The Draftsman’s playlist: music and a novel

I was reading somewhere that authors like to have a particular playlist running in the background while they are working. I cannot imagine anything more annoying or likely to mess up what I am trying to write. But perhaps it depends on the type of music you like and if you like super samey bland stuff, it probably doesn’t interrupt what you are doing. But if you like music that’s in your face and challenging, it’s likely to get you twitching and fidgeting and that’s not good for the typing or the lexical accuracy.

Musicians are for the most part poets too, so words set to music from the likes of Stormzy or Springsteen are going to knock out any other words in one’s head. Like many people for whom music is an intrinsic and constant part of their lives, I do like to see musical references in a novel. There are quite a few in The Draftsman. It wasn’t part of the plan, they just snuck in.

The playlist for book, in no particular order runs as follows:

         Billie Holiday – Isn’t it a lovely day;

         Andrews Sisters – Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree

         Glenn Miller;

         Lonnie Donnegan – The Party’s Over;

         Richard Thompson;

         Elton John – Saturday Night’s Alright;

         Gerschwin – Rhapsody in Blue;

         Louis Armstrong – West End Blues;

         Ma Rainey – Black Cat Hoot Owl Blues;

         My Chemical Romance;

         Queen –  Bohemian Rhapsody

         Meatloaf – Bat Out of HellTwo Out of Three Ain’t Bad

         Chopin – Nocturnes

This is the point in the blog where I should explain in very erudite language the reasons for having musical references in a novel. They are as follows (according to me, that is):

         Music in a novel makes it more interesting

         Musical references can be used as a narrative device

         Music is a means of shifting the plot

         Song lyrics can remind people of some shared experience

         It’s random, based on what was playing during the writing

         All of the above

         None of the above

These reasons are all subjective and completely depend on the work you’re writing, the target reader and the selection of references. So it’s all rubbish and none of the above is a hard and fast rule.

But perhaps an explanation of the choices I made for The Draftsman is worth exploring, so here goes. For me there is no musician to compare with Billie Holiday. The breadth of her work and interpretations are still astounding and utterly unmatched. Billie was a warrior and she rarely backed down. A fighter who was alone and under attack, deceived and abused for pretty much her entire life. And yet the work she produced is sublime, beautiful, resonant, tender and joyful. It endures and stays ahead of her and all times. I even heard Billie singing in Tesco’s over Christmas. I was in the bath and shampoo aisle, and she wafted down “I’ve got my love to keep me warm”. Said it all really.

The Andrews Sisters are a different part of the soundtrack to my life. My sister Candy and I used to mime along to the Andrews Sisters, although the details have faded with lack of use. I just know that whenever I hear the Andrews Sisters I can’t help but think of Candy and her gifted mimes, right down to the accents. Glenn Miller is of a piece with the Andrews Sisters in many ways, but mostly I love his work because it takes a catchy tune and breaks all the rules with complicated yet accessible arrangements. Defiant and up and positive. I don’t know if he and Billie ever played together though they had lots of colleagues in common. 

My dad Colin Bowden 29:II:1932 – 01:VIII:2021 Thank you for all that wonderful noise.

Lonnie Donnegan was once, a very long time ago, a part of my life and has echoed over the years for diverse reasons. The song referenced in The Draftsman, played at the protagonist’s father’s funeral, is not one that Donnegan was very famous for. But my dad once told me what it was about and, since it is about the end of an affair, I find it deeply poignant and tender. And I don’t know whether Uncle Tony had lots of affairs (probably) but if he did, the song adds another dimension to the man. It also reminds me that my own affair with a married man might have ended very differently, and not in our very happy marriage.

I could not overlook Richard Thompson in this book, not least because he’s up there with the poets, and also writes clever tunes and snazzy arrangements. Although we are both English, it took an American, my first husband Todd, to get me to listen Mr Thompson’s music. There were lots of girls at school keen on Fairport Convention et al but I became too obsessed with Elton JohnBillie Holiday and Gerschwin to notice much else. 

And Elton John’s was the first non-Jazz gig I ever went to. I was newly arrived back in London following a few silent years at a school in Brooklyn, and Jacqui Smith asked me if I would like to go to see Elton John play at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon. I was 14, intensely lonely and still wallowing in the ugly facts of the previous five years. And I had no idea who Elton John was. I said yes straightaway and loved every moment of the gig. I even got to see Marc Bolan who came on at the end. I only noticed because Jacqui screamed so very loud and dragged me to the stage. I’d never heard of Marc Bolan either, and he just looked like all the others on the stage. Maybe bigger hair. Now the memory brings back the colours and the noise, the stink of sweaty men and an audience who knew the words to all the songs. In Croydon.

If you can do the dots, you’ll love the sound of this in your head.

