Thursday, December 29, 2011

Christmas under construction

Building works, complicated by the strange lay-out of our house, have been going on around us since late November. With noise and dirt and endless consultations with my Albanian builders, plumbers and electricians, this has not been a very productive time work-wise. Still, at least the roof is now finished, finally freeing us from the nightly dread of indoor rain, in spite of the fact that there are now holes of various sizes all over the building (several of which I found myself forlornly plugging with old champagne corks...)

With luck things should have returned to normal by the end of January, and then I'll be able to get back to writing and research. In the meantime it is nice to receive updates on the progress of other work-related projects, even if I'm not actually involved in the creating. In that vein, I just received this short video taken at technical rehearsals in Rotterdam for the one-woman drama based on The Einstein Girl. Apparently the music, which I rather like, is used in the show.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Two views of The Valley

Hot from the design department at Vintage Books, comes some new concept artwork for The Valley of Unknowing. It makes for quite a contrast from the previous attempt (see below), and I've given it the thumbs up.Something like this will go on the bound proofs, and doubtless there will be more tweaks before the final version appears on the first edition.

I don't think the designers had an easy time with this one. 1980s East Germany was a place of many arresting images, but the fashions were atrocious and the backdrops either soulless or decaying. I like to think The Valley of Unknowing is quite a vibrant story (love, sex, death and plumbing - all play a part), and that's hard to convey in such an apparently gloomy setting. I sent over a disk crammed with 'inspirational' images, but I was never confident they would help. All-in-all, I think this is a good solution: the general feel of the image strikes me as Middle European (or at least European), and there is plenty of blood pumping through the deep red of the title.

As for the shout line, that too is up-for-grabs. In the end, we may not use one, relying instead on a past review or an endorsement. That would be my preference, because it would effectively kill two birds with one stone.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

An (almost) exclusive preview...

This is the first cut of the video trailer for The Valley of Unknowing. The cover shown at the end is not the one Harvill Secker are actually planning to use. So we'll put the final artwork in as soon as it's ready. That aside, this is pretty much the finished product, bar the odd bit of enhancing and tweaking on some of the stills.

This video took very little time to make, unlike the last one. I am getting quite adept at splicing music, and this time there was no live footage to shoot.The edit was done on an Apple Mac using iMovie software - which, I have to say, is far from ideal, being a "time-based" system, rather than a "linear" one (like Final Cut or Adobe's Premier). This really makes a difference when you're trying to cut precisely to music. On the other hand iMovie has some very nice bells and whistles, exports with ease, and usually comes free with the computer, as opposed to costing hundreds of pounds. So you can't really complain.

By the way, if you happen to be in Germany, you may have to download this video from the TrailerSpy web site. The download takes slightly longer, but at least there are no annoying pop-up ads to contend with.

PS - I owe a big thank you to Derya, our multi-talented German au pair, who supplied the computer and the skills to work it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Einstein Girl incarnate

Starting on November 25th a one-woman play based on The Einstein Girl (or to be more precise Het Einstein Meisje, its Dutch incarnation) begins touring around the Netherlands, starting in Maastricht. The show is written and performed by an up-and-coming Dutch actress called Annemarie Hagenaars (see above and below), and directed by Sylvia Weening.

I haven’t seen the show, but there is talk of having it translated into English for performance in the UK and beyond. I hope that happens, because the video trailer on her web site looks intriguing ( Apparently Ms Hagenaars travelled to Berlin to research the role, and sought out many of the locations in the story. It’s wonderful to see such enthusiasm, and I hope her show is a great success.

In any event, I can say that Annemarie represents the first living embodiment of The Einstein Girl’s eponymous heroine, even if she does not turn out to be the last.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Usedom remembered

Following the warm reception of 'Das Einstein-Mädchenin Germany, I was recently asked to write a short piece about holidaying in that country for a touristic web site called Germany is Wunderbar. I decided, in the public interest, to recount an unexpected encounter with German naturism - which occurred during a rainstorm on the attractive island of Usedom on the Baltic coast. Click on the link below to read how it happened and what I was doing there. Rest assured there are no photographs. Any visions of dangling will be in your mind alone.

Actually, for an unusual holiday tip, it's not bad. (The island, I mean, not the naturism). The proof of that particular pudding is that a few years later I went back (to the island, I mean, etc...).

Friday, September 30, 2011

And now a little music making...

