Visit Tom's book page on Amazon

Saturday, 18 July 2015

July in France: Getting ready for the Big Sleep

Long musings with a whiff of gentle irony

Living and working in France, each July-August sees the country change dramatically – a sort of inversed hibernation period in which no-one does much and nothing much happens at all. Everything slowly switches to “Latin” mode, a great yawn of relief after the “Anglo-Saxon” mad rush from September to June, exacerbated by the fact that the poor French have to cram their work objectives into their shortened 35-hour working week and numerous bank holidays. This together with "RTT" - day in lieu according to “Reduction in Working Time” policy - and the famous “Pont (bridge)”, another day offered between bank holidays to stretch out the weekend into a vast and luxurious 4 days’ rest. Some would call this…paradise.

The Parisians leave Paris for the beaches of the west and south – a great relief to both those who stay on in the city and for the tourists visiting the capital: a two-month slot almost empty of sour-faced impoliteness. Those on the beach (the Parisians mostly – 25% of the whole population) suddenly become themselves – nice people – and once rising from their bronzing positions on the sands, it is dreamily sauntering past the paper shop and on the way to eat four-course evening meals that they learn that the outside world is still functioning: the odd coup d’état here (while the former leader is probably sunning it up on exactly the same beach as the Parisian), the odd earthquake there; an unobserved innovation – like say, the Internet super-highway – that the country misses out on during the big sleep and subsequently has to peddle like mad for the next ten years to catch it up. Paradoxically, it is then the turn of all the inhabitants of the coastal areas to rush about like madmen as they host, feed and coax the holiday-makers from the capital to spend their money.

It was said that Dali had many big sleeps...
All this means that the hangers-on in greater Paris – the small-business owners, lowly paid civil servants, the friendless, the divorced, the childless couples waiting to have the beach only for themselves in September when the screaming kids go back to school, or simply those waiting to squeeze in a long weekend or two of rest somewhere during the two months – suddenly find themselves bathed in an almost surreal calm. There are no train strikes – the railway workers gleefully keeping this in store for the traditional back-to-term strike in October-November. There is hardly any traffic. Road-rage suddenly evaporates and the last, festive nation-wide burning of cars already belongs to the past. Bastille Day, 14th July, “only” led to 600 cars being burnt across the country according to a government official speaking on the radio.

No doubt inspired by their holiday in Paris
It is a well-earned heaven. And the days automatically seem to stretch long and elastically into the night with aperitifs sipped by open windows giving out to empty and silent streets. And it is also the perfect time for the mind to meander and philosophise instead of thinking about objectives and potential delays in the public transport that will hamper you reaching them. One may take one’s time to read, stroll or go for a dip in the deserted municipal swimming pool. And one’s mind may also be allowed to think of silly things like love, the meaning of life, writing a book or poem, true happiness, getting fit, repairing the shower curtain that had collapsed in February, inventions and ideas. Letting my mind really wander far, these silly ideas might just include one or some of the following:

·         An international job search watchdog that would advise job-seekers on which companies and institutions to avoid, simply by trying out their absurdly unfathomable and truthfully unanswerable online job application forms. The sort that are 6 web pages long and contain lots of boxes, none of which suit your profile details, and which prohibit you from moving on to the next question unless you click one of their categories: “Right – okay – so I’ll just click on 'PhD in Duck Watching' even though I’m trying to get the job advertised as 'office clerk'”.  

·         A law that would see a vast educational training programme get underway for drivers in the Paris region. Large, digital displays would be set up along the main routes informing people that they only have to do four things to avoid creating traffic jams: 1) Instead of accelerating and closing ranks to those wishing to join the highway, simply let them in. 2) Keep in lane, keep your distance. 3) Drive at a steady 30-40 km/h without fail along the stretch of congested road until it quite naturally becomes flowing again thanks to your exemplary conduct. 4) Refrain from gesticulating obscenely at the drivers of other cars – anger causes acceleration!

·         A multinational “Bullshit detector club”, where a group of enthusiasts bent on the truth and openness to the citizens of the world would watch their national news every day for one week every month and note down how many times the news speaker lets rip with overtly patriotic or xenophobic remarks destined to hoodwink the scared, desperate or uneducated into being grateful (and, quite handily, at the same time willing to swallow the increase in taxes and energy bills due for November). Things like “Our X, the most beautiful capital in the world”; “the most X (meaning “like us”) of the Spanish football players on the field”; “We have the best national health system in the world” (true, thirty-five years ago and now just as hampered by under-staffing and waiting queues as any other system of the late 1940s); “No-one can rival our world-beating food (while handily forgetting that many national recipes were adopted or stolen from the Italians, Austrians, Morrocans, etc.)”; “We possess the most beautiful avenue in the world - naturally”; “the Chinese / Polish / Ukrainians / Romanians, etc.  are taking our jobs” (when everyone forgets that they actually work very well and very hard and are unhampered by corporate taxes which choke national employment initiatives to death); or “X, our beautiful, historical and great county, will resist this new plague that is globalisation and defend our interests” (Funny… I thought globalisation started 1.5 million years ago when Homo Erectus left Africa to find resources elsewhere…We might not be here if they hadn’t).

