The Perils of Pauline

The Pauline Conversion

No plan survives contact with the enemy. As I wrote in my last blog about researching The Pauline Conversion, as you dig around in the archives you have to be prepared to unearth something that stops your neat idea in its tracks. If you’re unlucky it sends you reversing back to the start line. If you’re lucky it diverts you onto a shinier, more interesting path. The Pauline Conversion is very much an example of the latter.

The journey to The Pauline Conversion started over a year ago after Russia passed an anti-gay law just months before hosting the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. You might remember the fuss, which resulted ultimately in mass hand-wringing and general inaction. This law angered me, naturally. It was a hugely retrograde step for the country, and the global community fluffed its response.

It set me thinking. Could I write a book satirising this situation in some way? It felt a natural fit for St Paul’s College in an earlier, less equal time than the contemporary Britain of The Pink and the Grey. I’d also been itching to write a story about a younger version of Dennis. One calculation later, I settled on 1972 as a first approximation. In those days the summer and winter games occurred in the same year. Munich, in the summer, suffered from terrorism: not a great backdrop for a St Paul’s story. Sapporo’s winter games were a better fit, mirroring Sochi in 2014.

That took me back to February 1972, when the Sapporo games took place. I noodled with the idea of St Paul’s or the university staging its own games, but nothing grabbed me – and it wouldn’t be Dennis’s thing at all, unless there was a gold medal in tea preparation. In search of inspiration I looked into that time in more detail: what was going on, globally and locally?

A lot of change. A lot of unrest.

Change is constant, of course, and someone’s always up in arms about something. But Cambridge was experiencing a greater turbulence than usual. Miners were on strike across the country, and the energy shortage was about to bring power cuts and disruption. Students took part in a sit-in at a university building, arguing for a greater say in university affairs and changes to exams. Not far from St Paul’s a large rectangle of old Cambridge was being demolished and redeveloped: a multi-storey car park, a modern shopping centre.

All this on the back of the great social changes of the 1960s. For gay men the decade brought, eventually, decriminalisation – though there’s a difference between legal and socially acceptable. Even five years after decriminalisation, attitudes towards LGBT people (not that this term was in use) had barely shifted from much darker, more violent times, even in a semi-enlightened Cambridge that would have tolerated St Paul’s for a couple of centuries. And discrimination was rife not just against gay people. Women were poorly treated (they still are, of course), and beginning to fight back: stereotypically, burning bras in the cause of women’s liberation.

In Dennis I saw a man who would be uneasy and suspicious of too much change too rapidly. But he would also be a moderniser, understanding the worst way to manage change is to build a dam and hide beneath it. He would also be a man of multifarious routines, as we all are, with that nagging middle-aged sense of a life slipping away unfulfilled.

Change, then: a rich seam to mine, at many levels. Environmental, social, personal, with Dennis at the core pushing and coping and not coping and blundering.

An idea bloomed and I started to write, but the story lacked fizz. I persevered for a while hoping a light bulb would blaze above my head, but I felt I was writing words to throw away. Changing tack, instead I hugged cups of tea and stared through plate glass at winter crowds, letting my mind wander, waiting for something, something…

Inspiration hit me, eventually, in the shower. (Without tea, plate glass, or winter crowds.) It was the character of Red. Red, I knew, would set the sparks flying.

A complete scene-by-scene outline followed at its own dozy pace, and then when I could procrastinate no more, with research in hand, I started on my second first draft: ninety-four glorious, frustrating days of writing. And after several further months and a few more drafts, with feedback from trusted compadres and the attention of my bluest editing pencil, I decided it was ready. (You can edit a manuscript forever. It’s never finished, it’s just time to stop fiddling and let go.)

There are things I’d like to have covered in the book. I barely touched on racial discrimination. A bolder author would have included a black character and the terrible racism common at the time. But that might have appeared tick-box tokenism and diluted other aspects of the story. You can’t do everything. You’re painting a picture not taking a photograph, and readers aren’t daft.

