Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Snoozing

Oh 'eck, I've been neglecting this blog. It was terrifically exciting at first, but now the novelty has worn off I'm starting to lose interest. A bit like parenting, then. Is there an internet social services?

The real reason is that this was something I did when I was going to work every day, as a way to make myself write things more often. Now that writing is my main pursuit, I find it harder to write as a hobby. There's still lots I want to scribble about, and lots I will eventually, gradually, put up here, but for now it's on a go-slow, possibly as some kind of industrial action against my novel. Which is doing very nicely, thanks for asking. It still has jokes and burglaries and Cyprus and Yorkshire and twisty bits of plot and it's still driving me entirely insane.

So no posts about Martin Amis (his reading list of rubbish first novels by great authors; his father's impressions; Saul Bellow's jacket; shorter than you'd expect), attempting to write proper literature essays again (Flaubert, Borges, long words made up by mad Frenchmen), hearing proper poets (why Seamus Heaney makes hippies faint) or fiction workshops (adverbs are evil, America rocks, and self-confidence is dead). 

Not yet, anyway.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Centos

Things said to me by ex-girlfriends and in rejection letters from literary journals

Dear Alec,

I’m sorry.

You're not quite what I'm looking for right now, but please continue trying.

You’re slightly too sentimental for my tastes, and less engaging than I had anticipated, though quite charming.

Unfortunately you lack pace in the middle, and you’re longer than I usually like.

I receive several hundred submissions a month so unfortunately cannot provide individual feedback.

I don't think you're taking this thing seriously.

Yours sincerely.


Things said to me by ex-girlfriends and in rejection letters from literary journals which, for legal reasons, were left out of my previous poem

Dear Alec,

Please stop hanging around outside my office.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

House of Hair

First published in issue 379 of Cat World (October 2009). In case you're wondering, yes, it is possible for shamelessly rude, incompetent people to make a cuddly magazine for people who want pictures of cats being loveable but don't have an internet connection. They still owe me either full payment (I have part of it now) or an explanation of what the devil they think they're playing at.

But here's the article, anyway.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Greeks Bearing Gifts

Here's the current opening from Greeks Bearing Gifts, the novel I'm working on at the moment. I'm basically thinking of it as Howard Jacobson for gingers. More specifically, it's a combination of three illustrious genres:
  • Ethnic minority kid grows up in crap town
  • Narrator has a difficult relationship with father
  • Gentlemanly thievery
So here's that extract. If it looks familiar that's because it's developed from a rushed short story I wrote a while ago.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Facts and fiction

Wanted to post something, since it's been a while. I've been reading a bit, getting back into fencing, learning where to get a cheap pint, and have actually written an essay, for the first time in four years. But mostly I've been trying to write, in this case a comedy about being half Scottish and half Greek-Cypriot, and growing up in Yorkshire. And then becoming a burglar. Extract possibly turning up in the student paper next week, incidentally...

This, believe it or not, involves actual history: things that happened before I even considered becoming a foetus. And that, the horror the horror, means research. Obviously this is mostly a combination of Google and Wikipedia, but occasionally, in between making up lies, scripting bad jokes and inventing geography, it has involved creeping into the bit of the library normally reserved for people doing real subjects, and looking up facts and stuff. 

However, when you're trying to write about the Cyprus Problem (what Britain calls it when it wants to make it sound like Cyprus's own fault) or the Cyprus Dispute (what Britain calls it when it wants several thousand years of disgruntlement, unease and intermittent killing to sound like two neighbours squabbling over a leylandii), you don't get facts. Just stuff. 

This is because when you get to the library you find that most of the books about Cyprus are ridiculous rants so partisan they make Sarah Palin look rational. My particular favourite cover:


Ways to make it clear that your book will be completely worthless to anyone attempting to get a neutral perspective on a conflict:
  • Call your book 'Bloody truth'. The lack of definite article helpfully and accurately makes this sound like ''This bloody truth thing, it's always getting in the way of my attempts to write propaganda'. 
  • Also put your title in Greek, to make it clear which side of the Greek/Turkish divide you're on. 
  • In case the Greek lettering didn't give it away, draw the Turkish-occupied area of Cyprus as if it's a tide of dripping blood. Because that's always classy. 
Luckily, most readers of this section of the library aren't bothered about disinterested research, because they already know everything that happened in precise detail. They're only in the library to correct the errors in existing books on the subject. So from another book, RR Denktash's The Cyprus Triangle, which takes the Turkish side, you get pages that look like this:



Not sure how much of this will be visible, but some of the crossed-out graffiti says that there's a lie on almost every page of the book. Luckily for me, at least three people have had an argument about almost every page of the book, and have detailed their disputes in the marginalia. This front page isn't exceptional: it's typical. Although I'm quite impressed by the way someone's actually annotated the author's name. 

Yes, Christopher Hitchens has written an apparently reasonably decent book about all this (it's partially accepted by both sides since it mostly blames Britain), but some bugger had nabbed it from the library already, without taking it out on their card, so I was left with the nutters, and a faintly apologetic volume by a British diplomat whose main thesis seemed to be 'it was like that when I got there'. 

Fortunately, once I'd had enough of all these serious secondary sources, I turned to advice leaflets for British servicemen stationed on the island:


Ah, the 1960s. How sad they're gone. Well, sad as long as you're a rich straight white male, anyway. 

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A tale from New York

Just over a year ago I visited New York, and one evening a strange thing happened. Well, quite a few strange things happened on various evenings, but this one seemed worth writing down. Typed it up a while ago, but realised this morning that I'd never put it up here. 

-


In September last year I was visiting New York, staying with friends in the Bronx, not far from the Fordham Road subway stop. One night I went to visit another friend elsewhere in the city, and we spent a pleasant evening doing the kind of things old friends do when they are briefly on the same continent and not sure when they'll next see each other: we ate at a restaurant with no cutlery, we meandered between bars, we sauntered along boulevards and avenues in search of things that would make me gawp. Life was good. New York is a bright city even in the darkness.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Survival

At some point I'll do a proper 'what actually happens in a fiction workshop' post, but basically it went well. I went in with a short story, and came out with a shorter one and a list of ways to hack it up and reassemble it more pleasingly. It's a bit like stealing bodies to build a monster - some bits are going to get chucked into the gut bucket, and other parts will need to be expanded or refined to make sure you end up with something you can be proud of, rather than something that will go on a rampage and have to be dumped somewhere in the arctic*.

People were kind. This is good. I thank them for helpful comments and sparing of my self-respect. I think my monster is now looking reasonably attractive. It might not be a thing of holiness, but it shouldn't scare the villagers.

Also, here is another strange thing that my cameraphone spotted, this time in the library. It hasn't come out beautifully, despite my edgy Photoshop skills, but yes, that is a drinks machine. No, there doesn't seem to be an exception for bottled water.


Sunday, 26 September 2010

In the beginning were some words.

I’m being workshopped tomorrow. Right now I’m heartily regretting sticking my hand up when they asked for volunteers for the first week. Actually, that’s only half-true – I’m also massively excited about having all my wonky little words torn to bits by MJ Hyland and my fellow scribbly postgrad types (who, on first meetings, give the impression of being a first-rate bunch).

Also, I wanted to put this up:



This door is outside my flat in halls. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to resist opening it. I’ll be sorely disappointed if whatever’s behind it doesn’t have claws and/or teeth.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Howard Jacobson at the Guardian Book Club

As part of the Manchester creative writing MA, we’re occasionally posted off en masse to literary events, which are a little bit like gigs held by  really awkward people who can’t afford backing bands. The first, happily falling on the first day, was Howard Jacobson talking about Kalooki Nights as part of the Guardian Book Club.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Howard Jacobson: The Mighty Walzer

Probably my last review for a while - I had this stashed away and thought I might as well post it since I have something on seeing Jacobson at the Guardian book club to put up later.

*

This is a comedy, in the sense that sometimes it makes you laugh. If you want to get all genre-theory about it, though, there’s nothing comic here at all. This is a melancholy maturation tale, a gentle, sad trip through the narrator’s adolescence and where it took him. This is humour as humanity, as a defence against the dark.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Why Asda is The Pilgrim's Progress for the 21st century

It rained today. I was not entirely surprised.

My life is now folded into a long, narrow room in a long, narrow building*. As far as I know, Manchester is not a long, narrow city, but if it were that could have been a very satisfying opening sentence. Not for the first time today, I curse geography.

I have been walking the city, you see. Not exactly flaneuring - just bemused, usually futile, attempts to find obvious places. I have now established where I should go to pick up my shiny new student card (cue 'do you do a student discount?' in every possible place I can spend money). It's right next to where I live. I discovered this after pottering about the city for most of an hour looking for it. There is probably a moral in this story. If you know what it is, please tell me. 

More usefully, I have found The Asda at the End of the World. It is the size of the Vatican, and just as inaccessible. Sadly, that appears to be where the similarities end, although I can't imagine Calvinists are huge fans of Asda, either.

There is a reason for the religious comparisons, by the way: John Bunyan. Using the giant hyper mega Asda is like setting out on a great and perilous journey in pursuit of a noble goal. It begins with the maze of windy estate streets, continues through the near-certain death of the million-lane motorway intersection and ends after the welcome-to-Communist-Russia queue. And if, like poor old Ignorant, you reach the gates of the Heavenly City (here represented by slightly cheaper food purchases) without your roll (wallet, this being secular capitalism), all your efforts will be for naught, and you'll be cast out to the car park of great woe. If they'd had car parks in those days, I bet there'd have been one in Pilgrim's Progress somewhere. 

