The Fear Index and the inhumanly rich

I bought Fifty Shades of Grey today, finally, but ended up reading The Fear Index by Robert Harris instead. With a banking scandal all over the front pages, it seemed the perfect time to start on a thriller about playing the financial markets (and what happens when that goes wrong).

Dr Hoffman, who is so far the hero, or anti-hero, is a physicist living in Switzerland who runs an extremely successful hedge fund and has become the kind of rich that separates you from everybody else. When a policeman asks what his company does, he says, ‘It makes money.’ He seems put out that anyone should have the impudence to ask.

When the policeman complains that he can no longer afford to live in Switzerland but has settled in France where it is cheaper, and has to drive in across the border, every day, Hoffman thinks, why should I care? But from the reader’s point of view it’s hard not to sympathise with the policeman as he tours Hoffman’s grand but unhomely property. Especially when he reflects that he’s probably going to have to work in his retirement to make ends meet, something neither his father nor grandfather had to do (surely lots of people know that feeling – pension forecasts can be pretty disheartening.)

From the outset, something is out of kilter; something doesn’t add up, and Hoffman knows it and is afraid. Robert Harris is brilliant on the entitled hollowness of the inhumanly rich; Hoffman’s house and office are curiously blank, fortress-like spaces that are designed as an assertion of power to keep the outside out, but can’t quite manage it.

It’s like the summer house where the journalist stays in The Ghost, which is secluded and detached from the outside world to the point of being like a prison, and also unreal.  He was another lonely figure trying to figure out whether there was really anything to justify his unease. It ain’t paranoia if they’re really out to get you… and in Robert Harris novels, they usually are, though you might just survive long enough to find out why.

The first Robert Harris novel I read was Fatherland, which is a great What if? story: what if Hitler had won a war, and the Holocaust had become a secret, and someone had then found out about it? After that I wanted to read more. His books are always about power – how people with power use it to try to control what other people know, how they respond to threats to their power, and what it’s like trying to work or communicate with powerful people and hold onto your integrity (and not come to a sticky end). They’ve got a real authority. You know he knows what he’s talking about.

Before Stop the Clock: my other first novel


We marched down the aisle, my head on his shoulder, the white dress trailing behind me.

“At last,” I said. It was only a whisper, but it stated a lot of things…

And that was the beginning of the end of my very first novel, finished in, er, circa 1982. I think someone did point out at the time that you might get unromantic neckache if you marched down the aisle with your head on your husband-to-be’s shoulder. But never mind.

Inspired by a blog post on Novelicious.com,  I thought I’d drag Solitude (illustrated and published, with hand stitching and sellotape, by the author) out into the light of day. I was proud of it at the time… I still remember how astonishing and heady it was to get through to THE END, and how I never quite believed I’d get there before I did.

I think that still holds good – I felt pretty much the same way when I finished Stop the Clock. Though I promise you it doesn’t end with a heroine with neckache.

Anyway, you have to start somewhere, and for me the start was Elizabeth Davis and her faithful servant companion (!) Dorrie, traipsing round Europe at the beginning of World War I in search of Elizabeth’s beloved Edward. Not quite sure where he had gone or why, but I think it turned out to be something to do with a mad wife in an attic and a house burning down. I was quite immune to Anxiety of Influence.

Fast-forward 30 years, and Stop the Clock is also about women looking for what they think they want.. but then getting it doesn’t turn out at all the way they might have expected.

A tale of two creative writing courses (with an Arvon happy ending)

‘So…’ The two middle-aged men in jumpers regarded me dubiously. I tried to look back at them like a Writer. Like the existentially serious black polo-necked youth I’d met while I was waiting for my interview, who had left me feeling like a bit of a fraudulent dilettante.

‘Are you sure you shouldn’t be trying to become a journalist?’ said one of the creative writing course tutors. The other looked down at the printout of the short story I’d sent in with my application and added, more in sorrow than in anger, ‘There’s a repetition in your first paragraph, you know. You wouldn’t get away with that here.’

And so I lost my chance to do a highly-regarded creative writing MA, and went off to do a journalism course instead. I’m not surprised the jumperish men turned me down, really, as I hadn’t written enough or regularly enough, and had pretty much scraped together the story with the offending repetition in it at the last minute. (In The War Against Cliche Martin Amis says it’s a sign of bad writing to iron out all your repetitions, but alas, the habit is ingrained now and I can’t help myself. See? Scarred!)

