusion that ‘If you look at the selections (of YBNs) from 1983 onwards, you see a gradual but unmistakable tailing off of talent as the decades progress’ is frankly ridiculous. As he says himself earlier in the article, the chosen writers are to be judged on their whole output, rather than the pieces in the Granta anthology – many of which are excerpts from novels in progress – and some of them have only published a single novel so far. They have their entire careers ahead of them and they may be writing for another 50 or 60 years. I imagine that they will currently be feeling a combination of delight and pressure to live up to their inclusion on this list – perhaps accompanied by a twinge of embarrassment or guilt; what is the point of raining on their parade by informing their potential readers that they’re simply not as good as writers from the earlier selections, who have had as much as three decades to hone their craft, several of them publishing their earliest work before some of the current lot were even born?

Anyway, I think it’s time to acknowledge those of us who are a little less precocious. I propose ‘A Random Selection of Slightly Rackety British Novelists who are Knocking on a Bit’. Sad thing is, I probably wouldn’t even make it on to that one…

The world's most committed busker

The world’s most committed busker

A couple of weeks ago I went up to York to take part in an event at the university that involved alumni talking to current English undergraduates about potential careers. As all the others present seemed to be very successful in their own fields I felt a bit like the spectre at the feast; on one hand I could give people hope that it is still possible to get a book deal for a work of literary fiction, but on the other, I can’t earn enough from it to make a living. I was pleased to see from the questions submitted in advance that at least one person had read this blog, instantly doubling my daily viewing figures, but I had to admit to the students who questioned me about it that I don’t really know how to make the best use of the new media to promote my work. I don’t have a twitter account, I blog infrequently and look at Facebook maybe once a month. I’m aware of the possibilities, but like Tantalus, I’m unable to grasp them.

It was encouraging that so many students were prepared to turn out to hear us speak, and listening to the others crystallised my own thoughts regarding the benefits of an English degree. Too often English graduates (me included) are apologetic about the usefulness of our degrees and society encourages this, with Maths and the Sciences often referred to as ‘hard subjects’ as if the Arts and Humanities were somehow soft options. There’s a reason that child prodigies who take their ‘A’ Levels in primary school and complete their degrees before they’ve hit puberty are found exclusively in Maths departments: the experience of life and the development of empathy necessary to be a successful student of English take time to acquire. You need a far greater level of maturity to be able to understand and write fluently about works of literature than you do to be able to work out equations. I’m not seeking to denigrate mathematicians, but you have to admit that they are rarely great communicators, and that’s where we inky-fingered types come into our own: whether it’s writing a novel, composing a poem, putting together a CV or a personal statement – or just blagging your way onto a train when you’ve missed the one you had a reservation for and left your purse at home – being able to use words well is surely the most important of skills a human being can possess.

After we’d answered questions as a panel we went elsewhere to continue the discussion in a less formal setting. Groups of chairs were arranged in circles and each of us took up a position and waited for the students to come to us. I was worried that I’d be sitting there alone, watching tumbleweed blow across the room, but I just had time to grab a handful of crisps and a glass of wine before the questions started. I had wondered whether would-be writers who would once have studied English were now taking degree courses in creative writing instead, but it appears not – and in fact there were some students there who were studying other subjects. It was touching – if a little scary – to see how much faith people have in the ability of a writer to advise them on how to get their own work out there. The truth is, I know nothing. All I could give them was a distillation of the key things I learned from my MA course: keep writing, little and often, if that’s what you have time for and don’t wait for the perfect moment to get your thoughts and ideas down, as it will never come; expose your work to the light, either via a writing group, taking part in reading events such as poetry or story slams, or by submitting it to competitions; never give up.

I recommended taking an MA in creative writing, or some other reputable course, because in addition to providing all the above it it can bring you to the attention of an agent, and you need one of those if you want to get published.

All the time I was talking I was aware of the crisps getting steadily soggier in my hot little fist, but I never managed to find an appropriate moment to eat them. It would have seemed rude to do it while the students were talking, and even ruder to do it while I was, so it was only when we were finished that I could dispose of them. I was staying on campus and assumed that I’d find somewhere to buy food, but everywhere was closed, and I had to resort to vending machines. I’d tell my student daughter off for eating a meal of crisps and chocolate, but it was that or nothing.

