The historian in the park

Yesterday I walked across the park to catch a train to the British Library for the Georgians Revealed exhibition. In my bag I was carrying a very good history book by a very fine popular historian. As I walked down the hill, a jogger overtook me with an elegant running style and barely a sideways glance. It was the said historian out for his mid-afternoon run.

I’ve never been good with the fan thing. I’ve always been too embarrassed to walk up to someone with whom I have a one-way relationship and accost them as if it were two-way. And in this particular instance I would have had to:

  • run after the historian, which would have been uncomfortable at the pace he was going and pretty weird
  • by approaching him, reveal that we were near-neighbours (which I hadn’t realised until then), which would have been oddly stalkerish
  • not been British

None of these felt particularly desirable, so I just carried on walking, watching the brain which had distilled massive centuries-old narratives into exciting prose disappearing round the bend where my dog takes his morning dump.

This, I remember thinking, is why I live in London.

PS: The Georgians Revealed exhibition has some very nice things in it. But not enough crime and punishment for my admittedly biased tastes.

Handbags and gladrags: a new look for my website

Regular readers (hi Louise!) will have noticed that this website looks a lot sprucer than it looked yesterday. That’s because I got a man in – a fellow named Jason Bootle, as it happens – to work some design magic on the place.

Words I can do, some of the time. Design is ?a mystery to me. As Arthur C Clarke would have said if he’d been a plasterer, any craft learned over time is indistinguishable from magic to those who don’t have the craft.

So thanks to Jason for finding the right combination of typeface, colour and image to make this place look a little less… lived in.

Now though I shall spend the next two years frigging around with the colours and breaking the image sizes and basically trashing the place. So enjoy it now, while it’s still pristine. If this were Grand Designs, the fancy couple who developed the place have moved out to cash in on the equity, and the clueless financier with no style has just moved in with his trophy wife and his appalling children.

Give it a year, and you won’t recognise the place….


Paperback Publication Day for THE POISONED ISLAND

A big day for me today: the paperback of my second book,?The Poisoned Island, is published in Britain. It looks amazing, it’s in all the usual places, and it’s got a special treat at the back: an excerpt from my?third book, as yet untitled but coming in 2014.

If you’d like to find out more about?The Poisoned Island, maybe read an excerpt and check some reviews, go to my page about the book here.

And if you’ve bought the book and would like me to sign a stick-in frontispiece, get in touch with me via my Contact page with a proof of purchase, and I’ll make that happen.


My First Proper Festival

I’m back in London after my first experience of a Proper Book Festival. It was the inaugural Harrogate History Festival and it was a pleasure from start to finish. We we’re put up at the Very Posh Old Swan. We did a panel this morning entitled Before Sherlock and I had the honour to share the stage with our chair Andrew Taylor along with Robert Ryan, Nick Rennison and Joan Lock. Our audience was both numerous and very friendly and afterwards there was a signing room with Sharpies and a Queue. I felt for at least one morning like a Propah Writah.


On the way home to London I had a couple of hours walking around York in the sunshine. It was beautiful and full of locals out for a stroll. Rather lovely all round. And they have a rather swanky concept of taxis up there.


Day Three Extra: bussing through the fjords

It’s inevitable on any trip of this scale that any single leg is going to appear insignificant in the general scheme of things. Even monstrous journeys like the sleeper from Amsterdam to Copenhagen are just one step within many. You can only keep so much scale in your head.

So it’s fair to say I hadn’t paid much attention to the bus trip we had to make on day three, other than a fairly grumpy acknowledgment that our steel wheel adventure would have to give way to rubber for a while. This, as it turned out, was a rather silly point of view.

Every turn the bus made brought new wonders. Drowned mountains with vertiginous waterfalls for hair. Clouds designed in Asgard. Tunnels of up to four kilometres that barely accommodated our bus, their walls of unfinished bare rock where dwarves had been digging for iron. Suspension bridges that looked like they’d been there since the 1500s.

Jawdropping. Gobsmacking. Brainstunning. If Wordsworth had been on our bus he’d have either produced his finest-ever work or had some kind of creative aneurysm.

In amongst all this wonder, we took a ferry – one of those brisk well-organised things I associate with Scandinavian detective dramas. We bought hotdogs and stood outside above shockingly deep waters, chugging between drowned mountains.

We got to Narvik at 9pm and took up residence in three little wooden cabins above the fjord. We went our for pizzas and beers and came back at midnight and it was still as bright as a February afternoon in London.

One other little thing I noticed yesterday. The smaller trees in the thick pine forests were often bent over at strange angles, or uprooted entirely. Almost as if a gang of gigantic creatures had been marching through the woods, sniffing the air for the blood of Englishmen.

More soon. And do do do check out Paul Clarke’s pictures – yesterday’s are amazing

Day One: Somewhere in the Low Countries

We’re half-an-hour north of Brussels heading towards Amsterdam on the Thalys. The carriage stinks of cheese and meat from the bags of food we bought in Brussels. We’ve also got three gigantic loaves of bread, 10 litres of wine, various bottles of spirits and soft drinks. It’s fair to say we’re a little weighed down and a little bit tired.

