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First two days in Japan: how the best-laid plans go awry

20150403 I’m in Japan, and settled, and quite pleased with myself. On the other hand, just about everything that could go wrong did indeed go wrong, and pretty much all of it was thanks to the those crazy French and all their strikes! This is the second time in a year I’ve been held up badly because of French strikes, the last time meaning we spent the night on a train in Gare de l’Est.  In fairness, it was a sleeper train so not uncomfortable! I’d planned out my first day in Japan so well. I’d even made a video I was going to edit with all the bits I was going to film once I arrived at 10:50 the next day. Yeahhhh...that wasn’t to be. The sinking feeling began when we sat on the runway at London City Airport for a good half-hour after takeoff time. The first leg of our journey was to Rome, and I only had an hour to make my connection as it was, so I wasn’t too happy. Eventually, the pilot came on the tannoy and told us that as we were meant to be flying over French airspace, the French air traffic control strike meant we weren’t going anywhere. Urgh! There were some pleasant assurances from the copilot that they’d know various flights were delayed in Rome, so they’d probably hold ours. They didn’t, of course. By the time we landed, our flight to Tokyo had already gone. It was just me and a Japanese guy at the counter after that. At first they wanted us to just go to a hotel and get the plane 24 hours later. Then they suggested we could go via Shanghai and arrive at 9:30pm. Eventually, two counters and numerous phone calls later, Turkish Airlines agreed to take us via Istanbul to arrive in Narita at 6:30. Well, an 8-hour delay was a whole lot better than a 24-hour one, and there was a chance my estate agent would stay a little late for me, so we agreed for that one. Our bags would be transferred, they said, and we just had to hang around. Of course, that meant most of my plans for my first day were out of the window, and there were a couple of things I really wanted to get done before Friday, so things became a big rush. At the Turkish Airlines counter, they told us they’d confirm our bags had been transferred when we got on the plane. So after chatting with the guy in the same position as me for a bit, we went our separate ways with about four hours to kill until our flight that evening. Had a few Euros so got a snack. Not fine Italian cuisine, but welcome nonetheless. 20150410 01 When the plane to Istanbul came, I asked about my bag. When the attendant began with ‘Actually...’ my heart sank. Yeah – Alitalia hadn’t sent our baggage over. But there was still 20 minutes until the deadline!   Silver lining #1!! Okay, let’s inject some positivity! On the plus side, the food on Turkish airlines is really good! Plus there was a good selection of films even on a relatively short hop. I watched Whiplash: have written a review here.   Being in Istanbul without having planned it was pretty weird, but I was just glad to be on my way. I’d emailed my estate agent to ask if the office was open a little later today, but at that point it was about 1am in Japan so I couldn’t get a response. Still, there’s a lot to see in Istanbul airport, so even if I couldn’t buy anything, it wasn’t unpleasant. 20150410 02 The final, longest leg of the flight was over to Tokyo. There was a fellow Brit on the seats in front, so I chatted with him quite a bit before watching Nightcrawler. My thoughts on that are here. I was going to watch more films – I usually watch around 5 on long-haul journeys – but it struck me that if I was unlikely to have my luggage in Tokyo, I wouldn’t be able to put my heavy hand luggage inside it to wheel along, so it would probably be better to finish The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and leave the book behind. It’s quite a thick book so better not to have to carry it!   Silver lining #2!! While the plane from Rome was crowded, the connecting flight from Istanbul was very late, local time (1am) and relatively empty. I got a whole row to myself, and so did all the people around me!   