Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Driving down to Galilee

Those of you who know about me, know that Nancy and I are also The Thimble Press, which since 1969 has produced various kinds of publication to do with books for children and young people. Developments in digital publishing - Print on Demand - made it essential that we familiarise ourselves with it, an ideal form of inexpensively producing print for very small publishing houses.

Neither of us is competent with the latest electronic technicalities. So Nancy had to learn the processes. To do this she needed a straightforward text that didn't involve an author who might be upset if the attempt didn't succeed.

She remembered a diary I'd kept for her of my first visit to the 'secular' kibbutzim in the north of Israel in 1984. I'd produced 10 copies of it, using my first PC and a photocopier, and gave them to friends. Some of those who read it suggested it should be published. But I was too busy working on Now I Know at the time and didn't take their advice.

Now it seemed the ideal text for our first Print on Demand publication. And after all these years it appears as Driving down to Galilee under the Line by Line UK imprint of Thimble Press. 130 pages, full colour cover (which the ever patient Chris Robertson of Softlink Computers, who looks after our systems, helped me design and also provided the cover image - he's a very good photographer), 203 x 126 mm, cream paper. £10 post and package included. If you want to buy a copy go to the Thimble Press website where there is a stock list and order form. http://www.thimblepress.co.uk/

Things have changed in Israel since my visit in 1984. Here and there in the diary the fears of people I met are expressed about what would happen to the country if Sharon got into power. Their worst fears have come true. I returned twice more in the 80s, but not after the intifada. I wonder how different my impressions would be now?

What the diary records that will still be true is the character and nature of that extraordinary land, and of the people who established the kibbutzim. As for the kibbutzim themselves, even when I was there the break-up of the ideal they were built on, and the arrangements by which they were organised, was in train. They are now, I gather, very different places. So in a sense, the diary is a snapshot of a changeful moment in the history of the country.

I hope some of you who like my novels might find this different kind of narrative of interest. I love diaries, and collect them. I like them so much because they are written at the time the events are happening, without any attempt to shape or structure the story. They are novels of the instant. They hold the present in words so that it is always the present and never the past. No nostalgia. No retrospective reconsideration.

As my friend, the poet Alan Tucker, says in his Foreword: 'Form withstands and survives all temporary doubts and hesitations. It allows the equal inclusion of truth and error, it accepts and holds together both accurate depiction and opinionated ignorance.' (p 6) There are plenty of doubts and hesitations in Galilee, and accurate depiction and opinionated ignorance. But I wouldn't have published it if I had any reservations about it as a literary piece of writing.

And if this seems a bit like blowing my own trumpet as well as something of an advert, then so be it!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Ages on books for the young

There's a scheme afoot among British publishers and the larger booksellers to include an age range on every book for children and young people.
This, of course, is a crass marketing ploy. The argument seems to be that adults buying books for the young want to know the age suitability of a book without either having to read it and make the judgement for themselves or asking a professional.
Needless to say, I'm against this scheme on educational and literary grounds and dissociate myself from it. Which is not to say that I can stop my publishers from going ahead and doing it if they want to. There's usually a clause in an author's contract with a publisher that gives the publisher the right to publicise and market the books in whatever way they think best.
The scheme has caused so much upset among authors, illustrators, and others interested in books for the young that a protest is being organised. A statement of objection can be signed by anyone who is against this retrograde move.
If you want to read the reasons for our objections, and to add your name to the growing list of those objecting, go to: http://www.notoagebanding.org/

Friday, 16 May 2008


Every year the Dutch award prizes for the best books of the previous year for readers of 12 to 16. The prizes are called Kisses. The Golden Kiss goes to the best of the best; Silver Kisses are awarded to the others. Generously, books in translation are included, though they can only receive a Silver Kiss, not the golden, which, quite rightly, is reserved for Dutch books only.

This year my novel Dit Is Alles (This Is All) was eligible. Many people thought it would receive a Silver Kiss. It didn't. But the Jury made the following remarks (translated here by Annelies Jorna, the translator of Dit Is Alles):

"We do not want to leave it unsaid that the aforementioned novel Dit Is Alles by Aidan Chambers for us, too, is one of the most important and beautiful books of 2007. The high expectations with which each one of us started out reading it were fully met by the author. In fact, this in all respects spectacular novel about Cordelia Kenn's road to maturity impressed us so deeply that for some time we were unable to read another book. We would have loved to award the novel with the maximum prize which according to the rules is available for a translated work - i.e. The Silver Kiss - if we had felt convinced that reading Dit Is Alles does not require the deep understanding and reading skills that most readers between the ages of 12 and 16 lack to the extent that at some point in the book they will become dispirited and give up.
We might have given the book the benefit of the doubt. However, this would have meant withholding another special though more accessible book from the target group. We chose not to do so. Even those who claim that not everything in a book should be understood in order to learn from it will agree that sometimes readers may as yet not be experienced enough and had better wait for a while.

