Saturday, 1 August 2009

Why I am proud to be from Hull

I haven't lived full-time in Hull for a long time - since I was seven (1962 to you). That was when I was sent away to school, first to around York and then to Oxford. Since then I have lived in Cambridge, London, Reading, the South of France and now just outside Brussels.

But, still, I am not a Southerner, nor French, nor Belgian. I am a little closer to being South African, as my wife Ralette is South African and my children are half-so. Plus South Africa has some uncanny resemblances to Hull.

So I am definitely from Hull and my home reference is still Hull.

Ten years ago I would have felt a little embarrassed admitting this although it might not have stopped me. Hull was definitely a place to come from rather than to be in. In 2004, Hull had some of the worst crime statistics in the country.

However, an extraordinary thing has happened to Hull. It is fast becoming, if it hasn't already become, a cultural mecca.

In my youth, this claim would have been ridiculous. In my youth, the claim that Australia produced decent wine was ridiculous too (remember the Monty Python's "better than a Welsh claret" claim?). I even remember Japanese cars being a laughing stock ("Have fun, in the sun, with Datsun").

I cling to the prejudice that Hull in the 1960s really was a cultural wasteland. Andrew Marvell had done something memorable (but not actively remembered) in the 17th century. Winifred Holtby wrote an exceptional book for the fact that it was written by somebody from Hull, and Stevie Smith was born in Hull and left shortly afterwards. The Hull New Theatre hosted Agatha Christie plays in the summer and Doyly Carte Gilbert & Sullivan operettas in the New Year.

Then somebody had the incredibly bright idea of inviting Philip Larkin to be the librarian at Hull University. It is hard to describe the impact of this, but I will try: Tony Flynn, TF Griffin, Ian Parks, Frank Redpath, Peter Knaggs, Pete Ardern, Peter Morgan, Andrew Motion, Carol Coiffat, Daithidh MacEaochaidh, Joe Haikim, Mike Watts, Daphne Glazer, Dorothea Desforges, Leslie Wilkie, Nick Quantrill, Peter Jones, Rich Sutherland, Robert Adams, Robert Erdric, Valerie Wood, Alan Plater, John Godber and Dave Windass.

The defining moment was the publication of a collection of poetry wittily called 'A Rumoured City' which local poets still rave about but which I think was a total boss shot artistically - a whole roomful of talented poets coming over like the Great Eeyore Choir.

Its quality didn't matter. It made a statement and created an unstoppable momentum - flowers colonising the scrubland (as memorably described by Frank Redpath).

I have spent the last year reading almost exclusively Hull writers and poets and listening almost exclusively to Hull and York musicians (CrackTown, Joe Solo, Edwina Hayes, Holly Taymar, Abbie Lammas, David Ward Maclean, Henry Priestman) and I certainly haven't been slumming it. I am so proud.

It almost makes me believe in redemption.

I don't want to give the guy who invited Philip Larkin to Hull all the credit, nor Philip Larkin himself. The Hull Daily Mail has worked tirelessly to promote Hull artists, as has ThisisUll, that wonderful site driven by Cilla Wykes which publishes new poetry and writing daily.

God bless you all.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Inspiration and someone 'out there'

Where does inspiration come from?

It is a topic that most artists fight shy of because it is a bit weird. We (I at least) live in a Western rationalised society whose competitive positioning is that we can explain everything scientifically, whereas those other guys in the East and Africa still believe in woo-woo stuff.

Except that we can’t. Even our rationalised scientific explanations are sounding weird – tried Quantum Physics recently? No miracles happen, nothing is out there, except that I personally know three people who have ‘miraculously’ recovered from cancer – liver, colon and leukaemia – and on a much more minor note I once had 21 warts disappear overnight after I placed my hands in potato juice.

However, it is a question that no artist can fully ignore. Maybe there are people out there who write songs, books etc. out of sheer will power and application, but my guess is that they are few and far between, and probably grossly delusional (not to mention egotistical).

The books I write ‘pop up’, often in my sleep. Yesterday I didn’t have a clue what my next-book-but-one would be, and then I woke up with it this morning.

