Friday, 8 October 2010

Once I was a trillionaire

It is today exactly 6 months since the awful events that have rendered me wordless for so long and which I tried to explain in LibraDoodle passim.

I shall not dwell but will tell this. There is no loneliness like the eviscerating loneliness of turning and walking away after the funeral of the one person you loved completely and who loved you back equally. There are no words for it. The empty pain does not subside. It sits there daily, a cold, hard rock in my heart. There are times each day when I just wish it, my own heart, would stop and I could join her, the one I miss so much, so hard, so sweetly. My beautiful, clever Hannah.

But it hasn’t stopped, I am here and life must be lived so lived it will be, if sometimes grudgingly.

One of the events that took me out of the gloom was this week when on Tuesday evening I chaired the Southbank Centre Book Club. The work under inspection was Peter Godwin’s excellent memoir When a Crocodile Eats the Sun and to add a little spice to the event - and also to reward the hardy stalwarts who not only book their tickets, but also turn up – I invited a rather special guest.

You may be aware of this book which explores the appalling events that occur as Zimbabwe sinks into despair, as the so-called ‘war-vets’ requisition farms and as state-sanctioned violence and depravity wash like a dark tide over the beautiful bread basket of Southern Africa. Godwin traces all this through the prism of his parents, his fears for them, his attempts to protect them, and in doing so we learn about his family and the nation they call home, of the revelations that can often arise through periods of high emotion.

Peter is appearing in an event at Southbank next week and on the night we were discussing his work he was launching his latest work the optimistically titled The Fear – The Last Days of Robert Mugabe at a bookshop in West London. But my special guest was his sister, Georgina, who had been a highly regarded broadcaster in Zimbabwe, a Sarah Cox of the nation as she has been described. She features greatly throughout the book and I thought she might give the readers an interesting insight into the family dynamic of a sibling writing a frank memoir. I could not have predicted how generous she was with her time and her answers as she gave well thought out analyses of the situation in Zim now and then, of the emotions surrounding her family’s situation, of her own situation and of the difficulties involved.

It was during an exploration of the economic situation that prevailed in Zimbabwe before it adopted the American dollar, when we were discussing how one actually survives in a country that is suffering from super-hyper inflation, that Georgina removed her wallet from her handbag and produced a banknote.

She handed it to me and for a brief few moments I couldn’t actually believe what I was holding. Like many I had seen the news reports of hundred thousand dollar notes, million dollar and billion dollar notes even. But this? I read the words. I counted the numbers and still it didn’t seem quite real. You wouldn’t believe it if I told you. So I’ll show you.

Yes, your eyes do not deceive you. One hundred trillion dollars. Fourteen zeros. Four commas. A lot of money or so you’d think, as it seems to have only been enough to buy a loaf of bread… until the next day of course when the staggering power of inflation rendered it near worthless.

I passed the note to one of the readers and it got passed hand-to-hand around the group to ‘coos’ and looks of utter disbelief. One of them, Eva Arnold, photographed it and I’m grateful to her for letting me use the photo.

So yes, once I was rich. Once I was worth one hundred trillion dollars. Once I loved and was loved so very richly. In both cases all too fleetingly.

Yours ever,


Sunday, 11 April 2010

Cozy Valentine R.I.P.

It is with a heart so unbearably heavy and with tears that refuse to stop that I write of the untimely passing of my precious Cozy Valentine.

She had been unwell since an operationlate last year and had borne the last few months of constant pain with extraordinary stoicism, great fortitude and, when she was able, her trademark humour.

Cozy was as bright as Venus on a frosty morning and as quick as a drop of runaway mercury. Her beautiful green eyes were as unique as the love she had for her family and her friends.

She read the post below before anyone else, as I wrote it, and it made her cry. Happy tears. She loved the fact that so many of you read it and followed the link to her music.

That she had only recently celebrated her thirtieth birthday makes her death such an unaccountable tragedy.

That she leaves behind her two beautiful daughters, Eluna Red and Grace, who she loved so completely, who she was so proud and so protective of, makes it a hundred times more so.

She delighted in her adored and adorable maidens, in life, in her music and in all that was good, true, authentic and heartfelt.

Please find time in your thoughts for her Mother, her sister and brother, for Ela and Grace and for Rodd and Taz.

Her name was Hannah. I called her ‘my darling’ and ‘my sweetheart’ for she was both. She called me ‘her dearest darling boy.’ I was.

We had been making such lovely plans for a gentle future of warmth, stability and 'niceness' together as she put it, as adored wife and proud husband, and I can’t believe that I’m having to write these words about the woman, the girl, that I loved with all of my broken heart and who I was so very fortunate to be loved by.

