Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Well, the Dinesen's turned up (I opted for the Penguin C20 Classic edition, now out of print, as it has a great Hammershoi on the cover), and I've started reading. The blurb on the back says that one theme runs through the whole book - that of Ariel - and that the first and last stories act as prologue and epilogue ('The Diver' and 'The Ring' respectively), so Lindsay's comment about how to structure Elias could well prove to be inspiring. Needless to say, I'm still reading the Stephenson (nearing the end of the first book in the first volume), and actually quite enjoying it, although whether I get through all 3,000 pages of the bugger remains to be seen. In between breaks from the Stephenson, I'll be studying the Dinesen, and then making copious notes. Or perhaps just a few notes.

The note-taking will be greatly aided, I hope, by some writing software I've just ordered from Amazon called New Novelist, more on which here. I thought it might help organise things a little better, and may act as an incentive - if any were needed at the moment - to get on with the thing. I'm also getting a second laptop, which I'll use more or less exclusively for writing. A bit of a luxury, but, again, anything to get it done. I shall certainly raise a glass in my own direction if I can do so, preferrably by this time next year.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The News for Parrotts

On Saturday Lindsay's group finally reconvened after a difficult period in which our drummer was suspected of suffering from death. This turned out to be a rumour, and we split up again... No, in fact, our six-month hiatus has been more due to double-bookings, the World Cup, people being away etc (unless there was one in September that I couldn't make - can't remember as that seems like a long time ago now). I also had the train journey from hell getting into London, which included a delightful hour at Swindon, where we were holed up while there was foul play in the air at Didcot (a fatality, police activity on the line - which sounded like a suicide, until we heard news of another fatality, which sounded more like trigger happy fascists shooting people they believe to be terrorists, but were in fact completely innocent, and just happened to be wearing a baggy anorak/non-caucasian/dark-haired/not wearing a Hitler-style moustache etc).

Once actually in London (and in our old haunt, the Fitzroy), I told Lindsay of my conceptual problems - i.e. the novel started out as an Utz-style short thing, and now, what with reading Quicksilver, I am thinking more in terms of sequoias than toothpicks - but Lindsay told me to fear not, and to think of the book as simply four short stories, that could be read independently of one another. To that end, he advised me to read Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales (which I have a copy of somewhere, bought many years ago) and Anecdotes of Destiny (which contains two titles I'm familiar with, 'Babette's Feast' and 'The Immortal Story', as they have both been made into rather good films) . I spent the train journey home - Didcot suspiciously quiet - going through the first episode with a fine toothcomb, feeling like I have a handle on the beast once more.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


When I originally started Elias, it was intended to be a novel of four chapters and an epilogue. That has subsequently grown to twelve and an epilogue, and I am feeling that, before I get back into the swing of things, I need to decide which way the book should go. I could revert to my original short-ish novel of 200 or so pages, or carry on with the 500-plus page version. Having just started Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, which is 900 pages long and covers similar themes and roughly the same period, it might be an idea to return to the shorter version of Elias. I've always felt that it might be better to imply the beginning of the modern world, rather than to show it in exhaustive detail, as Neal Stephenson does. My other feeling has been that if I can get Part I finished, I will know where to go with the rest of it. Either way, it's a case of making time to write, which always seems to be harder than the actual writing itself; or, rather, the not making time means that the writing, when it happens, is harder than it needs to be.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Knights who say Ni...gredo

Last week I finished shooting a film (more of which here). Now, as the material gets digitised and then Fed Exed to our editor in LA, I find myself this foggy morning reading the latest issue of Alchemy Journal, in particular an article about that old alchemical chestnut, 'Who was Fulcanelli?'. (My own theories suggest that he was, in fact, the French filmmaker Robert Bresson - but that's something to discuss with De Selby over inordinate amounts of alchemically produced whisky!).

The upshot of my reading is that it's high time to work on Elias as full-time as possible. I've been doing this blog for 24 (solar) months now, and it really is time to try and up the ante. True, this period has not been easy for personal and professional reasons, but try as I might, I can't bring myself to begin work on another novel. I've thought of a few potboilers - about the Templars mainly, but even one on alchemy that I was considering a month or two back, and over the weekend gave thought to turning an old screenplay about fairies into a prose - but as I now look through the various Elias drafts, it seems there is only one way to go: deeper into what I've already done.