So between Nightcrawler, getting quite a lot of sleep (so much easier when you can stretch out over a row) and reading, the time passed quite pleasantly, and I finished the book about half an hour before landing. Review here! Upon arrival in Narita, passport control was quiet but still took a while as I was getting my Resident’s Card, which has in the last few years replaced the far better-named ‘Alien Registration Card’. By the time I got to the luggage carousels, all the flight’s bags had appeared, and as expected, mine was not there. Filled in a lost luggage form, which took quite a long time, and then just missed the Keisei Airliner. Well, to get to Nishi-Shinjuku, the Narita Express is probably a bit faster anyway, so I paid the extra 1,000-odd yen and headed there. It was already around 9:15 by the time I got to the estate agent’s. But the lovely lady there had stayed late just for me. I was so grateful! The boss was there too – and even gave me some green tea to drink. What a brilliant place! If you ever need to rent a place in Tokyo, I highly recommend Asumirai – especially as they can sort out rental from outside the country, which is a rarity. There were numerous forms to fill in, and I got to use my chop (my seal, which is Chinese and made of jade and which I’ve had since I was small, and serves as a hanko here), which was quite a thrill! I hope I get to stamp lots of other things. I need to get an ink pad, actually...Anyway, everything was explained and I got my key. But I didn’t go straight to my new home – instead I went to meet some friends on their last night in Tokyo!     Silver lining #3!! If they hadn’t lost my bag, I would have had to go to my apartment first to drop off my large suitcase. I would also have had to take it across Tokyo on the train, and lug it up several flights of stairs. Knowing as I do that it has been found and will be delivered to me, this was relatively convenient!   Met my friends in Akihabara, much later by then than I’d hoped, but we went for a quick drink and some beer – I got sushi, of course, because what else is so perfect for a first meal in Japan? They’d had a blast, and I met Coji who I’d been chatting with online and who is here for a year as well, so that’s another ally to do fun stuff with! Was great seeing Luke and Sai as well, and good to be welcomed by familiar faces at the start of this new adventure! Got the last train home and went to Donki for some essentials, like toilet roll and a light. The estate agent had warned me that there were no lights in the flat, but it was only the main ceiling light that didn’t work – the others did. Went to Bic Camera but it was closed, so grabbed a futon from Don Quixote and lugged it back to my flat, which actually isn’t that rare – I’ve seen a couple of people doing the same since. My sleeping patterns were still on UK time, so I wandered Shinjuku until about 4am. Kabukichou is a great place to people-watch. There are so many beautiful guys and girls in the entertainment business there, going about their strange twilight lives where appearance matters above all else! I’ll do a blog about them one day. I have to say, I’m fascinated. The next day there was a lot to do, as I had after all planned things for Friday but had the things I’d originally wanted to do on Thursday as well! First, though, I had to wait for a man to come to switch on my gas so that I could have hot water. This was the first test of my Japanese, and not knowing how to say ‘hob’, the conversation that followed was pretty confusing:   Guy: Can I ask, do you have a gas hob or an electric one? Me: Yes, I just need gas, I already have electricity. Guy: So it's gas? Can I take a quick look? Me: Please. Guy: (Looks at electric hob) This is electric. Me: Oh I see! Sorry. Guy: Can you come outside for a moment so I can show you what to do if you smell a gas leak? Me: Uhhhh (stands there awkwardly before finally getting it and awkwardly putting shoes on)   So that knocked my confidence just a little bit! But I had plenty to do so soldiered on. Next was the ward office, where within two weeks a new resident has to register their address and get health insurance. I could have left this, but a job I had lined up had a deadline of that day for sending bank details (which in the event was flexible, but I couldn’t know that), and I couldn’t get a bank account without registering with the ward. So that’s what I did. After that, it was off to the bank itself. I went to the Roppongi branch because they advertised English-speaking staff, and it was good to see Roppongi Hills. Had a Matcha Frappucino but hadn’t charged my laptop so didn’t stay long, and instead went back to Shin-Okubo to explore Koreatown and get some more basic furniture from Don Quixote. Sadly, I couldn’t go to the gig I wanted to because the tickets had sold out by the time I arrived, but jetlag began to set in anyway...and I’d only slept for one hour! That was my first day alone in Japan...and it’s been hectic but wonderful since then. I feel very content here and have been having a lot of fun. Long may it continue!

