Tuesday, 1 December 2009

I wrote a novel in 30 days. Is it any good? I don't know.

Okay, it's nothing to be proud of, I've tried it before and either run out of time or just got plain bored, but this year, I went for it: November is always National Novel Writing Month, key that into Google and you'll be directed to a website where the deal is this: you sign up and commit to writing a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, starting November 1st and finishing by midnight on November 30th. As I said, I've tried this before and either lost time or lost interest.

The problem, of course, is if you miss a day, you've got to double your workload the following day, which can get stressful and, ultimately, lead to you abandoning the project; this happened to me a year or two ago. I was determined to finish this year. I did pretty well, writing something on most days of the month and then, as the event drew to a close I found myself dividing the number of days left with the number of words still to write and I always getting something like 2,500 words per day. It was fine.

I found that early in the morning was the best time to write, so I often got up at the crack of dawn, around 0530hrs to 0600hrs, to write the first 1,000 words and then polish off the final 1,500 at night while watching the television – or rather having the television on but not really watching it. One night I sat watching a scary movie, The Grudge, while writing the story and noticed afterwards how the chapter concerned turned out to be pretty spooky.

Is it any good? I don't know to be honest. It was a children's story based on characters I dreamt up for my daughter. The bedtime process for my daughter has always involved me making up stories about three characters. I decided to use the characters for National Novel Writing Month. I had no real plan or plot and basically just started writing, making it up as I went along. Not ideal, but there you have it. It's odd because I never knew what was going to happen or how the story was going to pan out at the end, it all happened as it happened.

I am glad it's over because I was getting to bed late and I did find myself pre-occupied with the whole venture during the day.

"Winning", if that's what completing the novel on the finish date means, is an odd affair. You log on to the National Novel Writing Month website and submit your finished document to the word-counter and then, that's it, you get told you've won, you get asked to donate some money and then you can, if you wish, download a certificate, in PDF form, stating that you completed the task – all a bit of an anti-climax, although later on, an email from the organiser informed me that I could get the story produced as a book and possibly get it on Amazon too. It needs a rewrite before I do that, but I've got until July 2010 so it's got to be done.

I doubt if I'll get a call from Hodder & Stoughton, although I do admit to having the odd fantasy about getting a £1.5 million four-book deal and moving to a house on the beach somewhere near Aldeburgh in Suffolk where I can indulge a horribly twee, Sunday supplement existence. It won't happen.

Now it's completed, of course, I have to spend time in the evening reading it to my daughter. There are 18 chapters in total including a kind of epilogue entitled Boxing Day. I didn't want a Chapter 19 as my father-in-law died on the 19th and I didn't want the book to have any kind of jinx attached to it.

Now that I'm considering doing a rewrite, who knows? I might be suitably impressed by the end result to submit it to a publisher – but then again, perhaps I won't be, I've never been very self-confident. I'll probably just read it to my daughter and then put it in the attic where, in many years to come, it might be unearthed, turned in a multi-million dollar movie and I won't be around to rake in or enjoy the cash.

There are four months in the year with 30 rather than 31 days and we all know them: April, June, September and November. Perhaps I'll write stories during those months, sequels to the one I've already written. Talk about practice makes perfect. Anyway, gotta go.

Friday, 27 November 2009

The OK Cafe, 77 Piccadilly, Manchester City Centre

"I know you're not going to do a runner," said the man behind the counter as I paid my £4.64 for cottage pie, boiled potatoes, greens and peas. The comment said a lot for the OK Café's clientele, most of whom, it had to be said, sported shell suits, tattoos and an unshaven complexion – and that was just the women!

I liked the idea that I didn't look like the sort of person that 'did a runner' although secretly it has been an ambition of mine for some time. A few years ago I used to be the editor of a magazine in the hotels and fine dining industry and I remember reading a review of one of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants in the Saturday Times magazine (penned by Giles Coren) where the bill for his meal was something like £383. Now that's a lot of money and I have often questioned whether such an amount is right, in an ethical and moral sense, when I consider that the OK Café would have cost me under a tenner for two. Alright, I'm sure that Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is not the sort of place that attracts those who like to do runners, but when a restaurant meal for two costs nearly £400 – the price of desirable 'consumer durables' like washing machines and DVD players – one has to question what kind of security measures are in place to prevent people from doing a runner.

It's been a while since I was the editor of that magazine, but I remember that Locanda Locatelli, an excellent restaurant run by an excellent chef (down-to-earth and not pretentious) was located inside a hotel. On one visit I asked where I might find the restrooms and I was directed through a door and found myself in the middle of a bustling hotel reception area. Had I finished my meal I could have just walked out of the hotel front entrance never to be seen again; and this got me thinking. Perhaps we should run a feature where we try to 'do runners' from expensive restaurants just to see how protected they are. The idea was, of course, ruled out by the publisher (far too exciting, far too good, far too controversial and we don't want people actually READING the magazine, do we?) but there were issues surrounding breaking the law that I hadn't really considered.

Having said that, my plan was to work out a 'winning point', a place where we could say we had successfully achieved 'doing a runner' from the restaurants in question. It might have been a distance of 500 yards from the table at which we had been sitting; there were various ideas on the table about that. Anyway, the plan was to reach the winning point and then return and pay the bill – assuming we hadn't already been stopped and carted off to the local nick.

I knew that I couldn't operate alone and would need an accomplice and chose as my partner in crime a PR girl, who will remain nameless. She was definitely keen and we worked out that we would need props – a fake mobile phone and a replica Fendi handbag, perhaps, to leave on the table and give the waiting staff the impression that we had to come back when, in reality, we had scarpered.

With meals costing so much, ie the price of a DVD player – the sort of thing burglars nick from houses – I felt, somewhere deep down that there was almost a moral obligation to have a go at 'doing a runner'. Food should never cost £400, that's plain greed on the part of the restaurateur, no matter what their excuse might be – food is never THAT good – and I should know as I have eaten in some of the best and most expensive restaurants in the UK and the world (but never paid for it, journalists tend not to). In fact if I had to pay for it, I wouldn't, in the same way that I would never buy a Bugatti Veyron, even if I had the money: at the end of the day it's only a car and I'm not going to pay the best part of a million quid just to pose and be poncy.

Anyway, back to doing a runner: it never happened. I even put the idea to the features editor of a well-known lads' mag – they think they're hard, or so I thought: they never returned my call, the cowards. So it never happened and probably never will. I did, however, case a few joints and can offer this advice to anybody who wants to have a go: hotel-based restaurants are the best bet, especially if they don't have their own dedicated entrance. Remember the fake mobile phone and the imitation Fendi bag, go there well turned out with a beautiful woman on your arm, order the lot: starter, main course, a good bottle of wine, dessert and then ask for directions to the restrooms. You can't both get up at the same time, that might arouse suspicions, but then I never got as far as actually organising a caper – just eating one!