So it’s done, and it’s out, and I think the paperback looks tremendous. The plan now is to promote the book, and in particular attract reviewers – from “normal” readers and from pro or semi-pro reviewers. On Amazon, reviews are king. Reviews drive sales, and sales drive reviews. That’s the plan, anyway. And as we know, no plan survives contact with the enemy…

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Trying not to map paving slabs

A few days ago, as a friend and I were chatting about The Pauline Conversion, he said he’d bet any money I’d researched it to within an inch of its life. He believed I wouldn’t be happy until I’d followed every research thread to its end, mapping every paving slab and shop front of Cambridge in February 1972 to be sure the story played out in a historically accurate setting.

I laughed. He’s not right, but neither can I say he’s entirely wrong. The truth is, research is the best way to keep my flat clean. When I need to research something – say, the miners’ strike in progress at the time of the story – I approach it as I would a rattlesnake doing its little dance. I run away screaming.

It’s not that I don’t want to know what happened, or don’t want to do the research. I enjoy knowing. I enjoy learning more about things that interest me. The problem is, I’m a details person and I can be a bit of an obsessive. Research has an inertia for me: hard to start, hard to stop.

And I know I’m like this: hence the procrastination.

Research lays a number of traps for the unwary.

First: I researched it and you’re damn well going to know it. You know the sort of book. The author vomits every factoid in his research notebook into the manuscript to justify the time spent discovering it. The precise shade of blusher under a talcum face and wig. The twirl of brass on a pistol. The manufacturing history of a pair of contemporary bloomers. The author’s trying to paint a picture with too many megapixels. I don’t think I suffer from this: I try to make details serve the story as much as possible, or add a smattering of colour, or at least be an excuse for a joke.

Similarly, the past is a foreign country, endlessly fascinating, and it’s easy to dwell upon the differences – “only 7 1/2p for a bag of chips!” – and the multitude of hats, and forget that to the characters this is the now, the normal. Although a book might be written almost as the memoir of a participant, it’s best to avoid the literary equivalent of pointing and sniggering. There are always exceptions – for stories that flit back and forth in time, for example. But comparing then to now brings the certainty that, before long, now becomes then and the book exists in two time periods: when it was set and when it was written.

To put it another way: all books, even novels set in the present day, are historical. (Some day Disunited will be a curiosity in a world where out gay professional male footballers are normal and common. I hope it happens soon.)

Another risk is the possibility the research becomes more interesting than the book. I was worried I’d be knocking on the library doors at 7am desperate for my fix of 1972 local newspapers, fast becoming the world’s foremost authority on postwar Sidney Street roadworks. An honourable title, to be sure, but unlikely to power a page-turner.

And there’s the risk that sometimes becomes a gift: the wondrous, terrifying prospect of the author finding a piece of information that upends the entire story. Is it crisis or opportunity? That’s part of the fun of research. And by fun, I mean nightmare. The author never knows if, lurking over the page, is a photo that burns the plot to vapour. This worry can spur research far beyond what’s required to write the book.

Related to those last two: a discovery that real life events make a better story than the one the author had in mind. Truth really can be stranger than fiction – coincidences abound that would be laughed out of a novel. (Good fiction can get away with one coincidence at the start, to set the plot rolling, and that’s it.)

A pragmatic approach is best.

With The Pauline Conversion the vast majority of readers, most likely, didn’t experience February 1972 in Cambridge, or perhaps anywhere south of an ovary. But I had to assume a reasonable level of knowledge of that time, gleaned from popular culture and so on. Nationally and globally, I wanted to be as accurate as I could. I’d never have dropped a smartphone into 1972, but not everything is so clear-cut. TV remote controls? In the US, yes. They were rare to non-existent in the UK. Our house didn’t have a TV with a remote control until the late 1970s, and we were probably early adopters. So, no remote controls.

But did it matter that characters in a scene didn’t mention the rather large Tesco along the street at that time, even though it would’ve altered their behaviour? Absolutely not, since the store had no relevance to the story. (It would’ve mattered had characters later visited it for some reason: consistency is vital. As it happens I learned about this Tesco shortly before publication.) Local contemporary norms can be subverted, I suppose I’m saying.

Partially this is to allow the story to happen. St Paul’s is a fictional college superimposed upon a real geographical area, after all. And partially it’s because local knowledge can be tremendously hard to get right: the information just isn’t readily available at that level, if it exists at all. There are always people who know more than the author about the topic – local geography, terminology, technology, etc. That’s a fact of life. But a writer can’t read everything, can’t interview everyone, otherwise we’re back to mapping paving slabs. Immersing is great: drowning is bad.

