Tag Archives: london

Sandi Toksvig and my London dream

Phil: As someone much more important than me once said, I have a dream.

I dream of living in London, but on my terms.

I’ll have a nice apartment near Marylebone station. My day will be spent pottering around the capital visiting galleries and museums. I’ll meet up with my (technically, our, but I’m doing the pottering) editor for lunch in a nice restaurant. Occasionally, I’ll head over to the BBC where I’ll be in demand for the occasional appearance on Question Time or a Radio 4 show to dazzle everyone with my wit and wisdom.

My clothes will be of the finest quality. My shoes hand-made. The sort of clobber that lasts forever and is best described (by me) as timeless and by someone I know as boring.

All this came to mind as I read Sadi Toksvig’s memoir Between the Stops.

The book hangs around the number 12 bus route, which our author likes to take from home to work. I like this, because I also love a bus ride in London. I enjoy looking at the capital as it passes by, and in my dream, I’ll reguarily get out and visit the more interesting shops I spot. Visit and not feel intimidated at walking in the door.

It’s a very unconventional memoir – we learn about Sandi’s life, but also some history of London. It’s a place with a lot of past to learn about, much of it fascinating and frequently grueome.

Anger plays a big part in our literary journey as it’s pointed out that very few women seem to rate a mention on the road signs or anywhere else. It’s not that women have never made their mark on history, just that the bar for memorials is a lot lower for men.

So we get a mix of life stories, showbiz annecdotes, politics, femanism and history. Quite a mix and I enjoyed it. There’s no showing off as in a tradtional autobiography and it’s not all looking at the past either. The future is just as important or at least making sure the future is a good deal more equal than the past.

Apart from the famanism and lesbianism, Sandi is living my dream. I mean my dream doesn’t include any misogyny and I’m inclined to agree that a few more women being commemorated would be a good thing and many of the men slipping into history would not be a bad thing, no matter how much the Daily Mail readers (Sandi has good reason to hate that paper) might howl. As for the lesbian thing, it’s just another on the list of things I don’t qualify for.

Of course, my dream is just that. The apartment I fancy is £1.6m and the BBC aren’t hammering on my door. A London publisher would be nice, but I bet they don’t pay enough for the hand-made shoes.

I do have the boring clothes though.

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Nearly ready for Books Showoff tonight!

talkcheckingPhil: Last Friday was the final meeting ahead of our appearance tonight at Books Showoff tonight.

Sitting down in an artisan bakery, Candice started to tell me about potty training, so I quickly changed the subject to the slides prepared for the evening entertainment. As anyone who has friends with small children knows, the obsess about the topic and there are some things that can put you right off your hot chocolate.

All words have been expunged from the slides. It was just left to sort out what we are going to say. The audience needs entertaining, not just a selection of pictures to look at.

Doing a two-hander talk is a bit of a challenge. We don’t want to talk over each other, but there must be banter. That’s easy when you are sitting opposite each other and stuffing some delicious sandwiches and cake in your gob. I’ll shut up when I’m eating for a start, but you can’t rely on that on stage.

So, we have a sort of script. Not a strict one as that would be rubbish, but an idea what we’ll be filling our alloted 9 minutes with.

Now, if you excuse me, I need to write a rant to accompany a certain photo. Come along to see if I manage it.

Books Showoff, London 28th Sept at 7pm

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Finding unexpected communities for story settings

Wharf News

Phil: It’s Crimbo time and in an effort to get festive and find some prezzies, I took a trip down to London.

Our capital is a place that divides opinion. Personally, I love it but mostly because I don’t live there. As an occasional tourist I get to wander around marvelling at sights that are new to me, often without having to be at a particular place at any specific time.

Anyway, I ended up over in the city, specifically Canary Wharf. I know it’s not a normal tourist hotspot but if old buildings along docksides fascinate you, it’s worth a run out along the Docklands Light Railway for a nose. Being Saturday, the piazza surrounding the offices were quiet but I did spot this newspaper in a free paper holder. I’m a bit of a connoisseur of local press so grabbed a copy which a couple of days later I sat down to read.

