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Idle blogs of an idle fellow

Journeys from the fax

What your bag says about you..

A blog considering those secret worlds hanging on our shoulders.

About the only thing worth reading in the now painfully self-conscious NME is where they accost innocent people using headphones in the street, and ask what they’re listening to. It’s basically an exercise in how quickly people can mention something cool, like Royal Blood, rather admit they were listening to the original cast recording of Cats. But it’s an interesting glance into a private world, even if Mr. Mistoffeelees tends to stay there. Another private world is our bags.

A friend recently posted a photo of her with friends displaying what was in their handbags. Instead of the usual knot of used tissues, house keys, and wrappers of Werthers Originals that their partner had no idea they’re addicted to, they took the opportunity to show off how intelligent, good looking and charming they all were by revealing the novels they were carrying. That one of these was my own Life Assistance Agency obviously helped. ‘I couldn’t put it down’, she kindly said. ‘Why, was it glued to your hand?’

Presumably the disentangling of boiled sweets from old copies of the Metro newspaper had occurred off camera, but what a wonderful new #hashtag that could be, #whatsinyourbag – as people reveal their secrets and empty the contents of their bags for public hilarity, horror and respect.

Of course a book is the most important thing to be carrying in your bag, apart perhaps from your house keys, although someone I know has so many bags that she has a book permanently stored in each one rather than risk leaving the house without reading material.  Lesser used bags reveal  old classics and forgotten bookmarks.

I remember my Grandma’s purse. She could have travelled to the far reaches of the galaxy with its contents. Stamps. Luncheon vouchers. Food stamps. Even some money. And an old curled photo. It was the weight of a dumbbell and the world stopped when it opened. I don’t know what novel she had in it, but it could easily have accommodated one.

There was a time when I’d have welcomed interest in the contents of my bag. It was an original standard D-Day British issue backpack and I was obsessed with it, and its contents. As a 9-year old I had the sort of paraphernalia best suited to surviving a nuclear winter – this was the 80s after all – complete with a spam tin, an army issue water bottle (circa. 1962) and a hunting knife blunt enough to eat with. These days my bag is likely to contain a damp gym towel, having soaked through printed off pages of my novel, with corrections now a damp mess; which in places is still an improvement on the original text. Of course you sometimes forget what’s in your bag, at least until the house mice decide to finish off the honeycomb Galaxy bar on your behalf. I was grateful they had only found one of them.

If they’ve made a film about bloody emojis I’m amazed that the inside of a bag hasn’t yet been turned into a £150m feature film. After all, there’s probably 100 tonnes of tissues, old travel cards, novels and make-up being carried around London alone per day, so let’s shine a light. #whatsinyourbag ?

No copies of the Life Assistance Agency were harmed in filming the bag contents.

The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – – 

A farcical road trip around Europe. ‘This is what would happen if the Blues Brothers went on a search for the Holy Grail.’

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

The idiot’s Guide to making tea

Opening sentence to Henry James’ (1881) The Portrait of a Lady.

‘Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.’

Now, I’ve rattled on about declining standards in tea-making for so long that I thought I had already blogged about it. People I’ve harangued certainly thought so. However, and there are plenty of howevers, this is a theme that warrants returning to. After all, if it’s important enough for George Orwell to write A nice cup of tea between addressing communism, aspidistras and paeans to his perfect pub the Moon on the Water, this subject suits Idle Blogs well. So, sit down, don’t make a cup of tea quite yet, and read on. The rules:

1 The only person who can make a decent cup of tea is you. so, NEVER get anyone else to make it. This can be tricky, as tea is the first thing most people offer you on arrival in their homes – that’s if you’ve been invited in and they’re not calling the police. Mind you, while awaiting the officers arrival is perfect cuppa time. Anyway, on invited arrival, deny you want tea, before waiting ten minutes, then politely suggest you’ll make one yourself. If your hosts insist on making it, ensure you stand near the sink, to pour it away

2 How to pour away tea someone’s made you has its own subtle criteria. Ensure the sink has no cloth in it, or you’ll be explaining to your host why their recently wringed dishcloth is now spreading milky, undrinkable tea over their work surface. The best way to dispose of it is at the same pace you would drink it. Despite your own sense of self importance, not to mention that of the tea, after ten mins they’ll have forgotten all about it, so it can disappear unseen. However, this has not yet addressed the issue of making a good cup of tea.