Manchester and the Welland Archives

A stern selfie near the Town Hall

A stern selfie near the Town Hall

It’s daily entries at the moment! It won’t last long, but for now a lot of things seem to be happening that I want to write about here on this public blog. Today, I’ve been in Manchester. I’m writing this on the rather nice Virgin train back to London Euston where you can plug in laptops at the tables and there’s a rather brilliant driver who came on the intercom pronouncing ‘vestibule’ very much like ‘vegetable’, so we now know what we can and cannot put in the vegetable areas. Anyway, I was urged in my PhD viva to go to see the Dennis and Joan Welland Papers, an archive kept in the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library. Coming all the way up here doesn’t come cheap – short of four-hour coach trips that I didn’t fancy at all – but it has been a pleasant visit so I don’t mind. I still need lots of distractions to keep my mind off certain personal issues so this sort of change of pace is welcome, even if it’s expensive!
The cover of an original 1920 edition of Owen's poems

The cover of an original 1920 edition of Owen's poems

I’ve been in Manchester before – quite a while ago, as a sixth-former. Manchester was on my UCAS form, you see, so I came up to do the entrance interview. I had friends living in Manchester at the time – or friends of friends, I’d have to look it up – which meant after my interview I could go and party. I don’t remember a whole lot about it, but I remember the trams, I remember that the bars on Canal Street were rather sterile and not at all as interesting as they seemed on Queer as Folk, and that I got very very drunk and did some mildly embarrassing things we won’t go into now. But yes, this was the first time since then. And my impressions were good. From what I’ve seen of it today, Manchester is really not very different from London, only with trams in the centre, more wide open streets and a much more concentrated centre, which is good for someone like me who likes to walk. It also seems to have a lot more men content to stand about in the streets with a can of cheap beer in their hand in the early afternoon, looking dazed and unwashed. Seriously, it seemed to be a thing. Maybe it’s a new trend and I’m just not cool enough to know about it. There were also a lot of very loud football fans today too, but ironically the ones kicking up a big fuss and singing their obnoxious songs were ones who, like me, had come up from London. Arsenal are playing Manchester United away, you see, so I was quite glad kickoff was as late as 19:45 so that I wouldn’t have to deal with angry hooligans. When I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly, first of all I decided to be a bit touristy, so went to look at Manchester’s Chinatown. It appears to largely be a car park, and rather too many all-you-can-eat buffet places, but there are big ornate gates, which is nice. I decided today was a day of selfies.
Nice big gate

Nice big gate

Put ‘John Rylands’ into Google Maps and was a bit confused that it was pointing me south, as when I had looked last night, the library seemed to be north of the station. Trusting in the power of the search engine, I followed it, thinking that if I was going south I could pop to the Curry Mile for dinner, and see if it deserved its reputation. Soon after, I found myself briefly at the end of Canal Street again – which at 1:30pm was a ghost town.
I possibly could have looked slightly more impressed

I possibly could have looked slightly more impressed

Around the corner I could see the impressive tower of the Palace Hotel, so took another selfie. I don’t look so great today, but oh well! I’m being a tourist oop north! Tomorrow I think I’ll bleach my hair again, as it looks dull.
I look positively irate

I look positively irate

Down Oxford Road I went until once again I was on the university campus. I began to suspect something was wrong, however, when I approached the modern, bland-looking library and didn’t see ‘John Rylands’ anywhere. The kindly lady at the reception informed me that while that building had at one point been called the John Rylands University Library, it wasn’t any more, and the John Rylands Library I was looking for was back in the centre!
Not only windswept, but in the wrong place

Not only windswept, but in the wrong place

So back I went, now feeling I probably shouldn’t have been such a tourist. On the other hand, around the town hall and Albert Square, the buildings got rather more grandiose again. Not far away, I finally found the rather pleasant gothic edifice with awkwardly-appended glass giftshop and entranceway that is the John Rylands library. The reading rooms were up on the fourth floor, and though time was tight by then – in the end I had to stay until the last minute and didn’t even finish getting through everything I’d reserved. There were still three slim folders (containing no more than 3-10 letters or notes) that I never got to see. Oh well!
Finally a different facial expression! I've found the place!

Finally a different facial expression! I've found the place!

  It was quite an odd, yet fairly moving, experience to go through a dead man’s personal effects – especially one who I’ve been reading for the past few years. Moving in a different way from going through Owen’s library, but more haunting in a way because Welland – a key Owen scholar – is not a well-known figure and his output is academic rather than artistic. Somehow it feels like one is another step removed from a noble purpose, reading an academic’s letters as opposed to those of the artist they have made their subject.
Welland's original doctoral thesis, with photograph

Welland's original doctoral thesis, with photograph

The most important part of the collection is the preliminary work done for The Posthumous Life of Wilfred Owen, which Welland never completed before his death. Though related to Owen, as the book would have covered the course of Owen scholarship from 1919 to the late nineties, and as Welland was a key figure in that scholarship, it would have been in many ways his memoirs. He never got too far with it, but what remains is a fascinating collection of anecdotes – and as when he began his thesis, Welland was one of only a handful of scholars working on Owen and many people who had known him well were still alive, he was able to do a wealth of research by meeting and/or corresponding with the likes of Sassoon, Harold Owen and Leslie Gunston.
The late Dominic Hibberd  really inspired me to pursue Owen as a subject

The late Dominic Hibberd really inspired me to pursue Owen as a subject

There was a certain thrill to holding letters written by Cecil Day Lewis, Philip Larkin and Siegfried Sassoon. Harold Owen’s writing is almost comically awful, as one would expect of the pantomime villain he often becomes in the mythical narratives of discourse about his brother. Yet he has his moments of affecting sweetness, just as in Journey from Obscurity. Blunden perhaps comes over as an unsung hero: he was editor of the TLS at the time Harold Owen wrote a letter to it effectively stating he was going to block Welland’s work and lying about him never having approached the family before publicly announcing his research intentions. It turns out that he had effectively stopped Harold from going into full-blown crazy mode and edited his letter to tone it down considerably before publication (with Harold’s consent). So much drama about this subject in the 1940s!
Harold Owen's writing (top) is terrible

