“England back to their usual,” says Nige. “Huff and puff, give the ball away; huff and puff, give the ball away; late heroic surge to no useful end.”

We’re in the Jolly Farmers and half an hour ago England lost their second World Cup Finals game in a row and barring miracles are now out. The atmosphere isn’t too bad; partly, I suspect because most of the rabid fans are across the road in the Ravensbourne where they have a big screen and partly because, well, we’ve been here many times before with England.

“We always seem to play as if we’re about to fall over,” I say. “Like we have no vision or forward-thinking. We just hope that the ball will land nicely and the other team will somehow slip up.”

“You know,” he says, “I’m so depressed I’ll even let you go straight to the writing analogy.”

And there is one; I can sense it. I buy some time by getting us two more pints.

What’s the equivalent for a writer of an England football team that cannot control a game, that only succeeds when their backs are against the wall?

“I think it’s about the balance between control and creativity,” I say.

Nige doesn’t respond, unless you count a half-pint swallow, so I continue.

“If you start a story with too much control, everything tightens and becomes predictable. But if you just launch with creativity, you risk running down any one of a hundred blind plot alleys, which means you produce something beautiful to read but with no end result. So, the best teams and the best writers make sure they’re sitting with the balance between the two before they take off.”

“Okay . . .  so how you get that balance?”

My mind billows out, taking in personal history, social structures, families, the landscape . . .

“It’s not about balance in a story, or a football match,” I say, “it’s about getting balance in your desire.”

His eyes shine with interest. “Can I take the next bit,” he says. “It’s like wooing a beautiful woman.”

“Well, I’m not sure that’s exactly–”

“Look, Tel, you use your analogies and I’ll use mine.”

“All right, but when was the last time you wooed a beautiful woman?”

He frowns, takes another thought-gathering swallow of beer. “I’m not sure I ever have but I’ve studied the subject assiduously since the somewhat startling appearance of my first pubic hair. And my ex-wife was beautiful.”

His eyes mist over with, well, I’m not sure: either loving memories or the size of his divorce lawyer’s fee.

“You know what, Tel, I think it was on our very first date, when I said she looked uncomfortable being so gorgeous.”

“You said that? Spontaneously?”

He frowns. “You have to remember that I was utterly besotted at the time, but not just about her looks and her body; she had something I really wanted to be with.”

I laugh. “I think you’ve nailed my writing analogy.”

“Really? I don’t detect any links between England’s woeful performance just now and my missus’s hidden depths.”

“You said she had something you wanted to be with. Her looks were just what got you interested in her.”

“I’m not saying looks ain’t important, however.”

“But a story has to have something the reader really wants to be with, too. A lot of stories are rather like the way England play football: they look good and they talk a good game but once they start playing, you’d rather be Brazilian, French, German, Colombian.”

“Or even,” he says, widening his eyes, “Scottish.”

He holds up his glass to catch the barmaid’s eye. Too much control or too much creativity . . . now I’m I thinking it’s not really about finding a balance between the two. Both are part of the ‘looks’ of a story; they get you interested. But what makes you want to be with the story is something else altogether.

Nige puts another pint next to the one and a half I already have, my drinking fitness being somewhat short of his.

“A writer shouldn’t just assume,” I say, “that his writing is something readers will want to be with. He’s got to love what he’s writing about; not just love the process of writing.”

“Are you saying English footy players don’t love football?”

I shrug. “I’m sure they do, at one level. But I guess it gets obscured by money, fame and fear . . . Have you ever thought that your wife may have done that thing she did on your first date deliberately?”

“What do you mean, Tel? I’m not sure I want to hear this.”

“She wanted to be with you, too. So she reached inside for what she really loved about being with a man, being with you, and, well, radiated it so you couldn’t help but notice it and want to be with it.”

He picks up his pint but half way to his mouth, he puts it down again. He seems to be studying the surface, as if the swirling shapes of foam are something he’s never noticed before, changing all the time, finally dying away forever.

“Bastard,” he says.



“A few days ago,” says Nige, “I went past my bleedin’ grumpy old man tipping point. I used to think it’s age what defines when you become a GOM, but actually it’s simply after you exceed the crap accumulation limit.”

I suppose he has been looking a bit older recently. His long hair has a few lines of grey which isn’t Wicke’s Beige Gloss and his shoulders are slightly slumped, although that might be on account of the drinking angle he’s leaning at on the Tavern’s bar.

“Is it the Bilderberg group being more open about their agenda?” I say.

When I read about this in the papers, I suspected that Nige, a long-term conspiracy theorist, might be rather upset that the rich, and therefore probably not too grumpy, old men who really rule the world were actually telling people where they’re meeting and why these days.

But he shakes his head from behind his lager glass, just starting on a half-pint swallow, which means I have time for another guess.