3. At this point it’s good to stress that the best avoidance other people’s tea is through meeting them in the pub. I would suggest the Moon on the Water, had it not been appropriated by a chain, with the sort of identikit chalk boards that would leave Orwell sleepless. Anyway, in pubs no one thinks they can do better than beer brewers, apart from the lonely home brewers, so it’s a level playing field. However, this is not always possible-

4. So, as ever, yup, even with tea making , timing is everything. Unlike with coffee, this has been adressed by calling a specific moment in the day Teatime. It’s so idiot proof that insipid tea making is inexcusable.  Coffee has no such marker, and presumably this is why it’s drunk with such obsessional abandon, as though really screaming for some containment. It needs boundaries like our well-mannered tea. However, despite there being an actual teatime…

5. the best time to drink tea is probably first thing in the morning. When I say ‘first thing’, I mean it as being the first thing you do upon waking, not at 00:01.  If you get good at it, sleeping can be poor based simply on how good your restorative cup of tea will be upon waking. Of course, (see point one) generous people occasionally like to make you tea, even at 7am, so it’s tricky. It is advisable to either have a bedroom with a sink in it, or print off these rules and ‘accidentally’ leave them out. At this point I feel that tangents may be resulting in anyone looking for real advice on making tea might be drifting away to Jamie Oliver, or Orwell, so

6. Equipment – Fresh water, tea bag or leaves – let’s not be purist about this, there are other battles, such as the china. It HAS to be bone china. I’m risking snobbery here but if coffee drinkers can publicly ask for a latte-mild-chocco-hot-bot without pronouncing the hyphens, then this bone china rule has to hold. Although-

7. china cups are not necessarily needed. Not only do they fail to hold enough tea, but the exact angle of your superfluous little finger informs those in the know exactly which college you attended at Oxbridge. Or not.

8. A thin bone china mug is perfect, so why use anything else, unless you’re offering tea to builders – no offence, but, I doubt they hand out their best china to people handling wet cement for a living either.

9. The next crucial thing is to leave the tea bag in. Presumably there’s some EU directive demanding high street coffee shops only wave a tea bag above the water, with contact lasting no longer than 8 seconds. They then slosh in enough milk to douse a bonfire. So, tip 8 is really – LET IT BREW. You want it strong enough to require teeth bleaching to remove the stains.

10. Add only a SMALL AMOUNT OF MILK. A SMALL AMOUNT OF MILK cannot be stressed enough. Sugar is optional, but only if you’re trying to prove a point, and keep your teaspoon out of work. Best is half a level teaspoon of brown sugar, which offsets the bitterness to the tea enough to maintain it.

11. Of course this brings up the subject of the teapot. The teapot is increasingly used in TV dramas as an indicator that it’s set in the past. Either that, or as a prefabricated home for mice on CBeebies. However, it remains a staple for anyone serious about their teatime, but for some reason seems out of place and overambitious for the morning cuppa. The best contents of an afternoon teapot is 3 parts Assam, 1 part Earl grey, not mice wearing their Sunday best while sliding down the spout.

12. To truly appreciate tea, it’s best to limit intake. Unless they have two cups on the go, some people limit their consumption to the short time it takes for a kettle to boil. Each to their own, but it’s better to spend time anticipating a cup of tea, as opposed to never letting one go. Ideally – drink twice a day. When you need it to wake up, and to counter the mid afternoon slump at teatime. Drinking tea twice a day means that while you’re not drinking a cup, you’re anticipating it, which for anyone who saw the Star Wars prequels, will know is a better state to be in.

Oh, and to stress the fresh water. It’s been rubbished in the past as being pedantic, mainly by me, but now I’m sold. It makes a far superior cup of tea.

The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – – 

A farcical road trip around Europe. ‘This is what would happen if the Blues Brothers went on a search for the Holy Grail.’

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

My first Literary Festival – Curious Arts

The Life Assistance 2017 UK tour has three dates. World domination postponed.

It’s hard to know from which angle to approach this blog. Not only was my appearance, to be interviewed by the ever-charming Paul Blezard, at the delightful Curious Arts Festival in Hampshire a debut one, but it was also the first time I’d taken children to a festival. I blame both for a beer earlier in the day than I might otherwise have indulged.

