NEWS, VIEWS, and QUOTES
I started writing "seriously" from the age of 12, although I had attempted some writing and poetry during the previous four years. These efforts were mainly essays on astronomy and short stories based on imaginative characters and talking animals that lived in Churchfields - a large open space close to St Mary's Church, Hanwell. Having such a wide canvas of subject matter, my development as a writer became rather long-winded. Eventually, I produced a body of work that could have longevity and actually may appeal to readers. I did however, find myself becoming obsessed with art, history and astronomy - the latter leading to lectures and several essays being published.
The Astronomy Bug
I first became interested in astronomy quite by chance. In the Autumn of 1974, my school tutor Mrs Tressader set each student the task of a school project. The condition was that the selected subject would form the basis of a new hobby. Not knowing what to study, I set off for Hanwell Library. Sitting dejected in the children's library, a kindly librarian took on the challenge of finding a suitable subject. In minutes, the librarian returned with a Ladybird Book entitled 'The Night Sky.'
I was hooked! Not only were the illustrations inspirational, the descriptions of stars and planets planted the seed for what was to become an absolute passion. Within days, my Grandmother had purchased my very own copy of 'The Night Sky' from Baskets Bookshop in West Ealing, priced 15p. I still have the book. Some astronomical essays from the 1990s can be found lurking on pdf copies of newsletters pertaining to a few astronomical societies, notably Aylesbury and Bristol: The Fifteen Brightest Stars visible from Britain and Circumpolar Constellations. Both these series of essays were written with the amateur astronomer in mind, and both titles for the series were lifted (with permission) from Patrick Moore's famous Observers Book of Astronomy first published by Frederick Warne in the 1960s.
However, it was astronomical history that I specialised in. The story of William Herschel in particular caught my imagination and this astronomer's life and work, even after some forty years of research, never ceases to surprise and captivate. Along the Herschel journey, I have been blessed with knowing the respected eminent astronomical historian, Dr Allan Chapman of Wadham College, Oxford; and the outstanding work of Dr Michael Hoskin of Cambridge. I was always told by the late and great Patrick Moore to write about what I know best - Patrick and I collaborated on Astronomy Now's Uranus feature published in January 2011, which was a great honour.
How Great Thou Art?
My first offering in art history came in the 1980s, but really did not take full flight until 2001. I had always been interested in art and as a young lad, I was surrounded by art. In 1977, the BBC broadcast Royal Heritage presented by Sir Huw Wheldon and this served to combine my interest in art and history. I realised after seeing this programme, that I possessed a passion for eighteenth century Dutch genre painting and a love for English manor houses.
In 1979, again through a BBC programme this time a play, I was introduced to the work of Dutch genre artist Godfried Schalcken and like the astronomer William Herschel, Schalcken has dominated my research ever since. Added to this and following an exhibition at The National Gallery (June to September 2001) the Delft School of artists De Hooch, Vermeer, Fabritius, have loomed large! But as the 2000s moved on, I found myself not immune to other artists - Edward Hopper appeared; Rothko minced and menaced, and Pollock took me places never thought possible. Present day artists also featured in essays and reviews, notably the brilliant urban art of Angela Wakefield and the politically breathtaking art of Annya Sand. All these artists listed have one thing in common - they made me think, not just about their work but impact on life and culture.
'There are places I remember...'
There is no question regarding the impact music has had and continues to have on my life and writing. Recording artists come and go, but we all have those that stay with us come what may. It will be very boring to list all my favourites, but must I feel make reference to The Beatles and In My Life, the finest song ever written and recorded in my humble opinion. My "not-so definitive" autobiography goes into some detail on my music tastes.
In 2008, I moved to Southampton to live and work, and I needed something to carry me through. It was at that moment I rediscovered Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and an appreciation of jazz. Ironically whilst Kind of Blue is by far my favourite jazz album and one I play regularly, my favourite Miles Davis recordings are Basin Street Blues from his superb 1963 album Seven Steps to Heaven, and On Green Dolphin Street from the Kind of Blue sessions - the latter recording failed to be selected for the original line-up of the album! In early 2019, I sketched an outline for a novel based around jazz which I hope to complete by the end of 2020.
The Writing Protocol
Writing is not something I can give valuable time to every day, but I do try and get some writing time in whether it be a few lines, a page of notes or research. When it comes to the actual writing of manuscripts, I try and take advantage of quiet times at home or will even take a few days or week off to dedicate to writing. When I am at my writing desk, it is not uncommon for me to write 4,000 words in a day! I am a morning person so will work from 07:00 if need be, but evenings are a lost cause. I am soon to decamp from the house to a dedicated writing shed so the opportunity for "quiet time" shall increase. I have to be surrounded by dictionaries and reference books, alongside notebooks and cat! Once the cat has settled, the serious work can begin. I'm afraid I am a writer who marks up reference books - a hangover from my student days. Many a note can be found in margins or text underlined, newspaper cuttings sandwiched between pages, post-it notes marking pages, and book bindings bashed by being kept open for days on end. Book-abuse, to be sure; value completely priceless. It all works for me as a writer.