It had been a beautiful day when I arrived in York, but by the evening, mist had descended, and as I wondered across a bridge in the footsteps of my young self I realised that I might finally be cured of nostalgia for my students days. The intensity of the feelings attached to that period in my life arise from the fact that I was young. If I’d left school and gone straight into a job (which you could still do then) I’d probably look back with as much affection for my first workplace; now that I’m no longer in my salad days the attraction of campus life has faded.

It was interesting to talk to one of the few surviving faculty members from those days, though: I’ve often wondered whether my memories of some of the more colourful members of staff – and that would be most of them – had grown exaggerated over time, but it seems not: without naming names I can say that any bad behaviour on the part of we students paled in comparison to the excessive drinking, extra-marital affairs and drunken brawls indulged in by some of our esteemed lecturers. My daughter’s generation would never stand for it: they’re paying a fortune for their education – or will be – if they ever find employment, so they want value for money and exemplary behaviour from their teachers. Sadly, the tutorial system, where we had hour-long sessions with a tutor and two students – or if you were very lucky, one-to-one sessions – has gone from most universities now, and I wouldn’t swap my time with my often inebriated but frequently brilliant tutors for today’s more regulated set-up, not for the world.

016Word count for current work in progress: 28,327. It’s slow going, so in an effort to improve my deplorable working practices I thought I’d do some reading. I accumulate books on writing in the way that I accumulate books for research: I pile them up and believe that I’ll somehow absorb their contents by osmosis, without having to go so far as to open them. As this method clearly hasn’t been working I decided to read one, and chose Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer because Hilary Mantel has said it’s the only book on writing you need and if it’s good enough for her, it’s good enough for me. I feel better for having read it – and it’s good and concise – but I haven’t adopted Brande’s suggested method of getting up an hour earlier and writing for an hour, or fixing a time to write each day for 15 minutes, because I’m hopeless at routine.

Is there such a creature as a writer who likes routine? That’s the problem: we’re overflowing with imagination but not so great at application. With me at least it goes further than that: I actively avoid sitting down and writing because I know very well that the story in my head is so much more vibrant and moving than the one I will read on the page. I suspect that few writers ever look at their work and think tell you what – I nailed it there. It’s so much more fun to let your book exist in your imagination, perfectly formed and flawless, than it is to get down to the hard graft of making it real, only to discover that your Precious isn’t of quite so much importance to others as you’d imagined.

Nonetheless, that’s what you have to do eventually, and in some ways it’s harder if you’ve already done it once, because you have to prove that the first book wasn’t a fluke, that you can build on what you’ve already done, that your career has a trajectory, that you have a career

Something Brande writes about does chime with me, though: the idea of the writer as two people. During the long fallow years when I was raising my children and not writing I often pictured my writer self as a Bertha Rochester figure – a mad woman in the attic – and my every day self as Jane Eyre, standing with her back pressed to the  door, trying to contain her. Not being able to write – or not feeling that I should – had a debilitating effect and I don’t think I could ever abandon it again, regardless of whether or not I ever publish another novel.

Odd, isn’t it, to have such a compulsion to write and at the same time such an aversion to actually sitting down and doing it? Is that unique to writers? Or maybe it’s just me.

The picture above, which was taken at night and may be hard to make out, is of any Eddie Stobart lorry bearing the legend ‘Delivering Sustainable Distribution’. Being a crabby old thing, I’m frequently annoyed by buzzwords and the misuse of the verb ‘to deliver’ has been one of them recently. It seemed to reach a crescendo at the time of the Olympics, when we were constantly told that London had ‘delivered’ the Games. Letters are delivered, babies are delivered, bad news and blows are delivered; the Olympic Games was organised, managed, staged, it wasn’t delivered. Eddie Stobart, being a haulage company, is able to use the word legitimately, as it does genuinely deliver stuff, so why ruin it by claiming to deliver distribution? How exactly would that work? And don’t even get me started on the concept of distribution being ‘sustainable’.

Another current phrase that I actively dislike is ‘going forward’ used instead of ‘in the future’ or ‘from now on’. If one person used it it would be perfectly inoffensive; it’s the fact that it’s been so widely adopted, particularly by politicians, that grates.

So, going forward, I intend to concentrate more on my writing.

