Is there such a thing as a finished novel? Well there is; it is finished when it published and appears in print. But when it is finished as far as the author is concerned? Back in 2016, I thought I had finished my novel ‘Holiday‘ (working title). But, over the past couple of weeks, I have been going through it all again. I talked about this in my last blog post – Changing Course. More work still remains to be done. I will return to the manuscript and deal with the issues that I think are left to consider. One of these issues is how to start the story. At the moment, the story begins about three days into the timeline of the sequence of days that make up the fourteen days over which the story takes place. How do I explain the main characters got to that point in time?
My original draft began right at the very beginning – when the main character went into a travel agency to book his holiday. I started not to start at that point, when I came to the third edition. I still think it important to tell my readers who the two boys came to go on holiday to Italy, back in 1966.
Structure and the flow of a story are considered to be very important. The way the story is told is considered to be part of the art of story-telling and how to write a novel. There are many elements within the story, elements that have to make sense as they read. Things happen and the reader has to understand why they happen, how they happened in the way they did and, after they have happened, what the implications are.
The characters are the story
My novel is a tale about two teenagers and their friends. That is what the story is about. What they do, what they say to each other, how they relate to each other – these are the elements of the plot (if it can be said to be a plot, in the traditional sense of the term.) Some scenes need no introduction – other than being family with the characters involved. It is just a narrative about people talking and doing things. But some events are put in and require later analysis. That happens. The main character is a teenager writer. What a surprise! That gives me a way of dwelling on what he thinks and I use this technique in ‘Holiday‘ and also in ‘The Streets of London.’ Michael, the main character of ‘Holiday‘, talks, acts and is seen doing things. But we really get into his mind and soul when he writes. The narrative has brief pieces of his writings. As he goes through the holiday, he writes about it. His thoughts could have been handled through dialogue. My concern is, however, to portray Michael as a writer and, as such, he is different to those around him and different in the way he experienced people, events and the things he sees and experiences.
That trope is one of my key characteristics as a novelist. Insert bits of written script into the narrative, draws the reader into the nature and art of writing and into the way that writers experience the world and the events that happen to them. Other authors do the same thing by narrating what the characters think; as though the narrator was capable of seeing into their minds. In two of novels, I make the leading characters write about what they are thinking. I want the reader to see what life is like as a writer and how the realities of daily life can be expressed in writing. Not everyone carries a notebook around with them and writes down in it things they experience in their day-to-day life. For authors with non-literary characters, they can equally well sit down and write a letter. It’s an alternative way of doing much the same kind of thing.
For me, I like to portray characters as writer. As Michael, the lead character in ‘Holiday‘, writes in his holiday diary:
Being a writer makes me different to other people. They keep asking me why I am always writing things down in my notebook and I try to give them serious answers but I don’t think any of them understand. For me, writing helps to sort out my thoughts and feelings. In my notes I can record what I have seen and done and how it is has affected me. I write about what other people have said and done and what I think about them.
This is a recurring theme in my work – that the writer is not just another bloke; a writer is a different kind of person. How he sees the world, how he thinks, and how reacts to his experiences, are recorded with a pen and paper. That makes him different. He is psychologically different and existentially different to people who never writer anything. That is a premise which I want to stand up to scrutiny. In The Streets of London, I take it to the next level. Adrian, the writer and main character, is writing a novel and that is part of the story line. What unfolds is a novel within a novel. A story being told about telling a story. Of course, the book is not just about Adrian writing a novel; there is a lot more to it than that. Adrian’s writing is a sub-plot. What the story considers is the way in which his experienced as a person feed his creative writing. It also reveals how his desire to write about specific things drives his life and even the lives of his friends.
For now I am putting the manuscript of ‘Holiday‘ to one side and returning to work on The Streets of London.
I missed a couple of Sunday posts because I was busy doing other things. Mainly going to festivals and other gigs and having to write them up for Music in Leicester magazine.
Since early January, I have been working on my third novel – The Streets of London. Now, I have decided to give myself a break from that. I have gone back to my first novel – Holiday – and am working on that. I feel it should be put out to potential agents and publishers. But first. I need to revise it. There is no such thing as a ‘finished’ novel. Not until it had been published.
Holiday is a story about a group of English teenagers who go on a packaged holiday to Italy. Set in the year 1966, the story centers around two friends who take advantage of the emergence of cheap packaged tours and end up on the Adriatic Riviera with a bunch of other teenagers and their parents. The work contains a variety of themes, including the clash of cultures, the nature of adolescent friendships, sexual awakening and reflections on history and modernism.
I felt I needed a break from working on my third novel. Having got a long way into it, it seemed it was time to sit back and reflect on what I have been doing and where I am going with the book. Having worked on three novels, I find I have not done very much about trying to get them published. A few manuscripts have been sent to literary agents but that has not resulted in anything. That is mainly because the structure of the books fails to fit with the accepted way of doing things. Reorganising the flow of the story has been my main preoccupation and continues to be my main concern as I go back to the manuscript after a break of two years.
I spent the whole of yesterday reading through the manuscript of ‘Holiday’ the working title I have given to my first work of fiction. I spent many happy hours reading it but now I have to be objective and critical about it. A lot of it appears to be very self-indulgent. Few people have read the complete manuscript. Friends have read bits of it but I have not yet asked other authors to look at it and give me their comments. That is something I need to do. But not after I have gone through the whole thing with a fine-tooth comb.
I began to write my third novel early in January, this year. The way I have written my book differs from conventional approaches. To begin with, it is written more like a film script than a narrative work of fiction. In my previous novels, I followed a more traditional style. In my first novel – Holiday – I wrote in the third person using past tense. The usual form of narrative storytelling. In my second novel – The Trench – I used the same approach: the narrative is told by a third person in the past tense. In both of these works, the order in which the story was told was not chronological. Neither of them began at the beginning. They started with a chapter that introduced the main characters and then, later on, told how they had arrived at the point at which the story began. I took advice that a novel should begin with a strong opening chapter that introduced the main character and set the scene. I could not do that in my current novel. It would not have been possible. There are three main characters and they all arrive in London at different times.
