The Thieves of Pudding Lane

Today I signed the contract for my first children’s novel, The Thieves of Pudding Lane. Now starts the exciting part of the process, when words that were only fountain pen scribbles in four silver and orange WHSmith exercise books last summer are either cast in iron or thrown down the well, and the story takes its final form. The book is currently scheduled for publication in February 2015, ahead of the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London a year later.

The Thieves of Pudding Lane is the story of twelve-year-old Samuel. Orphaned by the Great Plague, Samuel has to learn how to steal to survive, but unfortunately for him he’s not very good at it. When the Great Fire breaks out and begins to engulf the city, Samuel and his fellow pickpockets see it as a great opportunity to rob the abandoned houses of the rich, but when they discover a lost little boy hiding in one of the houses, the thieves are split over what to do with him. Meanwhile the wall of flame is quickly closing in.

Aimed at 9 to 12 year olds, it’s a fast-paced adventure set during one of British history’s most exciting events, but it is also a story about friendship, moral complexities, greed and self-respect.

Naturally, I will be writing a lot more about the book in the months to come. Indeed, it will be over ten years by the time it is published since I first had the idea, and the story of writing the story is another blog post in itself. But for now I will simply link to one of the paintings that inspired it all.

The Great Fire of London

Eulogy for the British typewriter

Yesterday the last British typewriter rolled off the production line and into history, as the last manufacturer finally stopped taking any more orders. Yes, I thought they’d stopped making them years ago too, but I suppose it’s like those aged celebrities to whose death your first response is surprise they had still been alive anyway (not a good reaction to have when they announce a new tour, though – my apologies to Chuck Berry circa 2008). Apparently there was still demand for about 30 units a year, mainly from American legal firms requiring typewriters for their ability to use carbon paper.

I imagine a good old-fashioned typewriter is a much-fetishised object amongst writing folk. I don’t mean the grey plastic box that was manufactured yesterday, complete with a plug and little LCD screen. I mean a gothic piano made of black-painted iron and a solid wooden base (coming from the days before aluminium, MDF or plastic for that matter) that would guarantee RSI or other serious nerve damage after career-long use. Things that weighed about as much as £10,000 worth of iPads. Like this.

Typewriter

I learnt to touch-type on this thing, which is no mean feat given that between the keys lies a fall to certain doom for poorly targeted fingers. Like getting them caught on snake fangs, trying to pull them out from under the keys only ensures they get stuck harder. Of course, that does inspire you to learn more quickly how to type…

I never intended to learn how to type, but in 1991 after a boy at my primary school announced in assembly he had sent his story off to publishers I decided it was high time I get serious about the whole writing thing too, and that meant typing something up so that it looked professional. My mother offered to do the typing, seeing as the typewriter was technically hers, but I got impatient waiting for her to find the time. She never got the typewriter back. Unfortunately my thirty-odd pages of handwritten literary greatness amounted to only seven and a half pages of typewritten literary greatness.

And because the shift key to use capital letters was effectively a lever that lifted the entire top half of the typewriter up from the bottom half (and again I must reiterate, black-painted iron) I just kept the caps lock on and typed it all in capitals. Needless to say I didn’t make my fortune with Tom and the Stones of Doom (which naturally bore no resemblance to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which I had just seen on television for the first time).

Over time I got so used to typing on it that I could tell precisely when the line break bell was about to ring and I could turn the paper roller through the three required teeth for a single line space with a precise flick of the wrist.

To me, this was what real writing was about. This was what Jessica Fletcher was doing as the camera swept over her fingers dramatically in the opening titles to Murder, She Wrote (before they jumped the shark and gave her a ghastly blue-screened DOS word processor instead). Everything that came out of that typewriter looked like it was already part of literary history.

I finally switched over to computer in 1993/4, at which point the dull glow on screen stopped making the words look so perfect. But I have never got rid of the old behemoth. The laptop I bought in 2007 finally gave up the ghost this time last year. Some 80 to 90 years after it was built, I can still get words out of the old typewriter.

Typewriter

Happy Hagfish Day!

Today is Hagfish Day, which was not set up by my publisher to help promote my book, but was started by the people at WhaleTimes.org and is now in its fourth year. They started it to celebrate ‘the beauty of the ugly’ and to entertain and inform people about the ugliest, strangest and most disgusting creatures in the ocean.

Naturally, How to Snog a Hagfish!: Disgusting Things in the Sea is the perfect accompaniment for the occasion. And naturally, none of the creatures featured in it are ugly, strange or disgusting (well, not much) once you get to know them. That includes the lobster with the pee gun, the fish that explodes when brought up into the air and the hermaphroditic flatworm with two penises that decides who will carry its offspring by duelling them (with its two penises).