... which demonstrates that there is indeed more than one way to skin the proverbial cat.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Diamond clarity

Recently astronomers in Australia captured the world's imagination with the discovery of a planet that appears to be made of diamond. Luckily for De Beers and the diamond cartel, it's rather a long way away. And so far, nobody's managed to polish it.
In the attached article one of those astronomers reflects on his happy experience, and how different it would have been if he were working (using precisely the same methods) in the rather more consequential field of climate science.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Clean air act

Some pictures from last month's trip to the uplands. If you can work out where this is, give yourself a pat on the back. The region is not as well known as you might expect. Yes, that's me and Leo in the rowing boat. (Click on photos to enlarge).

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reality check

For the last 15 years, Big Oil and King Coal have been working overtime to stifle and obscure the implacable truth about climate change. They have endless resources of money, and plenty of people in politics and the mass media (even three or four scientists) willing to take it, provided they tow the carbon lobby line. They have cash and influence, but the one thing that's against them is this: reality.
Next month there's a rare opportunity to get the full, clear unvarnished truth about what we face, and when. The good news: climate change can be slowed, and eventually halted. It is not too late. The bad news: time is running out. Fast.

Wherever you are, whatever your age: watch the video, spread the word, donate your Facebook and Twitter accounts for the event, and get involved. Because, unfortunately for all of us, this matters.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Mozart's Last Aria

Matt Rees is one of the most stylish crime writers around at the moment, and his latest novel has just been published in the UK (the US edition will be out in November). In the past, Matt's work has all been set in the contemporary Middle East, where he lives. This time he's taken a journey back to 18th century Vienna and to the mystery surrounding the death of Mozart. (If you think Salieri did it, think again.) Where many historical novelists are concerned, this would be a cue for endless descriptions of fashion or lots of painfully anachronistic dialogue: the kind that always reminds me of a bad school play. Fortunately Matt is of the hard-boiled school of writing: he does his research, and makes every word count. So that's my summer holiday reading sorted.

Here's the rather gorgeous trailer...

And here's the long version. Wonderful  music .... but then, it is Mozart!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Einstein girl in Poland

The Polish translation of The Einstein Girl was published last month, with this rather elegant (and historically authentic) cover. The title in Polish is actually The Einstein Case, because to translate the original title word-for-word produces something indistinguishable from Einstein’s Girlfriend – which is definitely not what was intended. My polish publishers, Książnice, originally suggested Einstein’s Daughter, but for me that was too on-the-nose – as well as being the title of a non-fiction book published a few years ago in America.

In terms of the number of titles published, Poland has been my most faithful market to date. In all, seven out of eight of my books have been published there. That’s more even than the UK. Perhaps there is some faint Slavic strain running through my prose ... or maybe that's just the luck of the draw!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Should maths be taught in our schools?

It's about time this thorny issue was properly and openly debated, just as it is here. The egg-heads in their ivory towers have had us in their thrall for too long...

Now watch the real thing... Can you spot the difference?

The contest was won by Miss California, a self-confessed 'science geek'. So there is hope.

Monday, June 27, 2011

When brains freeze over...

If you thought the video I posted earlier this month exaggerated the failings of the mainstream media to get science stories even remotely right, just take a look at the latest nonsense running in print and (especially) on-line about the coming 'mini ice age'.
Below, this media fabrication is admirably dissected by an ex-New Scientist editor known as 'Potholer'. When it comes to stories about climate, I'm afraid, the kind of pig-headed idiocy he examines here is absolutely par for the course.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A culture of gullibility?

Did you know that if you leave a tooth in a glass of Coca-Cola overnight it doesn't dissolve? No, neither did I. This excellent video, the first in a series, demonstrates how silly 'scientific' claims are now swiftly disseminated via the Internet - and how to spot them without the need for a PhD...

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Laughing all the way to the bank?

Richard Lewinsohn's near-contemporary analysis of the 1929 Wall Street crash - a classic account that nobody interested in economic history or economic theory should miss - has recently been translated into English by Peter Bild. (Amazon link At the back there are some rather witty verses on our own 21st century financial crisis, penned by the translator. With his kind permission, I append this exclusive extract:

Rhymes for our Times
(Dead and buried, out of fashion,
Sodden Ogden’s teeth are Nashn’)

Three years since the fall of Lehman.
Politicians still are schemin’.
Printing cash for junking clunkers.
Hunkered down in marbled bunkers,
Bankers, what’s your latest news?
No more blues, just one more ruse
To use the cash you can’t refuse:
Taxpayers’ cash, let’s call it  TARP -
That’s what makes you rich and sharp.