In the novel I am working on now – The Streets of London – the whole story is in precise chronological order. The book starts on day one and it finishes on the last day, covering a period of five years in the lives of its central characters. When it is completed, each section will have a precise date. The whole book is divided into three acts. There no chapters. Each act is written in sections, beginning with the date and then saying where the scene takes place and who is in it. In that respect, it is similar to a journal. The approach I have taken to the chronology of the story is intentional; it is essential to the way the story is told and presented.
The only points at which flashbacks are used (references back to events in the past) are when the leading character, Adrian, writes in his journal. His journal entries appear in the story and often these concern things that have happened in the past. The only other way of referencing the past is for the characters to talk about it. If I want to present the future (which is rarely) I put that into the dialogue. I show characters talking about the future – as they see it. The whole storyline is the dialogue between the characters. It is a novel about people, what they say to each other and what they do and the latter is explained via dialogue. In fact, what the characters do is what they say. There is no narrator describing their actions. Reading the book would be like seeing a film.
It strikes me that my approach and style might not be to the liking of today’s commercial publishers. Abandoning the conventional style of writing fiction – most often past tense narrative – is undertaken with caution, by authors whose aim is to have their work published. I realise that. But I chose this style of writing because I think it works in the context of this novel. I want to write a book that does justice to its content – not the whims and fashions of the publishing industry.
I decided that I wanted to do something different. That is what I am doing. Only when the first draft is finished will I be able to tell if my decision was a good one.
A few weeks ago, I started a course in drawing. Every Monday morning I go the Adult Education Centre to do a course in drawing and sketching. If I learn to draw, will it make me a better writer? Will I become a more able novelist?
Much of my fiction writing uses images and pictures. Writing a story is, for me, like making a film. Instead of calling sections of my book chapters, I call them scenes. My hope is that learning to draw will help me to see the world around me, to visualise it and above all to observe it. In sketching we need to employ high levels of observation – there is one way of seeing which we do with our eyes partly closed – squinting – seeing only rough shapes, proportions and relationships. Then we open our eyes and look at the details. We also have to observe colour, shades, tones, shadows and textures. Drawing helps me to do this. It helps me to observe what I see. If I can see the world – or people – as an artist would see it, I might be more able to describe it through words.
Being able to draw is not the only thing that might make my writing more descriptive and more visual. I must be able to decide which words are the most evocative when it comes to describing a scene. Sometimes, the story requires only a rough sketch of a room, a landscape or a vista. At other times, it is useful to add details – as long as they are pertinent. Adding in details simply for effect (and not because they are required by the story) is padding. True as much for a novel as for a drawing.
Attending the course on drawing was not something I needed to do. I thought it would be interesting; it has also proved to be a rewarding social experience. I have no ambition to become a visual artist or to exhibit my drawings in a gallery. Studying sketching is, for me, a way of training my eyes to observe and my mind to interpret what I see. As I walk along the street, I see the world – just as any other pedestrian would – but my mind interprets it differently. I see the shapes of buildings and the colours of the trees, but I see the relationships between objects, their proportions, their textures, the moods they evoke and I analyse my surroundings as though they are a picture.
As a writer, I want to take my reader to the place I am telling them about. I want them to see it as I see it. After all, none of my books will have actual pictures in them. It is very easy, these days, to insert a picture into a text document. If you happen to have the right picture. If I was to become an expert painter or sketcher, I suppose I could draw any scene or face for my book. This has been done by a few authors who have illustrated their books. I am not sure that is likely to happen in my case. Of course, I need to leave something up to the reader’s imagination. I can show them something – a person, a scene – but I should not want to spoon feed the reader. I give them an outline and leave the rest up to their imagination.
Photographs are things I take regularly. When I take a picture, I have to position the shot at the right angle relative to the camera screen. That is the same as deciding how to layout a sketch on a sheet of paper. We have to decide where the focus of the shot or drawing should go. That requires observation and the skill of composition. Each of the drawing classes that I attend trains me to observe and to position objects in a layout. That skill comes in handy when I am writing – describing a scene or a person. So. Yes. I do think that my drawing classes will help to improve my writing skills as a creative writer.
In my novel, the lead character is called Adrian. He is a young writer, intent on a literary career. In my novel, Adrian begins write a book – a work of fiction describing the people and events of the period (1967 to 1971). I have reflected my own work – as a novelist – in my story, showing Adrian writing his novel. In writing about the people he meets in London, Adrian is concerned with how to portray characters. Adrian reveals his characters, sometimes, through their faces and what their faces suggest about them as people. He unravels the idea of the mask – a device used to display emotions and personality through visual symbolism.
In September 1971, I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, in South Kensington. Before my visit I had been reading a book by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst. Jung developed the idea of the persona, which, he argued, was a mask for the ‘collective psyche.’ At the museum, I spent several hours looking at exhibits – masks collected from many continents, some of them very ancient, other more modern. I then wrote an article on the subject.
In ancient Greek theatre, masks were worn by actors to portray an emotional type or to conceal the true identity of a character. Adrian is aware that the mask of the face expresses emotions inside the bearer, but can be used, in the drama of life, either to communicate feelings or to conceal them. As he studies those around him, Adrian begins to analyse the way that people either use masks to portray who they are or to conceal their inner realities. This then becomes one of the themes in his book. In a work of fiction, some characters can hide behind masks and others can be seen trying to probe behind such masks to discover the reality of the individual. Adrian comes to realise that fiction writers can sometimes simplify complex characters in order to make them easier to understand for the reader – whilst, at the same time – exploring and uncovering some of those complexities. Novelists can, sometimes, use literary masks to enable recognition of certain kinds of characters. The danger is that such a device results in a stereotype, if not handled sensitively.
