In which a budding but feckless Twitter sensationalist (that would be me) takes Julian Barnes’s name in vain

I told a lie in my post the other day. Sort of.

The thing is, I’ve written to many literary giants down the years. Two alone have denied me satisfaction.

I don’t know why they slipped my mind. The silence of one of these lambs, Stephen Poliakoff, chimes very much with an even-more-deafening silence – the one currently engulfing me.

Maybe that applies to the other lamb too. His name? Julian Barnes.

This calls for a preamble. Way back in the mists of time, maybe a million years ago, having (more by bad luck than misjudgement) caught a repeat of a Jeremy Brett era Sherlock Holmes adaptation on TV, I reread said story.

I’d read it many times before but this time I recognised (or thought I recognised) a teasing, playful reference to a place I now knew well. And, as I let this sink in, it also began to dawn on me that there were other teasing, playful hints and suggestions here. There were veiled autobiographical allusions, surely, to a love affair.

Or were there? I’m always terribly suspicious of the sorts of people who seem more-than-naturally attuned to veiled allusions… whether in songs or pictures or stories or indeed the main evening news from the BBC.

Especially as this veiled allusion ran so unambiguously contrary to conventional wisdom. Leaving fairies to one side, the definitive biographical fact about the sainted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the notion that he was a devoted and faithful husband – a man who refrained from pursuing intimate relations with the woman who was to become his second wife until the first one was dead.

But hey, you know, it was a slow week… and having joined forces with my former partner-in-crime, Sebastian Bell, we set off on a plodding, unhurried investigation, low on expectation, high on (what I now strongly suspect to have been) life.

But blow me down if we didn’t start dusting off circumstantial evidence that we were on the right track; and then, in short order, we unearthed a weightier and (potentially) shinier nugget.

And of course, being as venal as we were narcissistic, we knocked together a feature proposal and sent it off to the arts desks of The Sunday Times and The Guardian, where Sebastian still had friends (or at least people he’d not yet managed to upset while in his cups).

We waited. I think at one stage, jointly, severally, we held our breath or breaths. How long should it take for your cloudy dreams, even modest dreams like this, to evaporate? Thomas Mann, in one of my favourite ever passages, writes compellingly about this – the process by which fervour and optimism are ever-so-slowly replaced by that sinking feeling… and as a serial-sufferer I’ve always been fascinated by the metaphysics of this sort of rejection, bittersweet and subtle rather than deep and dark.

But anyway, it took a week, maybe more, for us to steel ourselves to make the follow-up calls.

The guy at The Guardian said he absolutely wasn’t interested. His readers, he solemnly informed us, were Progressives and certainly weren’t interested in tittle tattle about a dead white male writer, especially one so complicit in war crimes. (No. Me neither. To this day, I have no idea what he meant.)

The lady at The Sunday Times had far worse in store for us. She’d taken some soundings, she said, not least from a world-renowned expert on Conan Doyle, who’d made it crystal clear to her that our story was arrant nonsense.

But we have a photocopy, we said.

Bung it in the post, she parried.

For one reason or another, and the details are hazy now, we declined to do this.

Not long after, Julian Barnes published Arthur and George, a work of historical fiction in which the conventional wisdom about Sir Arthur’s fidelity is rehashed.

It’s no big deal. It’s not an essential part of the story. It’s in no way central to the brilliance of the book.

And I feel I must declare an interest here. I’d like it on record that I am a fan. I’d go so far as to state my belief, my IMHO manifesto, that Julian Barnes is the world’s greatest living writer.

But at some point, maybe a decade ago, I dropped him a line through a recognised channel. “Thought you might be interested to know,” I wrote, chirpily… “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wasn’t faithful to his first wife. Far from it. Might you be interested in seeing evidence?”

Julian didn’t reply.

It’s only now, in long hindsight, that I am able to work out why.

He clearly thought I was offering to send him dirty pictures. Possibly drawn by yours truly. In wax crayon.