New Year, new-look web site, the result of having a web site surgery at the Society of Authors with Kristen Harrison of The Curved House. For those of you who don’t know, this involves sitting at a computer watching someone do clever things and nodding furiously,  the vigour of the nodding increasing in inverse proportion to your understanding of what you’re being shown, until the world is a blur and you’re feeling dizzy and slightly sick. Then you go home and stare at the notes you made until your eyes begin to water and you have to admit that you can’t make head nor tail of them.December 2012 022

As far as I’m concerned, all electronic gadgets are powered by magic. If someone were to open the back of my computer and show me a host of little goblins working industriously away I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. I didn’t mention this to Kristen, of course, but as she’s worked with writers for years she probably had her suspicions.

Apart from the technical advice, she also gave me tips on how to make sure I posted regularly – and as I saw her over a month ago, you can tell how well that’s going.

Children, parents, and that wolf who’s been leaving claw marks on the door have kept me from writing for too long, but I am resolved to finish my next novel this year. I was struggling with the second one, so I’ve decided to leave it for a while and go straight on to the third, in the hope of fooling the ‘difficult second novel’ jinx. I managed 20,000 words or so during NaNoWriMo, but lost momentum when I had to break off to compose another long letter to my parents’ local authority about their refusal to contribute to my mother’s care. Once again, I found that I could manage the suggested 1,700 words per day – as long as I stayed up until 3 am. I’m not going to set myself a daily limit from now on, as that only leads to a feeling of failure, but I am determined to finish this one soon.

The picture, by the way, is of Severndroog Castle, built as a memorial to Sir William James in 1784 by his grieving widow. It’s in Oxleas Wood on Shooters Hill, where I went for a walk on New Year’s Day with my family to shake off the Christmas torpor. It’s been slipping into dereliction for years now, but it looks as if enough money has been raised to start restoration work soon. Let’s see if I can complete the book before the work is done.

I can see the woods from my bedroom window, and I’m acutely aware of how lucky that makes me: I live in London, yet I have a view of ancient woodland, parts of which are more than 8,000 years old. Although maybe if I didn’t have such good views I might spend less time staring out of the window and more time writing…

The world’s slackest blogger is back – at least until she gets distracted by the sight of an oddly-shaped cloud, or wanders off to do a bit of dusting…

The Olympic flame passed by our house this morning and we went out to cheer it on. I resisted the temptation to run out shrieking, ‘It should have been me!’ and wrestle it away from the poor man carrying it. Mind you, we waited so long for all the sponsors’ buses to go by that I’d have lost the impetus by the time it eventually turned up, anyway.

Having missed out in the first couple of ballots, we eventually ended up with tickets for eventing (no, I don’t know, either, but horses are involved), fencing and archery. I don’t understand any of these sports, but then the only one I do understand is tennis, and we’ve already had Wimbledon. I feel I have to go, because it probably won’t come this way again in my lifetime (or if it does, I’ll be as old as my Dad, who was at the 1948 Olympics, but finds the prospect of travelling across London too daunting this time round). As I live in one of the Olympic boroughs, I’ve watched as my patch has gradually been taken over by the Games: the park has been closed for some time now, and temporary bridges erected over the roads in various places; parts of the Heath have been cordoned off and dug up, and a forest of new signs has sprouted from the pavements. We also have missile launchers dotted around, and a dirty great battleship stationed on the Thames, just in case an Al-Qaeda operative who’s a particular fan of Jerome K. Jerome decides that a Three Men in a Boat-style attack is the way to go. At least we can take comfort in the knowledge that, should a plane be hijacked by terrorists, it can safely be shot out of the sky, killing all on board and showering those below with flaming debris. I am looking forward to finding out what Danny Boyle really has in store for the opening ceremony, though.

The problem with a blog is that, like keeping a diary, it’s harder to find time for it when you’re busy doing things about which it might subsequently be interesting to read. Consequently old journals are full of fascinating accounts of visits to the gym and coffee with the girls and it’s only when one ends abruptly with a sheaf of blank pages that I can tell life became more complicated. Which is my excuse for falling silent for the best part of a year. My aim is to try to write at least one post a month, so we’ll see how I do.