Now that was an almighty digression, let's get back to the OK Café in Manchester – it was your typical caff – a mixture of Formica and plastic Gingham tablecloths, there were many copies of The Sun there for customers to read for free and the food was plain and honest. My cottage pie was one of the chef's specials and it only cost £4.65 with a mug of tea thrown in. As I left, leaving the change from a fiver as a tip, I started to wonder how desperate you would have to be to do a runner from the OK Café. According to the chef, it happens a lot.

Monday, 9 November 2009

I'm a big kid and I don't care...

I'm a big kid. I've been one ever since I was a little kid, when it was legit to act like a child, but it wasn't long before I discovered that people were constantly telling me to grow up and act my age, even when I was 'allowed' to be silly and irresponsible.

When I was eighteen I think my mum had a vision of what a student should look like: to her it was a cross between Dirk Bogarde and Richard O'Sullivan and it involved tweed jackets and yellow roll-neck jumpers, suede shoes and a scarf, with, of course, a neat haircut. My idea was totally different: unkempt hair, jeans full of holes and misshapen 'fisherman' jumpers from Millets. It goes without saying that I was told to grow up.

My problem is that, try as I might, I can't seem to grow up. Perhaps it's a lot to do with my profession. I write for a living and have been relatively successful as a magazine editor working on a variety of titles, largely within the field of hospitality, where everybody is having a good time all of the time. Perhaps that's it. While other people work for a living, I spend my time writing about what people could be doing in their leisure time, when they're not being boring and working. Result? Life is one big party!

But of course it's not just work and I'm not going to kid myself that I'm constantly looning around behind people who are trying to work, pulling faces and being silly while wearing a barber pole suit and a chromium top hat. No, that's not it. But it is all to do with being sensible, wearing sensible clothes, riding a sensible bike, reading sensible books and stuff like that.

I'm not going to tell you my age, that would be foolish, and it's tough enough out there in the job market at the moment without making life even more difficult, but it would be fair to assume that I'm old enough to know better about a lot of things, some of which I can't even mention. Equally, I don't want to come across as 'totally zany' and 'crazy', I'm not one of those 'you don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps' kind of guys either, I'm not the office wag, but I'd go as far as to say that I've made an arse of myself here and there on many occasions, normally in some way alcohol related.

And there have been plenty of times when I've thought I might have made an arse of myself when I hadn't. Like the time when I borrowed my dad's dress suit to attend a black tie dinner and then somehow mislaid the trousers. How? Why did I hand the suit back minus the trousers? Alcohol-induced paranoia set in and I started to wonder if I'd left the venue, a top London hotel in Park Lane, minus my trousers. I went back through my memory banks, started calling people who were there and saying, "So, what did you think of last night?" waiting for one of them, just one of them, to say, "Well, it was alright until you took your trousers off and started bragging about the size of your penis." Nobody said anything even remotely uncomplimentary about my behaviour, or my penis, and I realised that when I went round to dad's to hand back the dress suit, the trousers must have quietly slipped off the hanger and landed in the street somewhere. It was dark and I wouldn't have noticed. But even now, I wait with bated breath for the call and somebody reminiscing on past events. "Hey, Matthew, remember the time when you..?"

But what about that inappropriate bike of mine? Well, it is, for heaven's sake: it's a dirt jumper with no mudguards and it has a bit of attitude, a bit of cred. I should have bought something sensible with mudguards and a basket on the front, possibly a rack on the back, but I went out and bought a very expensive, slightly juvenile-looking Kona Scrap. I probably look a little out of place on it, to be honest, but nobody says anything, I like it and yes, I get a buzz everytime I go out on it. But why?

Why do I still get excited about things I got excited about as a kid? I still love the smell of a bike shop, the thrill of the new bikes lined up in rows, it's ridiculous. I should have packed up the bike ages ago, I should be much more interested in pension plans, the state of the economy, and other boring stuff, like my neighbour, who can't be that much older than I am, but he's one of those people who knows a helluva lot about car insurance and what it all means, he probably worries about his no claims bonus, he probably knows how much a gallon of petrol costs. I don't.

But then there is something irresponsible about my general outlook. I have two children but sometimes I'm a bigger kid than my ten-year-old daughter and while my 18-year-old is much cooler than I'll ever be – that's one thing I've never been, cool and I don't want to be – I view myself as younger than he perceives me to be: but I'm 'dad' for heaven's sake and it worries me. I hate the idea of growing up or being grown up.

There's nothing worse than going to parents's evenings at school where I find myself mixing with people that LOOK like dads. I find myself a little uncomfortable in their company because I view them as the grown ups and consider myself to be still not there, not quite in that ballpark. And yet I am in that ballpark I guess and it only hits home when I see photographs of myself and realise that I'm not getting any younger.

Look, I'm not that bad, but there's grey hair. Grey hair! And I start to wonder whether I should dye it or let it go grey and I start thinking about proper cool people who are older than I am: Pete Townshend; Roger Daltry; John Lydon (well, only just older) and I feel better about things. I'm not saying that Townshend and Daltry are big kids, but Lydon still has the spark.

In fact, that reminds me of something else that can be classified as 'big kid' behaviour: my current desire to buy and learn how to play the bass guitar. To be fair, it's something I've always wanted to do, along with owning a replica gun and an air pistol (I've had both), but I've just got to have one and will shortly be buying one. Right now I keep finding music shops and sitting there, Fender plugged in, trying to pick out bass lines. My excuse, by the way, is that I used to play the violin, the bass has the same strings but the other way around and, well, that's it. And I'm not going to deny that I still have rock star fantasies too and dreams that one day I'll pen the definitive 21st Century novel and make a fortune and go live on the beach somewhere in Northern California.

Perhaps it is healthy to be this way. Perhaps it's best to live in a world of unrealistic dreams rather than getting bogged down with being overly responsible and knowing too much about grown up things like tax and pensions and insurance and whether or not fully comprehensive insurance is a better bet than third party, fire and theft. I don't know.

But then I realise that in other aspects of life I have grown up, although I've never been a great 'car' person. I watch Top Gear with a sneer aimed at those Genesis-loving, real ale drinking, car nuts that populate the audience of the show. If I won the lottery I'd never go out and buy a Ferrari, they just don't appeal to me. I'd rather buy a house by the sea. I have no desire for large sums of money because wealth is not, for some reason, a key motivator in my life. So that might be construed as being a grown-up, although I hope not.

