London Tales

In 2006 my first novel, A Year in the Life of TheManWhoFellAsleep was published. A combination of material from my website and new writing, it was an odd novel, without much in the way of plot or characters. I liked it. It sold reasonably well for a first novel, particularly since the publishers The Friday Project were a new company, without a huge about of clout in the literary world. In 2008 the Friday Project went into administration (not my fault) and not knowing quite what to do, I bought up 300 copies of my book. (I could have bought 2000 copies but I had no idea where to store them or how to sell them). By chance, a few weeks later I stumbled upon The Big Green Bookshop, a local bookshop in Wood Green, pretty much where I grew up. I became friends with Simon at the shop, and we decided to sell A Year in the Life... through the shop, splitting the profits. It gave me a headache-free way of selling the book and gave them free stock and an exclusive grip on the all-important Stekelman market. Thanks to Twitter, there was a new-found interest in my writing and the book sold steadily, to the point where late last year we ran out of stock (I did make enquiries as to what happened to the other 1700 copies – apparently they were pulped).

Simon had been toying with the idea of setting up a small publishers, and he proposed that the first book be a reissue of A Year In the Life... I wasn’t sure. There was enough wrong with the book that I started totally rewriting it, which was taking ages. And I wanted to add new material, which meant that after a while it started to feel like a George Lucas revision of Star Wars, in which all loveable errors are erased and replaced by bad CGI. It didn’t feel right, so I stopped.

At about the same time, I started doing a little art project online. I was taking photos (mostly of myself and bits of London), screwing around with them in Photoshop, drawing on top of them and adding text.

They were stark black and white images, and they worked well. I put them on Facebook and Twitter and people liked them. Hooray. After a few weeks, a couple of people suggested I collect them all together in book form. Simon thought this was a good idea. I wasn’t sure, but decided to play along.

It was agreed that I would produce 100 images and we would collect them together in book form. The book wouldn’t have a story as such – it would be a moody collection of words and pictures.I had already produced about 40 images, but most of these were very low-res images – fine for the Internet but unsuitable for print. So I spent months writing and reworking the images, getting friends to take photos of me looking quizzical (thank you Matthew Carrozo). Finally, in July this year all the images were ready. End of story, right? Not quite.

Normally, when you publish a book, the author does all the high-faluting artistic work and some poor schlub does the technical side of laying it all out in print form. But in the case of Timeline Books (Simon had settled upon a title for his company) it was just Simon and I, and it fell to me to do all the layouts, including designing the cover. Now, when it comes to drawing stupid pictures I am good at Photoshop. But I’d never had any formal training in design and I’m notoriously lazy when it comes to details – and in design details are important. I got a trial copy of InDesign and with a bit of help from a graphic designer friend (Thanks Lee) I started laying out the book. I worked slowly and it took ages. I was constantly convinced I was doing it all wrong. In late August I finished, and had even designed a cover that looked pretty good.

Some early cover designs:


The final cover design:

Simon and I had discussed how we wanted to release the book. I knew from my experience with A Year in The Life... that I do not have a particularly high-profile as a writer but I do have a dedicated and loyal set of readers. It seemed silly to print thousands of copies of London Tales, particularly since my experiences selling my previous book had not been easy. It was decided that we would print 250 luxury hardback copies of the book, all signed and numbered. Rather than pitching it as a regular book, it would be a deluxe object of desire, accordingly priced. This made me a little nervous; I am cheap. I get my jeans in Primark. I own nothing worth more than £500. I was worried that no one would want to spend £40 on a book. I consulted the good people of Twitter and they gave me solid advice on pricing and told me to stick with £40.

Next came the challenge of putting the book together – selecting paper types and binding options. Again, this was not something I had ever considered before. Every few weeks Simon would present me with the latest samples from the printers and I would ummm and ahhh and bite my lip. I was sure it would be a disaster. Finally, having set aside my neuroses, we proceeded. Simon called the printers and told them to fire up the presses. I waited. And last week I finally got my hands on a finished copy of London Tales. And to my relief, it looks amazing. Even my mother, who normally responds to my work with a pat on the head and a sigh, was impressed.

Simon, being a marketing genius, started selling the book on pre-order earlier this week. We agreed that the first 50 orders would get a London Tales postcard, on which I would hand draw a little sketch/doodle (that will be fun!). To my relief, it is selling well. I must remember to put more faith in Simon. We’re also talking about doing a central London launch if we can find a sympathetic venue.

I suppose I should mention the content of the book itself. Despite the title, it’s not really about London. Or at least, it’s not about anyone else’s London except my own. It’s mostly my own wanderings around the familiar streets of north London suburbia – hence the cover showing a pollarded plain tree, rather than an iconic view of the city. There are lots (too many) pictures of me – but I’d like to think it walks the right line between self-analysis and morbid narcissism. Most of my writing walks a tightrope between silliness and self-pity. I try not to fall off.

