“Strewth, Tel,” says Nige, “I was nearly blinded by your bleedin’ bike light earlier tonight, coming down the street.”

“Sorry,” I say, secretly pleased however that my new light is so powerful. It took me quite a bit of research, on the internet at least, to find one that’s such a great balance between brightness and battery longevity.

We’re in Brockley’s London Beer Dispensary which Nige feels split about. On the one hand, it’s full of a wide variety of beers. On the other, most of them cost too much which according to him is a result of the increasing middle-classification of the area.

“And how much did you pay for it?” he asks.

“Ninety-eight quid.”

He raises his six quid pint of Penge IPA to his lips and smiles. “And normally you need one as bright as that because you’re mountain-biking in Snowdonia in the dark, right?”

“Not exactly. I’ll probably only use it in London.”

“I see.”

He probably does. Nige has a bike that cost considerably less than my light. I consider countering his evident cynicism by reiterating that on the whole I haven’t succumbed to the lycra, aerodynamic back-pack, speedo computer, cleats, goggles sporting fashion world of modern commuter cycling, but decide not to since I can’t deny that my light costs around ten times more than a perfectly adequate normal model.

“It was really useful on Lundy,” I say, “for getting back from the tavern at night.”

“Really?” he says. “You write fantasy, don’t you?”

Uh-oh. “Sometimes,” I say.

“How much would a character in one of your stories pay for a flaming torch to get him back from the inn at night?”

“Well, he probably wouldn’t bother with a torch. He’d just use the moon or stars or, if they’re not out, go by memory.”

Nige doesn’t reply for a while. Instead, he finishes his pint and I go fetch two more, leaving him to think about new ways to drive a mental spanner into my bike wheel of creativity.

“One of the reasons I don’t get on with fantasy,” he says after I return, “is it’s full of fancy gadgets instead of utilitarian tools.”

“Oh, I don’t know. There are plenty of tools in Game of Thrones,” I say.

He raises an eyebrow. “It’s not just the actual devices; it’s the mind set of those operating them. Look, fifty years ago there were only two types of bike: racing and ordinary. The ordinary ones were ridden by people who just wanted to get somewhere quicker than by walking. They fixed their own punctures and wore comfortable clothes. What they didn’t do was see the tool they were on as some kind of personal statement.”

“And there’s nothing more certain to get you killed on a pre-industrial battlefield than wielding a weapon that’s more a personal statement than a killing tool?”

“Yeah, but isn’t the kind of fantasy you write a personal statement?”

Only this week, I received some round robin email advice from an author about how to avoid a dead-end career as an author. One piece of advice was to ‘choose your turf’. He went on to say that as an author you have to figure out ‘whom you want to become’. By which he didn’t mean as a spiritual entity but more as, say, ‘the John Grisham of hard science fiction’. This was somewhat contradicted by other advice he gave which was to not be ‘a one-trick pony’. But I think I get his point: if you want to succeed at writing, you need to make it less about the world it describes and more about your personal statement.

“Not enough, apparently,” I say.

“‘Course, the irony is,” he says, “that most of these different personal statement brand bikes you see today are all made in the same far east factories.”

“Are you saying that all modern fantasy novel personal statements are actually made in the same mass western author factory?”

“Yes, because mostly they’re just gadget fiction.”

“But surely that’s the point of fantasy: to take us away from the utilitarian.”

He shrugs, somewhat annoyingly, it has to be said.

“Do you remember that day,” he says, “when you and me did a complete service on your old Morris Minor?”

I do. We got covered in oil and crap. It took hours, partly because Nige explained how every part worked and what it did. It was great fun but I never did it again and probably couldn’t anyway since the Morris is long gone and my modern replacement doesn’t lend itself to DIY servicing.

“For me,” he says, “there ain’t enough nuts and bolts in fantasy fiction. I may be wrong but there’s very little detail about how, say, a castle actually works. I mean on the engineering level. Or where the shit goes. And without them things, the characters aren’t real to their time. They’re just actors with implausibly whole sets of teeth, clean underpants and heads full of, well, the same superficial story stuff as their creators.”

I think about arguing that what he’s just said is actually the strength of fantasy. But then I recall a story I once read in a top fantasy magazine, about Robin Hood and Maid Marion, dressed in designer gowns, singing to each other across a moonlit woodland lake in Sherwood Forest, illuminated by fireflies. By fireflies, for God’s sake.

“Yes, but not everyone reads Haynes Manuals for fun like you do, ” I say.

