Thursday 29 December 2011

Writing News

I am delighted to announce that the first full and complete draft of Death of a Dreamonger has been completed. It is a mysterious, funny work with a thrilling climax - I will be very proud of it. 
While I am waiting for it to simmer down and I can see it with fresh eyes, I plan to start my next book. This book will fit in a little more with the general theme of the site as I plan to write a mid-eighteenth century book. 

The exciting and unique idea is that the novel will not merely be set in the eighteenth century, but will be an eighteenth century novel utilising much of the narrative style, authorial tics and general attitude to the work that is present in books from that time.
This will of course be a difficult and problematic task, but I feel there is so much vitality in the eighteenth century novel, and the varying approaches to it, that this book promises to be something exciting and lively, with much zip and cheek and a big dollop of playfulness.
I plan to use Henry Fielding and Tom Jones as the main inspiration but there will be chapters and sections in the style of Sterne (who I love more than Fielding, but am too cowardly to stick to all the way through) Richardson, Burney, Godwin - as well as sentimental chapters and gothic chapters... The whole concept excites me and is really getting me going.
Although most of my inspiration will be from the mid-eighteenth century, I plan for the title of the book to hark back to those 'blurb title pages' of Defoe. However, this hasn't been fully thought through yet, so I am currently calling it Into the Big City for short.

The story is about a young man, addled by a little learning, who believes himself to be a poet of rare and exceptional talent. He leaves his Warwickshire village and enters London with a view to making his literary fortune.

There he finds things much harder than he expected, getting stuck in the middle of gang warfare between a hardened thief-taker and a highwayman. His stupidity and innocence often save him as he stumbles around the city trying to make his own way.

Will he avoid the criminal's knife and the magistrate's noose? Will he find love or fortune? Will he ever write a poem anyone would want to read? ... Those are the questions we shall find the answers to.

Until next time

Saturday 17 December 2011

Ho Ho Hogarth

Today, on a cold December day I decided to visit Hogarth’s House, newly reopened after being restored from fire damage and to do a little bit of Christmas shopping. 

The house is a thin, modest affair, once in the corner of an orchard but now next to the A4. Among the traffic and the mess is a brewery, I’m sure Hogarth would have liked that. Whether he would have liked the huge roundabout named after him, that is less sure. The political cartoonist, Martin Rowson made his own comment on the roundabout, a print of which hangs in his house. 

Now, the house is not large and does not contain any paintings, if you want them I recommend the Tate Britain and Sir John Soame’s Museum (though would I recommend them anyway) but it does contain several sets of prints, ‘Harlot’s Progress’, ‘Rake’s Progress’, ‘The Stages of Cruelty’ and ‘Marriage a la Mode’. The prints are clear and well displayed and you can get as close to them as you’d like. Indeed, comparing the paintings of ‘Rake’s Progress’ and the prints, the prints are clearer, starker and more interesting. Also, many of the prints have interesting doggerel underneath them, Hogarth’s friend wrote them for ‘The Four Stages of Cruelty’ but I don’t know who wrote ‘A Rake’s Progress’. These prints are the highlight of the Hogarth House collection.

The house also owns a number of personal items, including the stool used by his dog and also an original brass print, an art case, some jewellery and a copy of his ‘Line of Beauty’ book. There is something special about this, Hogarth’s objects in his house. The house has been tidily restored and the whole house is coloured in pearl according to research on the paint used. 
(There is a fascinating article about eighteenth century paint choices here:
Hogarth’s House is a good place, a small bus ride from Hammersmith and no price to enter. Also, it is a very short walk from the also very interesting Chiswick House. This was a house built by Lord Burlington, designed by William Kent and later lived in by William Cavendish and his wife Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire. Although the house itself is not open until April Fool’s day, I got to wander the gardens. They are fascinating, full of grottos and vistas and follies and more statues of chubby emperors and urns then anyone but an eighteenth century lord could ever wish. 