My books are only very loosely planned. I usually have a starting idea and that is it. If I try to plan them out too much, they bore me silly.

For any given chapter, I sit down to a blank page. 1-1.5 hours later I have 1,500 words of utter fabrication which had never occurred to me before but seem to more or less make sense.
I constantly find that I leave ‘hooks’ in books which become useful later on – often much later on. I wrote a book called ‘Little Fingers!’ in which a character called Alice simply disappeared. I felt no need to explain her disappearance. Four books later, suddenly this became the central plot of ‘The Ghoul Who Once’. It needn’t have been. It was just given to me that way.

One thing I know is that I am far from alone. Many musicians write songs in minutes (e.g. Elton John), and writers are always muttering about their muses.

The thing we have to get our heads around is that muses really exist. Dunno what they are, dunno where they come from, dunno where they go, but they are around somewhere. I wrote the recent musical novel ‘(Just like) El Cid’s Bloomers’ within 30 days from concept to completion, and I am not sure that I devised a word of it. I just typed – furiously. I find that all books can arrive that way, as does life in general. I can work at them, but it is very hard work, or I can just wait for them in which case everything flows.

My wife believes that a mysterious organisation called ‘The White Brotherhood’ is behind my writing – in short, the ascended masters of philosophical thought, including Christ. Maybe so. Maybe not. I haven’t a clue. However, as a committed atheist, what I am becoming increasingly convinced about is that there is a whole dimension out there of which we only have a few clues that greatly influences our lives. Major scientists (including Einstein) have often come to the same conclusion. I wish I knew more. If I carry on writing maybe I shall.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Researching my books

I kid myself that I only write from my own experience but, as my wife frequently complains, I more often write from hers.

She also complains that from the evidence of my writing I seem to have understood so much but from the evidence of my life I am almost clueless.

As they say, “It is not so much that married men make more mistakes – it is more that they find out about them quicker”.

In writing, it is the small details that bug me the most. How did anyone write novels before the Internet?

I am sitting here thinking that my character is just about to down some street drug or another. Not taking drugs personally, which one is that character in that situation in that country most likely to be taking and what are its effects? Fifteen minutes tops on the Internet will give me some strong clues. Twenty years ago, I don’t know what I would have done.

Which is maybe why I did not write novels twenty years ago. I wanted to, but I realised that I had not lived enough of a life yet and that the research would be too time-consuming and complex.

Much of the background to my stories I have already lived, or rather my wife has already lived.

“Blood & Marriage” is based on family stories – I merely re-told them and guessed my way into the gaps. “Little Fingers!” was written because I realised I knew a paedophile and, more shockingly intriguing in some ways, I encountered at first hand his close relations’ strong desire to wish his callousness away. “Girl on a Bar Stool” is about brand marketing – I have been a brand marketer for nearly thirty years. It is also about Christianity which was imposed on me from the age of seven. “Shade+Shadows” is about classical and alternative medicine and human rights abuses. Thanks, if that is the word, to my wife’s and elder son’s serious illnesses of ten years ago, I have experienced a great deal of alternative medicine and come to be fascinated by its resistance to ‘scientific’ proof in the face of its evident effectiveness. I also volunteered for Amnesty International for a few years, so I knew where to find the bodies. “The Ghoul Who Once” is a ghost story. I have actually (I think) seen a ghost, but I have also met a lot of people who are intensely spiritually-minded and claim to have experienced many extraordinary things. “The Dance of the Pheasodile” just turned up, but I was born in Hull, I have seen a thousand programmes about gangsters – fictional and factual – and the torture scenes are based on official US submissions to inquests into the abuse of prisoners during the Extraordinary Rendition process.