Rest in gentle peace my darling girl, my precious, adorable and adored, beautiful Hannah and know that you were so deeply loved by your dearest boy who wanted the world for you and who loved your true love for him as the dearest thing in his life.


Thursday, 25 February 2010

Cozy Valentine

Now then, I know that the whole point of coining the name LibraDoodle for this blog was to obliquely highlight the emphasis on various musings literary that exercised me, but I hope you will permit me a diversion into matters musical.
There is a slight justification for this as many years ago I made the foolish error of thinking that it might be easier – and so I also thought, more immediately profitable – to tell stories through the medium of song writing rather than through writing a novel. As much an act of idiocy and misdirection as it was of laziness, I of course eventually learned my lesson, but not before I’d performed before bemused audiences across Eastern Europe, unwittingly wasting the time and effort of some people that I seriously admired and respected in the process. Still, I tried and in the trying learned to respect those who can hold our attention and grip our emotions through song; those who can crystallise universal human truths within the parameters of verses, choruses, bridges and instrumental breaks.
More recently many of the authors I am honoured and proud to know have confessed to being rock stars, musicians or singers manqué. Many make reference to music in their novels; some having gone as far as producing CDs of the music that their fictional protagonists listen to. There is a correlation between musical and literary originality, the number of novels that have either a tacit or overt soundtrack being nigh on equal to the number of songs that make reference to literary inspirations. What we admire in great literature, the originality of emotional expression, is akin to that we admire in great song writing or musicality and while it is easier to recognise such originality retrospectively it is harder to do so before the passage of time has allowed bandwagons to coalesce and filter the wheat from the chaff on our behalf.
I have some precedents for this line of thought. Many years ago I used to perform, trialling my own new songs and new poems at a venue called the Troubadour in West London, which was famed for being the site of Bob Dylan’s first UK performance, or so the mythology claimed. I also occasionally played guitar for a young singer-songwriter called Alex Zapak who I thought (oh how I want to write ‘knew’ there) was a completely original voice and for whom I thought success was just a matter of time. Sadly it wasn’t to be for her, but I still stand by now, nearly twenty years on, what I then thought. At that time one of the many people who used the ‘come one, come all’ open-mike evenings to test new material was a superb young guy who had such an extraordinary voice, such a magnificent turn of phrase and who wrote songs of such emotional honesty, clarity and musicality that success - by the yardstick that then prevailed at least - was to my mind assured. As it happened I was wrong again and he disappeared for quite some time only to resurface years later with a string of huge hits. He was called David Gray, he still is, and he was as authentic an artist as is possible to be; no urge to be a celebrity, no shallow aspirations, just a hunger to be heard, to be given a chance.
In the intervening years I have privately bewailed the absence of such true talents, such originality, such artistry from the public arena. I admit that I have become cynical about the over-packaged, pre-digested, over-produced pap that fills the charts. My fault entirely as I’ve been focussed on other areas and have not been going to the music venues, the clubs and the evenings where real talent is nurtured. Until recently that is.
In the past few months my unhappy and uncomfortable musical cynicism has been blown away, evaporated like cold fog in warm sunlight, and the reason is this. In much the same way that I am aware of some extraordinarily talented writers and poets whose inability to find a publisher I fail to understand, there are a number of musicians, singers and songwriters who have hitherto failed to trouble the music industry but who have been quietly adding to the colour, range and vibrancy of the nations artistic spectrum.
I have in previous postings extolled the virtues of such artists as Aruba Red and Woe and I would now add to them the extraordinarily original and deeply affecting talent of a singer, songwriter and musician who travels under the stage name of Cozy Valentine.
A solo artist, she sings songs of love like T.C Boyle writes novels of life, without fear, without dilution. She tells of the harsh, heartfelt and fragile facts of romance’s reality with the same frank honesty that Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis employ to write the uncomfortable truths of machismo and insecurity. Her poetry of the heart defines the grit that forms the pearl. I have heard her sing live and have wept, wept uncontrollably and unashamedly at the truth of her sadness and for the sad truths of which she sings. Imagine pure love sung in the minor key of Jack Daniels, imagine tunes of the tarnished sadness of emotional reality strummed on a guitar strung with broken heartstrings, imagine tears of disappointment made diamonds of despair.
But also imagine hope, imagine a dogged, optimistic refusal to give up on the dream of the love that we all sense is possible. Indeed imagine a pure, fairytale princess who is trapped in the shallow, venal world that allows X factor to exist and who despite this knowingly, bravely bears the weight of that frustration and knowledge. If ever there was a Cinderella of our time, it is Cozy Valentine. If Edith Piaf had a 21st century sister, it would be Cozy Valentine. As cozy as Boudicca on a rampage and as close to the fluffy pink Hallmark card version of St. Valentine as Eros is to an AK 47 firing a dum-dum bullet to the heart, her music draws you in, strokes your hair, holds you tight, kisses you softly, warmly and passionately and then bites you hard on the lip so you never, never forget her.
We live in a sad and confused world where such words as ‘fame’ and ‘celebrity’ are imbued with a value, bestowed with a currency they do not deserve having no longer been earned by the honing of a raw talent to the point of mastery, to a level of excellence. For my money then contemporary fame and celebrity are a sham. The words that describe the true essence of value to me are artistry, talent, dedication, authenticity and honesty and in these Cozy Valentine has wealth beyond compare and deserves great praise for creating pure, beautiful, dark pearls of perfection in song.
Yours ever,
(Cozy Valentine can be found at

