A Guide To The Pubs Of Britain

I like pubs,and not just for the amber stuff.  Map out any history of writing in Britain and you’ll find pubs woven into the heart of it.  Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London has entertained the likes of Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton, Samuel Johnson, Alfred Lord Tennyson and P G Wodehouse since the first iteration appeared on the site in 1538.  The Cheese is not alone.  Any pub tour of London is a tour of creativity.

Although writers have always looked for ways to bypass the conscious mind to get to the unconscious where all the creative heavy lifting is done – drink, drugs, shamanic drumming and dervish dancing – it’s not really about the booze.  It’s the space itself that’s important.

In the 1970s, Japanese architects turned away from the concept of a house as a machine for living.  Their new abstraction was that it could be a space of alternate reality, protected from the harshness of the outside world.  Kazuyo Sejima, for example, has designed living spaces that she sees as both introverted and extroverted, virtual and physical.

And this has always been the value of pubs to the creative.  They are liminal zones, dream-spaces, both a part of the world and set aside from it.  The unconscious adjacent to the conscious.  Stepping across the threshold, you accept a new set of liberating rules.  Hedonism is acceptable.  Quiet reflection.  Volubility, free of constraints.  A place of both solitude, where thoughts can arise and take form, and connection with other human beings from all walks of life, free of social rules.

The sensory aspects are important – the gloom, sometimes, or the points of light, the ale-smells and rumble of voices.  Drift in this circumscribed ritual space detached from the mundane world and the shackles reality imposes fall away.

There’s a reason why George Orwell felt driven to write a long essay about his imagined ideal pub, the Moon Under Water. Why Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys before him hung out at The Grapes in Limehouse.  Why Dylan Thomas left his manuscript for Under Milk Wood in The French House in Soho and why Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes all socialise in the Pillars of Hercules, also in Soho, where Dickens also used to drink.

I went to my first pub with friends from school when I was 16.  A pint of fizzy lager, a rite of passage, the feeling of transgression that all creators need.  Since then I’ve drank in pubs all over Britain, created stories, written novels, dreamed up TV shows and film scripts.  They’re vital places – not just for us creatives, but also for the communities they serve.  These days they’re under threat.  In the UK, twenty-nine pubs close every week, driven out of business by shockingly poor management by the industrial pub chains, and by social changes.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  The flagship Wandsworth Council has brought in new planning rules to protect important pubs.  All councils could do that if they were so minded.

But in the meantime we need to celebrate what we have.  I plan to write a regular guide here to the pubs that matter, to me, to us all.  Ones that have a weight of history and tradition, that are doing something different, haunted pubs, unique pubs, but most of all those Dionysian pagan temples to creativity.

Some of the early ones I’ll be writing about will be in London, but I’m always travelling so the aim is to cover pubs in all parts of the country.  If you have any ones you think are worth checking out, mention them in the comments and why you think they’re special.  I don’t need much arm twisting to have a pint in somewhere new.

The first entry in the Guide to British Pubs really has to be my local.  It’s the place where I wrote a big chunk of Pendragon (available now for pre-order, drinking buddies).  Watch for it here soon, and then others at an irregular pace in the weeks and months to come.  These will be the best of the best, ones worth visiting, somewhere you can conjure up your own stories.

Ideas And How To Get Them – A Hack

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Good ideas are a writer’s currency.  But they can be hard to come by in a torrent of deadlines and life stresses.  Here I’ll tell you a simple hack that will get them when you need them.

I say ‘writer’s currency’ but good ideas are key to anybody who makes a living out of what’s inside their head – that can be music, art, games design, running a business, science and tech development, and more.  These people are the future.

Why?  Because within five to ten years nearly 50% of jobs are going to disappear as a result of the widespread disruption caused by technological advances.  Most of those will be jobs where you turn up, get told what to do, and get paid.

The ones that will survive and thrive are the ones where ideation is at their core – the creation of new ideas, because, for the near-future, tech just isn’t very good at coming up with new ideas.  So if you want to future-proof your life, as much as possible, or the lives of your kids, start finding a way to put your ideas at the heart of your earning.  You’ll probably be significantly happier too.