Basically, I'm not going back there on a Sunday afternoon. I now intend to do all my shopping at obscure nameless hours of night and morn. I might try to train myself into some kind of somnambulant lucid-dream based automatic shopping system. 

Things happen tomorrow. This is exciting. 

* I live on the twelfth floor. By the end of this year, I'm either going to be a Commonwealth-standard stair-runner (does this sport exist? If not, why not? It could be a gritty, urban version of fell-running) or someone far more patient with lifts. 

Monday, 13 September 2010

I'll be gone before the summer turns to rain. Sort of.

You know what? I’m no longer a Londoner. No longer must I trek to work past cheeky street urchins, charming cockneys, screeching teenagers, drug runners, prophets of doom, doe-eyed starlets, braying Sloanes, baffled tourists, drunks of every stripe, malignant lawyers, and the Queen. Or any of the other things years of reading have led me to believe fill this city.

Not because Manchester won’t have any of these things, you understand (except the Queen, presumably): it’s just that I won’t be trekking to work any more. It is time, for a short and thrilling year, to invert my proportions of leisure and survival: now I’ll publish in the dark, nameless hours, and spend most of the day writing and writing and writing.

Now is the time for the expensive replacing all the duff things I’ve bashed holes in and not bothered replacing over the past four years: keyboard, trainers, socks, bedside lamp, alarm clock, soul. I have assembled this list as a result of Saturday afternoon, when I wrapped my troubles in dreams and my books in cardboard boxes, preparing for my deLondonification. Now, lurking in Bath for a week with my parents before hitting the motorways and heading north, I have assessed my possessions and have determined that my life, according to the tenets of advanced consumer capitalism, consists of:
  • Books: many. And much as I like small presses, why must their paperbacks be a different height to the rest?
  • Socks: simultaneously too many and not enough.
  • Things that need ironing: apparently infinite.
  • Cuboid objects: the box I am proud of.
  • Non-cuboid objects: the box I despise. Does this make me alarmingly OCD?
  • Cuddly toy, x2. The womble might have to retire to the attic, now I'll be half a country away from an SW postcode.
  • Stationery: couldn’t possibly say where all this came from. And no, I wouldn’t believe those rumours about me and the stationery cupboard on my last day at work. People say all sorts.
  • Equipment for sports I don’t play any more. My equivalent of ‘dancing shoes, never worn’.

My brain’s bouncing all over the place like a puppy on a coffee drip. Next stop, Manchester. Actually, no: next stop, buying lots of cutlery. Last stop, Manchester. No, that sounds too final. Oh, sod it, you know what I mean. I'll have to stop using third-hand train metaphors, now that I'm going to a city without an underground. 

Sunday, 12 September 2010

GK Chesterton: Napoleon of Notting Hill

Oh Gilbert, Gilbert. Whatever are we to do with you?

GK Chesterton gets a lot of stick for being an arch-conservative, stolid and old-fashioned, supporting outdated morals, values, prose and beliefs at a time when modernism was shocking and delighting the literary world. In a way, this is justified. In the same way that, say, Gerard Manley Hopkins was a modernist who happens to have been born a Victorian, Chesterton sometimes seems like a Victorian displaced by about thirty years.

However, despite occasional moments of forehead-slapping sexism and pomposity, he has managed to grab much of what was great about being a decent fellow of the old school. He stands up for what is basically good, while writing with wit, imagination and charm. After a hundred years of watching political and religious extremes causing immense suffering, Chesterton should be respected for being persistently and reasonably moderate.

Monday, 6 September 2010

The new lit three: joining the dots

The past bits of this series have looked at various small projects that have hinted at the directions that literature could go in, using either new methods of delivery or collaboration. The next question is what will happen when people start throwing cash at these changes, trying to combine them into grand projects that present new forms of storytelling. And wouldn’t you know it, people are already trying it.

Here I’m concentrating on two projects and comparing their approaches. One is the centralised, corporate advertising exercise, The Conspiracy for Good, and the other is the slightly mysterious historical fiction conglomerate, The Mongoliad. These are of course very different, but they both involve using social media and the internet to draw an audience into a large-scale work of fiction.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Cory Doctorow: Makers

Yeah, yeah, money’s broken, everyone’s poor and depressed, no one knows when it’s going to get better, and if I see one more weather metaphor for the economy I’m going to slap someone with a thesaurus. There is a recession. It’s getting old.

That’s why it’s interesting to start thinking about what happens next, to read a few wild theories about new shapes that wealth might take, about what money will be doing once this century pulls itself together. Cory Doctorow’s Makers begins with the tale of New Work, a New Deal-style economic transformation that sees America embracing a high-tech craft culture, giving garage-savants, hobby inventors and techy artists access to the mass infrastructure and abundance of waste material left behind, unused, in the wreckage of advanced consumer capitalism.

At the heart of this rejuvenation are Perry Gibbons and Lester Banks, buddies who like nothing better than mucking around in an abandoned shopping centre, building crazy gadgets and toys to sell on the internet. When they’re picked up by Landon Kettlewell, a business investor with deep pockets and a madcap plan, the journalist Suzanne Church attaches herself to the team and soon finds herself the semi-official chronicler of New Work.

Monday, 30 August 2010

The new lit part two: a beast with many heads

The previous post in this microseries fumbled about with new forms of fiction, mostly involving using computers and the internet to transmit arty words in different ways. This time I’m going to look not at the words themselves but at the people behind them, and how people are starting to challenge and reconstruct the concept of an author. 

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Jorge Luis Borges: Labyrinths

Jorge Luis Borges has a tremendous reputation among slightly odd people (I think I first encountered him during my efforts to read everything JG Ballard ever wrote, from classics to curiosities to shopping lists), so he’s been on my radar a while, without my ever having read anything by him. He was fairly notable for his essays and poetry, too, but I concentrated on his short stories and what Labyrinths classifies as ‘parables’, which, thankfully, ain’t exactly New Testament material. 

So after meandering through this greatest hits collection, I’ve come to the conclusion that ole’ Borges was a bright fellow. I found myself reading a surreal series of short stories packed with ideas about reading, writing, metaphysics, identity, and all that sort of thing. Some of them even had plots and characters, too. 

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Green Man 2010


It might be precisely because its climate is entirely unsuited to festivals that Britain is so obsessed with them. By now there must be enough to give every farm in the country a weekend off in favour of being tramped across by several thousand drunkards in wellingtons. In other words, just like normal farming, but with more people.

The unwieldy excesses of the festival scene lead to a few difficulties, even beyond finding enough empty weekends. First there is a limit to the number of people willing to spend cash on a trip involving the highest chances of trenchfoot since the Somme. Admittedly there is less shelling and fewer machine guns (although plenty of bad poetry and poison gas), but a festival is definitely a dirty weekend: you leave hygiene at home, unsuspecting, while you run off with another lifestyle. Obviously this is not for everyone, and I doubt many could find it in their hearts and wallets to go to more than one or two in a year.

Then there's the music. A glance at last year's lineups gave the impression that Jarvis Cocker was spending most of his summer's Saturday's playing to several different crowds at the same time. Yes, there are plenty of minor bands willing to fill up the lunchtime slots in exchange for a shiny wristband and a packet of crisps, but if you're going to draw crowds you need headliners, and until someone discovers a way to clone musicians that doesn't involve Simon Cowell, that means a bit of a struggle.

Finally there is the tyranny of the calendar. In an average year (assuming no cataclysmic climate alterations that will see Glastonbury 2024 being nostalgic about mud as a jolly alternative to tornadoes and earthquakes) there are only about three weekends that are really suitable to standing outdoors for the entire day, staring at a stage. Including all the ones that are just about acceptable if you're not picky (and if you own a tent in the first place, it's a fair bet that you aren't), you could probably double that. Triple if you're a masochist. That clearly isn't enough to share between all the festivals, and the major ones don't want to clash because they're often aiming for the same groups of people. The little ones don't want to clash either, but they don't tend to have a choice.

I've just come back from the Green Man, and it's pretty much nailed most of the festival problems, even if it is in turn nailed by the last one. I'll get the grumbly bit over and done with because there's already too much weather ranting in the world. Look, mid-August in a Welsh valley is no time to be anywhere near open sky. Apparently they had the site blessed by druids to avoid rain. Call me a cynic, but after this weekend I'm starting to lose faith in ancient pagan rituals. I hate to think of all those goats sacrificed in vain.


Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Margaret Atwood: Oryx and Crake

You know how there are some authors who cobble together book after book that win award after award solely because they’re so dull that they must, automatically, be in some way worthy? The kind of writing my Dad calls ‘middle-class women’s books’, and that the papers will describe, archly, as ‘likely to be nominated for the Booker’? Well, Margaret Atwood isn’t one of them. She wins award after award and sells book after book solely on the basis of being exceedingly good.

What’s more, she has some kind of magical rut-evading device nailed to her typewriter, which means she can slink from genre to genre and setting to setting, throwing together sentences with a dark wit; a long, indulgent sigh over the weaknesses of humanity; and an honest rage at the injustices of society.

Oryx and Crake is up there with Atwood’s best, and Atwood’s best is up there with the best (whatever that means). Yes, she has been known to get a bit snotty about people calling some of her books science fiction, but if she’ll carry on writing them I’m quite happy for her to call them what she likes. I’m charitable like that.

This review is based on a re-reading, because I’ve got The Year of the Flood languishing on my shelf, and I wanted to refresh my memories of Oryx and Crake before sitting down with the new one. However, this is not a book that relies on the twists of its plot to trap the reader: it loses little and gains much in a second glance.