Anyway, here’s a video of a hagfish tying itself in a knot and running that knot along its body as it excretes copious quantities of slime to escape a foolish human’s hand:

The book has recently been released as an ebook, which is currently cheaper on Amazon than the print edition. Don’t know how well the pictures appear on a Kindle, but they look better than in the print edition on the iPad.

Earlier this year I also authorised the charity Listening Books to record an audiobook version of the book. Listening Books supplies audiobooks on CD, as a download or streaming free of charge to adults and children in the UK who have an illness or disability (from having learning difficulties to being physically unable to hold open a book) that would make it difficult for them to otherwise read. They very kindly sent me a couple of copies of the recording by actor Paul Vates, which I very much enjoyed. It’s a great charity and I am happy to enthuse about them!

Final Voyage

Yesterday I finished my third book, which was called Worse than Titanic when I started, but along the way became Final Voyage. Despite being more than twice the length of my previous two books (47,338 words against about 23,000) I found this the most straightforward to write, perhaps because writing narrative is more of a natural fit for me than writing explanatory text.

This does mean that three books in I still haven’t come up with a title of my own (this
is the only book I’ve named – got rewarded with a chocolate bar for it). I’m happy with the new title. It’s less sensationalist than the previous one, something I became concerned about when an alternative title being considered for the book was So You Thought the Titanic was Bad! (complete with exclamation mark). It made me wonder whether those on the coalface of bookselling really care about the contents of a book, and whether the title matches that, so long as a buyer’s attention is grabbed.

In fact, the only time I struggled with this book is when I thought it might end up getting published under that title. It’s not academic history, but it’s not trivia either. Most of the chapters push 5,000 words. That title would only grab the attention of someone to whom the contents would not appeal, whilst at the same title warding off my target readership, who are looking for popular history, not some glib ‘trump card’-style read pitting various maritime disasters against each other and seeing which comes out worst. Worse than Titanic had to go for the same reason.

Of course, the new title isn’t entirely accurate. One of the ships featured in the book (the Thielbek) sank a few hours before the end of the Second World War carrying 2,800 concentration camp inmates, only 50 of whom survived. Four years later she was raised, repaired and put back into service.

The sinking of the Titanic

Judging from some TV critics’ columns this weekend (at the start of the third or fourth week of profligate coverage), it’s now okay to say the observation of the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic has turned into a ghoulish spectacle that has more to do with a movie than the actual victims. For me the centenary comes in the middle of writing Worse than Titanic, a book about the worst maritime disasters in history. The Titanic only features in the title.

In terms of loss of life alone, the sinking of the Titanic doesn’t even figure as one of the fifty worst maritime disasters of the last three hundred years. Even putting aside a cold comparison of death tolls, some of the circumstances in which the other vessels sank – and some of the experiences of those who died on or survived them – were horrific almost to the point of being unimaginable. They make disaster movies look sanitised, and that includes even the more accurate versions of the Titanic story.

The Titanic wasn’t hopelessly overcrowded with over 10,000 people, unlike the Wilhelm Gustloff. The Titanic didn’t lose all power and wasn’t plunged into total darkness when she began to sink, making escape impossible for anybody below decks, unlike Le Joola. The Titanic wasn’t consumed by a swiftly spreading inferno, unlike the Dona Paz. Those fleeing the Titanic weren’t shot at, unlike those fleeing the Thielbek and Cap Arcona. The Titanic didn’t capsize before she went down, unlike the Lancastria. And the Titanic took almost three hours to sink, unlike most of the ships in the book.

It’s a popular misconception that the Titanic disaster had a great impact on maritime safety. The first Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention in 1914 was a direct response to the disaster, and there have been several others since, in 1929, 1948, 1960 and 1974. Since 1929 the emphasis has been on fire prevention, because fire was responsible for half of all peacetime casualties at sea. But only a few years ago there were still cruise ships in active service that only adhered to the 1948 convention. And most of the disasters in the book have happened since the first convention.

The Titanic disaster continues to hold sway over the public imagination, being the archetypal maritime disaster, possibly because it’s become a symbol of a dying age, the point at which our belief in our invincibility thanks to technology was soon to be extinguished on the battlefields of Europe. Many of the films made about the Titanic use the decks of the ship to represent a microcosm of a society riven by class. Poor emigrants seeking a better life in America were aboard the same ship as Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, some of the richest, most notable men in the Western world.

It’s hard to imagine Le Joola, the most recent disaster featured in my book, making so few headlines in the West had there been a few British aristocrats or rich American industrialists on board. Yet 2,000 died when Le Joola capsized off the Senegal in 2002, and the disaster is, only a decade later, unknown even to those who consider the loss of the Titanic a great tragedy. The Titanic has been remembered, commemorated and celebrated for a century now. My book is about the people who sailed on other ships that met with disaster, whether they lived or died, but who have been almost completely forgotten.