Harold Owen's writing (top) is terrible

Having more detail about Sassoon’s interactions with Welland was also poignant. Sassoon as he grows old often comes over as petty and spiteful, but there is so much more sadness in how he spoke to Welland about Owen than is better-remembered for his viciousness towards Spender on the same subject (‘He was an embarrassment – he spoke with a grammar school accent’). It was slightly surprising to me – though telling – that in his letter to Sassoon’s son he implied that he intended to stress how much the eventual stature of Wilfred Owen owed to Sassoon. At the same time, it’s very amusing to read Sassoon’s bitchy letters to Welland about how he has agreed to let Harold Owen show him Journey of Obscurity when it is complete, and how he is ‘dreading having his 250,000 words dumped on me.’
Cheeky Sassoon

Cheeky Sassoon

A large part of my third chapter was original research about the posthumous reputation of Wilfred Owen, so this is absolutely stuff I should have read before submitting. There’s really no arguing that. I’m glad I have, now – but I’m definitely going to leave it to rest for quite a while before I resume work. Tomorrow, research into historians I omitted. And then a nice long break to write fiction. After the library closed, I went back to Manchester Piccadilly to make sure I knew where it was, but the restaurants there were all chains I could go to in London or pubs full of rowdy Arsenal fans, so I set off in search of something more local. Wandered past the Manchester branches of Forbidden Planet and Cyberdog and then found a nice pub with hipster clientele that specialised in pies. Feeling that was a pretty British thing to eat, and seeing several people with laptops feeling it wasn’t a bad place to sit in alone, I ordered steak pie with mash and some Guinness. It wasn’t bad – the pastry was a bit dry and what seemed to be a dog bowl full of mash was about double how much I needed or could finish – and it was better than just going into a the TGI Friday’s for the same old same old.
Owt wrong with a bit of pie an' mash

Owt wrong with a bit of pie an' mash

So endeth my Manchester adventure. And I quite enjoyed it, really. Though next time, it would of course be better to have someone to show me around!

Gallery visit – Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market at the National Gallery

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

Today I went to the new Impressionism gallery in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Back in November I enjoyed the Rembrandt exhibition there more than I expected to, but I’ve always rather liked Rembrandt and have never been keen on Impressionism, so was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed this more than anticipated as well. Quite a lot more, really – because it’s allowed me to really refine what I do and don’t like in impressionism. In fact, what I really am not very keen on is the painting of Monet. I actually really greatly admire Renoir’s work, and the greater part of Manet’s and Degas’ too – when they are not being too slapdash. Pissarro and Sisley, also well-represented here, are hit and miss, but at their best they are admirable. The problem I have with Monet is that I don’t feel his paintings stand alone. To appreciate the artistic statement he is making, one has to have an overview of his artistic development, and I think that is a weakness. With every Renoir painting I’ve seen and all but a few of those from Degas, no matter how experimental they are with their techniques, colour choices or compositions, there is still evidence of the master technician, the clever painter with an eye for light and texture, whose bold choices are justified by the picture as a whole. Manet in particular often balances the loose impressionist elements with touches of realism in just the right way to be clever and experimental while also new and challenging, which seems to me the manifestation of his love for Velasquez. But with Monet, it is clear that he pushes boundaries and made striking statements, but I can’t say that I enjoy the results. I don’t find them pleasing to look at, or painterly, or clever. He was clearly technically gifted and likely rigorously trained, but one has to see his early painting to know that – rather like Picasso. There isn’t that admirable cleverness or evidence of solid technique in his later works, and while I see that there’s something admirable in that academically – he truly embraced the statement Impressionism was making without any need to anchor himself in the old-fashioned – the result doesn’t please me or impress me.
Looking confused outside the gallery

Looking confused outside the gallery

The exhibition was based around the life of art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who championed the Impressionists when they were being rejected by the Salon and eventually ended up being vindicated as the ‘New Painting’ became highly fashionable. American money, of course, helped – as did leaving France when war was declare with Prussia and setting up a gallery in New Bond Street, London. Though close to bankruptcy on occasion, he is now considered a pioneer and set up many established practices such as running solo exhibitions for artists during their lifetimes and acting as a kind of patron to painters in need – including commissioning painted doors in his apartments and several portraits of his family members. I can’t say I’m touched on any emotional level by the impressionism I’ve seen, as I can be by the works of the Old Masters, the surrealists, the pre-Raphaelites or even some of the realists. Degas is probably the one most likely to paint something to move me, though Renoir paints things I find lovely to look at. After the gallery, to Chinatown for dim sum – though the rice and noodles we ordered were a bit excessive so a few dumplings had to be taken home as dabao!
A feast of dim sum!

A feast of dim sum!