I don't like current popular music and would never pretend that I do. I want John and Edward to win the X Factor, but only because them winning would reveal the show for what it is: a load of old poppycock. Now there's a grown up, 'mum and dad' sort of phrase: poppycock.

Both of my parents are still alive, which is great. They're both 80, but it got me thinking that you don't really grow up until your parents die and you've no longer got anybody to call mum or dad, nobody ahead of you to meet the Grim Reaper. Perhaps I'll sober up when the ratchet clicks round one and I'm next on the conveyor belt of death. Perhaps then I'll start forgetting about playing the bass guitar, having rock star fantasies and riding off in to the sunset on my Kona dirtjumper. Perhaps not.

Mind you, a Kona dirtjumper; it's not exactly a Harley Davidson, that true sign of having a mid-life crisis. But I've been there, had that fantasy and managed to kick it. I didn't want to die young – and still don't. I worry about death because my big kid attitude is a sign of constant immaturity that will probably stretch to believing that my time should never be up, that I'm miles too young to die and have miles too much to do, even when I'm in my eighties.

Weirdly, make that luckily, all of my friends are big kids too, otherwise I'd have nobody to play with or go out cycling (although cycling isn't a pastime for big kids alone it's a great way to keep fit too). I've got another friend with an electric guitar, so perhaps him and I will form a garageband and make it big and....

I better go before I incriminate myself even more.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Please, make the missable, missable

'Making the unmissable, unmissable'. A nice catchy little phrase if ever there was one and it relates to the BBC's iPlayer technology that allows you to watch stuff on television that you might have missed first time round – because you were (ahem) busy watching something else on the other side or, perhaps, stuffing you fat face with doughnuts and chocolate while watching something on the other side.

You might, for instance, have been sitting moronically in front of the box while all those sad Z list celebrities and past it sportsmen and women try to kickstart their uninspiring careers by dancing for you in front of a bunch of judges. Then you thought you'd better find out whether John and Edward were still in for a chance in the decidedly tacky X Factor over on ITV – where non-celebrities who want to be Z list celebrities sing and dance for you and then make phone signs at you in a desperate attempt to get you, yes you, off your fat arse to vote for them. Lucky you've got your mobile phone with you, don't want to miss out on some sarcastic comment from Simon Cowell, and who can be arsed to get up to vote? Not you, eh? Just sit there with a huge bag of Doritos and a large plastic bottle of Coca Cola, getting fatter and fatter.

Making the unmissable, unmissable. Well, yes, if the programmes genuinely were unmissable, but the fact is, of course, they are all totally missable – or should be. Ironically, this week the iPlayer was screening a programme entitled Who Made Me Fat? A good question. Perhaps it has something to do with making the unmissable, unmissable. When you should be out getting some exercise, the BBC is trying its level best to stop you at a time when obesity has reached crisis levels in this country.

There was a time when fat people – I mean really fat people – were, not rare, but rarely seen. I remember at school we had a few fatties around who used to hold their 'man boobs' or 'moobs' as they are affectionately known today, during PE lessons, but at least they were indulging in PE! These days, thanks to fast food and lazy lifestyles, fat people are everywhere and a lot of them make it on to television game shows for some reason; women with 'bingo wings' can often be seen on tacky panel games like Family Fortunes, a programme that has become a parody of itself and its genre.

But I digress. We all know about lazy lifestyles and how eating too much fast food has led to the development of a nation of fatsos. We all know about how much they are costing us in terms of healthcare and we all know that being fat can be rectified with a little exercise and a healthy diet. But if the media starts 'making the unmissable, unmissable' then there is no hope for us.
Why have we become a nation obsessed with information?

The other day, while waiting for a train late at night, I watched a small television screen playing inside an estate agency on the station concourse. It was Sky television and the channel was advertising its text news service, claiming to offer up-to-the-minute breaking news for just 25p per text. It might seem cheap, but it soon adds up, believe me, and I wonder how many text messages Sky sends you every day. If it's four that's a quid. The point is, nobody, bar the Prime Minister or the President of the United States, needs to be constantly informed about world affairs. Perhaps if you work in the newsroom at the BBC, yes, but if you're Joe Scroggins who works in a supermarket or in an office anywhere in the UK, why the hell would you want to be THAT well informed.

Have you ever sat down and watched Breakfast television? You have? Oh, that's good because it means you will know that the news simply repeats itself throughout the programme; there is nothing new, news is not that fast moving so why the hell would anybody want to be updated with up-to-minute news texts? Similarly, why watch breakfast television anyway? It is designed to make you late for work or not eat your breakfast properly because you're too busy watching the television.

For the sake of good health, let's make the missable, missable and then we might take a little bit of the burden off of the NHS.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Are you real? I mean I'm not imagining you am I?