I also feel I've been evading my responsibilities with this book - something I tend to do with commissioned books (the last three of which were all largely written after their respective deadlines had passed). But before I lapse into the slough of despond, or, perhaps worse, visit Slough accidentally, I've just noticed something in the latest issue of AJ, namely the article by John Reid III:

'If there is one stumbling block in the plant work, nay the entire Royal Art, I would have to say it is from the paving stone that thinks itself a cornerstone, thus occluding the work at its inception.'

Perhaps this has been true of my progress with the story so far; it was certainly a feeling I had on last October's Arvon with Adam and Lindsay. Perhaps the delays and general slowness of the whole thing are necessary. Maybe that's true of life generally, reminding me of something that Jennifer Lash said in her great book On Pilgrimage, namely that delays are good, because they slow us down, and we need to be slowed down in order to learn. Back to the paving stone/corner stone idea, and the alchemical circulata. Which in turn reminds me of something that Lindsay has said to me time and time again, that Elias should not be a novel about alchemy, but an alchemical novel. Certainly seems to be the case! Time to say 'Ni!.... gredo' and get back into the kingdom of plants, minerals, and words.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Alchemy & Alchemists - Another Revised Version

I have about a week to revise a book I wrote back in 2000 on alchemy. As usual with these things, it's going slowly.

To help me get my rewrite done, I've been reading Patrick Harpur's The Philosopher's Secret Fire, and will then move on to Jean Cooper's book about Chinese alchemy. I've also ordered a book on Indian tantric alchemy from Amazon, plus a dictionary of alchemical symbols. I'm hoping both will arrive in the week.

When I started writing the book - the first version, that is - back in July 2000, I thought it was possible to sum the whole subject up in one book. It was only in doing a second, revised edition in 2003, that I realised that it's an impossible task. Alchemy is a life's work, and is also the work of life. Anyway, the 3rd edition is due out in October, and will hopefully be slightly more modest in its aims...

Still, it has at least got me back in the Zone after spending a summer with the Gnostics, so my thoughts are back with Elias again. I bet he's been wondering where I've been. Come to think of it, that makes two of us...

Saturday, August 26, 2006

It was 340 Years Ago Today

...that Sgt Pepper... Sorry, couldn't resist.

Today is in fact the 340th anniversary of the creation of one of the alchemical medallions that Elias shows to Helvetius when they meet for the first time.

Here is a world premiere of a draft of the scene:

"The man handed Helvetius one of the pendants. On it were inscribed the words AMEN. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord our GOD, for all things are full of his Power. It felt heavy enough to be real gold, and when Anna came back with his purse, Helvetius compared the pendant with a gold coin. It seemed dull and lifeless against the medallion: had the man really made it himself? The inscription on the second pendant, when it was offered to him, seemed to confirm it: The wonderful wonder-working wisdom of JEHOVAH in the Catholick Book of Nature. Made the 26th day of August 1666.

Helvetius's mind began to reel. The date seemed somehow full of portent: what had he himself been doing on that day? Was he in England, concerned with the goings-on at Ragley? Was that the day of Lady Anne’s collapse and Greatorex’s attempts to revive her? Or was it a day like too many others when nothing of import had happened, when his own soul-gloom descended upon him as he tried to balance the books? Why had he not been aware that on that very day, this man had attained the mastery? People had come and gone about their business as he himself had, all of them unaware. All of them unaware. "

And happy birthday, Chris!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Hack in Space

Well, nearly finished the Gnostic tome. Just need to finish up the section on Jung, add a bit about Gnosticism in literature - e.g. Hesse's Demian, Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, the complete works of Philip K. Dick - and a section on the Matrix movies and computer games, then it's more or less done, thank God (the real one!).