Went to meet the band afterwards, and got all the letters ready to submit to labels as well as getting the audio ready to make a trailer. Once the four of us got together – for the first time in forever – we did some basic photos for publicity shots, though we’re going to arrange more with a proper photographer soon. All that remains is the artwork, the teaser and the website – then we’ll begin the submissions process for our distribution deal! Tomorrow, off to Manchester to do some more archival research. Then I’ll probably spend Tuesday in the library with the historical books I was recommended – and then go back to fiction-writing for a good long while.

Fine Dining blog post: Seven Park Place

Eagerly awaiting food in the lounge

Eagerly awaiting food in the lounge

This may be quite bad timing for a foodie blog post. I’ve been lucky enough to eat in almost all London’s top restaurants thanks to my parents’ love of fine dining, but this is the first time I’m writing a full blog post. But this trip to Seven Park Place is likely to be the last meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant I have in many months, because I’m moving to Japan soon and I’m pretty doubtful I’ll have the money to spend on extravagant meals – or anyone to go with if I do! So let me enjoy my last little moment of getting to sample some of the best cooking the capital can offer. Yes, I am only able to eat at this sort of restaurant thanks to dearest Mummy and Daddy’s affluence – but I’m certainly not going to refuse because this is an unearned treat. Most of the best meals I’ve ever had have been far beyond my means. We headed to Green Park the long way, as the useful part of the Jubilee Line was closed for the usual engineering works. The plus side of this was that we took the DLR to Tower Gateway and enjoyed some lovely views as the sun set.
Pretty, no?

Pretty, no?

Arrived just in time for our booking at St. James’ Hotel, an eccentric 5-star hotel tucked away in a cul-de-sac not far from the Ritz. To start with, we had some drinks in the lounge, where my brother was waiting, and his wife soon arrived to complete our party. The decoration there was fun – old-fashioned and ostentatious without being stuffy.
The exterior of St. James' Hotel

The exterior of St. James' Hotel

The restaurant itself was along similar lines, and odd in that it is relatively tiny. The restaurant covers only 26, even smaller than Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road, though it still felt more spacious and airy than La Gavroche. That  said, one party of eight was crammed onto a table elbow-to-elbow – though they didn’t seem to mind. The staff were friendly and attentive, though one forgot all about a question Mum asked her and later they brought us someone else’s coats from the cloakroom. The menu was explained well, and my brother ordered possibly the nicest wine I remember having in any of these restaurants from the sommelier. We started with a little amuse bouche – a pretty little salmon dish with beetroot. Then came my starter, which was delicious: seared foie gras with baby vegetables.
Seared foie gras

Seared foie gras

Foie gras is of course a controversial foodstuff, made by force-feeding geese. Whether they seem quite happy about this on a free-range farm or are cruelly pumped full of grain in a battery farm, the fact remains that they are being force-fed, and that rubs many people the wrong way. And yes, some of the same people turn a blind eye to worse things happening to battery-farmed chickens, but that does not change the unpleasant thought of how a bird’s liver is fattened. But I eat meat in awareness that animals suffer for it; there is no escaping that slaughter is unpleasant, and yet I am not vegan. I don’t find foie gras notably more morally repugnant than how steaks or lamb chops are made. I have chosen to go on eating meat, so fundamentally I must admit to not considering animals’ suffering equivalent to human suffering. I don’t think they experience the world in the same way. That may alienate some people, but I can’t just pretend never to have thought about it or be a hypocrite about it. And one of the finest flavours I have ever tasted has been the foie gras at Gordon Ramsay at RHR. This starter came close to that. That got a little heavy for a cheerful food blog...but I know that at some point I’m going to have to justify eating what I do and it might as well be now! Anyway, the meal continued with lovely pink saddle of lamb, cooked to perfection and perfectly balanced with root vegetables and a slightly sweet jus. This is where the wine came into its own!
Saddle of lamb

Saddle of lamb

Dessert was a chocolate mouse with salted caramel ice cream and fruit – stronger flavours than I expected and matched with a somewhat subtle dessert wine. Well, subtle as dessert wines go, which is to say that it didn’t taste like an alcopop. Like most of the best desserts, even though individual elements were strong, it was by far the best when every element was eaten together and the different flavours mingled on the palate.
Chocolate mousse

Chocolate mousse

After that they brought us another small amuse bouche that was fairly obviously a pre-dessert that they’d forgotten to give us beforehand (whoops) and was tasty but fairly indifferent after the strong dessert, and then some sweet little petits fours. I happily snapped up the lemon macaron!
Petits Fours

