Category Archives: Uncategorized

‘Quays’ – a novel of New York


My new novel, Quays, is currently open for sponsorship on Unbound. Quays is a drama set in 1920s Manhattan. What’s it about? It’s about sex, booze, politics, love, madness and death. You can find out more, and pledge your support, here:

If you’d like to read more of my fiction, please visit my story archive:



‘Nothing – not ecology, not language, not even Latin – stands still’

We get used to change, over the years. When I was growing up, a brontosaurus was a dinosaur (or rather, had been a dinosaur – I’m not quite that old). Now it’s just a Victorian palaeontologist’s error, an apatosaurus with the wrong skull glued on. When I was growing up, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were countries, with flags and football teams and postage stamps. Now they’re historical concepts. And when I was growing up, the Bull’s Head was the Winning Post and the Green Dragon was the Red Lion. The world changes – this is a part of life.

But birds – birds don’t change much, surely. There’ll always be a Blue Tit on the peanuts and a Sparrow in the guttering, a Mallard on the canal and a Kestrel by the motorway. Yes, populations rise and fall, species come and go with the seasons, but fundamentally, at bottom, the birds we grew up watching are the same birds we’ll blink at shortsightedly through the windows of our nursing-homes. Surely.

The other day, I came across the bird-book I grew up with: John Gooders’ Field Guide To The Birds of Britain and Ireland. It didn’t look particularly musty or moth-eaten; it wasn’t obviously antique. It was published in 1986, when I was eight. It’s twenty-eight years old. Leafing through it was like looking through a portal into another world.

It was strange to see how much British birds have changed since I was a kid. I’d been aware of ecological change over that time, of course; but I’d never quite shaken off the deep-seated feeling that real transformation is something that only happens in between lifetimes – the question was always, ‘What sort of world are we leaving for our children?’, and never ‘What sort of world are we leaving for me, when I’m thirty-five, or forty, or fifty?’.

I cross-referenced the Gooders book with my newest field-guide, the RSPB Handbook Of British Birds. The most startling thing was how positive many of the changes were. Cranes? Night herons? Common rosefinches? I felt like an old-school fan of a veteran rock group, appalled by johnny-come-lately additions to the original lineup. These exotic birds seem like interlopers, non-canonical somehow, not proper British birds – but still, I grudgingly have to admit, they don’t half improve the show.

Then there are the maps, the outlines of Britain with reassuring splotches of green (residents), yellow (breeding birds), blue (winter visitors) and shifty grey (vagrants). Sometimes, hearteningly, the splotches have got bigger: just look what’s happened to the Red Kite’s mid-Wales speck of green since 1986. For other birds – the Cirl Bunting, say – the colour has shrunk to almost nothing.

Others have stayed pretty much the same. I’m faintly reassured to find that the complete absence of the Tawny Owl in Ireland is real and was not, as I had long suspected, due to an error at the printer’s when my 1986 guide was going to press.

Again, I know that the simplified maps mask the reality of species decline among British birds. ‘Widespread’ can mean ‘thinly spread’ – and, in a distressingly large number of cases, that’s exactly what it does mean.

Hardly any species have vanished altogether (though whither Lady Amherst’s Pheasant?). But it struck me quite forcibly that even my newest book is a few years old now – and that the field guides published in 2014 will find no place for one of the species that got me excited about birds in the first place. The Ruddy Duck – a pair of which were resident at my local patch throughout my childhood – has now pretty much been exterminated by conservationists.

These changes in UK ecology didn’t discombobulate me as much as they might have.

I’m a northerner; I’m used to existing in a sort of birding parallel universe. Birds considered fundamental to and emblematic of the British countryside  – Cuckoo, Nightingale, Turtle Dove – have always been in short supply in my corner of Britain.

(and nor does industrial West Yorkshire have any near equivalent to Scotland’s iconic Crested Tit, Capercaillie or Scottish Crossbill).

I know exactly how a young Irish birder might feel to be told that owls go ‘to-whit, to-whoo’.

The things that really threw me in cross-referencing the field guides were not the real-world changes but the stuff that only a true birdbook geek, the type who, as Charles Waterton put it in the 19th century, ‘spends more time in books than in bogs’, might notice.

First, the (pecking) order was all out of whack. Every birdbook I grew up with started with Divers (Gaviidae). I never knew why this was, but was sure that there was a perfectly good reason for it, and understood that this was The Way Of Things.  On seeing that the Divers are no longer Britain’s first family – usurped by the Swans in my latest guide – I was, frankly, shaken. I’m sure there are perfectly good reasons for putting the Swans first. That doesn’t make it right. And the natural order has been shuffled elsewhere, too: no longer do the game-birds lie down with the raptors, as they always did, but instead are separated by a buffer zone of grebes and herons. Comfortingly, though, the homely buntings still bring up the rear.

