I had a wonderful time at the Firestation book swap in Windsor last week. All I had to do was sit on a sofa, talking, drinking tea and eating cake, and those are three things I’m really quite good at. I didn’t even have to talk that much about my novel – which was a relief, seeing as I’ve forgotten so much about it. The questions submitted by the audience were about such matters as where you’d like to live (Paris, obviously) or whether you prefer milk or dark chocolate (dark, in my case). The evening flew by and I swapped my book – Jed Mercurio’s American Adulterer for something called A Kind of Vanishing by Lesley Thomson. I don’t know anything about it, but I intend to read it, unlike the 4-in-1 Readers’ Digest thing I was lumbered with last time.

I stayed overnight with my oldest friend, in her massive house. Her children are always either away at boarding school or travelling somewhere exotic and her husband is a floral designer who has to go to bed very early so he can get up at an ungodly hour and get his flowers, so there never seems to be anyone else around when I’m there. Being accustomed to living in quite a small space with my own family, in London, rather than the countryside, I find the quiet unsettling, and I can’t get used to being able to use the bathroom without having to queue. Then when I went downstairs in the morning there was a strange man in the garden. I hope he was the gardener. The French au pair drove me to the station, and in Waterloo I actually saw a copy of my book on the shelf, which made my day, sad creature that I am.


Ripeness is all…

I’ve just run the Race for Life, although here the word ‘run’ is employed loosely to mean ‘walked with a little light jogging’. I firmly believe that humans should only run towards things they need to catch – buses, trains, escaping small children – and away from things they’re trying to evade – bears, tigers, etc, and given the shortage of feral beasts in South London I usually run only because I use public transport a lot. My sister, however, is a club runner (she also loves football and doesn’t drink – so you can see how well the genes were distributed in our family), and to stop her despairing completely I take part in one race per year, and that one is here on the Heath, so it’s only a 15 minute stroll to the starting line. I know Murakami has written a book about running, but on the whole I don’t think many writers are cut out for sport.

As I’ve been visiting universities with my daughter I’ve had to suspend the process of phoning round independent bookshops to ask them to stock my book. Although I don’t enjoy repeating the same spiel over and over again, it has been good to speak to people who seem genuinely to like novelists. This is by no means as common as you might suppose in the world of publishing, where the writer often seems to be regarded as a necessary evil. The independent booksellers have all been very polite, have nearly all agreed either to order a copy of the book or at least to look at it, and a couple have suggested I might come and do a reading. A few even had it on their shelves already, in which case I tried not to sound either surprised or pathetically grateful.

The university visits have been a revelation. Much has changed since I was an undergraduate: in Edinburgh we booked into student accommodation rather than a hotel and I thought we’d be roughing it, but in fact it was by far the swankiest place we stayed in. Breakfast was an all-you-can-eat buffet at the end of which you put your trays on a conveyor belt and watched them disappear into the kitchen. In my old university the shop where I used to buy my vodka and Gauloises (they probably did sell some foodstuffs too, I don’t remember) has been replaced by a supermarket that stocks sushi mats. Set against the improved facilities is the sad fact that in most places the tutorial, where 1 or 2 students would present their essays to a tutor each week, has disappeared, and the smallest group of students taught together at any one time is 5 or 6. The relationships people of my generation and earlier often had with their teachers is probably a thing of the past. I remained friends with one of my tutors until the day he died, and although I realised at the time it was a privilege, I didn’t know it was something my children wouldn’t have the chance to experience.

Speaking of children: I ran a workshop on Saturday in the Ideas Store, Whitechapel (for those of you who don’t know, that’s what they call the public library) Given the heat, and the fact that Wimbledon was still on, I doubted that anyone would turn up, but three people did. There was quite an age range – from 6 to early teens – but they all got stuck in. We did a brief warm-up exercise and then began our fantasy stories, but even though I tried to move it along, it became obvious that 2 hours isn’t enough to produce a finished story, and they were just getting to the exciting bit when we had to finish. I’m doing it again next Saturday, in Bethnal Green this time, so I may have to have a rethink before then. It’s asking a lot, though, to complete a piece of work in one session, and I doubt many adults could manage it.