Petits Fours

Seven Park Place isn’t one of London’s most well-known restaurants, but this was a very fine meal. Chef William Drabble deserves the acclaim. Like Fera at Claridge’s, no dish was the best of its kind I had ever eaten, but absolutely every flavour was near the top of is class and there was a consistent excellence dish after dish. The portion sizes were also just right for a satisfying but not uncomfortable meal. Most of the talk about Seven Park Place will revolve around its distinctive setting. It’s not a striking, impressive location like Galvin La Chapelle, nor does it have the converted townhouse atmosphere of Texture – if it reminded me of any other similar restaurant, it was probably rather if Viajante had been downsized by half rather than closing. But love or hate the tiny, rather eccentric space – and I came down on the side of love – the food really needs to speak for itself, and for its strength of flavours, earthiness and the excellence of the ingredients, I was very impressed by Seven Park Place.
Approved!

Approved!

PhD Viva Day

Today was the day of my PhD viva! For the last five years, I’ve been undertaking a part-time doctorate. Though there was a rush at the end because of confusion over whether I could have a writing-up year, I submitted at the end of October. And today was my viva, the examination in which two experts assess the thesis and decide whether it was good enough to earn me my doctorate. It was an absolutely exhausting experience, actually. And while it certainly could have gone a lot worse, it absolutely could have gone better as well. This thesis will be in my life for a good few months yet.
20150225 01

Looking appropriately petrified just before my viva, on possibly my final visit to Royal Holloway.

  I got up a little earlier than I’m used to and got to Royal Holloway in plenty of time. As it turned out, it was an open day today, so the place was quite lively. I found my way to the Moore Building – the first time I’d ever been in there! – and after a few minutes recognized my examiners walking past. I’d looked up what they look like on the Internet, though both were taller than expected. My external examiner, who we’ll call Dr. C., is an expert on my subject, while Dr. M., the internal examiner, is a historian. My supervisor soon appeared and we went into our little room and set the recording device going. For the first hour, perhaps ninety minutes, I thought things were going very well. I could field the questions they put to me, and it was all really quite enjoyable. Things switched a little after that when we talked about shortcomings. The historian thought that my overview was a bit too weak – I hadn’t discussed some names he considered key, and he wanted me to add some of their arguments, which I thought wouldn’t be a difficult task. But Dr. C. was also disappointed that I hadn’t been delving into archives he had used to write his biography last year. Now, by this stage I already felt like my result was edging away from what I wanted it to be. There are six possible outcomes for the viva at Royal Holloway: an outright pass with no corrections, which is extremely rare; a pass with minor corrections to be done over three months; a pass with major corrections to be done over nine months; a request to make major revisions and resubmit in 12-18 months; the decision that the PhD is not satisfactory and only an MPhil will be awarded; and an outright fail with no chance of resubmission, which is at least as rare as an immediate pass. From this, it may be obvious at once that only the fringe outcomes are dramatic. There’s the possibility of the absolute elation of an instant pass and the debilitating despair of outright failing, but both are extremely unlikely. So whatever happens, passing a viva is going to be anticlimactic. There’s going to be months of work no matter what. Well, the discussions went on like that, until I was asked to go outside while the examiners debated between themselves. This went on for a very long time, and then they got my supervisor in for an even longer chat. I was pacing up and down outside the room for almost half an hour. Then finally they called me in again, and told me their decision. I can’t call myself a doctor yet. And since Dr. C. wants me to go and do more research in the archives, I don’t even fit into how the 9-month revisions are decided. So it’s a bad outcome for me, really. In practical terms, there’s not a huge difference between the 9-month revision and the 12-month revision, but I would have much, much preferred 9 months. For one, it’s deemed a pass. For another, I don’t have to pay the admin fees that I have to when revising and resubmitting. But that was what they decided, in the end. A revise and resubmit outcome. Which many consider a fail.
20150225 02

The picture gallery was finally open, so I had a visit despite my disappointment. Looking rather posh!

  It’s not failing, really. Before submission, I always intended to take another year to finish, until some issues with funding came up. And with this, I’ll have a detailed examiner’s report to tell me exactly what to do within that year. On the other hand, they’ve decided I don’t need a second viva, just to send in the completed version with the additional materials informing the argument. And if I tick all their boxes, I should be certain to get my doctorate. But...I don’t have it yet. It’s pretty unlikely I’ll have it this year. This is not the outcome I had hoped for. On the train on the way home, I read a lot of accounts online of other people who have been in my shoes. Almost all of whom – or possibly all of whom, as there were no anecdotes suggesting otherwise - resubmitted to receive their doctorate. There were a lot of people who felt the same negative things I did: sick of their thesis and feeling like just dropping it, that the examiners really could have just given them major corrections, that there are just more important things in life now than academia even if it’s taken a whole lot of work. Ultimately, I’m just back where I was before I got the idea to rush my submission. I’m going to pay a fraction of what I would have done otherwise for another year. I was always going to have to do revisions. As I don’t need another viva this is no big deal regarding plans to go to Japan, though I’ll need to try and get to the archives Dr. C. expects me to go to within the next month – and visit the library for history books. It’s just that...well, I could have been celebrating a pass right now, and I’m not. And I don’t know how exciting I’ll find the prospect in a year.
The Princes in the Tower by Millais - probably the most famous picture in the gallery