Second, the names have changed. The birds now have international names; they have all become ‘European’ or – how perfectly ghastly! – ‘common’. The Puffin is Atlantic and the Kittiwake is black-legged. The Knot has turned red. What was once Slavonian has become horned and what was Ring-necked has become rose-ringed. I can see the sense of it all, of course – I can even, if I squint my eyes, see that it’s an improvement – but a world I grew up with has been re-drawn, re-mapped, and I can’t help feeling a little lost.

At least there’s the Latin. There’s always the Latin. Latin never changes – except that, oh look, it all has. Well, not all of it; in fact, only a small part of it, but enough to show me that another thing I thought unalterable has been altered. The Blue Tit is no more – or, rather, Parus caeruleus is dead, long live Cyanistes caeruleus. Its relations – once a neat set of Paruses that I could recite like a litany, cristatus, montanus, palustris, ater – are splintered into a confusing mess of Lopphophaneses and Periparuses and Poeciles. It’s a sensible move, I’m sure. Taxonomists know best.

It’s healthy to be reminded that nothing – not ecology, not language, not even Latin – stands still. It’s good to get a little perspective. And when you’ve got a little perspective, there’s only one thing to do: get more perspective. I dug out some books that are even older than I am.

My 1952 field guide starts with the Divers, as is right and proper – but then everything gets a bit unexpected. The Crane is there – as is the Lesser Kestrel and the Gyrfalcon, the Upland Sandpiper and the White-rumped Sandpiper, the Rustic Bunting and the Little Bunting. Oh, and the Flamingo.

My 1910 field guide starts with the Mistle Thrush. Wagtails come in a bewildering array of flavours (the book treats as species what we would now consider races). The Buzzard is vulgaris instead of buteo. There are Great Snipes and Pratincoles. There is no Collared Dove, Mandarin or Ruddy Duck.

The point here isn’t solely about ecological change. Species do come and go, but I realise that the Great Snipe, say, was a rarity even in 1910, and I’m not under the impression that the Flamingo was an everyday sight along Britain’s canals in 1952. What changes is the way in which birds are seen, recorded, written about, even thought about. What’s a ‘British’ bird? It’s a subjective question, however you look at it. Taxonomy isn’t an exact science. Each of us lives in our own world of birds, built up from where we live, when we live, what we care about – and, in a strange way, even what field-guide we refer to.

Not that the Blue Tit on the peanuts gives a damn whether it’s called Parus or Cyanistes, any more than the Flamingo cares whether I think it’s British or not or the Great Northern Diver loses sleep over where it’s listed in a field-guide. Birds just go on being birds.

The twenty-eighth of February, 2014: the most unkindest cut of all

In Henry Fielding’s 1749 picaresque History Of Tom Jones, A Foundling, the eponymous hero, laid up in bed having been brained by a bottle in a fight, is attended by the barber Little Benjamin – ‘one of the pleasantest barbers that was ever recorded in history’. First, Benjamin provides Tom with a shave; then, he turns his attention to Tom’s head-wound.

‘I find you have more trades than one,’ Tom exclaims.

‘A surgeon,’ the barber gravely corrects him, ‘is a profession, not a trade.’

Confused, Tom addresses Benjamin as ‘Mr Barber, or Mr Surgeon, or Mr Barber-surgeon’ – to which the anguished Benjamin replies: ‘Infandum, regina, jubes renovare dolorem [You command me, O Queen, to revive unspeakable grief]. You recall to my mind that cruel separation of the united fraternities, so much to the prejudice of both bodies, as all separations must be… What a blow was this to me, who unite both in my own person!’

Little Benjamin’s ‘unspeakable grief’ concerns the events of May 1745, and the sundering of the City of London’s Company of Barber-Surgeons. It was a dissolution that brought to an end the capital’s longest-running odd-couple comedy.

That the surgeons (or chirurgeons, from the Greek for ‘hand’) should have been yoked to the barbers by Act of Parliament was not at first such an impractical proposition as it later came to seem. There were obvious overlaps – not least the use by practitioners in both trades of specialised blades and other instruments – and no self-evident points of division along the continuum of operations that ran from hair-cutting and shaving to the drawing of teeth and the letting of blood. If a man could be trusted to put a razor to one’s throat, why not a thumb-lancet to one’s vein?

Even in the earliest days of this historic mésalliance, however, it was recognised that distinctions between the two specialisations were desirable.