Some of my notebooks go back 20 years or more. Scraps (jottings) even further. I recently discovered an old fragment of poetry from January 1982 and an even older pencil verse from my school days entitled Autumn, thought to be my first serious poem from around October 1978.
Editing my manuscript is something I don't enjoy, but consider an absolute must and pay due respect. Our eyes only read what our mind believes to be on the page, not necessarily the words typed. That's why I am fully reliant on my wife Louise who has skill in proof-reading. Sadly for her, my first novel (which took nearly thirty years to complete and several re-starts) came in at around 120,000 words! My next one is heading toward 80,000 words as I write these words here. My third novel "outline" is already 2,000 words... oh dear, never mind.
The one difficulty that some writers have is letting go of their beloved manuscript. I found this with my first novel, but once done I was able to place all energies into the next project(s). Whilst I had been joined at the hip for thirty years with the first novel, in the end it was a novel that proved actually very easy to write. I was relieved to let go in the interests of moving on. The first book, published or not, will always be there to read. The correct thing to do was to draw the line and let it leave the nest as it were.
Some writers (those I have had the fortune of meeting through Jericho Writers and Watford Writers) have said the most difficult book to write was always the first book. Yes, my first novel took thirty years to write, but this was more down to available time and circumstance affording me valuable writing time. I believe I am in the category of 'second book syndrome' - like Suzanne Vega once said, 'the second album was always the most difficult to complete and record.' At times, devoting time to writing has been problematic and other life matters present themselves as priority to writing, but at long last the guilt of taking time out to write has evaporated and I do afford myself the luxury of time to write. The second novel is progressing well!
The Writing Style
Some writers have a natural writing style or develop a writing style. I was not and still not, consciously aware of any style in my own writing, but reading back some of my articles published in magazines I am first to accept that my style is possibly academic. Traits of an academic style have shown up in my first novel and indeed the second novel thus far. What I have become more aware of is my commitment to selecting appropriate words - words that work for me as a writer and add credible support to subject matter or a novel's settings. I am not, for want of a better phrase, a writer "on-trend." I am first to admit I don't modify my writing to suit the commercial market as this would render myself unfaithful to my own writing principles. That said, I am influenced by other writers and writing that may unknowingly add context to my own writing. With this and like all writers, I can only hope such an approach will illuminate a story and maintain interest.
Shock of the new
My first novel took thirty years to complete. A false start in 1980 and again in 1981, left a ropy manuscript untouched for at least five years. A further re-write in 1986 was eventually abandoned as life became busy. In 2017, I finally returned to the original manuscript. Part of the "original" now forms the prologue and first two chapters. Looking back on my experience of writing, there is no doubt that my first novel has benefited from the delay in completing. I now recognise that writing must come from within and be total - anything less means a book is not ready to be written and should not be attempted. I once said I could not write a novel. Now I say, I write!
Projects now and in sight!
The second novel is well on the way and set in the period just prior to the First World War. I hope to have completed the manuscript by mid-2020.
The 'jazz' novel is a side-line piece of work to the second novel, but totally unrelated and set in the 1950s. I call this work my "break" from writing! (as the process of writing this novel often leads to listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chet Baker and Jazz FM radio!).
I am resurrecting a number of my poems and writing the odd new poem that I plan to publish privately to raise money for a charitable cause close to my heart. More details on this will emerge in 2020.
And, of course, there is the unstructured, not-so-definitive autobiography! An ongoing piece of dalliance that serves no purpose other to ensure I don't forget key events in my life and people...
As writers, we are all influenced by books we read. Do we read books cover-to-cover? In most cases, yes, but in my world most of my books are reference / non-fiction works that are to be dabbled in and out of. Sources, primary and secondary, are extracted and used appropriately. Like music collections, bookshelves can reveal a person's character and mine is no different. Here are a few random highlights that present their bindings on my bookshelf:
The Scientific Works of William Herschel (2 vols), edited by J L E Dreyer.
The Sky At Night by Patrick Moore (13 vols)
The Amateur Astronomer by Patrick Moore
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee
The Long Weekend by Adrian Tinniswood
Diaries (9 vols) by James Lees Milne (some edited by Michael Bloch)
James Lees Milne, A Life by Michael Bloch
Edward VIII by Philip Ziegler
The King Who Had To Go by Adrian Phillips
Vermeer and the Delft School, edited by Walter Liedtke
Siegfried Sassoon by Max Egremont
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn
Bob Dylan: All The Songs - The Story Behind Every Track by Jean Michel Guesdon and Philippe Margotin
Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography by Ian Carr
Vangelis: The Unknown Man - An Unauthorised Biography by Mark T Griffin
It Came From Outer Space Wearing An RAF Blazer and Return to the Far Side of Planet Moore (2 volume biography of Sir Patrick Moore) by Martin Mobberley
Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited by Philip Eade
Charmed Life: The Phenomenal World of Philip Sassoon by Damian Collins
I am a member of two excellent writing groups:
Jericho Writers https://jerichowriters.com/
Watford Writers http://www.watfordwriters.co.uk/index.html