Wednesday, 25 May 2011

New Jacket Required: Disliking Your Own Book Cover, And Why It's Such A 2011 Thing To Do

Above is the cover of my last-but-one book. Do you like it? I don't. Not much, anyway. I wouldn't go so far as to say I loathe it, but I think it looks like a birthday card you'd get for a distant aunt who likes cats but lives in a house you don't really like visiting owing to its unusually large amount of air fresheners. Besides the fact that it's a little bit cheeky, and, y'know, features a cat, I don't think it sums up the spirit of the book at all.

First, there's the sky blue background: it's a smallish point, but I don't think it's a very sky blue book. It just doesn't have a sky blue feel to it. If anything, it's a purple book, which the odd flash or green and puke yellow. Then there are the jeans. Are they my jeans? No, they are not. Obviously it would be a bit much to expect a photographer to come to my house, and take a picture of my own jeans just for authenticity's sake, but these don't even look like jeans I would have worn at any point during my adulthood. I just looked through my wardrobe, and I don't have any jeans that slightly resemble these jeans, not even in my "gardening clothes" section. They look like the kind of jeans my nan would have worn in 1991, whilst enjoying a casual afternoon smoking, pruning the roses in her yard, and relaxing with the smooth sounds of her Val Doonican cassettes.

People often say to me: "Your kitten, on the cover of your book, looks like a naughty fellow! What's his name?" To which I confess sheepishly that I have never met the feline on the cover of the book in question, nor its equally stand-offish older contemporary on the superior - though still not perfect - cover of its sequel, Talk To The Tail. I don't even know their names. These are aloof actor cats of the kind who would sneer at me, if I tried to befriend them in the street. I have put out a few feelers, trying to ascertain their identities, but heard nothing. They never write, they never call, they never do a big enthusiastic waz on my Buddleia. It's beneath them.

Many readers I've spoken to think the same about the cover. A couple have made comments along the lines of, "Well, I saw the jacket, and it looked a bit soppy, so I was going to give it a miss, but then I thought I'd give it a go, and I'm glad I did." Similarly, there are probably some who've liked the cover, then found it misleading, and perhaps been disappointed by the book's content. ("This doesn't LOOK like a book written by someone who calls his own cats dickheads! If it did, i would never have bought it!") The biggest problem is perhaps less the cover itself, and more the fact that many readers out there probably don't realise that I haven't given it the thumbs up. And why should they think I didn't like it? It's my book, and surely a person has to like his own book cover, at least a bit, if it's out there on shelves in bookstores all over the nation?

My publishers are currently putting together the paperback version of Talk To The Tail. They have some enthusiastic quotes for it, from Stuart Maconie and The Mighty Boosh's Rich Fulcher and a couple of newspapers, so it's a reasonably exciting time. I thought it would also be a good time to change the Under The Paw cover - a couple of people from my publishers, Simon And Schuster, have hinted they're not too keen on it either - so we had two paperbacks of a similar design, more consistent with their content, but they've decided not to. Their reason for this is needing to appeal to the "supermarket buyers". This was the reason why the the above cover was chosen. Initially, Simon And Schuster had selected a cover I rather liked for the paperback version of Under The Paw: a picture of a tabby with some impressive cattitude sneering from in front of a duvet, between a man's poking-out stockinged feet. Yet they decide to change it. The reason? "Asda wouldn't take it. They need a very simple cover that won't confuse the one-book-per-year market. Something cute, like the one for Marley And Me." This, even though the hardback of Under The Paw featured an image of two my own cats - an image far more in keeping with the book's chaotic, demented nature - and Tesco had deigned to include it in the store for a month, which was extended to an extra month, due to good sales figures (and, apparently, outselling John Prescott's autobiography in some stores).

I am not biting the hand that feeds me here. I am not going to fall out with my publishers over this. They know how I feel, they're not going to change it, and I know there's nothing I can do about it, and that's just The Way It Is. I also don't really feel too Jonathan Franzen about it. If Oprah Winfrey wanted to stick her Book Club sticker on the front of my book, I'd tell her to go ahead and go mad, stick three on if she liked. She could even superimpose her big grinning face over mine, in the pic of me with my cats on the back cover, if that was the kind of crazy shit that got her off. I never stop feeling fortunate to have books published and I realise that, in the current climate, publishers need to do what they can to sell books where they can. When my agent and I decided that the image on the initial trade paperback cover for my first book, Nice Jumper, was too complicated, we were able to get it changed to a simpler image for the mass market paperback, but that was in early 2003, and the publishing industry has become a more cutthroat, hand-to-mouth place since then.