As an aside, I wanted to share an observation from talking to TV producers and book editors.  When anyone has an idea for a new work, they think it’s great, unique, because it’s surfaced for the first time in their head, often in a roundabout fashion, and no one else could possibly have had it.  Then they get annoyed when outsiders aren’t impressed.  Some get very angry indeed, and start raging about ‘gatekeepers’, and a conspiracy to keep them out of the marketplace.  Don’t know why this conspiracy would ever exist.  It’s often not best to start delving into other people’s psychology.

The truth is, your idea is probably not unique, no matter how it *feels*.  It may not even be any good.

And usually, despite the no doubt excellent quality of the writing, it is nearly always about the idea.

The people who commission books and TV shows and films stand under a torrent of submitted works, sometimes hundreds a week, all of which are presumed to be unique by their creators.  They’ve probably seen your great, novel idea five times that week alone, because – simply – we’re all swimming in the same cultural ocean and we soak up the same influences that cause ideas to grow.

Here’s the thing.  If you’re ‘thinking’ about an idea, it’s probably not going to be unique.  That’s because any idea of any value comes from the unconscious mind, that dark, shadowy place at the back of your head that you’re never allowed into.  It filters, makes connections, shapes, develops, and produces something that is unique to you – the sum total of everything you are.

This is why you often have your best ideas when you’re in the shower, or exercising, or immersed in a film, when the conscious mind has slipped into low-level mode and the unconscious gets to shout just loud enough to be heard.

All the successful creative/business/scientific/techie people you see have found some way to access that fantastic store of ideas.  I have a few myself.

But here’s that one particular hack.  Before you go to sleep, perhaps for a few hours before, get your mind running on whatever you want to work on.  Set your alarm to wake you in your deep sleep cycle, say around four hours later.  You’ll have your solution, and probably four or five other workable ideas too, all bubbling up out of the unconscious stew.

Some you can quite happily toss out.  But others may well be life-changing.

Writing By Example: The Silence Of The Lambs

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If you want to be a writer, take a look at Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs.  Read it.  Read it another ten times, tear it apart, analyse it, and then read it again.  The book remains a masterpiece of genre writing, and it’s one I return to time and again.

If you’d rather focus your study, zoom in on just two chapters: the first two encounters between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter.  These capture everything that Harris is doing with this book, the deep themes, the sub-text.  The writing is sparse.  Descriptions are kept to a minimum, and when they do come, they seem lush by comparison.  Three lines tell you all you ever need to know about Lecter. Most of the writing here is dialogue, and dialogue without tags. But in that speech, you not only hear the distinctive voices of the two characters, you also understand their psychology, their motivations, their lives. From these two chapters, you could write your own story of Starling and Lecter because you understand them fully.

The Silence of the Lambs is Harris’ best book by far.  (I have a slowly-forming theory about The Power of the Third Book – see also, Gillian Flynn and Gone Girl. The first is the adrenaline rush. The second is refinement. The third is where everything learned is put into effect. Writers hate to repeat themselves so they change it all up for the fourth and get it all wrong again.)

The true power of this novel comes when you understand that a vast amount of the story exists away from the page, between the lines, in the motivations of the characters. The reader deciphers it unconsciously, and consciously with a little effort. That shows a writer who is the master of his work.

The campaign between FBI boss Jack Crawford and Lecter, personal, multi-layered, cruelly manipulative, is all implicit. The novel is deeply about psychology and psychoanalysis – that is clear on any surface reading. But that is also stitched into the hidden story. What is Lecter *really* doing with Starling?

Most importantly, Harris illustrates a powerful rule for writing: complex, not complicated. (Complicated is one line that ties itself in knots to seem interesting. Complex is layers set upon each other, every one influencing the rest.) The plot is simple, but the effect is powerful and haunting, even on multiple readings.

The 21st Century Writer

(Or: I am not a lazy git.)