In which your humble correspondent is overcome by feelings both of wonder and jealousy at Corey Mead’s ability to find a publisher for a book about two interwar era aviators

Imagine my astonishment when I opened a newspaper culture section at the weekend and found a Clare Mulley review of The Lost Pilots by Corey Mead.

Astonishment… and joy, consternation, wonder, alarm, despondency… I could go on.

My head, in short, has been spinning like an airscrew.

Why? Well, because, for the last few months, I have been trying to interest the trade in a book set in a very similar line of country.

The Lost Pilots is the tale of two interwar era aviators, the immortal Bill Lancaster and Jessie Miller. Whereas my book, Flying Over Ruins, is about the exploits of two interwar aviators, the obscure husband and wife team of Anne and Charles Lindbergh.

There are major differences clearly (though I haven’t read The Lost Pilots yet): my book plays out rather more on the ground than in the air. It’s a blend of political thriller, love tragedy and a portrait of the artist as a young woman. More complex and, dare I say it, more ambitious.

But yes, the book definitely sports flying goggles.

Anne Lindbergh was easily the most glamorous female aviator of the interwar years, not just in terms of looks, social connections (the Kennedys for instance) and the fact that she was married to the most celebrated man on the planet.

In my mind she was (and is) glamorous because she was one of the most intellectually accomplished women of the age. Her gift in conveying the terrors and thrills of seat-of-the-pants flying was unparalleled.

It was Anne’s fondest hope that one day she might be regarded as something of a poet. I believe she was. Absolutely she was.

I’ve been angling to write about her for years, ever since I contributed a piece – on Arthur Christiansen’s fascination for the pioneers of the first Golden Age of aviation – to an Express anniversary supplement.

Imagine my joy when, in reading more about her, I stumbled on a rattling good yarn. I almost pinched myself. If you have any interest at all in the era, it’s sensational stuff.

Thus Flying Over Ruins, a work of historical fiction about Anne and Charles’s relationship with Harold Nicolson (and Vita too, of course, but mainly Harold) in England in the late 1930s.

It turns out that Charles Lindbergh (with Anne an increasingly unhappy observer of events but still guilty by association) ended up doing the bidding of the US Government in dirty intrigues against a friendly ally. Charles was the man, in an episode of extraordinary drama, who betrayed British interests during the second Czech Crisis. The man whose actions almost certainly guaranteed that Britain’s subsequent disgrace at Munich was inevitable. The man who, not to put too fine a point upon it, unwittingly set the start date for the Second World War.

The whole amazing tale is there in the public domain just waiting to be gathered up but only one person has previously (as far as I’m currently aware – and this in a now-obscure political memoir) managed to join the dots.

And oh how I thanked my lucky stars when I realised I had lots of other strands of richly suggestive material to work with. Harold and Anne were among the most accomplished diarists of the era and there’s a wealth of secondary sources too.

(And as an added hook, I’d add, meretriciously, that Anne was a dead ringer for Meghan Markle, the recently elevated Duchess of Sussex.)

My style may be third-rate (but I don’t believe it is) and my structural craftsmanship inept (ditto) but I reckoned Flying Over Ruins would tick enough boxes to merit some level of book trade interest.

Well, dang me, but it hasn’t. It just hasn’t.

Three agents have responded to my submissions emails. The rest haven’t even bothered to send an acknowledgement. The sole constructive reply I’ve had seemed to imply that the subject matter was not of sufficient interest to “the general reader”.

It’s a notion that has been confirmed to me by the editor of a history magazine and, separately, by a former colleague who knows a thing or two about how the book business works. No-one, apparently, is interested in the interwar era any more – and especially not the Thirties. The War, yes. Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, D-Day. Churchill. The only interesting thing that happened in the Thirties was the Abdication, and goodness knows that has been done to death.