Compare this to the decision-making process that goes into the artwork for an album, though: album sleeves are an integral part of the feel of a record, inseparable from it, in many cases. Why should books be any different? After all, books often take longer to create than albums, require even more commitment and staying power. I'm in a weaker position than some to complain, as my six books are fluffy affairs on the whole, and none stretch to more than 85,000 words. If I had spent five years writing and researching the Great American Novel, then been told I had no say in the way it looked, I'd feel rightly miffed. I recently spoke to a well-known comedian who also makes records, and had been thinking of self-publishing his first book. Waterstone's had been interested, but had said they wouldn't stock it, if he stuck with his proposed cover. His reaction was: "Sod that." Because of the background he was coming from, there was no question of compromising. He'd chosen exactly the sleeve art he wanted for his albums, so why should he compromise any more with his book? All but very few books are labours of love, involving sweat and sacrifice, and a person wants to feel proud of them when they're done. I don't want to put my all into a book, then only be able to love it in the way you'd love a person close to you who'd willfully disfigured him or herself slightly.

This is how far we've slipped, as authors, out of necessity, and it's devaluing books, as Sam Jordison explains in this excellent Guardian blog. We live in an age a long way from the one which produced these sensitively designed 1970s Penguin versions of Robertson Davies' Deptford Trilogy which I picked up the other day (not from Asda). Do I want my books in Asda and Sainsbury's? Of course I want my books in Asda and Sainsbury's. During the first week Under The Paw went into Asda, I hit the bestseller list for the first and only time in my life and I very much hope, when Talk To The Tail is published in paperback in January next year, I hit it for the second time. But Asda were selling Under The Paw for less than £4. Most magazines cost more than £4 these days. Surely that's wrong - and not just because it makes for piddling royalty figures? A book should cost more than that. A book should be more than that. It's not a soulless CD; it's something to be stroked, and to love on the outside, as well as the inside.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Why I Love Scarecrows: A Column For The Guardian

The first of my new monthly countryside columns for the The Guardian's Life And Style section...

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Happy 20th Birthday Sloan: The Band That Most Made Me Want To Write For A Living

All writers have an early turning point or moment of encouragement that kicks off their career in earnest, gives them that little extra push to makes them believe they are capable of doing what they love well enough to be paid for it. I think I have a few, but a couple particularly stand out. The first was the day in March 1996 when I drove my battered 1970s Toyota home from my girlfriend's house and found my dad waiting in the kitchen.



The night before, after two months of working night and day on my self-edited music fanzine, I'd rushed from the Nottingham Maid Marian Way branch of Pronta-Print to the post-box, just catching the last post. And I mean just. I'd breathlessly thrust four envelopes, each containing a copy of the sometimes monthly lo-fi indie rock fanzine Words I Might Have Ate, each addressed to a different editor at the NME or Melody Maker, into the hands of the postman himself.

Pretty much everything I've achieved as a writer ostensibly dates from the intertwining fortunes of that day: the fact, as a university dropout and failed sportsman, being threatened with eviction by his parents, I'd worked so unusually hard on that sixth issue of Words I Might Have Ate; the fact that I'd chosen Ted Kessler as one of its recipients; the fact that he'd picked it up and actually read it, and not put it straight on the slush pile, as most of the NME editors probably did with the hundreds of DIY publications they received from wannabe writers; the fact, probably, that I happened to have given a rave review to the new album by The Afghan Whigs, Kessler's favourite band of the minute, and published it just days after the CD had been released. Kessler did not go on to become my mentor in any fairy-tale fashion, and I soon found other outlets to which my writing was more suited, but I will always be hugely grateful to him for thinking outside the box of Journalism graduates and Oxbridge-educated interns and offering that first break to a Northernish hick who didn't then and has never had to explain since to any employer that he hasn't got any better academic qualification than 5 GCSEs at C grade and a shoddy BTEC National Diploma.

On the other hand, by then, I'd been pretty sure I'd get a job at the NME for a year or more. This seems a rather bold conviction, considering the poor grasp of grammar and sentence structure I had at the time, but I had the confidence of youth and the determination of a teenage golf fiend backing me up. Only four years previously, I'd still firmly believed I'd be the next Seve Ballesteros, so believing I could get paid thirty quid a week for writing reviews of Guided By Voices and Superchunk gigs perhaps didn't seem such a big leap of faith. I'd also already had my cheaply-produced magazine featured on BBC2's What The Magazines Say and mentioned on Radio One's Evening Session, witnessed Green Day dedicate a song to "the editorial team" (me, my girlfriend, and a bloke called Paul whose function was mostly to contribute some nice drawings and slightly ill-fitting reviews of "intelligent techno" CDs) at their Sheffield gig, managed to persuade several branches of Virgin Megastore to stock it (the defunct Sheffield store still owes me £4.40 to this day) and had the legendary DJ John Peel phone my house to congratulate me on a "good read". Perhaps an even more persuasive nudge in the right direction had come two years previously, when I received a letter from Jay Ferguson in Canada.

Jay Ferguson was not the former songwriter for sixties psychedelic jazz rock specialists Spirit and dirty 1970s rockers Jo-Jo Gunne of the same name, but the guitar and bass player - and one of the four songwriters - for Sloan, from Halifax, Nova Scotia: back then, a band who served as a kind of Canadian Cars-meets-Beach Boys answer to grunge. There were many bands I featured in Words I Might Have Ate that I tried to like more than I did or wrote about because I felt like I should write about them due to cultural pressure, but Sloan were not one of them. They'd been all-but-ignored by the music press, I'd missed them the one time they'd toured in the UK, and none of my friends had heard of them. Picking up their debut 'Smeared' LP in the bargain bin at Selectadisc in Nottingham a year earlier had been a lucky dip, but one that resulted in a sound that connected the feedback-heavy grunge bands who'd saved me from golf, and the 70s rock I'd loved in my pre-teens (the music I ultimately loved most, even though I hadn't yet admitted that to myself).