Naturally, I'm grateful to the Jury for their approbation. And of course it is their prerogative to decide which books will be given prizes and which won't. What interests me about their comments are the questions and assumptions that lie behind them. They are questions and assumptions that bother the judging of all book prizes, especially those for the young. I wonder if other people find them as bothersome as I do? For example:

1. Are the prizes intended to acknowledge literary worth? By which I mean, the use of language, form, narrative structure, depth and nature of the subject matter, the treatment of character and themes, and the innovative nature or exemplary standard of the writing. Or are they intended as support for those books which are exemplary because they are credit-worthy examples of the kind of books young readers already know they like (usually referred to as being 'accessible', 'readable', 'appropriate for the age range', etc.)?
It seems to me that the Jury for the Kisses fall between these two intentions, as juries selecting books for the young very often do.

2. Are the prizes based on assessment of the worth of individual books, which are judgements made detached from opinions about readership, or are they actually merely a form of marketing and publicity - that is, they support those books which will sell and which will not disturb anyone, whether adults or young readers, with difficulties of language, thought, feeling or subject-matter? It seems to me that the Jury for the Kisses is erring on the side of marketing and publicity.

3. Are young people of 12 to 16 radically different from people over the age of 16? Let's ask the question: If James Joyce's Ulysses or Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, or Harry Mulisch's Hoogste Tijd (Last Call) or Cees Nooteboom's Rituals were in the running for a major national best book of the year prize, would anyone seriously argue that they should not receive a prize because they require 'deep understanding and reading skills that most adult readers lack to the extent that at some point in the books they will become dispirited and give up'? (I know several adults quite as intelligent and educated as myself who gave up on Joyce's Ulysses long before the end and never tried again. I think this is probably true of the majority of adult readers.)

4. Literature for the young is no different from literature for adults (if we insist on making the distinction) in that the best literature is always too difficult for many readers at a first or even a second reading. But if prizes are to be given only to those books deemed to be within the grasp of the majority of the supposed readership, no literature of any kind that is innovative, profound, linguistically rich and dense in subject and treatment will ever be awarded a prize, will never be publicly acknowledged by independent-minded jurors and opinion-makers, and literature as a whole will descend into the pit of banality and the illiterate grip of money-making commerce.

5. Of course, there are those who claim that children's and youth books have an educational function. They are partly meant to help the young become readers who enjoy reading for its own sake. And, therefore, books must be judged by how pertinent they are to that aim. This thinking seems to me to be partly behind the Jury's judgement of Dit Is Alles. But again, I'd argue that it is an educational aim to provide literature that asks young readers to reach further than they know they already can. No one grows in any activity if they are not stretched, and unless they encounter that which is beyond what they know and can already do. By excluding books that offer and indeed require the young to pay more attention, concentrate harder and tackle difficulty, we limit their opportunities for growth.

As I say, the thoughts provoked by the Dutch Jury aren't simply to do with whether or not Dit Is Alles is worth a prize, but rather whether book prizes should only be given to books which a majority of readers will find within their grasp at the expense of recognising books which offer more than the majority can manage.

I'd be interested to know what others think.

Monday, 31 March 2008


I haven't posted a blog for a few days because I'm not sure that blogging is for me.
Blogs seem to be an uncomfortable confusion (or combination, if you prefer) of writing for the general public and writing to a private person.
Most of the blogs I've looked at seem to be by people who are loquacious and enjoy making public day by day the minutest details of their private lives, written with the unchecked flow of coffee-time conversation with a friend.
That's not me!
Nor do I have anything so significant to say every day, or even frequently, to make my blog worth visiting often in expectation of finding something new.
So I'm reconsidering...

