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Blog Category:  Uncategorized
Posted on: 10 February 2014



Does anybody between the age of 13 and 30 still go to the cinema? I ask because I have just received one of Lucy Cousins’s charming picture books about Maisy, (Maisy Goes to the Cinema) and have been going rather a lot recently due to a combination of good films (Twelve Years a Slave, Gravity and The Wolf of Wall St) and bad weather.

Yet each time, the experience has been both depressing and strangely deserted. I should perhaps explain that the most convenient cinemas for me to get to, living in Camden, are the Camden and Holloway Odeons, where a bit of judicious pre-planning means you can get a seat for around £8. I also object to paying over £10 just to sit in a large fake leather seat at some of the ritzier cinemas like the O2 or the Everyman, and for paying for Premier.

Part of this is probably sheer meanness, considering that I am usually paying for at least one other person, but part is also the unpleasant nature of a cinema visit in itself. It starts with the lobby, which now feels as if it’s trying to sell you Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream (why has no British ice-cream maker go in here?) rather than cinema. I have no objections to cinemas getting more out of their customers; the Screen ones do it rather stylishly. But what is all the nonsense you get about “trained mixologists” bringing drinks to your seat, or meals? If I wanted that, I’d stay at home, thanks, or go to see a film at one of my friends with a private screen and projector.

Worse are the ads telling you, when you’ve paid for your seat, to imagine what it’d be like if going to the cinema dies out due to piracy. Haven’t these people noticed, we’re the ones paying for our seats? I have constant battles with one member of my family about piracy, which I do indeed see as a threat to all creative enterprise, but this just makes my hackles rise even before I’ve sat in an uncomfortable chair surrounded by stale air, texting people and old popcorn.

I’ve been in love with cinema visits ever since I was small, and at its best a good cinema visit makes me feel like a child again. The excitement of seeing something in an audience, and sharing their laughter or fear is a big part of it; it’s part of what I love about the theatre, the concert hall or opera, too. No matter how big our TV screens get, or how smart the retractable private screen, it’s different in a big audience, when you are sharing strong emotions in a kind of dream-like state. (I’m afraid in my case, I tend to empathise far too much and too quickly with the characters, and do the annoyingly childish thing of shutting my eyes and stuffing my fingers in my ears at gruesome bits.) I like the whole business of tickets, finding a seat, waiting for lights to go down – and even the ads both for products and forthcoming films, providing these don’t go on too long. As with books, my taste is fairly broad – I like the Friday night blockbuster and the art-house film, providing both intelligently and entertainingly made. I see it as the great new art form, as opera was in the 19th century, but one which is often let down by poor script-writing or direction by committee; that doesn’t make me stop loving it when it’s at all good.

However, the whole Odeon experience is just so dismal that I can see why teenagers prefer to pirate films. It’s alarmingly easy to do (rather like most petty theft) and once done, they can loll about in their bedrooms watching it as they would once have watched a DVD, either in company or alone.

Cinemas really need to stop lecturing us about the evils of piracy, and instead focus on what is positive about the cinema. They also need to make them nicer places to be. Why not make all seats Premier sized, when half the auditorium tends to be empty anyway? It wouldn’t be much but it’d be a start.


Blog Category:  Uncategorized
Posted on: 08 October 2013



"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," said Dr Johnson, but we are all expected to be blockheads now.  Even writing a blog is a form of blockheadedness, but far too many newspapers and magazines also expect us to contribute something for the sheer joy of seeing our names in print. This week, a distinguished novelist I know refused to write a foreword to a Cambridge Professor’s new book, in return for…no money. When he refused, he was abused as “priggish and ungracious.” So, Cambridge Professor, next time you want your drains clearing, do try that line won’t you?

To anyone who has got up at 5 am in order to work on a book before their day job, being published may seem like an enormous privilege – like being able to work from home. Because most published authors were once in this position ourselves, we have felt we needed to be humble and grateful. We are humble and grateful, even after a couple of decades of producing books, essays and short stories. But the reason why my own new novel is so slow (sorry Little,Brown) in being finished is precisely because I need to earn money too. The newspapers which once paid me the equivalent to the minimum wage no longer do so. Most weeks, I make the princely sum of £100 a week. I make almost as much selling my review copies (which I once used to pass on to local schools) as I do writing about them, and that is still, as any mathematician will tell you, not enough to live on. I’m still doing the same amount of work – and reading for review is work, believe me, not leisure – but somehow I have, as bankers put it, to monetise what I do. Only there is no money, unless you happen to be a banker.