A year along, your bank seems strong.
Nothing that you did seems wrong.
You’re a banker: and you hanker
For a margin without rancour.
Don‘t treat me like a trading chip.
So get a grip before we slip
Into a bubbly double dip.

Now masters of the universe
Tell me please, what could be worse
Than bankers heading for a fall.
Let them grovel, let them crawl!
Schadenfreude? Not at all!

Hear the honest realtor.
Buy a home! Buy three or four!
Soon they will be worth much more.
You’re the broker who espouses
That’s what borrowed money’s for.
Why, the market’s safe as houses.

And should you feel acquisitive
Then buy my new derivative.
Indisputably financial,
It makes trades more influential,
And your profits exponential.
That’s how you fulfil potential:
Trading on the differential.

You’re so smart, well who’d have thought it?
Sold some stock before you bought it.
Savvy bears just love to short it,
Leaving markets all distorted.
Though it’s rarely well reported,
That is how, with falling prices
You make money from the crisis.

Lions of the money jungle
Brainy bankers never bungle.
But I’m uncouth, a simple youth,
I’m telling you the naked truth:
(The sort of truth a banker loathes)
The Emperor-banker’s got no clothes!
I’m with Warren: in the Buff- it
Is low tide! No time to bluff it.

When you signed that trading chitty
Did you grasp the nitty gritty?
No you didn’t, more’s the pity.
In New York or London City,
Alter-ids of Walter Mitty
Think this ditty’s pretty shitty.
For, when traders tell their bosses,
Those weren’t profits, those were losses,
Other folks will bear the onus.
You make sure you keep your bonus,
Those  fine champagnes can addle brains.
With your ill-begotten gains.
Lots of loot down lots of drains.
Where wert thou, John Maynard Keynes?

Some banks trembled, others crumbled
Arrogant until they tumbled.
Some believe they should be humbled
Jumbled on a victims tumbril.
Regulators Messrs Bumble
Fiscal fingers all a-fumble
Mumble, but they rarely rumble
In advance before you stumble.
Afterwards, they merely grumble.

After all that speculation.
For the banks: Administration?
Bottom line defenestration?
Too big to fail, resuscitation.
Main Street, meanwhile, feels frustration 
Suffering in desperation
From financial constipation.
Who picks up the tab? The nation!
Somewhere, there must be a trade-off
For the money Bernie Madoff.

Now here’s a twist you may have missed.
The rating agencies insist,
Like the alchemists of old,
This ain’t sub-prime shit. It’s GOLD!
Care-packaged in the USA
These housing loans are A OKAY,
We’re PAID to rate them Triple A.
Wrapped up neat they look a treat,
As shysters on the New York street
Sell CDOs a dime a bunch.
“So find the lady, play your hunch.
And get one free." A sucker punch.
Please don’t fret if you don't get it.
Trust us bankers. Give us credit:
Credit for the credit crunch.
Meanwhile, please enjoy your lunch.

Hail to Henry Paulson. Hank!
Who came to Treasury from a bank,
Sheltered from financial blizzard,
As our ranking, banking wizard.
Hail to Hank whose banking wisdom
Sought to save the sinking system.
Was it greed? Or just stupidity,
Feeding on our mass cupidity,
To inject more cheap liquidity?

Now what’s it worth,  our glorious greenback?
90 cents that won’t be seen back.
Chinamen can hold our dollar.
When it falls, just hear them holler.
Let them work, while we just lean back.
And so with Wall Street’s contribution
Watch the dollar's dire dilution:
Uncle Sam wins absolution
For his post-war dissolution.
All in all, a neat solution.
B’fore the dollar, we all knelt down
Till it caused financial meltdown.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A library education

I must admit to not knowing very much about public libraries. Until a few years ago I didn’t go to them all that often, partly because there wasn’t one on my doorstep, and partly because having to return the books in time felt like a nuisance I could do without. And yes, I suffered from the common prejudice that libraries were essentially musty places where the books, like the customers, were rather too well-worn.

All that has changed. My son Leo, though, who is four in August, is a big consumer of pre-school and early years literature. He requires a constantly renewed diet of the stuff, which Uta or I are required to read aloud before lights out – and often (less delightfully) very early in the morning. My local library has an excellent children’s section, and without it we’d be very hard put to maintain Leo’s interest. We take out about ten books at a time, changing them about once a fortnight. On top of that we buy books, because we know now exactly what our son likes best: evidence, if any were needed, that Waterstone’s has no better friend in the high street than the public lending library.