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

A Seductive Business.

Writing is such a seductive business. Or perhaps more accurately, writing is the business of seduction.

Such an exercise in blind faith. Although you don’t write for anyone in particular, with the possible exception of yourself, as you embark on the long journey of optimism that is a novel what you are really hoping for, truly longing for, is to be chosen. Chosen by an agent. Chosen by a publisher. Chosen from the thousands of other books that are published that month, that year, all lined up, shimmering on the shelves like nervous boys at a school dance.

The best that you can hope for is that one girl, one reader, will like your jacket from across the room, across the shop, will come over, pick you up and see what you have to say for yourself, like it enough to spend some more time with you, open you up and let you take her on a journey into the world that you have created for yourself, for her. All you need, artistically, is just that one reader, that one lover, that one girlfriend, one wife.

Of course the business part means that commercially you need to whore yourself out to as many hundreds or thousands as you can manage. Perhaps writing is the seduction of prostitution. For the brief time that you spend together you make someone feel special, make them laugh, make them cry, make them feel less alone in the world and then when the last page has been turned, you fold quietly away, leaving them to sleep, to return to their normal life. It’s perhaps no accident that authors, like prostitutes, are paid in advance for their wares.

But while you are together and she gets to know you, to explore you between the sheets of paper on which your heart is laid bare, your very soul exposed, that one reader is your entire world and if you’re lucky, you are theirs.



Friday, 15 January 2010

The Brief Life of Oneword

The following is a piece I wrote last year for the Society of Authors which they have kindly published in the Winter edition of their magazine The Author. I post it here for the record:

It was a grand plan; an idea so evolved, so ambitious and pioneering in its conception that what occurred over the next 9 years could hardly have been planned for, let alone expected. That one of the prime movers behind it had been the man who ‘invented’ Radio 1, that it had support from an industry that had never seen the like and that it embraced a new and exciting technology should all have played into its favour. But it was not to be.

The idea? In the words of said prime mover, Tim Blackmore MBE, the man that wrote the original application for the programme contract:

We wanted to create a commercial radio station that was more than just a jukebox. Commercial radio had not yet provided an intelligent speech station… I believe that would have been our achievement.”

That plan became the Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) station Oneword, which from May 2000 broadcast a range of content from serialisation of audio books to weekly publishing industry news, from film reviews to a unique thirty minute, daily author interview programme ‘Between the Lines’ that for some eight years was more than just my job, it became my life and my passion.

The team that had been formed to put the plan into action included professionals that were as inventive and keen as they were committed to the ideals of the new station. Not least Managing Director Ben Budworth, formerly the head of radio traffic report company Metro and Paul Kent, formerly Head of Readings for BBC Radio 4. Good people, solid people with impressive track records. People who knew and understood both the dynamics of arts programming and of radio’s commercial sensibilities and could apply their knowledge to the new station and the new technology.

In the year 2000 digital radio was a nascent form of broadcasting. At Oneword’s outset there were barely any DAB radios for sale. Few people had heard of DAB and understood what it was let alone owned a DAB set. Manufacturers were in a race to overcome various technical issues such as short battery life caused by the early DAB chip’s hunger for power. Digital One, the company responsible for erecting transmitters and to whom the stations paid hefty fees to use ‘their’ airwaves, were working furiously to extend the reach of the early service beyond the main motorway corridors. It was an exciting time, full of hope and optimism. It felt like a modern version of loading up a wagon and heading west across the plains and over the mountains. Pioneering stuff. At times one could imagine that the spirit of Marconi moved among us.