I was emboldened to find that my appearance at 1pm in the Arcadia was following a whiskey-making class and it was raining, so finding a pissed up captive audience in my tent couldn’t have been better planned. However, they had clearly drifted off to find cigars or something. Nonetheless a welcoming crowd met me, albeit a sober one.

I read out a chapter, and got a few laughs that weren’t from a family member, before a warm and pleasant conversation with Paul, during which I heard myself publicly admitting that I self-deluded myself into thinking I was not writing a humorous novel in case it wasn’t funny. Afterwards I even signed some copies, and spoke to some glorious people who were so defined because they had read (and thoroughly enjoyed) the Life Assistance Agency, and keen for a sequel, which is fortunate as it is scheduled for publication next year.

In addition to the promotional opportunity, the organisers were kind enough to provide with a spacious glamping tepee, in which we rolled out Snooze 200 sleeping bags amongst 500 mini zombling toys. Despite the headroom and space, glamping is still camping, and the night was spent restlessly dreaming of the Snooze 400 sleeping bag, while trying to change sides while zipped up in a body bag.

Having two kids with you certainly prevents you from agreeing to a glitter make-over at 5am in the dance tent, although plenty of parents were happy to make the most of their compromised situation by blocking the exits to the main tent with pushchairs and trolleys of snoozing kids during the main act of  Tom Odell, (an alluring mix of Elton John gorging on early piano house). Other parents had spent the day making do with getting pissed in the kids’ tent while their offspring made papier mâché masks and cadged money for face painting. It may not be a good look, but a look nonetheless.

The most inspiring characteristic of children is their disregard for torrential rain, but realising a change of scene was needed, we decamped from the kids tent to, well, the campsite, where the festival programme of events served as something to taunt you while sitting in a tepee while the kids treated the inflatable beds as unregulated bouncy castles.

The weather improved the next day, allowing for Dave Eggers to talk about giving up writing for a year, which in light of his recent Heroes of the Frontier* is a good thing. He is instead taking up the challenge to personally impeach President Trump. This is fine, although the unquestioning obedience with which his audience held up their hands to take a solemn oath to similarly overturn Brexit was chilling. Thankfully the good humour of Crazy Golf ensured matters did not get out of hand politically. A hole-in-one by my 3 year old, witnessed by myself, will remain the highlight of this and any festival I’ve ever attended, as it did him. He spent the entre day informing anyone attempting the hole that he had managed the hole in one, before demonstrating how impossible it was to recreate.

The Curious Arts festival is a welcome addition to the festival calendar and not simply because they invited me to attend. It’s chilled like the Big Chill can barely dream of these days, amongst the glorious surroundings of a manor house on talking terms with PG Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle.

My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – – 

A farcical road trip around Europe. ‘This is what would happen if the Blues Brothers went on a search for the Holy Grail.’

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

* Disclaimer. I have thoroughly enjoyed his previous books, but this one is succeeds only in being conceited, boring, judgemental and irritating. He was however following up the Circle, which algorithms have proven to be the perfect novel, so we can forgive him the pressure.

 

 

 

Simple Minds – Acoustic Tour review.

It’s hard to know who started this fashion for proving your back catalogue via acoustic treatment. Perhaps it was the MTV unplugged albums of the 90s, or the contrived informality of Mumford & Sons, but everyone’s at it, even A-ha next year. At this rate we can anticipate Kraftwerk’s Electric Café on mandolin and bongos. However, Jim Kerr mentions Simple Minds’ own reluctance to sound like hippies crouching over a camp fire half-way through this intimate West End show, by which point they’ve already proven that their idea of acoustic is akin to sharing a hanger with a jet plane taking off. After all, this is a band whose last album was called Big Music. Drummer Mel Gaynor might be absent, but percussionist Cherisse Osei does the work of twenty drum machines.

Like a ninja choreographing Future Islands, Jim Kerr has already grabbed a fan’s phone for a selfie, upheld his mic stand, and walked through the auditorium before the evergreen New Gold Dream has even finished. With entertaining stories between songs, Kerr’s a definitive front man, attacking every song like it’s the encore. Charlie Burchill’s spent 40 years watching his mate’s gleeful dad-dancing, although there are less scissor kicks these days. Yet Burchill’s reflective guitar playing is as unique as Marr, Clapton or the Edge, with his distinctive pose of holding it like a dance partner to tease out unforgettable stadium riffs. It might be acoustic, but it’s classic Simple Minds. The only song that misses the synthesizers is the closing Alive and Kicking, which adopts its football chant defiance nonetheless

Tellingly there are no songs beyond their imperial period of the 80s, only what Kerr shamelessly describes as ‘these classic songs’, but their pompous reputation is ruined here by effortless passion and playfulness, with the sound quality more crystal than the huge chandelier above the stage. Glittering Prize certainly chimes as majestically perfect as ever.