Monday, 16 August 2010

The new lit part one: text's adventures

This is the first part of the short series on emerging forms of fiction that I introduced last week. Inspired by the gradual, struggling, wailing infancy of the electrobook, I've tried to assemble something coherent about fiction that exists in strange shapes - the kind of things that remind us that literature doesn't start in verse and finish in novels. 



Thursday, 12 August 2010

Thomas Pynchon: Vineland

I get the impression that Thomas Pynchon is one of those authors who are famous for writing big, wise books that nobody actually reads, like a drugged-up, American Cervantes, or Thackery, or Joyce. Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason and Dixon, Against the Day; these are less novels than they are building materials. I always remember the scene in the Whitby Witches (by the brilliant Robin Jarvis, responsible for all the best childhood terrors and a lingering suspicion that rodents are up to something shifty) when someone is murdered with a Dickens novel. You could take out an elephant with the Pynchon back catalogue.

So when I was slinking around the library and felt like seeing what the Pynchon fuss was all about, I turned to the only one of his books on the shelf that I could pick up with one hand: Vineland. I gather that this is generally considered a minor work, but it has its fans, and it had some pretty glowing quotations on the back, including one from Salman Rushdie, so I thought it was worth a shot.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The new lit: introduction

E-books, apparently, are going to destroy the universe, or at least kill p-books and dismantle publishing like some kind of revolutionary army, set on building a world in which trees can roam free without being hunted down by publishers and turned into stories. Despite these frequent warnings and a series of overblown and utterly ignored displays in chain bookshops up and down the country, I’ve so far seen a whole three people with dedicated e-book readers, and about half a dozen more with iPads. True, some of the wielders of fancy telephones might be using them to read books, too, but either way I don’t think there’s yet much sign of the great electropublishing takeover.

However, what I have seen are a bunch of interesting people lurking around and trying to work out some more radical approaches to the future of writing, publishing and reading. Because the e-book, whatever you think of having a book with a glowing screen, a battery life and a three-digit price tag, is basically just a different way of transmitting a novel. It's technology, not art. In the long term, whether or not it takes off isn’t that interesting. What’s a bit more exciting is how the introduction of digital technology to writing will affect the things that are offered to us, as readers, and how we can respond to them. I'm stroking my chin about the consequences for fiction, not economics. Mainly because I know faff all about economics. 


Friday, 6 August 2010

China Miéville: Kraken

[First, a thousand curses upon having to write this on a laptop. You don’t realise how much you miss the number pad until you’re trying to write about someone with an accent in their name.]

China Miéville is the current darling of fantasy, and for ruddy good reason: he makes it original, disturbing and political again, rather than an exercise in rummaging around in Tolkien’s bins and repeating tired old pseudomythology. Content aside, Miéville also has distinctive prose, which is sometimes impressive and sometimes irritating, but is always better than being bland and dreary.

Kraken is Miéville’s latest, in a rare example of my reading being up to date (look, there’re a lot of books out there, alright?), and it’s a frankly bonkers adventure through a deeply seedy magical underbelly of London. It isn’t his best book, since it lacks the intricacy of The Scar or the conceptual genius of The City and The City, but it’s highly enjoyable and full of ideas that will leave you cackling evilly.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

That joke isn't funny any more

I don’t watch enormous quantities of television. What I do watch has been fairly precisely identified by a mysterious focus group at the BBC responsible for making sure that there are always one or two programmes on for People Like Me, and making sure the next one isn’t far away when a series ends. It’s probably possible to construct a new system of seasons by replacing spring, autumn and that lot with Hustle, Doctor Who, Spooks and Being Human (okay, this one’s only had two series, but I need a replacement for David Bowie’s Coma Cops, or whatever the overall title for Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes is. The Hunt Supremacy? Misogyny and Fisticuffs Through the Ages?).

Anyway, there’s been a bit of a summer gap in the regulars (although I gather there are some more Spooks on their way, which is just as well, because I’ve forgotten which characters are still alive), so I’ve found myself staring at a number of book adaptations, beginning with a DVD copy of the old Neverwhere series, moving on to Sky’s Going Postal and the Beeb’s Money, and now hitting Sherlock, which had its second episode on Sunday. 

The thing that intrigues me here isn’t how far they are faithful to their sources (not very, on the whole), or how good they are (sticking with ‘not very’ for Neverwhere, and gradually working up to rather decent for Sherlock and its solid approach to Victorian melodrama with added mobile phones), but their approach to humour.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Michael Chabon: Gentlemen of the Road

(Yes, that is the American hardback cover. I bought it in a wholly gigantic second-hand bookshop in New York last year, figuring I should have something American to read on the ‘plane home. Only as it turned out I didn’t get round to reading it until a few weeks ago.)

Michael Chabon is probably my favourite American author these days, mostly for the obvious reason that he writes brilliant books. Wonder Boys is both hilarious and capable of stirring the soul in a way that few tales of tubby middle-aged wasters can manage. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay takes that most wearisome of genres – ‘wide-angled view of America in the twentieth century’ - and makes it hearty, sorrowful, original, and fun. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union plays the same trick with detective stories, and then adds Yiddish, which is pretty much always a good thing. And as for The Final Solution, you have to be pretty special to get away with a pun about the Holocaust; even more so when it’s in the book’s title.

But I won’t turn this into a general survey of Chabon’s ouevre (although I’ll add that The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is worth a look, and not just for the theory about Born to Run being a staunchly Catholic album; and his short stories aren’t half bad either). The point of mentioning some of the other books is to note Chabon’s willingness to muck about with genre, from the comic books in Kavalier and Clay, to Yiddish Policemen’s Union’s pointing out that there was more to Chandler than a few murders and some wisecracking. Gentlemen of the Road, then, is a love letter to adventure, a swords-and-sandals romp involving elephants, disguises, fighting and trickery. Rarely have I seen a book enjoying itself so much.

Monday, 26 July 2010

On the advantages and traditions of running a small autocratic principality

It’s always worth planning how things are going to work once you’re the benevolent dictator of an isolated tropical island paradise. After all, you never know how things will turn out. Many’s the wandering gun-toting imperialist or amoral son of an ex-prime minister who’s accidentally found themselves engaged in a violent military coup. It could happen to any of us.

So, on the basis that one day I might be sat in a pillared, porticoed palace, being fanned with palm leaves and being adored by a grateful or population of tax-evaders, retired banditos, war criminals and accountants for all of the above (oh, and feared and despised by the actual locals, but since when have they been high in the concerns of imperalist missions?), I thought I’d attempt to nail down some of the basics of my pseudo-tyrannical regime.

Examining assorted repressive political foulnesses, I have decided that what I’m really going to need are some slightly loopy laws about artistic expression. So, in an effort to make sure my personal empire at least has some jolly decent books, I have begun some planning.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Jasper Fforde: Shades of Grey

On the verge of taking over the world with Thursday Next and the Nursery Crime series, Jasper Fforde has wandered off and come up with something entirely different: Shades of Grey, a futuristic, dystopian comedy that’s roughly a  cross between Brave New World and Jennings. With giant swans.

It deserves praise for sheer perversity, but it’s pretty decent, too. Not, sadly, as brilliantly clever as some of the Thursday Nexts or as absurdly amusing as the Nursery Crimes, but solid, unique and interesting in its own right.

In a mysteriously battered Britain populated by peculiar beasties (giant swans, ground sloths and the wonderful bouncing goats) and scattered with remnants of war, vision is no longer quite so multicoloured as we’re used to. Everyone is born with a limited capacity to see colour, and their chromatic ability determines their place in society, from the snooty yellows to the grey underclass. Eddie Russett is a red who’s sent to East Carmine, a small town on the fringes of the wilderness, for humility realignment, but he’s soon involved in mysteries and rebellion as he starts to uncover the sinister undertones of the colourtocracy.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Beasties from the deep

You know how the internet is full of strange things? Well, here’s another to add to the list: win snazzy books by describing a cephalopod. Liking both authors (although I already own and have read Kraken – review coming soon), I reckoned I might as well give it a shot. In scribbling an entry I ended up with a few spare scraps of tiny stories about squishy fishy things, and here they are, mostly discarded because I couldn't cut them down to the word limit. Didn't win, but it was a fun little exercise. 

Friday, 16 July 2010

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

Part of my brain is convinced that I’ve read more Italo Calvino than I actually have. In reality, until now, I’ve nipped through only Our Ancestors and The Path to Spiders’ Nests. This, whether measured in pages or as a proportion of Calvino’s bibliography, is naff all. But somehow, perhaps because of his tremendous reputation, perhaps because of how much I adored Our Ancestors (didn’t think so much of The Path to Spiders’ Nests – I’m only occasionally drawn in by war books), I feel like I’m a fan, a serious reader, someonw who knows what’s going down with this Calvino chap.

This is, of course, nonsense. He’s written masses of stuff, packed wth cleverness, and I’ve had a quick, unanalytical read of a couple of minor works. So to try to do something about this, I decided to check out Invisible Cities. It’s supermodel-skinny by novel standards (it’s been sat next to Cryptonomicon on my bookshelf, which is a bit like parking a mini next to a tank), but it’s one of those books that crops up all over the place.

As it turns out, there’s a reason for this.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Booking for the Booker

Summer can be a painful time of waiting, with little to do but frolic in the sun, drink things with umbrellas in and burn meat outdoors, all while awaiting the onset of Autumn and the longed-for unveiling of the Booker Prize shortlist. Sorry, the Man Booker Prize – it's been sponsored by an entire gender as a reaction against the rampant sexism of the Orange Prize for Fiction. Actually, I just checked that one, and actually it's now the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. Presumably this means future awards will go to whichever book makes the best use of Youtube clips, iPlayer extracts, copyright infringement, pornography, and any other valid uses of broadband.