Thus, to cut a long story short, my astonishment at finding Clare Mulley’s review. Especially when she revealed that The Lost Pilots has at least one major flaw. It’s the sort of flaw that, I’ve always assumed, agents and editors were minded to leap upon with a savage intensity.

“This is a hugely entertaining book,” writes Mulley… “But in the end, it all feels a little inconsequential.”

Well, having read a little around the subject, I can’t say I’m hugely surprised. And having been a journalist, I know how rare it is to be gifted a story where the stakes just keep on getting higher and higher.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no feelings of ill-will towards Corey Mead or The Lost Pilots. I really don’t. How on earth could I?

If it succeeds it will merely make it extremely difficult for me to find a publisher for Flying Over Ruins. If it fails, it will be impossible.

But I’d still like to know. One day, perhaps not tomorrow or next week, but soon, I’d like to understand this. How the blue blazes has Corey Mead managed to pull this off?


Nicholas Sand… and the LSD stories he never got around to telling us

Extraordinary to see a sympathetic obituary of Nicholas Sand in a mainstream British news outlet. Once upon a time he was public enemy number one. OK, maybe not number one. Or even two. But certainly in the top one hundred or so.

It’s made me rather curious to get hold of a copy of The Sunshine Makers. I hope it tells us lots about his exotic life and times.

Sand was deluded of course. Dangerously so. But in hugely interesting ways.

He’s the sort of person we absolutely should know more about. His, not to put too fine a point upon it, whole milieu. And I think I’ve always assumed that one day I’d see the publication of the Compleat Book of LSD. The drug, after all, was a prime factor in a revolution, more social than cultural and more perceptual than either, that began in the 1960s and petered out towards the end of the 80s.

And yet insightful writing about this is surprisingly thin on the ground. Yes, there’s lots of anecdotal stuff about wacky happenings in the late 60s; and screeds of hagiographical material about psychedelic music.

But no-one’s ever really got to the heart of the subject: LSD as a movement, as an ideology, as a sociological phenomenon. For instance, LSD’s impact on Silicon Valley (personnel, product, business culture), a notion alluded to in the obit I’ve reproduced below, is surely worth exploring.

LSD’s power to alter the way we see the world (even if we’ve never taken it) is far more important than, say, the impact of the recreational use of opium on the early 19th Century Romantic movement, which in any case had a relatively small influence within society as a whole.

And yet I own at least two versions of, in effect, The Compleat Book of Opium. And there is less interest generally in (to use a crude shorthand) LSD Culture than there is in Ecstasy Culture or Heroin Culture.

The reason for this disparity is, I’d argue, easy to pin down – the LSD era produced few compelling narratives. Interesting as his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is, Wolfe doesn’t really cut it. Kesey is a banal writer. Hunter S Thompson was a prize clown. And in any case, their perspectives were terribly narrow and ultimately parochial.

Huxley was more on the money, clearly, especially where the inner journey is concerned; but I’d always assumed that someone would come along and tell me, for I am terribly curious, about the bigger picture.

Yet the people best placed to tell that story, people like Sand, tended to be anti-literate, both by design and inclination. I’ll bet he didn’t keep a journal worth publishing. Yet in some respects he was one of the most important figures of the 20th Century. He helped mould its final three decades.

The participants are muted. And publishers have been, seemingly, reluctant to pull at whatever meagre threads they are offered. I’ve seen this in action myself, albeit at one remove.

At least two writers have attempted to sell the story of the spring and summer of 1978, when Edinburgh became the LSD capital of the world.

The only major flaw in Operation Julie in 1977 was the failure of its officers to realise that the Richard Kemp’s empire had a Scottish outpost, with manufacture and distribution centred on an isolated cottage near East Linton.

It was never raided… and to cut a long story short, several hundred thousand tabs, possibly millions, eventually made their way onto the Edinburgh streets at knockdown prices.

