Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Enough already

I suppose I must have had the same New Year's resolutions for about thirty years - don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with them. Having failed to attend to those resolutions, I then add more, so that I am now like Marley's ghost, dragging chains of these things, each link a reminder of some perceived inadequacy or shortcoming.

The other thing that seems to have happened as I have become older is that the list of things I feel I ought to start doing on a regular basis now far outweighs the things I think I ought to stop doing. I don't so much have bad habits now as bad character traits - or at least character traits I have decided I would be better off without.

Maybe I'm too boring now. Maybe I ought to do a kind of reverse resolution list: I must be more aggressive to complete strangers. I must eat more red meat and exercise less. I must drink more and learn to juggle with knives. I must swear more. I must totally lose contact with all my friends and family. I must try and be less tolerant of other people's stupid ideas. . .

But enough already. I hereby pardon myself from all my past unresolved resolutions. In fact this year, my new New Year's resolution is not to make any New Year's resolutions.

Apart from that one.

The one about not making any.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Buone Natale!

We spent Christmas in Venice this year. My son was given the choice of the usual pile of presents or a holiday. He chose Venice.

And it was a good choice. I don't think we will ever see St Mark's Square so empty and despite the fact that the city had the worst floods for several decades in early December, there was less sign of flooding this this time than there was when we visited in October 2007. Back then there was a queue stretching out of the Doge's Palace and right round the building. This time we walked straight in.

The skies were clear and blue the whole time apart from two wonderfully atmospheric misty days. . .

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Number four all over

It is 1979 and I am so desperate to look cool that I am smoking. I don't smoke anymore, I should hasten to add. It is, of course, a disgusting habit and, as this photograph clearly shows, does not so much make you look cool, as makes you look worried.

Or a little bit like an unconvincing undercover member of the vice squad.

I am modelling a borrowed leather jacket and suede shoes. The haircut is a 'number 4 all over'.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Leather tie and big badge

Here I am in about 1977. The photograph was taken one morning as we set off to college by my old friend Alan Adler. I don't look too thrilled at either the prospect of study or of being photographed. I seem to be going for a young Bob Dylan/John Cooper-Clarke look here. I notice that I am wearing my old school blazer and what - if memory serves - was a leather tie. I can't remember what the enormous badge said, but I'm sure it was pithy.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

School tie and purple shirt

So here I am in Manchester in what I'm guessing to be about 1978. I look quite cross about something. I may have been trying to look cool. Or it may have been something to do with the itchy purple nylon shirt I was wearing (a shirt that was a favourite because it was vile). I may be wearing my old school tie.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

I wanna destroy passers by. . .

We went to a party at Joad Raymond's house yesterday. I have never really got the knack of parties. I always mean to mingle, but I rarely do. I seem to end up with someone I already know and talk to them over the surrounding noise until I am hoarse. So it was, pretty much, this time.

I had a long chat to my friend Paul Grunfeld who at one point told me how he used to be a punk, the image of which I have struggled to get out of my head ever since. Paul must have been the most charming, well-spoken and polite punk in the land! But it did get me thinking about my time at college in the late seventies. . .

I was at Manchester between 1976 and 1980. Punk took off as I arrived, but I struggle to think of many 'punks' at the art college apart from maybe the artist and musician Linder who was a couple of years ahead of me doing Graphic Design and going out with Howard Devoto of the Buzzocks and then Magazine (a favourite band of mine).

I suppose the problem is that punk has come to mean something different. If you say 'punk' to someone now, they see one of those sad King's Road types with their spiked crest and piercings, but punk was never that clear a style. Being a punk was not like being a skinhead or a teddy boy: there was no dress code. It was supposed to anarchic for goodness sake. If you look at a photograph of a punk gig from the time, you will struggle to find anyone who looks like a 'punk'. Punk was as much an attitude as anything else.

Punk was also, to my mind, a very young and suburban kind of a thing. I already felt too old at 19/20. In any case I remember finding the music faintly ridiculous on first hearing, though that changed quite quickly. But I think I was always more interested in American bands like Television and Patti Smith and Richard Hell than I was with The Vibrators or The Adverts (though I saw the Clash and the Buzzcocks and many, many others, many, many times). I still get a buzz out of hearing the odd blast from that era but I hate nostalgia. It's lazy and dishonest.

