Thursday, 24 July 2014

He is not missing...

I'm writing a book on the first war. (Who isn't... or hasn't?) But - and it's a big but - mine is about the aftermath, the immediate aftermath, when France and Belgium were slowly rebuilding and first the Army followed by the (then) Imperial War Graves Commission were burying and reburying thousands and thousands of bodies and slowly creating the vast memorial cemeteries that are now such a universal symbol of the human cost of war.

My protagonists - a group of soldiers eager for demob but kept on in Flanders after the Armistice - form one of the many companies whose unenviable task it was to search the shattered land for the missing, to exhume hasty battlefield burials and then to establish the now famous concentration cemeteries like the largest of them all, Tyne Cot.

It was a grim task. But many such men volunteered for the work (and not merely for the extra 2/6 a day). Some even remained in Belgium after demob and found work as IWGC gardeners. A sizeable British  community in Ypres between the wars had its own school and church and remained there until the Germans once again invaded in 1939. Then came a hastily arranged and hazardous evacuation.

In the meantime, the monuments to the missing had been built. Massive structures like Thiepval, the memorial wall at Tyne Cot and, of course, the famous Menin Gate which was inaugurated by Field-Marshal Sir Herbert Plumer ('Daddy' Plum, one of the few high-ranking officers to have escaped the 'donkey' epithet and to have been universally respected by the troops) on this day, July 24th, 1927.

In one chapter of the book I'm writing the men - by now ex-army IWGC gardeners and labourers - gather at the Menin Gate for the ceremony (as actually happened - medals, but not uniforms, were worn). They listen as Plumer delivers his speech:

One of the most tragic features of the Great War was the number of casualties reported as 'Missing, believed killed'... It was resolved that here at Ypres, where so many of the 'Missing' are known to have fallen, there should be erected a memorial worthy of them which should give expression to the nation's gratitude for their sacrifice and its sympathy with those who mourned them. 

At home in England, at the same time on that July Sunday morning, congregations gather in churches up and down the land to listen to one of the very first BBC outside broadcasts - a live relay from Ypres - and, perhaps, to follow the service in the specially-printed feature in the Radio Times.

You're not, perhaps, meant to be moved by your own words. (Although Dickens cried at the death of Little Nell.) But I find even my own modest description of that event, culminating as it did with the playing by buglers of the Somerset Light Infantry of the Last Post (the start of a tradition that continues, famously, to this day) followed by pipers of the Scots Guards playing the Flowers of the Forest lament as the men who fought there remember their comrades who died and are commemorated on those walls quite unusually affecting.

But then, that's down to the event itself, the memorial, and the men it commemorates. Just to see the 'intolerably nameless names' - almost 55,000 - filling the walls and arches of Reginald Blomfield's great edifice is moving enough.

It takes but a little imagination to appreciate the impact it must have had on those present that day, those for whom the countless names were living people, comrades, friends and of whom, at last, in the words of Herbert Plumer, the world could now say:

He is not missing; he is here. 


You can read an extended extract from the beginning of this book on the Authonomy website.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Why I'm an Amazon fan

It's become fashionable to knock Amazon; a raft of best-selling, well-paid authors have been urging us all to boycott the online retailer and to use local bookshops (or even Waterstone's) instead.

There are no doubt some genuine grievances, perhaps even on both sides. If I were a Hatchette author and Amazon appeared to be dragging its feet listing my book I'd be annoyed. 

But I'm not. I'm a jobbing writer with books published by three different (small) publishers and guess what? Amazon sells my books. Waterstone's doesn't (in spite of my best efforts). Indie bookshops don't often do so either (although they will order a copy for you should you wish).

No. If you want a copy of one of my books or a copy of probably the majority of titles by many if not the majority of authors, Amazon is where it's at. Or where they are. The books, that is. 

Ok, so there are sometimes eye-watering discounts. The terms can be extortionate. There are serious competition issues. And John-Claude Junkers granted Amazon some pretty decent tax breaks when he was Premier of Luxembourg. 

But no matter. Bookshops, wholesalers, publishers all take a cut of the cake I bake. And they do so (at least, the first two) at no risk to themselves either. If a book doesn't sell they send it back. Authors can't unwrite their words.

So my best chance of reaching a wide readership and making a little bit of cash into the bargain is through Amazon. I know it's not fashionable to say so. And I know it won't make me a fortune. 

But what's the option?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Buddy, can you spare a dime?

The first comprehensive survey of writers' income in the UK since 2005 has thrown up some shocking figures, not least the fact that our income has fallen by almost 30% in the past 9 years.

The median - in other words, the middle of a list that starts at the bottom with me (probably) and ends at J.K.Rowling or E.L.James - is a mere £11,000. Compare that to the £16,850 the Joseph Rowntree Trust says is necessary to achieve a minimum standard of living and you get some sense of the problem.

And that median, you know, comes in the middle of long list. Everyone knows that 10% of authors earn over 90% of the money made by writers. But if the remainder can at least earn a crust by their efforts, well... we can always move into that garret can't we?