Anyway, for those who are in anguish awaiting the Booker results, I have good news: this year’s shortlist (because a whole longlist would be far too much like hard work) now consists entirely of books that don't exist (after all, it is a prize for fiction), and here they are:

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Salman Rushdie: Fury

The thing about Salman Rushdie, beyond fatwahs, personal life, literary awards and all tht jazz, is that he’s really, really good. He has this magnificent meandering prose, a talent for mythologising, enough oddness to fascinate and enough realism to drag you in.

You know, each time you crack open one of his books, that you’re going to get stories within stories that seem filled with as much emotion, laughter and symbolism as the whole of some other novels. You know that there will be some magic realist loopiness underlying the whole affair, accentuating the flaws and personalities of the characters, bringing them to what feels like more than life. You know, most of all, that you’re going to look quite clever reading it on the Tube.

And that’s one of the weird things: he has a reputation for being difficult, serious, obtuse - literary with a pretentious capital ‘l’. Yet he isn’t. Okay, he’s not exactly monosyllabic, and if you lose yourself in the middle of a sentence you might not find yourself again for a week, but this completely ignores that he’s basically rather good fun. There is activity, surprise, wit, and a sense of playing with the reader and the language. He simply does not write dull sentences, and a large part of me thinks that this, more than character, theme or plot, or is a writer’s real job.

With that in mind, I came to Fury

Monday, 5 July 2010

Telling lies about David Bowie

David Bowie is a mystic shaman of rock and roll, and his believers stretch far, wide and weird. I'm fairly convinced that at least one popular music magazine is contractually obliged to include one Bowie-based headline pun in each issue. Possibly they'll only be allowed to stop when they've covered his entire back catalogue, which could take a while. 

I realised I was a Bowie convert when I first heard Starman and discovered that I already knew most of the words. Some might say this is because my parents played it a lot while I was small, but I prefer to believe that Bowie’s songs are so mighty they can become embedded in our souls without us even hearing them. 

So, in an attempt to understand the creative process behind these life-transforming slabs of snazziness, here's some entirely made up research into some Bowie classics.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Terry Pratchett: Unseen Academicals

Since it is World Cup season (Wimbledon wouldn't be so uncouth as to try to claim itself a whole season), I decided I needed to learn to understand what this football business is all about, so, like any right-thinking library-dweller, I turned to Terry Pratchett for advice, and picked up Unseen Academicals. It was certainly more fun than watching the England matches. As the back of the book helpfully points out:
'The thing about football - the most important thing about football - is that it is never just about football.'
And of course, the thing about the Discworld is that it’s never just about the Discworld. In the course of thirty-seven novels (and shedloads of associated bumph) the series has gone from being a loose collection of jokes about fantasy to being one of the most reliable, well-intentioned and consistently entertaining sources of satire since Rory Bremner went angry.

Monday, 28 June 2010

The Vex Factor

The X-Factor, that terrifying combination of talent contest, freak show and Roman ampitheatre, is gearing up for its next series. According to my dazed and bewildered memory, this will be its eight-hundreth edition, and before long every single person in the country will have participated in at least one episode, if necessary being forcibly bundled into a broom cupboard at ITV and made to sing a cruel and unusual karaoke version of California Dreaming.

However, it turns out that some people actually choose to go on the wretched thing, and one of them is my aunt, a genuine showbiz type whose hands you might recognise if you’ve ever spent a day watching QVC. No, I don’t know why you would have, but you never know. This aunt is decidedly good at making a tuneful racket, and armed with a gaggle of old-school showtunes and a willingness to get stuck in (I quote Dermot O’Leary: ‘I bet she doesn’t lose many arguments’) she managed to sashay through to what I think was the fourth round of the show.

I don’t know how far this is in X-Factor terms, but there was a studio audience (four million sixteen-year-olds, who when not screaming, chanting or cheering spent the evening examining their neighbours to make sure their elaborate outfits hadn’t gone out of fashion since recording started), lots of cameras, and a reasonable degree of havoc.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

AS Byatt: Possession

Possession won the Booker Prize in 1990, and that isn't exactly a surprise. Not only is it brilliant, but it’s so  self-reflectively literary that I'm surprised they even bothered with a shortlist. When I call it a literary book I’m not getting into that silly, puzzling but curiously fascinating debate about what distinguishes ‘literary’ fiction from mainstream or genre work, but simply pointing out that Possession is about literature. It is a book about books - about interpreting, about reading, and about writing.

Also, look - a picture! After many months I have managed to acquire a cable for my mobile and actually use the ruddy camera. Yes, it's a bit of a shabby photo, but I reckon I'll get the hang of it eventually. 

Monday, 21 June 2010

Eating the future

Last Tuesday, with a spot of time on my hands, I popped down to the Dana Centre  to listen to a debate on GM food. I am in no way a scientist, but I do think that clever people mucking about on the boundaries of knowledge is rather amazing, and I do get awfully excited when someone declares that they've created artificial life, have built a massive machine that whangs tiny things together exceedingly fast, or have done anything at all with lasers. I am also a firm believer that 'I wanted to see what would happen' is a perfectly reasonable justification for almost anything involving a lab coat and a research grant. If humanity had been no good at piddling about experimentally we'd never have got beyond fire and wheels.

So I'm fairly partial to the idea of GM foods, and as someone who's never understood the organic food bandwagon (let's return to less efficient farming techniques, only sell the shiniest bits of what we grow, chuck in a massive price hike and some pretty packaging, and somehow convince the Waitrosians that they're saving the planet!), I thought this might be an interesting debate.

It was.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Ken MacLeod: The Night Sessions

This ‘ere is my second Ken Macleod book, the first being the rather snazzy The Sky Road, which left me distinctly interested in checking out some more. While still being full of admiration, I didn't like The Night Sessions quite so much: it's an odd beast, doing some things very well indeed, and others a little blandly. 

What we have is basically a police procedural: bad sort gets up to no good, hero and associates try to track him down while filling in paperwork and faffing about with forensics. Only this one’s set in the future, of the near-and-convincingly-possible variety, and that changes everything.

Monday, 14 June 2010

The nefarious nature of football songs

Okay, so there's some football or other happening at the moment. No, don’t be silly, I’m not going to write about it. I know almost exactly nothing about the blasted sport (see last weekend's Doctor Who: ‘Football’s the one with the sticks, right?’), and there are already so many people writing clever things about formations and angles and positioning that it’s starting to look like a trigonometry exam out there. So instead of rambling on about the tactics, psychology and breeding habits of football teams, I’m going to become violently and wantonly offended by England football songs.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Leonard Cohen: Beautiful Losers

If Leonard Cohen had not been born with a perverse genius for words and a voice like a noir prophet, he would probably be just a dirty old man.

As it is, though, well, he’s Leonard Cohen, and if that doesn’t mean anything to you there are records you must listen to and words you must transcribe until there are corners of your mind full of god, sex, death and sadness, and obscure, melancholy jokes about all of the above. He’s a bit special like that. He writes hymns that are to both gods and bodies, and they resonate with loss and hope. He gets in your head, with all the warmth and darkness of a midnight walk in summer. He’s what Nick Cave wants to be when he grows up. He what we should all want to be when we grow up, only most of us will never grow up that far.

But I’ve never known how to write about music, so I’m going to talk about this novel instead.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Helvetica Black and the Colon Conspiracy

'Meet Helvetica Black, a maverick typeface who doesn’t play by the rules.
In downtown Geneva, glyphs are starting to disappear, and when a courier turns up dead, ligatures slashed, trouble starts brewing at the foundry. Pretty soon, Helvetica’s swamped by myriad problems, with a pangram missing, the monospace sabotaged, old-style heavies roaming the city, and rumours of upheaval in Cambria and Georgia. 
The futura’s looking grim.'

That’s the jacket blurb for the first Helvetica Black mystery, The Colon Conspiracy, a gritty thriller from the pen of Italo Garamond, the bestselling author of Pantone’s Labyrinth. In celebration of a major new player in the font-based detective genre, I’ve got an exclusive extract from near the start of the book, just as things start to get nasty.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

McSweeney's 32: 2024

I hadn't heard of McSweeney's before I found this in my local library (the same one I'm having moral palpitations about), so I picked it up solely because it had a pretty cover (artwork straight on to the hardback seems to be quite hot stuff at the moment, and it does look good. Having said that, my copy of Susanna Clarke's wonderful Ladies of Grace Adieu, from only a few years ago, is already fading, so I'm a bit worried about the long-term shelf life of this style), assuming it was a novel called Thirty-two by a chap called McSweeney who was so famous he didn't need a first name. Still, I'm glad I investigated, and not just because it led me to the McSweeney's website, which is a wonderful mine of ridiculous and amusing bits and pieces that will eat up hours of your life if you let it. No, I'm also pleased because this particular edition is rather good.

Number 32 is called (and set in) 2024, and it’s dedicated to near-future short stories set in various not-quite-on-the-beaten-track spots around the world. This insistence on slightly unusual places is pleasing: it’s good not to be seeing yet another cyber-noir Beijing or New York. As for setting them all in 2024, the aim is to provide a glimpse of a future we might actually be around to see. This tends to be the sort of science fiction I like - Ballardesque visions of the familiar collapsing into pieces that are no longer quite so familiar. The recognisable, reconfigured.
 
In other words, it's an anthology of things going tits up.