I'd sent Jay the first issue of Words I Might Have Ate in early 1994: a laughably amateur effort, printed straight from my dad's Apple Mac Classic and pasted in wonky columns,onto some old graph paper I had left over from school, with errors crossed out in pen and Pritt-Stick dirt abundant. Unthinkably, Jay had written to me - to me, just down a lane, not far from Eastwood, and some cows! - to say how much he liked the mag, and included a CD of Sloan's second album, 'Twice Removed', and a Sloan badge and car sticker. The opening song was called 'Penpals' and it was obvious from the lyrics - and Jay's letter - that Sloan were an all-round nice bunch of chaps, who did their best to answer their fans' letters. But they were also a proper rock band. Not a shambling, willfully difficult bunch of shoegazers or noise terrorists. A band who, in another era, might have been playing stadiums.

Jay and I kept in touch over the following years, finally meeting in person for a record shopping trip in London in the summer of 2000. While well-known in Canada, Sloan never become the huge, Cheap Trick-style worldwide rock behemoths of popular appeal that they should have - despite my efforts in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Vox and Uncut - but, as the years went on, they, astoundingly, got even better. Sloan were my band, but my favourite moments listening to them were sharing them with others: driving across London to nowhere in particular on a sun-scorched day in 1999 with my friend Pete listening to 'Money City Maniacs', the greatest foot-on-the-pedal anthem of the last two decades, and showing him that it really was time to cut loose and abandon his House Of Love LPs. (Was the sunroof open on Pete's car? Did Pete's car have a sunroof? It seemed like it did, in my memory, perhaps just because 'Money City Maniacs' is that kind of song.) Watching them at Camden Underworld with a roomful of people who just seemed to care that bit more than people did about their other favourite rock bands. The moment at said gig where Chris Murphy, arguably the most "lead" singer of Sloan's very democratic four frontmen line-up and a man whose hair should one day be preserved as a national monument in Canada, invited two female Japanese fans to take the stage and handle guitar and bass duties.

SLOAN - Money City Maniac - MyVideo

It had little effect on me either way when I walked through London, sporting comedy-sized sideburns and passers-by shouted "Supergrass" at me, or when people said I looked like a lost member of another well-known band I cared nothing for, but when my friend Sue very generously said at Sloan's 2007 return to Camden Underworld that I didn't "look all that different to Chris, really" I could not have been more over the moon. Just listen to the actor Jason Schwartzman talk so passionately about his favourite Sloan songs in the below video celebrating the two decades since they formed. "The Good In Everyone is so nice. I dated a girl who didn't see the good in everyone. She was a whore," says Schwartzman. Quite simply, it tends to work one of two ways with Sloan: you've either never heard them, or you think of them more fondly than your own Godchildren.

So why do I love Sloan now, still, so much more so than almost every other band I loved in the 90s, with the possible exceptions of The Black Crowes, Jellyfish and Urge Overkill? Perhaps it's because the fact that they have four songwriters makes them four times better than other bands. It's because they somehow manage that elusive rock trick of both being literate and kick-ass, geeky and manly. I love Kiss, but not only does 'Sensory Deprivation' outrock 'Detroit Rock City'; it could beat it at Scrabble, no problem. It's a more restrained man than me who can resist singing along with the line "I'm a girl! I'm a girl! A-la-la!" during 'Penpals' even when the windows are open and the neighbours are probably wondering if they're getting a secret insight into the reasons for the break-up of my last relationship, or stop himself accidentally scissor-kicking a plantpot over during 'If It Feels Good Do it' (not that I did that this morning, not at all - and especially not twice). I still feel teenage musical emotions when I hear Sloan: the conflicting desire to have them all to myself, and share my love for them with any random member of the public I can drag off the street, tie to a chair, and force to listen to them. The soundtrack of my big two summers as a music writer - 1999 and 2000, the summers when I went to three or four gigs every week, when I was positively marinating in rock - was not courtesy of Macy Gray or The Flaming Lips or Primal Scream or some other record of the time I played a bit, reviewed, convinced myself I liked more than I did, then summarily never played again; it was courtesy of Sloan. I've long since stopped writing about music for a living, but when I hear them they remind me of why I started doing so in the first place: the desire to wave something you've discovered into the virtual face of other music fans, so they could feel the same joy from it that you did. If you haven't heard them, you're probably experiencing more sensory deprivation than you realise.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Pool Diary, 9.5.2011

This morning as I swam, bright sunlight streamed in through the windows. I took a break between lengths, leaned back, and admired the pretty patterns it made on the water, and how it lit up a blood-caked plaster that floated along in front of my face.