At that time I was still more interested in jazz but was trying to be more grown up, to pull forwards. I don’t know where I first heard Gerschwin’s Rhapsody in Blue but I fell in love with it and still it’s one of my favourite things to listen to. It brought me closer to Alison Taylor at school. Alison was a classical violin and piano player extraordinaire, bent on defying her parents ambitions for her by embracing jazz. Gerschwin was as close as it got. Gerschwin and then my dad because her boyfriend Billy liked him. Billy was aware of my dad before he was aware of me which Alison thought dusted my dad with glitter. I rather liked that. Nowadays I rarely listen to Gerschwin because Alison always jumps up to sing along with me. Ba ba ba baa ba baba baaa baaa. She died some years ago, but I still can hear her. All of us who knew and loved her can still hear her.

No one with an interest in jazz can overlook Louis Armstrong, a man whose presence in my life has recently become much more vivid. You won’t hear a more inventive bit of horn playing anywhere than Armstrong’s introduction to West End Blues. Our friend Winfried in Berlin, one of my dad’s oldest and most loyal fans has a Louis archive from 1963. He’s bequeathed it to the Louis Armstrong museum in Queens and it’s fantastic to browse. Winfried calls him St Louis Armstark.

I don’t know what made me reference Ma Rainey and Black Cat Hoot Owl Blues but I think it was probably the fact that her real name is Gertrude Pridgett and I have always loved that. She also sings in a moany sort of way that has echoes in the vocals of Bessie Smith and of course the sainted Billie.

When it comes to My Chemical Romance this is not a band I have ever much listened to. I think the reference weaselled its way into The Draftsman because my daughter Hannah was a big fan. I remember collecting her and a friend, Christian, I think he was called, from a gig in Brighton. They had explained to me that I wouldn’t need to park, always a struggle in Brighton, and that I would be able to find them because they dressed so distinctly. “We’ll stand out, so you’ll find us”. I think they were about 15. I got to the venue and tried to spot them, superbly camouflaged amongst hundreds of other teenagers in black jeans, white shirts, all black eyed and scowling. Hannah’s white blonde hair was fortunately unique amongst the throng.

Don’t you just love Meatloaf? He’s so loud and tender, in your face with his gentleness and the whole of the Bat Out of Hell album is unrelenting brilliance. It’s Meatloaf’s first album and I have never understood how work that is so melodic and poetic could be called Heavy Metal. Its honesty and poesy are probably why it’s one of the best-selling albums of all time. 

And what book would be complete without a reference to Queen? I had a very wealthy boyfriend who was ten years older than me when Bohemian Rhapsody came out. Another nine minutes plus long song. He gave me the album for Christmas and I wasn’t particularly thrilled (Elton still ruling). But I still have the album and as Elton faded into blah blah, Queen just kept on getting better and better and I was hooked. No so on the boyfriend, despite the Rolls Royce and the Jensen Healy. They couldn’t begin to make up for a total absence of personality.

Towards the end of the novel when The Draftsman is hiding up in the woods from friends and family, he hears music drifting up to his secret place. I don’t know why it had to be a Chopin Nocturne: they were all down there at a barbeque and you really would have thought something a little more upbeat would have been playing. Except as the draftsman’s torn and twisted psyche was fighting to right itself, Chopin would have been high on his agenda as he put together the party’s playlist. 

Martin Cox’s musical interests are actually a lot denser than I realised in writing the book. Just another part of the man that I only started to understand as the book went on. He’s stayed hidden for most of his life, so I suppose I should be glad that he clambered into my head to share himself on the page, even if only a little bit.

The Draftsman Launch Imminent (April 2021)

Unlike the actual book production process, reaching the point where a manuscript is finalised has been long and slow. And it’s left plenty of time to ponder that despite advances in digital prepress, the book publishing process is about as efficient as it was in the days of hot metal typesetting. Book people still actually refer to typesetting, even though everyone else calls it page layout and composition. And the idea of variable data novels, where you can have multiple different endings for instance, don’t even think about it. The slow production processes which were up-ended in the 1980s, were of a piece with slow book editing and design processes. But where prepress is now rocket-fast, editorial and design processes for books still seem to take an absolute age. It’s at once frustrating and sobering.

Hot metal type.
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From a writer’s perspective, it’s as well editing takes so long and has to be so drawn out. Reading a novel, even a little one, takes so much time. It requires care and attention to detail, so fixing a dodgy piece of work necessarily takes an age. Editors need plenty of time to recover in between sessions. Whatever the quality or not of a manuscript, editors must also have a vision of what a book is trying to become. And writers must be super-disciplined to avoid the temptation to completely overhaul the thing, rather than make judicious edits as the editor requests. This is especially difficult for writers with a sparrow’s attention span and a memory that dumps every word once it’s saved and filed away somewhere on the desktop. Maybe it’s on a memory stick (which one?), or the laptop or iPad? Or maybe it’s only alive on that extra hard-drive. Wherever it lives, it’s by no means in one’s head any more.