“Is it because you can’t buy a single pork pie in Marks and Spencer’s any more without feeling bad that you didn’t go for the 6 for the price of 4 offer?”

At this he cuts off in mid-swallow, bangs down his pint and says, “Ah! Exactly!”

“Really? An M and S pork pie pushed you over the GOM tipping point?”

“No, but up-selling did. I had this building job in Heathrow all last week and stayed in the Premier Inn on the last night as a treat. I go to the bar and order steak and chips. The girl suggests strongly that I should take advantage of their special dinner and breakfast deal for twenty-two quid. I say no thanks, I’ve already got breakfast booked. But then she repeats how wonderful the offer is. A bloke standing at the bar says to her, he just told you, he already has breakfast booked. Then, with somewhat dead eyes it has to be said, she goes through it again. So I say that’s the third time and no thanks.

“Said bloke at bar tells me he’s over from America; hired a car at the airport and they tried to slip through a massive upgrade that he hadn’t even asked for which would have cost him another four hundred quid. While I’m waiting for me steak, we carry on talking and I offer to buy him a drink, so I order two pints from the same girl. This time, she asks me if I want any snacks with it. I say no, partly on account I didn’t ask for any but mainly because I’ve got a bleedin’ steak coming.”

“Ordered it rare, did you?”

“Very funny, Tel. You should be a writer. Anyway, that wasn’t the tipping point, even if she did ask me about snacks every time I went to the bar, even after I’d had the steak. No, the tipping point was the chips what came with the steak.”

“Oh-oh, I know you take chips seriously.”

“Yes, and these were as soggy as Asda’s economy frozen. Thing is, on the menu they’d banged on about how their chips are just right: crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside. Then said bloke pointed out that those are the chips you have to pay extra for. And I think, why the bloody hell didn’t she try to up-sell me the better chips: that’s something I actually wanted.”

As we both know, I’ve been looking for the writing angle on what he’s saying.

“I’ll do it for you, Tel,” he says. “Authors up-sell when they chuck in a lot of extra tat for the same price instead of giving you more quality, like better plots and believable characters.”

He may be right but I think there’s more to it than that.

“I’m thinking about that girl in the Premier Inn,” I say. “She won’t have wanted to up-sell you. The management would have told her to do it. Same with the car hire firm; same with all branches of M and S. So, maybe the question is, when an author tries to up-sell his readers, is that because he’s not in control of his inner manager?”

Nige frowns, needs thinking time I can tell. Which means a couple more pints are on the way. It’s Sunday night and the Tavern is quiet; just the regulars in, most looking tired at the end of a long week’s drinking, but then they’ll be back in tomorrow.

“Why would anyone need an inner manager?” he says.

“We don’t need one. Well, maybe we do, to organise the day, get the bills paid and make sure there’s enough Evian in the fridge. But the last thing you want is for it to organise your writing.”

“Too much corporate-think?”

“Yes, there’s this modern office culture today in which everyone is constantly doing what they believe will score them corporate brownie points, rather than actually feeling what needs doing. Same in the media; same everywhere in fact.”

“I blame the Bilderberg Group.”

“You blame them for everything.”

“Can you think of anyone more corporate?”

He’s got a point. The descendents of the robber barons who stole all the wealth in this country and hardly likely to encourage rebellion against one’s inner manager. Managing is what they do, after all.

“So,” I say, “if a writer wants to produce work that’s original and interesting, he has to deny his inner manager but he also has to refuse to join any clubs because they all ultimately lead back to the Bilderberg group who are the anti-thesis of imagination and creativity.”

“You’re in a few writers’ clubs though, aren’t you, Tel?”

A this point, I decide it’s time for a long swallow of my own beer.

“You’re right,” I say eventually. “And the SF/Fantasy writers’ clubs are probably worse in some ways than most for corporate behaviour. They have tons of awards for a start, and clubs love awards because it’s a chance to reinforce corporate behaviour.”

“Won any of them yet?” he says, grinning.

I sigh. “I’m not saying I’d refuse one if it was offered. But I do think a writer has to save his club behaviour for after winning the award, not before he starts writing.”



 “What’s up, Tel? You look like you could do with some mental prune juice, or lager as they call it here in the Jolly Farmers.”

Nige and I are in one of our locals, closing in on last orders. Outside the back door, past the resonant smell of the Gents loo, actual evening sunlight is slicing great yellow slabs across the pub’s garden. ‘Garden’ is a little optimistic a description, however, for a patch of concrete covered by a few benches, but it helps the smokers feel as if their night is just a bit healthier and at least in shouting distance of Mother Nature.

“I’ve been working on my blog about writing short fiction,” I say. “It’s very different to working with my students who I can help with specifics directed to their needs. But when you’re writing to people you can’t even see or know much about, it’s harder somehow to explain what works in a way that they, whoever they are, can fully understand.”