Am yearning to return to Elias and write something that I really want to write. Although I am extremely sympathetic towards the Gnostics, it's still a commissioned book and not one I would have written otherwise. Have been doing almost nothing but the Gnostics for the past few weeks and am as a consequence feeling a bit adrift from reality in general.

I've also been toying with the idea of getting a collection of poems out via Lulu.com. But that's another post, or even blog. Right, time for yet another coffee, and then it's either back to Jung, or I might watch The Matrix, which I've never seen all the way through. (Only seen the second film so far. Just bought the Ultimate Matrix Collection - 10 DVDs with 35 hours of bonus material!)

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Mystery of Time

I am listening to Keith Jarrett's remarkable 1977 album SPHERES (originally a double LP called HYMNS SPHERES containing twice as much music as the current CD). I've rarely been as transported to the age of Elias as I have with this album. If anyone has the original double LP, please let me know. I'd love a copy! This is music about time, it seems to me. More than that, I can't say at present. (I'm not sure Keith could, either, come to think of it.)

I'm not sure what music will appear in the novel. The oldest extant complete opera, Peri's Eurydice (1600) is hermetic; Monteverdi a practicing artist (in the alchemical sense as well as musical). Work by Lully may also appear, and, given my current enthusiasm for Keith Jarrett's organ music, an organ improvisation may also appear.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Arvon Attendees Anonymous

Today I finally managed to get to Gill's in Oxford for a writing afternoon. Gill was one of the attendees on last October's brilliant Arvon with Lindsay Clarke and Adam Thorpe at Ted Hughes' old house Lumb Bank. It was a great experience, and a great group - everyone really got on well (as I think I may have said elsewhere on this blog, but if not, I'm saying it now!) Since then, Gill has been holding reunion afternoons at her house, but scheduling hassles have prevented me from attending until now.

It was a good session. I took along the latest version of the beginning of Elias, which now sees our main character, Jacob, in a coach on the way to see a 'sea monster' at Beverwijk (actually a beached whale, which washed up there on 20 December 1601, according to Simon Schama's Embarassment of Riches). I did a bit of a rehash last night after coming back from the pub, which seemed to go down well. I feel like I'm at last on the right track.

Gill's, Jo's and Kay's work was good, too. I look forward to reading more of it. And I also met Gill's partner Rob, who not only used to live with Richard Leigh, who gave me some help when I was writing The Templars, but also loves Andrei Rublev.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Getting in the Zone

The Zone of course calls to mind, for me at least, Tarkovsky and Stalker, but here I'm referring to the difficulties of getting into the right mindset to write a novel. Put simply, over the last month or so, it's been impossible, due to commitments to my book on Gnosticism and my new film.

Last month at Lindsay's group, I read some poems, rather than a new section of Elias, mainly because I didn't have a new section of the novel to read. We're meeting again tomorrow, and I suspect history will repeat itself.

Motto: don't take on too much at the same time! I thought I could handle it all, but I'm afraid to say, men in white coats have been spotted outside my front window... And, to be honest, I'd rather go to a Cider Farm than a Funny Farm.

So this will mean that Elias is on ice for the forseeable future, although I do plan to get a draft finished somewhen between now and the end of time. Which, if the Mayan calendar holds true, gives me another 6 years. Is that long enough? As Lindsay said to me a while back, after praising the overall idea, 'it might take you years.' Maybe he knows a wise woman or two who could read my tea leaves and find out. Must ask him on Saturday...

Monday, May 01, 2006

Jacob van Ruisdael

Just back from a trip to London, where I managed to see the Ruisdael show at the RA. In moments when I've been seeking inspiration - which is sadly all too frequent! - I've often consulted paintings to get me in the zone. Vermeer is of course the natural choice, and I have a copy of the small Complete Paintings that Taschen do.

Ruisdael is also certainly up there as one of my main inspirations for the 'look' of the novel, and the RA show is awesome. In particular, the painting of Haarlem with the bleaching grounds in the foreground made a huge impact on me. You can almost see the cloud shadows moving across the fields, and it suddenly struck me that perhaps it's a painting about time...