“Well, if they did, maybe fantasy would be better than it is. You’d have readers coming from a position of knowing how stuff bleedin’ works and what tools are actually for, wanting to be entertained. And if the author did the same, the stories would start from a proper, real set of foundations. Ideas can soar from a solid base. Instead you have a bunch of readers who take their bikes to the bike shop to get a puncture fixed wanting to read about designer warriors who never need to eat, sleep, oil their bleedin’ swords – ”

“I think that’s a bit unfair; I’m sure I saw someone polishing his sword once in Lord of the Rings – ” I begin, but Nige is in full rant mode now.

” – my point being that great innovations and discoveries are always made by technicians stretching out, not by artists pretending they know how things really work but who can’t be bothered to actually learn how.”

He sits back, folds his arms, apparently satisfied that he’s nailed it. But I’m not too sure what ‘it’ is. I think we’re saying that real fantasy, or rather fantasy that’s based in reality, or perhaps we mean reality that supports believable fantasy – whatever, that as with bike culture these days being mostly all about fashion and very little about adjusting one’s own spokes, maybe fantasy fiction has moved too far from Tolkien’s folklore-based DIY and into J K Rowling’s flat pack ready-made generic branded simulations.

“It’s a long way from the Hobbit to Harry,” I say.

He takes a long swallow of his American IPA. “It’s a long way from Watney’s Pale Ale to this,” he says. “The yanks grabbed hold of something we took for granted and reinvented it, in the process learning more about the brewing process than us.”

I refrain from pointing out that this reference appears to be going in the opposite direction to mine. Instead, I take a long swallow too and the wonderfully dark kick of flavours against the back of my throat makes me determined to avoid choosing and sticking to my turf at all costs.


“What’s the price, Tel?”

Nige looks pleased with himself. This may be because it’s Friday; the Farmers is open late; there’s a pleasant mix of hoary locals and slightly slumming it young folks, and Alex who’s been asleep or dead every night here for the past many years, pewter tankard always half full. Despite the buzz, there is no one behind the bar on account of Jackie is on one of her many fag breaks out back; but out back with the door open to keep an eye out for customers, which means cigarette smoke wafts up our nostrils making us nostalgic for the days when pubs smelt of fags and not an unsettling mixture of disinfectant and damp wood.

We are sitting at a table for once, since Nige dropped a hammer on his foot a few days back. We had been talking about the utter patheticness of shooting parties, since Nige had encountered one of them on a job in a big house in Sevenoaks recently. But I thought we’d switched to fantasy writing and I had a few ideas I wanted to put past him.

“Well, I suppose it’s whatever the fantasy novel costs,” I say.

He shakes his head sadly. “I don’t mean that kind of price. It’s like those shooting idiots: the cost to each of ’em is several thousand quid for a bleedin’ gun, then a couple of grand for a day’s shooting on Madonna’s estate or wherever, just so they can bag a few birds what they could have bought for a tenner in Sainsbury’s and not busted their teeth on shot when they troughed them. I mean what’s the price for becoming one of said twats?”

I sense a trap. Saying ‘They give up their souls’ is too obvious.

“That you become a killer whether or not you think you are,” I say.

“Well, I was going to say ‘twat’ but the principle’s the same. Thing is, everyone becomes what they do, not what they think they are.”

“So, instead of a working class sage, you’re really a brush full of Wickes’ magenta soaking in a pint of Foster’s.”

“And you’re a set of suspiciously soft fingers tap-dancing across a keyboard stained with sweat, whisky and Pic’s peanut butter.”

“I do like a nice dollop of Pic’s on toast.”

“No, what’s the price for a fantasy reader, Tel? Someone who spends hours every day dunking his noodle into a bucket of dragons, knights and implausibly well-bosomed princesses?”

“I know what you want me to say. That if he spends all that time fantasising about fantasy then that’s what he’ll become.”

“Not exactly. I said what’s the ‘price’, not what’s the obvious danger.”

One of the reasons I like these conversations with Nige is that his thoughts don’t feel obliged to run along the usual channels. When I’m with other writers, while we all believe we’re being original with our comments, in fact we tend to follow whatever’s the latest genre thinking. Maybe that’s our price.

I look at Alex, hair and beard entirely silver now; a long way from the rich auburn I remember from when I first saw him in here. His eyes are half closed, head bowed. I don’t know if he’s listening to the conversations around him or dreaming of Before. Whatever it is, it’s the price he’s paid and he’s now determined by it; will die by it.

It’s not reading fantasy, exactly, that’s the price. After all, any form of fiction is fantasy after a fashion. But perhaps the price is that you’re reading someone else’s story; not your own.

