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.

Alan Moore And The Art Of Magic…And Writing

Image courtesy of Joe Brown
Image courtesy of Joe Brown

A few wise words…many wise words…from Alan Moore on imagination, creativity, writing, and magic. He’s long been an inspiration, and I’m very much looking forward to his novel Jerusalem.

“As previously stated, it is my position that art, language, consciousness and magic are all aspects of the same phenomenon. With art and magic seen as almost wholly interchangeable, the realm of the imagination becomes crucial to both practices.”

And this:

“The Bardic tradition of magic, when satires were justifiably more feared than curses and when the creator was respected as a powerful magician rather than as someone getting by out on the fringes of the entertainment industry, is one that today’s artists, occultists and writers would do well to reacquaint themselves with. You can kill or cure with a word. Get off of your knees.”

Everything is here.

 

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.

Finding Fantasy In The Past – The People

There are ethical problems wrapped up in writing historical fiction. Should you use a real, once-living person as a character in your fiction? Their lives reduced to nothing more than plot points and themes? In essence, a human being’s existence shackled to the pursuit of the writer’s own ego?

Would you want some future author to make you the bad guy in their little story, the walk-on joke, the mumbling idiot, the obstacle?

And let’s face it, we don’t even know what the people around us are truly like, never mind those who existed hundreds of years ago. In those cases, we often only have a few scraps of paper to sketch out the things they did, with little hint to their motivation.

This becomes even more of an issue in fantasy, where the historical characters are divorced from the realities of their lives. It’s something I’ve certainly struggled with while writing the Swords of Albion books, which utilise a host of real people from the Elizabethan age. To be honest, even after writing I find it hard to decide if it was the right thing to do. I justified it to myself by my attempts to make the historical figures as true to how contemporary accounts described them, but that still leaves a great deal of psychological gap-filling.

The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men are set around the Court and Government of Queen Elizabeth, but she plays only a secondary role. I have less interest in the cosseted lives of Kings and Queens than I do in the men and women who do their bidding.

The stories concern spies, who had, for the first time, become a powerful weapon of the state in this era. And so in the first book one of the central characters is the spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, a dour, puritanical man who suffered much personal misery in his life, but who gave his all in service to the Queen. His successor in The Scar-Crow Men is Sir Robert Cecil, a clever, cunning politician who battled against prejudice and mockery for his hunchback and short stature – the Queen called him her ‘Little Elf’. These two men represent different approaches to power and control, one quite honorable, the other self-serving. They act as counterpoints to the flawed, vacillating central character, the spy Will Swyfte.

Swyfte’s friend is the acclaimed playwright Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare who wrote Dr Faustus and Tamburlaine among other plays. He was something of a rising celebrity at the time. He may have been a spy (there is some evidence); he may have been gay. In the books, Marlowe is another counterpoint to Swyfte, a man slowly being destroyed by the dark business of spying and the demands placed upon him by service to the state. Marlowe allows the reader to see Swyfte’s strengths and flaws more easily.

Despite my antipathy towards the lives of Royalty, the fact that important people play important roles is inescapable in this era. The common man was mainly concerned with simple economic survival. And so, as Swyfte travels the known world in his spying, we encounter James VI of Scotland (and future James I of England), Philip II of Spain and Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV of France. Each one responds – and responded – in different ways to their regal status, and again, each one allows us to see Swyfte in a different light.

Dr John Dee is a key figure in both books, and the third, to come, and he really is the link between the history and the fantasy. Dee, who tutored the young Elizabeth, was both a scientist and an occultist, an inventor and mathematician who communed with angels and cast magic circles. Many of the themes I’m tackling have Dee at their centre.

There are others – Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, the Earls of Leicester and Essex, the master criminal Laurence Pickering, the King of Cutpurses, who may or may not have been an invention of the Elizabethan equivalent of the tabloids. Each one was chosen carefully for what they said about Will Swyfte, in the same way that any writer chooses supporting fictional characters.

I hope I did them justice, but know in my heart I didn’t. No writer could.

Finding Fantasy In the Past – The World

When I decided I was going to write an historical fantasy, the attractions of the Elizabethan era were many. It was, for one, a time very much like our own, when society was going through massive changes – a rapid increase in new technology changing the way people lived their lives, foreign wars over resources and in pursuit of power, religious intolerance and religiously-motivated acts against the state funded by foreign powers, heightened surveillance at home, a fear of foreigners among the common man, rising wealth for a few but near-poverty for many, and massive leaps forward in art, literature and music. Not only would we understand the Elizabethan man and woman, there were stark resonances with our own age that would add a nice layer of complexity to any story.