It was all part of Oneword’s plan though, that as the DAB industry grew, we would grow with it. The early days would give us time to try out new programming ideas, test the water and to slowly find our feet and our audience. In the beginning it worked well. We started to make some good programmes. A company called Pure started to make some good radios, not least the little pine box called the Evoke that soon became a highly desirable kitchen radio. Oneword won the first of its two Gold Sony Awards, the Oscars of British radio. It all looked as if the experiment might just work.

But soon after, the first of a string of problems hit. As Tim Blackmore, by then Oneword’s Chairman put it:

‘The take-up of DAB by its potential users was slower than had been anticipated, our most enthusiastic launch partner, Chivers Books, was bought by BBC Worldwide and with that sale we lost a major shareholder and a valued director… following our initiative, the BBC then planned Channel X which eventually emerged as BBC7 which with its guaranteed income was able to invest so much more than our resources would allow. The Chivers shareholding went to a Hong Kong based venture capital company who were bewildered by what they’d acquired and soon opted out.’

It was a hard time to be in the office. Suddenly all the joy and optimism had evaporated. All thoughts of our becoming the ‘biggest shop window for the publishing industry and it’s output” as Budworth put it at the time, were put on ice as we fought for survival against fleeing shareholders and stiff competition from the BBC. It is worthy of note that the BBC were later much criticised in a report for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, by Tim Gardam. But the damage was done.

The trick in commercial radio is the commercial aspect. Oneword had set its stall out for listeners and slowly we were building a keen and loyal audience. Advertisers were another matter however. Media buyers, those gatekeepers of advertising revenue, were understandably slow to recommend that their clients spend their money on a new, little understood medium that had such small audiences compared to the more developed mainstream options. Even the publishing industry was unwilling to support what seemed to us to be a hugely effective medium for appealing their core market, and this was long before credit crunch hit. All this made Oneword highly dependent on the capital expenditure of its shareholders for it’s income and radio is expensive.

Oneword sustained its activities with a budget that barely made it into the “two commas’ category and the bulk of that was swallowed up with licence fee, transmission costs and such technical considerations. The little remaining went on office overheads and (very) modest salaries. With Chivers gone it couldn’t last and one fateful Friday afternoon Tim Blackmore and Simon Cole (MD of UBC, the majority shareholder) came to 19 Charing Cross Road to impart the bad news that redundancies would have to be made. It was painful. It was the end of the first chapter and the beginning of the second and, as it turned out, final phase.

Following a move to UBC’s offices in Marylebone and to a much smaller studio to save money, there was now a skeleton crew. Ben Budworth had gone as MD and been replaced by Simon Blackmore, Tim’s radio industry professional son and the inheritor of Oneword’s somewhat poisoned chalice. Paul Kent became a freelance programme director working part time. A much smaller team, with a much smaller budget, those that remained worked so hard to try and keep the spirit of Oneword alive in the hope that a rescue could be effected. UBC were covering costs on their own, a situation that couldn’t last for long. Soon enough a new partner was found in Channel 4 who made assurances that they wanted to expand into radio and that taking a 51% stake in Oneword would enable them not just to invest but to cross promote the station on screen. It all sounded hopeful. It began to seem that a hiccup had been cured and that Oneword could get back on track. But the assurances failed to become commitments. Channel 4 then pitched for and won the second, national commercial UK multiplex, a rival to Digital One’s multiplex on which Oneword remained, but without a sound economic future.

The harsh truth was now staring the station in the face. Simon Blackmore summarises it well:

Through almost constant challenge and without enormous resource, the various teams at Oneword produced [prize-winning] output which both stimulated and enhanced the digital radio offering. It was a worthy competitor to anything offered by the BBC, and on a fraction of the resource. It was a station that attracted loyalty, press attention and revenues out of all proportion to its size. The fact that those things did not in the end add up to a business… is a matter of regret, but an inescapable truth.”

It would be easy to write of what could have been. A radio station that did for the publishing industry what most others do for the music industry; a true radio window for Britain’s enormous writing and publishing output. ‘Between the Lines,’ my own show, was listened to by so many who then told me of their joy in buying and reading the books that I’d discussed with their authors.

It all could have worked, if DAB had taken off faster, if the BBC hadn’t been allowed to start their own version, if UBC, that most loyal of shareholders, had had deeper pockets, if Channel 4 had stuck to their commitments, if profitability had been more of a short term possibility than a long term hope. If, if, if.

In Tim Blackmore’s email to me, summarising the history, he starts:

Looking back at the creation of Oneword I can’t help but feel a deep sadness…’

I know of authors, former listeners and literary festival attendees who come up to me and express the same sentiment. I know how they, Simon, Ben, Paul Kent and Tim feel. As the only staff member who was there constantly from the beginning to the end I feel it myself. Deeply. Still.