“You know,” I say, “I’ve never wanted to do crosswords and now I think I know why. It’s because it means putting myself in thrall to someone else’s brain. I can only write exactly the words he wants me to write; and can only follow the clues he’s given me.”

Nige is nodding knowingly, looking something like a young hippy Don Juan. Perhaps I should offer to buy him some mescal-flavoured crisps.

“The price is mental slavery,” he says, “because it’s not your fantasy you’re submerging yourself into. You can’t help but become the story-teller’s whore.”

“Which says it’s better to be a fantasy writer than a fantasy reader?”

“I’m not so sure,” he says. “I read one of them rare bad reviews of the new Star Wars movie the other day. It said something like, ‘This film gives us exactly what we want instead of showing us something we didn’t know we wanted until we saw it’. And in that scenario it’s difficult to see who’s the whore and who’s the paying banger.”

“So, with most fantasy, both the writer and the reader are simply switching positions, screwing each other for mutual needs?”

“Well, I always thought Star Wars was bleedin’ crap anyway. The first film is like watching a bunch of pantomime actors let loose on a movie set, imagining that they’re saying something worthwhile but doing nothing much more than staring at the scenery meaningfully and pretending to believe you could ever get such a thing as an autistic robot what can’t walk straight.”

“The price is creativity,” I say. “Not just the author’s but the reader’s too. I mean, if we were to listen to any of the conversations in this place, they’d all be ritualistic, kind of comforting, rather than creative. And if you look for more of that in your fiction, well . . . ”

“In that case, Tel,” he says, “creativity is the last thing that’s going to sell.”

I feel I’ve been in this trap many times. The fundamental driving force behind my need to tell stories is – at least I’ve always told myself it is – to be original, thought-provoking, different. But how often am I like that in my day-to-day life? And if the answer is not very much then how can I turn on creativity only when it suits me, when writing fiction?

“I know that expression,” says Nige, standing, having spotted that the draft from the open back door has stopped and with it the fag fume gusts. He points to my glass in such a way that isn’t a question but a confirmation. “You’re now worrying that you’re nothing but a phoney.”

“Something like that.”

He taps the side of his nose.

“Cocaine-flavour crisps?” I say. “Why not?”

When he returns, he puts down our pints and says, “Are you a good writer?”

“No, I’m a very good writer.”

“Do you sell in Potteresque quantities?”

“Not even Bunteresque quantities – and now, not then.”

He shrugs. “There’s your answer. You’re a creative writer.”

“Hang on; that’s far too simple.”

“Not really. If a writer ain’t selling much it means either they’re crap or they’re too creative.”

“Or they’ve got no idea how to promote themselves.”

There’s something of the expanse of the New Mexico desert in his gaze, which somehow makes the non-creative yakking around us fade temporarily into so much verbal tumbleweed.

“Most people’s tastes are stupid,” he says, “wilfully so. They can’t be bothered to think; can’t be arsed to put together a creative scenario in their heads; to take a punt on meaning. It didn’t always used to be like that. I remember ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. That was a film that didn’t lay it on a plate for the audience. I still ain’t got a clue what it means but I also can’t forget it. It wasn’t too many years later, though, that space movies became cowboy yarns where the effeminate city slicker is replaced by a gay robot and the bad guys wear black helmets instead of black hats. And the really sad thing is there are blokes in their forties out there what believe that such tossed-off tosh has meaning for their lives.”

“But stupid’s where the money is,” I say.

“Pity you ain’t stupid then, Tel.”

I think about Match of the Day for some reason then. Which I will watch when I get back to our street, feeling somewhat smug that I’ve managed not to learn the scores. But just how stupid is football?

“The point is,” I say, “that we’re all stupid most of the time. But until recently, a lot of people read books or watched movies because they weren’t stupid; because escape for them was to be inside a created work where they could think and expand their imaginations. But ever since writers realised that stupid pays, those fantasy worlds are really the same as the so-called real world, just dressed up in fancy costumes.”

“Exactly,” he says, “when did you last hear Dr Who say anything more profound than ‘Quantum blah blah, here’s my sonic soddin’ screwdriver which is the answer to everything, including why all these gorgeous young chicks want to have sex with me which I would if it weren’t for the bleedin’ fact it’s supposed to be a kids’ programme’?”

I drink my beer and wonder if Chelsea will have finally got their act together for this season.

“Here’s to stupid,” I say, raising my glass.

He raises his. “Here’s to hoping the other side of stupid will pay again some day.”