To finish, I’d just like to say God bless Philip Hensher, for his comments about the New Yorker list of young novelists and its possible unfairness to women writers who start late due to family commitments. It’s good to know that someone other than the women themselves has noticed that the baby at the breast is even more of a distraction from work that the pram in the hall. When he added that ‘Novel writing isn’t necessarily something that young people are very good at’ and said that he regretted publishing his first novel at 29 he made at least one old lady very happy.

I’ve just spent a day being trained in using the web to market myself and I came home full of enthusiasm and ideas. I was going to create a link from my blog to the paperback edition of my book on Amazon, do all sorts of wonderful things to improve the site, maybe even dip my toe in the waters of Twitter… My son chose the exact moment I sat down in front of the computer to announce that he had to do his home work, and he had to do it right then, and he had to print something, and the ink cartridge needed changing, a task so complex that of course no other member of the family but me can perform it. By the time I got a chance to attempt to put some of what I’d learnt into practice it was gone 10 and, given my memory span, it was already far too late.

The Internet is a double-edged sword for people like me – too old to have grown-up with computers, but too young to be able to ignore their potential benefits. One of my friends has just got married for the second time, having met her husband via an on-line dating service, for instance. Not that I’m in the market for a new husband, but I would like to be able to promote myself by ‘increasing my on-line presence’. Instead I sit here, like Tantalus, aware of all the wonderful stuff just beyond my reach.

I’m trying more old-fashioned methods of publicising my book, too. Evie Wyld – whose novel After the Fire, a Still Small Voice is now out in paperback, so buy it, if you haven’t already – kindly provided me with a link to a web site that promotes independent bookshops. Evie works in one of these – Review, in Peckham – and took copies of her book around to as many as she could when it was first published. Being much older and lazier, I’m using the phone. At first I was pleasantly surprised to see how many independents were still around; then it dawned on me how much work was involved in contacting them all. I have to say that everyone I’ve spoken to has been extremely friendly, even though nine times out of ten the person who can make purchasing decisions isn’t there – and you can tell how many are small business, as the person minding the shop is often a friend of the owner. Still, several said they’d order a copy or two, some already had it in stock (how hard I tried not to sound taken aback), one was in a frightful tizzy because Brian May was due to arrive in an hour to do a signing (how unfair is that – he’s already a rock legend and an astrophysicist, why does he need to write books as well?) and one even offered me a chance to do a reading.

Of course, apart from the amount of time it takes, the phone bill will be huge, and when the husband sees it I might need that on-line dating service after all. Perhaps I could kill two birds by looking for a man with advanced IT skills…

Well, thanks to the volcano, the London Book Fair was a quiet affair; the focus was South Africa this year and of the 47 South African writers who were due to come over, only 12 made it. This left the British authors who’d been buddied up with them having to attend various functions alone, like white mice that have been turned into coachmen only to find Cinderella hasn’t shown up.

Still, someone had to drink all that free alcohol, and I met some interesting people: journalists from South Africa and Sweden, publishers from Canada and the US and a British crime novelist. There was talk of making South Africa the focus of next year’s Fair, but it’s supposed to be Russia’s turn…

My agency was celebrating its tenth birthday and held a party. As usual it was full of unreasonably glamorous people. I really do think there should be some kind of regulation to prevent lovely young publishing assistants standing too close to shabby old authors at events like these. Never mind all these e-book readers – why doesn’t Steve Jobs put his mind to inventing an app to deal with this situation? As soon as one of the L.Y.P.As bore down on a middle-aged female author (and some male authors too, although for different reasons) it would throw up an invisible force-field that would cause her air-kiss to bounce harmlessly off and the dusty scribe would be left to grow morbidly drunk in peace.

On this occasion I gave up trying to make conversation over the relentless boom of the music and slumped at a table where I was joined by a gentleman from New York. I experienced a brief Woody Allen moment as I talked to him, entirely failing to realise that he was an eminent publisher. My agent is on the move again, setting up on his own this time, and I’ll miss the Conville and Walsh parties…

Went to the launch of my friend Jocelyn Page’s poetry collection, Smithereens, which is published by tall-lighthouse. Poetry readings are different from other literary events – there are few, if any, Lovely Young Publishing Assistants, for one thing – and everyone seems to be there because they genuinely love poetry. Perhaps this is because there is even less money to be made from it than from other forms of writing, but, perched on a stool in the basement of Oliver’s Bar in Greenwich, it felt to me as if the atmosphere would have been the same – apart from the cigarette smoke – if we were transported back 40 years to a reading in a cafe in Paris or New York. The same could not be said for most book launches.