The novel production process only really begins with the editing process. The carefully organised and curated words are just raw material for an editor to advise on what the book is really about, who the characters are and what happens when. The editor sees the manuscript as an independent entity, unhitched from the writer. At each stage in production the thing comes into sharper focus, moves further away from its creator and into the light of its own being. The structural edit, then the copy edit, the proof edits, each add definition for what the finished work will look like. Like bringing a photo into focus or balancing the sound during a live music performance. By the time the author reads the final PDF or three, they are seeing a sharp picture, hearing all of the music. Then when the writer is ready to sign off on the manuscript they often need to have a little lie down, or at least another cup of tea and bar of chocolate.

Where I am now with the Draftsman is the post-signoff-lie-down-with-a-cup-of-tea-eat-more-chocolate stage. I have also approved the cover, so the next thing is to wait. The good news is that as this production saga has been so protracted Unbound has agreed to make advance copies available to all supporters, prior to the launch date of the 29th April. I don’t know when the advance copies will be available, so every delivery van hurtling past the study window makes me jump up, just in case. It’s surprisingly good exercise.

Between now and the launch date we will be working to get some visibility for the book, ideally through online book reviewers. I am working with Barnett’s of Wadhurst, our local bookshop, for an and will hold a launch event at the National Liberal Club in London. Except I have no idea who to invite. I intend to write some reviews of The Draftsman myself, all of which will be about all the things I hate about the book.

Then there is the identity anxiety, a corrosive confusion that won’t go away. Few authors dare not call themself ‘author’ in the beginning. It sounds even more pretentious than saying ‘I’m a writer’ when someone asks you what you do for a living. I’ve been saying ‘writer’ for the last 35 years, because it’s basically been how I have supported myself. I am comfortable with this and inclined to hide behind it. And I’ve had a handful of book-length titles published, am a member of the Society of Authors and the Authors’ Club. Yet to describe myself as an ‘author’ feels just way too bold and far beyond me. Until now; -ish. Now that The Draftsman is done and the publisher is sending the pages to Clays (digital and analogue printers extraordinaire) to be printed, it seems okay to use the word ‘author’. I can nearly, almost, say it without feeling that I somehow grubby other, real, proven and proper authors.

If once we are allowed out, someone says to me, ‘so Laurel Lindström, what do you do for a living?’ I hope I’ll be bold enough to smile and breezily say, ‘I’m an author’. And then I’ll wonder if they spot the paradox in this reply.

Sex in The Draftsman

There isn’t much to be honest, at least not much that is actually described, breathless and torrid. Sorry if that’s your gig. Sex is however one of the underlying themes of the book, even though the sex scenes aren’t explicit. In part this is because trying to write a sex scene is just so cringey. Try it and you’ll see what I mean. I have found that whenever I try it, the words invariably twist around and turn themselves into something that is very funny. I didn’t want that to happen in The Draftsman, so I avoided getting into too many details.

Is every exploration basically about sex? How do we need to understand it? What is its contribution to identity? Not sure. Read the book and tell me what you think. Or not.

The other thing that happens when trying to write sex scenes is that I start to blush and get embarrassed even though I am alone. It’s a problem and I don’t know any other writers well enough to discuss this with. I do know that when discussions head into the sex weeds in creative writing classes, the women take the topic very seriously and the men stare at their shoes. Perhaps it was just that particular group. Or perhaps sex is something that men writers find harder to chat about than women writers do. I fall into the men writer category, and I do have some very lovely shoes.

In The Draftsman, protagonist Martin Cox is a man whose sexuality is not clearly defined, it’s ambivalent. He’s a man who is always alone and who functions mostly in his head. For him sex belongs in an abstracted part of his psyche, a need rather than a dimension of his identity. Martin’s interested in sex, but not in any of the dramaturgy that for most people has to go with it. He just doesn’t care, cannot relate to any other aspect of his sexual partners, and is only concerned with their willingness to oblige. For Martin sex sits in its own box. Like hunger or the need to sleep, it’s not a defining characteristic of Martin Cox and it isn’t part of his identity. And yet that may not be entirely true.

Obviously I know why that is and you will too once you’ve read the book, but I wonder how widespread this disconnect is. Do we wall up parts of our natures in spaces that only occasionally can be accessed or, more darkly, that surface unexpectedly? This is an idea I plan to explore in the second book about Martin Cox, as he learns more about what happened to Ruth Lorne and her Canadian lover. In The Draftsman we learn a little bit about these characters, but only superficial details gleaned from diaries, police reports and newspaper cuttings. Ruth and Charles are certainly lovers, but sex may not have been part of their shared experience. Martin can be fascinated by these two people precisely because they are from another time, distinct from him but linked to him through their shared localities. They spent time in the same landscape as Martin, but over fifty years ago, far away enough on the continuum that Martin doesn’t need to integrate them into his world. They are in their own private box.