The Princes in the Tower by Millais - probably the most famous picture in the gallery

On the plus side, there was well-timed good news waiting for me at home. A silly extras job might be lined up for next week, but much better than that, my agent was in touch in good spirits – she’s had a very positive message from one of the editors we submitted to, who is taking my book to his publishing house’s acquisitions meeting. Plus another editor has sent a note to say she’s halfway through and loving it so far. So that’s hugely encouraging! Having a call on Friday to discuss ‘strategy’ – I’m not sure, but we might use this interest to hopefully drum up interest from our first choices. Yay!

Ten Cardinal Sins of Querying Agents and Why Not to Panic if You Have Committed Them

20150108My 'staying calm, totally no pent-up panic here' face

So at the moment I am out on submission. My agent has sent my manuscript to various editors, and all I can hope is that when New York thaws out, one of them will love it enough to want to take it on! One day, I’ll write a blog post about this time, but for now, I’m trying to work on the next project. But it’s tough to concentrate on it with my mind over in NYC. So instead, it’s time to write a silly blog post!

26068_667381031270_3871854_nHow I imagine New York looks at the moment

One thing people have been asking me lately was for tips on how to query an agent. Well, I’m by no means an authority, but I can at least help with what to avoid. There are some things – not necessarily intuitive – that are definitely bad ideas when approaching agents. Thus, here are what I would consider the cardinal sins of querying agents: -  
  1. Immediately submitting to absolutely all the agents you can think of
Chances are, your submissions process will also be a learning process. After a couple of months and a few rejections, you might go back through what you’ve been sending and realise that there’s room for improvement. I know I did. You might make big changes to your opening chapters, or realize your synopsis could be tighter. If you’ve submitted to every agent in the known universe already, where is there to go? Batches of 5-10 submissions are usually recommended.

 JackStawp!

  1. Not doing any research on agencies or particular agents
Sometimes a particular agent can be pretty inscrutable. Sometimes you’ll be submitting to a department rather than an individual. Sometimes you’ll address your manuscript to one agent and get a reply from another at the same agency. But as far as it’s possible, seek out someone you think would like your work, and that you would be thrilled to work with. Many are on Twitter. Others have done interviews online you can look up. If you know who they are, you’re more likely to connect with them. Which brings us to another sin...  
  1. Never personalizing your cover letter
To an extent, it can be hard to include a personal touch with some agencies. And that’s okay. But it’s certainly worth looking if there’s an author who you love and who influenced you on the agency’s list. Perhaps that’s how you found out about the agency in the first place. If you’ve met the agent, that’s probably worth mentioning. Definitely don’t just write one email and BCC dozens of agents into it. They will almost certainly know. Equally, if you prefer postal submissions, don’t print out numerous cover letters with a blank space for the name that you can fill in with a pen later. A bit of personalization can go a long way!  
  1. Not being careful with copy & paste
If you have personalized your cover letter, for the love of all that is good in this world make sure you don’t leave that in and send it to the wrong person. Don’t talk about the writer on their list you admire if they’re actually represented by the last person you queried. Don’t talk about sitting next to someone on a plane that you’ve never met on the way to a writing conference. And please, please make sure you don’t address someone with the name of the last person you wrote to, either.   Grandma