Adrian reads widely. He often visits libraries in West London to pursue his studies and interests. During one of these sessions he delves deeply into the topic individuality. He considers that the individual comprises a unique identity but also a persona derived from the collective unconscious of the community he was born into or has become a part of. In his writings, Adrian explores the meaning of individuality and how identity is formed both personally and collectively. This might make Adrian sounds like an academic – in fact, he never went to college and rejects the idea of going to university. At one point, he describes himself as being like the ‘autodidact’ – a character in Sartre’s novel Nausea. Adrian prefers to build up his own knowledge and intellect rather than being defined and moulded by the English educational system, which he distrusts.
In my novel, Adrian is criticised for being too intellectual in his approach to fiction writing. He refutes this criticism by arguing that it is necessary to explore and portray contemporary London as it is seen and witnesses by audiences. Themes, subjects, plots and dramas are complex and sophisticated. That is what makes London such a vibrant and entertaining city, he argues. As part of his background research for his novel, Adrian visits many places where the varieties and shades of masculinity are seen. He writes about the subject of twentieth century masculinity and tries to define and portray types of men that he observes. This becomes part of his other theme – the way that boys become men as they mature into adulthood. Again, his friends criticise him for being too ‘theoretical’ in his narratives. He retorts that he is not an academic and insists that many playwrights and film-makers of the time have dealt with such subjects but not in an academic way.
In writing novels set in a specific milieu or period we must be able to convey what it was like to be there. If we were to write a novel about our own time – 2018 – we would be foolish to ignore its main currents of thinking, politics, philosophy and beliefs when presenting our picture of its arts, drama and literature. How would readers in the distant future get the feel of our age if we neglected to present its depths by concentrating solely on its trivialities?
Adrian faces a similar set of issues as he writes his novel.
Writing novels takes time. A lot of time. It’s not something that can be rushed. Just writing the words, spoken by the characters, takes a good deal of patience and effort, to get right. A novel is a work of fiction. It is a creative endeavour that requires imagination. The writer is telling a story. That story has to be thought up. Thought out. Thought about. And then there is the research. My guess is that I spend about the same amount of time doing research as actually writing the text of the book. That is because I have to get the ethos and milieu of the period right. My novel is set in the years 1967 through to 1971. Even though I lived through those years, I cannot remember everything about them. What I have forgotten is how people talked. The vernacular of everyday life. The words and phrases that were used. That is not something that was written down at the time; not even by me. Little remains of the way I spoke; even though, a great deal remains of the way I wrote. The way we wrote differs from the way we spoke. Both then and now. It was during those years that my command of written English grew and developed.
Keeping track of everything
The art of writing involves sitting at a desk with a typewriter, or a word processor, and putting into words whatever comes into your head. That seems like extemporisation. Some authors might work like that; I have too, in the past. Today, writing is more likely to be planned in advance, than it was in the past. As I work through a novel, I have to record timelines and characters. The timelines ensure that sections appear in the right order, chronologically. Let me explain. I did not start writing at the beginning. Ideas came to me in somewhat of a random order. I then spent a lot of time trying to reorganise my sections and pieces so that they flowed from day one to the end. Day one happened to be 1st May 1967. That was the day when Adrian arrived in London. The story started from that point. Later, Adrian explains why he left home and moved to London. The other characters did the same; they explained why they were in London and what caused them to leave home.
Characters were thought up right at the start of the work. As I wrote, new characters had to be invented. I set up a page in which all the characters were listed by name, with a brief resume of their appearance, key facts about them, such as their age, and any notes that would help me to achieve continuity as I wrote about them. I decided that I did not want to have more than one character with the same name. My page of character profiles ensured that I did not use a name more than once.
Keeping to schedule
One thousand words a day was the target I set myself. I write daily. Including weekends. Having a target of writing at least one thousands words a day, was useful. To see how much I had written, I set up a separate document, at the top of which, was a field that displayed the number of words in the document. It’s a fairly standard feature of most word processing packages. Apart from writing new material – in this special document that I called a scratch-pad – I also went back through the manuscript and corrected it and proof read it, sometimes reworking whole sections. Nothing unusual about that. I started by having one document for the entire book. That proved unwieldy and stressed the resources of my computer. The book was divided into three parts (which I called Acts.) Each part covered a defined number of years. That made the management of the files a bit more easy. The drawback was that I had to know in which file a specific piece occurred. If I wanted to go back over a certain event, I had to know which of the files it was in. That meant I had to compile an index – a listing of sections. Each section was assigned a unique number. The index gave the number of the section. Using the ‘find’ button I would instantly get to the piece I wanted to see, providing I had a unique serial number for it.
In case this sounds rather complicated, let me explain that the way I wrote the novel was somewhat chaotic. For any particular year, I might compose a section using the scratch-pad document. That then had to be copied into the relevant file and put in the right position, chronologically. Other authors may, I am sure, find this a rather laborious way of doing things. For now I am stuck with it. But, it works for me.
It is all about method
I am a devotee of the method school of writing. This is how it works. I write a piece (also called a section.) When I have done as much on it as I can (no piece is always finished) I leave it. I go and do something else – the washing up, feed the cat, make a coffee, vacuum the carpet.) I go back to the piece and proof read it. When I am satisfied with it I read it aloud. I read as though I was an actor saying the lines on a stage or for a camera. If the piece flows as reading, then I am satisfied with it and I print it.
It is a peculiarity of this novel that it reads like a film script. That is the style I have adopted for this work. It has to work well as a script and it has to explain what is happening, where that is no obvious from the dialogue.