Jan Bild, my hostess at the Berlin Intercultural Reading Groups, turns out to know a thing or two libraries, having spent most of her professional life as a librarian. She is what you might call a campaigning librarian, having successfully fought to keep open a number of libraries that short-sighted (one might say philistine) councils have sought to close at one time or another, including libraries in my own borough of Wandsworth. She has also been instrumental in bringing library and self-teaching facilities to Wandsworth Prison – in the face of institutional obstruction and bottomless cynicism – with measurably beneficial results for all concerned.

And it doesn’t end there. Her reading group network in Berlin, which began life under the auspices of the British Council, is widely recognised as a model. Jonathan Coe, Georgina Harding and Debbie Moggach have been among the authors recently accepting invitations to its ‘meet the author’ events in the German capital. In my case, this involved a Q&A with Jan, and lots of questions from the audience (the latter being rather an un-German element; reading events in Germany being simply that, for the most part). The evening, which was held at an extraordinarily large, airy and modern library in the district of Steglitz-Zehlendorf, was very well attended and very lively.

Jan has strong views about where British libraries are going wrong. It isn’t just that they’re starved of money. It’s also that the management in many cases have got it into their heads that what they need to pull the punters in is lots of current bestsellers. That means lots of books about vampires and the latest recommendations from Richard and Judy. In other words, as Jan puts it, that they should try to compete head-on with Tesco. This is a mistake. The limitation of Tesco, even of most specialist book shop branches, is the limited range of titles it carries. If you are in the market for an Edith Wharton, for example, even a decent sized Waterstone’s is unlikely to carry anything except The Age of Innocence. Public libraries should be places where you go for the classics, for good books that may never have been on a bestseller list, or which haven't been near one for years. They should be places of range and depth – not simply places were you can get hold of the latest fast seller for £3.99 less than it costs at the supermarket.  I agree with this analysis – but then, I have to admit, I’ve never been much drawn to what’s current in fiction anyway.
The Ingeborg-Drewitz Library in Berlin

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dash to Berlin (and back)

After seven weeks in New Babyland, I’ve won a 24-hour furlough for myself in the German capital – at least, I’m hoping it’ll be 24 hours. It could easily turn out to be less if my plane is late arriving. BA may be The World’s Favourite Airline, but Heathrow is definitely not the world’s favourite airport, at least not for travellers on a tight schedule, of which I will be one.

The schedule has two items. First I’m meeting an eminence of the film industry, to explore the possibility of a movie based on The Einstein Girl. Journeys from book to screen take a long time, and require a great deal of luck and/or persistence. This is like the third or fourth step on the proverbial journey of a thousand miles; but then again, a journey can turn out to be rewarding in itself. So I am travelling, as ever, hopefully.

After that, I’ll be going to an event organised by a network of Berlin readings groups. Again, The Einstein Girl is the book under discussion [Ingeborg Drewitz Bibliothek in Steglitz, starting at 7.00p.m. Entry free, all welcome. For more details visit:] The novel is set in that city, of course; so I hope those in attendance will feel I’ve captured their home town faithfully – not that anyone present will remember it as it was in 1932.  That’s probably just as well…

When I get back, I’ll have to start thinking about returning to work. I’m awaiting editorial notes from my editor at Harvill Secker on The Valley of Unknowing, due mid-June. Until those are in and dealt with, the final version of the book will not be available for anyone else to see (except my friend Claudi, who is currently reading it for cultural/historical/linguistic slip-ups, and doing a wonderful job). Meanwhile a new book idea is slowly bubbling away in the back of my brain. Whether it’s a book I should attempt or not, I’m not sure. It would require a great deal of research, not all of it easy, and I’ve yet to identify the core of it.

Coincidentally, on a number of writers’ forums recently, I've seen people asking how they can judge if a particular book idea they have is any good or not. My approach to the issue is this:
1. Start the research and see whether or not the idea develops and deepens as a result of what you learn;
2. Write down the essence of the idea and then leave it for at least three or four months, before coming back to it. If it no longer feels fresh and fertile, dump it. If it still excites you, carry on.
3. Personally, I’m not very good at discussing book ideas with agents or editors ahead of drafting, but I should probably do it more. I find ‘pitching’ a fairly painful business. But immediate responses can be surprisingly valuable, especially coming from experienced insiders. So if you have an agent, editor, or someone you trust in that vein, try pitching your idea to them once you’re good and ready. No response should be taken as definitive, but if their eyes glaze over in under thirty seconds, you may have a problem.
[Pictured above: Claudi, my indispensable GDR cultural-linguistic enforcer.]