I was around in the early nineties, during that awful recession. I was made redundant three times in a row, everything was uncertain, nobody had jobs and I found myself scrabbling around for work, freelance writing, then getting a job only to lose it again and so on, until things levelled off a little and everything went back to normal.
It's weird, isn't it? Nowadays, whenever the word 'recession' is mentioned, I worry. I don't want to go through all that again. I hate it when I hear people wheel out the old familiar phrases about 'battening down the hatches', 'any port in a storm' and all that making do rubbish. I start to get angry and wonder who's to blame.
In the early nineties I remember hearing phrases like, 'we've reached the bottom' and it always conjured up images of those infra red cameras on the sea bed lurking around the wreck of the Titanic. It's bottomed out, we're scraping the bottom, all the imagery that suggests the only way is up. And then, of course, that was the mantra, 'the only way is up', Yazz and New Labour, images of Prescott and Mandelson and Blair jigging around self-consciously as 'New Labour' swept to power in 1997 and a new dawn beckoned. Cool Brittannia, Noel Gallagher in Number Ten, the whole thing.
For a while I remember thinking, nothing more to worry about, no more recession and so on and so forth, but of course, peace and tranquillity was never to be. The Twin Towers followed, then there was 'Dubya' to contend with, Blair being the poodle, the deceit that was the Gulf War and that whole Jack Straw syndrome. I don't know, but I don't trust Straw one bit and the whole Iraq thing cemented him in particular as a key villian of the piece. Even recently, he was a key figure in vetoing disclosure of the minutes of the meeting about Britain's involvement in the decision to invade Iraq. Where there's smoke, there's friendly fire.
But while Iraq trundles on and Afghanistan continues apace, the last thing I wanted was another recession. Rumours started, there were occasional comments in the press, but a lot of the time they were brushed off until suddenly we started hearing the media talk us into it. People started talking about Fanny May and Freddie Mac, two people I'd never ever heard of before, but apparently they had always been larger than life characters in the American financial markets. Odd, when I consider how, throughout the nineties I was reading the Economist and the FT and never once heard mention of these two crucial financial institutions that, apparently, the world economies rely upon.
Sure enough, though, they were responsible for the current major recession or 'downturn' that we now, as a world, are confronting. They lent loads of money to people who couldn't afford to pay it back and suddenly the world faced an economic meltdown largely based on the greed of the banking community.
I find myself wondering many things. When did the world turn from being a largely safe place to the uncertain place it is now? How come I used to work in a variety of jobs (all within the world of publishing) but never once did the commercial realities of life gatecrash my world. I used to go to work, do my job, come home and that was it; the fact that the advertising sales team was either incompetent and not up to the job or that 'market conditions' were forcing their hands never really bothered me. Market conditions never bothered me, they were resigned to the financial pages and were always slightly boring.
Now, of course, market forces are all that seem to matter. Everything is about cost and budgets. We're all in the hands of salesman, sadly, and they determine whether or not we have jobs or not.
But that aside, I now find myself more in tune with conspiracy theorists than ever before. Why? Because things just don't add up. Take the twin towers in NYC, why did they come down like a controlled demolition explosion? How come they then gave Dubya the perfect excuse to flex the military might of the USA in just the countries he wanted to invade? Why did we believe all that rubbish about 45-minute warnings and weapons of mass destruction that have since been proved to be complete and utter rubbish? Who the hell are Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac and why did they suddenly emerge as the key protagonists in the current global economic downturn when we'd never heard of them before?
I read Orwell's 1984 recently, it was one of those books that, of course, everybody must read at some stage in their lives and I hadn't gotten round to it until just a few years ago. What struck me about the book was the similarity between our current situation in Afghanistan and the conflicts that take place in the novel, they're just ongoing and all the people 'at home' hear are the news reports: yet another British soldier dies due to a roadside bomb, constant mentions of Helmand Province and at home everybody wondering why, what's the point? It's almost exactly like Orwell's masterpiece with a mythical enemy and media machine pumping us full of propaganda to keep us on-side, as it were.
It's the same with the recession and the so-called 'credit crunch'. We're all being told to 'batten down the hatches', there are programmes on the television and articles in newspapers showing us how to use our leftovers and be frugal, and the feeling is that 'they', whoever they are, are making deliberate parallels between now and war time rationing and trying to get us all thinking, perhaps, that we're a country at war – we are not, by the way; nobody is trying to invade us and haven't done for 70 years.
And then, of course, there's the great mythical villan that nobody can catch, that former employee of the USA, Osama Bin Laden. How come they can't catch him? They can catch virtually everybody else, they can put men on the moon, imprison dangerous criminals but they can't catch a man with a towel on his head whose picture is everywhere. Once again, perhaps it's all a scam, perhaps that's the deal with Osama, who knows? Where is he? Does he really exist? Is he really in cahoots with the ruling elite and is the whole 'culture of fear' and the so-called 'War on Terror' merely designed to keep us all in our place, like a kind of religion. Is it all another 'Opium for the People'? We occasionally hear about the status of the current terror alert – it's either low, moderate, substantial, severe or critical. Well, I don't know what it is right now, but what's the betting it's not low or moderate? Got to keep everybody on tenterhooks, eh?
Why is it that the recession is supposedly a big, full-on thing, much bigger than in the early nineties, that we should all be concerned about, but people are still going on foreign holidays, there are still ads on the TV for cars – a Golf for only £14,000? Fourteen grand is a lot of money in a cash-starved country with a recession of the size an enormity our respective Governments and media organisations are talking about. Who CAN afford a Golf for just £14,000 in these troubled economic times we're being told about?
And what about the crowded cafés and restaurants in London. I pass them daily and inside there are loads of people eating and drinking, there are bottles of wine on the table, the food is ridiculously expensive for what it is but even now, as I sit here in an upbeat sandwich bar on Holborn Circus at 4pm looking around me there are people sipping tea, munching on almond croissants and the like. Why? Haven't they got jobs to go? They certainly don't look unemployed and if they are, why are they here when they should be out looking for a job?
And how come that everywhere I look there are houses being extended, drives being done – I know somebody who has just spent £12,000 on a new driveway – and why has everybody got a new car and expensive iPhones?
For some reason, nothing seems to ring true to me, although I'm sure I'll be told that it is all very true, very real. Unemployment lurches towards three million, the 'war' in Afghanistan continues apace, news reports of casualties in a far off land, just like in 1984.
And then, of course, there's the UK's horrible 'celeb' culture. How come we're all prepared to 'cut our cloth accordingly, 'batten down the hatches' and so on but are quite content to watch various celebs, like Jordan, on shopping sprees with, supposedly, not a care in the world? Why the hell do we accept it? Why the hell has there not been some kind of revolution or uprising, why has nobody appeared as a people's champion, why has there been little in the way of rioting in the streets, why is there no militant group (or groups) attacking the icons of wealth and big business?
No, everything simply carries on. Perhaps nothing has really happened at all. Perhaps it is just a lot of posturing, a lot of political manipulation, creating a climate of fear through terrorist alerts and 'economic downturns' that might be all wildly exagerrated.
How come, for example, that we occasionally hear of how a major terrorist ring has been busted by the security forces that could have been responsible for untold atrocities, but it's all kept at arm's length and we all sit back with our espressos and cappuccinos and just accept it as gospel?
Recessions encourage apathy and give businesses an excuse to do nothing. Terrorism, or the threat of it, gives the authorities the excuse to clamp down on the man in the street. Local councils abuse anti-terrorist laws purely because they can and we all sit back and let it happen.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

The harsh reality of life

Death worries me. It always has done, ever since I was 19 when I realised, or rather twigged on to the fact, that I wasn't going to live forever and that one day I will die. It's best not to think about it too much, I guess, otherwise what is the point of living? And that, of course, is the big question that philosophers and theologians have been trying to answer ever since they were born. As yet, nobody really has an answer to the meaning of life, prompting the question: does there have to be a meaning?