Mostly it’s been family commitments that have kept me away from my computer – elderly parents, teenage children, the usual – but I’ve also been teaching, and one job has led to another, until now I’m schlepping all over London, trying variously to help younger children unlock their creativity and older ones pass exams. I have been writing a bit, too: I signed up for NanNoWriMo, which for those of you who don’t already know is a scheme aimed primarily at people who need encouragement to finish a book. The idea is that you produce 50,000 words during November, which works out at 1,700 words per day. I managed this for the first few days, but only by staying up until 3 am, not something I wanted to sustain for a whole month, but I did manage to bring the total word count for my novel in progress to over 50,000 words. Then I met my former Goldsmiths tutor, Pam Johnson (see her excellent blog, Words Unlimited) at the launch of my friend Sara Grant’s novel, Dark Parties and she recommended doing what she’s doing with a group of writer friends: each sending the others 500 words a week. So that’s what I’m doing with my friend Emily. Nothing concentrates the writer’s mind like a deadline, and even I can’t find an excuse for not writing that amount.

I’ve been to a few plays – mostly at the National, because their £12 tickets are all we can afford nowadays: A Woman Killed by Kindness, One Man, Two Guvnors, Juno and the Paycock, but we did splash out for the Catherine Tate/David Tennant Much Ado and just before Christmas, finally got to see Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, which was well worth it, as Mark Rylance’s performance was just as dazzling as everyone had said it was. Not so sure about the other one, though: I enjoyed it, but although Tennant was good, Catherine Tate was mostly Catherine Tate – and sometimes Frankie Howerd. I don’t see any problem with star vehicles that draw in a wider audience, but if the point is to attract people who don’t normally go to the theatre, surely there should be some attempt to win them over to the unique qualities of a theatre experience, rather than serving them up more of what they’re used to? I should have liked to see Ralph Fiennes Prospero, but I would have needed to remortgage the house to afford tickets. The way things are going in the West End, it won’t be long before going to see a play is as expensive as going to the opera – which, I suppose, is why directors want people off the telly to attract the punters, who are more expensive to hire, and so it goes on…

Another cultural highlight of last summer was the chance to dress up in medieval costume and wander through the streets around Borough market handing out leaflets for a Poet in the City talk on Chaucer. Although the sleeves got in the way a bit, I soon forgot that I was wearing costume, so I was teken aback when some tourists asked to have their picture taken with me…

Anyone who knows me well will be relieved to learn that I wasn’t among those selected to carry the Olympic torch. My children thought it was hysterical that anyone might even consider putting a flaming object in my hand and sending me running through a built-up area, but luckily there were enough rather more worthy candidates to fill the places. At least now London is safe from conflagration.

Being nominated to carry the torch didn’t help us get any tickets, though, despite the fact that we live in an Olympic borough, so we’re just going to have to keep our heads down – or move away for the duration – while the Games are on.

World Book Night

So how was World Book Night for you? I had a lovely time at Forest Hill Library, taking part in a celebratory event which involved various writers reading and talking about our work, free copies of Fingersmith and Case Histories, good food and interesting wine. One of the things I liked about it was the mix: it wasn’t all about novelists, but poets, non-fiction writers, performance poets and story-tellers too.

When I first heard about Jamie Byng’s plans for a massive give-away of free books I wasn’t sure what to think, but as the day approached its merits became clearer. I fully understand the concerns of some independent booksellers that giving away books might be sending out the wrong message in the age of the free download, but I believe that anything that celebrates books and reading is a good thing. If you read a book that you’ve been given for free and you like it, you may well seek out other titles by the same author. You might borrow it from a library rather than buy it, but I don’t believe that having received the first book for free will influence that either way – if you’re someone who buys books, you’ll continue to buy them, and if you can’t afford to buy them or you don’t have room for them in your home, you’ll visit the library. I’ve done plenty of both in my time: when I was growing up my parents couldn’t afford a car or a phone, so we certainly didn’t have the money for books; as an unreconstructed bibliophile I now own thousands, even if they mostly come from charity shops. When I was young I was unemployed for a while and didn’t have enough money to do anything but visit the local library, go home and sit and read at least one novel a day. The right to free access to books is essential, and it shouldn’t be taken away by local authorities keen to save money by closing local libraries, claiming that there are others within the borough that people can just as easily use. Not everyone can drive and if you’re elderly, disabled, a young mother with a pushchair and more than one small child, or just too poor to be able to afford the bus fare, you may not be able to travel that extra couple of miles.