The butch Stand by Love is somehow reminiscent of Tom Jones, while they pull unknown funk from Someone Somewhere In Summertime, which follows a blissfully melancholic Big Sleep. They’re as kind to Don’t you (forget about me) as it has been to them. Their cover of Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town is diverting enough, but they return for several encores to allow Kerr to show off some new jackets and freshly thoughtful arrangements of Waterfront and Promised you a Miracle. He’s grinning to the last, as is the crowd, as though high on knowing they’ve made a superfluous acoustic album an essential live experience. They’re extraordinary.

My music-heavy novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – – 

A farcical road trip around Europe. ‘This is what would happen if the Blues Brothers went on a search for the Holy Grail.’

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

Is the Hobbit – Battle Of Five Armies the Worst Movie EVER?

We are all complicit. You don’t make $250 million films without a script if you lack confidence in people watching it. There’s not been such a waste of money since the North Korean space project. But at least that played for laughs. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies makes Michael Bay’s Transformers, which itself felt like someone throwing lit-petrol in your eyes for 2 ½ hours, look like the hushed whispers of twitchers seeing a nesting Siberian Accento in a bird hide

Peter Jackson actually deserves an Oscar, for making the most boring film of all time, although I’ve not seen Andy Warhol’s 8-hour Empire featuring the Empire state building in slo-mo. Mind you, he was aiming to make an unwatchable film, and I believe a pigeon does land on it at the 6 hour mark. However, unless the concluding Hobbit film is the greatest prank ever, Peter Jackson achieved this without even trying.

The KLF got flack for burning a million quid, but at least it had artistic integrity; at least it was an answer that demanded questions. Five Armies only asks questions without providing any answers. The most pertinent is WHY? I would have preferred to watch smouldering £50 notes on a campfire, as the Last train to Trancentral shuddered to its final rest in a damp farmhouse on the island of Jura; for one thing it’s nearer Middle Earth.

I’ve no problem with big films, but the most memorable thing about the Avengers for example, wasn’t the predictable CGI showdown, but the sharp script. Peter Jackson’s script for Five Armies is basically this:

Dwarves peer over a wall, a peaceful hobbit somehow escapes, four (of the Five Armies) armies turn up via big earth worms without anyone asking where the fifth one is, and proceed to hack the hell out of each other under the presumption that a) we care b) we know why. Billy Connolly then turns in a hammy performance only outdone by the giant pig he’s riding. There’s a cursory love story with all the frisson of canal root dentistry, while Stephen Fry acts as overwhelmed as the audience feels. The only comic relief, which might shake Connolly’s confidence, is a troll knocking itself out on a wall, neatly encapsulating how watching this film felt, only without the peaceful oblivion of unconsciousness.

The rot had set in with its predecessor, a watchable film were it not for Orcs’ inability to hit metal barn doors if their arrows were magnetic. All they successfully destroyed was dramatic tension. How 200 orcs failed to hit a single dwarf as they leaped from barrel to barrel on river rapids like an advanced level of Marioland is beyond belief. Presumably, at the very least, the Orc Quartermaster and archery instructors lost their jobs.

After an ill-justified 3 hours of Five Armies, even the CGI begins to look bewildered, hoping its creators might take a lunch break. And as the ‘story’ peters out in a peaceful dell, the audience released a collective sigh, presumably before leaving for the box-office to request a refund. It was a sad conclusion to an increasingly tired series of films that capitalised on the success of the original trilogy of Lord of the Rings. The single good thing about Five Armies is that unless Jackson is willing to dramatise the middle earth encyclopedia Silmarillion, it’s the last one.

There is even an extended version but to date no one has been bored enough to watch it. This is a man who can clearly make any old rope from a budget more associated with national space programmes. He’s the opposite to an alchemist.