Martin Cox may be afraid or anxious about relationships and making a connection with someone who might have expectations about where that connection might lead. But this need for separation doesn’t have to be fundamental. This is addressed briefly in The Draftsman, but its implications are likely to be missed by many readers. That’s my fault for failing to add sufficient data to the scene, but the lack of data is precisely why Martin Cox reacts as he does to traumatic situations, including sexual ones. Read the book and let me know what you think.

Oscar Wilde in the 21st Century. What would he say?

What would you say?

The Oscar Wilde Society recently held a competition for members to come up with aphorisms and epithets that a 21st century Oscar Wilde might have said. One of my submissions made the short list of 20 out of 300 submissions. 

Since then I have come up with a few more. But can you guess which one made it to the list? Answers on a bee’s wing please. Enjoy!

Restraint of speech and imagination enslave ideas to the bondage of the masses.

Being told what to think, is the greatest luxury of 21st century life.

To explain my absence I tell my friends I am having issues.

The art of the influencer is not the same as the influence of art.

That subjects and topics could have ownership is fundamentally undemocratic.

Restrain imagination and all progress will cease.

Self-obsession, the 21st century’s favourite disease.

Health and fitness are vastly overrated.

Beauty and deception are natural partners.

In the digital age, opportunity and responsibility have become irreconcilable.

Morbidities are ambitions for the unrestrained appetite.

A convenient alternative to an alert intelligence is to be woke.

To label one’s sexuality is to confine it.

An agile mind may lurk behind a lardy physique.

Sex and labels are both so exciting, but not necessarily in the expected ways.

Diet at your peril.

Social media is neither social nor mediating.

Trump and Johnson are delightful entertainers. They take satire to a whole new level. 

Being fat is one of life’s great joys and its greatest sorrow.

Climate change is the planet’s way of telling us we’ve gone too far.

Having issues is a mysterious way to admit that there’s a problem. And problems are so much easier to address than issues.

What does should of mean? I should’ve asked before.

The Draftsman and technology in the age of XXX

The world is awash with writers, fitness trainers, dog walkers, chefs and book bloggers. And around each of them is a web of service providers, sales channels and even sometimes paying customers. Yet very few of us have been able to give up the day job. As a début author (The Draftsman) I am totally drowned in an ocean of other writers and overwhelmed by the expectations of what one must do to stand out and build a following in the wild, wild world of XXX where XXX means whatever you want. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the work, the actual book, but everything to do with how skilled you are at managing the online channels, from Amazon to Wattpad (don’t ask), and how good you are at name dropping. And I am absolutely crap at all of it. I don’t want a relationship with algorithms or the XXX anons.

This is ironic, given that I have spent my career writing about technology, and that technology is what’s making all this possible. From word processors like Apple’s MacWrite and Microsoft Word, through to layout tools and the container for print ready pages that is PDF, I’ve been mostly on top of it. Looking back over the years I am pleased to see so many of the amazing innovations we’ve covered, now in the hands of so many creative people. These media production technologies are cheap, readily available and make it possible for anyone to produce a book, newsletter or whatever. And that has driven author incomes down.

The Draftsman, one in a gazillion.

It’s been the same story in the music industry as technology made production processes cheaper and accessible to more people. This is all quite wonderful because it lowers the bar to entry, so that more ideas can be shared in many different creative ways. Technology is central to The Draftsman, and how clever inventions make a difference to inventors, users and the planet. 

Technology is central to everything, so it’s fair to say that the publishing industry’s raw material, imagination and passion, is completely entangled with it. Today writers must develop an online following in order to be noticed. The online following comforts publishers who might be reluctant to take risks with new ideas and points of view. A following suggests a swathe of keen buyers and so informs budgets, project planning and print run lengths. Technology creates opportunity for so many expressive formats and allows publishers to identify and target potential readers for a given work. But there is way too much noise in the online world and much of it is self-serving and rather ugly.

In The Draftsman, set in 2006, two years after FaceBook launched, there is no social media apart from a passing reference to emails and the speed of internet connections. And there is a bit of foresight too, when Martin Cox ponders the rate at which many forms of printed content will migrate online, to decimate the printing industry and create opportunities for new business models. Even in 2006 when FaceBook was only two years old, it was clear that internet technologies were reaching not just into industrial applications, but also becoming central to daily living. By 2012 when FaceBook went public the platform had 845 million users and social media was a habit.

And yet I didn’t want Martin Cox to be an online junkie. He’s obsessive and dark, and what he would do with an online existence would be as obsessive, as dark. I didn’t want to write about how dark, given his personality and history, and his various confusions. But perhaps I should have done because that would have required more research into the whole social media eco-system and the paths through it. It might have made me a more adept manipulator of the channels and algorithms and it might have made me more popular, in a bitsy sort of way. (That’s binary digitsy, not little particles.) And the darkness in The Draftsman might have found an audience. Then I would have lots of followers and publishers might have been swooning at my feet. But then again, the lack of swooners might just be that I don’t write as well as I think I do. Read The Draftsman and decide for yourself. Ever yours, XXX.