It’s probably fair to say that about 80% of a writer’s labours are hidden from public view.  They’re the projects that never quite come together, or never get picked up, for a whole variety of reasons.  The pitches that seem to be going somewhere, and then die at the last – and this is particularly true of the TV world, where only a tiny fraction of what is written actually makes it to the screen.  The articles that get bumped from magazines, or websites, or newspapers, because something more newsworthy has just surfaced.

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I work at my writing constantly.  Five days a week, sometimes more.  It’s my job, it’s my life.  A book with my name on it may crop up once a year, sometimes with even longer breaks, so it’s easy to think I while away my hours drinking in the local pub or wandering the world, watching the clouds pass by.  (I do both, just not all the time.)  What you don’t get to hear about are all the pieces of work that never break surface, because: what’s the point?  But here’s what I have been doing:

No ‘Mark Chadbourn’ book recently?  That’s because I’ve been writing a series of books under the pseudonym I’ve reserved for historical fiction (to avoid confusion among readers, booksellers and marketing people) – James Wilde.  These books have made The Times best-seller list, so as people are keen to keep reading them, I feel an obligation to keep writing them.  I’ve just signed a three-book deal with Penguin Random House for a new series which will be of interest to James Wilde readers *and* Mark Chadbourn readers (particularly if you liked Age of Misrule).

I also work extensively as a screenwriter – 26 hours of produced work for the BBC under my belt to date.  I’m currently developing several new series for broadcasters around the world, and working on a film script.  My near-future SF series, Shadow State, is in the hands of a US network.  My book, Testimony, an investigation into a British Amityville, is being developed for UK and international TV.  I have a political thriller and a crime series also in development.  It’s a long road from here to any of these projects appearing on a screen near you, and they all might fall at any one of the numerous obstacles.  But, you know: paid work.

One of my favourite TV writers is Nigel Kneale, the creator of Quatermass, and I’m writing an extended piece about him for We Are The Martians: The Legacy of Nigel Kneale, a new book looking at his life and work in TV and film.  This will be a great book with some fantastic contributors, so definitely check it out if you have any interest in F/SF/H, TV, film, or just the work of a quality writer.

And on top of all the writing and the endless, endless meetings, I do various talks, lectures, and signings here and there.  The next one is a screenwriting workshop at the Derby Book Festival Writers’ Day.

All of which makes an interesting point about what it takes to be a full-time writer in the 21st century.  Only a very,very few writers make a good living from novels.  A publishing industry on the ropes has slashed advances, and the black arts of publishing accounting means royalties sometimes take a while to surface in your bank (most authors don’t even make any royalties).  The choice for many is to hold down a full-time job and scribble away in the evenings.

But I like my freedom.  It’s been a long time since I was a wage-slave, working as a journalist on the national papers in London.  I’m pretty much unemployable now.  But I also like to eat.  And, you know, have an amazing time travelling the world and being louche in new locales.  So the wise thing is to cast my net wide and put my writing to work in different media.  Eggs/baskets etc.

But then, if you’re a writer, why wouldn’t you?  Story telling is the same all over.  Once you’ve mastered the new skill-set for a new medium, you’re drawing on the same natural ability wherever you’re employed: your ideas.

A film script is a palate-cleanser after a novel, and vice versa.  Journalism and comics and TV all have their particular joys, and they all complement each other.  In the multi-media, cross-platform, constantly mutating 21st century, why would any writer want to limit their storytelling to only one area?

 

TV Drama Writers Festival 2014

I’ll be in London for this on July 2nd.  Looks like it’s shaping up to be a great event with some of the leading screenwriters in the UK, TV commissioners and other industry professionals on stage to talk about opportunities and obstacles in the coming twelve months.

The festival is organised by the BBC and is open to all screenwriters who’ve had work on air.  Scanning the list of speakers, I see Tony Jordan, Jed Mercurio and Sally Wainwright are there, along with BBC boss Ben Stephenson, and top people from Sky and ITV.  If anyone’s interested, I’ll probably be tweeting some of the most important information to arise out of the sessions.

I’m particularly interested in a session on how streaming TV – Netflix, Lovefilm, X-Box and the rest – is likely to affect the traditional TV landscape.  This world is changing fast.

You can find more here at the BBC Writers Room.