·         A worldwide training initiative for directors and managers to help them find something different to say other than “we don’t have the budget”, and then go on to hire cousins, uncles, aunts and nephews in the week that follows. While this may be accepted by young newbies on eternal short-term contracts and managers and directors who use it as an off-the-shelf standard to avoid conflict, a 40-50 year-old having worked in many fields throughout his/her working life knows it to be complete flatulence. On second thoughts, maybe it’s best to keep the “we don’t have the budget” phrase – if the truth were to be told the whole system might be in danger of collapsing.

·         And finally, a worldwide ban on all telephone answering machines leading you through an absurd labyrinth of options, none of which are suited to the real subject of your call, and which require endless pushing of numbers and hash tags (on my phone, a twelve-year old Nokia, I have to push two buttons to access the hash – meaning that by the time I manage to finally press a third time on the right icon, the answering machine has moved on to the next option and I have to start all over again).  Usually government-body instigated (despite even higher taxes they still can’t afford to hire real people to offer human assistance and contact), or incredibly the telecoms companies themselves, these machines are characterised by mutant digital voices ordering you what to do, and interspersed with overly loud jingles – seemingly composed on a Bontempi organ, the kind offered to 5 year-olds at Christmas during the 1970-80s – of Dave Brubeck’s “Take 5”. At times the machine goes wonky – giving off feedback and suddenly turning into a rendition worthy of Jimi Hendrix’s 1969 Woodstock version of The Star Spangled Banner.

So there one goes. And it's positively time to chill out, after all. A parting word might be that July and August are the most truthful months in which to call France the land of the free. Other ideas may come, or maybe even yours. Welcome are they…

And now, as a July evening in western Paris stretches deliciously and cat-like into oncoming night, a glass of the hard stuff suitably chilled in hand, with the sun hovering and hesitating to part, I bid you soft and silly things wherever you are, if only for a moment stolen.  
Sleep long, sleep tight.

Tom ;-)

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

György Faludy: a hell of a good read

“My Happy Days in Hell”

The question begs: am I talking about my current context? Well, we have down days and we have up days, though luckily most of them are the latter. No, what I’m really referring to is the book by Hungarian poet-translator-writer György Faludy. And one of the issues with this is that as usual, whenever I read a book I fall in love with, I tend to end up living it out for real!
First published in 1962 – coincidently about the time Günter Grass published the Tin Drum – My Happy Days in Hell was only allowed for publication in his native Hungary in 1988 after the fall of the communist regime.

I came back from a short stay in incredible Budapest with it (buying it from one of the best bookshops in Europe, BTW, owned by the gentleman-philosopher Tony Läng-Dabbous) and was enchanted from the first sentence onwards by Faludy’s incredible courage of candidness, wicked wit, philosophical ramblings, poetic sorties into love and nature, and finally chilling reality. If you were to put Grass’ The Tin Drum, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les Confessions and  William Boyd’s Les Nouvelles Confessions all into a  meat grinder and push the start button, two minutes later you’d come out with My Happy Days in Hell but spiced with a unique nip of Faludy paprika.

György Faludy
Over the past three weeks, Faludy’s book has become a companion, a friend. We share the same heady mixture of feelings for Morocco, the same dislike of extremes, the same reactions when faced with the absurd, the same love of nature and, why not, of Womankind. It is a biography that follows his escape from Hungary just before the outset of WW II, his life in Paris and then the necessity to flee the Nazi invasion to end up in Portugal and then Morocco and finally the United States where he eventually volunteered for the US army. In 1947, true to his love of the Hungarian language and believing in a democratic future, he returned to Hungary, only to be arrested by the Communists several years later.

Not-so-hellish for me, after all
He spent 3 years in a labour camp on trumped up charges – and this is where I am currently at, fifty pages from the end. I cannot stop putting down the book to gasp in amazement: caught between laughing out loud and choking down the tears of shock and indignation. If you want something to churn your emotions inside out, then György Faludy’s My Happy Days in Hell is definately for you! It kind of makes you step back a little from your own minor moments of hell at the office and sigh in relief at just how heavenly they are...