I admire poets more than writers in any other form as I think it’s by far the hardest, both in terms of difficulty of execution and the way the poet is exposed to the audience, usually without characters to hide behind. I can’t understand why so many people imagine poetry is easy just becaue it’s short – I certainly can’t do it.

Paperback writer

Just received some copies of the Large Print edition of Wilbur, so now I’ll still be able to read it when my eyes go, and – best of all – it has a handy wipe-clean cover, for those tricky spillages.

It will be published in paperback next month, and the cover is being finalised at the moment. Having considered a number of designs we’ve come back to something very similar to the one used for the hardback, but in a different colour. In my daydreams about publishing my first novel I didn’t give much thought to the significance of the cover, and now I don’t feel well-qualified to make any decisions about it. If ever I go into a bookshop to buy something I’ll be armed with recommendations from friends and half-remembered reviews from the Saturday Guardian; I don’t browse in the hope of finding something that catches my eye, so I’m ill-equipped to judge which colour would appeal to the widest possible demographic.

Having vetoed a couple of new designs, one on the grounds that it looked good, but didn’t give the potential reader any idea what the book was about and the other because it would have been actively misleading, I’m beginning to wonder whether I shouldn’t just leave it to the publisher to make the decisions…

I’ve finished working on the Encompass project with Spread the Word and miss working with my partners, the writers’ group at Greenwich Association of Disabled People. It snowed on the day of our first meeting and few people could make it to every session, but the work produced was excellent and we printed a small anthology.

Some of the contributors had very little confidence in their ability to write creatively, never having received encouragement, and many were inhibited by their spelling. I made a cardboard effigy of Dr Johnson with a cross through him to sit on the table and explained about his dictionary and how spelling wasn’t always standardised. He kept falling over in protest, but I wanted everyone to write what they felt without having to worry about doing it perfectly. By the end of the project everyone had produced at least one piece that they were happy with.

The aim of Encompass was to get people writing while providing existing writers with training that should help them earn enough money to support their writing habit, but when the project coordinator called me today I was at the checkout in Sainsbury’s, rather than at my desk. She was phoning to ask how many hours of paid work I was currently engaged in per week, and the answer was none. Then she asked me how many hours per week I was writing…

My new distraction is the buddy scheme I’m involved in during the London Book Fair: the British Council asked for volunteers to pair up with visiting South African writers and I put myself forward, not seriously considering that they might actually require me to do anything. I’ve always been the first person in a seminar group to give a paper, despite knowing full well that the first one is always the worst and that all the other members of the group will learn by your mistakes, and I was the first Encompass writer to begin her workshops – before we completed the training, so I still haven’t learnt. I’m the Corporal Jones in any gathering, only slightly less belligerent – and without the bayonet, obviously.

Not that I’m unhappy about it – I think it’s exciting – it’s just that I’m worried that my poor buddy will be expecting a proper writer, and all she’ll get is me. I’m not sure when you qualify to call yourself that – if ever – but I don’t feel I’m there yet.

ipad, therefore I am?

Paying my first self-assessed tax bill was really satisfying. That may sound perverse, but I’m happy for two reasons: they sent me an invoice, which suggests they trust me and my return didn’t warrant an investigation; and the fact that I have something to pay means that I made enough money from writing to be taxed on my earnings, which is an achievement of sorts. I could probably have thought more carefully about my expenses claims and avoided paying anything, but taxes are necessary in any society that aims to care for all its members. I’ve received many years of education courtesy of the state and my life has been saved twice by the NHS, so I can hardly complain.

I’ve been trying to take an interest in the launch of the ipad and the potential impact of the various ebook readers on the publishing industry, but I’m struggling. The idea of reading an entire novel in electronic format is unthinkable to me; why would anyone want to forgo the pleasure of turning pages, smoothing them down and – I freely admit – sniffing them? Reading a book is a sensuous experience in a way that staring at a screen could never be. Of course it makes your luggage lighter; of course I could probably double the amount of space in my house if I got rid of all the bookshelves and bookcases, but what would I lose? Some of the books I own date back to the eighteenth century – just think of the years they have come down, the number of hands they have passed through to get to me, the rooms they have sat in, the people who have read them.