My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – –  If dramatised it would also about 2 hours 2 minutes.

A farcical road trip around Europe. ‘This is what would happen if the Blues Brothers went on a search for the Holy Grail.’

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

How NOT to write a novel – top tips.

1. Wait for inspiration.

This is the same as waiting for ‘the one’. They don’t exist. Tellingly you’re more likely to meet inspiration than your carefully constructed fantasy partner. It can happen when a paragraph falls out of the sky so complete that it’s hard to even take responsibility for it, but unless you’re Moses, it’s best to forget the mountain and just keep climbing. Like a good tennis return, if inspiration happens you need to be in the right place at the right time, but you can’t sit down in perpetual readiness, just ensure you’re always within reach of a pen.

2. Plotting.

While it’s thrilling to write without having any idea where you’re going, like some idealised country walk in which you follow your nose to discover abandoned Oast houses, badger sets and rusting farm machinery before a quaint pub that takes at least 4 pints to leave, it does have its pitfalls. Like the country walk, you’re likely to find after a couple of hours that you’ve walked into a dead end and can’t find your way back to the car before realising you’ve lost your keys and it starts raining.

I never plot and you can tell. I have at least one furrow in my brow you could run a river through when I’m lying down. But lying down is something plotting doesn’t allow you to do; it’s like a soduko or crossword, but one that follows you around prodding you in the side demanding attention. It’s like an internal video game in which you have endless lives, with which to knock yourself out against a wall.

3. Look over your shoulder.

Unless you’re a fighter pilot it’s best to ignore what’s behind you. The wonderful thing about writing is what comes out from the forgotten places of your past. It will happen. Writing taps into a reflective space it’s otherwise difficult to contact. As to literature, the past is littered with great writers, unfinished manuscripts and ash-filled hearths. Light your own fire. See what happens.

4. Ignore the craft.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack is a recent book that breaks the rules. It’s novel in a single sentence, which presumably only free divers are able to read for long enough without taking breath. It’s supposed to be excellent. However, if you want to be published it’s best to respect the rules an techniques of writing, at least so you know you’re breaking them.

5. Take Rejections Personally 

Writing is such a fast track to rejections that it feels masochistic . Honest friends and family will tell you first attempts are good, but you can can tell they’ve glazed over and silently praying that you never ask them to read your stuff ever again.

Like anything it takes time to get good, so don’t send your manuscript out too soon. Or at least accept that the best way to notice you’ve not done a spellcheck is by sending it to 40 literary agents.

6. Give up the Day Job. 

It’ hard to know when to announce/admit you are a writer, but it’s best to keep it in the Hobbies and Interests of your CV until it’s at least in the shops. Even then most published writers are barely earning enough to pay the milkman and are hiding behind curtains until he rattles off flicking V-signs at the front door.

Even once you’ve written it you need to promote it, and it’s hard to sell something 8 months old – not that it’s flogging babies or anything.

7. Naming Yourself.

Use initials if you think it sounds important, but hoping you might be googled by idiots unable to spell JK Rowling by naming yourself JK Rolwing is inadvisable – they’re probably illiterate. Names are important, but be careful, Kirkcudbrightshire is an excellent name for a solicitors, but less good for a novelist.

8.  Stop Writing 

The hardest thing to accept is that the first novel you write – yes, the one that cost 4 years, a marriage and a short spell on antidepressants –  is only for you. It’s unlikely to ever be published. It serves to learn the craft. They advise shutting your finished novel in a drawer for 2 months so you can then read it objectively. The first one should probably stay there.

9. Don’t change anything.

Like traffic lights that remain long after the road works have finished there’s still plenty to pack away after you’ve written The End. Even if you like it, there’s now the balancing act between ripping the soul out of it to achieve publication, and maintaining your artistic integrity (or something). Throwing a hissy fit at suggestions with the charm of being paid in 5pence coins will not make you any friends.

10. Don’t expect to get Published. 

This is the tough one. Unless you’re serving a life sentence in a high security prison then everyone writes with some eye on publication. Mind you, with the current appetite for misery memoirs, then you might be more likely to be published with stories of gym visits and staring at the wall without punctuaton or a happy ending. Not that I’m encouraging serious criminality to achieve publication, but we all need a USP.

My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – – 

A farcical road trip around Europe. ‘This is what would happen if the Blues Brothers went on a search for the Holy Grail.’