As a result, I'm sure bleaching grounds will be appearing in Elias, alongside other things that I saw in the show: streetlights (Amsterdam was the first European city to have them, in 1669), beacons for ships and something after Heath-Robinson's own heart, a mud-mill (used for draining land).

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

On TV Again

Back to my old ways - another post not about the novel. I'm in a documentary called The Templar Code: Crusade of Secrecy, which is on the History Channel this Saturday, 22 April, at 2000. It's a two part thing, and you can find out more about it here.

It's all good fun. So much so, that I'm afraid to say that I don't look very serious in it at all... Oh, the joys of history and being mistaken for an expert!

Maybe I should start a Templar blog, as I'm thinking about a Templar novel, purely as an anti-Dan Brown strategic initiative, and also to make a lot of money...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Jesting Pilate

'What is truth?', said Jesting Pilate. The different forms of truth have been brought home to me by two things over the last few days. One was reading an article by John Burnside about the process of writing his new book, a memoir called A Lie About My Father (it's brilliant, by the way). He said that what he remembered about his father may not necessarily be accurate - his truth, but no one else's, hence the title of the book.

The other was Saturday's session with Lindsay and the gang. I read the latest section of the novel, which concerns Elias's eventual appearance in the novel. I'd based the scene (only a first draft) on the account by Helvetius, from whose point of view we see the final part of the book. Helvetius's account, however, seems oddly undramatic. Although he tells the story, he simply relates it matter of factly. We have to remember that this is 1660s narration, and they did things like that in those days. But as Lindsay pointed out, the story needs to be told in a way that will engage the attentions and fire the imaginations of 21st century readers, so I now realise that, although Helvetius's account may be true, I need to deviate from his truth in order to find my own.

Truth, as John Burnside says, is not necessarily related to facts.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Well, not quite the Forum, more like Linday and the group. Our last meeting was on 4th February and, by the evening of the 3rd, I still had not written anything to bring to the class. I resolved to seek inspiration in a 16th century ale house near to where I live, but sadly all inspiration was totally blown out of the water by the discovery of a couple of friends who were already ensconced in said premises, and who had indeed been so for a couple of hours. Needless to say, they were well-oiled.

I got home at around 2330, totally exhausted (from the week's work, not the pub), and realised that I was too tired to do anything. I toyed with the idea of working on the opening of the novel yet again, but then, with desperation setting in, decided to write the opening of the scene where Elias himself appears at the house of Helvetius. This is the most celebrated of the transmutations in the novel, and Helvetius himself became the talk of The Hague in 1667 when news of his success in the laboratory became known. Even the philosopher Spinoza came to visit him, and was convinced that the transmutation was indeed genuine. The mysterious Elias was never heard from again.... at least under that name. As I had already mapped the chapter out long ago, all I did was to expand the initial meeting into some sort of dramatic shape. I finished it around 0200, and crawled to bed. As is the way with last-ditch attempts to do something, it has proved to be something of a turning point for me...

The scene went down well enough the next afternoon, and I decided that, rather than continue to try and write the novel in sequence, which has been my modus operandi up until now, I ought to just write whatever I feel like writing; better that than not writing at all. So, I decided that the best plan of action would be to translate Helvetius's book The Golden Calf, Which the World Adores, into modern English. The book, published in Latin in 1667 and in English three years later, tells of his encounter with Elias. It's hair-raising stuff: the description of Elias himself is so vivid that it's almost like being in the same room as the guy.

Two weeks - and one trip to the Berlin Film Festival - later, and I've nearly finished the translation. Working with Helvetius's text - or rather the 1670 English edition - has brought me much closer to the events described, and has given me plenty of food for thought as to how I can expand this dramatically. (The hapless silversmith Grill will now, I think, appear in the novel.) Indeed, ever since starting my modern English version, the figure of Elias himself (who always looks in my mind's eye a little like V from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta) has come to inhabit my imagination in a way that he has not done so before. More importantly, all I want to do now is write, and time spent away from the novel seems like time deprived of something rich and living. Whether I can make my narrative rich and living of course remains to be seen, but the fact that the novel is demanding my attention like this now I trust to be a good sign.