The hardest book of all to write was “Fishing, for Christians” because I have never knowingly met an angel, or God, or gods, or the Devil, so I haven’t a clue what they sound like, and probably still wouldn’t even if I were to meet any of them. As Wittgenstein observed “If a lion could speak, we wouldn’t have a clue what it was saying.” The first level of research I did was to follow much of “The Course in Miracles”. I also read up on Gnostic Christianity – Wikipedia is a great resource for that type of information – and I then crammed the mythological gods from the
Godchecker site. Strangely enough, long after I finished the book, I discovered that many of the elements I thought I had made up were actually officially endorsed by one religion or another, even down to writing the book itself as a quasi-gospel (Gnostic Christians believe that everybody should record their own gospel).

I have never met Adolf Hitler either, but I have to agree with him on one thing - “The people are more likely to believe a greater lie than a smaller one.” So, I am quite comfortable wandering off into realms that nobody knows that much about, but I have to get the details right. I even check train timetables.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

How do I write a book?

I hear a lot of people asking how they should approach writing their book. Most people believe they have a book inside them, and they are almost certainly right. Furthermore, I wish that they would write it. Wouldn't it be fascinating if everybody wrote about what it was like to be them?

However, I have a preliminary question - do you want to make money from writing a book, or do you want to spend money writing a book?

This is not a a both/and question. It is one or the other. If you primarily want to make money, don't write a word. It is not what you do best. You are a business person. Find somebody else to write your book for you. There are lots of superbly skilled artists around who will write for the pleasure of writing, for the honour of eating your peanuts. Feed them peanuts to write for you. Then you will both feel fulfilled.

Question - would you rather be the guy who delivers your UPS parcel, proud that it has arrived at the right address in an unblemished condition, or would you rather be the boss of UPS, living like a god on more money a minute than the little guy receives in a year? If you are with the boss of UPS - don't write a word!

Good, that is settled. For those few left, you really want to be a writer. Good on you! You have chosen a path of pain and suffering, and ultimately of incomparable personal reward (but no money).

My best advice is "Ignore all advice. Do your own thing." True writers are the other types of entrepreneur - those want to change the world, not to exploit it.

Failing that, I have two ideas:

1. write as you talk

Unless you have an overwhelming urge to write differently, then write the way that you talk. If you think that great writers adopt special voices, ditch them. Do your real thing. If, on the other hand, you feel inwardly compelled to write in a different style, then do that.

2. get diverted

All great story tellers head down a path and get diverted. If you have ever seen "The Two Ronnies", Ronnie Corbert nailed it sitting in his chair. Audiences crave closure, so find a story that the audience is minded to want to close, then tease the hell out of the cliff-bound suckers. Get side-tracked. Get side-tracked on your side-tracks. Ensure that the audience believes that you will provide closure to every plot line in the end, but never make it yet. Audiences crave the promise of closure, not its achievement. When you finally close, they go "Is that it?" Before you close, they are speculating. All the best soaps have a whole pile of sub-plots running wild, all with the promise of closure in about 3 series' time. Soap writers know exactly what they are doing. Follow their lead. Imagine playing 'strings' with your cat. The cat has to win sometimes, but only sometimes.

So there you are. If you still want to do it, pitch in and don't ask another question until you have most of the answers already. Writing is not about when you should start; it is about feeling compulsively guilty that you haven't started already. Writing is for alcoholics, not for social drinkers.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Why I did them

I don't know if I have ever been asked why I write my books, but I keep telling people anyway. Probably what they say is "Why, oh why, do you write your books?".

Whatever. For anybody who cares, this is why I have embarked on each episode in this compulsive habit of mine, as I best remember it (never trust what a fiction writer says - we make things up, you know):

"The House of Saint & Martyrs" (published in bin)

Actually, I cannot remember what this book was called because I wrote it a long time ago, and then trashed it before embarking on a 30 year spell of writer's block.

The story was of a guy who gets on a train, and when he arrives at his destination realises that it is not his usual stop at all - in fact, he is dead. What he finds in the afterlife is very different from what he had expected. God is a constitutional monarch. His Prime Minister is Stalin, and his deputy is Hitler. The lower chamber of the celestial parliament is stuffed full of apparatchiks, and therefore utterly subservient, but the upper chamber - "The House of Saints & Martyrs" - is extremely challenging and feisty. Hitler was once heard to mutter "Damn these martyrs. They fight to the death, you know."