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

 

 

the politics of sun tanning

 

It’s easy to know when Summer arrives  – let’s not quibble about Spring – it’s when you’re not wearing a jumper, T-shirt or trousers, BBQs drift in through the windows (not literally of course) and Boots start 3-for-2 sun cream offers. The television news announces Summer with gratuitous footage of bikini-clad women on Brighton beach – which to be fair makes a pleasant change from reporters standing knee deep in floods while sodden locals flick V-signs in the background.

There can be few nationalities keener on tanning than the Brits, which is probably explained by spending five months a year in damp darkness being sedated by ITV light entertainment while developing type 2 diabetes.

Spending the entire winter in what feels like the gloomier side of the moon means that T-shirts are torn off at the precise moment the sun breaks the clouds. Moaning about the cold and self-inflicted high heating bills are instantly forgotten, as that most pointless, yet hazardous, pastime of tanning begins. It seems an excellent opportunity to consider the different tanning social tribes.-

-One of the initial tans of the season is the Pushchair Tan, which for stay-at-home fathers is the metrosexual version of a trucker’s tan only there are less truck stops and CB radio handles, at least where I live. You also get both arms brown.

-The Office Tan. This involves the careful timing of lunch breaks with the sunniest time of day. This might mean lunching at 4pm, but always means finding a park distance enough from your office so not to alarm your colleagues as your suit gets torn off like Superman late for a mugging before eating your sandwich.

– The Yo-Yo is the tanner who strips to the waist at the barest glimpse of sun, only to find it disappearing behind clouds, slicing an immediate 10 degrees off the temperature, requiring a hurried dash back indoors; at least until the next flash of sunny promise. Ad-finitum until dusk. The Yoyos are often slim and never read more than half a book page at a time.

– The opposite is the Costa. which is the tanning equivalent of a bungie jump, only with the cord cut. These people want you to know they’ve been on holiday. This results in spending the entire holiday sunbathing until they’re a bronzed ebony. Some don’t even read whilst doing so incase this causes book-shadow. What they should probably be working on is a personality, but that’s what reading is for. They are also easily spotted in airport arrivals wearing white suits/dresses.

– However they are not the Amateur. This is the ‘I’m too stupid/young/pissed to put sun lotion on.’ We all once suffered from this – when using any factor higher than 2 was sneered at. If you hadn’t fainted from heat stroke and spent a week lathered in yoghurt or in Spanish A&E, then the holiday was considered a failure.

-The Tanorexic – often appear to work in sun-bed salons and are paid in either free tanning sessions, or in those strange circular eye protectors. They are the Costa only without the anecdotes of having turned over once an hour.

-The Builder tan. This is the tan that sits on the skin with an air of rugged entitlement. The builder’s tan has been a little compromised by EU requirements to wear a hi-viz jackets for any endeavour that involves leaving the house, but it remains a perk, along with shoving the Sun (see what I did there) down a white van’s dashboard.

– the Elizabethan: This is the anti-tan, and is making a comeback, at least in London’s Shoreditch. After all, who wants to look like a sunburnt builder. This look is best suited to a game of arctic hide & seek, and models itself on the chalk men of Kent and Sussex. It’s  best achieved by rolling in white powder, although these days people prefer to inhale white powder and spend the following day in bed, which has the same effect.

–  The Maintainer  Tan: Of the sort that quietly suggests you own a yacht in the south France, but probably  don’t. They come back from holiday looking healthy and yet still appear like this 4 months later. It’s a combo of carefully applied self-tan and the occasional actual blast in the sun.

– The fake . This is for people who are colour blind to orange, and are often friends with the  Tanorexic, or belong to both categories. It’s the healthier version of the sunbed, but you don’t want them sitting on your white sofa.

-The Trump. It seems unfair not to mention a man who might become the next president of USA, yet looks like someone’s asked him to sniff some brown paint, before slamming his face into it and running off.

My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – – 

A farcical road trip around Europe. ‘This is what would happen if the Blues Brothers went on a search for the Holy Grail.’

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

 

Review of Dave Eggers – Heroes of the Frontier – Escape to the country

In light of our increasingly troubled nation I can’t be alone in wishing to baton down the hatches and watch re-runs of Knight Rider; when world ills could be addressed by shiny hair and a talking car you didn’t want to be hiding with in the dark.