The Earth is a tiny ball in the middle of nowhere and it doesn't look as if there is any sign of life elsewhere, certainly not in our solar system, but arguably not anywhere else either. That said, I hope that the human race is not THAT arrogant to assume that it is alone and that nowhere else in the galaxy there are other living beings. I used to think that somewhere else, somewhere millions of light years away, there were other 'humans', the same as us, either more or less advanced than we are; in other words, humans living in, say, the 16th Century or the 34th Century but on another Earth, millions of light years from our Earth. Even now, as I write this, there are other beings working in offices or whatever, doing the same mundane things that we are doing and equally as unaware of our existence and we are of their's.

But whether there are alien life forms on other planets light years from earth is one thing, whether there is life after death is another and while I would like to think that there is such as thing as Heaven, science and Darwinism says no: we live, we die, that's the end of it. But in the same way that I am constantly wondering what contains space, ie does it have an end and if something does contain space, what contains the container and so on, I wonder about life after death and the whole notion of eternity.

Eternity and infinity run along on parallel tracks, the former to do with time and the latter to do with distance. In many ways, time and distance are good bedfellows and cannot live without one another. When you think about it, a road, say, is merely a measurement of how long it takes to get from one end of it to the other; if there was no such thing as time there would be no road.

Both eternity and infinity are hard concepts to grasp. The whole notion of there being no end so that when you die you're dead, you're not coming back, not tomorrow, not next week and not next year is very hard. Think about it too much and it will drive you mad. Similarly infinity.

I used to comfort myself by imagining that life was really a big reality TV show where, when you die, you 'wake up' in the Green Room of some television studio, having your make-up put on ready for a chat with Davina and a VT run-through of your 'best bits'. Where you go after the show I don't know, perhaps then you die and it's all just as scary as it was anyway. Years ago, I remember watching the original Star Trek just for the end credits when they showed stills of the episode you had been watching and I started thinking that life after death was a bit like that, still scenes of your life from birth the the Star Trek theme music playing in the background. Again, I never dealt with the bit after the credits had ended.

Why am I writing this rather morbid article? A week ago today (September 12 2009) by father-in-law woke up as normal, got dressed and went for his walk to pick up the Saturday papers. He'd been walking early in the morning regularly since a heart bypass operation in 1988 and, all things considered, he's been doing very well, no real set-backs and if you met him in the street you wouldn't guess that he'd even had a heart problem. Life went on and we all generally forgot about the operation apart from reminding him here and there not to eat fatty foods.

Earlier this year he had an operation, which, at 76, was a little risky and after a few complications, things levelled out, he resumed his morning walks again and things got back on a relatively even keel. Until last Saturday when he returned from his walk, took his blood pressure, found it was dangerously high and then collapsed upstairs in his bedroom. It was later confirmed that he suffered a heart attack. He lost valuable minutes of oxygen and when he was finally resuscitated in the ambulance on the way to the hospital he had what doctors later confirmed to be significant brain damage.

Last Sunday the doctors said there was no hope. He was given the last rites. My wife, her brother and her mother stayed overnight at the hospital expecting the worst but nothing happened, the machines that had been keeping him going had been switched off and he was battling for his life on his own steam. The doctors said it was unprecedented, that somebody with significant brain damage and in his condition should still be alive, but he was, albeit in an unconscious state. He even attempted to open his eyes when his wife called his name.

I had been down to the hospital to see him on that Sunday night. The image has remained with me as has the general sadness surrounding the situation: a man literally on the edge of time itself with his family by his side, tubes running in to his mouth and a range of machines behind him keeping him alive. Everyone thought it would be all over that night, but it wasn't; he was still going strong the next morning without the support of most of the machines behind him and that was how things remained all week.

For a while there was hope. Perhaps he could come out of this, but what sort of life would he have? Brain damage meant he would not recognise anybody or anything, he would be deaf, dumb and blind to the outside world. On Friday – yesterday afternoon – my wife was told that there was little else the hospital could do. It had become a waiting game and they would call when it was time.

As I write this, at 1653hrs on Saturday 19 September, my wife, her mother and brother are back at the hospital, waiting. Doubtless when I next see them he will be gone, he would have left this world never to return again. Whether or not he's gone to that Green Room and whether or not he's sitting there watching a re-run of his 'best bits', I don't know. Nobody has ever returned to explain what happens next.

The whole experience of bereavment is something a lot of people go through every day. We are not unique, I am not unique in my feelings.

As I sit here now, awaiting some news, I look around me at everyday objects: table lamps, printers, tea cups, books, the garden, the telephone. Mundane, everyday objects which no longer apply, no longer have any meaning to my father-in-law and it doesn't make sense how one minute all these mundane objects have meaning – lawn mowers, cars, lottery tickets, televisions – and then they don't, they mean nothing. Nothing has any meaning, leading me and, I'm sure, many other people to ponder the point. What is the point? Everything seems so futile and pointless and yet it is all we know, there is no alternative.

I've always been of the belief that we don't really grow up until both of our parents are dead and we no longer have anybody to call mum or dad, we are no longer somebody's kid but we've probably got kids of our own. Once both parents gone, I guess we do 'grow up' and that huge, rusty old rachet in the sky cranks round into the next notch, signalling that we are the next in line.

There probably isn't any point to living and dying, it just happens, it's the way of the world and we just have to get used to it; as I say, there is nothing else. Religion keeps some of us on the straight and narrow and believing that there is more; the atheists among us brave it out but probably secretly hope there is more too. There's no point in even being cowardly about all this because it's inevitable, God given, the truth, the final reality. And then there is Pascal's Wager – that you might as well believe in God because if there is a heaven you won't be going there if you're a disbeliever, something like that. Why take the risk?

I'm always amazed at how everybody goes about their lives seemingly without a care, watching sitcoms, going to work, surfing the net, buying groceries. I'm often stunned that we accept it all so calmly, but how the hell should we behave?

Today I've learned two things: one, that there is absolutely no point in fretting about anything as life literally is too short; two, that the best way to live your life is to be calm and go out of your way to make others calm too, just like my wife's father did. He was special, everyone is special, but he had an extra special quality. He died around a quarter past six this evening, his immediate family all present. In that sense he was a very lucky man.

Friday, 28 August 2009

There's no disguising it, I really don't like football

‘Thugs return to drag soccer back into the gutter’ screamed a headline on the back page of The Sun following the West Ham versus Millwall match at Upton Park this week.

Hold on a minute, let’s go back on that headline. ‘…drag soccer BACK into the gutter’. It’s never left the gutter!

I speak from the perspective of somebody who has never really enjoyed football. Ever since I can remember, ‘footy’ has been the sport of the numpty, the racist and the hooligan. Football is all about tattoos and cheap lager and it has the audacity to call itself, rather self-consciously, ‘the beautiful game’. What’s beautiful about football?