Punk was too visceral and raw to ever be widely popular and even those who took part got tired of its limitations. I can remember watching Magazine walk off twice because people were spitting at them - a shower of spittle being the equivalent to a standing ovation in 1978). As far as they were concerned punk was over and they wanted to move on. And so did we all, really. Spitting is not a very accurate form of applause and I liked to be near the front.

The punks I knew that used to hang out at the Student's Union bar in Manchester and come to the gigs there and at the other small venues like Rafters or the Russell Club, were not art students at all. Most art students I knew were very, very straight and conservative, whatever the caricature of them being wild and crazy might be. Soul and disco, reggae and funk music were a much bigger deal to most art students I knew in the late seventies and you were much more likely to hear Bob Marley or Funkadelic on someone's record player (you may need to Google this term if you are under 40) than the Clash.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

So cold

I went to the studio yesterday for the first time in ages. It was so cold, I just put my coat back on and left after about ten minutes.

I went again today, but it was just as cold. I did stick it out a bit longer this time, but I had lost contact with my feet by the time I left. There is a romantic idea of artists and writers freezing away in garrets, so I suppose I'm embracing the cliche.

But not with any enthusiasm.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Hitchin Boys

I went to Hitchin Boys School yesterday to give a talk about my illustration work for a change. Tom Pitchford, the librarian there, had invited me back after I visited the school last year to talk about my writing. It was a pleasure to be back.

I decided that I would use the visit to experiment with PowerPoint and so made a little slide show of my work in advance and put it on a memory stick. Of course it didn't work.

To be fair, it was not the fault of PowerPoint. But because I was relying so heavily on technology, the glitches we had with the projector in the hall were pretty distracting. The IT people did get the thing working eventually and it worked fine for the second session. As frustrating as it was, I still came away thinking that this was definitely the way to go. Next time, though I would take my laptop instead of using a memory stick and thereby have that little bit more control over things.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Jail-breaker Jack

Many years ago - when I had just begun to write for children - I did an illustration job for Anne Clark when she was at Hodder (she is now at the Piccadilly Press). It was for a book by John and Mary Gribben called What's the Big Idea - Chaos and Uncertainty.

I got on very well with Anne - and it occurs to me now that I have not spoken to her in over two years - and when I dropped the illustrations off, we went for lunch. During our conversation she asked me if I had ever considered writing non-fiction for children. I said I had.

Anne is one of the very best editors I have worked with. She was very patient with me given that I had barely written anything before meeting her, and she taught me a lot. We went on to work together on two of my favourite and least successful books (in sales terms) to date (neither are in print). One was Witch Hunt, about the Salem witch trials; the other was Jail-breaker Jack about the notorious 18th Century thief and prison breaker, Jack Sheppard. Sheppard was arguably the most famous man in the world at one point - albeit postumously. He was like some bizarre cross between Ronnie Biggs and David Beckham.

Jail-breaker Jack was stuffed full of illustrations. Here are a few of them. Oh - and I did the curly lettering as well. . .

There was also a strip picture section when he makes his most famous escape from Newgate. This was not my idea - there was a print available shortly after the escape that uses a kind of strip form, and George Cruikshank used it as well when he illustrated William Harrison Ainsworth's novel Jack Sheppard

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Tom Marlowe

I've been scanning in a load of things for a talk I'm giving tomorrow at Hitchin Boy's School. I think I'll share some of them with you over the next few days. Here are some chapter headings from my Tom Marlowe books for Random House. . .

Monday, 24 November 2008


I was clearing out my office and found these. They are not exactly typical of my work. They were just some doodles with left over gouache. But I quite like them. . .

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Now we are ten

I watched the last in the BBC4 Picture Book series. This last programme was about illustrated books for older children and it was probably the weakest of the three. It did not seem to know whether it was a programme about children's literature or illustration - as if a programme about illustrators would not quite be enough.

Ardizzone was in there again, this time for Stig of the Dump (see my earlier posting). Tom's Midnight Garden was also featured and Martin Salisbury gave a thoughtful and justifiably glowing assessment of Susan Einzig's lovely illustrations.

Philip Pullman's little illustrations at the beginning of the chapters in Northern Lights are superb I think. Author's illustrations are always fascinating, but often the skill level is fairly low. Pullman's pictures are very accomplished and sophisticated - more designs than illustrations perhaps, but incredibly evocative.