I submitted some early sections to Private Eye, and received an immediate response - "Not funny. Try Punch."

30 years later I may even re-write this as a short story to be included in my upcoming magical-realist effort "The Blue Food Revolution", to be published late 2009 (I think).

"Blood & Marriage" (2007)

My mother recounted and celebrated family tales throughout her life, many of which I greatly enjoyed. While she did join a writers' group in her eighties, she hardly wrote any of these stories down.

When it was obvious that she was both dying and becoming increasingly 'confused', I thought I had better get them down myself while there was still time to check them. Unfortunately, even though I wrote the book within 3 months (from April to July 2004), mostly 35,000 feet up in the air, although also partly at the Chateau d'Agay which Antoine Saint-Exupery used to visit regularly during the 1930s, by the time I gave it to my mother she was past contributing either corrections or additional details.

The book is sub-titled "From Kingston-upon-Hull to the first genocide of the 20th century" because my mother contended that her great-grandfather was the Governor General of German South-West Afrika during the Herero massacre.

"Little Fingers" (2007)

This was my first novel and took a year to write, between July 2004 and August 2005. The thought behind it was that everyday dictators can cause almost as much damage as political ones.

The specific behind the book was someone I knew (he has since died) who was a paedophile and a rampant womaniser for many years of his life. The label of 'paedophile' is perhaps rather harsh. As a 40 year plus man he was attracted to 14/15 year old girls. However, as at least three of these girls were his daughters and step-daughters, he was probably not beyond criticism either. Equally, I know of at least two people who died as a result of his womanising. A cuckolded husband, with his seven year old son at his side, drove his car straight into the headlights of an oncoming truck.

"Little Fingers" is therefore an enquiry into the nature and morality of sexual attraction - an exploration which makes many people uncomfortable, including me.

I chose to write it as an English village green murder mystery because I always find such books so anodyne, even those by Ruth Rendall. Time to inject a bit of real-life ugliness into the world of murder (and, indeed, chick lit).

"Girl on a Bar Stool" (2007)

This book was written:

a) because my friend Max asked me to write a strategy & brand marketing textbook based on our free Mud Valley materials

b) I suddenly got the plot while lolling in a swimming pool near Granada, Spain

I had no intention of writing a text book, but writing a fictional thriller about brand marketing at the levels of the individual, corporations, politics and religion, all attached to a tale about the Second Coming was much more enticing. Consequently, it only took 2-3 months to write.

"Shade+Shadows" (2008)

In 1999, my wife Ralette was told she had cancer of the liver. Her immediate response to this news was to change her diet, to track down the best homeopath she could find (Dr. Jean Boon) , and then to return home to South Africa for an extended period, taking our son Rouxan with her.

When, three months after her first tests, she visited one of the best-known homeopaths in Cape Town - Dr. Patrick Fieuw - he ran further tests on her and told her he had very bad news: the tests showed that she was on the borderline of having liver cancer. She instantly hugged him and expressed her relief, which startled him until she explained that his tests suggested that she was headed in the right direction for recovery.

She says that the turning point came when she realised that she faced a life or death decision - could she leave our one year old son, Rouxan? The answer was "no", not least perhaps because he too had been desperately ill for the first year of his life.

My family, to this day, do not believe that Ralette was ill at all, and more or less ban us from discussing alternative medicine with them.

So, this is a book about the weirder end of alternative medicine, based in part on the work of Jack Temple who was the alternative healers' healer - the healer of last resort. It is also about human right abuses, specifically in Saudi Arabia, but anywhere really.

It has been the hardest book for me to write. I supposedly finished it in the summer of 2007, loved the first 100 pages, but felt very uneasy about the rest. So I put it aside for 6 months, and then embarked on a series of major re-writes which were only completed in the autumn of 2008. I have often thought that this will turn out to be either my best book or my worst, and I am still not sure which it is.

"Fishing, for Christians" (2008)

Somewhere before I started "Girl on a Bar Stool" I decided that I was going to write a sextet of six books called "The End of the World Sextet".