As I wandered the gardens, the shining winter sun cast long shadows through the trees and bounced seductively off the hundreds of urns. What with the hundreds of pretty women doting on bouncing dogs and the families with smug dad’s running after small beamingly screaming children and the place looked like a white middle class vision of heaven - and that’s no bad thing, visions of heaven never are.
The rest of the day continued to be blessed, I went Christmas shopping and found deal after deal, bought more and better presents then I hoped and didn’t hear a single crying child or het up mum. A man even gave me his seat on the bus. 
So I will have a merry Christmas and I hope you will too.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Review of Colonel Jack by Daniel Defoe

Colonel Jack the book is a bit like chewing gum, it bursts forward with plenty of flavour before losing that flavour and becoming bland drudgery; just chew, chew chew.
The first half, the flavoursome half, begins with the birth of Colonel Jack, the bastard son of some gentleman. Jack has been farmed away to keep him from shaming the family. He is nursed by a lady who also has a son called Jack. The two Jacks are joined by another bastard called Jack and the three boys begin to be known by their nicknames; Major, Colonel and Captain.
The boys are left to the street when the kind nurse dies and live in complete poverty, begging for food and sleeping in the sooty grime of a glassblowers – they are also extremely happy with their lot. The Jacks develop different personalities, the Major is a friendly, genial boy easily led astray, the Captain is a rough brutish boy and the Colonel is generous and clever, but the most na├»ve. 
The boys are pulled apart to try different crimes, the Major and the Colonel apprentice themselves under different pickpockets and the Captain joins a gang of kidnappers. Our hero, Colonel Jack, sees this as just another kind of living and works diligently at it, the way he would had he become the apprentice of a more respectable trade. We do not hear much of the Major after this point.
After twenty-six years of pickpocketery, the Colonel joins a group of highwaymen, his disgust at robbing an old lady mean that he decides to give up his life of crime and join the army. At this time the Captain turns up on the run and they run north to Scotland together. The Colonel becomes extremely upset at the Captain’s inability to hold back his criminal tendencies. Cornered in Scotland, they take a boat back to London but it turns out the boat is actually heading for Virginia and the young men are indentured servants, white slaves on the plantations for a fixed period of time. Now it is the time for the Captain to leave the story and never come back.
Up to this point the book has been thrilling. The lives of the raggedy street-urchins are vigorously and directly described. The descent into crime is even more interesting, as the Colonel learns the tricks of the trade, we learn them with him. We learn what is a good haul for a day in other people’s pockets, how to redeem someone else’s banknotes and when an amount is too much too handle. Moll Flanders has a similarly interesting section. Unfortunately the story begins to run out of steam in America.
At first we get the very interesting account of the white slaves of America, how criminals and the destitute went to that country as slaves for a fixed period, to then be given some land to carve for themselves. That the colonies are full of ex-cons doing very well for themselves. The Colonel then becomes an overseer, as overseer we get the interesting black/white divide. The whites are only temporary slaves and can be reasoned with, the blacks are permanent slaves and only respond to the whip. The Colonel makes the revolutionary discovery, treat the blacks as people and they will respond likewise (and not laugh behind your back, as common wisdom had it).
Unfortunately for the reader, the Colonel is freed from slavery to become a prominent merchant and land owner. He also discovers religion, and like Cliff Richard after him, he loses his bite and doesn’t regain it. After a whole bunch of religious stuff, where even he gets bored, the Colonel goes to Europe to join some wars for the fun of it. He marches around a bit, marries a few times and then sails back to his plantation. Then he gets involved in some trade disputes with the Spanish, which trebles his wealth and the novel ends - it really does just whimper to a close.

The character of the Colonel is an interesting one. He is an innovator and a pretty optimistic soul. He sees something and improves it, often in a humane way. He has a photographic memory of everything he ever stole, those items obviously being of worth to him as prizes as well as food. He has a notion that Defoe seems to admire of ‘just getting on with it’. He’s also a bit like Del Boy, moving from one thing to the next knowing that ‘this time next year, we’ll be millionaires’. Like Del Boy, the Colonel is a chancer, willing to take any opportunity.

Weirdly for one of these books, he never finds his old family or inherits off them or anything…not sure if I am disappointed or pleasantly surprised. It does emphasise the fact that, at this stage in its progress, the English novel (or the species of writing that will become the English novel) is more a vaguely logical construction of events rather than what we would recognise as a plot.
 This lack of a plot is a fatal flaw to the enjoyment of the book as a whole, but that is not to say it is not an enjoyable book - it is actually very enjoyable. Defoe’s wish to create and maintain the verisimilitude of the book means that we get hundreds of fascinating details about every aspect of the Colonel’s life. The reader gets an apprenticeship into c18th crime; a revised ‘how-to’ manual on how to treat black slaves; an account of being a merchant and all manner of interesting details.

 I think Defoe was missing a trick with his three Jacks, if he had kept all three going, comparing and contrasting their lives throughout, there may have been more feeling of structure - although that may have introduced too much artifice into the story and taken away from the realistic tone.