A.A. Milne and the torturous task of writing

For those of us lucky enough to have been regular contributors to Punch magazine, April is a slightly crueller month than most, since it was on 8 April 32 years ago that the last edition collapsed, exhausted, on to the newspaper stands. By then it was way past its best, but in its day it had employed some of the very best brains in the business, led by some of the very best editors. I was lucky enough to be around when Alan Coren was in his prime. He led the magazine from the front, literally, and set a standard that the rest of us did our hardest to emulate,

Why I self-publish my books

Trying to publish a book used to be straightforward. You came up with an idea, spent months, if not years, writing it, then sent it off to an agent or publisher who rejected it by return. Life was simpler back then. We all knew where we were. Rejection wasn’t necessarily based on the quality of the work. Literature is a subjective business. Lord of the Flies earned William Golding 20 rejections. James Joyce, Jack Kerouac and Joseph Heller suffered similar fates. Marcel Proust was rejected so many times that he decided to pay for publication himself. The much-repeated industry statistic is between 1 and 2 per cent of manuscripts are

The appeal of apricity

‘She’ll be telling us next how lovely the word petrichor is,’ replied my husband. I had told him that the redoubtable word-collector Susie Dent had said: ‘Probably my favourite winter-word of all, apricity, is the warmth of the sun on a chilly day.’ She has been saying this every winter for years, and why not? But I agree with my husband that petrichor is overdone. It was invented in 1964 by two contributors to the science journal Nature, and signifies the smell from rain falling on dry ground. The trouble is that petr– reminds me of petrol, and ichor, the ethereal fluid supposed to flow in the veins of the

The bliss of Phuket’s Millionaire’s Mile

Many of my friends, stranded by the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes, have temporarily given up their film projects and settled down to write that hopeless novel which they could never finish before. Those film projects were more alluring – more necessary – than the lingering novels because they at least held out the prospect of one day bringing them, the openly despised writers, to the kind of fantasy scenarios towards which they have worked all their life. For some, a timbered Elizabethan priory in Sussex; for others a tropical villa perched on a headland with a constant blue bar of sea to make the approach of death feel philosophical.

Don’t cancel Beatrix Potter

I spoke too soon. Beatrix Potter, I suggested in an afterword to my 2016 biography of the author and illustrator, had escaped the distortions of sexual and racial revisionism that now blight so many eminent and long-dead British writers. But no longer. Last week a specialist in postcolonial literature at a northern university accused Potter of failing to acknowledge her indebtedness to an oral storytelling tradition of enslaved Africans working on American plantations. Welcome, please, a new Potter for the 21st century: exploitative, colonialist, dishonest. Potter’s concealment, claims Dr Emily Zobel Marshall, ‘[feeds] into a damaging and recurring appropriation of Black cultural forms that continues today’. Blimey. Zobel Marshall’s hypothesis

The reactionary bohemian: Jeremy Clarke was one of a kind

A world without Jeremy Clarke is a glummer place. The author of this magazine’s Low Life column for 23 years, who died on Sunday morning, was a spirited writer of the old school. He loved a rollicking good time, a beautifully turned phrase, a good gossip, casting an observant eye over life’s absurdities, and England. He despised the hypocrisy of the progressive middle classes, big egos and TV boxsets. He had quirkily conservative views, but friends of all classes and races, a deep knowledge of an unusual range of subjects, including rural matters, and a cheerful modesty that belied his talent as a writer. He despised the hypocrisy of the

Turkey is at an existential crossroads

The wonderful Barbara Kingsolver wrote that hope is something you should not admire from a distance, but rather live inside of, ‘under its roof’. Last week I lived under the roof of hope as the campaigns for the first round of the Turkish presidential elections drew to a close. This is an existential crossroads for Turkey, my motherland. The AKP under Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been in power for two decades. Although they started off on their journey with promises of liberal reforms, a democratic constitution, and plenty of rhetoric about joining the EU, they have become increasingly nationalist, Islamist, patriarchal and authoritarian with each passing year. Women’s rights have

My type: a love note for the typewriter

The last manual typewriter, after 150 years of commercial production, was manufactured in the UK in 2012. Yet like all design classics, it refuses to lie down and die. There is a roaring trade in old models on eBay, and dealers such as the Typewriter Man in the UK and Mytypewriter.com in the US sell them to hipsters and steampunks, among whom they are cult objects. The latter store, awash with Hermes, Remingtons and Underwoods, even has a list of famous writers and the machines they used – from John Ashbery to P.G. Wodehouse – so that you can buy a model to match your literary tastes.  They’re also, in

Why you should write poetry

In a recent Low Life column, Jeremy Clarke referred to Edward Thomas and his writing of 16 poems in just 20 days. Similarly, practically all of the poems that made Wilfred Owen famous were composed in a few months (and when he was still in his twenties). It has been the same for many of our greatest poets. This prompts a few reactions: one is undoubtedly a sense of inferiority. But another is the thrill of possibility. It doesn’t matter if you’ve produced nothing of any literary merit in your life to date: a sudden burst of inspiration over a few weeks could be all you need. This is something

Burt Bacharach and the end of the age of accomplishment

Hearing about the death of Burt Bacharach at the age of 94, I thought of one word: maestro. The word is variously defined as ‘a master, usually in an art’ (Merriam-Webster) or ‘a man who is very skilled at playing or conducting’ (Cambridge), but my favourite is the beautiful simplicity of the Longman definition: ‘Someone who can do something very well.’ The good (Brian Wilson: ‘He was a hero of mine and very influential on my work… he was a giant’), the bad (Billy Corgan: ‘A titan of beautiful and effortless song’) and the ugly (Mick Hucknall: ‘Farewell, genius’) of the music business spoke as one on this loss, with