Sometimes I’ll get things wrong by accident, and sometimes it’s better to fudge things to simplify matters. My goal is “factually correct” (aside from the obvious fiction of the story), but I’ll accept “not obviously wrong to the layman”.

Perfect is the enemy of good. Serving the story is the key. The author needs just enough research to get from beginning to end. Breadth, not depth.

For the mildly obsessive like me, that can feel like cheating. Like setting foot in a foreign country for the first time claiming to know the language, when you’ve no more than skimmed the “Useful phrases” section in the Lonely Planet guide and can order up to, but no more than, six beers. You want to know only enough to get by, to bluff your way through, because beyond a certain level of knowledge the time spent in research feels wasted.

I say “feels” because I do need to know more than appears in the finished book. A tourist in a foreign land who takes the effort to learn just that little bit more of the language gains a buffer of confidence (“seven beers” is so much more impressive than “six beers and one beer”, if an additional drinker appears unexpectedly). A similar buffer in my research lets me add nuance, a little depth, as long as I don’t start vomiting out my notebook.

There is a balance, somewhere, which I hope to find as I grope around in the dark.

My friend knows me well, of course: it’s true I learned a lot more about Cambridge in February 1972 than I actually needed to know. To return to his original point, I don’t think I researched The Pauline Conversion to within an inch of its life: but maybe to within a yard. About the length of a paving slab.

The Pauline Conversion: coming soon

Subscribers to my newsletter learned all about my new book, The Pauline Conversion, last weekend. It’s time I passed the news on to the laggards…

After a detour to the world of football with Disunited, The Pauline Conversion brings me back home to Cambridge — the Cambridge of The Pink and the Grey, and St Paul’s College.

I love this universe. In my head St Paul’s lives and breathes: the university terms ever-cycling, like the undergraduates. And I think modern society — more open and accepting than ever — presents new challenges for the college. Is it relevant today? What is it for? Somewhere in college, over a dry sherry and a wet biscuit, those in charge are struggling to ensure it evolves to maintain its unique place in the university and the city.

This isn’t new. The challenges of modernity are constant: only the details twiddle at the edges. Dip a time-travelling toe anywhere into the two centuries of college and you’ll find its leadership wrestling with society’s shifting moral sands. How did James Drybutter found the college? How did it cope in the late Victorian period, with Oscar Wilde on trial? What happened during and between the world wars? (Two, at time of writing.)

I have some ideas about those — for other books, perhaps.

The Pauline Conversion is set in a more modern era: the early 1970s, at the dawning of the twin ages of aquarius and colour television. This was a period of unrest across Britain, with strikes and power cuts and “women’s lib” and student sit-ins and hippies. (In those days you had to ask the state-run General Post Office politely if they might consent to install a telephone in your house – and then wait several weeks until they wired, directly into your wall, something you didn’t own and couldn’t unplug.)

A different Britain, and yet not so different. In the news: the economy, immigration, war, terrorism, equality, rights, democracy.

The story takes place in February 1972. The miners are on strike for more pay. Chunks of the centre of Cambridge are being bulldozed and redeveloped. Students around the city have found their voices. Change is in the air.

And in the midst of all this is Dennis Sauvage. Readers of The Pink and the Grey will remember Dennis as a man of calculatedly indeterminate vintage with an impish sense of humour and a tendency to repeat himself, repeat himself. In The Pauline Conversion we see him in his pomp, already a quarter-century under his St Paul’s belt — and with a nagging frustration his career has stalled.

The book opens in mid-air as Dennis tumbles from his bike. He’s helped up by a homeless boy called Red who deserves better, and soon the academic has a cause to champion that might — might — earn him the chapter in college history he craves. (It’s either that or a dismal footnote and a retirement lobbying former students for guest appearances in their autobiographies.) But Red has secrets, and even Dennis has enemies. His cause becomes a fight for his future — and the future of college itself.

Dennis isn’t the only character from The Pink and the Grey to appear in youthful form — also present is Arthur, the porter. And many new characters, who you can discover for yourselves.