We met at St Pancras at 7 this morning for a full English breakfast and variously stiffening drinks. Then it was onto the Eurostar – ten men in matching t-shirts bearing the Disorient Express logo, like a stag party planned by Alan Bennett.

The next stop was Brussels, and the reality of what we’re in the business of doing hit home. First, the sheer physical effort of wandering around a crowded city with heavy rucksacks. Then shopping
in the Brussels equivalent of Tesco Metro – still with rucksacks. Then getting back to the station with enough food and drink to get ten men past Copenhagen. All that with Belgian beer inside you.

But we’ve made it to the next leg. Soon we’ll be in Amsterdam, changing onto the 15-hour Borealis, and then sitting down and demolishing some of those heavy comestibles. We’re on our way.

And best of all we saw David Suchet outside a chocolate shop in a beautiful Brussels arcade. That’s right. We saw Hercule Poirot in Belgium

Rules for using Twitter

Yesterday author and near-namesake Lynn Shepherd published five golden rules for writers on Twitter?which you should go and read. Her tips are useful and Lynn, who writes very smart and exciting literary thrillers set in the early Victorian period, has a few thousand followers and tweets regularly and is a generally very nice person.

Which makes it hard to disagree with her. But disagree I will.

See, rules for Twitter are all very well, and you’ll find a great many of them. But the more I use social media, Facebook and Twitter in particular, and the more it gets under my skin, the more I think there’s only one rule. And it’s this:

Don’t try to be someone different online to the person you are offline.

Now, this being one of those annoying think-out-loud, don’t-know-what-I-mean-till-I’ve-said-it creatures called a ‘blogpost’, I’m going to instantly counter that with of course you can be someone different online. You can adopt a personality, pretend to be Samuel Johnson or your dog or a tree. But that’s different. That’s not the kind of social media Lynn or I are talking about.

So, if you’re a person not pretending to be?someone or something else on Twitter, you can’t be someone you’re not, and nor should you try to be.

I know, because I’ve tried.

Most days, I’m trying very hard to be someone I’m not when I’m online. I’m trying not to be judgemental (I’m very judgemental). I’m trying to choose my words carefully (I stick my foot in my mouth all the time). I’m trying not to pretend to have knowledge I don’t have (I’m a know-nothing know-it-all blowhard in the flesh). I’m trying not to be too diffident (I’m way to quick to challenge others for taking themselves seriously). I try not to be too fake-modest (….).

I’ve tried not to be all these things, and I always fail. Take yesterday. Someone else on Twitter was being puppyishly enthusiastic about another writer, and I snarled ‘brown-nosing’ in their direction. I then agonised about having done it – it was cruel and it was pointlessly negative. I then deleted the tweet. I then felt bad about deleting the tweet. I then had a shower.

See, this kind of stuff is really damaging. One of the worst things social media has done to our kids, I think, is force them to play the age-old playground game of pretending to be someone you’re not even when you get home. We can’t shut the door anymore on the world and be ourselves. If we’ve constructed an image of ourselves in whatever walk of life we exist in – our school, our office, our friendship groups – social media demands we continue to portray that image even when physically alone in our own homes.

Well, stuff it. I don’t want to do that anymore. I want to play at being me, and not some re-engineered version of me that might play better. I’ll apply the same rules to Tweeting and Facebooking that I’d apply to real life. Be kind. Be honest. Do unto others as you would be done by. And if you’re being boring, shut up.

Shutting up now.


Cooperative Bank: one less thing to be smug about

I used to write a fortnightly column for Guardian Unlimited called Financial Hypochondriac, in which I had some fun with the idea that the financial system was too complicated to be understood by ordinary mortals, and that consequently we were all being forced into a state of constant anxiety about our finances. At least, those of us who thought about such things were. The columns are still online, too, though I shan’t be reading them myself.

But one thing I’ve been certain of for a long, long time is that the Cooperative Bank is the place to do your day-to-day banking. Why leave your money with the spivs and cowboys of the High Street banks when you could stick it with an organisation that has members not shareholders and even boasts an ethical investment policy? When people complained about the banks, I would say?what on earth’s wrong with you? There’s an obvious solution. Move your account to the Coop!

Those smug, carefree current account days are no more. For the Cooperative, it turns out, was being run in just the slap-happy fashion as all the other banks, overstretching itself and essentially making like a third-year undergraduate who’s just negotiated yet another increase to his overdraft. And, to make good its previous indiscriminate cash-splurging, it’s now having to float on the Stock Exchange. Imagine! Grubby stockholders, pawing over the pristine Coop’s finances with their ravenous jaws! Now, when I log into, the Coop’s now-rather-poignantly-named online banking service, it smells slightly of disappointment and betrayal.

Where do I go now? Nationwide twitches its mutual skirts in my direction, while the fat cats at HSBC open their soiled gaberdine raincoats and offer me a First Direct login. But who to trust, now that good old dependable Coop has turned into a dud?



