Dear Diary 1: I Hate Your Perfect White Pages


I expect my readers to be a little smarter than average.

Dear Diary, it’s Friday August 6th, and I’ve started feeling like Joan Crawford trapped in Bette Davis’s house in ‘Whatever happened to Baby Jane?’ But at least she got to be in Santa Monica. I’m in King’s Cross. I am a prisoner. The Prisoner. No.6. I am not a number, I am an animal. I’m the Forgotten Prisoner (bats not included), the Prisoner of Zenda, the Prisoner of Second Avenue, I am Papillon, the Birdman of Alcatraz, Billy Hayes, Un Prophète, Mr Lawrence, Un Homme Èchappe, everyone who has ever been trapped except that bloke in the bloody Shawshank Redemption, a film I unreasonably detest.

Why haven’t I flown the coop? Government red tape, the coronavirus (although it’s virtually vanished here), The Husband’s dreaded work commitments, hospital appointments. It’s not supposed to be like this. I’m meant to be like Tom Hanks in ‘Joe VS The Volcano’ – and hurtle off around the world first class to fill my time with colour and life, not be staring out of a rain-stained window.

So what should I be doing with my time? My gut tells me to find a way of writing one more Bryant & May, but what if I don’t finish it? Would readers feel cheated after the events of ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’? Holmes went over the falls. And off a building. Did anyone care?

The sun flickers briefly through the summer’s dense and endless black clouds, so I tentatively sit outside and read the giants whose feet I cannot reach. To know that you are here when they are there is frustrating. But reading the giants is always an angry joy.

I need to expand my circuit from home-hospital-Waitrose, so the day before yesterday I had breakfast with the always-interesting Joanne Harris, whose new novel, ‘The Narrow Door’ continues investigations at St Oswald’s, possibly the most ill-fated school in the country. Like me, Joanne has gone public about her illness in order to encourage dialogue with others who have not gone for scans. She is in recovery from chemo and doing well. We share pain-easement tips and moan about what’s happening to the NHS – this, believe it or not, is the very first time I’ve spoken to another ‘patient’. The system wants to be holistic and encompassing but it simply isn’t. What you’re offered depends on where you live.

Later, to lunch with author/critic/ film expert Barry Forshaw and his wife Judith, in a restaurant so close to my home that I can see The Husband jet-washing our terrace. We always talk about film, Barry and I, especially as he records commentaries for DVD releases. I bemoan the fact that the studios are deliberately holding back films and dedicating themselves to G-rated family fare, Marvel and DC to maximise profits. At which point I realise I’ve overdone the fast chat and pretty much collapse like a Buzz Lightyear with its batteries removed.

Even though my chemo failed its pernicious effects linger. There are days when I can’t think clearly, remember words or form sentences, so writing a novel this afternoon is probably out. Besides, what should I write? My last non-Bryant & May novel was buried by the publisher and now I’ve finished two more very different books, placed but so far unpublished, so there’s no point in working on yet another. I cannot bring readers from Bryant & May to other works, any more than Joanne can bring her Chocolat-lovers to her other books.

Career writers always face this dilemma. We work continually to reliably deliver books. Some are experiments, and experiments don’t always work. Some books are too far of a stretch for readers used to an entirely different style. Some readers found ‘Little Boy Found’ (hate that title) unrealistic. I expect my readers to be a little smarter than average. Work with me, stay ahead. I don’t really do traditional realism. I can, but I find it boring to write. I expect readers to see beyond the words. I grew up surrounded by the experimentalists, the non-realistic writers. I love Joe Orton’s strange take on the English language – let’s have more of it! Oh, you say it doesn’t sell and how about writing a crowd-pleaser that pays fan service instead?

Right now I can’t fill a diary – I start with neat penmanship and swiftly descend into random notes, weird drawings and shopping lists. But at least they’re revealing and readable. Which is probably more than can be said for some of my prose.




36 comments on “Dear Diary 1: I Hate Your Perfect White Pages”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    I’ll have more to say later (I always do…) but I suggest you read Christopher Fowler’s ‘Full Dark House’ as evidence that characters (sorry Arthur…) can make it back from ‘Reichenbach Falls.’ As you may recall, this was to be a one-off — a beginning and end. The rest, of course, is history. First of all you will be able to finish another B&M — if for no other reason than because of our collective applied psychic energy So forget that part. But some sketches, if not full short stories, in lieu of a complete B&M (at this point…) would do. Early lives. Musings on other than crime related matters. Etc., etc. Presumably you set a precedent with ‘Peculiar London.’ So onward and sideways…

  2. Daren+Murray says:

    I have no doubt that we would all be overjoyed if you found a way to bring us another full length B&M, but only you can know how trying, and possibly failing, would make you feel. I know short stories do not sell well these days, but how do novellas fare? What about a ‘Breathe’ length B&M? A novella per decade of their partnership would be fabulous.