Football is such an unattractive sport that it’s almost hard to work out where to begin in this tirade against it. Well, how about the stereotype? That awful thing about all men liking football and all women rolling their eyes affectionately as ‘their men’ – yes, we’re talking about women with lower back tattoos, or ‘slag tags’ – go down the pub to watch the match on the plasma. Needless to say, they return later, having missed their dinner (it’s in the f**kin’ dog! – and he’s a pitbull called Tyson) and their ‘slag tag’ women are still rolling their eyes.

Men who like footy are often called Gary or Kevin – alright, we’re sticking with the stereotype, but bear with me – and they wear football shirts and knee-length shorts, exposing a calf muscle tattoo which only sees the light of day in the summer or down at the local authority leisure centre on a Sunday afternoon along with all their other tattoos. Look at any photograph of football violence and you can be guaranteed to see a tattoo somewhere. It goes with the territory.

And what about the ‘professional supporters’ who reinforce the stereotype? There are high profile people who want other people to know that they are staunch supporters of some team or other just so that they can be seen as ‘down with the plebs’ when it comes to getting a vote at the next general election.

There’s nothing worse than politicians who ram their support of a football club down our necks. I’m thinking David Mellor, the late Tony Banks and, of course, the original ‘spin doctor’, Alastair Campbell. Oops, I almost forgot Adrian Chiles, [former] co-presenter of The One Show, and his very public obsession with West Bromwich Albion, cue eye-rolling from Christine Bleakley and any other women in his vicinity.

The worst thing about all of this is that men are sort of expected to like football from an early age. There is that great stereotypical ‘man and boy’ nonsense that involves father taking his son to the ‘footy’ and then his son becoming a diehard supporter until the day he dies. Yuk! We hear people talk about their ‘beloved Burnley’. Give it a rest!

Football is a bad-tempered game for strops, which, ironically is ‘sports’ spelt backwards. Is it just me or is the word ‘football’ the only sport one can add the word ‘violence’ to without flinching? Somehow they go together quite nicely and there are countless examples of football violence, including the recent West Ham/Millwall incident, which prove that football is a yob’s game. You never hear of tennis hooligans or cricket hooligans.

Personally, I dislike the assumption that all men like football and the fact that men feel obliged to engage other men in conversation about the ‘beautiful game’. I would go as far as to say that it used to make me feel inadequate, the fact that I knew very little about the game, but now I am quite proud of my ignorance towards it. I’ve noticed that, armed with just a few miniscule facts, one can keep a football conversation going all afternoon if need be – it’s that shallow.

“You watch the game last night?” 
“Er….” “Chelsea Man U?” “
Oh, no, I missed it, but Chelsea won didn’t they?” 
“Yeah, 4-1, a good match. Felt sorry for Giggsy, though”

But if you swear a bit, bring in a little of history and then swear again, you can go on throughout the night if need be and even convince the person you’re talking to that you know a bit about about ‘the beautiful game’.

“You watch the game last night?” 
“Yeah, f**king shit. Ooh you support?” 
“Ah right, the f**king blues, yeah? Well, yeah, like, I’m with Man U. Never been to f**kin’ Manchester, though, but nor have half of their f**king supporters, have they?” 
“Nah, right. Felt sorry for Giggsy, though.” 
“The f**king Giggsmeister? Star f**king player, Giggsy. Could do with a f**king shave, though.” 
“4-1, though, you were thrashed.” 
“Yeah, well, if we’d had star players like Sir Bobby or Bryan Kidd on the field, we’d have won hands down.” 
“Nah, your team’s f**king useless, mate; you should support a decent team like Chelsea, you c**t.” 
“Yeah, yer c**t, we’ll beat you in the next round, you wait an’ see.”

And on and on and on it goes, the play-acting, but now, thanks to a few choice expletives, you can carry on the chat, even if your level of football knowledge is virtually nil. Throw in a pint of gassy, cheap lager, go and get a tattoo on your calf and you’re one of the lads.

And don’t you hate all that ‘Giggsy’ rubbish? Everybody’s name gets an ‘eee’ at the end: ‘Giggsy’, ‘Crouchie’, ‘Wrighty’, ‘Colesey’.

While I use to be concerned about my lack of knowledge of the beautiful game, I no longer care. In fact, I make a point of intensifying my ignorance of the game by bringing in players long retired if ever the conversation arises. If, for example, Chelsea is about to play a big match, I might ask if Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris or Peter Osgood is still playing. Such a remark is normally met with a sigh of impatience as football people hate it when they converse with somebody who doesn’t understand the sport or who might be taking the Michael. I wallow in the fact that I am completely in the dark as to who is playing who, which teams have made it to the FA Cup Final or who is where in the Premiership or the Champions League.

I was on a foreign business trip once when the people I was with – both Arsenal supporters – spent the entire dinner time watching their mobile phones as friends back in the UK kept them updated on the score of a crucial match. To watch these two grown men glued to their handsets was both disappointing and irritating in the extreme and I almost found myself wondering, is this just put on? Have they reached a point in their lives where even they believe they like the game so much that they have to exclude themselves from any form of human interaction just to keep up with the score of some match back in the UK? It was pathetic to watch.

Within my own family there are idiots who quite happily plunge themselves and the rest of their immediate family into a state of depression if their team loses a match. They don’t stop to think that it’s only a game.

But for me the worse thing about football is the uncalled for hatred it generates among the supporters – especially in the case of so-called ‘arch rivals’, which are normally those involved in what is called, for some reason, a local ‘Derby’. What the Derbyshire town or the Epsom horse race has in common with football I don’t know – apart from Brian Clough once being manager of Derby County. So if Arsenal is playing Spurs, or West Ham is playing Millwall or Brighton is playing Crystal Palace, Everton playing Liverpool and so on, there’s always a heightened sense of trouble on the horizon.

Brighton and Crystal Palace fans refer to one another as ‘scum’ – which sums up the level of ignorance among their football supporters; and we all know what happened at Upton Park the other night.

The level of ignorance is turned up a notch or two when you consider that supporters at a football match are not allowed to watch a game of football and drink alcohol at the same time. It doesn’t happen in any other sport: people drink solidly all day at cricket and rugby matches but you rarely hear of there being any trouble. At a football match, however, as soon as the players run on to the pitch, the shutters go down on anybody in corporate hospitality drinking a can of lager. Why? Because that’s the law and your average football supporter is such an idiot that he cannot be trusted to watch the game and drink at the same time for fear that he might go on the rampage.