This (and what followed) was one of the oddest chapters in the whole history of the city, yet you will struggle to find any mention of this online or in print. Both of the writers who attempted to tackle this promising subject made the mistake of attracting initial interest from Canongate Books which, no doubt confused by the double vision it began suffering, dithered chronically – and both books were shunted off onto the too-difficult-to-take-any-further pile just prior, ironically enough, to the publication of Trainspotting.

I think I’ve recorded elsewhere my fitful attempts to find out what happened to the manuscripts.

Nicholas Sand would have known all about Edinburgh’s LSD Galore story. But with his passing, the odds on it ever seeing the light of day are further diminished.

And he must have known a hundred stories like it from around the counter-culture world. There are a thousand questions someone should have asked him while there was till time.

Do these stories matter? And if they never make it into print, will they somehow survive as oral history?

Here’s hoping. One way or another, via forensic archaeology if not from the horse’s mouth, we’re bound, ultimately, to discover the intimate truths of our lives and times. Aren’t we?


Letters page. Being an acknowledgement, in passing, that an alphabet learned by heart will be lost by reason

Two more postcards. My mailbag bulgeth. Truly.

Firstly, a fretfully plaintive note from a middle-manager in a marketing department who has been invited (I can hear his snort of contempt as he pens this word) to attend a day-long communications course.

He asks: Can you really learn to write better?

Well, let me say, I’m more than happy to respond.

In this instance, I’m very much at one with Ogden Nash.

If you want to write better, you must first be able to write good – which will open up to you the prospect, in the fullness of time, of writing best.

Secondly, a missive from my very dear friend Anna Davis, chief financial officer of Curtis Brown Creative, the world’s only agent-led writing school.

She asks: “Can a novel-writing course teach you to write a bestseller?”

No, Anna, it can not. Sorry to have to break this to you.

It goes without saying, though, that you must absolutely refrain from sharing this insight with any of your prospective customers.

I hope this has helped.

Autobiographical notes and, in a breathtakingly frank departure, queries

In answer to a recent inquiry… Yes, by and large, I tend to keep Edwardian-era Foreign Office hours.

This is not because I believe, as one of my earliest editors did, that early to bed, early to rise is a dictum solely for “the little people.” She wasn’t Irish, by the way. She wasn’t talking about leprechauns. Or, indeed, Sir Martin Sorrell. Not directly at any rate.

She subsequently became, albeit briefly, a Conservative Member of Parliament. Which suited her down to the ground, because in the House you’re not expected to clock on until 2pm.

But anyway. The Edwardian Foreign Office. No-one of any seniority, in that august institution during that Golden Era, arrived at his desk before 11am, the hour at which communiques from far-flung fields would begin arriving from that morning’s Dover packet.

I cannot pretend to argue that this has any relevance to my own particular circumstances. I can only assume that I must have absorbed this morsel at some point in my dim and distant past… and found the notion extremely pleasing.

Well. There you have it. The copula in action. Some things just are: and they may be said to have attained that status in their own sweet way.

But wait. There’s more. Another correspondent asks… Am I a fan of leaning in? Yes. Naturellement! But I am also comfortable with leaning back. And occasionally sideways. Sometimes I even have to lie down.

I hope this helps to clarify matters.

Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Capturing Castles

Lots of Robert Pirsig obituaries this week. A greater number, across a more diverse range of outlets, than you’d expect for the death of a mere writer.

The publication in 1974 of his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in some respects marked the point at which (to borrow a Dodie Smith notion) the so-called counterculture captured the castle.

It turned out to be a short lived stay. Shorter than most people remember. Or would like to believe.

But still. The book straddled audiences as deftly as it straddled genres. It was a big seller in the sorts of alternative bookshops that offered a heady mix of pornography, Marxism, vegan cook books and psychobabble self-help manuals alongside its Picador display stands; yet by the end of the decade it had made its way onto the reading lists of Eng Lit modules exploring the 20th Century after-currents of Romanticism.