All novels should have plots. So I have heard it said and seen it written. In case you are wondering what a plot is, here is a typical definition: ‘the main events of a play, novel, film, or similar work, devised and presented by the writer as an interrelated sequence.’ This is hardly different from the definition relied on, by most people, for the word ‘story.’ In a novel, a story ‘…is a causal sequence of events, the why for the things that happen in the story.’ Given that my style of writing (in this novel) is similar to that for a film script, a narrator cannot explain causes. It is up to the reader to assume what the causes are, for any event, except where the characters discuss causes amongst themselves. In a film, the reader should be able to follow the series of events, and understand how and why they happen, from the scenes, as they are presented.
Why no plot?
Early on, in planning and conceptualising my third novel, I decided that I did not want to use the conventional stylistic notion of a plot. I wanted the characters to portray their own stories according to their own visions of the world and their own ideas about people and events, as shown by what they say.
The story unfolds sequences of events. Some of these appear to be random. Life is often a random sequence of things that just happen. Often there is no reason why things happen – they just do. Life is serendipitous. It is the way a character reacts to random events that tells us about him or her and reveals his or her attitudes. This underscores the uneven roughness of life.
It could be argued that my novel does, in fact, have a plot. This depends on what one considers a plot to be. What I have avoided doing – in writing the novel – is to allow the plot to drive the story. What the novel does is to present three characters, a milieu (the swinging sixties) in a place (London.) The ethos of the time is revealed through what the characters say to each other. Mainly. The three central characters meet each other by chance. They then attend parties, pubs and cafes in which they happen to meet other characters. The sequences of events are not dictated by some causal set of reasons. Other than the nature of the world in which they live. Each of them has his own ambitions that propel him in a direction, as he pursues his chosen career path. Many of the important things that happen are the result of random encounters or unpredictable, fortuitous happenings.
For example, Tom happens to be at a party where he is introduced to a man who works for the BBC. Through making this contact, Tom ends up with a career in broadcasting. Before that, Tom had no specific inclination to get a job at the BBC. It was a matter of luck that Tom happened to meet someone who could further his career, however indistinct his ambitions were, up to that point.
If there is anything that drives the story it is the characters. The work is mainly about individuals and their interactions. A reader might try to foresee what they will do, to anticipate how they will react and what path they might follow. The thing that interests me about individuals is that they often fail to do what is expected. It is true that much of the story is a sequence of events. The story moves in particular directions. But, its substance is always about the people. It is not a history of events. In that respect, it is akin to a biography. Readers cannot always see what is coming – as they would if there was a plot which leads them in a particular direction.
Because the story is set in a particular period of English history, it unfolds the ethos of the time, through its characters. They witness events happening in the world (the riots in Grosvenor Square, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the first manned moon landing) and talk to each other about these events, as they see them unfold in the media. There are many scenes in which the characters are sitting in a pub or cafe talking about ideas. Ideas that portray the milieu in which they live. Ideas that were prevalent in the late sixties. The reader will either like or dislike any specific character. My only task, as the writer, is to make a character appear credible. Some characters are clearly intended to be likeable; others are the nasty ones – the bad guys – and the reader is free to either like or dislike them. Some characters are introduced simply to oil the workings of the story. They are subsidiary roles or diversions, placed there only to entertain.
In this, my third novel, I have rejected the conventions that are currently being pedalled by those in the publishing industry. Does this mean that my book will fail to be accepted by established publishing houses? Yes. Very possibly. I am not writing the novel because I have been asked to write it. Its origins lie within me; not within some external influence. In writing this book I have done a considerable amount of planning. There is, however, no document called ‘the plot’ which sets out the story. There is a ‘timeline’, but its role is to ensure that the sequence of events is tenable and to avoid mistakes in narrating when things happen. It is only a planning tool. It is concerned with continuity and consistency. The principal characters each have a profile – a piece of writing that helps me to gather together key characteristics of each one. This does not form part of the book. I also have a catalogue of names which lists every name introduced into the story and sets out notes about each of them. This avoids using a name more than once, for different characters. It reminds me of things like age, appearance, relationships to other characters and so on.
Style, method and approach
The novel is set out like a film script. It is not narrated. Notes are added at the top of each section (or scene) to indicate the date, who is in the scene and where they are. These are like the subtitles that sometimes appear in films. Hence, most of the material is in the form of dialogue. This is an approach that makes the novel read like a film script. I realise that this is an unconventional approach to the novel. None of my other works takes such an approach. Writing a novel in this way imposes restrictions and challenges on the way the story unfolds. I can tell the story, only through what the characters say and do. It is a visual approach to the novel. In a traditional approach to story-telling, the narrator can explain things that are not part of the action or dialogue.
I have introduced into this book, some stylistic devices that I have not used in other works. For example, the dialogue is often written using short statements, punctuated by full stops. For example: ‘Adrian: “Yes. So. As you can see. We have just about everything in here. Proper cooker with an oven. Fridge. Washing machine.” ‘ The use of full stops indicates the way that a character speaks. Normal speech is broken into words and phrases that are punctuated with pauses. We do not speak in the way that we write. There are points where the dialogue ignores the rules of grammar and syntax in order to portray a naturalistic way of talking. The characters have to talk as young, working class men would have talked in the 1960s. They cannot use words or phrases that were not current at the time. There are also brief statements about what is happening. For example: ‘They go into the kitchen. Adrian fills the kettle with water and puts it on the cooker. He lights the gas.’ These are like stage directions. They are actions that characters would not say; they are always brief and used only where needed.
The story has three central characters: Adrian, Michael and Tom. The story revolves around what they do. Other characters crop up and play subsidiary roles. Adrian plays the key part in the group of boys. Tom is the cover boy. Michael is the thinker. They are the same age, though Tom is slightly younger. Each of them came from a small town background in various parts of England. They each had different reasons for moving to London. The common denominator was a desire to get a better job and become established in a career. At the end of the book, Adrian leaves London to start a new life in New York. Michael goes to university to get a degree. Tom is the only one who stays in London but that is because he has secured a job at the BBC. They discover that they have musical skills and interests and they form a jazz band, which becomes very successful; but, its success conflicts with their chosen career paths.