Life As A Shortie (something to infuriate the wokers)

As a very small person (VSP) I have lived my life looking up to my peers, willingly or not. Throughout childhood I expected that would end when I grew up, but I hit 4’11” and there I stayed. A life of shortness was all that I could look forward, or up, to and so far it hasn’t been all that great. Handrails are always too high, stair steps too tall. Mayonnaise jars are just that little too fat to hold safely and I have to jump to reach the car boot to shut it.

Even on tiptoe and in high heels, I am still too short to see what I am doing.

Understandably the giants in primary and high schools, and the grown-ups everywhere else tend not to notice short people. Why would they? We’re below normal human sightlines, our voices are just a bit too squeaky and far down to be heard. And we’re just so easy to trip over and step on. Elbow bumps have a whole other meaning for VSPs. Standing sociably in a group, stray elbows can send your cup of tea or glass of wine flying, or intrude unexpectedly into your plate of food. Breadroll mayhem. Let’s face it, small people are in constant battle with a world designed by and for nonVSPs.

We face prejudice in so many ways. Grown-up clothes and shoes are invariably too big, even in their smallest iterations. That shop assistant sneer when they tell you, “we’ve nothing that small”. We face perpetual, organised and deliberate discrimination, with constant daily reminders of our shortness. Mirrors in public loos and restaurants are invariably too high. VSPs must jump to see more than the tops of their heads. The same’s true for peep holes in apartment and hotel room doors. We need a chair to use them, or once again must jump. Discrimination in shops is common because we’re below most people’s sightline and justifiably ignored. The counters in chip shops and bakeries and the like are always too high to see, or be seen, over.

Antagonism takes many forms, intended or not. Like the time I gave a speech standing in high heels on a box behind a podium. A delegate congratulating me, afterwards suggested that next time I ask the organisers for a box to stand on. When I pointed to the box already in place the redness of face was priceless. And like when people you’re meeting for the first time tell you they hadn’t realised you were so short. Or when you’re assigned a gym locker the key to which you cannot reach. And airline seats that bury VSPs making them invisible to cabin crews. We have to stand up to reach the air, light and call buttons and cannot reach the overhead bins without standing on the seats. We have to stand on the lower shelves in supermarkets to reach stuff and shower heads are always too far up to adjust. Cameras and smartphones are mostly too big to hold in one hand. Glasses too. Order a gin and tonic and watch the normals grasp the bowl, all elegant and suave. The VSP has to hold the stem and be so very careful when tipping the glass to sip, or otherwise hold it with two hands. Elegant and suave no. Add cups and mugs to this list, along with powertools, round doorhandles, fuel pumps, wing mirrors that block our view of the road, pump action shampoos and soaps, kitchen counter tops and most gym equipment. Getting onto and off of chair lifts and ski tows is always a challenge, although it’s privilege to have the opportunity. Reaching the slots at toll booths and car parks invariably requires getting out of the car, inviting invective and antagonism from the queue behind. Be patient we’re doing our best with limited capacities!

Like everyone, VSPs possess different behavioural traits. This makes them uniquely special and endearing. Observe how they duck away suddenly from the spit storms typical at parties and receptions. Watch them wrestle with supermarket trolleys because they lack steering leverage. See them clamber awkwardly onto a bar stool struggling once up to turn to face forwards without falling off. A simple lift of a hip is not an option for VSPs. We invariably sit too far forwards on our chairs. It’s a behaviour not due to anxiety or eagerness to join in. Most chairs are too high for a VSP’s feet to reach the ground and the seat too deep for them to sit on without their legs sticking out. Their arms are too short to reach the table. We do look quite adorable though as we struggle.

Despite the odds, VSPs can lay claim to a few significant social, political and cultural achievements. Haile Selassie former emperor of Ethiopia was only 5’1″, Gandhi was 5’4″ and Judy Garland a mere 4’11”. Danny de Vito’s only 4’10” and Genghis Khan tipped in at 5’1″. Anne Boleyn was 5’3″, quite tall for the time but she died some eight inches shorter by when being a VSP didn’t much matter.

VSPs are daily subject to microagressions. We are told how dinky we are and told that our little wrists are just so teensy. We know. We’re the butt of jokes about being able to reach the bar, or hang up our coats. Look at those tiny shoes, and your hands are so small they say. “You look so tiny in that mask”. It’s all very jolly so we’d never say back “and you look so fat in yours”.

But sadly we are complicit in all this because we generally ignore insensitive, substandard treatment taking it as the norm. We don’t want to make a fuss and you probably wouldn’t take us seriously in any case. VSPs don’t expect much to change, despite our enhanced health risk in the days of Covid-19. You see, we’re closer to the ground, where all the virus loaded mist drifts as it falls. We’re unavoidably caught in the the snot and droplet line’s trajectory, masks or no.