Read more about the amazing life of György Faludy on Wikipedia.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Thank (the) heaven(s) for rainy days

6 books that changed (at least) my world

It’s a rainy, cold-ish 1st of May in northern France where I live. Not the sort of weather to stay outside too long. But one of those days – and moreover a bank holiday – where the delicious opportunity arises to just…not do anything much in particular but take your time and nonchalantly peruse your bookshelf you haven’t had the time or thought to peruse for ages!
I finish off my breakfast of buttered toast and sweet pear jam, enjoy a hot cup of black coffee I insist on preparing with a Bodum (none of your fancy Clooney machines here) and finish it all off with the day’s first, and best, cigarette (we only live once, and I refuse to feel guilty for this pleasure in an existence). The ritual over, I realise that my gaze is hovering over my bookshelf. I get up, walk over, and begin – as though looking at something anew – to study what’s on it. I surprise myself by realising that as I discover the titles one-by-one, I’m actually producing little hums and aahs: either falling upon a title I’d forgotten I’d once bought or else coming across my good friends, the ones I’ve kept with me ever since adolescence: and the ones that changed my world, changed my life, all those years ago. I extract them, flick through the pages, fall upon scribbled comments, read the odd passage that I should by now know by heart – and decide to write this post.
First, Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. I don’t have the original with the provocative cover (for the era it must have been a shocker), but I do have several different publications in English and in French. How did it change my world? My father recommended it to me and it made me understand that people are basically good anywhere you go in the world. That despite trials and errors, we can make it up somehow by showing tolerance, friendship and simply giving and that, really, simplicity is one of the best gifts we can ever inherit. This a must for those blue moments that occasionally come: pick it up, open the cover, and from the first page onwards life becomes sunshine again.  
Second, Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell. I first read this on moving to London from a small seaside town when I nineteen. In those days I was a young idealist, a young adventurer convinced that everything would be an obvious success on the road to happiness. Several weeks after reading this book I was living it out for real and learning that adventure could sometimes be desperate, dangerous and at times sordid. Still – I learned some lessons, some of which I must admit, I still haven’t completely mastered!
Third, William Boyd’s An Ice-Cream War. Back then, Boyd was the first British writer for ages who managed to produce something stunning in terms of a damn good read: funny, intelligent, ironic, tragic and exotic. I’ve read all his books ever since – even when he went, for ten years or so, out of the publishing fashion. Luckily, he’s back. And if you want to learn anything about how the British tick, then his books are a must.
Fourth: The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass. Wow. I first read this when I was fifteen. And it was probably the book that really made me want to write. Weird and fantastical, with a tangle of styles and stories, sometimes hilarious, sometimes revolting, other times killing in its stark realism: it made me travel throughout Germany and write those first, copy-cat style stories that if you weren’t called Günter Grass no-one would ever read. Grass recently died, and was for some quite controversial. But it can’t be denied that he captured a certain feeling that was the Europe of the ‘50s-‘80s.
Fifthly, the anthology of poetry Staying Alive edited by Neil Astley (who once wrote me a rejection slip basically informing me my poems were crap. Thanks, Neil – but it didn’t stop me from reading the trilogy over-and-over every year). Staying Alive is so vast, so complete, that you never get bored with it. It has travelled with me everywhere – train journeys, planes, continents, the office and on all those other, emotional, journeys too. It is a compass and has the uncanny ability to point you in the right direction when all seems lost, including you.
And sixth, and last, that incredibly simple, incredibly powerful book The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Together with Cannery Row, it’s the book I’ve offered most to others as a present and a message I’ve always carried with me. It picks you up, sends you soaring up into the wide blue sky of hope and belief – both in yourself and in Humankind. Perhaps, one day, The Alchemist will be honoured with a Nobel. Deservedly.
So thank heavens for rainy days! They make you do the cleaning, take extra care with the cooking, explore the jumble-sale of a neglected cupboard, watch an old favourite film and…return, intrigued, to the bookshelf that shaped your world.
Enjoy this rainy day and all those that will come.
Tom ;-)

Saturday, 28 February 2015

The slippery path of fiction writing

When the plot takes over control

Some strange things happen to those of us who write. One of these is when the plot takes on a life of its own and leads the author where he or she doesn’t want to go.  

Coincidence twenty years on

This is happening to me. And either very aptly, or very bizarrely, I gave the title Strange Roads to the story when I began it a year ago. It all started out with a coincidence. Nearly twenty years ago I visited a part of the French countryside to the west of Paris and came across the tombs of 3 young British soldiers killed in action on August 28th, 1944. At 23 I was older than they were when they had died. This caused quite an inner stir in me and I noted them down in my diary, paid my respects, and left. And the years passed.

