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Meeting the squire of Levington Park, JP Donleavy

The news that JP Donleavy  - author, playwright, litigant and squire  - died earlier this week has reminded me of one of the more peculiar meetings I had while researching a biography of our mutual friend Willie Donaldson in 2006. Donleavy's early novels, The Ginger Man, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B and The Onion Eaters, had been a revelation to me when I read them in my early twenties. He was one of a small group of writers  (Frederick Exley was another)  who reminded me that fiction could be wild, subversive, sexy, skittish  - and serious. They showed me that writing could be fun. After three years of reading English at Cambridge, that was an eye-opener to me. JP Donleavy - 'Mike' to his friends - had worked with Willie Donaldson when Willie was a producer in the 1960s. With his friend Lord Dynevor, Willie put on the play...

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Songs from the van #2: Disappear

Here's a song written on a February day, and it has a distinctly February-ish message. Luckily spring came along just in time and, now that autumn is here, it feels positively jaunty... https://youtu.be/VqVUfwvrFtM

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Introducing… Songs From the Van

Recently, I've taken to writing songs in a field. There, well away from human habitation, I'm lucky enough to have an old gypsy caravan (or, to be less romantic and more accurate, an old road-workers' wagon). It is not the last word in comfort but, vibe-wise, it can't be beaten. It's isolated. When I work in the house, there is always the sense that, beyond a wall, there might someone =- perhaps an innocent passer-by, wincing as a gurgle and warble and curse and thrash my guitar. Even Ruby the dog, once photographed duetting with me on the van, has recently decided that keeping me company is too great a test of her loyalty. In a fit of egotism, I took a camera to my new workplace last week and filmed myself singing a couple of songs. Even when you finish a song, it never quite there until it has...

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We’re with stupid – the seductive lure of idiocy on the left and the right

Soon after the death of Fidel Castro, I pointed out somewhere online that, for all its brave resistance to the crude might of the United States, the Cuban regime did have the unpleasant habit of locking up those who disagreed with it.  Kangaroo courts had sentenced writers, academics, teachers and librarians for up to 28 years in jail for the crime of arguing for democracy. This was an awkward truth for those who see global politics in terms of good guys and bad guys.  Surely, to any person of liberal sensibility, Fidel was one of the good guys. Could it really be true that he was sending writers to rot in jail? Amnesty and PEN International could produce all the evidence they wanted but still, it just felt wrong. Perhaps that was why Cuba's most vocal champions, from Ken Livingstone to Oliver Stone, could never bring themselves to condemn this...

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Exit, Royal Joker

It was, even by the standards of the British royal family, an extraordinary revelation. The Duke of Edinburgh, according to a report by the veteran court correspondent Talbot Church, had been causing more concern than usual in royal circles with his unscripted, off-the-cuff comments. Shortly before Prince William married Kate Middleton in 2011, he had accompanied the Queen to meet the bride-to-be's parents. Hearing that Carole Middleton had been a flight attendant, he had asked her, "Is it true what they say about air stewardesses?" Weeks earlier, during the state visit of President Sarkozy of France and his wife, he had glanced at Mme Sarkozy and muttered to the president, "Punching a bit above your weight there, aren't you, old chum?" The problem, Church revealed to readers of the Independent, was that the Duke was now suffering from an unusual royal form of Tourette's syndrome. When he met someone, he...

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The art of not writing – some practical guidance

  I recently came across a literary quotation by Hugh Grant. Asked by an interviewer about whether he wanted to write, he came up with an impressively honest answer. ‘It’s actually more comfortable to think I could write a novel than to discover that you can’t,' he said. That spoke to me, as I go through what could politely be called a post-novel fallow period, and reminded me of a piece I once wrote about the art of being a non-writing writer. Here it is...   In response to the many successful author-based columns – ‘My Favourite Character in Fiction, ‘My Working Day’, ‘How I Write’ and so on – I have been asked to look at one of the most neglected, and least glamorous, areas of literary life. ‘How I Don’t Write’ will address those professionals who refuse to compromise their imaginative vision by reducing it to mere words....

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Crossing the line: when local politicians go bonkers

First, an apology. This is a small story. It is about a village, its school, some houses and a white line. It would not be out of place in one of the quieter episodes of The Archers. To some, the fact that I want to write about it may seem like the final, irrefutable evidence that life in the country has finally got to me and brambles have snagged my brain. My excuse is that sometimes an event which would cause less than the tiniest whisper in the busy outside world can resonate loudly if you are part of  a small community. As a result of this little village saga, I look at public life rather differently. For the first time, I understand the cynicism so many would-be voters have towards politics, the grinding rage of those on the outside. I used to be rather in favour of elites.  I...

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The wind whistling past your ears: dealing with the post-novel blues

It has gone. The piece of work which has occupied over the past couple of years, a novel, has left my desk to make its way in the blustery, chilly outside world. Almost certainly it will be back, nagging for attention of some kind, but right now I'm in that odd, conflicted state of mind when I am missing my characters while also being relieved that they have gone. 'Ah, you're at that stage when you can feel the wind whistling past your ears,' said a writer friend. 'The heady moment when you have taken flight.' That was it, I said. 'Those few seconds before you hit the pavement.' Whether or not the pavement is rushing towards me, I can't quite get away from the rather strange fictional world my brain has been inhabiting. The sensible next step would be to start something new,  but I always seem to require...

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‘Lady in Blue, Unidentified’ – a little vampire story for Halloween

I write this report on Christmas day in the library of Oxburgh Hall, an agreeable late-medieval moated house in Norfolk where I have been a guest for these past five days. By the end of this week, I am confident that my task will be complete. The vampires will be dead. No, please don't be alarmed. I shall not, in these pages, be taking you into the spooky world of heebie-jeebies and hobgoblins. It is the myth of the vampire that I am here to slay - the farrago of fictional nonsense (fangs! long cloak! crazed blood lust!) that shall be destroyed by the oldest weapon known to man. Reason. Logic. Our old friend, common sense. Because, although I earn my living from writing books for children (for telling tales in school, as it were!), I am essentially a man of fact. So when the publishers of this volume challenged...

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‘I began to dream of secret swimming holes and a journey of discovery….’ Roger Deakin, ten years on.

In about 1997, I was sharing a bottle of wine with my good friend and neighbour Roger Deakin in the garden of Walnut Tree Farm, his house in the Waveney Valley. Although his life was going through a period of restlessness and change, Roger was in good form. He was going to write a book, he told me. My spirits might have drooped a little at that point. Although Roger had written for magazines, I had always considered him more of film-maker than an author. But when he told me that his plan was to write a travel book, based broadly on John Cheever's short story 'The Swimmer', that he was going to take a swimming journey through Britain, my doubts disappeared: it was a brilliant and highly commercial idea. Then, or soon afterwards, he came up with his title - Waterlog. He wrote the book, disappearing for weeks in...

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