Despite aspiration and idealised values for all of us, small people accept there can be no equality. We can’t magic height except by wearing high heeled shoes. This is always an option, but not universally feasible. Equality is always undermined by something. High heels must not be worn on airplane escape slides for instance, and they don’t work with skis. On city pavements they invariably get stuck in the cracks unexpectedly pitching their wearer headfirst towards the ground. 

And yet much as we want to fit in and be like everyone else, we still want to be different, to be recognised as unique. At the very least it’s a conversation starter. Like everyone else we want an acknowledged identity that lets us participate in socio-economic, political and cultural hierarchies on our own terms. We want our difference celebrated, simultaneously both acknowledged and ignored. So let’s not forget to remember each other, to remember that we are all survivors, that we are all of us damaged, disadvantaged and incomplete. And all of us need each other’s kindness, patience. Spare the opprobrium. And spare a thought for the struggle to strap skis onto high heels, for the scrambling onto bar stools, the random elbows in the eye and getting trod on without thought. Spare a thought for all of us, everywhere. And let’s try hard to make it a kind one.

(In case there is any misunderstanding amongst readers, this is satire.)

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – A Review

Part II

This is the second part of my review of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The first part focuses on the book, it’s story and my opinion of it. This part addresses the antagonism directed at Jeanine Cummins for having the temerity to write about brown people, even though she is white.

Authors under attack

Author Jeanine Cummins was attacked by a cohort of women of central and northern American backgrounds, on the basis that Jeanine Cummins should not have written American Dirt because she is not Mexican. And? 

In the case of Jeanine Cummins the controversy kicked off when American Dirt was selected by Oprah Winfrey, a big name USA celeb, as her latest Oprah’s Book Club pick. Accusers say that as a white American woman Ms Cummins should not have written a novel about a brown Mexican woman. She had no right to the story, even though it’s a work of fiction based on creative thinking, research, hard work and peer reviews. The charge is not unlike that levelled at Edna O’Brien for Girl a novel that follows a group of young girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria and one girl in particular. Both authors have been attacked for their work, despite the fact that their books illuminated otherwise very dark and unseen places. Besides vilification, the two writers also share another rather more important quality: imagination and dedication. But for that they get no credit. 

Half empty, half full, twice the size it needs to be, or a glass in need of topping up?

Why can these half-empty types not just appreciate American Dirt for the wonderful writing, the strong characterisations and the insight into what thousands of people face every day just to survive, baffles. When are we going to get over this proprietariness when it comes to ideas, characters and stories? It seems that it’s more important to discourage and block, to put people off their work, to prevent them expressing the stories and ideas in their heads, to stop them sharing what they see, how they see it and why they think it matters. Does imagination and commitment to the work of getting it onto the page need permission? And if so, why? Is it because people don’t want to be offended? If so there are plenty of intensely offensive books out there. Don’t buy them if you think you may be offended. But also don’t whinge because someone else told the story first.

Same pic as in part one of this review because Jeanine Cummins’ agent has ignored my request for a photo. And why not, I’m a nobody and clearly not deserving of courtesy.

Headline news

That American Dirt had massive support from a powerful publishing machine (Headline, a Hachette imprint) makes matters worse for the antis. It makes it better for readers and the author, because it means more people are exposed to the book and the ugly realities it describes. The antis overlook that the deal to publish followed a three day bidding war involving nine publishers. They believe, probably correctly, that another author might not have received the seven figure advance, the promotions and publicity that Cummins got. But the original book proposal was instantly resonant for so many publishers because of its timeliness and relevance, plus its commercial potential. Cummins was signed to a major publisher and got the ginormous advance not because she is white but because her work sells. Cummins has already published three other books which sold well so she’s got solid track record of delivering the goods. A known quantity. In commercial terms the subject matter and the author of American Dirt are low risk. Publication of American Dirt isn’t about exploiting underrepresented authors, being insensitive to cultural fragilities or not supporting emerging talent. It’s about commercial risk and sales. That’s the reality.

In 1890 Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray “To define is to limit.” Perhaps we should all stop trying to limit the imaginations of creative people, and should instead put aside envy and jealousy. We should stop letting life’s unfairness get in the way of appreciating what others create, whoever they are. Let’s stop the creeping censorship, let’s stop seeking out people to criticise and condemn, and let’s think about the real implications of the whole concept of individual cancellation. It’s been tried many times in the course of history and it always ends badly.