When I did, I got a surprise. Canary Wharf and its imediate environs aren’t just home to a migrant red-braces clad banking population. There is a real community there. A mixed community of normal people and kids and even pensioners and even some who don’t wear achingly trendy casual clothes or a Saville Row suit. A good example is on page 3 where we have a nativity play performed on the Isle  of Dogs with animals  from Mudchute Farm.

I’ll be honest and say that this wasn’t what I’d expected. A quick trip through the Museum of London Docklands suggested that most “real” people had been displaced by those who could afford multi-million pound apartments. These sort of people tended to exist at work, within their beautifully appointed “cave” and perhaps at one or two of the better sort of restaurants in the immediate area. They feel no affiliation to wherever they live, it’s just convenience.

It appears I was wrong.

Anyway, as far as writing goes, unless you are working on one of those solar-system spanning epic sci-fi novels, it makes sense to base your story in a small area or at least a limited group of people. That way you can crack on with the story without having to explain where the action is taking place all the time. Soap operas are set in a street or a square for this reason.

Tripping over the Wharf makes me wonder if this community wouldn’t make a great location. You have a conflict of locals and incommers, not unlike the town and gown conflicts in Oxford. Limited geography makes research east. A day spent in the shadow of Canary Wharf would probably provide all you need. A little longer might give you a feel for the people who live there.

I feel like a Victorian explorer who has been trekking through the jungle. I’ve discovered there IS life up the Tames. Now I just need to write about it!

If you fancy keeping up with the local news from London Docklands: www.wharf.co.uk

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An answer on Birmingham Library

Nolans Big DreamsCandice: Last week Phil wrote a post all about the joys and down sides of Birmingham Library.  Can I just add I am NOT a brummie but I am proud of the City I live near and have worked in on and off for years.

Many years ago I worked for the Marketing Department of Birmingham City Council, a hard job you might cry, but my role was to make the people of Birmingham and surrounds use the City Centre facilities.  This involved some random occurrences with Councillors or Heads of Department being put in strange positions to make the best media photos.  It also meant I met alot of B and C list pop acts on their way up the charts – I have to say McFly were probably one of the nicest and Atomic Kitten the worst.

Anyway, this taught me alot about this big city.  Which came in very useful when I moved to my next job working in one of the most iconic buildings in the City: Selfridges.  15,000 spun aluminium disks, did you know?

I think Brum has alot going for me, and I have to say I find it quite offensive that people don’t rate in the same way as Manchester or London.  I really DON’T like London and find the people there very arrogant.

The first episode of a new BBC drama was shown on Sunday, By Any Means.  Filmed in Birmingham it is set in London.  Yes, they do some fancy cross shooting with scenes in Brum intermingled with those from London.  They did the same with Hustle.

Now the bonus is for me that I can get work on this show, as the extras are supplied by the Agency I am with. However, I am confused as to why it can’t be set in Birmingham.  It made me laugh as they chased a suspect down the A435 in Wythall and then cut to them driving round London to their base. The other half and I watch picking out places we know but I really don’t understand why this crack crime squad aren’t searching the streets of Birmingham.  Ah well, as least they didn’t upset the Birmingham City Fans like they did the Arsenal fans over their depiction of them all being thugs!

Phil: I’m going to jump in on Candice’s post to agree wholeheartely about By Any Means. In many ways it was just like watching an episode of The SainThis is supposed to be Londont from the mid 60s. One minute we were watching some stock footage of an exotic foreign location, next it’s the stuff with actors shot on the back lot at Elstree studios. Here we had stock London footage dropped in to scenes made in Birmingham.

Now I can’t claim to have ties as close as my friend to Brum but even I could recognise a lot of the landmarks. My favourite moment was when the teams van pulled away from its parking spot right next to a Birmingham CCTV and singpost pole – complete with the logo very visible.  Worse, the makers seemed to be obsesed with using very recognisable landmark buildings for major scenes. It’s not like the place is lacking anonymous buildings!

The thing is, why do we have to pretend to be in London at all? Are there no criminals outside the M25 (Insert joke about there being a whole Parliament full within it)?