As a group of friends, they all get on with each other very well. The tone of the story is positive. Whilst they are similar, as individuals, they also have contrasting characteristics. Adrian tends to be the leader, the decision-maker, the mover. Michael is challenging at times. Tom also can ask difficult questions. There are parts to the story when the group comes into conflict; even so, they stay together throughout the book until – at the end – they each go their separate ways.
The period from 1965 to 1969 was a time when drama and the theatre flourished in London. Many notable dramatists were at work then. Just as I went to see many plays and shows, during those years, so too, my characters spend a lot of time in the theatres of London.
Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton, Athol Fugard, Simon Gray, Alan Ayckbourn, John Osborne, Harold Pinter, John Antrobus, Peter Shaffer, Kingsley Amis and Edward Bond represent a selection of writers whose new works were staged in the London theatres of that time.
Drama in the 1960s was a great period for innovation, rebellion and nonconformity¹ but that ran alongside the traditional productions in the West End theatres and the burgeoning offerings of the television companies. There always has been Shakespeare – from from the time when he himself directed the first nights of his own plays.
Last month, I finished reading The Orton Diaries.³ I enjoyed this book for many reasons; not least that it brought back to me much of the feel and colour of the period that lead up to Orton’s death in 1967. As I read the final entries in his diary, I wondered if our paths might have crossed; given that I was also living in London at the time. I very much doubt that ever happened; there is certainly no evidence in my own diaries that it could have done. Unless I unknowingly passed him in the street one day. I noted what I did on August 9th 1967 but there was no mention of reading the newspapers or watching the television. So, I must have been unaware that he had been murdered. Orton’s diary does however mentioned several visits to the Royal Court; it is possibly, I think, to write a scene in which one of my characters – Adrian would be the best one – is that the theatre and sees Orton there. If I add the date of this into the manuscript, then at least I can anchor it to what he wrote in his diary entry for that date. I have already written a scene in which Adrian is present at a party also attended by the singer David Bowie. There is no evidence that Bowie ever went to such a party but he was in London at the time – so could have done. What I would not do is to write in an event that could not have taken place. I do not invent fiction – in that way. My fiction must be credible and if I mention an event or person that was real – then it is something that must be verifiable.
The theatres also provided a varied diet of established productions by playwrights such as Noel Coward, Oscar Wild, William Golding, Jacob Lenz, T. S. Eliot, Eugène Ionesco, Harold Wesker, David Mercer and G. B. Shaw.
Many London theatres
There were many theatres in London; but one is bound to mention The Old Vic. Like the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, it is the one venue to which anyone present in London must go. It is my perpetual gratification, that I attended both of them, during my teenage years. My characters will also be seen in them. After these two, the one venue that stands out for me is the Royal Court theatre in Sloane Square. I was a frequent visitor there during the first year that I lived in London, having an address only a few minutes walk away from it.
The world of drama was varied; not just the mainstream theatres but also the theatre clubs that put on experimental works by up and coming playwrights. In 1968 I attended several productions presented at The Ambiance, a theatre club held in the basement of a restaurant in Queensway.
Several memories stand out for me. I went to see The Boys in the Band at Wyndham Theatre, on 23rd May 1969. A couple of days prior to that I had been at The Royal Court to see The Enoch Show, an agitprop production by Edward Bond, in reaction to Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech.² I went to the Royal Court to see John Antrobus’s Captain Oats Left Sock on 6th July 1969. Later in July I went to the Old Vic to see Shaw’s Back to Methuselah Part 2. On 3rd October, 1969, I saw Troilus & Cressida, by Shakespeare, at the Aldwych theatre, the cast including Ben Kingsley as Aeneas, Patrick Stewart as Hector and Helen Mirren as Cressida.
I used my own experiences as the basis for my story, that part of it that saw the characters going to the theatre, but added in several shows and productions that I did not see myself, but which I thought would provide a fuller picture of London’s dramatic offerings during that period.
More than just plays; musicals also contributed to the rich cultural life of sixties London. The capital city also provided a rich wealth of musical experiences. I remember going to see Jimmi Hendrix play live at the Royal Festival Hall. I was also a frequent visitor to the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. The Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera House, The English National Opera; there was no shortage of great art and excellent entertainment.
Other writers were active at this time: novelists, poets, including B. S. Johnson, Alan Burns, Bob Cobbing, Brigid Brophy, John Betjeman, Philip Larkin, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Ted Hughes.
Cinema and Television
The cinema and television also provided me with a rich diet of art and entertainment. I plan to write more on this subject, at a later date.
It is against this backdrop that my characters find their way into the theatres and auditoriums of London. My challenge is to the see the late sixties through their eyes. It is what the three main characters, in the novel, do that brings alive the London they lived in from 1967 to 1971.
Let me remind you of my approach to fiction. When I set a story in a particular period of time, I decorate the plot with references to contemporary events. I use historical facts as props; I use a backdrop of the events and features of the period to colour the background to the stage literary stage on which the characters play out their parts. This article acts as a map on which to locate the theatrical contours and landmarks of the 1960s. Before I commit anything to my manuscript I will check that I have got my facts right. I would not wish to send my characters to see a play that never took place or to a concert for which there is no historical verification.
This article forms part of my series about writing my third novel: The Streets of London.
¹ Dominic Sandbrook, White Heat, 2006.
² Peter Billingham, Edward Bond: A Critical Study, 2014.
A novel is a story about characters. What they do, what they say, how they behave. If you want to tell a good story, then you have put into it people who the reader will like. I believe that. It is the approach I am taking in my third novel. It’s all about the people. If the people are good then the story will be good. It is the characters who bring the story to life; it is their story and they tell it in their own words.