But there is a red flashing light going off somewhere. In the past few weeks I’ve watched two films about escaping to the wilderness, while reading Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers.

Dave Eggers is a novelist frequently finding himself if not part of the Zeitgeist then making it. His superb novel the Circle was recently found to be the most perfect novel, by scientists no less, while his Hologram for the King captured the hinterland of international business almost as accurately as The Way Inn by Will Wiles. For anyone who’s spent any time in a hotel lobby that it’s impossible to describe while you’re there, much less later, the idea of lying about in sleeping bags while reading by the flickering light of a campfire becomes deeply appealing.

Following up the most perfect novel must be hard, and Dave Eggers’ fragile idea feels like he’s scraped the bottom of his ideas drawer, to find nothing, and relied instead on this hackneyed road trip. It concerns Josie, who flees her dentistry practice to drive her two children in a battered camper van better suited to landfill around the Alaskan wilderness. It’s the sort of plan that makes a drunken dare to jump in a canal appear well thought out and risk assessed. The lead character is nice enough but her kids seem to fluctuate between being 3 and 23 in the same sentence. I wonder if he’s ever met any children before. They are also monumentally annoying.

It’s like Eggers has spun a tombola wheel marked Random People in Alaska, and made Josie bump into them.  Some are interesting enough, but there’s the sense that he has no idea where the book is leading and writes with the hope of finding out. There’s so little plot it makes 50 shades of Grey appear epic. He might have been better off actually doing it himself and making it autobiographical.

I’ve loved most of his other books, and while Heroes of the Frontier is well written, he seems to be looking for a story as desperately as the protagonist, and failing. Perhaps this over identification with the character is its genius, but if I want to get lost on a journey I can always order an Uber.

On the subject of taxis, Hunt for the Wilder People is a New Zealand film reminiscent of Luc Besson’s Taxi, i.e. absurdly funny. Who can’t be seduced by advice such as ‘If you’re lost in the wild – you find water and follow it to high ground so you can see what’s going on.’ It’s certainly an alternative to the What’s On pages in the Evening Standard.

It’s hard to know when human’s first started talking about moving to the country. It was probably before they had even left it; the grass is greener even when you’re surrounded by the stuff. For many city children the countryside was full of tree sprites and cheerful agricultural workers, until they were evacuated during the 2nd world War, to discover that it was full of tree sprites, cheerful agricultural workers and too dark to see your hand at night, which served as its main entertainment. It was certainly some time before the 2015 film Captain Fantastic, in which Viggo Mortensen father’s six children in the Washington state wilderness. It looks ideal, other than the acoustic guitars, compulsory reading of Dostoyevsky or Kant, and rock climbing in the rain, but his children know of nothing else. Their first encounter with Mortal Kombat being played by cousins is akin to Crocodile Dundee’s disbelief at New York City.

The nearest most Londoner’s get to the wilderness is a Trees for Cities donation bucket, or Glastonbury festival. The gravest issue facing the world is overpopulation and the countryside is where you can ignore this, apart from the rampant construction of Noddy houses. Swapping oyster cards for oyster shells seems a particularly good idea when a woman speeding past a primary school punches you in the face for suggesting she slow down, or queuing up for a ride at Legoland, but like Dave Eggers’ Josie there’s a sense of purpose of living in a city that feels difficult to give up. Sometimes it’s better to live with the fantasy than the reality.

I thankfully survived appearing at the Curious Arts Festival with Dave Eggers in July and my novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – – 

A farcical road trip around Europe. ‘This is what would happen if the Blues Brothers went on a search for the Holy Grail.’

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

 

How I wrote my first novel

Some time ago I was asked to write about myself and how I started writing the WHSmith Fresh talent novel, The Life Assistance Agency. 

I started the Life Assistance Agency many years ago. It was initially called the Karma Account, which considered how our deeds might determine our destiny, and this led me to consider how hard this must be for people who are immortal, and particularly laborious once they found themselves into the 200th year.

Not knowing any immortals to ask, I had to make one up. Or rather I didn’t. I forget how I first encountered Dr. Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist of the late 1580s, but I’m glad I did. He had pursued angels, so it wasn’t a huge leap to him chasing immortality.

