Category Archives: Writing

“It’s the half term holiday!”

I had a dream last night that I was in the west of Ireland and had left a pub to go in search of a mandolin so I could join the session. (This is dream bravado, of course – I've had three lessons and can play two and a half tunes at walking pace). I wandered through the night, getting completely lost, until I came to a little boreen and turned down it. At the end of this lane was a large, modern detached house, surrounded by grass. I knocked on the door and the writer Arthur Mathews answered it. Yes, he said, there used to be a mandolin here. He invited me in. He would have a look, he said.

The house was huge inside, with many corridors and dark rooms with big modern furniture. I could hear Arthur talking from somewhere but his voice was growing faint. I then glimpsed some light and walked down another dark corridor until I came to a small white room which had had a whole wall removed. It was a bit like Darth Sidious's anti-chamber on the Death Star in Star Wars. In the middle of this white room, on a big white chair, sat Graham Linehan (Arthur's former writing partner), reading a tabloid. I introduced myself and tried not to to be too fawning. He sort of grunted and carried on reading. Then Arthur reappeared with lots of other people and we all went in to a big living room. One of them was Graham's Brazilian model girlfriend/wife who said she had a really bad headache. Most of them were drinking some kind of green potion to get rid of hangovers. Then Arthur made milky coffee for everyone. I sat on a big sofa next to Graham and Mary McAleese (President of Ireland) stood up and started to explain who they all were. Graham turned to me and said something but it was in a faint, high-pitched shouty voice. It sounded like "It's the half-term holiday!" Then the voice got louder. "What? What are you trying to tell me Graham?" Then I was lying awake in bed and my kids were upstairs shouting and jumping up and down on their beds. "It's the half term holiday!"

Clissold Park/Narnia Crossover

Clissoldsnow1   Last week, as I tramped happily around in the snow, it occurred to me that in The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe, CS Lewis created Narnia as a methaphor for Clissold Park in Stoke Newington. The gap in the fence on Church Street is the magical entrance to this world, certainly after pub closing time at any rate. Aslan the Lion represents the old bowling green.  It's got old lamp posts, deer, an old house.  Did CS Lewis spend a lot of time in Stoke Newington and are any of his other books about the area? A Horse and His Boy could be about the Lea Valley Riding School. Prince Caspian surely refers to that gastropub on Kynaston Road. The Last Battle might be a sly comment about the anti-bendy bus movement on Church Street.

Maybe this theory needs a bit more work.

C4 brown envelope

The stationer is now officially worried. That's two visits in a row in which I've bought just a solitary envelope. I'd agreed to sell a print of one of my Writers' Workshop cartoons - the one about Franz Kafka's tips for self-promotion – but it has taken me three and a half years to get around to sending it off. There was a massive queue at the Post Office on Seven Sisters Road so I worked out that it would be quicker to get the tube into town, drop off the envelope with the illustration to the buyer, then go for lunch at a nice Italian cafe. I timed it at two hours all in, pretty much the same time as I would have been waiting at the Post Office to buy my stamp.

The person who wanted the print has promised to send me a biography of Franz Kafka, written by her husband. I like the idea of biographies becoming a new kind of currency.

Writing hotspots in Highbury and Stoke Newington

1. The writing tree in Clissold Park – an ancient horse chestnut on a little mound in the south west corner of the park
2. Genesis Cafe on Blackstock Road (fast wireless internet and good coffee)
3. The no. 29 bus between Finsbury Park and Camden Town (but only if you get a seat)
4. The table near the window in that little cafe whose name I can’t remember on the corner of Lordship Road and Stoke Newington Church Street
5. The cafe of the Clissold Leisure Centre. Though not the tables near the counter.
6. The front seats of the 141 bus between Clissold Park and Old Street.

A New Underground River?

Amazing news. I’ve recently learned about an underground river that flows from Highbury down into the Hackney Brook Valley. Usually I spot these streams when I see cans of extra strong lager scattered about on the surface, but in this case there was a whole off-licence.

I was buying a few bottles of beer at Highbury Vintners and commented on the strange slope of the floor in the shop, which seemed to counter the slope of Highbury Hill.

“That’s because there’s a river that flows under the shop,” said the owner. “It goes through here and underneath the church.”

I expressed an interest in starting to go to mass, then fiddled about with the real ales before announcing to the whole shop: “I’ve written a book about underground rivers.”