Monday, 17 March 2008

Hand, eyes - and mouths

Mark's comment about my last blog and my father makes me think some more on this topic of craft skill.
For me, the most beautiful features of the human body are the hands, the eyes - and the mouth (though I suppose I mean the lips).
Mark is right. My father 'thought with his hands'. With his eyes (and after years of experience) he could look at a wall, for example, and tell you it was an eighth of a inch - a couple of millimetres - out of vertical. With his eye and his hands, he could cut a piece of wood (when making a mortise and tenon joint, for instance) to a millimeter of accuracy without measuring it.
But what he was not, with me anyway, was physically affectionate. The men around me in my childhood (the 1930s and 40s) were like that. There was a cultural taboo on tenderness. I don't remember ever being hugged by my father, grandfathers, uncles, or any man. For tender physical affection you went to women. You went to men for vigorous action. One form of my father's physical affection was fights with rolled up newspapers. The game was to hit each other with the rolled up newspaper to see who could land the most blows. It ended sometimes with both of us in uncontrollable laughter (good) and sometimes with me in floods of tears (bad).
Two mistakes.
One: It's a mistake to suppose that men who 'think with their hands' do not think with their brains. My father never did more than draw a plan for something he was making, whether in wood or in his garden, than sketch it out roughly on a piece of paper. This was nothing more than an aide memoire for what he imagined in his head. The rest was down to the skill of hand and eye - and what he'd learned from experience. His garden was a masterpiece of design, colour, and understanding of how it would look in each season. Yet he always said he hated 'head work'. Who had taught him that craft skill wasn't head work as well as hand work? What he was not good at was talking about what he imagined. His mouth was used for eating and drinking and telling funny stories. That's why he liked pubs.
The second mistake is to think that what my father called 'head work' - writing a novel - has nothing to do with the hands or the mouth. I think with my hands as much as my father did. (What's the strongest of your five senses? Mine is my sense of touch and then my sight.) I think best - imagine best - when writing words with my hand. Just as my father was making things by cutting, planing, and joining wood, I am making novels by 'cutting' words (out of the lexicon in my mind), joining them together and refining them by their association with other words.
But I only know they are 'right' (what I imagined) by speaking them with my mouth.
The great Gertrude Stein, the first writer to compose modernist prose in the twentieth century, said that she felt words with her eyes. I know what she means. To me, words are tactile objects. I feel them with my eyes. Words in my mouth are like pebbles, shards of glass, leaves of trees, flowers, etc., and often feel 'of the air, airy'.
Nothing is real until it is imagined. Nothing imagined is real until it is made as a visual, tactile object. The visceral quality of music. The sensational quality of paint. The erotic potency of an actor speaking brilliantly orchestrated words on the physically sacred temenos of a stage.
'We are such stuff as dreams are made on,' says the great Master. But when that line is quoted, how many of us think of that word 'stuff' rather than the emphatic word in the line: 'dreams'. How many of us dwell after hearing 'dreams' on the word 'made'. (And this 'stuff' is 'made on', not 'made of' - a frequent misquotation.)
For me, all true art involves the maker's hands, eyes, and mouth in the employment of the imagination.
Selah to that sermon for today!

Saturday, 15 March 2008


One thing I don't like about this blog of mine is that I can't reply to comments by writing under the comment. Suggestions welcome for a site that is clear and simple but allows replies after comments.

So today some housekeeping. First, thanks to everyone who commented. For me, this is the pleasure of the blog. I'd like to reply to some of you.

Ted: The pencils I used to use were Berol Turquoise 2B. I liked the colour and the softness of the lead. But I think they've stopped making them and am now using an equally nice Stabilo Swano HB=2.5, maroon with a red eraser on the end. I agree that 8 pencils for writing Postcards sounds very few, but I do use them till there isn't enough left to hold them. And maybe I forgot to mention in my notes now and then when I started another.

Linda Newbery: I agree with Philip Pullman about things being discovered in the process of writing. But for me, unless I do a lot of background work nothing much is discovered while I'm writing. I need huge amounts of 'raw material'.

Anne: What I gained from watching my father working was a profound respect and admiration for skilled craft. It seems to me the world - the human world - depends entirely on skilled craft. Everything we use, down to the smallest, insignificant object, has to be invented, designed and made. That was one of my unstated points about the pencil as an example. It was also from watching my father at work that I first realised something else. Everyone is redeemed by their work. My father was at his best, as a person, when he was absorbed in his work. He was at his worst when he had 'nothing to do'. When he retired, he kept an amazing garden. He was one of those people with green fingers. That stopped when he couldn't garden because of his arthritis and failing strength. His mind was alert enough. But because he had no intellectual interests - reading for its own sake, music, art, history, etc - his last years were spent 'doing nothing' but watching TV and complaining about it.