Which is technically rather dodgy. Because. There is no narrator. There is no voice telling the story. If I want to portray how any one of them thinks or feels about anything, then I have to make them say something. Or do something. There is no narrator to tell the reader “Michael felt sad, at what he heard.” You have to see that, in what Michael says or does. This is not as easy as it might seem. Think about life. It can be, sometimes, difficult to get the sense what is happening in a scene from our daily lives. If an event is significant, it might well draw that significance from a whole history of things known only to the two or more people who were there at the time. A fly on the wall, seeing only that moment (in isolation) would not appreciate its significance – without it being explained by a narrator. Novelists usually lead up to an event by telling the story about each of the characters through the narrator’s voice. This allows the background to be assembled. Parts of life histories can be explained. Personal life experiences can be unravelled. When readers get to an event, they understand its significance because they have been through the story leading up to it.
Characters you like
I have to think about characters. If I am going to write a successful novel, then what sort of characters will need to be in it? Based on what I have read, characters need to be likeable, credible, engaging and do things that are worth reading about. Even if you, the reader, do not yourself actually like male teenagers, you have to find something in my three leading characters that you like and can relate to. I have to give you something in each of them that is not about being male or about being aged eighteen. I also have to make them seem like real people – within the content of the story set in the 1960s. So, even if you were not born then, you see how the characters are portrayed and (from your general knowledge of English life) you regard them as being credible – real people, who could have existed, at the time. You also have to find them interesting. I try to give a variety of things that will make a character engaging. Not just one thing. Some characters are nasty. The bad guys. The villains. My three leading men are all nice. Their role is to be the heroes of the story. I can surround them with nasty, bad, villains. But they have to come out unscathed. Unblemished by the shit heaped upon them. They are three likeable young men who become successful but they have to go on a journey to get there. My novel tells the story of their journal through the streets of swinging London.
Real people – but not that real
I have tried to make them real people. But, not like any real person who you would be likely to meet. They are not that ordinary. In fact, they are three young men who are exceptional. None of us is ever likely to meet someone who is like Sherlock Holmes. But we can still believe in him, as we read about him in the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He can seem real, but he is far from ordinary. Writing about exceptional characters is, however, a tricky business. If they appear to be too exceptional, they begin to lose credibility. We begin to doubt their authenticity. The knack is to keep them grounded; they might have exceptional talents, skills or abilities, but, really, they just the same as the rest of us, ordinary folk. The heroism of the three boys is their ability to hold on to their self-confidence and stay true to themselves when all around them is changing, when they are confronted with conflict, when they have to struggle with difficult situations.
There are three main characters in my third novel. In that respect, it’s a bit like Three Men in a Boat or The Three Musketeers. Each of the three characters is a distinct individual, in his own right. Collectively they form a group. In fact, they are, for part of the story, a jazz group. A band. A trio of Jazz musicians. It might well be that some readers will like just one of them – more than the others. There is no way of knowing. I just have to make them all equally likeable – for different reasons. All the three characters are male and they are all the same age. Give or take a few months. They were all born into working-class families in small towns in various parts of England. Each of them decided to leave home and seek his fortune in London – and that is where they met each other. They pursued their dreams and then they moved on. Two of them leave London and one stays to follow his new-found career in broadcasting. The novel portrays them through a narrow window – the years from 1967 (when they moved to London) through to 1971 – when their paths went off in different directions. It was the window of time, the period of their lives, that was most formative for them all. They went to London as boys, but they left it as men.
Looking at you, kid
When I started work on the novel, I had a rough idea, in my head, of what each of the three boys looked like. Using this rough idea, I decided to hunt for pictures that would help me to visualise each of them. Knowing that one of them – Michael – is, in fact, me, I copied the only surviving photo of me when I was 18. I then started to hunt for pictures of two teenage boys, filtering my search down to the year 1967. I found two that were spot on. As soon as I saw the photo I wanted for Adrian – I knew straight away that is was him. What I saw in the photo matched what I saw in my mind exactly. The photo for Tom was similarly totally spot-on. I now had three real faces to aid me when I needed to say something about their appearance, describe them, say what they wore, what their hair was like. Having three faces in front of me helped a lot. That gave me more detail than I could get simply from my imagination.
I also wrote profiles for each of them – stating their age, where they had come from, what jobs they did, and other personal details that I needed to get right. As I worked through the first pages of the book, each of them became a real person. They developed characteristics that marked them out and distinguished them from each other. Adrian was the leader. Michael was the thinker. Tom was the cover boy. Having met each other, which they did in quick succession, they began to realise that they shared a lot in common. That is what united them and was the basis of their camaraderie. It was not until they had been together, for some time, as friends, that they discovered they all were musicians. They all played instruments. They could all sing.
The boys in the band
After I had conceived of the idea of making the three lads into a band – I was not at all sure I wanted to use the idea. I thought about it for a few weeks and then decided that I needed to give it a go. If it didn’t work, I could always delete it all. Having decided they would form I band, I then had to decide what sort of band. I opted for jazz. But, it’s not my speciality. So, a lot of the time they played pop music. Straight away, I decided to make them a successful band. Not just three mediocre musicians who could not sing, but three accomplished instrumentalists with angelic voices. I liked the concept. The band becoming a runaway success. But I did not want it to take over the story. For me, it was just a subplot. I now need to make sure that it does not get in the way of the main storyline. As I work with the ‘band’ idea, I need to keep it under control. I need to make it serve the purposes of the main story. It must not become the main story.
This is a novel ‘set’ in the swinging sixties. Like pieces of meat are set in aspic. It is not a story about the swinging sixties. We like to look back on the late sixties and call it ‘swinging.’ What that means is not always clear. I have already discussed this in my previous blog article. Exactly the same story could have been set in 2018, or in the far distant future of even back in ancient Rome. There is nothing about the story that is anything to do with the 1960s – per se. It is still the same story. The 1960s provide the set, the props, the costumes. So, in that respect, it is a period drama. What I must take care to avoid, is writing a soap opera about either London or the sixties. I must stick to the plot. Not get carried away by the trappings and decorations. Let’s see what the next nine months will achieve.