As I told the audience on Saturday night, I wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t found and agent, and I wouldn’t have found an agent if I hadn’t done an MA in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, and how did I find out about the course? I saw a flyer in my local library, a library that’s due to close down in a couple of months.

I didn’t attend the big event in Trafalgar Square the night before as I was at the National Theatre listening to Brian Cox (the Hadron Collider ex-pop star one, not the gruff Scottish actor) discuss the science of Frankenstein with biographer Richard Holmes. My daughter had made the rather uncharitable comment that she expected most of the audience would be middle-aged women with little genuine interest in science, but she was wrong: there were people of all ages and both sexes, although I couldn’t vouch for their scientific knowledge. It was interesting to learn about early experiments that used electricity to try to reanimate bodies, but in 45 minutes they could only touch briefly on science then and now. As someone who got a ‘C’ for Chemistry ‘O’ Level and didn’t even take Physics, I do feel that my scientific knowledge is poor, but when I watch Professor Cox’s tv programmes about the stars, fascinating though they are, they make my imagination hurt. I don’t understand how he manages to be so relentlessly perky when talking – as he did in the first episode of his new series – about a time when the stars will all go out and time itself will cease to have any meaning in a cold, dark universe where nothing happens. I would have finished this post a week ago, but after watching that, blogging seemed suddenly rather futile.

Well, it’s been a while. Christmas and all that snow seems like a distant memory. There were no dead rodents among the decorations this year, and the fact that we went to the in-laws’ on Christmas Day and I didn’t have to cook was a bonus for everyone. I finished reading Wolf Hall on Christmas Eve, and was relieved to have found it to be as good as everyone had said it was. If a book has had such a build up – and I’m reading it long after everyone else, and am therefore aware of the critical consensus – I worry about being disappointed. How does Mantel do it though? How does she manage to bring alive characters we already believe we know so well and breathe new life into a period of history that has been done to death in fiction and on screen? And sustain it for so long and yet manage to hold the reader’s interest? Five pages into the only Dan Brown I tried to read and I was rapidly losing the will to live, desperately flicking to the end to find out how much more of this I had to get through. Although I made two attempts, I didn’t get very far, and when a friend asked to borrow it I gave it to her and I’ve never seen it again, I’m glad to say, yet his books sell in far greater numbers than hers – how do publishers manage to market bad books so well?

I recently discovered that my novel is now available on Kindle, which came as a surprise – although I don’t know why, as I suppose most novels still currently in print will be. Given my dismay at the thought of electronic readers replacing my beloved books I was initially less than pleased; then I thought about royalties, and cheered up.

Twice over Christmas I was at a party when someone came along and informed the person I was talking to that I was a writer. One minute we were two people having an inconsequential chat, the next I felt as if I were expected to say something clever or witty – to perform in some way. Although I’m always pleasantly surprised when someone finds scribbling for a living impressive, I’m also aware that I let down the side somewhat. I could pretend to do something else, but then there are few professions that I could discuss convincingly. My friend Alastair works for what used to be the London Rubber Company, manufacturer of condoms, and he had a girlfriend who was employed by a company that made sanitary towels. Whenever someone at a party asked them what they did it killed the conversation stone dead, so maybe I should just pretend to be a rubber technologist, like him, and no-one will ask me quastions about what I do.

So Waterstones is to close 20 of its stores. Like a lot of people, I have mixed feelings about its monopoly in the high street, but as so many independent bookshops have been forced out of business it provides the only place that many of us can go and physically browse through books. I’m still reeling from my attempt to buy Phillip Pullman’s Four Tales in Smith’s in Lewisham. After searching in every likely place without success, I went to the enquiry desk, where I was asked to spell the name. The young man behind the counter didn’t seem in the least perturbed by the fact that he hadn’t heard of Pullman, nor that he couldn’t tell me whether they had the book. He called over the manager and another member of staff, who led me in a little procession around the shelves, the manager holding aloft the device that was supposed to tell him whether an item was in stock as he tried to get find a signal, until I lost patience and said I’d get it from Amazon – which I duly did, sitting ay my desk at midnight…

I shall be taking part in an event at Forest Hill Library to celebrate World Book Night on 5th March, so if anyone’s in the vicinity, come along and join us. It will be from 4.30 to 8pm, I believe, but I’ll post the details when I know more.