A Pound of Obscure June 7, 2013

I keep a tumblr at called A Pound of Obscure. Here’s the last week’s posts from it.

  • “There are three first-rate international universities in Turkey”
    ?There are three first-rate international universities in Turkey, and they have faculty clubs where wine is drunk. A decree came out that alcohol must not be sold in universities. The faculty club is now a nuclear winter. You have to apologise to foreigners, then take them by taxi to a hotel; the academic staff have lost a friendly place and the waiters are out of a job. Other nonsensical restrictions were rushed through parliament in a vote taken at 7 a.m. with half of the government?s own supporters absent: a little cloud to be placed over wine glasses on TV and film; warnings ? la cigarette packets placed on bottles of wine (at the making of which the Turks have become proficient); administrative chicanery to stop drinking even in places popular with tourists. Prime Minister Erdogan defended it all with reference to restrictions elsewhere, but everyone knows that Turkey does not have a Finnish (or English) drink problem to justify such things. Drink-driving accounts for about 1 per cent of traffic accidents, far less than speeding, let alone the fasting month of Ramadan, when drivers with low blood-sugar swerve around the road.?- What?s eating Turkey?? The Spectator
  • “Books and films are totally different things”
    ??Books and films are totally different things,? Sharpe said during his interview on Desert Island Discs. ?I say throw the book out the window and use the characters.??- BBC News – Tom Sharpe, Porterhouse Blue novelist, dies aged 85
  • joehillsthrills:We built this together. – John Green

    We built this together. – John Green

    Fuck, yes. – Me.

    Oh my yes indeed.

  • Welcome to Disorient Express

    On July 6th a dozen of us will set off from London by train and attempt to do an entire circuit of Europe (though unlike Napoleon we shall not attempt Moscow). We?re calling it Disorient Express, aka Tourism Grande Vitesse. Here?s the T-shirt.


    And here?s the route we?re taking.

    You can follow us here on Tumblr, on our website, on Facebook?or on Twitter. There?ll be lots of info, lots of stories, lots of pictures and lots of maps. So if any of that sounds like your thing, climb on board. It will be expressive and disorientating?.


The dismal science is being cheered up

Yesterday, I read this in the Atlantic. It’s an argument from Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary and star of the Zuckerberg-Winkelvoss dispute, for why spending money now, even at the expense of debt, might create less of a burden on our descendants than is commonly thought. It’s designed as a counterpoint to those (normally right-wing) assumptions that any debt accrued today is, by definition, a bad thing down the line:

The example I always like to use is Kennedy Airport is going to be repaired. It is going to be repaired at some point. Potholes in roads are going to be filled. The question is whether we’re going to fill them now, when we can borrow to fill them at zero in real terms, and when construction unemployment is near double digits, or whether we’re going to do that years from now, when there will no longer be any multiplier benefits to those expenditures and when the deficit problem will be a more serious problem.

Two things strike me about that. One is the forehead-slapping obviousness of Summers’s argument. The other is the phrase?the example I always like to use.

That phrase implies a whole series of explanations by this very finest of economic brains (whether you agree with him or not). A whole sequence of attempts to make the complex comprehensible.

Economics as an academic discipline has long had this yawning gap between use of the system – by ourselves in financial transactions, by companies, by investors and most of all by governments – and understanding of the system as outlined in academic papers. Put bluntly, we none of us really know how this stuff works (and, to be fair, economists can face the same problem).

Only in the last decade has explanation been something economists have felt they have to do, perhaps following the lead of those who have sought to popularise science. It also seems that economists have embraced blogging as a platform for explanation. Tyler Cowen, Tim Harford, Jonathan Portes are all frequent and interesting explainers of obtruse theory, such that even dunderheads like me can understand them (and if you want to see economic blogging taken to its absolute limit, try following Brad Delong).

Along with this, Stephanie Flanders and Robert Peston at the BBC have done an outstanding job in turning seriously complicated economic considerations into narratives which anyone, with a bit of effort, can take in. Here’s an excellent example – Stephanie Flanders explaining why the US bond market is a complex signal of economic futures.

Why are Flanders and Peston so good at this stuff? Because, I think, economics is the?one area where an “on the other hand” approach to news can really work. Because there is such profound disagreement at the heart of economic debate, an even-handed approach works. I think the BBC have made a bad mistake in inviting UKIP and even the EDL into the heart of the national debate in the name of “fairness”, because political ideas, at least when expressed on television, are hard to judge in terms of seriousness. Bad ideas can look just as important as good ones if expressed with sufficient certainty. Economic ideas do not have that problem, because they have academics observing them closely. These ideas are, in their essence, the thoughts of clever men and women who have considered carefully what they are about. We can rarely say that of politics.

Economics, then, is the perfect “digital” discipline. It needs lengthy explanations. It invites dissent. It thrives on numbers. And it’s so complicated that stories, such as the one Summers tells, are essential.