Was there a period of time in the history of the British Isles that can justifiably be called ‘The Swinging Sixties‘? Dominic Sandbrook clearly thinks there is; he called his 2006 book White Heat a History of the Britain in the Swinging Sixties. A search on the Internet has also thrown up quite a lot of material that uses this term to refer to a period of time. In this context, I am concerned only with Britain and, moreover, with London. Unlike Sandbrook’s tome, my novel is a work of fiction. Its central characters are imaginary. They all lived in London from 1967 to 1971. That London no longer exists. Any more than the London of Samuel Pepys still exists. My book anchors its central narrators into one city, at one period of time. They never refer to their world as the ‘swinging sixties.’ Had they done so, it would have been an anachronism. Likewise, I doubt that, during 1967, any of them would have realised that they living in the ‘summer of love.’ I am writing this article in 2018 – but I have no idea what this year (or its neighbouring years) will be called in the future. It is historians who name eras of the past.
My novel – The Streets of London – is set in the 1960s; that is where it begins and it ends in the 1970s – the era I call The Beginnings of Change. In America that would be called ‘Generation X’ and in some references it was the ‘Information Age.’ In my novel, the early seventies was a period of change. Not just because 1971 was the milestone year for each of the three leading characters but also because they were seeing changes going on in the world around them. Changes that marked the end of the sixties and beginnings of an entirely new age. I say it is set in London – in reality, it is set in West London. Most of the action takes place in an arc that runs along the Bayswater Road, from Marble Arch to Notting Hill and then down into South Kensington and Earls Court. My characters never go to the East End or South London or even the leafier climbs of the North, Enfield or Barnet. They stuck to the postcodes that began with a ‘W’ and rarely ventured outside of them. They were the aficionados of the West End scene. Bear in mind that the three main characters, in my novel, did not arrive in London until 1967. In that regard, what they encountered was, in sense, a fin-de-siècle version of swinging London. They might have found the swingier parts of West London, but they missed out on the main stream of it all; they were on its fringes and not at its heart. My three young men were too poor to be fashionable.
Inexperienced, lacking qualifications, too young to have got anywhere, they looked on in wonder at the well-heeled icons going past them in their designer clothes and swanky sports cars. They were more likely to buy their shirts at C&A than Lord John. But they do get into some of the smartest and most fashionable restaurants, bars and clubs – simply by being taken there by their older friends and celebrities they have met. London might have been a meritocracy but it awarded its benefits only those who were sponsored by the rich and famous.
How swinging was the sixties?
Swinging. I wonder what that means. I am sure it means different things, to different people. A search for its definition brought up ‘lively, exciting, and fashionable’, ‘sexually liberated or promiscuous’; to some, it was about wife-swapping, to others it was all about music. The era of swing. Of course, all of these things can be thrown into the same soup. Sandbrook has given us a vast cauldron of historic minestrone.
If the mid- to late- sixties could be called ‘The Swinging Sixties’, then what swings were they on? One of my most important research sources is Dominic Sandbrook’s White Heat – a history of Britain in the swinging sixties. More than any other author, Sandbrook has his finger on the pulse of the period. He monitors the beating heart of the era. That book is, for me, about research – the process of verification. What my novel is based on is my own experience; what I wrote about it, at the time. My diaries and my journals articles from 1965 to 1971 still exist. They are the foundation stones of my novel. But, the problem is, they are mine. Some journalists (and diarists) keep detailed notes of the present. They stand and observe everything around them. Just as Pepys did. I was not like that. I was completely entombed in my own little world. During the 1960s my observations of world events – the Cuban missile crisis, the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill, the assassination of President Kennedy, the first moon landing – were mere footnotes. Mere mentions. Alongside my daily scribblings, were my essays – treatises on current affairs in the 1960s. They would have gone down well in the 1860s; in terms of their style. They read like they had been written by a mid-Victorian academic. So, whatever I might have said about the late 1960s, I had little or no idea of what life was all about – even in London. After all, I lived only in west London.
Getting into the swing of it
The decade of the sixties was sandwiched between the end of the post-war era and the conception of the computer age. It was ten years of change. Real change. Fundamental change. Omniscient change. Both in its upsides and its downsides. The baby boomers generation grew up in a world that was different to that in which their parents grew up. Not just somewhat dissimilar. Fundamentally not the same. British society and culture were changing like never before. If the sixties did swing, then they did not swing at the same rate all over the British Isles. In fact, many historians and social commentators argue that it was only London that was swinging. The rest of the country carried on as before, by and large, save for a few odd moments when things happened here and there or when the Beatles began playing in Liverpool. Most of what we now think of as the Swinging Sixties happened in London; and pretty much only in London. OK. There might have been a few small-scale scenes going on in some of the larger English cities, for some of the time. They have largely gone unnoticed.
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got swing
Jazz started in the USA; as did the blues. Like a lot of things that took off in America, it crossed the pond and took off in London. And then the rest of the UK. If ‘swinging’ is about music then there is ample evidence that a lot of it went on in London, during the sixties. I don’t know because even when I lived in the capital city, I never got involved in popular music. The only live gigs I went to in those days were orchestral concerts at the Royal Festival Hall or Promenade concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. As jazz or rock gigs; I hardly knew they existed. But that was something that was a consequence of my way of life. In my novel, I rectify that deficiency my forming my three leading characters into a jazz band. The three young men, around whom the plot revolves, discover they are musicians and singers. So, they form a jazz trio. ‘Just for a laugh.’ As they get into the swing of music-making, people respond to their sound very positively. They suddenly find themselves becoming very successful. Not something any of them had expected or planned for. They just happened to have three very well harmonised voices. They happened to be three talented musicians – a guitarist, a bass player and a drummer. After having some jam sessions in a friend’s flat, they are discovered by a man who works in the music industry. From there, they take off. So, that part of the storyline gives me a fair amount of scope to portray the music of London in the 1960s. Happily, for me, a lot has been preserved of the musical vibe of that age, one in which the mass media had started to get going.