Racism – or being racist – is a sign of ignorance anyway, but in football, it often goes with the territory. Many white football supporters think it is acceptable to call a black player certain names if he scores a goal for the rival team and again there are countless examples of this in press reports dating back years. Hell, even the players and managers have been accused of making racist remarks.

When there is ‘violence on the terraces’ it tends to reinforce my argument that the game is its own worst enemy. Try as they might to stop the trouble, the football authorities are fighting a losing battle because that is the way it is with football and its supporters and nothing will change it. If football supporters are so volatile that they cannot be trusted to watch a match and drink a pint of lager at the same time, then what hope is there?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A novel idea...

If you have difficulty deciding what book to read when you next wander around a bookshop, worry no more as I might have the solution. For years, the thought processes behind my choice of novel were based on the recommendation of others, a book review in the Sunday papers or simply an impulse purchase based, perhaps, on the dodgy practice of judging a book by its cover.

I was getting frustrated. I needed some kind of structure to my reading life. I wanted a goal, something I could achieve. I was having problems knowing what to read next. Chick lit was always a no-go zone and so were bestsellers. I have always been a bit leftfield where literature is concerned. I don't want to follow the pack. I veer towards the sort of books you tend not to see people reading on the tube: Patrick Hamilton, Philip K Dick, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow to name but four authors whose work I have enjoyed.

A novel idea sprung to mind. What if I read an author for every letter of the alphabet starting with A and finishing with Z? I set about working out the ground rules, the main one being that I could not read any author whose work I had read before. The idea was to find new authors and tread new ground.

This would be an exercise in purity, so translations were out of the question. I had to follow the alphabet and I couldn't stray from A to T to Y to F. The challenge lay ahead and there was nothing else to do other than get started. What I didn't realise until I reached the letter F was that I needed a guide, something to keep me on the right path and provide scope, depth and enlightenment. I wanted to remain outside of the mainstream, but not having a guide meant that I fell at the first fence.

I chose Jake Arnott's The Long Firm, a bestseller recommended to me some time ago. Crime fiction is not my bag. Another rule sprung to mind: I would only read books that I bought personally. No outside influences. Everything had to be my decision. Next up was David Baldacci's The Christmas Train, a rather schmaltzy tale of a journalist who meets his ex-girlfriend on a train from Chicago to LA. It was like reading the screenplay of an American 'rom-com' – the sort of thing you might expect to watch in the afternoon on Christmas Eve.

JJ Connolly's Layer Cake followed. This and Arnott's The Long Firm were what I call 'shut it you muppet' books, the sort of novels Guy Ritchie might adapt into feature films with Vinny Jones and Bill Nighy in leading roles. Not my cup of tea, but the gauntlet had been thrown down and another rule too: I had to finish every book as, to the best of my knowledge, the police had no intention of announcing an amnesty on unread novels.

A lot of people find it hard to believe that I have never read any Roald Dahl. Even I wondered whether or not I had broken my golden rule unknowingly as I sat down to read Kiss Kiss, a collection of Dahl's excellent short stories, especially Parson's Pleasure. Dahl proved to be the best so far and in many ways acted as a kind of bridge to better things ahead, starting with the letter E.

Dave Eggers' first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, drew me into the realm of 'cult' fiction. It is the story of Will and Hand and their decision to journey around the world in a random fashion giving away inherited money in obscure countries. "Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River, in East Central Columbia, with forty-two locals we hadn't yet met." That is the novel's opening sentence. I expected great things and found them.

My guardian angel appeared in the shape of the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction, an excellent directory of cult novelists billed as 'genre benders, beats, gurus, drunks, junkies, sinners and surrealists'. I didn't have to follow the guide, but it steered me away from the junk and into the path of some interesting writers like John Fante whose Ask the Dust, one of four novels collectively known as the 'Bandini Quartet' was next on my list.

Fante, an American born in 1909 went largely unnoticed as a writer until novelist Charles Bukowski, who listed Fante as a key influence, mentioned him in one of his novels. Both men were key exponents of what became known as the hard-boiled style of writing: unpretentious and to the point. I stuck with the hard-boiled style for my letter G and a novel by another American writer, David Goodis, billed as 'the dark prince of paperback pulp'. I chose The Moon in the Gutter, the story of docker William Kerrigan looking for a way out of his sorry existence in scrag-end Philadelphia. Not bad, but I needed something a little heavier and found it when I chose my next book, Michel Houellebecq's Atomised.

I had to break one of my rules. My copy of Atomised was translated by Frank Wynne which meant that I was not reading the original text. I decided to go ahead based on the theory that rules were there to be broken. Atomised proved to be emotionally moving for me and I can't figure out why. It is the story of two brothers who share the same mother but live completely different lives. One is a libertine, the other a thinker and idealist. The book was tinged with sadness and tragedy which, I admit, brought a tear to my eye.

The letter i proved problematical as I had decided, thanks to the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction, to read something by the American author Gary Indiana. I considered and rejected Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the only other author listed under i, because I had already broken my rule on translations with Atomised. The bookshops had proved uninspiring where the letter i was concerned and this sorry state of affairs meant breaking another rule – that I should not jump out of alphabetical sequence – as I had to move on to the letter L and my first non-fiction title, Richard Lomax's The Railway Man which I picked up in a charity shop for 99p. Lomax was one of many prisoners of war tortured by the Japanese while constructing the Burma Siam Railway.

Getting hold of a copy of anything by Gary Indiana in the UK was proving a big problem so I had to abandon my quest and carry on with the task in hand. I chose BS Johnson's Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry as my letter J. Johnson, much to his own dislike, was billed as an experimental novelist. He didn't believe in beginnings, middles and ends and produced one of his novels in 27 different pamphlets so that readers could shuffle and read it in any order. Christie Malry is the story of a man who gets even with society using the principles of double-entry bookkeeping.

Johnson was one of two novelists on my list who committed suicide, the other being another so-called experimental novelist, Ann Quin, who walked into the sea at Brighton and drowned. Like Gary Indiana, however, I never found copies of her work in any bookshop in the UK. It took a trip to Portland, Oregon, and a visit to the world famous Powell's Books to finally pick up Horse Crazy by Gary Indiana; Ann Quin's Three; and Will Self's How the Dead Live. By this stage in my challenge I had moved along to the letter R and was reading Derek Raymond's How the Dead Live. The reason I bought Self's novel was because I was intrigued to read two completely different books sharing the same title. Self openly admits in the foreword to Raymond's book that he blatantly ripped off the title, quoting Auden who said 'Bad writers borrow. Good ones steal.'