We’re both quite proud to not be London based. Some of our pitches to publishers make a point of this. Our book contains only two very, very short scenes in the capital. Most people don’t live there so why should they be forced to watch and read about it all the time?

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Waugh and Peace. A chat with Daisy Waugh – Part One

Daisy Waugh

Daisy Waugh is a journalist and travel writer, who has also worked as an Agony Aunt for The Independent and as a restaurant critic. She also wrote a weekly column from Los Angeles, presented for Channel Four’s Travelogue show and also contributed to Radio Four’s You and Yours.

Daisy has had two previous novels published to great critical acclaim, What is the matter with Mary Jane? and in January 2002, The New You Survival Kit.

Her travel book about living in Northern Kenya, A Small Town in Africa, was also very well received. She now lives in West London with her husband and two children.

Last year Candice was really cheeky and asked her if she’d do an interview for us. She agreed! So here it is, in two parts for your reading pleasure.

Well, we thought we might as well try and find out what being a proper author is all about…

Where do you find the inspiration for your writing? Do you write what you know, or is about finding something that interests you and then researching it?

I write historical fiction – so part of the inspiration comes from real events. How my fictional characters respond to those events comes from my imagination. I also try to draw parallels from my own experiences and observations.  Imagining what other people are thinking and feeling is the job of a novelist. I spend a lot of time staring at strangers and doing just that.  

Do you enjoy the writing process or is it just a means to an end?

I love writing – and have always written, since I was a young child and I would be quite out of kilter of I ever stopped. On the other hand – obviously – sometimes I just want to leave the bloody computer and play tennis, or paint my children’s bedrooms (which is what’s hanging over me right now) or lie in bed and read someone else’s novel… Writing is a means to an end – I live off it. But I love it, and I would be wretched if I stopped.

Describe your typical writing day. Where and how do you work?

Melting the Snow on Hester StreetI walk les enfants to school …come home … muck about on email and twitter … go for a run (which is good thinking time) …. and set out into town with my laptop. I often go to the London Library, which a lot of writers use as a place to work. Sometimes I don’t get as far as the London Library, having stopped off at sundry coffee bars (with plugs for the laptop) along the way.  There is one cafe that doesn’t have wifi. When things are very desperate and I can’t seem to knuckle down, I go there.

For the last few years I have been working very hard – four books and minimum one column per week in the last five years — plus three young children… and  I am a bit puffed out at the moment. I have another novel to write by December, edits on my Mothering book  (I Don’t Know Why She Bothers – Guilt Free Mothering for Thoroughly Modern Women, published June 4th) to deliver within the next few weeks, and a lot promotion work for the novel Melting the Snow on Hester Street, which is out at the end of March…. 

How do you move from newspaper columns to novels? Have you ever written short stories, have you found them useful in moving into novel writing?

It is always a relief to escape into the novels. Journalism requires a sort of brittle front which – after all these years – I have learned to take on and off when required… I have written short stories, mostly for charitable collections. The fact is there isn’t much of a market for them and with all the other writing commitments I don’t have time… I am not sure why they would be useful for moving into novel writing, beyond the fact that they are shorter – they’re bloody hard to write.

In our next post, on Thursday, we’ve talked some more about the writing process and also a quick look to the future.


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The Cathedral Killer

“…and up on your left is the site of the gruesome murder of Sir Charles Dunstan of Horwich. Sir Charles fell out with the local land owners and was strung up like a pheasant, gutted and left to die with his entrails hanging out. ”

Oh my God, this is boring, thought Josie. I should be at home with a bottle of wine, box of Milk Tray and the Mad Men box set. The warm feeling from thinking about Don Draper even took the edge off the pouring rain for a few seconds.  Snapping back to reality, she realised that the rest of the group had moved on and had to scurry to catch up.  Getting left behind around the back streets of York on a dark wet night was not her idea of fun.

When her boss, Editor of the local rag, had picked up on a new Town Ghost tour and suggested she cover it, she expected it would be dreary, but not this bad.