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Delivery on delivery

The month of March passed in a blur for me. With a new addition to the family expected at the beginning of April – and, in fact, necessarily turning up ten days early – I found myself in the unusual situation of working to a de facto deadline. The task in hand was the completion of the third draft of The Valley of Unknowing. This I managed in the final hour of the final day before our trip to the maternity wing of Kingston Hospital. The baby was delivered safely and rather fast the following afternoon. Uta and I are both thrilled with her, as is our three-year-old Leo, who has been looking forward to Big Brother status for months. The new book’s health (and reception) will take a lot longer to assess.
Last month also saw two more bookings for the diary. In May I’m going back to the German capital for a friendly interrogation by the Berlin Intercultural Reading Groups, an admirably organised network of literary Germans who like to read their English novels in the original. In July, here in London, I’m sharing a platform with the novelist Pat Barker at The Royal Society. An event has been organised there on science and literature by the British Society for the History of Science. I always enjoy visiting Berlin, and Pat Barker is a writer I hugely admire. So I’m looking forward very much to both occasions.
As if all this was not excitement enough, The Einstein Girl is to be translated into Macedonian. I must admit, I didn’t know Macedonia had its own language (foolishly, I assumed they spoke either Greek or Serbo-Croat); so I am a marginally richer in the knowledge department, as well as in the bank balance department.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Welcome to Limbo

Some writers complain about the solitary nature of their business. They miss the proverbial chat around the office water cooler, the effortless lunching opportunities and the instant quasi-social life that most work environments provide. Other writers revel in their solitude and get back to it as soon as humanly possible. Personally, my ideal would be to mix periods of solitary writing with bouts of joint or collective endeavour. For me originating new material – at least of certain kinds – can be fun when done in small groups, provided there is mutual respect, and everyone gets along.
What I have never enjoyed is the period that follows immediately after the writing has stopped, when work must go out into the world and be judged. The time spent waiting for a response is time spent in limbo, and I’ve never yet met a writer who likes it. In fact, the more solitary the work up to that point, the less the content has been discussed, tested and sneak-previewed head of completion, the more onerous this interval is; because the less easy it is to anticipate the reaction. The writer has been labouring in the dark for a year or two on something that may turn out to be a golden goose or a complete turkey, meet all his hopes for it, or none at all. The first readings will give the him a good idea where the truth lies.
In the case of the book I’ve just finished, I'm even more in the dark than usual. I’ve shared very little of its content with anyone; and both thematically and stylistically it represents a departure for me. I really have no idea if anyone will, to use the over-worked phrase, ‘get it.’ But I'm going to find out soon, because my completed second draft is out with a trusted reader. I have entered limbo; and though I've been here many times before, I find it's as gloomy as ever.
The best way to get through such periods (for there are usually many) is to start work at once on something new. It’s not just a question of taking your mind off the fate or appeal of your last work; it’s a question of redirecting your ambitions away from it, so that all your eggs aren’t psychologically in the one basket. Of course, this is easier said than done just after you've completed a book. In my case, it’s next to impossible, with a new baby expected at the beginning of April. That said, I have managed to put together a short story for my German publisher's 50th anniversary anthology, to be published later this year (in German only!). Unfortunately, that task is now complete. So it looks for the moment as if I’ll have to fall back on DIY. All those untouched tubes and tins, earnestly acquired with running repairs in mind, may finally get opened - if I can just find the big screwdriver...

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Put out the flags...?

On Friday I finished the first draft of the new book, which is set in the GDR, where my wife grew up. I originally intended to get to this stage at around the end of last October, but unforeseen family commitments put paid to that schedule, along with the fact that the draft itself came out a little longer than I'd thought. Still, three months isn't much slippage, and at no point did the writing dry up, get stuck or go off on any unhelpful tangents. Overall the drafting went better, and with fewer days in the creative wilderness than any book I've done before.

I'm now at the point I like most. I have all the material I need in front of me; now I get to cut, trim and polish it. I did a huge amount of editing in my journalism days, and I still enjoy working on a text, especially if I think I'm improving it. I even get a certain masochistic pleasure in cutting my own material. There's something bracing about slicing off unnecessary fat.

After this I shall have to start showing my work to other people - quite a lot of other people - and hoping they like it. But I won't dwell on that for now. The new draft is complete and I think it has come out pretty much as I'd hoped. I'll let that thought light up the night for now.