In the landmark 1540 Act that first incorporated the Company of Barber-Surgeons, it was observed that there were in London ‘two severall and distincte companyes of Surgeons, occupyinge and exercisynge the sayde scyence and faculty of surgery, the one company being commonly called the Barbours of London, and the other company called the surgeons of London’. The Barbers had a distinguished history as a City Company, having been incorporated under Edward IV in 1443; the guild of surgeons, by contrast, was something of an upstart rabble, being, as the Act noted, ‘not incorporate, nor hav[ing] any maner corporacion’.

The Act aimed to unite the two bodies in order that both the ‘speculacion’ and ‘practyse’ of surgery might furnish ‘more perfect spedy and effectuall remedy… than it hath ben or should be if the said two companies of barbours and surgeons should contenew severed a sunder’. But there was a catch. It had not escaped the notice of the Royal authorities that surgeons had a tendency to attract ‘perso[n]s… infected with the pestilence great pockes & such other contagious infirmityes’ – that is, ill people. Even in this pre-germ-theory age, it was clear that this presented a risk of infection to those who might later visit the barber-surgeon in search of nothing more drastic than a shave and a haircut.

For this reason, the 1540 Act imposed a prohibition: no-one practising ‘barbery or shaving’ within a three-mile radius of the City of London would be permitted to conduct surgery, blood-letting or any other surgical operation – ‘drawing of teeth only excepte’.

The incorporation of the new Company by the Act was commemorated in a well-known painting, King Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons, by Hans Holbein the Younger, in which notable barber-surgeons of the time, including sergeant-surgeon to the king Thomas Vicary, are shown crouching in obeisance to the monarch (Holbein’s licence in depicting a sealed Charter in Henry’s hand, rather than an Act of Parliament, has led some to argue that the painting in fact depicts the 1512 granting of a Charter to the Barbers’ Company – but other historical details, including Henry’s apparent age in the painting, tend to discredit this thesis). It was clearly a momentous event in the history of both the barbers and the surgeons. But, in reality, it was the beginning of the end for the barbers’ profession.

By the eighteenth century, the caricatures had hardened. The barber was humble, approachable, uneducated, a craftsman at best; the surgeon, by contrast, was pompous, ambitious, proud of his learning and his Latin, and avaricious in harvesting fees from his wealthy patients. Fielding nails both types in Tom Jones.

Before Little Benjamin’s arrival at his bedside, Tom is attended by an unnamed doctor: ‘though I am afraid the doctor was a little of a coxcomb,’ Fielding notes, ‘he might be nevertheless very much of a surgeon’. After bamboozling the local rustics with medical jargon (‘I was once, I remember, called to a patient who had received a violent contusion in his tibia, by which the exterior cutis was lacerated, so that there was a profuse sanguinary discharge’), the surgeon turns his attention to Tom. But his ministrations are short-lived: after learning that Tom is not, after all, a well-to-do gentleman, he storms out in a fury.

Even Little Benjamin, when called on to assume the mantle of ‘surgeon’, feels compelled to adopt ‘so different an air and aspect from that which he wore when his basin was under his arm, that he could scarce be known to be the same person’.

‘A man is obliged to keep up some dignity in his countenance whilst he is performing these operations, or the world will not submit to be handled by him,’ Benjamin explains. ‘You can’t imagine, sir, of how much consequence a grave aspect is to a grave character. A barber may make you laugh, but a surgeon ought rather to make you cry.’

The surgeons’ sense of professional pride – or self-importance – was central to the break-up of their ill-made marriage with the barbers. With surgery becoming increasingly advanced (the removal of bladder-stones, for instance, had been refined to a fine art by John Douglas and William Cheselden), many surgeons grew impatient with rules such as that requiring each surgeon’s diploma to be signed by the Company’s governors, two of whom would be barbers or other non-surgeons. The surgeons chafed at the limitations they believed the barbers represented to the advancement of their science; as early as 1684, a petition to the King had been submitted by some surgeons regarding their incorporation as a distinct company, although nothing came of it.

The barbers, for their part, were largely content, secure and perhaps complacent in their occupation of a time-honoured (if minor) place in the City’s complex web of guilds, companies and corporations; what value the advancement of surgery, when weighed against the weight of history, prestige, pageantry and liveried ceremony? It is illustrative of how widely the two factions had diverged that the barbers’ professional worries concerned not any rivalry with the  surgeons but the increasing competition offered to their trade by the burgeoning fashion for the small wigs known as perukes; the barbers spent much of the first decade of the eighteenth century attempting – without success – to absorb the peruke-makers into the Barber-Surgeons’ Company.