 It’s the same with apprentices,” he says. “You need to see them working at close hand to know what’s going to help them best sort their shit.”

I begin to get a feeling-idea from what Nige says. This happens sometimes, when a word or a picture or a piece of music triggers a few separated ideas I have, bringing them together.

“Did you know I once blagged my way into a job as a signwriter,” I say.

“You’ve told me about it but never mentioned the blagging bit.”

 “The council’s signwriter was retiring and they needed a replacement. I guess real signwriters were short on the ground so they believed me when I told them how going to art college and working in props in the opera had given me a good eye.”

 “Hang on: didn’t an apprenticeship for signwriting used to last seven years?”

 “Yes, and with good reason. Every sign in the council at that time was produced with paint and brush. And if I’d tried to do that the way I thought signwriting was done, I’d never have finished a thing and it would all have been crap. Fortunately, the real signwriter who was retiring stayed on for a few months to show me the basics.”

I can tell Nige is engrossed because his half pint of lager has remained unswallowed for the past five minutes.

 “It took me a long time just to learn how to mark up the guidelines on a board,” I say.

 “You don’t just use a ruler and pencil?”

 “No, you coat a long piece of string with chalk, wrap one end around your left little finger; stretch the other end tight, then with your first two fingers, twang the string so it leaves a nice, light, even and dead straight marker line.”

 “Neat, and not the kind of thing you’d work out for yourself.”

 “Exactly, and neither is the way you paint a letter. First you need a mahl stick which has a cushioned end. You hold this against the board with your left hand then balance your right wrist on top of your left; that way, your painting hand has complete freedom of movement, which is not possible when you simply put your painting wrist directly on to the board. Next, you take the right kind of brush; load it up with paint then produce pretty much an entire letter in one sweep of the hand. You start with the edge of the brush, to produce the serif, then you flatten it out as you sweep down, which means the two outside lines of the brush ensure the letter width is right and there are no jagged bits to it.”

 Now he finishes off his pint and orders two more.

 “All very interesting, Tel, but I ain’t sure you can apply the same kind of principles to writing.”

“Not exactly but I think there’s a similarity between putting something you’ve been taught about writing into practice and just having to take on that letter in one smooth movement, not ruin it with lots of baby steps. Take just one element, like tone selection. I mean, how do you explain to someone how to do that?”

 “I was always getting in trouble with my ex due to poor tone selection, as it happens,” he says. “My default tone, apparently, was over-jovial and largely avoiding of the point, especially upon returning from this place.”

 “Default tone, yes,” I say. “Almost every writer has one but is usually unaware of it. For years, for instance, I used to always put humour into my characters’ dialogue, even if the mood was deadly serious.”

 “Frustrated sitcom writer?”

 “I don’t know but an editor once told me that humour and dialogue were two of my strengths, so forever after I was determined to squeeze them in to every story. Default tone is another reason I try to get my writers to produce short fiction, not just novels. They need to try lots of different tones, characters, tenses, genres, so they become skilful in a whole range of tones; then the story will select the right one for them.”

 “I should have asked my missus to select the right tone for me. She could read me like a book anyway.”

“The problem is,” I say. “I’m trying to train people to be craftsman who can produce any kind of story but the reality is that most writers only want to create one kind of story; the one that sells.”

I pick up my glass, realising I’m nearly a pint behind Nige and I don’t possess the mystical open throat. But it’s okay. He’s just finished his last and ordered another two, no doubt remembering it’s Monday and that means Music Night in the Jolly Farmers with an extended bar. In fact, I now notice that the have been here all evening, sitting in a loose circle at one end, grinding out old Beatles and Dylan hits along with the odd sea shanty that sounds like Davy Jones with heartburn, and not the lead singer with the Monkees.

“You know what, Tel?” says Nige. “Sod ’em. If some half-arsed scribbler wants to just knock out derivative crap over and over again, let him. But you need to keep trying to teach the best, to the best. I don’t read much fiction these days, not with all that conspiracy theory stuff it’s my destiny to keep up with. But the novels I really remember are the ones where the writer cared about what he wrote; had something to say; and bleedin’ well said it as good as he could. Like Herman Hesse. Boy, he had a knack of using magical prose to nail down those rare feelings we all get but can’t always articulate. Like meeting some stranger and knowing straight away that they’re part of your spiritual family. Not the flesh and blood one; but the family that’s spread all over the globe, in different races and countries but where every member feels exactly the same thing about the universe, so when you meet one, you just know.”

I say nothing to this, just marvel for a few moments at the articulacy that sometimes results from the right mixture of lager, philosophy, and nostalgia for one’s ex, even if she did render one’s collection of unmarked conspiracy theory videos impotent by stealing the only index book.

And with that, I decided to carry on with these blogs, for whoever may need them now or some time later.