Spain was the sixteenth century equivalent of the US, a global superpower influencing geo-politics at many levels. Under King Philip, the country ruthlessly pursued power and wealth, invading Portugal and putting pressure on France and the Low Countries while exploiting the New World’s resources of gold and silver. Though a devout man, Philip was not averse to using religion as a cover for some of Spain’s more aggressive actions and thereby keeping his subjects firmly behind him.

Beside Spain, England was a small nation with ambition and pluck, but little real power and no great wealth. Thanks to Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic church, the nation lived in a near-constant state of fear of either retribution from the Catholic powers of Europe or insurrection within from Catholic agitators. Young priests were being trained in foreign seminaries and sent to England to foment revolution and to spy. The Government feared Philip’s expansionist policy and rumours of an invasion of England began long before the Armada set sail.

This was a dark time of terror and sweat and deceit. Yet in a sequence of stories that were essentially about duality, I could also look to the other, more positive face of the time. This, too, was the English Renaissance, with Shakespeare, Marlowe, Spenser, Bacon and other writers blazing a trail, alongside composers like Tallis and Taverner, and architects like Inigo Jones. There was a great deal of enlightenment after long centuries of moral repression. Brothels were tolerated, including one composed entirely of young men. London was growing at an astonishing rate – faster than it could truly cope – and had become one of the great cities of Europe. So it was an exciting, vibrant time too.

The stories were to be about the point where fantasy collided with reality, but the more I researched, the more comparable and contextual collisions I found – socially, culturally, religious, political. Any fantasy – any story – needs a rich world and plenty of innate conflict. It was all here.

And while England was increasingly embracing what would come to be science, it still had the supernatural fears of past centuries at its back. The Elizabethan era was really the point where the country was caught between reason and unreason, hope and fear, past and future.

With the idea of a country trying to move forward while held back by the hooks of a superstitious past came the opening for my antagonists, the otherworldly Unseelie Court. Their existence was encoded in every myth and legend and folktale; the English had always lived in fear of the Fair Folk. But under Queen Elizabeth, England wanted to break free of their shackles and move into a new, brighter age.

Next time I’ll look at some of the historical characters who populate The Sword of Albion and The Scar-Crow Men and why I chose them.

Finding Fantasy In The Past

The Scar-Crow Men, the second of my Elizabethan fantasy novels, is out soon in the US and UK. It’s fantasy noir, renaissance punk, historical fantasy, sword and sorcery, historical urban fantasy or one of half a dozen other labels, depending on who’s speaking. Like some of my other work, the story exists at the point where the fantastic smashes up hard against reality, only in this sequence that reality is in the past, five hundred years gone, among well-documented, pivotal events.

Writing historical fantasy – to adopt the broadest label – has its own peculiar demands. We’re talking about an alien world here, with its own customs, clothes, politics, transport, weapons, social classes, art, music and economy and every aspect needs to be fully realized for the reader to settle into it.

To say this entails a massive amount of research, doesn’t begin to do the job justice. The writer needs to understand everything, both as its own thing and in context within the time period. This involves more than the invention of a secondary world fantasy, more than looking out of the window or Googling or location research for a contemporary fantasy (both of which I’ve written in the past).

Our knowledge of history degrades the further back we go. Characters walk on stage and then disappear. Our understanding of events is based on often-biased accounts. And sometimes there are vast parts of life that are simply missing in contemporary accounts.

The Elizabethan Age is reasonably well-documented, particularly with regard to affairs of state. The lives of the common men and women are there too, but the information is scattered widely. While writing this sequence, I sometimes had to embark on three different strands of research for a single sentence.

The Scar-Crow Men unfolds in the shadow of the murder of the playwright Christopher Marlowe, a killing that has all the mystery and intrigue of the JFK assassination. The previous volume, The Sword of Albion (or The Silver Skull in the US), is set at the time of the Armada and the Spanish invasion of England.

Over a few posts here I’m going to be writing about what goes into creating these historical fantasies, looking at the places, the people, the milieu, not only setting the context but also underlining the basic premise that the more reality you get, the more effective the fantasy.

Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Here’s an excellent short lecture by Sir Ken Robinson (and very funny too – he’s a natural stand-up).

“The school system came into being to meet the needs of industrialisation… You were probably steered away from things you liked doing as a kid on the grounds that you would never get a job doing it. Don’t do music – you won’t be a musician. Don’t do art – you won’t be an artist. Benign advice. Now, profoundly mistaken.”