He seemed a good starting point, particularly in the absence of any others. Actually, Damon Albarn and a few other writers were drawn to Dee at a similar time, which I was initially angry about  – ‘hold on, he’s my historical figure.’ – but then concluded it was all rather elegant synchronicity.

It’s hard to know when I started writing. I recall a story involving my Action Men that was never finished, which is probably for the best. I remember sitting down when I was 21 and asking flat mates to not disturb me, as I scribbled out some poems that in my mind’s eye were part-obscured by curling smoke of Gauloise cigarettes and unrequited love. That the latter was still easier to come by in light of a local newsagent selling French cigarettes this was particularly galling. (Excuse French regional pun). I then tried writing short stories, but having read Raymond Carver’s, the standard was set too high.

I was drawn to the spirituality of the Romantic poets, who seemed to spend more time loafing around Greek islands and having orgies than actually writing anything. However, as a life style choice I was made quickly aware of its limitations, so started working in IT recruitment instead.

There are few things more motivational than an office. Forget sunsets, hilltops and breaking waves; open-plan corporate environments are the true muse. Employees beavering away at desks are actually people writing novels, rewriting the small print of an office milk whip, or re-juggling their Fantasy Football teams. It’s a fertile environment for the imagination, and one in which I learnt the crucial skill of writing while actually doing something else entirely.

Rather foolishly in terms of sales I eschewed writing about Irish dysfunctional families and buried abuse, to write the sort of book I wanted to read – escapist, light-hearted and occasionally funny. Basically PG Wodehouse with semi-automatic weapons. However, there’s great risk is suggesting you’ve written a humorous book in case it’s, well, not funny.

Like the sun, my novel was something best seen from the corner of my eye, staring at it directly and I’d be blinded. Of course starting a novel before you’ve written a short story gives you no idea how long it’s going to take, nor how hard it is. However, for when people ask what you’re doing, it does create an allure of intelligence, so long as it’s not your boss. It also justifies sitting down for long periods of time.

Anyway, I digress. I left IT recruitment to follow a 15-year career as a mental health social worker. People ask if my novel is influenced by this, and the answer is no. It would be unfair on the clients, and myself. After all, voyeurism in made-up characters is acceptable, somehow less so in real people.

I liked the idea of a novel that was fantastical, but that didn’t deliver anything too unbelievable too quickly; so that you are already sucked into the narrative by the time anything unrealistic happened, by which point it was too late. Even then, I’ve been careful to place events in a very real world of fast food and pop music so the fantasy never gets entirely out of hand.

The idea of a Life Assistance Agency had always appealed: a company that does not need to define itself by any specific services, or indeed any viable business plan. Our main protagonist Ben Ferguson-Cripps is exactly the sort of customer the Agency dreams of and this is how he first hears of it in Chapter 1:

I looked again at The Life Assistance Agency business card, and marveled at the optimism of a business plan that involved punters not mocking such speculative services. I recognised the card’s Impact font. The KLF used it on their record sleeves.

Your problems, our assistance

Where telephone banking and dietary supplements fail,

The Life Assistance Agency succeeds.

 Private investigation, sick day excuses, situation manipulation, people: lost and found, Life advice, , coincidences arranged, hits arranged, soul mates found (special rates apply), final Will and testament re-writing, fear of death minimalisation, account massaging , Swimming lessons, Feng Shui and Bonsai trimming.

0208 333 21-0

07873 643 338

This is the start of what has been described as a romp, a farcical road trip and the Blues brothers pursuing the Holy Grail, and not just by me, but readers kind enough to not only find excellent similes, but to put them on social media . The Life Assistance Agency’s first case is a missing university lecturer, before the agency in turn find themselves pursued by a Psychic Society intent on preventing ordinary folk from straying into the occult.

When writing a novel it is important to be ambitious whilst remaining realistic – which is exactly the sort of advice that the Life Assistance Agency’s proprietor, Scott Wildblood, has spent a lifetime ignoring. And I guess I did too. Annoyingly writing is something you can only learn by writing. And nothing tells you you’re not yet ready to publish like showing it to someone who rips it apart. It’s these bruising moments that sort the wheat from the chaff; which is exactly the sort of overused metaphor that an honest reader will suggest you rewrite. It hurts, but what doesn’t kill you makes you a better writer.

My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – – 

A farcical road trip around Europe. ‘This is what would happen if the Blues Brothers went on a search for the Holy Grail.’

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

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