"Fishing, for Christians" is one of the two pivotal novels of the sextet. I hadn't a clue what it was going to be about, so I let it simmer for 6 months while I read "A Course in Miracles", and all that.

One of the fundamental issues was how to sound like an angel, or at least how not to sound too unlike an angel.

The central question of the book is "Why do people suffer?"

Rather accidentally, the core structure I adopted is that of Gnostic Christianity, although I did not know too much about it at the time (still don't). I made up, I thought, a whole bunch of theology, only to find that my ideas nearly all belonged to one of the major world religions.

Having sat on it for about six months before I started it, I completed the book in four months between January and April 2008.

"The Dance of the Pheasodile" (2008)

This book is not part of the sextet. I had finished "Fishing, for Christians" the night before, sending a friend to sleep explaining what it was all about, and woke up on the morning of my niece's memorial service with the first chapter of this book in my head.

I was recently told that this also happened to Coleridge when he wrote "Kubla Khan". He woke up with the whole poem in his head and was scribbling it down frantically when someone came to deliver the post, at which point he lost concentration and never managed to recover the rest of it.

I really liked the image of this guy hanging from a helicopter, naked, outside his wife's 18th storey office, looking completely different from the man everyone else thought she had married. I didn't know what the book was about, but I thought I would write it anyway. In the end, I made about three conscious plot decisions in the entire book, the first one being halfway through.

It was written between April and July 2008.

"The Ghoul Who Once" (to be published July 2009)

This is the last (or first) volume of "The End of the World Sextet", being about how some of the main characters in the other books got to meet each other. It is also a ghost story - I try to write each book in a different genre.

The fun of the book for me has been to describe Paul Lambert, as the narrator, from the inside. In "Blood & Marriage" and "Fishing, for Christians" he is only seen from the outside. Conversely, I describe Alan Harding from the outside, whereas he has been a narrator in both "Shade+Shadows" and "Fishing, for Christians".

There was no real purpose to the book other than to complete the sextet, and I held off writing it until October 2008 while I played with two other books which I will now be addressing under the titles of "The Blue Food Revolution" and "The Fish That Knew No Scale".

I finally finished editing "The Ghoul Who Once" today.

Free and cheap self-promotion

Unless you are one of the world's most recognised writers or artists, promotion is always an issue.

Here are some methods I have come across for self-promoting which are either free or relatively cheap, should they be of any use to you:


  • Word-of-mouth (WOM): the biggest-selling self-published authors I know simply know lots of people and never stop talking. You can even sell 10,000 books this way

  • Set up a blog. Google gives you this blog for free, or you can even be paid if you ad Google Adsense ads

  • Set up a free Squidoo page

  • Advertise for free on Expatica – I got between 150 and 175 hits for each of my books in 45 days, e.g. "Blood & Marriage". I paid €39 for an enhanced business ad and got 85 hits within a week

  • develop YouTube promos – Windows Movie Maker is free and is relatively intuitive. Each video takes me about 4-5 hours – e.g.: “The Dance of the Pheasodile” and "Fishing, for Christians"

  • Set up free Facebook / MySpace etc. profile pages and set about systematically collecting friends

  • Surreptitiously promote yourself in Facebook groups which can often number 10,000+ members

  • Do signings in bookstores – most will allow you to pull up a chair for free

  • Contact local readers’ clubs

  • Record a PodCast - free software is available for the distribution of PodCasts, e.g. Poderator


  • Advertise on Facebook – it will cost about $US0.35 a hit, generating 10-50 hits a day

  • Advertising on Google – it costs more – approx. $US1.30 per hit – but you can get more hits

  • Do a PR release for around $US75, via or e.g. for "Fishing, for Christians"

  • Set up your own full website for approx. $US150 a year

  • Get coverage in local media for an event, e.g.:

  • Place bookmarks in other writers’ books. Some bookshops allowed me to do this, so in one shop I posted about 200 bookmarks in bestsellers by people like Nick Hornby, Ian McEwan etc.