Forget much of the zeitgeist stuff in the obits. Yes, the book was a success because Zen Buddhism was modish and motorcycles were still cool. But of equal importance was its compelling structural elegance.

Indeed, there were those on the intellectual wing of the book publishing business (mainly in the US but also, somewhat insipidly, on this side of the Atlantic too) who also believed that Pirsig had stumbled onto a magical recipe.

Take a first person narrative, a testament of sorts, ideally a quest – but disguise its true nature by clothing it in more abstract intellectual pursuits and the riding of choice hobby horses. It’s a form of misdirection, but a remarkably potent one.

Some of our more precious novelists attempted to absorb its lessons – Flaubert’s Parrot springs to mind – but never quite made it up to the mark. Sincerity, as they say, is incredibly hard to fake.

And in fact it turned out that Pirsig couldn’t repeat the trick himself. I’m almost certain I read, or tried to read, Lila… but I can remember not a single word of it.

The lessons, though, are still there to be learned. And well-written high-concept books will surely return. At their best they can be hugely rewarding for the reader. The sort of reader who likes his or her art multi-layered in ways that current templates (as policed by a dreary UEA diaspora) just can’t accommodate.

These days, if you pitched a point-counterpoint narrative even remotely resembling Zen, you’d get one of those witheringly-ghastly wall-eyed agent’s notes.

A day will eventually dawn, though.

As, indeed, it must.

29 March 1933 – Claud Cockburn (re)invents Fake News… and lays the groundwork for Private Eye

Claud Cockburn was a former Times journalist, a Middle Class (pour épater les bourgois) Communist and an inveterate mischief-maker. He was arguably the first man in the world to intuit the media implications of a new technology – the mimeograph machine.

“When Northcliffe started the Daily Mail in the nineties, he was not “playing a hunch” but tapping into a mathematical certainty. He argued: The Education Acts of the 1860s have changed the entire character and extent of the literate public. But in the years since the 1860s the newspapers have not changed at all. Therefore there must exist a new pool of potential readers not taken care of by the existing newspapers. And this pool, if correctly tapped, could provide a new multi-million readership.

“There was not much doubt in my mind as to the sort of people who would constitute [my new conception of] the pool. Anyone in, for instance, London or New York or Berlin or Vienna who frequented any kind of club or other meeting place where, say, diplomats, lawyers, bankers and newspapermen gathered together and talked, must have been deeply aware of the strange contrast between the colourful information and significant rumours – for rumours can often be as significant as facts – circulating in the clubs, and the awful tight-lipped drabness of the newspapers being sold on the club doorstep.

“What all this added up to was that I had better go to London and start a weekly newspaper of a new type.

“G K Chesterton had written of editors that lived in the shadow of three fears – fear of misprints, fear of libel actions and fear of the sack. I would aim to disregard all considerations of that kind, more particularly of the second, because what I had in mind was a revival of the uninhibited eighteenth century English tradition of the Newsletter. It was going to give the customer the sorts of facts – political, diplomatic, financial – which were freely discussed in embassies and clubs but considered to be too adult to be left about for newspaper readers to get at them.

“The method I proposed to use – the mimeograph machine – would kill two birds with one stone: we should on the one hand ensure we were in total control of our own paper, and on the other that people who wanted to bring libel actions could of course do so, but probably would not, because most libel actions are brought for the purpose of getting money, and it would be evident to one and all that I had no money of any kind.

“Lawyers volunteered to help, but I had to point out to them that either they were good lawyers, in which case they would have to keep saying, “You can’t publish that, it’s libellous,” or bad lawyers, ignorant of whether things were libellous or not. In either case, what use would they be? It was sad having to fight off so many well-intentioned offers of assistance, but I had to keep firmly in mind that what we were running was a pirate craft and we would not burden ourselves with conventional navigators and mates, however skilled and knowledgeable…”

Elegy for Emma Tennant. With Bananas

Am I right in thinking that there were several attempts to revive Bananas (or something like it) throughout the 1980s?