 Do this and Grandma will give you her look of disapproval

  1. Submitting before you are ready
If you’ve played the submissions game a few times with different books, you will probably start to think you can optimise the process a smidgen. After you get those first three chapters perfect, why not send them right away, then while you’re waiting months for some replies, work the rest of the book? Ah, but what if an agent loves your proposal, reads your sample in a day and asks for the full manuscript immediately? It certainly happens. And if you’re not ready, you could be put on the spot.  
  1. Ignoring the guidelines
If they don’t represent sci-fi or fantasy, don’t think they’ll make an exception for you. If they ask you to send just two chapters, don’t send three because that’s what you’ve got ready. Don’t send a section from the middle of the book because you think it’s more exciting than your first three chapters. Don’t use scented pink paper for a postal submission or substitute a clip of your dramatic recital instead of a Word document. If they ask you to submit using a form, don’t ignore it and use email. Your agent has to know you can be professional and do what a publisher asks of you.  
  1. Going overboard with the cover letter
Your letter is meant to do two things: sell your books as a product – and show that you are a person the agent would like to work with. And you should do this as snappily as possible. If your cover letter would need to be published in multiple volumes, you’re probably doing yourself no favours. Relevant things to include would be things like previous publications, whether you have an online platform for marketing and whether your life experience makes you an authority on your subject. The names of every pet you’ve ever owned can probably be excluded.  
  1. Mistaking a synopsis for a Hollywood movie trailer
The synopsis is meant to relate what happens in your book. Don’t give it a cliffhanger or fill it with mystery. Don’t try to show off your highly allusive narrative style, even if you’ve honed it to perfection over many long years like a gemcutter fashioning the most exquisite cabochon. Don’t try to turn the underappreciated genre of synopsis-writing on its head with a daring innovation. Keep it simple – but of course as gripping and intriguing as possible.  
  1. Taking rejections personally
Rejections happen. If you’re looking into getting an agent, I’m sure you’ve seen a list of how many hugely successful novels were rejected. Even if everything you’ve read about an agent makes you think you would be a perfect match for their tastes, you may still get rejected. The agent may have a similar book already, or feel they aren’t knowledgeable enough about your particular setting, or think they will have difficulty placing it with an editor. If you are knocked back, don’t take it too hard: keep trying until you find someone who falls in love with what you wrote!

soccerwrong5aw They misspelt 'rong'

  1. Giving up
The only time to give up on your manuscript is when you’ve finished another one and you’re certain that it’s far better than what you’ve been sending out. Even then, it’ll always be there waiting for you to revisit sometime in the future, so you’re not really giving up on it! There are many, many agents out there and sad to say, it may be the very last one you contact who falls in love and asks to see more. Of course, it might be the first, or indeed, there might be a bunch of them who all love it! So do your research, polish until you’re happy with how much everything shines and stay positive. That will maximize your chances, which is all you can do!   So there we have it. Ten deadly sins. But that’s not the end of the post – not yet! Because I promised something else in my title. I promised to say why you shouldn’t panic if you are a sinner. So why not? Well, because I have made every one of these mistakes, at one point or another. I’ve sent cover letters with the wrong name, and had full requests when I only had five chapters written, given up for months on end...and worse besides. But even after making these mistakes, I still found the right agent for me. So I urge you not to give up – and hopefully you’ll be able to find the right agent without having to search for quite as many years as I did!

My brand spanking new website!

Random pic to say helloHere we are then – my first blog entry. Well, my first one here, on my shiny new homepage. I’ve actually been blogging online in various forms for over a decade – but the less said about LiveJournal the better, right? I should to introduce myself. My name is Bryan, and I’m a writer from London, England. I finally feel I can say that with confidence – I’m a writer. Not that I’m a student who writes, or I’m a coding administrator working on a book. You see, on Friday, my agent and I decided my manuscript was good enough and now it’s going out on submission. She’s already pitched to one of the big ones and apparently they’re keen to read my book. I’m not sure I can adequately convey how exciting that is! And while anyone is free to say they’re a writer whenever they like, this is what has really made me feel I’ve made a transition. It’s finally happening! It’s been many years and many thousands of words since I first set out to get published. In that time, I’ve been to no fewer than three graduation ceremonies (BA, MA and MPhil), finished a doctoral thesis (viva next month!) and held a dozen or more jobs to support my studies. I’ve been a PA, a data entry administrator, a logistics officer...even for a short while a professional drummer, which of course was too good to last. And I’ve written half a dozen books. While most of them at least had an agent request a full-length manuscript, sadly things went no further than that. Until this time! After finishing the first draft of my thesis, I wanted a break from the academics – so I wrote a fun, silly book for kids. And that book was the one that seemed to catch the attention of the people I sent it to. It was an incredible feeling when not just one but five agents asked for more! In the end I signed with Fiona Kenshole at Transatlantic Literary Agency, who really seemed to understand exactly the book I wanted to write and was overflowing with good advice on how to improve it. Nothing has been set in stone yet, of course. Nobody has accepted my book, or done any deals. But I’m very optimistic and excited about what the next months will bring. Meanwhile, I’ve decided I want a dramatic change of scenery and lifestyle, so am going to move to Japan at the end of March. I plan to teach English to support myself while finding time to write - and will hopefully have plenty of other adventures too. Realistically, I’m not going to be published for at least a year, so at first things might be slow, but I’ll try to keep the blog updated, and will hopefully make a few vlogs on the way too. If you’re interested in coming along for the ride, please do like my Facebook page or give me a follow on Twitter. I’ll be putting random nonsense on Instagram, too, because after all that’s what Instagram is for, right?