Neil Gaiman's collaborator, Dave McKean was featured too, but this time for a book with David Almond - The Savage. I like Dave McKean best when you can see the drawing, as you can in this book. It was good to see Shirley Hughes singing its praises.

Mervyn Peake cropped up as illustrator of Treasure Island and it must be said that his illustrations are superb. I was a little dubious about the amount of contributors who claimed to have a Peake illustrated copy of Treasure Island as children though. Was his version really that popular? But you can have your very own beautifully bound, hardback copy as an Everyman Classic.

Treasure Island - like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner that he likewise illustrated - is one of those books that each generation of illustrators has a stab at. Because it was a programme about British illustration, it didn't mention N C Wyeth's famous version, but it could have mentioned Rowland Hilder's or John Minton's. Instead we got Ralph Steadman, whose Treasure Island I always feel is the illustration equivalent of over-acting. Peake is the man to beat. No contest.

But seriously - no Charles Keeping? In programme about British illustrated literature for older children? No Victor Ambrus? Shame on you!

And shame too for getting Chris Riddell to appear in the series but not acknowledge his contribution as an illustrator. I cannot think of anyone else on that programme who did not get a chance to talk about their own work at some point. What a missed opportunity.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Dore's Dante

Whilst Dore's illustrations to Paradise Lost are wonderful, it was his illustrations to Dante I had meant to highlight. Getting my Infernos and my Pandemoniums mixed up.

And whilst I'm recommending Dover books, I'd also like to point you in the direction of the American illustrator Lynd Ward and his wordless novel. Ward illustrated Frankenstein, come to think of it, in the 1930s.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

When we were six

I finally got round to watching the second in the BBC4 series Picture Book on BBC iPlayer. This one was entitled When We Were Six and it looked at books for that second stage of childhood - the illustrated chapter book. It's a fascinating series and hard to imagine being made by anyone but the BBC.

I enjoyed hearing Philip Pullman saying 'I don't like them myself' of The Chronicles of Narnia. That must be one of the great understatements of all time. It was nice to have C S Lewis's illustrator - Pauline Baynes - get some attention for a change. What lovely drawings they are. That lamp post in the snowy wood is iconic and is burned into the memory of a generation of adults who read those books as children.

The wonderful Edward Ardizzone was there too, though he was twice described as having a crosshatching technique made up of 'parallel lines' which is a bit of an oxymoron. It also seemed to give the impression that he had somehow invented this technique. He gave it his own particular spin, but crosshatching is a stock technique of copper plate engravers and etchers and artists had been doing it for centuries before Ardizzone ever picked up a pen. Piranesi crosshatched. Rembrandt crosshatched.

My good friend Chris Riddell was there, drawing Tenniel's rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. Not quite sure what that was supposed to show us. Neither Chris nor Tenniel seemed to benefit from the exercise. I hope Chris is going to be featured in his own right on the next programme.

Michael Rosen's Sad Book was featured and what a book that is. I am a huge fan of Quentin Blake and he excels himself in this book. If anyone makes the mistake of thinking Blake's range is limited should look at the Sad Book. The drawing of Rosen feeling wretched and heartbroken is astonishing.

It was an incredibly brave thing of Rosen to do - to allow us all to share in his sadness at the death of his son. This is another book that could and should feature in any library for any age group. It is a high point of the British picture book.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Picture books

In my last few recommendations I would like to make a case for books that fire the imagination, not through words (or words alone) but through pictures. I think pictures can stimulate the imagination and the urge to write. I know they can. I have already tried to suggest graphic novels and strip cartoons. Here are some Dover books by artists and illustrators who whose work is as compelling as any novel.

I can't remember when I first encountered Gustave Dore, but it would have been some time in my teens. Though my taste in art moved on and became more sophisticated as I went to art college, I never lost my fascination with Dore.

Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a poem I have loved ever since I first heard it at school and it is one of those works that has become a kind of test of skill for illustrators. Every generation of illustrators feels the need to have a crack at it. Dore's is still one of the best versions in my opinion.

Dore's illustrations for Paradise Lost are extraordinary. I could (and have) looked at them for hours.

Goya's work seems often to teeter on the edge of insanity and Los Caprichos contains some of his most bizarre images.

The Disasters of War is full of absolutely grotesque and shocking images of barbarity and cruelty. It is also horribly fascinating of course.

I love Odilon Redon's work. His drawings and prints are so strange and haunting. I find them incredibly inspiring, both as an artist and a writer. In fact just looking at that spider on the cover makes me want to write something.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

And yet more

Here are a few more book recommendations. . .