The shopkeeper was not phased. “Bloody Highbury. Everytime I bring up some topic of conversation, one of our customers will go ‘I’ve written a book about that’.”

Parr’s Ditch, Hammersmith (Part 1)

In the process of researching the history of London’s formeost manmade stream, the New River, it came to my attention that said watercourse came to function as a boundary line between parishes. This holds true for smaller streams in the capital, such as Parr’s (or Black Bull) Ditch in W6, which was, it appears, custom built as a border between the Parishes of Hammersmith and Fulham around 1000 years ago. There’s nothing there now and the only evidence is the appearance of the stream on old maps, its mention in the odd book and the name of a present day street. Parfrey Street. Although most maps I have suggest otherwise, I believe it ran along where Parfrey Street now lies, and as it appears in my 1851 Tallis map of London, which is looking a bit dogeared at the corners.

I loved living in Hammersmith. It sounds like a character from the Marvel Thor comics. Due to the proximity of the river, Hammersmith enjoys some of the most beautful skies in the world. Really. The sky in Hammersmith daily goes from blue to grey to grey-orange to purple-grey to blue-grey-orange to brown-grey to milkywhite-pink. Then, as if I magic, it goes to blue-black with liitle white dots. All this is reflected in the silver river. Looking out from my study in the Parfrey Street flat, I used to look across what was Parr’s Ditch and observe the life and actions of the chubby bloke with specs who lived at no. 40. He was forever out and about on his bike, going ‘fast’. I used to have a bit of a rivalry thing going with the bloke from no. 40. We were like a mirror image of each other. Maybe he would watch me. I had an email newsletter called The Smoke which was based around my observations of the Speccy Bloke at no. 40. Speccy Bloke gets on his bike. Speccy bloke comes back from the shops. Speccy bloke talks to the neighbour.

Then it occured to me that it was entirely possible that Speccy bloke had been watching me for ages and had put together his own online magazine called In the City, or something, about my crap non-escapades. Chunky Blond Bloke staggers home from the pub. Chunky Blond Bloke staggers buys mils. Like a parallel universe Rear Window. And if my theory is correct, we were looking out at each other over an ancient border post.

Why were the inhabitants of these two London villages so keen to show where the borders lay that they had to build a stream? After all, there were parishes all over London which didn’t need water borders. Was there some kind of dispute? Or were one set of people threatening to over-run the other? The histories of Fulham and Hammsmith are pretty much like all the small settlements of London, except being near the Thames gives them more chance of an ancient history. Archaelogical work in the 1970s around where Parr’s Ditch hits the Thames found Neolithic flint tools and pottery (circa 3,000BC), late Iron Age pottery and an isolated Roman coin of the 4th century AD. There is a dry sandbank here along the edge of the Thames and there may have been a ford across the Thames in earlier times that connected with what is now Crabtree Lane and Lillie Road. Until the area was built up in the 19th Century there was evidence of man-made earthworks, possibly Celtic, along the riverside. Perhaps new arrivals to the area had uspet the locals, hence the border line. Perhaps there had been a battle and the borders ahd been redrawn (like the First World War). At Hammersmith library I pored through some old books and maps but there was no record of any dispute.

There’s no doubt in the minds of historians that Fulham (‘river bend land of a saxon man called Fulla) is the older of the two settlements. Unlike Hammersmith it’s mentioned in the Domesday Book (as Fuleham) of 1086, but goes back even further. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle in AD900 called in Fullanhamme and there is an even older reference from an Anglo-Saxon charter of which refers to Fulanham. Hammermsith (‘place with a hammer smith or forge’ – unsurprisingly) is not mentioned until 1294 as Hamersmyth. It was actually part of the Bishop of London’s Manor of Fulham until 1834.

Procrastination techniques

I’m trying to finish an outline for a new travel book, which might be about the Vikings in some way. This planning stage is the hardest thing about writing. Anyway, today I spent about 20 minutes messing about with the cut and paste function, then put on ‘Straight Outta Boone County’ (Cowboy Songs, Home Songs, Western Songs, Mountain Songs) and have so far spent the rest of my time attempting to recreate 1940s style vocal harmonies, every now and then popping downstairs to put on some more coffee. Pretending To Be A Country And Western Singer is a classic procrastination technique for a writer.

Due to my dodgy eye (detached retina) I’m having problems reading the type on screen. Full stops now appear as commas.