Tracy: Commonplace books. An old name for notebooks that I like very much. The best commonplace book I know of is W.H. Auden's A Certain World, first published by Faber in 1971. It is chock-a-block full of poems, passages from books, pithy sayings, jokes, Auden's reflections and comments. It's arranged alphabetically according to the topic of the entry or some other title. In his Foreword Auden says 'Here, then, is a map of my planet...The bulk of this book will make pleasant reading, but there are some entries which will, I hope, disturb a reader as much as they disturb me.'

Lucy: You mention liking writers who make the mundane and everyday interesting. For me this is the feature I like most in novels, poems and plays. Showing how the ordinary is extraordinary is the quality I'd most like to achieve.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Tools of the Trade

What is your favourite tool for your work?
I have two. One of them is paper. The other?
When Henry David Thoreau gathered together the things he needed to take with him into the woods, an expedition after which he wrote his masterpiece, Walden (1854), one of the great books of American literature, he made a list of every item. Walden describes what 'a necessary life' and a basic economy of work and leisure might be for 'freedom and a prospect of success'.
Thoreau was an inveterate maker of lists and notes. His Walden list included pins, needles, the dimensions of his tent, 'matches (some also in a small vial in the waist-coat pocket), soap, two pieces.' He even noted old newspapers (used for cleaning?), the size of his blanket, the quantity of 'soft hardbread', and the paper he would write on. Every smallest item was included. Now, there is an exhibition of those items in the Thoreau museum. But one item he took with him is missing from the list and from the exhbition. The tool he used to write with.
His notes, his measurements, the labels on his specimens, his letters home, his journal: he wrote them all with a pencil. But he didn't list it in the items he took with him, nor as something essential to the 'necessary life'. But we would not have known what he did and thought without that simple tool of his trade.
The irony is that he could only spend his time indulging in his experiment in the woods because his family had made the money he needed to live on and buy the things he needed from manufacturing the best pencils produced in the USA in the 1840s.
How could he miss his pencil from his list of necessaries? Perhaps because it had become so much part of what he was, so much a part of himself, that he didn't 'see' it as an object outside himself.
My father was a skilled woodworker. His workshop was full of the tools of his trade. Many of them he had made himself. When I was a boy I used to watch him at work for hours and marvel at how he managed his tools. They seemed to be part of his body. And he was as fiercely possessive of them as of himself. You were in bad trouble if you even touched them without permission. I cannot think of him without a tool in his hands.
For me a pencil is like that. I love the look and feel of it - though it must be the right kind. I love the smell of the wood when I sharpen it. I love the act of sharpening it with a little chromium-plated penknife bequeathed to me when an old writer-friend died. I love the feel of the pencil sliding over the paper.
For me, the problem of writing is to get the words heard in my head down through my arm and out of my fingers onto the paper. Quite often - usually - something happens on that journey down my nerves and muscles that diminishes what comes out of my fingers, as if the words lose some of their energy and their arrangement and even their sense - their fuel - on the way.
So I want the words to be written as close to my finger ends as possible so that nothing more is lost between my fingers and the page. (Quite a lot is lost, or rather another change in the words takes place, if I type rather than handwrite.) A pencil - even more than a pen - is the closest I can get to my fingertips, to my hands, and the lines of connection to my brain.
A pencil is the most visceral - of the body, of the flesh, of one's own being - of any writing implement. It is made of 'renewable' organic materials: wood and graphite. It has been refined in design over hundreds of years. How does the 'lead' get into the pencil? Why are some round, some oval, some six-sided? How and why are some made 'harder' than others? Which woods are they made of? Where are they made and why in those places? They look such a simple object, and compared with most of the things we use they are. I believe it's true to say that there are only sixteen processes in their manufacture.
If you'd like to know just about all there is to know about the pencil, its history, design and making, try to get hold of a copy of The Pencil, A History, by Henry Petroski (Knopf, USA, Faber, UK, 1989). Fascinating.
I was talking to a class of 16 year olds many years ago and telling them how I use a pencil to write the first drafts of my novels. A boy asked me how many pencils it took to write a book. I had never kept count. But I did next time, which happened to be Postcards from No man's Land. It's an eight pencil book.