Being asked to write for no money therefore puts writers in a very, very bad mood. A vast industry depends on us producing, and can’t exist without us continuing to do, so yet we are as farmers before Wall-Mart. We ought to be downing tools and refusing to do anything unless our pay is raised, but poor saps that we are, we can’t help being addicted to what we do. Some rare authors are able to produce a book a year – and a minute proportion of these produce a book that also sells. I take my hat off to them, but most of us are unable to do so for a whole host of reasons which include health, children, living on a road with pneumatic drills and not being able to turn the heating on in winter. That lovely feeling of typing with chilblains is slightly preferable to typing with RSI, but not exactly conducive to reams of good prose.

Thus, we end up practically paying to appear at literary festivals where the audience has forked out around £10 a head to hear us talk. We pop up on the TV or radio, which once paid us, again to be paid nothing because the BBC has spent so much on its snazzy state-of-the-art building and the newscasters who don’t somehow pay tax like the rest of us, that there’s no money for anyone else.  

Sam Johnson again: “The chief glory of every people arises from its authors.” Well, it doesn’t feel like it from here.


Blog Category:  Uncategorized
Posted on: 22 April 2013

 As the mice move out, the slugs wake up. The long cold winter which kept them dormant has passed, and as the voice of the turtledove is heard in the land, the fat, flat finger of destruction starts to twitch and move. Turn over a pot in your garden, and there they will be, looking like small black blobs; a week or two later, and they have swollen into greasy grey mouths on the move, chomping through your precious plants. The rest of the country may be apoplectic with fear about the arrival of Romanians, but gardeners must arms themselves against a much more invasive foe.

When I first began to garden, I was filled with a general feeling that Nature was, at least in Britain, a benign and kindly force. You start off enthusiastically working the tilth, bankrupting yourself with the Sarah Raven catalogue and worshipping at the shrine of Monty Don. You believe the stuff you read in the Guardian, and feel that all anyone has to do in order to have a land of milk and honey is to compost your rubbish and encourage frogs and birds. Ha! A decade later, you have become a fire-breathing member of the horticultural equivalent to UKIP, encouraging your teenage son to shoot grey squirrels on sight, and viewing cats, rabbits, deer and moles with a totally different eye as creatures bent on destroying your young trees, seedlings or bulbs. But no other creature incites such wrath and loathing as the slug.

Those still in Stage One of gardening can make efforts to see the good in many pests. If you love (as of course we do) our native red squirrels, you can try hard to see the non-native grey as an embarrassing relation of the kind most of us must endure with patience, and not a rapacious rat in fluffy fur. I myself have a certain tendresse for snails because Shakespeare used their fearfulness and sensitivity as metaphors for lover’s feelings; snail shells are beautiful enough to be celebrated in chocolate and art. It’s like the difference between lizards and snakes, or between politicians who have had jobs outside politics and those who haven’t: somehow, by having something to them besides mere muscle, snails are less repulsive. But there is absolutely nothing to be said for slugs. They are an expression of the side of Nature one prefers not to think about – indeed, to eradicate without hesitation or mercy.

But how to achieve this? Toads, frogs and birds are wholly ineffectual; the nematode worms ordered at vast expense from Wiggly Wigglers and supposedly destroy your enemy underground never seem to make a blind bit of difference. I can’t have a rescue hedgehog because I have a dog. Supposedly humane methods like putting out half a grapefruit or glasses of beer to tempt them into oblivion garner one or two bloated culprits, but meanwhile your acanthus is stripped to a skeleton of itself. You go out with a bucket of salty water and a torch at night to try and pick them off, one by one. But what you need is a weapon of mass destruction.

Gingerly, guiltily, you scatter nasty blue pellets as thinly as possible, hoping that it’s true that they aren’t going to poison birds, or your dog, or your children. The next day, when the slugs have expired in mounds of bubbling yellow froth, you think, Result! Your delphiniums, dahlias and vegetables are safe. You retire with Kipling’s Glory of the Garden humming in your brain.

Only the next day, you find the slugs have found a way to come up a drain pipe and into the downstairs loo to chomp through your collection of paperbacks on the window-ledge, finding the Alex cartoons especially tasty. They find the same tiny holes that the mice used to invade. They are here, I’m afraid, to stay.

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