What did provoke the barbers into something like conflict with the surgeons was the suspicion that their prestige within the Company was being undermined – that they were being accorded less than complete respect by their ambitious partners. A 1699-1700 dispute – won by the barbers – over the election of a disproportionate number of surgeons to the offices of Warden and Master sounded the first rumblings of a serious rift.

The politicking that led up to the ’45 rupture is opaque, but the identity of the prime mover is in little doubt: William Cheselden, a man seemingly as adept at pulling strings as at excising stones. Cheselden is a complex figure. A gifted and bold surgeon, he achieved renown as an eye surgeon as well as a lithotomist. Despite his fame, he appears to have been initially reluctant to accept high office in the Company. Not until 1738, after his retirement, was he elected to the Company’s Court of Assistants; in 1739, he became Examiner (amid some controversy, as the incumbent, Mr Myddleton, was paid to step aside). His election in absentia to the post of Renter Warden in August 1744 adds to the impression of manoeuvres being executed with an eye on the long game.

Not that Cheselden’s elevation necessarily put him on cosy terms with the Company authorities. Indeed, in 1741, he was censured by the Company for ‘frequently procur[ing] the dead bodies of malefactors from the place of execution and dissect[ing] same at his own house’ in Cheapside at the same time as Company anatomists were struggling to attract students to their own demonstrations at Old Bailey.

The surgeons fired the first shot in December 1744, announcing their desire to be divorced from the barbers. The announcement seems to have been abrupt and unexpected, although the details of any preliminaries may have been lost to us as a result of a tacit agreement between the two factions to keep their disagreements ‘off the books’. On December 20, five delegates from each side convened at the King’s Arms tavern in St Paul’s Churchyard (among those on the surgeons’ side was John Freke, a friend of Henry Fielding’s whom Fielding mentions twice in Tom Jones). The surgeons presented their case. The writing was on the wall for the barbers from this point on.

In their subsequent petition to a Parliamentary Committee convened to consider the matter, the surgeons made great play of their having, ‘from their sole and constant study of, and application to [surgery], rendered the profession and practice thereof of great and public benefit and utility to this Kingdom’, and noted that the barbers were – as they long had been – ‘employed in a business foreign to and independent of the practice of Surgery’; the union of the two was ‘in no degree conducive to the progress or improvement of the art of Surgery’.

In their earnest and rather hurt response, the barbers expressed surprise that the surgeons should want to dissolve the 200-year-old marriage. They contended, in essence, that the barbers, even in Henry VIII’s day, had never been up to much with regard to the practice of surgery, and that the two factions had never had a great deal of professional common ground – so why should the surgeons suddenly find the union inconvenient? The ‘present flourishing Condition of the Surgeons’ was ‘the only real Alteration in the Circumstances of Things’.

Of course, the principal sentiment behind the barbers’ submission was alarm that the wealthy surgeons might make off with the better part of the Company’s assets and resources, leaving the penurious barbers  – ‘their less happy brethren’ – in dire financial straits.

And where, in all this, was the illustrious Cheselden? Out of public view, the wily surgeon was quietly ensuring the demise of the Company of which he was an Examiner. It is surely no coincidence that the Parliamentary Committee was chaired by one Charles Cotes, a relatively undistinguished young physician from Westminster Infirmary, and the husband of Wilhelmina Cheselden, William’s daughter – nor that Cheselden is known to have been circulating backstage at Parliament immediately prior to the Committee delivering its verdict.

Unsurprisingly, the Committee’s conclusion was a death warrant for the Company of Barber-Surgeons. It found, in short, that ‘the separation was desirable’. The Bill to effect the dissolution passed swiftly through Parliament. All that was required now was Royal Assent. Again, the surgeons had a man on the inside.

Cheselden wasn’t the only Company surgeon with influential connections. Also ranged against the barbers was John Rainby (sometimes spelt Ranby). If Cheselden was the strategist, Rainby was the man to lead the charge. Described by a contemporary as ‘harsh of voice with inelegant manners’, Rainby nevertheless moved in circles of high culture. He was on good terms with Hogarth, and sat for the figure of Tom Rakewell in The Rake’s Progress. He had accompanied George II as sergeant-surgeon at the battle of Dettingen, and was physician to Queen Caroline, who customarily referred to him as ‘Blockhead’. The surgeon Messenger Monsey noted with distaste that ‘Rainby was the only man I ever heard coolly defend the use of laudanum in effecting his designs on women, which he confessed he had practised with success’ (Rainby countered this allegation not with a rebuttal but with a crisp ad hominem swipe: Monsey, he said, was ‘a nasty dog in a dirty shirt’).