As has been pointed out many times, I am a terrible salesman of my own work. My natural talent for self-deprecation means that whenever someone asks me about my writing I shrug awkwardly and list all the reasons they won’t like it. And yet, despite knowing that London Tales will not be to everyone’s taste, I think it’s good. That’s the most you’ll get out of me.

You can pre-order a copy here.

Work, bus, north Finchley

Work.  It’s a four-letter-word. A bit like fork.

For the last three years or so, I’ve mostly freelanced for the same company. I enjoy many aspects of it: I like getting out of the house from time to time, the people are good, I can work from home a lot, and sometimes the material I deal with is interesting. As time has passed and I’ve gotten better at what I do, my involvement in various projects has increased and my role has changed. In many ways that’s a good thing – it means I have more work and a greater say in how projects develop. The downside is that my role has changed from a mostly creative role to getting more involved in the management and structuring of projects. Which is something that I find quite challenging.

It also means that I end up doing things I find quite alien. For the last two mornings, I’ve been up at 6am to conduct phone interviews with employees of large financial institutions and ask them about various policies and processes. I’m up early because of time differences – I’ve called Tokyo, Mumbai, and Singapore and have to remember that it’s afternoon there. My office wouldn’t be open at those hours, so I do the calls from home on Skype. This leads to the ridiculous and surreal situation whereby I am sitting in a small, one bedroom flat, with a wonky futon and a table covered in coffee stains, the floor littered with junk, wearing tracksuit trousers and slippers and sucking on a nicoteen lozenge as I chat away to various executives and account managers in major world capitals. And I have to pretend that I have even the slightest idea of what I’m talking about. I can’t say that I enjoy it, but I think I get away with it without sounding completely out of my depth. Who knows? Perhaps they’re also at home, wearing dressing gowns and drowning in old tubs of curry.

After that was done, I needed to get out, so I took the bus up to North Finchley. In doing so, I pass by the dilapidated, depressing area at the top of Colney Hatch Lane that remains strangely nameless but holds many bad memories for me, as it was where I used to wait for a bus to secondary school. I also travel past Woodhouse college, where I spent my sixth form. Those memories are not so unhappy. The bus journey was unremarkable except for a lone figure lying motionless across the seats at the back of the bus. He didn’t move once, even when the bus reached its destination and terminated. So when I got off the bus, I mentioned him to the driver. He nipped upstairs, had a look and just shrugged and told me: “He’s completely out of it,” as though that were a medical diagnosis. Maybe he’s dead. I will check the local news.

North Finchley is a bit crap, although there are far worse places to spend an hour. And there’s an Argos, which is some sign of civilization. I went into a charity shop and was followed in by a man in a tracksuit, who looked fairly normal, but turned out to be a mentalist. As I perused the books, he merely picked up loose novels and shoved them into gaps in the shelf, before settling on piles of paperbacks and ordering them into neat, orderly stacks. He didn’t work there, he was just obsessed with the books being neat. I didn’t talk to him.

This evening it is very foggy, but I no longer have a camera phone, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Charity in the clouds

Practically every charity shop in London seems to have a copy of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I’m not kidding. Last week, in five charity shops in Muswell Hill, I found six copies of the book. It’s become a comforting sight as I peruse the book sections of charity shops, like bumping into a friendly face in a room full of strangers.

It’s actually a book I really like, but I can understand why so many people have discarded their copies. The narrative is quite complex, with the story handed over through time and space via a number of characters and literary styles. So, not really a book for people who don’t read that many books. Which is why it was a strange choice for The Richard and Judy Book Club a few years back. And that is probably the key reason people are giving it away in such numbers. The Book Club guarantees sales, but it doesn’t guarantee people will actually finish the book before chucking it.

This afternoon I was in Wood Green and walked back home via Turnpike Lane. There, between the saree emporiums and the kebab shops, was the most unlikely charity shop I’ve ever seen. It looked like a ruined palace and was only identifiable by the words “charity shop” scrawled on a piece of cardboard. Inside was strange. They sold old televisions and computer monitors as well as other unidentifiable electrical appliances. The book section was just three piles of books (not stacks, actual higgledy-piggledy piles) in no apparent order. On the top of the pile was a hardback copy of Cloud Atlas. Some things in life are constants.

I’m never sure if the presence of a book in a charity shop is a compliment or an insult. On one hand, it means the book is popular enough to be purchased in the first place – but on the other hand it means that it’s not loved enough to be kept on the bookshelf. I have only ever once found a copy of my book in a charity shop, and it gave me a small warm thrill, like being licked by an electric cat. I liked it.