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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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They’re off! My story RACING MANHATTAN is published today.

I was born into a family that loved horses. My father was an international show-jumper and amateur jockey. My mother was a brilliant horsewoman who had ridden all her life. My brother Philip and I hadn't been long in this world before we were sitting on a small felt saddle on top of a pony. I rode Blackberry, he rode Snowball. As I grew older, ponies and horses were at the centre of my life. I kept scrapbooks full of pictures and stories from the racing pages of the newspapers. I idolised certain racehorses  - Pas Seul, Mill House, Arkle. While other boys dreamed of becoming footballers, I knew what I wanted to do. I would be a top amateur jockey and racing journalist who would win great races and then, vividly yet modestly, write about them. It never quite worked out like that. Philip became a successful professional jockey....

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The spark of an idea… the rewrite… publication day. When is the best moment in a writer’s life?

Talking to the New York Times in 1936, Cole Porter took an unsentimental view of his work when it was completed. 'The moment the curtain rises on the opening night, I say to myself: “There she goes” and I’ve bid good-bye to my baby,' he said. ' The minute that it is exposed to its premiere audience... I feel that it’s no longer mine.’ Novelists, from Flaubert to Sillitoe have taken a similar view. Once a book is published, the consensus seems to be, it has gone. I am exactly a week away from that 'There she goes' moment. I have written a novel for young readers called Racing Manhattan. Because, in the messy, indirect way of fiction, it reaches back to an intense time in my youth when I was obsessed by riding racehorses, writing the story was an unusually heartfelt process, and so the farewell feels quite personal....

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‘Tricked once more…’. Happy birthday, Dr Dylan

Today's the birthday of Bob Dylan. Here's a piece I wrote in 2005 when Dylan was nominated (unsuccessfully - again) for the Nobel Prize: It was an odd kind of funeral. The deceased had lived a full and somewhat rackety life, and most of those who had come to bid farewell were, like him, brave and scruffy individualists. But the church service had gone wrong somehow. The vicar misjudged his congregation; there was a mismatch between the stolid pieties of established religion and the wayward spirits of the largely hippyish congregation. After the service, the coffin was borne on a horse-drawn cart through the streets of the town and out into the country where, on a patch of private woodland next to a common, the grave had been dug. We gathered around the hole in the ground, some of us feeling odd demoralised by the dreary church service. At that...

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