In case you’re wondering, The Pauline Conversion isn’t a prequel to The Pink and the Grey in any real sense, despite the overlaps. You can read the books in either order.

When will it be out?

Currently I’m mulling over the feedback from my beta readers before embarking on what should be the final draft. My goal is to publish the book at the end of October. That’s only a few weeks away, which is exciting for all of us and terrifying for me, as it leaves me barely any time to procrastinate.

Meanwhile, here’s an exclusive preview of the cover design:

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The other covers are being changed or tweaked too, because this month clearly isn’t busy enough already. Look for a blog post soon about that exercise.

I know it’s been a long time since Disunited came out. The Pauline Conversion has been in gestation a while — I wrote the first words over a year ago. I hope you’ll find the wait worth it. It’s been so much fun colouring in some of the history of St Paul’s, and even more so spending time with Dennis, a character I love.

To receive this a week ago, why not subscribe to my newsletter today? I know a man with a time machine. Well, I will.

Twenty-five years

It’s twenty-five years this month since I started at Downing College, Cambridge. I can scarcely believe it possible. The calendar used to be so friendly, and now it mocks me.

My route to Cambridge was unorthodox. I had my A-level results before I applied, and so my admissions interviews the previous winter covered slightly different ground than those of others, I suspect. I already had the grades they wanted: Downing had to decide whether to make an unconditional offer, or reject me.

I remember it as a dark, gloomy Friday in December, and I remember me as a bag of Tesco’s Finest nerves. I had three interviews that day: one with the senior tutor, one with the Director of Studies of the course I’d applied for (computer science), and one with a physics professor.

The latter might seem odd: after all, computer science is a few levels of abstraction away from physics. But Cambridge doesn’t like you to specialise on a science too early. In year one, should I be accepted, I’d be following a curriculum mixing computer science with both maths and physics.

I hadn’t twigged, naive hair-headed youngster in ill-fitting suit that I was, that the physics professor would ask me physics questions. I suppose I thought he was just a second or third opinion, since I’d already proved my knowledge in the subject under exam conditions a few months before (A-level grade A, S-level grade 2, if you’re counting). Thus, on entering his wood-panelled office and spotting what looked like a delicate windmill in a crystal ball on his desk beside a standard lamp, I began to worry.

The funny thing about subjects you don’t think you’re going to study again: as soon as you finish your final exam, all knowledge drains out of your brain.

We had the usual warm-up chat, with a few opportunities for me to burble away my nerves. All the while I was giving sideways glances to the ball and hoping it was decoration, a talking point, a physics professor’s equivalent of an Afghan rug on the wall.

It wasn’t. When the moment arrived I dredged up enough discarded theory to hum and haw my way towards the answers he wanted, and I remember leaving the interview distinctly more jelly-legged than I’d gone in. By then it was late, dark and cold, and I was glad it was my final interview of the day.

Earlier in the afternoon — after a college lunch, I think — I’d been to see my putative Director of Studies, Richard Stibbs. I sat outside his office with another candidate, who went in first. When my turn came, Mr Stibbs invited me in and asked me to take a seat.

Before me: a standard-issue wooden chair; a plush chair beside his desk, significantly more comfortable; and a small sofa, on which he sat with his notes and a copy of my application form.

Where would you sit?

I chose the chair beside his desk. I see it in exaggerated form even now in my mind’s eye: golden upholstery, inviting, empty. Begging me to sit on it.

I was supposed to take the boring wooden chair, of course, and Mr Stibbs said as much. I offered to move; he said it was fine.

I thought I’d made a tremendous faux pas. In retrospect I wonder if it helped — if it made me more memorable a candidate. Perhaps, although I reckon I was memorable enough as it is, applying post-A-levels. Having said that, when I arrived in October 1988 as an undergraduate, he did mention it to me. Ah, yes, you sat on my chair.

Sadly Richard died a few months ago, just short of retirement, after a career at Downing  and the University in various senior roles. At his death he was President of the College.

In 1988, he was younger than I am now. Damn calendar.

What I’m up to

I’m working on a new book. In fact I’m working on two. Before you get too excited I’m not entirely sure what these books are yet, and I’m still very much in the procrastination stages — which involve a great deal of staring into the middle distance with tea, and occasionally writing blog posts about, for example, how I’m working on a new book. All I do know about the stories is that they’re very different from one another, and they might never appear.