Anyway, if I had got in I would almost certainly have spent the best part of the year-long course feeling horribly insecure and clueless. So it all turned out for the best. And some years later I went off to do a week-long Arvon course, which was a very happy creative writing course experience, and here’s why:

  1. I stayed at Lumb Bank, which is this fab old house that used to belong to Ted Hughes, with little writing shelters in the garden. When I went I hadn’t been out of Zone 2 in London for months. Pastoral bliss.
  2. When you’re on an Arvon course you get looked after and shopped for so that you can Write. In the outside world this is, alas, not usual.
  3. We had a lovely person looking after us who went out and bought me The Sun – I was obsessed with my Mystic Meg horoscope at the time. All those valuable things that were going to turn up in my attic! Where are they, Meg? Where?
  4. Everybody was lovely! It was a week of otherworldly loveliness!
  5. Evenings involved lots of red wine consumption (money in the honesty box) and drunken singalongs featuring lots of Frank Sinatra. (Someone had brought a guitar.)
  6. You’re put in little groups to take turns at the cooking, but luckily there were enough people who knew what they were doing for my incompetence not to matter.
  7. You have to write stuff very quickly and read it out, and everyone has to do it, so you just have to get over yourself. And then you see that you can actually do something in as little as five minutes! The start of something, at any rate.
  8. I came back all fired up.

I did an evening class at a local college some years later, and that was good too, and I’ve heard good things about online courses run by the Open University and various other universities, which don’t cost the earth and can fit in round other things.

There is definitely something to be said for spending time with other people who are interested in the same thing. Especially with red wine, Frank Sinatra, Mystic Meg and pastoral bliss thrown in.

Happy 50th birthday to the National Autistic Society

I renewed my membership of the National Autistic Society today. I’m the mother of an autistic child, and when I was trying to find out more about autism in the run-up to getting a formal diagnosis, the National Autistic Society website  was where I ended up – and I’m so glad it was there!

Pretty much all I knew about autism before that was what I’d gleaned from watching Rain Man twenty-odd years earlier. Clearly I had a long way to go. I needed information, and the NAS website is a brilliant source of that, right through from the basics to the latest research and what’s going on in your area. The charity does loads of other things too, including running six schools and a helpline, and it has lots of local branches.

The NAS turns 50 this year. There’s a video on the about section of the NAS website in which Ilse, one of the founder members, describes how she and other parents got together in the early days of the society.

The psychiatrist who diagnosed Ilse’s daughter with autism suggested putting her in a home. That was not something Ilse and her husband wanted to do. The psychiatrist also suggested getting in touch with the then very new society for autistic children. Their daughter went on to be a pupil at the embryonic National Autistic Society’s first school, which taught ten children.

It used to be thought that autistic children couldn’t be educated, and now we know that isn’t true. But if that group of parents hadn’t got together in the early 1960s, it might be a different story.

The books on my windowsill

Which books do you choose to have in the background if you’re a newbie writer and someone is coming round to your house to take a photo of you for public consumption? Here’s what I ended up with on the windowsill by my desk:

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. This has got such an amazingly addictive natural flow – I read it when I was writing Stop the Clock in the hope that some of it would rub off. So, ladies, who are you going to choose: the hot stuff with the motorbike who’s good at fixing things, or the remote, touch-me-not brainiac who plays the piano (and is stinking rich)? If only you could have both. Or alternate. Which Bella kind of does. Smart girl!

Stop the Clock by Alison Mercer. I’m hoping that people will find this book has a big heart but a bit of bite too. And some surprises… One of my friends missed her tube stop because she was too busy reading it. I hope others will find it as hard to put to one side as she did (though without being too inconvenienced as a result).

Daughters of Jerusalem by Charlotte Mendelson. I love this book, the characters are great and it’s beautifully written. There’s a spiky dumb sister, a brainy fed-up one, a rogue lech, a put-upon wife and an overblown academic who gets his comeuppance.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. My tip to anyone who is considering shelling out a fortune on a long creative writing course would be first to buy all of this man’s books on how to write, plus Stephen King’s On Writing, and go on an Arvon course, which is a week long, and see how you’re fixed after that. As John Gardner taught Raymond Carver, I’m inclined to take his advice seriously. He’s very peppery and expects you to do your work. (He used to lend Raymond Carver a space to write in, too.)