  • Do door-to-door leafleting – cost of printing leaflets (even off your own desktop printer) + shoe leather

  • Print up some t-shirts and walk around advertising yourself and/or persuade friends to do it for you

If you are really going out to make money, there is one obvious lesson: “Don’t write the book you want to write; write the book which an easily accessible audience wants to read”. For instance, a book promoting the merits of alternative medicine is a likely winner – there are 44,000 alternative healers in the UK, all trying to justify what they do. Plug into them via associations, etc. and you have a huge market potential if you can persuade them to talk about it to their clients.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

The Dance of the Pheasodile

These are the first two chapters of my 2008 novel "The Dance of the Pheasodile" which takes its characters to the streets around Hull where my family was brought up 100 - 75 years ago - Coltman Street and Gee Street.

The story is of a London commercial architect, Keith McGuire, who was an orphan and is married to another orphan, Chrissie. Given their background, brought up in Care, they are determined to create the perfect family setting for their children and to give them all the things they never had.

Things are going well. Against all the odds, Keith is an up-and-coming architect and Chrissie is the partner of a law firm.

They decide to address some niggling issues associated with their childhoods and visit a hypnotherapist. Chrissie's session goes well, but when Keith comes round from his trance he discovers that he is in the body of a different man - a penniless Hull gangster, hated by his wife, in trouble with two local gang leaders and firmly on the Humberside Police's hit list .......

Chapter 1

I have to admit that I am in a bit of a predicament.

I have regained consciousness to discover myself swinging upside down outside the plate glass window that wraps around the lawyers’ office where my wife works – where she is a partner, in fact. I am bumping up against the pane as I dangle here. I can see several of the office staff taking pictures of me with their mobile phones, and feverishly distributing them somewhere over the ether.

My wife has just noticed me, and she is holding her hand to her mouth in shock.

If I tell you that my wife works on the eighteenth floor of the Baxter Spires building, you may get an inkling of what is happening to me.

If I add that I am freezing cold, despite its being mid-summer, you might guess that I am not appropriately dressed for such a feat. I will let you into a secret I too have only discovered since I came round. I am only dressed in two boots and a safety harness, and all those secretaries in there with their mobile phones are almost certainly taking pictures of my winkle, which is probably about winkle sized, given that I am freezing to death.

Someone is saying to Chrissie something like “Do you know him?”

She nods horrified.

Presumably they will have followed up with “Who is he?”

Has Chrissie admitted that I am her husband? I cannot tell. Yes, she has, I think. There is a scowl on the other person’s face as she turns round to point towards me, referring to me as something like “that thing”.

Everyone is looking at me in a new light.

Another woman is arguing with Chrissie.

Chrissie is nodding emphatically.

The other woman shakes her head equally emphatically.

I guess that she is saying “That is not your husband!”, and Chrissie is saying “Yes, he is!”

“But your husband doesn’t look like that. I have met your husband. He is slim and intellectual-looking, not stubby and hairy.”

That will take some explaining, which I would very much appreciate the opportunity to do, but we have been joined by several army helicopters and a couple of fighter planes, probably objecting to our flying over London, which is massively against the law. We could be terrorists.

Well, I am the one being terrorised. I am some seventy metres from the traffic and the tarmac below, held only by a rope and a harness of uncertain strength and durability, my hands tied behind my back, utterly defenceless, with the pilot of the helicopter that is trailing me realising that he, she or it is going to have to take evasive action. I have now been swung away from the site of my shame and humiliation, and am hurtling towards another skyscraper, swinging wildly. There is nothing I can do to protect myself. What if the pilot simply jettisons me? What if they make an error of judgment and smash me at seventy or eighty miles an hour right into a concrete tower? What if the rope snaps? What if they forget I am even here in their hurry to get away?

I think I know why I am here. I think it is because my other wife thinks I have been committing adultery with my wife. I want you to know that half of me is entirely innocent, although the other half is less so. My body may have been inserting itself in places it should never have been, but my mind is totally innocent.

Let me explain ……..

