Happy Towel Day to you

A pyramid of black towels

I read in the paper that today is Towel Day – Douglas Adams’s birthday. He would have been 61. It’s called Towel Day because, as the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy teaches us, all a man (specifically an interstellar freebooter and stowaway) needs is a towel.

Douglas Adams has always meant a great deal to me. I was nine when I first read the Guide, and it changed my life.

It must have been in my first term at middle school. I had never really understood why nothing in Doncaster in the early 80s was the way it was on TV or in books. Everything confused me. I particularly didn’t understand school, which seemed to have been deliberately constructed to make me miserable. How else to explain swimming and maths? Then there was assembly and picking teams in PE. And the few friends I’d had in my first school seemed to have met new people and disappeared, leaving me alone.

Douglas Adams told me that I wasn’t alone. He said, with amused certainty, that the world – the Universe, in fact – is absurd and makes no sense at all. That was a deeply, deeply comforting thing for the nine-year-old me to hear. It might seem a bit of a bleak message, but it allowed me to feel that I might not be the problem. And it was conveyed in a tone of voice that instantly appealed to me.

I can’t for the moment find my copy of the Guide, but I can quote a bit from the opening pages from memory. Ford Prefect – the towel-carrying interstellar freebooter who takes boring dressing-gown-and-tea obsessive Arthur Dent under his wing – is convincing a man from the council’s planning department to lie in front of some bulldozers.

     ‘You want me to lie in front of these bulldozers?’ (Says the council planner.)
     Ford nodded.
     ‘In the mud?’
     ‘In, as you say, the mud.’

There was something about that interjected ‘as you say’ that I loved. It was a bit like putting food in my mouth and finding that it stimulated a taste bud that I’d never previously known I had. And then there was a flight of fancy about the council planner being a direct male descendent of Genghis Khan, and this meaning that in times of stress he had the sudden uneasy feeling that a crowd of bearded men with spears were all shouting at him.

Pretty much all of Douglas Adams’s books contained things that pleased me just as much, and they have all stayed with me. Even today, when I have flying dreams they happen in the Adams way – I have to distract myself as I’m falling, so that I forget to hit the ground. When I re-read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency a couple of years ago, I was amazed at how familiar it all was – how thoroughly it had soaked in.

I can only say that Douglas Adams helped me considerably to deal with the world around me. Or perhaps he helped me to not deal with the world around me, but in a new and rather more satisfying way.

Whatever the case, I – and several million other lonely nine-year-olds – am very grateful to Douglas Adams. And I’m sad he is gone.


When is success?

Like many people, I tend to judge myself against those who have more than me. This practice – unfortunately but inevitably – means that I constantly feel like a failure, no matter how I am doing.

A portrait of Clausewitz

Clausewitz: victory depends on having “limited aims” – otherwise you exhaust yourself

When I decided to self-publish, I tried to avoid this trap by defining some milestones in advance. I decided it would be too difficult to define success, but that I could try to define stages of non-failure. At a point when no one had bought the book, I tried to imagine having sold various numbers of copies, and thought about whether I’d class each as success or failure.

The point at which I found it difficult to imagine being able to tell myself that the whole thing had been a failure came at 750 copies.

That was the magic number (or perhaps the not un-magic number would be more accurate), but there were some way-stations before that. I calculated that I wouldn’t sell fewer than 12 copies unless my mother and close friends turned against me. Thirty seemed the point at which sales purely out of politeness would stop. A hundred was an important marker because of the two zeros in it. Then I overheard a couple of authors at the London Library talking about a friend whose commercially published book had sold only 312 copies in a year, so overtaking that was important. Then there was my official break-even number of 476 (an underestimate), and then a long gap.

Finally, a week or so ago, I reached 750. I can report that, having set the number in advance, I feel less like a failure now. Of course I still slip sometimes. I know a few writers who have achieved out-and-out success, with award nominations, big advances from publishers and tens or hundreds of thousands of sales. But it is now a bit easier to let that go.

The number one rule of blogging

Our cast photo

Upstairs Downton

The one thing everyone agrees on, if you have a blog, is that you should be completely consistent with it. You shouldn’t, for example, suddenly stop posting for three months. Nevertheless, that is what I have done. I am a maverick, tearing up the rule book with laxity and inertia.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve done since my last post, in case you should find yourself wondering. I ran my Guardian masterclass (which went very well because the people in it were lovely), succumbed a little to the winter blues, dashed off romantically to Hanoi, where I fell ill, then returned to London, where I’ve been living quietly ever since. This last month I’ve been writing a short story, doing unnecessarily elaborate financial planning, working on my writing training techniques, seeing friends and doing all the other usual background activities that make up a life.

I’ve also been doing more improv, which is generally quite a good blues-retarder. I’ve done workshops run by the excellent Cariad Lloyd, who teaches David Shore’s techniques, as well as performing in shows with my group – Upstairs Downton – the next of which is on Saturday at 7.30pm, as part of London ImproFest. It’s at the Lion and Unicorn in Kentish Town, in what is almost exactly midway between a small theatre and a room above a pub. Our show is basically an improvised spoof episode of a period TV drama like Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey, and people have been very nice about it. There’s even talk of touring Texas with it, which seems unlikely – but then most things do.