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. The book is really quite unexpected in places – there’s a scene that surprised me when I re-read it, where they go on the piss in London and end up in a brothel, or at least, a ropey club with girls who are interested in cash gifts. And then they do a runner and drive the wrong way up a road and end up getting nabbed by the old bill. It’s a shame that it’s sometimes perceived as glorifying fey posh youngsters in cricket whites when the sadness and yearning in it is about loss of family and friendship and youth, and trying to find or reclaim something from general disaster. But the imagery from various adaptations sticks!

Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. Elegant prose, the seduction of wealth, youth, sex, cocaine, searching out and laying claim to the people and places you want to belong to, being on the inside and the outside at the same time. One of my very favourites out of the books I’ve read in the last five years or so. I read it on the Oxford tube coming into London through Notting Hill – will never be able to see those big creamy houses and private gardens without thinking of this book.

Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. A friend gave me this recently and I was completely charmed by it. The crumbly old castle and hunger and eking out the candles, the girls dreaming of escape, the useless old dad who just isn’t helping, the devoted swain who is nevertheless not quite the ticket… It follows a year through the seasons, with ever grander notebooks as the narrator’s fortunes change… it’s immediate and dry and funny, and magical and pastoral at the same time. Would be a terrific book to read if you were stuck in bed with flu, or bored of mummy porn and wanted something that is about sex but not explicitly.

Lynn Barber’s Mostly Men. I would hate to be interviewed by her. But she’s brilliant.

The Faber Book of Reportage, edited by John Carey. First-person eyewitness accounts of moments in history. Good for reading if you’re a bit stressed, as most of the moments are actually quite unpleasant, and make you glad not to be there.

OK, enough from the pile by the windowsill. More books to come! They are everywhere in our house, even in the kitchen cupboards.



Catching up on the fun stuff

A friend of mine has a phrase for the way the rest of your life goes by the wayside when your kids get sick: she calls it ‘falling down the mummy hole’. That’s when you can’t leave the house, or see or chat to anyone on the outside, and the most you can do is just try to get through whatever bug they’ve got.

Sometimes I end up doing the writing equivalent of this – falling down the writing hole. Boy, writing can eat up the hours… Novels are like time machines than suck in real time from their writers and their readers, and convert it into the imaginary time that we all get to spend somewhere else.

Then, in the end, you come back up to the surface and oh dear, the garden’s full of weeds and you have a gazillion practical things to attend to. But also, you get to catch up on fun stuff. Like what’s on telly.

The other night I watched two of Channel 4’s new-ish American comedy imports, 2 Broke Girls and Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23. What an eye-opener! They’re both anti-children of Friends – they’re about friendships that aren’t always friendly. And about being skint, and living somewhere that’s not all that great, with someone you wouldn’t ideally choose to be with.

2 Broke Girls had a slightly Paris Hilton-ish blonde, the posh one, who couldn’t afford to keep her horse any more, and a cute deadpan brunette, the normal one, who’d fallen for the horse but had to say goodbye to it too. At the end off they went to console themselves with cut-price booze and a video of a cat on a piano on youtube (or something like that – I paraphrase, but you get the idea).

Remember how in Friends they lived like bankers in a swish apartment, but actually they did stuff like waitressing/archaeology/being a chef/going to auditions? By rights they should have been squished into a grotty dump of a place, and much too poor to afford all those lattes. The Broke Girls really are broke – at the end of each episode a message flashes up telling you how much $ they have got left now.

On to the B****, and what a peculiar, but likeable, programme this is, and what a great job it’s doing of reformulating the career of James Van Der Beek, who plays a down-at-heel version of the former Dawson’s Creek star. This episode was all about James Van Der Beek’s sex tape. He was quite up for it coming out, thinking it might help him win the public vote on the reality celebrity dance show he was involved in. But he was worried that the weird lip-licking thing he did through most of it would put people off. So he wanted to re-shoot.

This show is not only the anti-child of Friends, it’s the anti-child of Sex and the City – lots of suggestive rudeness and less glamour to take the edge off it. What does your flatmate get up to in the bathtub? You may not want to know – but the B****, who is a scruple-free marvel of disinhibition, is most definitely interested. The B**** prides herself on being nasty. Friends was so not nasty, ever. It didn’t feature a pastor who paid for her nose-job and office refit by selling on a sex tape, either.

In the ad break there was a trailer for a film called Magic Mike, which looks like a US Full Monty, with the likes of Matthew McConaughey in it. Men taking up stripping because they can’t find work, broke girls tallying their $, making the best of flat-sharing with a B****… I guess we’re all counting our pennies and wondering when, and how, things are going to look up.