It's not hard to see why most authors are poor. Although I sometimes see people raise their eyebrows when I tell them where I live and why I ride a bike instead of driving a rolls. So, just to be clear, here's how it works:

An advance, first. I've had a few. (But then again, too few to mention.) But that's an advance against future royalties - a loan if you like - so you don't get anything else on top. Not until you've paid off your debt (out of royalties, that is.)

And that, dear reader, can take an awfully long time. Two of my books retail at £9.99 per copy. My fairly standard contract means I get 10% of the net royalties on each sale. So do I get 99p? Do I ever...

Because the tenner you hand over in the bookshop goes to the bookseller, who will have bought the book you're now holding from the distributor/wholesaler for considerably less (let's be generous and say £7).

But that £7 goes to the wholesaler. I'm nowhere near my slice yet. Because the wholesaler buys from the publisher for around, say, £3. They've got a business to run, after all.

I'm sure you can do the maths. It's that £3 that I get a tiny fraction of (because let's not forget the publisher has overheads too). And so you'll see that it takes an awful lot of sales to make a living. And that's without mentioning a host of reasons why we might get paid even less - such as bulk discounts, library or Book Club editions, and, of course, the 'A' word - Amazon .

It's no wonder so many established authors turn to self-publishing. (Incidentally, even J.K.Rowling has done it. The first of the Harry Potter books were published before the advent of the eBook and she very wisely kept the electronic rights of her books to herself and has now, effectively, self-published her back list in eBook format. Clever!)

But until the rest of us have anything approaching her reputation we'll need to do it the hard way.

I don't see the situation getting better in a hurry.  I mean, who seriously pays £9.99 for a book these days? A return to the rich patron of yesteryear would be no bad thing. In fact (here's a revolutionary suggestion) perhaps that top ten percent of hyper-rich authors should each agree to sponsor a struggling beginner, someone at the foot of the ladder? They'd get mighty kudos knowing that they're helping the next generation.

And who knows, the next generation might even include another J.K.Rowling...

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Here is the news...

And this was Richard Baker reading it, 60 years ago today:

Except you wouldn't have seen him. Because he wasn't on-screen.

That - watching a newsreader (who was in those days, like Baker, an actor) - came later. As did the notion of journalists (pah!) doing the job, all manner of fancy, patronising graphics and the ridiculous notion of having someone standing where the news is happening (at all hours of the day and night).

We've come a long way. (I say 'we' because we're as much a part of the journey as they are - aren't we?). Here's the BBC Lime Grove newsroom as it looked back then:

And here's the New Broadcasting House version, opened last year:

Quite a difference, eh?

Yes, the news has come a long way. It lasts a lot longer. But never seems to get any better.

Plus ├ža change...

Friday, 27 June 2014

World War One in a Nutshell

100 years ago today someone was shot in Sarajevo. Four years and 16 million killings later, the Armistice was signed and World War One ended.

The two events, of course, are causally connected. But how? Why did the death of the heir to the Austrian Empire lead to World War? If you've ever pondered on such things, and if you're knowledge of the facts is hazy, here's my brief guide to the Great War.

1. Bosnia, 100 years ago today, was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the assassination was part of a campaign for independence;

2. Austria was a long-standing ally of Germany and when it finally got round to responding to the events in Sarajevo, it made sure it did so with Germany's complete support (the so-called 'blank cheque);

3. The problem was the Russians. Both Austria and Germany feared Russian involvement in any fighting in Serbia, and they were right.

4. On August in response to Austria's declaration of war on Serbia (basically, punishment for the assassination of the heir to the throne) Russia mobilised its army;

5. This meant France was now committed thanks to a mutual assistance treaty with Russia to fight against Germany;

6. Which led to the enactment of the Schleiffen Plan by Germany - invading France through Belgium and having a pop at the Russians through Poland.

Which is basically where World War One begins. See? It's not really that difficult is it? Meanwhile, over in the Balkans, Austria-Hungary was indeed fighting in Serbia, the Turks became involved and the Italians, Bulgarians too ultimately and the whole thing went to hell.

Monday, 2 June 2014

On this day

June 2nd 1840, Thomas Hardy was born. 

Musician, poet, architect, novelist, in that order, Thomas Hardy must surely rank as one of this country's greatest men. But why? His novels are wonderfully crafted social observations, historical records and moral commentaries but then, so are many others. His poems - a vast body of sometimes variable work - are immediate and memorable, original and musical. But others are equally good. His architecture? I can't comment on his skill as an architect though I can be pretty certain that he must have been a more than useful musician, given what regular duties he and other members of the Hardy family undertook.

More than anything, perhaps, is Hardy's immense influence on other writers: and what he most consistently speaks to fellow authors is the importance of honesty. Hardy is always honest, uncomfortably so at times, and his style and idiom are as honest as his themes and his subjects. 

That, probably more than anything else, is the true mark of greatness. It sounds easy doesn't it? But making great art out of honesty... that's another story!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Literary Calendar: April

This is amazing. It turns out that April in years past has been quite a month, from Jane Austen telling the Prince Regent that she could 'not sit down to write a serious romance' to the publication of The Great Gatsby and the birth of Vladimir Nabokov. Inspiring stuff. Must be something to do with sap rising.