Mervyn Peake is extraordinary. He was a great illustrator - his work for Stevenson's Treasure Island and Coleridge's The Ancient Mariner is amazing. Both those pieces of writing have been illustrated many times, but his versions really shine out (if that is the right expression, given how dark they are). But then he also wrote the weird and wonderful Gormenghast books. Fantasy fiction at its gloomy best.

I am a big fan of the short story and it annoys me that it is seen as bite-sized and lacking in substance. H G Wells is a writer I really enjoyed when I was in my teens and I could easily have suggested The War of the Worlds or The Time Machine, but I've chosen a book of his short stories. The Country of the Blind is one of his best. Once read, never forgotten.

I read David Almond's Skellig when I first started writing for children. I wanted to see what was out there and what the standard was like. Skellig was one of the things I read that made me very excited about the prospect of writing. A strange and moving book.

I'm reading this to my son at the moment. I had to review Susan Price's Feasting the Wolf recently and I thought it was very strong. It is short and punchy and although it is about Norsemen in Anglo-Saxon England, it is actually a fairly timeless study of the boredom and brutality of warfare. The endless ditch digging is reminiscent of WWI. But what makes this book stand out for me is the way the lot of women - as wives, slaves, even rape victims - is brought to the fore by Price.

Witch Child by Celia Rees. Hard to persuade boys to read a book with a girl on the cover - even when the girl is as striking as this one, and the cover as beautifully designed - but Celia Rees has made historical fiction for girls a force to be reckoned with. A very clever story, nicely told.

This was another book I was asked to review recently. Anne Frank's diary is justifiably famous and should certainly be in every library, but this book is by a school friend of hers - Hannah Goslar. They are separated early on in the narrative when Anna disappears into hiding with her family. Hannah believing that she has escaped. They do meet again, but under tragic circumstances. A short but powerful book.

Twilight. This is the first book that I am recommending that I actually have not read. I tried to read it, but I just could not get on with the writing. But it isn't for me, and the people it is for seem to lap it up. I recommend it purely on the basis that a library should have popular books in it to get the punters in - and they don't come much more popular than Stephanie Meyer's tale of teen-vampire-romance at the moment.

Now this book I can wholeheartedly recommend. Edward Gorey is utterly brilliant. Any compilation of his work would be just as good as Amphigorey because all of his work is equally superb. His humour so dark I can't believe that anyone would publish it if he turned up today, and I am not quite sure how it was published in the first place. I'm just very glad it was.

There has been a spate recently of picture books for older readers. Can I make a pitch for having some of these in a secondary school library? Some of us like pictures. It doesn't mean we don't like words, it just means we like to take pleasure in looking at narrative illustration. The Island is a thought-provoking, fascinating book.

Art Spiegelman's classic comic book looking at the horrors of the Holocaust deserves a place in any library. If ever a book showed that any subject at all can be tackled by the comic strip form - in the right hands of course - then this is it.

The wonderful Charles Schulz. What can I say? People who don't get Peanuts think it is cutesy or preachy (and it can, on occasion, be both those things) but it is so much more. These strips are funny and wise and I think they will be read forever.

Shaun Tan has made a name for himself doing picture books for older readers. In some ways they are a link back to the wordless novels of artists such as Frans Masereel (though without the expressionistic angst). I find his visuals a bit too intricate, but that is the painter in me speaking. I think I would have found them fascinating when I was in my early teens.

Zits is a strip about teenage life by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. It is very American, and it can be hard to get past that. But it is still nicely observed stuff and some things about teenagers are the same wherever they live!

The Fire of Ares. Another nice piece of historical fiction, this time set in ancient Sparta. Historical fiction always carries the problem that your reader (especially if they are young) might not know anything at all about the age in which you have set your novel. Michael Ford gives enough background to make it seem authentic, whilst still producing an action-packed book.
As with Peanuts, it is easy to dismiss Calvin and Hobbes as cute. I must admit, I felt that way when I first saw the strip. But it has really grown on me. What was never in doubt was the fantastically accomplished drawings of their creator Bill Watterson.

At the risk of becoming a Ray Bradbury bore I am going to add this one. It is a lovely little hardback I have mentioned before on the blog. It is a Dave McKean illustrated short story called The Homecoming. Great story, great illustrations, beautifully presented.