York, a city full of historic monuments and some quite horrific murders, was an ideal place for aspiring actors looking to make easy money.  By dressing up as funeral directors they could earn extra cash between stints on Casualty, telling stories to tourists.  For most, the best they could hope for was a role at the York Dungeon, scaring higher fee paying day-trippers by jumping out at them.

Having moved to the city from Derbyshire armed with a degree and loads of unpaid newspaper experience under her belt, Josie was hoping to make her mark on the crime desk, or even some investigative reporting.  Everyone had to start somewhere, so when the post of junior reporter at the York Post came up, she had jumped at the chance, promising herself one year there and it would be off to London for something on the Nationals.

Earlier that morning, while delving through the scut work of writing up the births, deaths and marriages, the Boss ambled in.

“I want you to look into one of the Ghost walks, it’s been a while since we’ve covered one for the “Things to do in York” section. This one seems new,” he said, waving a flyer under her nose, “Get yourself down tonight and give me 500 words for the morning.”

500 words for the morning. That’s my night gone.  Looking out of the porthole of a window from her dungeon-like office she stared at the pouring rain.  No one is going to be doing anything “ghostly” tonight, she realised putting her face in her hands, it’ll just be me and the down-trodden luvies.

Later, grabbing her coat on the way out, she stood under the door over hang outside the office and looked upward. The rain had eased into just a light drizzle under a leaden sky.  Avoiding the puddles as best she could as she walked away, she pulled the coat further round her, tying the belt to try and keep the cold out.  No one would realise it was nearly May, she thought, trudging on.”

Does that leave you hanging…


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Cup cake week day 5 – Pink with a star

Phil: This glitzy little number is from Patisserie Valerie in London. Yes dear readers, for the love of cake I went down to the big city in search of the best confectionary in Great Britain.

OK, I actually went because I love wandering around London and Chiltern Trains were running a cheap deal. I still bought the cake in the capital from a pearly king having been unable to believe my mince pies when I saw it. This photo was taken on some staging used to show off a new Vauxhall in front of a church. Don’t know why they felt the need to do this, and there was a man taking photos of the car which seemed odd until I realised he had set it up. Just to keep him happy I pretended to photograph the car and not just the cake.

Anyway, my method of navigating the capital is a bit like the journey readers go on when opening a new book. I knew of a couple of places I wanted to go but really I just like wandering around London and seeing what I find. The unexpected is what I’m looking forward to. One minute you are in Parker Street (yes it really exists) thinking that you should start heading for the station. Next you are in theatreland with all the bright lights and glittery people. Next it’s Chinatown. Then outside Foyles Bookshop surrounded by other bookshops. A trip down a side-road and everywhere is selling musical instruments. Then you are on the edge of Soho but being a good boy, skirting around this. And so it goes on.

None of this was planned and all of it was fun.

Which is why we read fiction. If you know exactly how it’s going to turn out, the journey isn’t quite as enjoyable. Yes there are books you can read more than once, but it’s never quite as good as the first trip into the unknown. For a start, unless your memory is terrible, you’ll never experience those moments when you desperately want to read faster to discover what is going to happen or the frustration when the real world gets in the way and the reading has to be put on hold. Who hasn’t read a book in a single session ? Isn’t it glorious but also feels a bit naughty ? Like wallowing in a particually good cake.

Of course this only works if the writer has done their job properly and dropped a few twists into the plot. I knew we were getting the hang of it when I re-read some of the manuscript and realised that without thinking about it, an interruption was dropped into the middle of a story strand and it worked. In fact there were several strands running and the reader bounced their way between these a bit like my trip down musical instrument road and back into book shop avenue. I’m quite pleased about all this as I suspect everyone who write their first book is. Hard-bitten old authors will be wondering what the heck I’m on about since to them it’s as natural as breathing.

The cake by the way was lovely. Hopelessly impractical as a take-away item as the icing sticks to the inside of the bag, which explains why doughnuts are so popular. Not at all sickly either. I know it looks like every mouthful will see the eater on a sugar high powerful enough to get them running up walls, but in reality it’s a good spongy based with creamy topping. Not sure about the white chocolate star though, especially since I read that dark chocolate is as good for you as a run.

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