Book club pick

I came to this book because it was required reading for our book club. I knew nothing about it or the fuss, but was hooked from the first page. The insights and perspective and horror for Lydia, Luca and the two sisters is impossible to step away from. They cling and invade with increasing tenacity as the reader moves along through the story alongside these people who exert such a pull. They’re with me still. American Dirt helps us to gradually understand that all of us are vulnerable to this awfulness, but for a few twists of fate and luck. The migrant’s desperate trek is not an abstract, distant, elsewhere problem. It is here and now, it is part of our humanity and inhumanity. In her details and the reality she creates, with imagination, research and dogged hard work, Jeanine Cummins sustains excitement and tension throughout the 454 pages of American Dirt. When you put it down you may be surprised to find yourself shaking and your blood pressure up. Prose like breathing, intense and rapid from start to finish.

Serious Suggestions for a Serious Problem

Following is a copy of my response to the Bookseller, following their Climate Issue. This response was published in the Bookseller, 29th October, 2021. I am not sure who’s copyright it is, but it doesn’t matter given the need to get this problem aired and addressed. Sorry if I have broken the rules.

The Bookseller‘s recent Climate Issue (October 15th, 2021) successfully addressed the intertwined problem of commercial and environmental sustainability from a range of perspectives. This is vital to encourage broad engagement and hopefully commitment to change. But is the action the publishing industry is taking fast and far-reaching enough?

In the issue, the Editor’s Letter rightly pointed out that the climate emergency is immediate. Closed loop supply chains are one possible solution, but do we have time to wait for ideas, research-backed or otherwise? Net zero deadlines are too often vanities without action. If the end goal is achieved too late to change outcomes, action is meaningless. And there is much that can be done now.

The interconnections between commercial interests and sustainability are central to progress, so the risk of greenwashing is ever present. And trying to educate readers is never going to be enough without leadership and example. In this, the graphics industry in general and the book trade specifically can do much more. Radical, risky, creativity and investment from the major publishers would provide leadership and inspiration for smaller businesses, and for readers too.

Details, not despair

We do not need hystrionics to scare people into change. The prospects for a do-nothing approach to the climate emergency are grim and widely recognized, and terrifying proclamations and doomsday scenarios risk turning people away. More important is to recognise that there will be life after climate collapse, but we may not want or be able to live it.

I humbly suggest that a closer look at the Publishing Association’s (PA) Publishing Declares pledge might offer more substance in addition to the five prongs. Net zero fine, but how? Work with resource efficient (que?) supply chain partners. How? Use sustainable processes and materials. What are these? Support climate literacy. How? Raise awareness and drive positive climate action. How? Fortunately many of these questions already have answers and tangible options are available to the pledge signatories. Equally fortunately, most of those signatories have the resources and market clout to drive implementation.

A few suggestions for what publishers can do now

1. Set up an inhouse Environmental Management System (EMS) and only work with suppliers who also have an EMS. ISO 14001, based on principles of continuous improvement to environmental impact mitigation, is an excellent tool for this.

2. Require print service providers to calculate the carbon footprint of each book printed at their production sites. Here too ISO has a useful tool. ISO 16759 is a carbon calculator for print. Its requirements address all aspects of a printed book’s production to calculate its carbon footprint.

3. Create and share an environmental management policy or manifesto with customers, service providers and the rest of the supply chain. If the PA could come up with a single Book Publishers’ Sustainability Manifesto, so much the better.

4. Develop company-wide recycling and sustainability policies that authors, booksellers and readers can conveniently support. Offer collections for returns and set up dedicated Free Book community websites. This can work on a massive or teensy scale.

5. Use direct digital printing for on demand production and develop a robust network for this form of sale with bookshops, large and small. Only work with printing companies who use process-less printing plate imaging, which cuts out the chemical processing stage of printing plate production.

6. Build in-house toolkits to support the development peoples’ knowledge development of climate change mitigation, and that explain what they can do now (colour management at the start of book design processes, the sustainability limitations of different substrates, matching run lengths to printing technology, designs for end-of-life and recyclability etc.). Such a toolkit could become a standard that all publishers use.

That pledge

The PA’s pledge is a solid start but tangible, realistic and measurable actions can be taken now. The annual report anticipated for later this year might be more useful if it includes some sort of call to arms rather than merely confirming what we already know: we’re knackered, if we don’t change soon. A talking shop “a safe place for collaboration” as one of your interviewees put it, is not enough. Chat doesn’t cut it.

The materials index the PA proposes is a great idea, and will be tough to implement because it depends on cooperation from materials and services providers. It might be more helpful to provide the carbon footprints of the most popular substrates and embellishments used in book production, along with guidance for designers. Such questions could be part of the membership survey.

E-books

The thorny matter of e-books and other digital content also needs more knowledge sharing and understanding. We have a dreadful digital habit whereby we want to store every single digitised dimension of our lives. From photos of breakfast through to email archives, we want it all out there across multiple competitive platforms. Rarely is the heavy emissions burden this carries ever considered because, as Climate Issue contributor George Walkley points out, we assume “that digital publishing has a lower overall environmental footprint than print”. Not necessarily, as he also explains.