I have a first edition of A Room of One’s Own that I like to think Virginia Woolf herself might have handled as it came off the press. I have books emblazoned with my school crest that were given as prizes, I still have my Anglo-Saxon primer, even though I’m unlikely ever to open it again and the only thing I learned from it the first time round was how to say the rather less-than-useful ‘The King went to Reading’.

Often when I take a book down from a shelf and read a forgotten inscription from a friend or a former lover I experience a little jolt of memory that tugs me back to the time and the place I received it. Sometimes a membrane-thin fragment will flutter to the floor, the remains of an inexpertly-preserved pressed flower, and I’ll become for a moment the girl who thought it important to send messages like these to her future self. How can a Kindle match that? My books are the first thing I box up when I’m moving house, the first thing I unpack in a new home; they make me feel safe. My books are a map of my life, and I could never replace them with a mere machine.

Congratulations to Evie Wyld, whose novel, After the Fire a Still Small Voice just won the John Llewelyn Rhys Prize. Evie and I recently did a reading together at Goldsmiths, where we discovered that both our novels feature characters who get through life with the help of a lucky vegetable – what are the chances?

I visited a book group in Oxford a couple of weeks ago, which involved being bought dinner and talking to the members, who all work at the university. One is the grandaughter of Malcolm Saville, who wrote the Lone Pinebooks. I enjoyed reading them as a child (much better than Enid Blyton) but they were out of print by the time I had my own children, something that’s now being rectified. Malcolm Saville wrote around 70 books, keeping his day job in publishing going at the same time. This makes me feel small.

I had a great time and am beginning to understand those writers who seem to spend more time talking about writing than actually doing it; it’s a great deal easier, often involves wine, and sometimes even free dinners.

I also went down to Windsor to attend a Firestation Bookswap. These are monthly events organised by Scott Pack and novelist Marie Phillips and they involve two writers sitting on a sofa, drinking tea and eating cake while answering questions about anything but their books. Anyone who bakes and brings along some cake gets in free and everyone brings a book which they must pitch to the rest of the audience, with a view to swapping it for something they like better.

Being a generally disorganised person, I’d grabbed the first book that came to hand, which happened to be Penelope Lively’s The Photograph. Unfortunately, Scott decided to pitch it for me and noticed that it had been a free gift with a women’s magazine. I made things worse by saying that I’d bought it secondhand, as he then revealed to the audience that I’d paid 50p for it. Unsurprisngly, there was only one person prepared to take it off my hands, and she was offering a Readers’ Digest compilation of 4 books in 1, none of which appealed to me. I accepted it, but didn’t manage to pass it on, so I had to carry it back to London with me (it weighed considerably more than the slight paperback I’d brought with me) and donate it to the secondhand book stall at my son’s school fair.

If you live near Windsor, or are visiting, I’d recommend going along to a Bookswap event – but choose your book carefully, or you’ll be saddled with something in exchange that you’ll never read.

I’m in a state of denial about Christmas, despite the Christmas tree that looms beside me as I type. The washing machine is broken and I found a dead mouse in the box of Christmas decorations I retrieved from a cupboard, none of which puts me in the mood for entertaining. Walking around Waterstones in Bluewater at the weekend didn’t help, either; normally I’d be pleased that they had a copy of my book in stock, but seeing piles and piles of celebrity memoirs and Jamie Oliver cookbooks just made me feel grouchy. Still, it’s going to happen no matter what, so Merry Christmas everybody!

This is usually one of my favourite times of the year: autumn leaves to kick through, the smell of bonfire smoke, fireworks… I like Hallowe’en, too: much less stressful than Christmas with its big build up, flurry of food production and legacy of disappointment and indigestion.

When the children were younger I enjoyed decorating the house with stick-on bats, toy spiders and fake cobwebs (which blend in perfectly with the real ones habitually adorning my home). A few luridly-decorated treats, some spooky sound effects and a bath full of apples to duck for and everyone’s happy. When you bear more than a passing resemblance to a vampire in everyday life you don’t need an elaborate costume, either: just a trickle of Kensington gore from the corner of your mouth and you’re done. If you want a change, just stick on a pointy hat.