One of the two stories has been fermenting for about three months. I have a mix of characters with fleshed-out back stories, and an overall timeline. I’ve started writing it… and I’ve stopped. Although I “like” (don’t viscerally hate) what I’ve written so far, I’ve decided I’m committing the cardinal sin of starting the book too early in the timeline, before the storyline has kicked off. It’s a great way for me to write my way into the characters — but it’s not so great for readers, who these days tend to frown upon half a tree’s worth on the sociology and tobacco rituals of hobbits. I like to start plots on page one and hopefully grip readers straight away.

So while I think about the plot of that story a little more, and let the characters prove, I’m writing something else — in a world I already know and love.

I want to tell more stories about St Paul’s College, as seen in The Pink and the Grey. I want to know more about characters like Dennis, Amanda and the Archivist, and what happened after the events of that book, and also what happened before. I want to look at life in college from different perspectives.

I’ve written a couple of thousand words, I guess: explorations, ideas, vignettes — not necessarily for publication. I’m letting the characters guide me to a plot, or plots. I might end up with a bunch of short stories, or a couple of novellas, or another novel, or nothing at all. I don’t know yet. I’m not forcing it.

Thinking so much about St Paul’s probably explains why I saw the Archivist walking along a Cambridge street yesterday. It was definitely him: in mufti, lurking behind sunglasses and a dazzling all-red suit, with his grey gonk hair streaming back. He was hiding in plain sight, exactly as he would.

I wonder where he was going? Why? Does it have anything to do with Amanda? I might ask him. I want to know more about that red suit, too.

So that’s what I’m up to. Tell me in the comments what you’d like to know about St Paul’s —  you might earn a line of thanks in the end result, whatever that turns out to be. Please help make my tea-based procrastination blogging worth it.

Special offer: Till Undeath Do Us Part – FREE!

UPDATE: The offer is now closed. Thanks to all who downloaded. I’ve blogged about the experience.

How would you like a free copy of Till Undeath Do Us Part?

For a very limited time I’m making it available absolutely free for Kindle. To download it, please head over to Amazon where you’ll see a price full of zeroes. I hope you like it. And if you like it, I hope you leave a review!

tudup-free

Review: Comedy Rules

comedy-rules-coverPart-autobiography, part-tutorial, part-ramble, Comedy Rules: From the Cambridge Footlights to Yes, Prime Minister is Jonathan Lynn’s look back at his career in acting and directing and in particular in comedy writing, and it’s full of excellent advice for those aiming to succeed him. The rules of the title pepper the book — there are 150 in all, over 200 pages — and range from the relatively obvious to the insightful.

For example, rule 35: It is hazardous to your career to make sexist jokes about women. Not a surprise, though somehow it still needs repeating. And then by contrast a few pages later, rule 39: If a band — or film crew — laugh loudly at a joke, you should probably cut it. Because, he says, “the band will only laugh at any new line which is a variation of the original.” And then there’s rule 98: Beware a phone call from the Inland Revenue, even if it’s an invitation to lunch.

Despite the title, these aren’t so much rules as lightly educational anecdotes: lessons he’s learned over the years through sometimes bitter experience. We skip between the decades, from his student days to more recent times as a film director and screenwriter, and back. Every story is funny, enlightening and well told, and occasionally guest-starring comedy gods such as John Cleese or Steve Martin.

Quite possibly my favourite story follows rule 117: Try to resist if the Prime Minister wants to join your writing team. If you remember the cringeworthy “sketch” Margaret Thatcher wrote while PM featuring the two main characters from Yes, Prime Minister, you’ll know what this anecdote is about.

There’s poignancy too. Lynn describes working on the play Loot with Leonard Rossiter, a masterful comic actor but a perfectionist who could be difficult to deal with. The play was a huge success and they became friends, and then Rossiter died suddenly: in his dressing room, from an aneurism, during a performance. Lynn includes the eulogy he gave at the funeral.

Lynn’s one of the greats behind the camera of post-war British comedy, up there with Galton and Simpson, John Sullivan, Eric Sykes, Muir and Norden, and so on, and Comedy Rules is a fantastic memoir. Recommended.