Unlike e-media, print’s carbon footprint is stamped during production. Its use does not depend on electricity, devices, networks or server storage. It is a durable and emissions-free archive. How secure and environmentally friendly are electronic media archives? Will we still be able to open an e-book in 600 years time? And if so, at what environmental cost?

Now is the time

I am sorry to rant so, but our industry is at a crucial junction. Action to make print media supply chains environmentally accountable must begin now. Is writing a company’s environmental policy really so hard? Is it impossible to choose suppliers who have one and can demonstrate the results of their efforts to mitigate emissions? No, not really. It’s all out there. The bigger shout out is for individual and corporate commitment.

Laurel Lindström (writing as Laurel Brunner) has worked as an environmental commentator for the printing and publishing industries for over a decade, as well as writing about the technologies used to produce printed matter in all forms. She has seen the industry undergo profound changes since the advent of the Macintosh and PCs in the 1980s. Their effect was a massive reduction in print production’s environmental impact. This was thanks to technology but also to the existential threat technology posed to the previously proprietary and polluting prepress and printing industries. The shift to standard operating systems, digital data formats, process automation, colour and production quality management cut emissions, waste and remakes in the industry. They continue to do so.

A smiley shot from 2018. Three years older now!

Goodbye Dolly

This time last year, October 2020, our companion pony had to be put to sleep. It was a very sad day and the short piece that follows reminds me of how much love is a filter for all of our other emotions. 

Since Dolly died we have had a new and unexpectedly sparky addition to the family. The Greyhorse didn’t immediately fall in love with Birdy; he still grieved for his wheezy little Shetland. But after a few weeks this fiesty little Welsh Section B mare won his heart.

When Dolly Died

It’s only a pony but only a pony is so much more. When the vet said “she can’t go on like this” it was bad enough. When he ran through the vital signs, “heart’s racing, breathing 47 breaths a minute, and should be 22” When he sighed a heavy sigh and gave us that long look. Little Dolly staring blank at the soft autumn air. The Greyhorse standing off pulling at his hay, suddenly nodding every minute or so, squirrels bold bouncing across the ground to hide acorns almost as big as their heads. The air was so still in that moment, and there was no longer the crackle and wheeze of Dolly’s breath. Her lungs had so much scar tissue that there was no movement sufficient for a crackle or a wheeze. She stood with her hind legs stretched behind her ignoring the remains of her lunch. We’d been desperately tempting her with all sorts of yummy food, every hour something else, every morning looking in hope to see if she’d finished her last night’s food. But she didn’t and now it was time.

What a little, not-so-little, cutie.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. Two weeks before we had heard awful news of the death of an old friend. A friend whose death was expected, though not so soon. It was too soon, always too soon for those we love. And standing there in the golden light Dolly was waiting. Standing there in the golden light there was a door, a passage slowly widening, and slowly filling with immense leaden sorrow. Sorrow for those left behind, for those whose strength is falling away, for those whose life is soon ending. And through it Dolly passed, gently, easily and soon lay still, still with us but gone. All that we have lost remains somewhere, somehow.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. We can’t go to the funeral because there are limits on gatherings, so disease is our shepherd.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. We can’t visit the frail because we might kill them. They might kill us, so disease is our shepherd.

It’s only a pony, but only a pony is so much more. The shepherd is waiting. Good bye Dolly.

The 10 Freedoms of Brexit (from February 2020)

A lady was bleating on the radio the other day, euphoric that the UK was out of the European Union and that she was free. Apart from concerns as to the curious life the lady must lead, it occured to me that she was right, absolutely right that she, we, all of us are now free and here are ten reasons why. Ten or two*. Choose the ones that matter most to you. Add to the list.

  1. The freedom to buy health insurance for European travel.

2. The freedom to for pets’ passports not to count anymore.

3. The freedom to bring back a lone bottle of duty free booze.

4. The freedom to queue at European immigration desks.

5. The freedom to pay more for using a cash cards in the EU.

6. The freedom to pay more for flights.

7. The freedom to bathe in polluted rivers and seas.

8. The freedom to pay more for cheese, avocados et al.

9. The freedom to have an understaffed NHS, too few hauliers and food processors.

10. The freedom to be vulnerable to energy supply shortages and high prices.

*There are two kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary and those who don’t.

There are more freedoms …

The freedom to pay VAT, duties and customs fees on parcels from Europe.

The freedom to worry if medical supplies are slowing.

The freedom to sit in endless jams at the ports.

The freedom to carry green card proof of insurance plus the extra premium, when driving in the EU.

The freedom to enjoy cratering quality of life.

The freedom to have to buy an international driving license.

The freedom for scientists to work alone and with reduced funding.

The freedom for students not to participate in funded foreign exchanges.

The freedom to not go on duty free booze runs to Calais.

… and pity (or not) the poor expat Brexiteers who are being chucked out of Spain.