Raymond, born Robert Cook in 1931, died in 1994. According to the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction, drink had taken its toll. He was billed as the 'Godfather of English noir fiction' and used the pseudonym of Derek Raymond in homage to detective novelist Raymond Chandler. Raymond's How the Dead Live concerns the investigation of a previously unexplained death. The novel's central character – a nameless detective – features in Raymond's so-called Factory novels of which this is one.

Self's novel is all about Lily Bloom, a former PR executive who dies of cancer and moves to Dulston, a part of London where the dead live alongside their spiritual guides. Bloom spends her dead life watching over the calamitous lives of her two daughters and is eventually 'reborn' as her own granddaughter. It is a good novel and while there are those who criticise Self for his use of 'big words', Self, like Henry Miller and JG Ballard, is a technically brilliant writer in my opinion.

But what about the letters J through to P? Jim Giraffe by Daren King was the ludicrous story of Scott Spectrum, a man haunted by a ghost giraffe. Perhaps I missed the point, but I found King's book too silly for words and a little bit tiresome as a result. I chose Patrick McGrath's Asylum for my letter M. The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction had good things to say about McGrath, the son of a medical superintendent at Broadmoor. Asylum is the story of a doctor's wife who falls in love with a violent mental patient at an institution not dissimilar to Broadmoor. The letter N gave me the chance to read Nabokov's controversial Lolita, the story of Humbert Humbert and his obession with a 12-year-old girl. Looking back through my copy, I note that I have underlined interesting words throughout the text such as 'favonian' , 'acrosonic' and 'phocine', none of which can be found in my Concise Oxford Dictionary.

For the letter O I had plenty to choose from: Patrick O'Brian and Edna O'Brien being two novelists I could have chosen. Instead, I opted for somebody less well known and with a less conventional O' name. Stewart O'Nan's Night Country was the story of the aftermath of a car crash and the story of the victims' ghosts who come back from the dead to visit those they believe are responsible for their deaths. O'Nan, an American writer, has seven other novels to his name.

There were so many Ps I could have chosen, but I foolishly started judging books by covers and opted for Chuck Palanuik's Haunted, a novel of different stories told by people imprisoned in an artists' retreat. It was alright in parts but it dragged and I was glad when I finished it.

Ann Quin's Three was another book I was unable to find in the UK and bought at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. I was hesitant about Quin because I was uncomfortable with 'experimental' novelists. I didn't want to read a book written, say, with no consonants, or a novel that could be read backwards. Quin's novel, I am pleased to say, was not thatexperimental. In Three, she experiments with different kinds of narrative. The book centres on the lives of three people living together in a house on the south coast (Quin lived and died in Brighton). Ruth and Leonard are middle-aged and married and S is a young woman who comes to live with them. The novel starts with the girl's suicide and then becomes a haunting snapshot of their lives together, their suspicions of one another, told through the different narratives. The thoughts of S are expressed through a diary she kept while living at the house. I approached Three with trepidation and under the impression it would be a hard slog, but I was pleasantly surprised and like all good novels, it haunts me now.

Derek Raymond's and Will Self's How the Dead Live were next and then another non-fiction book, this time Mark Thomas' Belching Out the Devil, the story of how Coca Cola has exploited work forces and ruined water systems in Turkey, Mexico and El Salvador. Thomas' book was good but it was ruined by a staggering number of literals. Here's just one, "They did not asked us to come."

The letter U was absent from the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction and nothing really inspired me in the bookshops. Fortunately, I owned a dog-eared copy of John Updike's Rabbit, Run, the first in a series of stories about Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, his doomed marriage to Janice and his pointless affair with Ruth.

I checked out my Rough Guide for the letter V and found only Kurt Vonnegut and Jules Verne, two authors I had read before so they were out of bounds. At the bookshop I found Willy Vlautin's Northline, the story of Allison, a young woman who escapes an abusive boyfriend and moves to Reno where she meets a succession of people who renew her faith in human nature. I loved this book for its clarity and atmosphere, its vivid characters and, ultimately, its hope. Vlautin has been labelled the 'Dylan of the dislocated' and I look forward to reading his other novel, This Motel Life. Vlautin also fronts the band Richmond Fontaine who will be playing in London in the autumn.

The letter W offered plenty of authors including Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse, novelists I haven't read, but again I wanted something more leftfield and opted for Christopher Wilson's The Ballad of Lee Cotton, the story of a 'white' 'black' man with psyhic powers who wakes up after an accident to discover he's a white black man that has changed sex. For some reason, I read this book with a Chris Rock accent.

I thought the letter X would prove problematical but it was no problem at all. I found a copy of Village of Stone by Xiaolu Guo, which I bought, but then I found myself breaking out into a cold sweat. Guo, that's G, not X, so I rushed back to Waterstones and opened up another book by another Chinese author beginning with an X. I forget the name of the author, but in the preface it is pointed out that Chinese people put their surnames first, hence Xiaolu Guo. Guo is her first name.

I am half way through Village of Stone, the story of a young Chinese girl living in Beijing remembering her life in the Village of Stone, a coastal fishing village seemingly miles from anywhere.

The end of the project is nigh and I can already see the light at the end of the tunnel, which says I can read something else soon. And I really do want to read something else, something not in alphabetical sequence. There are other novels by the authors I have been reading for this task that I want to read, like Michel Houellebecq's Platform, like the rest of John Updike's Rabbit novels and, of course, This Motel Life by Willy Vlautin.

There are also novels that I simply have to read, like Joseph Heller's Catch 22, the red spine of which has been staring me out for years as I sit at my desk, mildy fretting that I have yet to pick it up and go further than just flicking through the pages. I've tried to read it before but have always given up and read something else.

I know what comes next. Metaphorically, right this minute, I have skipped a few chapters of my task and checked out the ending. For my letter Y it will definitely be something by Richard Yates, probably Revolutionary Road, but I'm not absolutely sure yet; and then, with Z, I'm not sure – possibly Richard Zimler – but I'm going to scour the bookshop shelves thoroughly before I reach for his The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon.

Has all this been worth it? Yes it has. I have introduced myself to novelists I would never have read, I have brought structure into my reading life and an element of randomness that has been exciting. Twenty six books – well, almost – and I will continue to the end and then, in true John Fowles fashion, come back and write another ending for this mammoth article.

How have I rated the books I've read? Well, to be honest, there are only a few of the chosen novelists who I would consider reading again. Definitely Dave Eggers, John Fante and Michel Houellebecq and I enjoyed Stewart O'Nan, Ann Quin and Derek Raymond. I will return to John Updike definitely and Willy Vlautin is on my list too. The rest were okay, but I wouldn't bust a gut to read more of them.