I’ve finally returned from planet UCAS. In the past few months I’ve accompanied my daughter on a grand tour of English and Scottish universities and undergone a crash course in the art of selling yourself in 4,000 characters (including spaces) or 27 lines, whichever is the shorter. Her choices were whittled down to 5 and, after a final marathon session that lasted until 2.30am, the personal statement was edited to fit the word count and the application form was submitted. It’s a relief to get it out of the way, and she’s already received an offer, but it seems wrong that the whole process should be so much more complicated than it was in my day. I know there are a lot more students and a lot more universities than there used to be, but isn’t technology supposed to make life easier?

We had been prepared for her to take a gap year if she wasn’t happy with any of her offers, or simply didn’t feel ready, but with the planned increase in fees that seems unlikely, as we’d like to see at least one child settled in higher education before the cost doubles. She’s intending to join Wednesday’s protest, which pleases me, as it shows that she’s inherited my bolshie gene – and not just the complete lack of spatial ability and failure to grasp the concept of linear time.

As a result of the above I haven’t been writing much in recent months, but I did manage to produce a new short story for the Bridport. It was short-listed, which made me very happy. It may seem pathetic to be excited about not winning a prize, but I’d been wondering whether I’d lost the ability to write, so it was gratifying to receive some validation. Fired with enthusiasm I wrote another one for the Sunday Times short story award. I was pleased with it, but as this is a competition that’s only open to published writers and last year the long list read like a who’s who of the great and the good of contemporary fiction in English, my chances could best be described as slim. I probably didn’t help matters by deciding to deliver my entry by hand to the Book Trust and bursting in through what turned out to be the back door, to find myself at the top of the basement stairs looking down at three bemused women who had buzzed me in on the assumption that I was a courier, and not a somewhat dishevelled middle-aged author.

Now that’s out of the way I should be trying to make some progress with the next novel before Christmas madness envelops us; instead I’ve been having a clear out and sorting old toys and books to donate to school fairs. I’ve also finally started Wolf Hall, and with the amount of time I have to read it will probably take me until Christmas to finish it. As much of my reading is done on public transport, I’m beginning to see why most people favour paperbacks: it takes up so much space in my bag that I sometimes decide to leave it behind and buy a paper instead.

This is one of the reasons that my friend Sara has acquired a Kindle, something that provoked a great deal of debate in our writers’ group. Although she has no intention of giving up on bound books – and indeed had a beautifully illustrated paperback with her when we met – she intends to use it when she travels and needs to take several books with her. Rationally, I can see the wisdom of this, but my attachment to books is so great that I’d even miss the ritual of trying to stuff as many as I can down the sides of suitcases – not to mention opening a volume and finding that the pages have been distorted by water and there are still grains of sand lodged in the spine, reminding me of first reading them on a beach or beside a pool. Of course it would make life a whole lot easier if the thousands of books we possess as a family could be captured in one small electronic device – but then they wouldn’t be captured, would they? The words would be there, but not the cover illustrations, the stains on the pages, the notes scribbled in the margins, the old bus tickets used as bookmarks.

One of my greatest pleasures is searching the shelves of charity shops for bargains (I know some writers think there should be some kind of royalty payment for the resale of books, but I don’t understand the logic of that), and I like to lend out books, which isn’t yet possible with the electronic versions. Most of all, though, it’s the sense of ownership that’s lacking: it’s not my precious unless I can turn the volume over in my hands and fan its pages. Once when I was going on holiday I hid my building society pass-book on the shelves; being heavily pregnant, by the time I returned I’d forgotten which book it was in and had to request a new one. 7 years later, following a conversation with a pregnant friend who had concealed and then lost some cash in the same way, I went back home, took down a volume, and there was the pass-book. What had I used as a hiding place? Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. Now you couldn’t do that with a Kindle.

Finally got to see Enron on the last day, and was glad I did. I’d mentally filed it in that category of things I ought to see rather than want to see, so I didn’t make any effort to book tickets and would have missed it if my partner hadn’t noticed it was about to end. I made the mistake of reading the glossary in the programme and was lost before I got half way down the page, but the play itself was easier to understand: I find the world of high finance more comprehensible when its machinations are acted out by people wearing dinosaur heads with glowing eyes and Lehmann Brothers is represented by two men in a single raincoat. The musical interludes helped, too, although I went away with the uneasy feeling that perhaps all financial institutions are built on air. These people can say anything, because the majority of us don’t understand a word – and maybe they don’t either. I’d advocate returning to a barter system, except who’s going to want to exchange anything of value for a story?