Saturday, 29 May 2010

Lost in the supermarket

Certain regions of supermarkets are lands of horror and darkness. Food is fine. I can do food. Pick things that are tasty and not rotten, put them in basket, wave basket at the automatic scanner thing, hit the automatic scanner thing, then look sheepish while aisle attendant fixes automatic scanner thing. Easy. 

However, once you get down to hygiene or household produce, it all gets a bit more terrifying. Those aisles  make a fellow feel like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Not in the sense of being a pre-pubescent girl from the 1930s with a dog that looks like something a cat coughed up, but as a result of being adrift in a shiny, colourful, utterly inexplicable world full of strange and slightly threatening objects.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Restraint of Beasts - Magnus Mills

Quite honestly, I think I missed something here. Don't get me wrong: I didn't dislike it, but I somehow expected more.

Anyway, before getting into that, the background: Booker-nominated (among other fancy prizes) first novel by Magnus Mills, loosely (I hope) drawing on his actual experiences building high-tensile (not, as the narrator will not hesitate to point out, high-tension) fences. In the book, y'see, a deadpan Englishman is made the foreman of two inept, lazy Scottish fence-builders, Tam and Richie. After some initial work in Scotland, fixing Tam and Richie's previous piece of shoddy work, the trio are squashed into a caravan and sent to England, where they build more fences, and bump into the sinister, faintly mysterious Hall Brothers. Things, expected and unexpected, happen, an elaborate net of themes and hints are set up, and then it all ends, abruptly, with a lingering sense that there's a clever interpretation that will make it all neat, logical and beautiful, if only you could think of what it was.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Library fury

I like libraries. I really do. They are like bookshops where nobody taps you on the shoulder if you accidentally walk out without paying. You can saunter round for hours, collecting books, trying to look clever, and when wander off happily without causing irreparable damage to your wallet. Sometimes they sell their spare stock at absurd prices (I picked up Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers the other week, and it cost me 15p. Spending that elsewhere I could have bought a tomato, or possibly a banana, if I was lucky and nipped round to a supermarket that wasn't on the middle-class guilt bandwagon (organic, fair trade fruit that chose to be picked, etc)), there are as many people wearing glasses as in the optician's next door, and you can peer at what other people are looking at, and have fun judging them for it.

So on the whole, they're great. There are, however, some minor downsides, usually involving shelving. I was planning on having a good-natured grumble about the science fiction/fantasy ghetto, the bizarre amounts spent on local history books that nobody ever looks at, and the occasional bursts of madness that seem to afflict whoever does the 'quick choice' bit in Putney library, where a few weeks ago I found Finnegan's Wake, probably the least suitable 'quick choice' ever, apart from whichever Derek Raymond book it was that made his publisher throw up on the manuscript.

However, while I was thinking about this, I realised that something much worse was going on - something actually rather unpleasant. Now I'm all a-bubble with righteous anger, and this seems like the easiest place to explain things.

You see, all the libraries near me (and I'm a bit of a library hussy - I flit, entirely faithlessly, from one to another as the whim and my burgeoning collection of London library cards takes me) have sections called 'Gay and lesbian writers' and 'Black writers'.

Huh?

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Thoughts on Alastair Reynolds' Revelation Space

Science fiction is a very exciting thing. Just ask the BBC after a Doctor Who Christmas special. The thing is, there's a dashed lot of it, and it comes in all sorts of hotly debated shapes and subgenres. At one end you have the grim, comparatively realist dystopian style that wins literary plaudits and tends to get a lot of librarians insisting that there's nothing sci-fi about it at all, because there aren't any aliens or spaceships. See 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World, Farenheit 451 and so on. Typically it will be the future, but although there'll be slightly fancier televisions and doors will be complicated, the world will be recognisable. The speculative part comes from the absolute mess somebody has made of human society. You don't need to bring in galactic ghouls to make the next century look a bit manky.


Then, right at the opposite end of the scale you have big, noisy space opera, full of flashy bits of technology and creepy stuff hiding behind stars: things that go bump in the universe. Star Wars as opposed to Blade Runner. It's a bit glittery and spangly, but also kind of cool. There can be spaceships with unfeasibly big engines, beasties with more limbs than strictly necessary, and it's not unheard of for planets to explode. For a long time this side of sci-fi consisted almost exclusively of complete tosh, but recently it's been dragging itself back into the limelight. I did have a theory about how this was chiefly due to Scotland (Iain M Banks, Ken McLeod, some others I haven't read (yet)), but I've just found out that Alastair Reynolds, despite his name, is Welsh, which scuppers that plan. 



Sunday, 16 May 2010

London Bye Ta Ta

After many months of worrying, changing my mind, filling in forms, editing, re-editing, accidentally surrendering my British citizenship, and being by turns wildly, exciteably optimistic and glass-is-pretty-much-empty-really, Eeyore-is-my-role-model pessimistic, I have now received an offer from Manchester to rush off to the northern reaches to study for an MA in creative writing. This means I will get to spend a year:
  • Telling people I'm a writer.
  • Being a student again.
  • Not being in London.
  • Pretending to be a minor character in Wonder Boys.
Also being fundamentally impoverished, but let's not mention that...

Basically, huzzah.

However, this has got me pondering. You see, one difficult part of applying (apart from getting my citizenship back, which seemed to involve more forms than a Japanese civil service exam) was deciding that a creative writing MA was definitely a worthwhile thing to do.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Thoughts on Yukio Mishima's Spring Snow

Right-ho, I’ve just finished Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow, and if I'm going to begin commenting on what I read, this seems like a sensible place to start. It’s a Japanese novel written in the 1960s, bound up with conflicts between tradition and change in Japan in the 1910s. It’s slow, gentle, delicate, detailed and packed with symbolism and metaphor. Oh, and there’s loads of scenery. I mean it: don’t read this if you have a morbid fear of trees. 

Plans for the blog (aka self-absorbed tat)

Do you ever read a book, then realise about a month later that you can barely remember anything about it, or differentiate it from the last half-dozen things you’ve read? I’m bumping into this far too often, and I find it a bit depressing, since it leaves me feeling that a lot of that reading time is meaningless. Yes, it’s fun at the time, and every so often a book will really manage to jam it crampons into the rock-face of my clunky brain, but I’d really like to feel that I’m absorbing something from what I read.

That’s the background behind this little mid-week post: I’m going to attempt to make a few notes about everything I plough through. These will probably be less like reviews and more like general thoughts on what I thought worked about each book: it will be about trying to work out how good writing happens, not about assigning arbitrary numbers of stars to books, then giving away the ending.

(Mentioning star ratings, does anyone know where they came from? I want to know whose bright idea it was to judge things based on between one and five massive balls of blazing nuclear fire. Okay, stars are pretty, but I don’t think they hold strong opinions about art.)

Anyway, in a moment I'm going to plonk the first of these pseudo-reviews on here. I know it will mostly be a long, impenetrable ramble, but these are mostly for my own benefit, and a blog just seems like a sensible way to organise them.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The thousand authors of Foyles

The other day I went to see the generally rather ace Mr David Mitchell at Foyles. By David Mitchell, I don't mean the modern voice of sarcasm from Mitchell and Webb, but the modern voice of, er, voices: the scribbler of Ghostwritten, number9dream, Cloud Atlas and BlackSwanGreen

Putting the 're' in 'revival'.

I really am going to do my best to use this as a proper, roaming, rambling weblog, probably with a focus on words and the people who do cruel and unusual things with them.

And this time I mean it.

Ambitions are like poorly planned house extensions: they ruin you, and even if you do get them finished, they never look quite like you intended. Yet somehow, it still feels worthwhile.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A Background of Stars

Prologue 
Like the cataract-bleary morning after the night before, it's all coming back to me. The problem is that it's not a night at the bar, on the tiles or in the gutter: it's being in the wreckage of an overpriced sports car, bodily attached to a lamp-post a block away from the Metropolitan Police headquarters. The world seems to have been painted by an impressionist with a decorator's brush. I'm not sure whether the blurriness is something to do with the crash, or the alcohol clogging up my system like sugar in a petrol tank. 
Dr Templeton moves painfully in what's left of the passenger seat. He'd insisted on buckling his seatbelt before we'd set off, and at the time I'd sworn at the delay. Now I'm thankful he isn't decorating my bonnet like a particularly grisly ship's figurehead. However, if we don't keep moving, surviving the crash won't mean a thing. Unfortunately the car's not going anywhere without the assistance of a pick-up truck, and my legs are in a pretty similar state. Templeton is wedged under the dashboard as uncomfortably as an oversized package in a letterbox. 
A few faces gather outside, but it would take a full-on pitchforks-and-torches angry mob to protect us now. The other car is edging nearer, slowly edging pedestrians out of its path. It halts beside the ruin of my roadster, and the driver's window slides open like a high-tech door in a science-fiction movie. A bland, expressionless face appears at the window.
My legs are still refusing to listen, but for the sake of a last effort I scrabble at the handle and shove at the door with my elbow. The buckled metal twists and grinds, then the door drops off into the road. I'm sure it makes an impressive metallic clang, but I'm still unable to hear anything beyond a distant, high-pitched ringing, like a stereo on standby at night. I manage to move one leg, but the other is trapped between the bent steering column and the fascia. Drawing the line at tearing off my own limbs, I collapse back in my seat and stare at the featureless assassin. 
He levels a pistol through the window, and I try to think of some decent last words. It's difficult. I hadn't anticipated going out with my head ringing and my vision incomplete, as if I'm a television with a dodgy signal. 