Last autumn, I happened to be out on a Sunday hike. Nearing a river in the Epte valley, I came across a small, stone monument. And incredibly, here were the same 3 names I’d seen all those years ago. It was the place where their tank had gone up in flames.

I took it as a sign to write something for them. A novel in their honour. Initial mind-mapping (I use Buzan’s technique to map out ideas and plots), brought me the characters, the story, twelve chapters and an ending. All that had to be done was follow the motorway and write the thing.

The building of the pontoon at Vernon, days before the attack up the Epte valley, August 1944. Courtesy, British Pathé News.

Battling with the mischievous muse

So I began writing. Three months gave me six written chapters and a further five planned as the story matured: Strange Roads, a story set in 1947 with the return of Jack Kemp to France and the homage he had to pay to his fallen comrades (with of course, a lively description of the local folks, their surroundings, and a love story with a local school mistress that all ends happily!).

And then the story began to take control. Story or characters? Some of them started getting nasty. The story  not only traced the beginnings of love between the two key characters, but suddenly began to detour into the sexual inclinations of both the primary and the secondary characters – not only adding spice, but also a heavy dose of intrigue. I tried to steer the story back on course. To no avail. Added to the blushingly torrid sex scenes, came a ghastly putsch with the characters leading the pen (or keyboard in these modern times!) flowing towards a thriller à la Hitchcock! Come back, stay sweet, stay high-brow, my mind shouted. I don’t like thrillers! But the characters – or perhaps what Elizabeth Gilbert (cf TED) would call our mischievously creative muse – had decided to plunge the book into a revolution and take the path of blackmail, murder, hidden treasure, hidden truths and hidden identities.

The last time I wrote was during the Christmas break – when out and about, a couple of historical discoveries concerning the Knights Templar in the region and an apparent French government attempt to hush up a local gardener who knew too many secrets about the treasure in the 1950s, added oil to the flames. The thirty or so pages hammered out between mouthfuls of Christmas pud’ read like a sexed-up mix of The Good German (Jospeh Kanon – the book is light years better than the botched attempt at catching the spirit of the 1940s of the film) and Hitchcock’s Rear Window (originally a short story written by a certain Cornell Woolrich). I didn’t want it to be. But it was. Unable to control things, steering far down a stranger road than I had set out upon, I decided to give it all a break.

Decision time

No, the story wasn’t turning out to be a deeply poignant tribute to loss and love. And maybe, the thought came to me, I wasn’t meant or even capable of writing such stuff (too bad for the inclusion of his nibs in the great annals of Anglo-Saxon literary works). It is now decision time: scrap the whole thing, tear out the thriller-sex, coerce my story back onto its original path, make it nice? Or give in to the crankiness of the characters, accept the popular fiction label, and risk going down the silly track of lost treasures and torrid sex scenes (something that seems to get miles more publicity in the UK/US than a serious message in a story)?

It isn’t writing that isn’t easy: it’s creating a good plot
Tom Gamble waiting for Dickens to open the door
One thing I have learnt (or been reminded of, to be more exact) is that it isn’t writing that isn’t easy. It is creating a plot. And a good plot at that. Time and time again, the writing process is filled with trial and doubt – “would the character actually do that? Does this sound convincing? Won’t people think that’s silly (or worse still, crap)? Aren’t I giving up my values?” are constant recalls to review, re-write, re-think.
Will Strange Roads continue down its strange path to thrillerdom? At this stage, I don’t know. I wanted to pay tribute to three young British soldiers – 17, 19 and 21 years old – who were in a tank, in a French valley under the pouring rain of late August 1944, and who lost their lives for something that for our generations has “softened” with time. Maybe the best way to pay tribute is lay down the poppies on Poppy day and say a little prayer for them of gratitude. And let the story go down the road it wants to.
Tom Gamble is author of the novels Amazir and TheKingdom of Emptiness.


Sunday, 8 February 2015

The Dream Machine in one stunning free download!

9 Steps to achieve what you really want

In the run up to Christmas 2014, I posted the "Dream Machine", step by step. Here it is, as a last blast, in its full 9-step format.

What is it? Well, if you:
  • Want to write a book
  • Do a world tour
  • Start up a business
  • Sell your paintings
  • Go to university
  • Move home
  • Be an actor or actress
  • Buy you dream car
  • Change your life
  • Or even change your kitchen sink
  • Plus a million other things - either objectives or dreams...
Then the Dream Machine s for you. A 9-step self-coaching tool to plan, analyse, check and achieve what you desire! It worked for me, and it's worked for others.

Amazir with the other finalists.That's me. Er - on the right!
Click on the link to download it from my professional site. Good luck with your dreams!