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.


Interview with Simon Key

Together with Tim West, Simon Key runs The Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green. I’ve mentioned the place a few times on the  blog. It’s an excellent bookshop that exclusively sells copies of my book –  and both Simon and Tim are very nice fellows, who always offer me cups of coffee and self-help manuals. They also do loads of interesting events made all the more unlikely by occuring on a sidestreet in N22.

Anyway, here’s the interview:

1) How did The Big Green Bookshop come about?

There was a Waterstone’s bookshop in Wood Green once. Me and Tim (the co-owner of the shop they call ‘The Big Green Bookshop’) used to work there, until one sunny day in August 2007, we we’re told the shop was closing in 9 days time. It was a bit of a shock, not only to us, but to our customers. This was the only bookshop in the area, and Wood Green is a highly populated area. We could have stayed at Waterstone’s, but instead decided that we should open our own bloody bookshop in Wood Green. So we did. And here it is. And we bloody love it

2) A lot of people think Wood Green is a dump, but you love it. Why?

Because I live here, I work here and I’ve met some of the most generous, honest and helpful people in my life here. Wood Green has a very strong feeling of community which is often overlooked. When we got the keys to the internet café that was to be the Big Green Bookshop I sent a message to our facebook group asking for people to help us with painting etc. The next day an army of volunteers turned up. We had people making us homemade biscuits, giving us lifts to and from building suppliers etc. and generally being lovely. I don’t think there are many places in London where this would happen.
3) What has been your favourite event at the bookshop?

We’ve done more than 70 events in the last 9 months, and there are a number that stand out. Tom Hodgkinson was probably my favourite. The editor of The Idler magazine is a bit of a hero (or Idol) of mine, and he turned up to talk about his ‘Book of Idle Pleasures’, an antidote to our non-stop culture. It was our first event and Tom was charming. He brought along his Ukulele and played a few songs too.

I’m putting together our events programme for this year at the moment, and there’s some bloke called Greg that might be doing a turn in a couple of months time….
4) What is selling well at the moment?

Haruki Murakami and Barack Obama in our shop, the all day breakfast in the café next door and getting a vertical line shaved in your eyebrow at the barbers a couple of doors up.
5) What are your favourite books?

The ever changing list is ever changing, but one of the permanent fixtures is Coming Up For Air by George Orwell, where George Bowling desperately tries to recapture happiness, long departed. Bleak, pessimistic and prophetic, the lad Orwell could certainly write a good book. Among others at the moment are Isle of Dogs by Daniel Davies (Dogging and CCTV) The Outsider by Albert Camus (bleak and pessimistic), Meat, by Joseph D’Lacey (seriously good horror), Company of Liars by Karen Maitland (14th century mystery tale, which I expect to be massive this year), The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (50ish pages long, and one of most powerful books I’ve ever read), Nights At the Circus (Angela Carter at her very very best), I Smell Esther Williams by Mark Leyner (cult US fiction, fast furious exhausting and exhilarating) and Snow is my Favourite and My Best (a brilliant Charlie and Lola story that my 6 month old daughter is beginning to tire of). Ask me again next month and it’ll be different. So don’t.

 6) Have you ever had a meaningful encounter with a celebrity? If so, what happened?

I met God a few times when I was a teenager, but he was all mouth and no trousers. I had a nice chat with Muhammad Ali when he came over to promote a book about 15 years ago. That was pretty awesome. I met Sophia Loren who was a bit of a drag, Spike Milligan who was hilarious, but I’ve never met any real celebrities like Eric Bristow or Pat Sharp. There’s still time.
7) If you had to make a mixtape of your favourite music for someone, what would be on it?

Probably some writing saying, ‘here’s a mixtape of some of my favourite music’.

Or… in no particular order;

Soldier Girl by The Polyphonic Spree
Janie Jones by the Clash
No One Knows by Queens of the Stone Age (Dave Grohl on drums)
Suite Pee by System of a Down
Limassol (or Apply Some Pressure) by Maximo Park
Excellent Choice by the Horrors
In the City by Madness
Whole Lotta Love by led Zeppelin
Goodnight, Goodnight by Hot Hot Heat
Sylvia by Special Needs
Life’s A gas by T-Rex
She Is Beautiful by Andrew WK
Spiral Staircase by Kings of Leon
The Way It’s Meant To be by The Features
Horror Show by the Libertines
Albion by Babyshambles
She’s Attracted To by The Young Knives
My Little Brother by Art Brut
We Can No Longer Cheat You by The Cribs
Tell Me What You See by the Von Bondies
19 20 20 by the Grates
New Rose by The Damned
Shot Down by Nine Black Alps

It’s a 120 minute cassette

8) Why do you support Bristol Rovers?
I don’t know Greg, why do you support Arsenal?

(Note from Greg. Simon supports Bristol City, but I mistakenly wrote Bristol Rovers. What a fool I am)
9) Are you ever going to sort out your hair?

It’s gone beyond that now. It’s out of anybody’s control. I thought I’d grow it a little bit longer. Then, when things started getting nasty I thought a hair band would do the trick. Now it’s just too late. Now go, save yourselves, before it gets you too.
10) Can you cook?
If you want me to invite you round for a meal, there are better ways of doing it. I’m very lucky that my girlfriend Katie is an extraordinary cook, who not only produces exciting food every night, but also loves cooking.

I can cook, and I like to think I can construct a fair plate of food, but nothing in comparison to Katie. Do you want to come round for a meal sometime?

Thank you Simon. And here’s a photo of Simon alongside Alan Dobbie, the mayor of Haringey. The Big Green Bookshop had just won the award for Best New Business  in Haringey.