Chapter one 
I think the first time I saw Dr Neil Templeton, long before he could trouble the news, was on a BBC panel show, sat between an obnoxious but quick-witted television intellectual and a smug preacher with sideburns borrowed from a wild west drama. Templeton was fuming, and the host was worried that he might catch light. At first I couldn't even tell what the argument was about, but I was fascinated by somebody being allowed to lose control so completely on television – the most public place you can be, without seeing a single one of your audience. 
It was Templeton's first television appearance, and he hadn't been prepared. Nobody can be, really – that's the fascination of the live broadcast. Even while the cameras are trained on you, eyeing your flesh like hyenas or sex-fiends, you don't realise what's going on. Not until some well-wishing relative or cackling friend shows you a video tape do you realise what the television has done to you. It’s a bored god, able to change whatever it looks upon to suit its whims. Or perhaps its more of a cackling demon, happy to corrupt you according to whatever sins amuse it most. Television barely needs directors: a camera will make anyone into an actor, although usually the kind that specialises in playing hammy villains. Just watch a few reality shows, if you don't believe me. 
Templeton had been out there battering his lapel mike with spittle as he lambasted his perfectly composed companions. He might not yet have had the manners, but he was already striking. He looked like the clergyman should have: piercing and fervent, in a battered, awful, outdated suit that would have suited a man who'd just been let out of prison after twenty years, with the same wardrobe. At least he was clean-shaven. 
When I saw him there, sweating and irate, I felt a dash of pity, but it was mostly swamped by my amusement. He had potential – I could see that much. He could be made presentable, taught to breathe properly, taught to dodge everything that wasn't part of the script. He could be brought under control. He was obviously intelligent, but out of his comfort zone, like a scholarship boy at a posh school. He could have been good at this, could have been the one in charge, making the preacher and the reviewer look like nit-picking nihilists, but somebody had sent him out there to the front lines without a gun. 
I checked the show out, and it turned out that Templeton had been a BBC conscript. They'd lost their main science man for the evening, couldn't get Richard Dawkins or anybody else the public would have heard of, so had given a work-experience kid a list of Cambridge fellows, a telephone, and forty-five minutes. Templeton was the first one who'd said yes, so they'd brought him in, dusted him off, sat him down, plugged him in and launched him on air with only a two-minute briefing and a five-second countdown as preparation. 
Templeton's inaugural filming was a disaster, but he wasn't alone in that. What mattered most was that he'd volunteered at all. If they'll willingly stand beneath the lights, they can be shaped, but if they don’t want to be there in the first place there's not a thing that can be done. There was a time when becoming a great man meant having a will to power. Now all you need is a will to publicity. Templeton had it, and, more importantly, he had It. He didn't just have ambition, he had a plan. He knew what he wanted and he was certain he could get it. The only bit he didn't know was how to get it, and that, I'd been hoping, until the first bullet splattered into the wall next to us, like the world's biggest mosquito hitting a windscreen, was where I came in. 
My name is Jeremy Maitland, and I get scientists drunk. Or rather, my name is Jez (for a while I flirted with 'Jem', but people kept calling me 'Miss'), and I used to be in events and publicity for a company you won't have heard of, because we specialised in conferences and conventions for scientists and academics. It was a strange business, but a pretty successful one. The geniuses loved it because it gave them a few good meals, plenty of good drinks, and made them feel like the life and soul of the party, rather than the awkward one standing in the kitchen holding an empty paper cup. So there were always plenty of people with several degrees apiece waving their arms and asking to attend, but on top of that we could hike our prices as high as we liked because all the attendance fees came out of departmental funds. When it came down to deciding between a weekend of debauched self-importance and a few new sets of Bunsen burners, the universities know where their priorities lay. 
The job was probably why I took a good look at Templeton when I saw him on that panel show: I knew scientists. I didn't know (or care) whether he was any good at the science part, but neither did the public. What I knew was that he could be made to look right, and these days that's what really matters. The media define reality. Multi-channel is the victory of relativism: we can choose our own brand of truth. 
 
It was nearly a year before I saw Templeton again, and this time he hit the prime time. With an accidental stroke of genius, he managed to do exactly what I would have advised him to: offend somebody. 
At work we were preparing for a new gig, trying to combine our usual specialist audience with public appeal by jamming together the Ideal Home Show (or whatever corporate nametag it has these days) and the Royal Society Christmas Lectures. It was a peculiar mixture, but our owner was an ex-scientist: there was little he liked more than an experiment. The idea was to have a selection of display stands, like an Olympia trade show, packed full of freebies and snacks, but with lectures on popular, dramatic scientific subjects held in a connected hall. We would invite engineers, designers and inventors and tell them to bring anything that might entertain the public and turn a buck. We were pitching halfway between The Gadget Show and Dragon's Den: show off the fun stuff, hide the shifty deals and percentages, and tell people how science might change their world within the next few years. Maybe it could have worked, too: people like science fiction they can almost touch, and images of a future they might live to see. 
At the time I had no real idea what Templeton did, but when I was examining the invitation lists, his name sprang out at me. After all, my life was all about creating glossiness, and I was used to seeing and working with those who already had a certain sheen. Templeton's tempestuous television appearance had, if not inspired me, at least aroused a flicker of interest, a sort of fascination with the grotesque. On screen he had looked like a ranting prophet dragged in from the wilderness, and just like that prophet there was something engaging about him, despite or because of his unkempt fury. This meant I was unusually intrigued by the prospect of his lecture. He was talking on the nebulous theme of 'The Value of Science', which could have been depressingly financial, but thankfully turned out to be nothing of the sort.
We'd booked an old-fashioned auditorium, a late 19th-century university building that could have functioned as a theatre or a music hall as easily as it could a lecture hall. There was a raised stage of wooden boards, a proscenium arch, and tall latticed windows that let in draughts. It was a period piece, an unusual scene for talks on science and technology, but curiously fitting: a room built in a time of invention, hope and scientific excitement. We would stand within the walls of the Golden Age, the last days of wonder, the basis of our modern world, and speak of another glowing dawn to come. Or something like that, anyway.
Without seating or exhibits, the space looked like a hangar after an air raid most of the planes didn't come back from. There were massive blank regions, walls so distant they felt like the horizon, and enough lights to replace the sun. Probably more than that, actually: it was late January, so the sun still seemed to be hibernating.
Once we had the hall, things started moving: drinks and nibbles were on their way; invitations, name badges and programmes had been slung through a thousand letter boxes; and we had something approximating a plan. To be honest, it was generally the planning where my skills as an organiser began to fall apart. I was good at the presentation, making us known, giving us the right appearance. Showing off, basically. The job title might have said 'events', but I actually occupied an odd space between marketing, advertising and striding about making sure everybody's glass was full. That’s why I tended to leave as much of the planning as possible to my deputy, Diane, if only to irritate her.
Two days before we were due to begin, the room was looking like a Christmas party before any guests arrived: carefully arranged and neatly festive, yet silent, as abandoned as an empty swimming pool or a vacant lot. The ballroom of the Marie Celeste. Diane was nearby, hefting fire extinguishers, checking alarms, and ticking things on a clipboard full of safety drills. I sauntered up to her and peered at the list over her shoulder.
"So, are we safe yet?" 
"Not with you running things." 
"Ha. Let me know when you've finished, okay?" 
She stomped off. It takes a special kind of woman to stomp, particularly in shoes that look like ski slopes. Diane Jones was an all-round problem. She knew what she was doing, and she never let anyone forget it. Everything she did was a stone to throw at people who made mistakes. In a purely technical, objective sense, she was a bitch. I'd also slept with her, which didn't help matters. This meant that I couldn't get rid of her without a really good, viciously persuasive reason or I'd be in chains for sex discrimination before I could say Germaine Greer. Diane was late-twenties tribunal-bait, dressing and talking to be noticed. She was everything that was wrong with feminism. It could have been quite entertaining to watch her righteous furies, if I hadn't been the one who had to deal with them. 
That was why I made her do health and safety: not only was it the most depressing part of event management, but it was also the one with the most opportunities for something to go horribly wrong and end with a series of bad excuses and unemployment.
Feeling unusually prepared, I had gone home and settled down to read the television guide. I did most of my watching vicariously: there was too much rubbish I had to be familiar with – far too much to actually warrant watching it all. So I would read the previews and flick through the message boards on the internet, and that got me more or less everything I needed. So there I was in my apartment, rooting through the Radio Times, when Templeton's name leapt out at me like an Evening Standard distributor. Templeton was listed as a talking head in one of those semi-serious, ideologically earnest but light-hearted science programmes. This sort of thing had been taking a few steps back towards the limelight recently: Tomorrow's World was still dead enough to make Top of the Pops look hale and hearty, but every so often there was a one or two-parter presented by somebody middle-aged, shabby, witty and popular. This was one of those, the sort of thing I'd watch and then half-wonder if I could put on my timesheet. This time I watched with my eyes a little more open than usual because I was still interested in Templeton, even though mine was the self-centred fascination of somebody who's seen a band in a pub and is waiting for them to hit the big-time. 
This time he was a talking head, standing in front of an anonymous academic building, not quite making eye contact with the cameras and wearing a shirt that matched the bags under his eyes. I sat up, or at least slouched slightly less, and watched him trying to rein in his gesticulations. Then he spoke, and I could have laughed aloud at his media-baiting if it hadn't been so obvious he was serious. He was a caged bear lashing out, unleashing his bitterness at what he saw as the captivity of his mind. 
There's a frightening number of madmen in the world who hate progress. There are religious freaks who think medicine is evil, and corporations who can't deal with change. There are people who can somehow look at everything we should be proud of and condemn it. People who want us to live short, squalid lives in caves so their prehistoric gods can be satisfied by our inertia. We have to go beyond this, stop limiting ourselves, and step boldly into the future, even if we can't be quite sure what it will bring. We can't stop the world changing, and why should we try to, when the future will make everything better and easier for everyone?” 
They cut him off, his clumsy, risky soundbite complete, but I'd heard enough. He had certainly improved from that disastrous first appearance on the box. True, this was an interview from which they'd cherrypicked, rather than a messy semi-live debate, and they were trying to make him look intelligent rather than borderline bonkers, but it still made me certain that he had potential. If you can brew up a controversy, it doesn’t matter whether you make any sense: people will be listening. 
On the back of that, Templeton managed to gather a few furious letters from religious groups and a short article in the Guardian. I knew at the time that if he carried on down that path he could start picking up interviews in Sunday supplements, maybe snaffle a book deal that wouldn't be buried in the academic section, and, if he was really lucky, get himself a fatwa from a maniac with visa troubles. 