Guardian Masterclass

I’ve just been to visit the Guardian’s offices again and see their training rooms. Now I’m really looking forward to my Self-Publishing Step by Step masterclass. I’ve chosen a smallish room, to make it as easy as possible for everyone to talk, with a big window and a view over the canal, because I think everyone needs as much daylight as possible at this time of year. I should have taken a photo.

Everyone there is extremely nice, and there’s someone there for the whole weekend in case something breaks down – and also to give everyone a guided tour of the newsrooms at lunchtime.

I’m particularly looking forward to my two guests. On Saturday afternoon we have Orna Ross, founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors (of which I’m a member). I’ll be interviewing her (and everyone can join in) about why she went independent and why this is such a good time to self-publish. And on Sunday we have Fiona Robyn, author of the bestseller The Most Beautiful Thing. We’ll be talking to her about how she marketed her book in a way that felt easy and natural.


Another good review on Amazon

This appeared today on Amazon:

Really funny and pacy. Some of the writing is reminiscent of P G Wodehouse. Very witty and accurate descriptions of London mixed with complete fantasy.

There’s very little I like more than hearing that people like my book, especially when they have no reason to be nice about it. This reviewer is anonymous, but I’m pretty sure she’s not my mum. (Why do I think this is a woman? I don’t know. The soubriquet is ‘SR “Solipsist”‘, which doesn’t give much away, except for a good vocabulary. Then again, women have, on average, larger vocabularies than men, and they read more.) Anyway, thank you very much, SR. Your review is concise yet specific: a model of its kind. And I apologise if I’ve mistaken your gender.

P.S. Thanks too to S Beaton, whose Amazon review I’ve also just noticed. I’m very glad that TPAOJF has made it to Japan.

Quirky, absurd, whimsical

The Guardian review got me thinking about these words. In a way I’m surprised they exist, since there is very little in Britain that isn’t quirky, absurd or whimsical.

I was in Derbyshire last weekend, where I visited Chatsworth House, the ancestral home of the dukes of Devonshire (the earls of Derby, of course, live in Knowsley House near Liverpool). Here I found that the Sixth Duke of Devonshire had caused the local village to be moved about a quarter of a mile away because he felt it spoiled his view.

I then went to nearby Haddon Hall, where I found that the 600-year-old great hall had a manacle attached to one wall. Apparently, if a man didn’t drink enough at dinner, his wrist would be put in the manacle and the wine he hadn’t drunk would be poured down his sleeve*.

And that’s just two stately homes in the Peak District.


*Has anyone done any research on the effectiveness of sleeve-based penalties? I instinctively feel that even the most hardened criminal would mend his ways rather than have something poured down his sleeve.


Guardian review

Today I’m overjoyed by this review by the beautifully named Alfred Hickling in the Guardian:

Anyone suspicious that the publishing industry may be run by a small group of corporate-minded killjoys will applaud the DIY-ethic of Shevlin, who has published this quirky comic novel himself. The perpetually astonished hero finds himself in a conspiracy involving murder and the theft of cabinet-level documents, having done no more than give directions to a large man wearing a balaclava on the Holloway Road (mental note: men in balaclavas are either thugs or terrorists, unless they have very poor circulation in their ears). Shevlin’s offbeat brand of urban absurdism should appeal to anyone susceptible to Nicola Barker’s whimsy, though the penchant for made-up onomatopoeic verbs can become a bit trying: “scooshed”, “tocked” and “prunked” in a paragraph about parking a car. But you can’t help being tickled by Shevlin’s view of Covent Garden as a place “thick with mildly diverting notions which now had their own branded carrier bags”; or the Holloway Road afflicted by “the North London disease that turns any unwary building into a chicken shop”.

It should appear in the paper this Saturday, or possibly the next (i.e. the 13th)…

Low-key supernatural, part II

On Thursday evening I went to a pub called the Lamb, on Lamb’s Conduit Street. I was sitting in the low bit at the back, beside the door leading to the stairs (and thence to the lavatories and powder room). Kerry came back with our second drinks while I still had about an inch of my first, so she put it on the table next to me and sat down.

She told me that she had found out about the glass screen around the bar. It’s a very old pub which still has a lot of its Victorian features, including a raised frosted glass partition running all around the bar, with each pane on hinges allowing it to be opened so that you can speak to the bartenders. (See the picture below) Apparently it allowed the middle-class people in the left-hand side of the pub to avoid being seen by the working-class people in the public bar on the other side of the pub. Kerry told me this and then said, “It’s called a snob screen”.

As soon as she said these words my beer was knocked off the table and spilled all over the carpet at my feet. It was done neatly, avoiding my trousers and bag and leaving very little spillage on the table. In fact, there was a tidy ring of beer on the table, showing that the glass had been a bit over six inches from the two nearest edges. On one side of this ring, there was a trace of beer running perhaps three inches, as though the glass had been taken up from the side of the table nearest the door. All the rest of the beer was on the floor, along with the glass, which hadn’t broken.

I was frozen in place, waiting for my senses to supply an explanation – which usually follows when some surprising event happens. I thought I’d suddenly realise that I had made an expansive gesture without realising, or that someone had walked past. But no explanation followed. Neither of us had moved, no one had passed, the table wasn’t on an angle.

I went to the bar to replace my beer and told the barman what had happened. “Funny you should say that,” he said. “We’ve had five or six people tell us the same thing in the last few weeks.”

He still charged me for the new pint though.