We spent a week in Amsterdam and loved it. I’d been worried that the children might be bored by a city holiday, but there was a room in the hotel with free internet access, so at least my daughter got her Facebook fix every day. My son wasn’t wildly impressed at being dragged to the Van Gogh, Frans Hals and the Rijksmuseum, but he went, even if he did spend most of the time sitting on benches looking dejected and wishing someone would adopt him.

As we normally stay in the kind of places where we have to sleep on put-you-up beds speckled with stains that would set a CSI’s pulses racing, I insisted on chosing the hotel this time. The one I went for has been converted from the offices of a shipping company and was the first building of the ‘Amsterdam School’. It was built in the shape of the prow of a ship and the marble floors and oak doors have been left intact. The counter with windows where people would have bought tickets or paid for goods to be shipped is still on the second floor and the rooms contain cupboards and shelves that would once have contained files and papers. The wraiths of long-gone office workers seem to cross your path wherever you go. The pool was good too, as was the free minibar. Our suitcases must have been twice as heavy on the way home, thanks to all the miniatures we’d smuggled out. We were close to the station and in the heart of the Red Light district, so my son saw most of the vicinity through a lattice of my fingers. On reflection, perhaps he didn’t have as good a time as the rest of us.

I downloaded my photos when I got home and was trawling through them, marvelling at the way digital technology allows someone as clueless as me to reposition, resize, sharpen and otherwise tweak my pictures before printing them, when I suffered a pang of nostalgia for the days when you had to take your film to the chemist and wait at least 24 hours before collecting your fat envelope of snaps. The excitement of looking at them and recalling the moments they captured is a thing of the past now that every picture we take can be viewed instantly and deleted if found wanting. We can edit our lives as we go, leaving only the best bits. Photographs that reveal secrets are a rich source of material for writers – Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a whole novel based on the consequences of a man’s discovery of a photo of his late wife in which she is holding hands with someone other than himself; that would be less credible today, when the photographer, seeing what he’d captured, would be able to censor it with the click of a button and the offending picture would be gone, along with the premise for the book…

Then I came to a couple of pictures that appeared to show a blancmange-like expanse with a smear of red in one corner. The next photo brought it all rushing back: my partner had cut himself on a cracked toilet seat in the hotel and, being a lawyer, had asked me to photograph his injured buttock just in case he developed something unpleasant as a result (don’t you wish you had my life?). Instantly I was grateful that I didn’t have to face a chemist who’d developed that particular set of pictures.

Watched Review with particular interest on Friday, as it was devoted to the future of the novel – will it continue in its present physical form or be replaced by e-readers and will it continue in its present fictional form or assimilate more aspects of ‘non-fiction’, using real people and events? Naturally enough the assembled writers thought there was plenty of life left in the novel as we know it now, although they did suggest, depressingly, that it’s becoming harder to pitch ‘quiet’ novels, as publishers believe readers want dramatic plots. It’s particularly depressing for me, as my next novel, should it ever see the light of day, is likely to be so quiet that it’s almost inaudible. I’d only read one of the books from the Booker long list that were discussed in the context of novels based on actual events, and that was Emma Donoghue’s Room, partly informed by the Fritzl case. The notion that a book could be life-affirming when its narrator is a 5 year-old boy who was born in captivity and believes that the only person in the world apart from him and his mother is their captor – who the reader knows has fathered him as a result of raping his mother – might seem unlikely, but Jack is such an engaging character, and Donoghue navigates so skilfully around the pitfalls of sensationalism and sentimentality that it works. We can all think of novels whose critical acclaim seems based more on their subject matter than the quality of the writing, and I firmly believe that a writer has to earn her subject matter; I think Donoghue does.

My daughter is writing an essay on Jane Eyre, and to get her into the mood she read it aloud to me. I’d forgotten quite how independent-minded Jane is, and how many of her sentiments about not wanting to be beholden to a man for money or status, if couched in slightly different vocabulary, wouldn’t sound out of place if voiced by the protagonist of a modern novel. Then I remembered chick lit, and wondered where it all went wrong…

P.S. My son has just asked me what an onanist is. This has nothing to do with our visit to Amsterdam; it’s what happens when you let your child read books by Jeremy Clarkson.