The King approved the Bill. The union was dissolved on June 25, 1745. John Rainby was elected the first Master of the Company of Surgeons.

The barbers – at first under the leadership of the aptly named Richard le Barber – reluctantly went their own way as ‘The Master, Governors and Commonalty of the Mystery of Barbers of London’.

What had begun with Henry VIII and Holbein ended, ignominiously, with a cruel lampooning by the hard-drinking cartoonist Isaac Cruikshank. In a typically monstrous scene, Cruikshank depicted aproned barbers and well-dressed surgeons locked in brutal hand-to-hand combat. ‘Take care of my Wig I had it new to go down to the House’, one surgeon wails to his assailant; a barber, bending over a cowering surgeon, yells: ‘I’ll teach you to despise Gentlemen Barbers you pitiful Pill monger’; another surgeon, belabouring a barber with his cane, cries: ‘I’ll teach you, you beggarly Scoundrel to call yourself Barber-surgeon’.

The cartoon’s title pretty well sums up the welter of professional pride, culture-clash and mismatched ambition that ultimately strained the Company to breaking-point and beyond. Cruikshank called it ‘The Battle Of The Barbers And Surgeons’.

The twentieth of September, 2012: I knew a story with ‘and’ in it could be delightful

Advice for a writer:

“At the end of an interrogatory sentence, place a question mark. You’d be surprised how effective it can be.”

From Woody Allen’s ‘Reminiscences: Places and People’, written for the New Yorker and collected in Allen’s Complete Prose (Picador, 1997).  

The nineteenth of September, 2012: a million words

At one stage in his career, the American journalist and writer Upton Sinclair wrote 8,000 words of fiction a day, seven days a week. This was because he was a writer for the pulps (you really ought to click this link – it’s only Wiki, but there’s more fascinating stuff there than I could squeeze into a dozen Clutterbucks). A pulp writer, it was said, had to write a million words a year to turn a profit.

And this, bear in mind, was in a genre – or, rather, an industry – in which flimflam and excessive verbiage (“wordage fat”, in pulp parlance) were just not tolerated. You couldn’t pad your story out with lyrical meditations on love and mortality (although you could always just bung in another sex-scene or knife-fight). Everything was stripped to the bone. It was mostly awful, but by god it was punchy.

Raymond Chandler got his start as a writer at Black Mask, the king of the pulp magazines, making his début in 1933 with ‘Blackmailers Don’t Shoot’. There’s a great chapter on this era – as Chandler the soon-to-be drunk succeeded the already-very-much-a-drunk Dashiell Hammett as the genre’s champion – in Tom Hiney’s biography of Chandler (Random House, 1997).

You can explore pulpworld more thoroughly at the excellent Pulp Magazines Project.

The twenty-sixth of May, 2011: a penguin’s egg

A chilling draught of tragedy, as Clutterbuck’s Liars’ League Leeds-inspired North & South theme goes boomeranging southwards again.

I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, ‘What is the use?’ For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.

That’s the conclusion of the cripplingly sad last chapter of Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey In The World, an account of travelling to the Antarctic with Scott’s last expedition (the title refers not to Scott’s doomed polar journey but to the nightmarish trek through the polar winter taken by Cherry-Garrard, Edward Wilson and Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers  to reach the nesting grounds of Antarctica’s emperor penguins – and to bring back penguin eggs).

To me, Cherry-Garrard is the most tragic of all of Scott’s 1912 party (Oates notwithstanding – and it’s worth noting (as Ranulph Fiennes has pointed out) that, when Oates stumbled out into the blizzard, his frostbitten hands would have been useless; the other men in the tent (Scott, Bowers and Wilson) would have had to unlace the tent door for him – and, heartbreakingly, lace it up after him after he had gone).

Cherry Garrard lived to an old age, bedevilled by survivor’s guilt and physical and mental frailty. He also lived next door to the appalling George Bernard-Shaw and his dreadful wife, which can’t have helped at all.

Mark Gatiss made a typically brilliant job of bringing The Worst Journey In The World to the screen for BBC4 in 2007.

The seventeenth of May, 2011: overheard

Scene: a waiting room. Enter a man, walking carefully, as though brittle. A lady in a wheelchair manoeuvres herself so as not to obstruct the only remaining seat. You can sit down now, she said. The man replied:

No, I’ll stand for a bit. I’ll sit down soon, don’t you worry. But each has its own pleasures.

That made me smile, when I was not in a smiling frame of mind.