At the venue the next day I was taping out the boundaries of the display stands like a colonial government dividing its empire between civil servants, allocating six feet by nine to the East Anglian Enterprise Association, or ten by seven to a collective of chemists from Cambridge. It all seemed to be happening in the East these days, which must have been reassuring for the locals because nothing else had happened there since the wool trade with the Netherlands ceased to be the big British earner. Innovation tends to gather together like hippies in Greenwich Village or rahs in Sloane Square. It’s a sort of technical version of keeping up with the Joneses: you need to keep an eye on the competition. For inventors and researchers – those who discover and create where once there was nothing – the only value is novelty. The drive to succeed is not a conspiracy against the public, as in, for instance, an insurance company, where you provide a consistent service and try to make what wealth you can from it. Instead, for a scientist, it's about searching and finding. It's more like being an explorer, only you don't need to put your shoes on. If you don't find anything, if you don't come home with a bag of gemstones and a train of slaves, you've achieved nothing. Your work focuses not on manipulating or supporting society, but on finding the lands society has not yet heard of. Science seeks empty spaces, and perhaps that is why space itself is the greatest goal of all. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Basically, the exciting thing about science is that your only customer is history. Well, history and the wire transfer, private jet, 40% cut entrepreneurs who transform the newness into cash, because even the white-hot cutting-edge has to eat and sleep, or at least afford enough coffee to replace both.
While I was standing there, clutching a reel of yellow sticky tape and thinking about the next few days, Diane greeted me jovially. 
"Hey, Maitland.
"Oh, morning Diane, lovely to see you." That was sarcasm, for those reading in prose. Perhaps I should go into our brief relationship in greater detail, but I don't really want to. Now that I'm about to die in fairly unpleasant circumstances, I'd rather remember the interesting parts of my life than the sordid bits rated 15 for strong language and unsatisfying sexual content. 
"We're done." 
I smiled as patronisingly as possible, then mocked patting her on the head. "Well done. You should be proud of yourself." 
She tensed angrily and fumbled for a retort, then gave up, made a dismissive gesture and marched away.
The next morning was even less pleasant. Opening an event is like hosting a party, with all the same anxieties magnified beyond measure. Once everything's set out, it all comes down to watching the guest list, hoping, and worrying. To start off with a queue snaking down the street you need the sort of marketing budget that can buy small countries, which means that unless you're Top Gear, Banksy, a major museum or have an embassy or two behind you, you're going to be spending a while praying somebody bothers turning up. For those first few pre-opening hours, I scuttled about the room, making tiny adjustments to displays and decorations, shuffling seats around, then changing my mind and changing things back again. 
Still, soon enough the people came, wandering through the doors with all the trepidation and awe of supplicants entering a king's court. The moment they stepped inside, the guests were mobbed by bearers of drinks, freebies and leaflets, and everything changed. There was no time left for worrying.
A few hours after that, it was, if not bustling, at least a little more alive. Most of the guests were either opening night invites or booze-hounds with press passes, but the important part was that the room looked full. A casual observer would have seen a success, and it was my job to make sure that all the observers were very casual indeed. 
Back in the present, with a fairly solid expectation of being about to die, I find myself contemplating all the unfulfilled dreams: the things I never got around to doing, the words I really ought to have said, and, like every man, the ones who got away. For it was during those first few hours at Olympia, once we were finally open, that I first met Emily. I had found a moment of silence amid the hubbub, and was standing slightly at a loss, waiting for something to demand my attention, when a voice reached me. 
Hi there.” 
I turned around to find a young woman trying so hard to appear professional that she ended up looking earnest and nervous instead. She had shoved her dusty-blonde hair into a bunched ponytail, and escaping strands curved around thin cheeks and carefully plucked eyebrows. The heels on her calf-length boots brought her close to my height, a grey raincoat lapped lazily open on a white blouse, and her trousers were just as monochrome. It was an outfit to match a Blackberry, and all terribly City-chic, but she didn't seem to know what she was doing in it, and wound up standing awkwardly when she should have been elegant. I wondered if she'd come from another, swankier event, or whether she was naïve enough to think that reporters should be smartly dressed. 
This was Emily, and she was, as I had surmised, a journalist. We greeted one another politely and warmly, and moved straight onto the inevitable questions about the exhibition that bustled around us. 
"So, tell me about what you're trying to do here." 
Her words made me relax. There are two kinds of question in an interview, and beyond that the exact words barely matter. There's the aggressive approach that demands an answer, and won't be happy whatever you say. This is the lot that think it’s cool to repeatedly demand, at increasing volume, that you just answer the question. Then there's the friendly approach, which, when it comes down to it, just means 'talk'. It's an invitation rather than an accusation. So I talked. 
"This is a glimpse into our very real future. Not the outlandish, distant future of children's cartoons, full of little green men and cities beyond the stars, but the future that we'll all be living with in a few years. The future that will make all the little things a little bit easier for everyone. We've got thinking kitchen appliances, gadgets for your car, phone apps you won't believe you lived without, reactive speakers that can see where you are in the room. Shoes that charge your iPod. Gyroscoped shopping bags so you'll never break another egg. A thousand oddities that'll be all over the place in a few years." 
Not my best work, but it wasn't a bad ramble, and it set Emily scribbling at her notepad with a stern expression. 
I turned to guide her towards some of our more prominent exhibits, and caught sight of a vaguely familiar face. A man was crouching down among a snake's nest of power cables, but he wasn't concentrating on the plugs and wires. He was looking up at me thoughtfully, through eyes of intelligence and fervour. I had seen those eyes before. 
When I returned my attention to Emily, she was already drifting away, with a nervous smile that made me notice her cheekbones. As I watched her depart, I became aware of someone at my side, trying to attract my attention without doing anything, like a shy person trapped on the edge of a conversation, waiting for an opening that might never come. It was the same man who had been grubbing about with the power sockets, but now, our faces level, I recognised him as Dr Templeton. He was no longer riven by frustrated, bewildered and incandescent ire, like the first time I had seen him, but he was unmistakably the same man. In person, I realised that he wasn’t much older than me, but he dressed like he hadn’t left a university library for sixty years. 
"Hi there?" My opening was as much an enquiry as a greeting. 
"That speech you gave." It was fortunate that I’d already recognised him, because he didn't bother giving his name. I nodded, though I hadn't considered it a speech. "Did you mean it?" 
It should have been a simple question, but I hadn't thought of it in those terms. It was my job: it wasn't about truth or belief – just money. I still came out with a confident 'yes', but I think Templeton saw me hesitate, because his heavy, ponderous (in more ways than one) brows knotted like a particularly decrepit tree. I wasn't sure why, but that disapproving gesture filled me with an urge to impress him
"I mean it, alright, Dr Templeton. Everything takes constant, tiny steps forward. It's not just the world that science changes, but our individual lives, as well." 
When I'd finished, hoping I'd made the right impression, he stood in silence, doing more of that thinking he did so well. Pride flickered in me, but when he replied, it wasn't what I was expecting. He looked down to where his lapels would have been if he'd been wearing a jacket, realised he didn’t have a name badge, and mumbled, either confused or embarrassed: 
"You know my name." 
I hadn't realised I'd said it, but now that he mentioned it, I was as surprised as he was. "Yeah. I suppose I do." For a moment, I was taken aback, but I soon recovered. "I saw you on television." 
It was the wrong thing to say. "I've only been on television twice." 
I think I'd done the equivalent of asking a Vietnam veteran if he'd ever been to the jungle. Trying to work out how to continue, I decided, for once, not to lie. After all, he was a scientist: he dug truth. "I've seen both. The first time wasn't good, but the second one was getting there. You could get the hang of this. Seriously. You got my attention." 
His pride and his embarrassment were scrabbling away at each other like gladiators, hoping to attract the support of the rest of his brain. He clearly hadn't enjoyed his first jaunt in front of the camera, but then who did? When my number had been called, my girlfriend at the time had taped it, and watching that smug, shifty-eyed, semi-articulate image of myself had proved to be one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. I had looked and sounded like a salesman, the kind with greasy hair and a handshake that feels like fondling a fish. Seeing my fake smile, hearing my ridiculous, put-on pseudo-RP voice was not something I had wanted to do again. But I did. Once, twice, enough times to get used to it. And that same satisfied resignation was what Templeton needed to feel if he ever wanted to make it. At the time, of course, I had no idea just how much he cared about making it. Or, for that matter, where he was trying to make it to. 
Neither encounter stuck in my mind then, especially after what happened later that evening, but looking back now it seems curiously apt that I met Templeton and Emily almost at the same time. 
It was all going fairly well. At least, I think it was. Once things go horribly wrong, ‘massively mediocre' becomes something you can look back on fondly.

