Monday, 29 March 2010

Suits you, sir!

Working from home is great, but it still has its pressures, not least the fact you no longer have a man with a whip standing over you shouting that it's time for ramming speed or possibly any speed at all.

 Such as: should I have another digestive biscuit with my tea or will it turn me into a fat(ter) b*****d?

Or: should I get up from my computer after less than an hour to take my nineteen-year-old son to work when it's not even raining and he could easily get there in twenty minutes without breaking sweat?

Problems, problems.

Today it's been my writing jumper.

I like my writing jumper. It's dark blue hundred per cent lambswool and I purchased it many years ago from David Thompson and sons of Jedburgh, my favourite shopping emporium. When I bought it, I thought it was just a single solid colour and it wasn't until I got it home that I saw it had 'Pringle' written across the side of it in letters twelve inches high. I still thought it was great until I wore it to a party at New Year and someone turned round, having noticed the letters Pri on the front, and asked me if it stood for Prick.

The jumper spent many New Years after that in exile in a drawer in my wardrobe, but when I started working from home I heard it calling me. It's the perfect writing jumper, really. It fits, in a loose kind of way that doesn't interfere with my typing. It's extremely comfortable and not at all scratchy. And it only has two holes in it.

The problem is that while I like my writing jumper everybody else in the house doesn't. To be honest they think it makes me look a bit of a Pri.

So that's this weeks dilemma. Do I ditch the wondrously crafted piece of kit that's become a tool (if you'll pardon the expression) of my trade or do I continue to rebel against the wishes of my extended family and stick two fingers up to what now counts as the Establishment?

Letters on a postcard to ...

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Jail break2

I had another visit to prison this week, to talk to a group from A wing (security prisoners) at Perth. 

It was a real eye-opener and much more forbidding than last week when we met in a small classroom. The one thing I noticed more than anything else is how, on a certain level, the staff, civilian and warders, are as much prisoners as the men they're guarding. 'A' wing is all barred windows and doors, six locks to get you from one area to another and intimidating looking young men standing around in bored suspicious groups. There was also a sense of the prisoners being much more institutionalised.

It was a different kind of discussion from the previous week because literacy levels were probably lower and I kept it very informal, but again the most interesting questions and interventions came from the people you least expected them to. 

When we were going up to the little chapel where I was giving the talk, Marianne, the jail's reader in residence, who had invited me, asked a young guy who was cleaning the floor why he wasn't coming. 'Because I think it'll be pants,' he said. She persuaded him to come along and give it a try and at the end he asked me for my autograph and invited me back, which is probably the best validation I've had yet!

Monday, 22 March 2010

The Forgotten Highlander

I've just been doing some reading for a talk Waterstones have asked me to chair by Alistair Urquhart, whose book The Forgotten Highlander, about his terrible experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore, has been storming the non-fiction sales charts.

Alistair's story is an incredible tale of heroism, hardship and survival under terrible conditions and at the hands of captors whose mercilessness was only outdone by their brutality. Yet it's also the story of the enduring qualities of the human spirit and how man can survive even in the most appalling conditions. Until he wrote his book, Alistair didn't talk about his experiences for sixty years. As a prisoner of the Japanese, he worked on the Burma railway and the infamous bridge over the River Kwai, survived being torpedoed by an American submarine and was finally held at a camp just eleven miles from the Nagasaki nuclear blast. When he returned home his family barely recognised him.

His story reminded me of a couple of people I knew in the early 1970s in Jedburgh; men who were old before their time, had suffered crippling injuries and who seldom spoke to anyone outside their immediate family. It wasn't until years later that I realised that they too had been prisoners in the Far East and had never recovered from their time in captivity. Neither of them lived long enough to collect the £10,000 the British government was eventually shamed into handing over as compensation to the survivors in the year 2000.

The venue for the event has still to be sorted out but I'm really looking forward to meeting this remarkable ninety-year-old who somehow manages to find positives in what he went through, despite never having fully recovered from the events of more than half a century ago.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Jail break

I've just got back from Perth prison and an afternoon giving a talk to ten prisoners about writing and Romans. The guys were a great audience, asked some very perceptive questions and generally appreciated me being there.
I even got a laugh when I told them writing Caligula had been like digging an escape tunnel from The Scotsman.
It's a grim place though, based around a prison for French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars, and just walking through rabbit warrens of corridors bounded by twenty-foot high walls topped by razor wire gave a real sense of being in another world. I've heard all the arguments about prisons being cushy these days, but the loss of personal freedoms, like freedom of movement and freedom of choice, and deprivation of liberty, shouldn't be underestimated. If prison is supposed to be a deterrent it looked as if it was doing a good job.
The talk was part of a series I'm doing under the auspices of the Scottish Book Trust and I'll be doing another three across the country over the next month or so.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Guilty pleasures

When you give up what has been your life to become a writer you hope for the best and know you'll just have to deal with all the baggage that comes with your decision.

What you can't prepare for, because nobody's warned you about it or written about it, is the guilt.

Just after Christmas I had a couple of weeks off to concentrate on research and some new ideas I'd come up with. It was a perfectly professional thing to do and what I achieved in that couple of weeks will hopefully one day help to deal with the aforesaid baggage. So why did I wake up every morning feeling guilty that I wasn't working? All day long my fingers would be itching to get back to the keyboard and start pounding away. My brain would be telling itself it couldn't afford to be taking this holiday.

It might be a hangover from the days in a structured working environment when, to a certain extent, if you weren't working you weren't earning. But the real answer, I think, is something I suspect just about every writer, no matter how successful, faces: the fear that if you stay away from a book for too long you might lose whatever it is that made you a writer in the first place.

When I finally got down to the serious job of writing my next book I felt a huge sense of relief when, after the usual jumpy start, the paragraphs started flowing and the characters formed in my head and began talking to me the way they sometimes do. It doesn't matter that I'll be more or less chained to the keyboard for the next X months, or that when I finally get up off the writing chair at night after X hours and X thousand words I'll be completely knackered. Because at this moment I'm still a writer.