The Dudley Moore trio offers a model for the jazz group in my novel.
Swinging both ways
Many see the middle to late sixties as being some kind of sexual revolution. Historians can look back and say ‘you ain’t seen nothing yet’ – knowing what the 1970s were to unleash on British society. The other sense – of the swinging sixties – was one dominated by sexuality. In England, homosexuality had been decriminalised in 1967. Even before then, London has a thriving gay scene; pubs, bars and clubs that catered for the vast numbers of gay men (and some women) who were living in London at the time. In fact, very many gay people moved to London to get away from the oppressive, small-mindedness of their home towns and villages. London as a cosmopolitan magnet that attracted people who wanted to escape from the tedium and prudery of English life as it was lived in the shire counties. London was also a boom town at the time: if you wanted a career that could really take off, the chances are you would find it in the capital. Documentaries and magazine articles of the time portrayed London as a kind of sexual utopia. A place where freedom flourished in a way it did not in the urban areas of the rest of the country. The capital offered the promise of an ample supply of jobs, work and sex and its streets were awash with people seeking just that. Not so much a scene, more a state of mind. They wanted it all, and they got it at once.
What you loose on the swings…
Not all of the sixties was good; many of us also saw some pretty bad shit. The 1960s did not swing for me – not in any conventional sense – that I have found. Not even musically. But I have it in mind to make my characters swing – in all directions. Even to the extent of making them musicians and forming themselves into a jazz band, as I said earlier. The three teenagers who are the lead characters in my book, move to London and embark on a voyage of self-discovery. They see the glittering and glamorous side of London. But they also catch glimpses of its dark side. It might be a city where the ‘streets are paved with stars’ – as Adrian puts it – but they also encounter some of the seamy underbelly of the capital and meet low-life figures who suckle on its paps. What stood out for me, during my time in London, was that anyone could meet anyone. It was not a classless society; it was just that class was not a barrier when it came to social life. As a teenager, I met many people who were either famous or rich or intellectuals – artists, playwrights, composers, gifted musicians, writers, philosophers, property magnates, millionaires.. people from all kinds of backgrounds and walks of life, from the upper echelons of society down to the low-life creatures who prowled the bars and clubs I went to. You arrive in London – from nowhere, being nobody – and overnight you could become somebody and you knew that you were definitely somewhere. That is how I saw the sixties. What London provided was a launchpad – once you got into the life of the metropolis, you could take off. Michael got a job as a Fleet Street newspaper reporter but left London to take an undergraduate degree at Bristol. Adrian did so well that he was offered a place in New York’s literary society. Only Tom remained in London – and he got a job with the BBC and started a career in broadcasting. Out of this melange of the ‘moronic fringe, the smart alecs and social climbers’ many sixties Londoners made it into the social, political, pop and financial stratosphere.
Come out swinging
Homosexuals never had it so good. The law changed and they suddenly found they were no longer criminals – just for being gay. What gay the gay population of London found, was a city full of opportunities. Swanky bars, cool clubs, the beginnings of celebrity DJs, actors who everybody knew were gay and achieved notoriety or infamy in the national media. In those days, nobody ‘came out’ as gay – it was a word that did not arrive in this country until the 1970s, when the ideas of the gay liberation movement were imported from the United States, following the Stonewall riots of June 1969. The characters in my novel reflect this pre-liberation era. Even the straight ones. Two of the writers act as ‘ethnographers’ of the gay scene, spending a lot of their evenings in gay haunts simply to observe the natives ‘in their natural habitat.’ Adrian wants to write gay stories into his novels and Michael sees some juicy column inches for his newspaper editor. In my book, I present the sixties as being a period of sexual fluidity (to use modern-day parlance.) Some of the gay men that the boys meet were the died-in-the-wool homos who were friends of Dorothy from the cradle to the grave. Others trod a more winding path. One of the three main characters – Tom – changes sides during the early part of the story; having started out as a typical heterosexual teenager, he meets a gay boy of his own age, they fall in love and become an affaire (a word that today would read ‘partner’.) No, not a bromance. What they get into is full on. Tom goes around telling all his friends that he has become gay. A gay. Newspaperman Michael is ambiguous; you can never really work out which side his bread is buttered on. Adrian remains implacably straight throughout, and wards off several attempted seductions by the gay men he meets. To set a story in the mid to late 1960s and not mention homosexuals and the gay scene, would be like writing about the Tudors and failing to mention the executions and beheadings that were rife at the time. But then, that’s London for you.
How to make a book go with a swing
I want my novel to be a success; well I would, wouldn’t I? But I want it to be entertaining and informative. That’s what I do. It’s not a historical novel. It’s, if anything, a coming of age story. But to make it readable, the story has to present entertaining characters who get into entertaining situations. The way I have written it, the book is mainly dialogue. Almost all of it is people talking. If major events happen, they talk about them. The events enter into the storyline only through what the characters say about them. Michael might have been there during the Grosvenor Square demonstrations, outside the American embassy, but he only talks about it. No part of the story narrates him being there, at the time. The big events of the 1960s are props that support the stage play. Things like the first men landing on the moon are talked about and described by characters who watched it on the television. Finding entertaining moments from the so-called ‘swinging sixties’ of London has not been difficult. Moments of fun, humour, frivolity, drama, revelation, self-discovery, pain, darkness, ambition, vision… all human life is there – in some abundance. Me, I have my person recollections to fall back on but I am also actively soaking up stories of other people who were there, at the time. It’s a soup of human experiences that has many ingredients. Even though I am now less than halfway through the first draft, I have not found it difficult to invent situations and happenings for my cast of characters.