* * *
Chapter 2
I have always adored Chrissie. We first met when I was twelve and she was ten, and we fell deeply in love instantly. You may assume that children of that age are incapable of profound love, but from personal experience I can assure you that you would be wrong to think so. I am as in love with Chrissie now as I was then, and it feels exactly the same. I sense her every vibe, and quiver alongside it, amid calm, ecstasy or despair. Chrissie is my reference point. I have no other. Whatever will please Chrissie delights me. Whatever will upset her tears me apart. I cannot bear to hurt her any more than I would want to drive a nail through my big toe. The pain is the same – I have done both.

Chrissie is beautiful. She is so beautiful that she steals away my breath every time I look at her, and I cannot even glimpse her without appreciating everything about her. She is so elegant. Her body is straight if you see her from the side, and nicely curved if you catch her from the front. Her hair naturally swings like a soft, glossy rope. Her smile is innocent, yet a touch knowing. She only thinks the best of anyone, and never gossips maliciously. She is devoutly Christian, yet she never talks about it, or tries to impose it upon you. When we make love, I feel that I am swaying with an angel, a female angel that is. Her skin is pure white and as perfect as an exotic silk.

We talk to each other all of the time. We are continuously in a state of excitement with each other, fighting to share our thoughts.

Our children are a girl and a boy. Ella is twelve and Mark is seven. Ella will no doubt grow into a stroppy teenager in time, but she has yet to be soured by all that stuff. She is sweet and helpful and kind. She is excellent at her homework, and effortlessly bright. Mark is a boy. He rushes around doing energetic things, and playing riotously with his friends. He has never been known to do the least harm to anyone. He has short hair and a frank expression, and likes to cuddle both of us during quiet times. He is mummy and daddy’s boy equally. He also works hard, and his results are reliably competent. He has it all under control, without exerting himself any more than is decent for a sporty, physical young man.

I am an architect, whose commercial designs are increasingly in demand. Chrissie is a partner within one of the top law firms in the country, specialising in maritime law. My only gripe is that she works long hours, and yet she brought the children up without breaking her stride and without a single word of complaint as to how difficult it all was to raise children and to keep the flame of her career ambition stoked at the same time. I did pitch in, but men do not really contribute that much, even when we believe we are shouldering half the load, do we? We also have a housekeeper and nanny, a lovely Scottish lady called Agnes, who can only be described as rigorously spick and span, and absurdly well organised. She is almost one of the family, like a surrogate grandmother to the children, and she often pops round at weekends too for a chat with us, and to play with them. Chrissie and I are both orphans, left with no family whatsoever. In fact, we met in a residential care home, when such institutions were still prevalent. Perhaps that is why leading the perfect family life is so important to us. We want everything to be right for our children, squared with our consciences.

We both love reading. Chrissie has to read mountains of paperwork anyway, but when she has cast that aside, she still reads magazines and the occasional book which she regularly falls asleep to. Come to think of it, she has probably been reading “Wuthering Heights” for the last five years. I recently asked her, as a prod, how Heathcliff was getting on, and she replied “Who’s he?”

“Heathcliff?” I exclaimed in astonishment, thinking how could she not know who Heathcliff is, even if she weren’t reading the book.

“Oh that Heathcliff,” she recovered. A puzzled look crossed her face, followed by a slightly embarrassed smile. “To be honest, I cannot really remember. I think he is OK.”

According to her colleagues, Chrissie has a jaw-dropping capacity both for marshalling complex data and for precise communication, so it is strange how daffy she can be over her reading, not that feyness characterises her in any way in the manner with which she runs the house. She and Agnes between them are so organised that they could ensure that everything was spotlessly in place and march on Russia at the same time, not that Chrissie has a single warlike instinct in her psyche.

We may have two children, but we still go out a lot. Chrissie read somewhere that it is really important for a couple to act as a couple even after their children are born. The children are special, and must bask in the warmth of their parents’ unconditional love for them, but they must also understand that while they may be the primary focus of the family, they are not a part of your marriage. That is something exclusive to you two as lovers, and must remain sacrosanct and fully electric. That way, you two thrive as people, and therefore as parents, and your children will also benefit accordingly.