I had known all along that the real test would be the lectures, and that they were at least partly out of our hands. No matter how carefully you prepare an event like this, its success comes down to the speakers: what they say, and how they say it. There was real money to be made by reaching the public, and we thought we knew what they wanted: to be able to pretend they were learned, without having to hang out in lecture halls. They wanted science plus theatre, minus equations; soundbite academia they could repeat down the pub. I know this because I'm one of them, and, frankly, I love it. I'm not going to read a dusty tome about thermodynamics, but show me a documentary about a madman trying to build a space elevator in his shed and I'm sold. 
The scientists, on the other hand, wanted an impression of seriousness, but only an impression. They were like readers of the Booker shortlist who in their hearts just want Dan Brown with better prose. They thought they wanted something serious and intellectual, but really were just as keen as anyone else to be entertained, excited and inspired. They said they wanted a lecture, but I knew they longed for a rally. 
When Templeton stood there, not before cameras and jaded journalists, but before his people, the choir who were ready to be preached to, he gave them that rally. He wasn't quite inspiring, but he was inspired. The speech wasn't perfect, and he wasn't perfect, but you could see that he meant it. In reality television terms, he was the mediocre one singing their own, distressingly personal, song and being complimented by the judges even while they were being voted off. He didn't quite make it, but he had his fans, and I could see him getting a little further next year. 
I hadn't read the final programme, having spent dreary and serious hours beforehand checking and re-checking the safety precautions. Fire extinguishers had never been counted so carefully or repeatedly. As a result of my frantic morning, I hadn't found out what Templeton was going to say in his hour on the soapbox. I assumed he was just going to bang on about the same thing: isn't science great, why does nobody care about us? He certainly started off in that vein, but just as I was starting to hope for a few brutal lines to satisfy the journalists and needle the few obvious religious figures we'd attracted (like people who go to bawdy comedies at the theatre with the intention of walking out in disgust), he changed tack, and out came The Plan.
"This world is in ruins, or if it isn't now it will be soon. Don't worry – I have no intention of talking extensively about renewable energy like everyone else. No – I'm thinking further ahead than that. Even if we solve the energy crisis we'll still have problems. The population is growing, climate change is destroying the land, deforestation and chemicals are wrecking the atmosphere, and all over the world are stockpiles of weapons that could destroy civilisation again and again. We need more than the earth. And the fortunate thing is, we can have more. The chances of ours being the only inhabitable planet in the universe are as small as space is vast. Even with our current degree of scientific progress, we have the potential to find another world. Yet what do we do? Nothing. There is an expanding universe of mysteries out there, and we barely go beyond our doorsteps. I want to bring back the dream of discovery, re-start a journey that was begun and nearly abandoned half a century ago. I want to bring back the thrill of charting the unknown.” 
This was new, at least to me. Since the end of the noughties recession, once we’d all stopped bandying around dreadful ‘climate’ metaphors, space flight had been on the cards. Obama had said some stirring things about it (but he could have said stirring things about doing the washing up); the BBC were digging up archive footage, waiting for the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landings; a few more of the literati had admitted that they really liked science fiction; and the pop scientists had been talking their clever little heads off about trying to start a new journey upwards. Now Dr Neil Templeton, with his noble forehead, half-decent oratory and competent shaving was in on the act, but unlike some of the others he had a very specific plan: he was going to set up an independent research and development programme, then head straight to Mars. Even better, he'd already started: in the past few weeks he'd managed to acquire not only the rudiments of funding, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a site. According to his speech, he planned to spend the next few months setting up a new space centre in a small and by most accounts pointless town in Cambridgeshire.
I’d no idea how he’d swung that, but I was impressed and hopeful. I was born in the middle of the ‘80s, and now, with nearly three and a half decades under my (gradually tightening) belt, there’s still nothing to define my generation, unless reality television and video games count. Landing a man on another planet might be just what we need to start taking ourselves seriously. Even if he dies now, in what’s left of my car, Templeton will at least be remembered for ambition, and that's more or less a compliment. 
When he finished, there was applause. It was neither a polite ripple nor a mighty tumult, but it was respectable, solid and satisfactory, a little bit like the building we were in. Templeton stepped away from his lectern, and then, just as the clapping began to subside, a shriller sound took its place. It was one of those sounds that always takes a few moments to identify, then a few more to make sense of. It was the fire alarm. 
The audience shifted in their seats, not sure how seriously to take the incessant wailing. Templeton turned around and stared imploringly towards the side of the room, where I was standing. It didn't stop, and soon everyone was on their feet, milling around like a packed children's playground, nobody quite sure what was going on. I marched up onto the stage, heading for the microphone. It might have been a false alarm, but I wasn't taking any chances. Lawyers gather around chances, and you can make up your own vulture/shark simile. 
Before I reached the mike stand, I knew it wasn't a false alarm: the floor was hot beneath my feet, and smoke was drifting up through the cracks between the wooden boards. As I reached Templeton's side he stepped back from the lectern and turned, colliding with me. I stuck out a foot to steady myself, and with a splintering crash the floorboards broke beneath me. Flames gushed up around us, like opening an oven onto burning food, where I was the food. I fell against Templeton, who was already wrong-footed, and the torn floorboards spread and crumbled beneath us. Gravity didn't leave us with any options, and we fell, in a fury of burnt wood and roiling, acrid smoke. 
My vision was nothing but streaks of thick grey and flickering orange, like the borders of a Francis Bacon painting. Shapes rose up around me, outlined in leaping flame, impossible to identify. Somewhere among them I found Templeton, and grabbed at his arm. Spluttering, we shouted at one another, but the words were unfathomable. There were creaking and rending sounds, and a burning beam crashed down beside us. Pulling Templeton behind me, I pushed through the smoke, searching for any light that didn’t come from flame. Narrow spars of brightness outlined a door, and I flailed at it, searching for the handle. I found it and rattled it pathetically until I realised it was locked. Cursing, I tried shouting hoarsely to anyone who might be on the other side. It was a futile act: even as I called, I knew that everyone else in the building would have been evacuated by now, and the fire brigade would still be far away. 
Hands clawed at my shoulder, and I turned to face Templeton, his face scored with ash, grime and bloody scratches, like somebody who’d run through a forest at night. I could just about hear his voice over the roar of the blaze.
There's so much to do. So much more. We can't die here.” His hands were clutching at my shirt, and I pulled them roughly away. His terror seemed to give me strength. 
We won't. Now stop panicking and get off me. I'll get you out.” 
He subsided and squatted in the dust, wrapping his arms around himself as if he were freezing rather than burning. 
I stepped away from the door and tried to stare it down. It didn’t work. Then I ran at it, driving my shoulder against the wood just above the handle. It shook but held, and I fell back, rubbing at my shoulder with my other hand. I'd read somewhere that you were supposed to kick doors, but I didn't have a clue how that worked. I'd never kicked anything but a shin, and not even that since the age of about fourteen. It was becoming harder to breathe, the air like sucking in gravel. With no better ideas, I flung myself at the door again, then again, and on the third attempt, with my shoulder feeling like it had been run over, the door burst outward and I collapsed into the bright space beyond. Smoke and flames gushed after me, as if they’d ben trying to escape too, and I staggered to my feet blinking in the lightbulb glare. It is strange how swiftly darkness makes us forget the light. 
I turned and plunged back into the room, where I found Templeton slumped, half-comatose on the floor, flames licking at his shoes. I grabbed an arm and dragged him across the few feet to the door. With each step I was seized by pangs of harsh, dry coughing. I wondered if this was how dying smokers felt, but clung to my task. 
We reached the corridor, and the cleaner air brought Templeton's eyes open once more. He tried to speak, but managed only coughing. I knew the feeling. Supporting him with my functional shoulder, I staggered away from the broken door, feeling the heat glaring at my retreating back. 
Fire alarms were wailing, reminding us that while we were no longer in the process of dying, we were far from safe. I knew enough of the layout of the building to try to guide us back to the the entrance, and had done enough of the checks myself to know that the understage doors should not have been locked. On top of that, I had enough common sense to know that if a fire's going to start itself, it's rarely going to do so in a locked room on a winter’s day in a city hardly known for its dryness and heat. I was beginning to think I had some questions to ask, probably in the presence of policemen. 
The corridor brought us back into the lecture hall by a side door. As I had guessed, it was empty, the seats in disarray, the stage collapsed into a smoking pit. The air was noxious, and the fire was spreading upwards out of the stage, clinging to the curtains and biting at the wooden panelling. Charred patches scored the chessboard floor. Templeton was moving more confidently now, and we supported one another equally, hobbling across the room and down the grand marbled stairs to the foyer. We each grasped one side of the heavy double doors and pulled them slowly open. The damp and puddled street appeared like a scene from a musical, revealing neat rows of scientists, journalists, guests, curious passers-by and the collected emergency services, all gazing at the burning building as Templeton and I swayed out through the doors. Cameras flashed, voices shouted and footsteps pounded in all directions. Everything smelt like the morning after Guy Fawkes' night. As we stumbled down the steps, figures grasped us by the arms and guided us to ambulances, while yellow-hatted firemen rushed past us into the building, cradling a huge anaconda of a hose between them. 
The best bit about getting out was the air, soft and cold, like beer on a summer's afternoon. Second best was reaching the ambulance, letting the exhaustion wash over me, and being only too happy to lie down and let them carry me away.