This year we travelled back from a rather damp week in the Lakes on Hallowe’en, so we didn’t have a party and didn’t even hollow out any pumpkins, which is probably my favourite part, just as being forced to eat whatever I concoct from the pumpkin flesh is my children’s least favourite. And as it’s continued to be damp I haven’t been able to sweep up the leaves, one of those tasks which I hate the thought of but actually find quite satisfying.

Just before we went away I learnt that I’d got a place on Encompass, a project run by Spread the Word, an agency that helps London writers to develop their careers. The aim is to recruit 12 writers from the London boroughs identified as having the poorest take-up of the arts and train us to run community workshops in creative writing. This will go on until February, when the workshops will take place, and then there’ll be a celebratory event in March. All very exciting, and its brought me into contact with a whole new group of writers, many of them poets. We won’t be working together but we’ll train together, and I’m looking forward to it.

I’m hoping that having a structured timetable to work to will make me do more of my own writing, because at the moment I’m not achieving much. There are too many other demands on my time, and although it may sound perverse to add to them, having to fit my work around a lot of other things often forces me to be more productive out of sheer desperation. Here’s hoping…

Taxing Questions

I’ve just completed my first self-assessment tax return, and as I wanted to use the short form I had to submit it by the 31st October. With my usual failure to grasp the concept of linear time I hadn’t realised that was quite so soon, and that, as we’re away next week and the postmen are on strike, I’d have to hand the form in at my local tax office if I wanted to meet the deadline.

When I got there though, instead of a reception area, I found myself in a room with a row of booths, rather like study carrels, on either side, and a man standing like an invigilator at the back. He said he could take my form, and no, they don’t give receipts anymore, and I gave it to him and left. As soon as I was outside I began to wonder whether I’d been a little too trusting: what if he was just a strange and twisted individual who derived pleasure from pretending to work for the Inland Revenue and destroying the tax returns of people dim enough to hand them over without asking for some form of ID?

Nothing like that came up in the PEN talk on tax a couple of weeks ago – at least not after I arrived, late, via the men’s toilets so that I could sneak in at the back. The speaker was Barry Kernon of HW Fisher, who specialises in advising writers on tax matters. The trouble is, however patiently someone like him explains things, I immediately switch off, even though I’m terrified of a making an innocent mistake and being caught out.

As an antidote to thinking about tax, I went on from the PEN talk to speak to my friend Ashley’s book group. As soon as I arrived I was given a glass of wine and some lovely food and passed a very pleasant evening discussing my book. Most of the people there were, like Ashley, American by birth, and none of them took me to task for having the nerve to attempt to write in a vernacular other than my own – although maybe they were just too polite to mention it.

Well that wasn’t too bad: I gave my first-ever talk to people who’d paid to be there and nobody heckled, threw anything, walked out before the end or even – as far as I could see – fell asleep. It felt quite strange to be sitting on a stage, looking at rows of my friends and their friends, all smiling at me encouragingly, but it went surprisingly quickly, and plenty of people had questions to ask.

Clearly one of the advantages of publishing your first book when you’re knocking on a bit is that you know plenty of people who might buy it. It may be the only advantage, but it’s better than nothing. It means that instead of listening to you talking endlessly about the book you want to publish, your friends get to hear you talking repetitively about the book you’ve finally published, but at least it makes decisions about Christmas presents a bit easier for them this year.

The questions did make me realise that it’s quite a while since I finished the book, and as I have an memory span that would make a goldfish proud there’s a fair chance I may not be able remember enough about what I wrote to give sensible answers. It made me slightly sad to think that I’ll never again live with those characters who occupied so much of my thoughts for so many years; not sad enough to reread the book, though.

Now I’ve got that out of the way, talking to a friend’s book group this evening should be a piece of cake. Unfortunately I have to go to a talk organised by PEN on taxation first, as I’m beginning to panic about my first tax return. I’m hoping that all my questions will be answered, but I doubt it’s that simple. A tax return provides an excellent excuse for not writing because completing it is compulsory, and I’m sure I’ll be able to spin it out for a while yet…