I cannot say whether it was good or bad advice; all I can say is that Chrissie and I have found it very easy to follow it. Every week, since each child was old enough to physically survive without us, we have gone out on the town, which is why you may have noticed that so much of London is red. We didn’t do stupid things like nightclubbing to all hours, commuting to New York, or attending relentless corporate events. We spent time quietly by ourselves in intimate restaurants we fancied trying out, and seeing movies, and we always topped off the night by hiring a room at the same prominent hotel near Hyde Park Corner for some post-prandial, vigorous and, most importantly, uninterrupted nookie.

At first we got some suspicious looks from the reception staff when we booked out of the hotel at one a.m., having only booked in at eleven. They wanted to know whether “Everything was all right, Sir, Madam?”, or rather they wanted to ascertain whether Chrissie was a hooker. On our third visit, the manager took me aside and discreetly asked me what was going on.

“We are a married couple and we have children,” I told him rather sharply.

My off-the-cuff answer was not immediately enough for him; it was too forthrightly delivered, which he mistook for being a sign of defensiveness. He raised an eyebrow.

“Chrissie,” I shouted across the lobby, “the manager here thinks that you are a prostitute. Is there anything you want to say before we never come back here again?”

An elderly couple who were making slow progress across the lobby, seemingly encumbered by the sheer weight of the jewellery she was wearing, stopped in their tracks.

“You see,” I explained to them, “we have very young children, and we want to be alone together.”

The couple beamed. Her well-powdered nose even hinted at a delighted blush. “Good for you, my dears,” she exclaimed. “Do you know, Harold here is eighty-three and I am seventy-seven, and we have been doing exactly the self-same thing for the last fifty-six years. It keeps you regular, doesn’t it?”

The manager was beginning to hop up and down on one leg in sub-conscious acknowledgement that he had made a serious faux-pas.

“Still,” the woman went on, “for thirty of those years, Harold used to come here with his mistresses too on other days of the week, but so long as I got the Saturday slot, I have never minded too much. You can get too precious about sex, can’t you? You can accord it an importance it doesn’t deserve.”

Chrissie grinned at the old man, and whispered, “If you see Keith here with another woman, could you let me know?” She started searching in her bag for our address card.

“Oh, he doesn’t do that sort of thing nowadays,” the old lady boomed across the lobby. “At eighty-three, his tank doesn’t refill that fast. I knew that if I stuck to the Saturday night slot, I would outpace the rest of them in the end. Come on, Harold. We had better let these two romantic young things get back to their children.”

The manager was seriously flummoxed. I think he feared for his job. Chrissie smiled sweetly at him, and offered him the card she had been searching for. “If you ever see my husband with another woman, or another man come to think of it, could you let me know?”

I was absolutely incensed as I paid the bill. The manager apologised to us in grovelling terms all the way to the steps, and insisted on hailing the taxi and paying for our ride home.

“What on earth did you give him your card for?” I asked Chrissie.

“I just wanted to make sure he knew where to send the champagne, flowers and chocolates in the morning,” she replied.

And she was right. All three arrived on cue at ten o’clock the next day.

So we decided to give the hotel one more chance. When we arrived there the following Saturday, the manager came straight out to greet us with the news that, by a stroke of luck, one of the executive suites was available, and he would be delighted to offer it to us for the night at our usual rate. We accepted graciously, and giggled at each other all the way to the room, which was wreathed in a mass of fresh flowers. A chilled bottle of champagne and a box of Belgian chocolates were being proffered as peace tokens on both sides of the bed. More miraculously still, they kept it up week after week, as did we. We were not always so lucky as to be offered an executive suite, but we always got the flowers, champagne and chocolates.

About a year later, I happened to be reading The Daily Telegraph, and saw a photograph of the old man we had met in the hotel that night. He had just died. Being both titled and a luminary in his industrial field, he merited a full-page obituary. His wife, it reported, had died twenty years previously, and not a day had gone by without his missing her. He had never remarried. He was reputed to be one of the most generous philanthropists in Britain. Over the last ten years, he had been greatly comforted by his friendship with the Countess of XXXXX.

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