Right up until fairly recently, there were those who believed fervently that exotic forms of flora could be encouraged to grow in the nexus formed by literature and counter-culture.

It may be true. But it seems unlikely.

And indeed that was always the problem with the so-called underground press: nice in theory, toxic in practice.

So we could also advance the notion that Bananas was responsible for what we did get in the end, the mind-numbingly stupid Modern Review. Which in turn inspired the monstrosity that was and is the Sunday Times Culture section, a sink-hole that’s done so much to undermine the sorts of adventurous writing that Bananas existed to champion.

If so… Oh the bitter irony.

Anyway. An Emma Tennant obituary can be found here:

In which your humble correspondent finds himself in agreement with Sir Ronald Harwood and essays a sublimely pointless gesture of solidarity

I’ve said it before and I’ll (probably have cause to) say it again: the political is the enemy of the creative. So it goes without saying that I agree with Sir Ronald Harwood’s recent comments on the state of British theatre. I don’t often go these days (my most recent expedition took me to Kenneth Branagh’s excruciatingly awful version of Osborne’s mediocre play, The Entertainer – but that’s another story for another time). When I do turn out and take one for the team, I usually come away feeling profoundly depressed.

And yes, I’m well aware that Branagh’s production wasn’t state-funded. Of course it wasn’t. Or at least not directly – but it breathed deeply of the miasma emanating from that particular swamp.

And it’s almost inevitable that state funding engenders certain insidious forms of deafness. Or worse, numbness.

Few of those making a tidy living at, say, The National Theatre, can even begin to imagine how exciting it might be to rebel against a tired and outdated consensus.

Sadly, it falls to marginalised artists with nothing to lose (and therefore, almost by definition, little influence) to point out that tiresome is as tiresome does.

There is a better way. No, really, Melvyn, there is.

In which we confirm that it is more profitable to explore hidden bypaths of knowledge than to tread the common highways

Had it appeared 30 years earlier, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance by Edgar Wind, published in 1958, might have become a hugely important book, not just in the field of Art History but in the (slightly) wider world of general aesthetics.

Sadly, though, it arrived just as the English Cultural Revolution was hitting full swing (the paperback, for instance, was published in 1967). This was an era (and actually we’re still stuck in it) when anything that smacked of subtle complexity was routinely dismissed out of hand as just so much oppressively indulgent jiggery pokery.

And of course Pagan Mysteries seeks not just to elucidate but to re-evaluate subtle complexity.

There’s no immediate prospect of people rediscovering this book. But don’t despair. Its time will surely come (again). And in fact, in that respect, it’s somewhat self-reflexive. In passages like this one, it seems almost to evoke the mechanism by which this sort of resurrection might come to pass.

Not that this is really a hidden by-path:

The belief that because a thing is not stressed it must be important is not entirely without merit, but it can lead to exegetic madness. Gibbon ridiculed a faith which taught its adherents that a “contradictory doctrine must be divine since no man alive could have thought of inventing it.” By the same token it is a prejudice to assume that a thing must be central because it looks marginal. Yet, the supposition that some things which look marginal may be central is one of those judicious reflections that rarely fail to open up new fields of knowledge because they introduce a change of focus.

Not only is it true that great discoveries have generally “centred” on the “fringes” of knowledge but the very progress of knowledge may be regarded as a persistent shift of centre. In Cusanus and Pico, a sharp instinctive awareness of the rule, that any given knowledge may be transcended, was condensed into a mystical superstition: a belief that all important truths are cryptic. But from this bleak, retardative axiom of faith, perhaps the most perilous vestige of Neoplatonism, they drew a prophetic rule of learning: that it is more profitable to explore hidden bypaths of knowledge than to tread the common highways. Enlightenment and obscurantism are tightly linked in the method of docta ignorantia.