The unstoppable march of the celebrity author

The anticipation surrounding the release of a certain memoir today obscures a bigger question about the changing face of our publishing industry. Why does every Tom, Dick and Prince Harry think they can write a book these days? Figures last week showed the number of independent bookshops in Britain reached a ten-year high in 2022, thanks to a reading frenzy fuelled by pandemic lockdowns, the mushrooming of book groups and, perhaps most of all, the incessant, unstoppable march of the celebrity (not to mention royal) author. It is good news that there are now more than 1,000 independent bookshops in Britain and Ireland, the culmination of six years of growth

AI is the end of writing

Unless you’ve been living under a snowdrift – with no mobile signal – for the past six months, you’ll have heard of the kerfuffle surrounding the new generations of artificial intelligence. Especially a voluble, dutiful, inexhaustible chatbot called ChatGPT, which has gone from zero users to several million in the two wild weeks since its inception. Speculation about ChatGPT ranges from the curious, to the gloomy, to the seriously angry. Some have said it is the death of Google, because it is so good at providing answers to queries – from instant recipes comprising all the ingredients you have in your fridge right now (this is brilliant) to the definition

Books to look out for in 2023

After a fair-to-middling 2022, it’s not unreasonable to hope that 2023 will see several stars burn brightly in the literary firmament. Whether what promises to be the most talked-about book of the year, Prince Harry’s Spare (out tomorrow with Bantam), is included in this number remains to be seen. On the plus side, the Prince has the estimable J.R. Moehringer as his ghostwriter; on the negative side is the fact that his every public appearance over the past few years has been so combative that we might expect little more than a 416-page exercise in score-settling. More reliable pleasures await. Pamela Anderson’s memoir Love, Pamela (Headline, January) should be a revelatory and fascinating dive

The strange inspiration of the Gobi desert

The first time I went to Mongolia was in 2014, when I travelled across the country with the actress Michelle Rodriguez and a group of her friends, courtesy of the Mongolian-American conservationist Jalsa Urubshurow. Driving out of Ulaanbaatar at dawn, we stopped at a market on the outskirts of the city to buy caviar, blinis and crates of Chinggis vodka for the 12-hour drive. Because I was not a follower of the Fast & Furious franchise, I had little idea who Michelle was, but every vendor in that tiny market knew her on sight. The place came to a standstill at 5 a.m. It was clear that the terrifyingly long

Michael Palin isn’t a ‘national treasure’

It’s a well-known fact that Michael Palin is a ‘national treasure’. Or so you are told just about every single time the travel presenter and writer appears on television or features in a newspaper interview. So it was with grim inevitably that a few days before the first instalment of his latest expedition, Michael Palin: Into Iraq, aired on Channel 5 on Tuesday, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times both felt it imperative to describe him with this phrase. Never mind that he’s no doubt utterly sick of this lazy cliché – objectively, it’s a misleading misnomer. ‘National treasure’ is patronising, twee and demeaning, and distracts from the fact that

Why your more successful friends will drop you

You might have noticed the numerous glowing pieces by friends of Salman Rushdie about their ‘brave’ and ‘brilliant’ friend. I too would like to write a glowing piece about my brave and brilliant friend Salman Rushdie, but there’s one little problem: I’m not a friend of his. In fact I don’t have any famous novelist friends. I used to. There was the occasional lunch with Nick Hornby and the odd debauched evening with Will Self. I’ve drunk whisky with Norman Mailer and smoked pot with Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (And I have a lovely thank-you letter from Edward St Aubyn – does that count?)

Where does a mother’s history end and a daughter’s begin?

In the grim locked-down winter of 2021, I drove three hours to Wales where I sat in an isolated cottage and wrestled with a memoir I could not figure out how to write. While I was there, my mother sent me a link to a two-page personal essay she’d published in a tiny but venerable magazine called the Literary Review of Canada. It was entitled ‘This Story is Mine’. After a preamble about feminism and #MeToo, she cuts to the chase: ‘In June 1964, a few weeks before my thirteenth birthday I was raped by a man old enough to be my father.’ My mother then went on to tell

A vroom of one’s own: how I loved my old Mini

Almost 100 years ago the writer Virginia Woolf advised women to find themselves a room of their own: a refuge away from the busy, crowding demands of life, where they could focus instead on themselves and write, think, be. At a time of austerity, when space is at an expensive premium and when post-pandemic empty nests have been re-occupied by returning offspring and spare rooms newly identified as shared office space, I have found an alternative sanctuary. For the past 20 years or so my refuge was my car, acquired with the first real money I ever earned as a writer. My Mini offered me an unconditional escape during the

I’ve written the perfect book

I met a Canadian couple for lunch in Edinburgh. They were from Vancouver – he a judge, she an opera singer – and had won me at a charity auction. I do this several times a year. It’s a painless way of helping good causes. Of course it’s a very one-sided blind date: they know more about me than I do about them, at least to start with. But the conversation always flows easily and I’ve met some fascinating characters. After the lunch, a drink at Inspector Rebus’s favourite watering hole, the Oxford Bar, was part of the deal. It too has character to spare. Speaking of which, I also

Is this Premier Inn all I’ll be remembered for?

It’s fairly commonplace for people to wonder what, if anything, they’ll be remembered for. I’m going to be 59 later this year, so it’s been preying on my mind. Will it be the self-deprecating memoir I wrote about failing to take Manhattan? The schools I helped set up? The Free Speech Union? The answer, I’m afraid, is none of the above. I’ve just received an email from Google that has conclusively answered this question – and it’s not good news. According to the email, I added a location to Google Maps on 4 October 2017 that has been viewed 24 million times. Now, I might take some satisfaction from this