  3. Stu-I-Am says:

    More to Say Part I The thing is to keep exercising that muscle in your head. So keep writing — anything. Even if it is gibberish or nonsense to you. And if you can bear it, write in longhand — cursive writing has been shown to help. Write expressively about how you feel, ignoring spelling and syntax. This too has been shown to be helpful. The idea is to set aside your Christopher Fowler best-selling and award-winning author persona for the moment (just for the moment, mind…) and write as a therapeutic exercise.

    The stuff you agonize over will come back slowly at first and then in a rush. Of course, I wouldn’t mind if you occasionally ‘lapsed’ and knocked out an installment or two of the PCU or B&M ‘sketchbook.’ In fact, why not publish in installments like your predecessors (and some contemporaries) ? The ‘Guardian’ or one of the UK’s many fine literary magazines or perhaps even Coppola’s ‘Zoetrope’ in San Francisco might offer opportunities and of course, there is also the option of self-publishing online.

  4. Jo W says:

    Hi Chris, were you writing this post today as Mr.Hyde or Dr.Jekyll? You said you might switch personas but as I could never work out which was which……..
    Mind you,I have trouble with Ant’n’Dec and as for telling Stork from butter – impossible.

  5. Stu-I-Am says:

    More to Say Part II About this ‘prisoner’ business (and as I recall not feeling up to your previous exercise regime), may I recommend the Charles Bronson (now Charles Salvador) ‘Solitary Fitness” book. Bronson/Salvador, as you may be aware, has been dubbed ‘Britain’s most notorious prisoner,’ having spent many years in segregation or solitary confinement. He, of course, has a different view of himself: ‘I’m a nice guy, but sometimes I lose all my senses and become nasty. That doesn’t make me evil, just confused.’

    Anyway, to pique your interest — from the book cover: ‘Charles Bronson has spent nearly three decades in solitary confinement, and yet has stayed fit as a fiddle,gaining several world strength and fitness records, and making sure he is ready for any situation. His fitness programme will give you all the know-how you need to be at the peak of mental and physical form. Bronson is the fitness guru for the new you.’ And, he allows as how, he won’t ‘mug you off for a fortune in the process!’

  6. Helen+Martin says:

    I’m sure that if you asked Mr. Bronson/Salvador he would tell you that all that time in solitary is just the result of his unhappy spells. Solitary fitness regimes only work for those who don’t need the encouragement of others.
    Glad you and Joanne Harris are able to compare notes, Chris (although one wishes neither of you had the subject to share) because no one understands like someone who is experiencing something similar.

  7. I totally understand your frustration. I’ve had ME/CFS for almost 16 years, and for the last 6 I’ve been somewhat housebound. It’s so frustrating that our bodies seem to shut down the things we most love and rely upon for sanity. I lost singing, for a while there I even lost reading. I can barely English some days, so my academic ambitions were crushed pretty early on.
    I don’t know if it will help you at all but I can offer 2 pieces of advice and an anecdote.
    First, don’t beat yourself up for being made of fallible meat. Your body needs to rest and your mind needs to adapt. I hope you can see relaxing as an active task, like jet cleaning a terrace.
    Second, find something new to do that is less taxing on the parts that are asking for a break. When I can’t brain language I draw or paint. I’m shit at it (but getting better), but I see my improvements and it gives me a little bit of satisfaction that i can still do something. By giving your brain that change and rest, you’ll find it easier to regain what you’ve lost.
    Now the anecdote. I stopped being able to read novels about 15 years ago, after struggling through Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. It was the illness at fault, I couldn’t concentrate on a lengthy narrative. I was able to manage academic papers and texts, and even short stories and some comics, but no longer form narratives. Even in writing my Masters thesis I struggled to follow my own thoughts from beginning to end (thanks to my supervisors, it all worked out). I finally tried audio books, and have been catching up on my reading through them. Then last month I finished reading my first physical novel in 15 years – Full Dark House. I couldn’t get it in audio format from my library but I wanted to read it.
    Your books gave me back reading.

  8. More accurately, learning to draw let me hang onto a narrative again, which meant i could try reading. Your books m, in audio form let me transition back to paper. Your hardback books let me read again.
    If be reading Film freak right now, but my husband stole it! He’s been cackling away and having a grand time, so I’ll let him finish it.

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    ‘Ay, there’s the rub!’ Looks to be a roller ball or felt tip pen in the photo. You must avail yourself of a fountain pen like many of the greats, and preferably a piston fountain pen. It not only brings you viscerally closer to the creative process, but will give you extended periods of pleasurable distraction, fiddling with nibs and ink. By the time you’re done fiddling and wash the ink from your hands (or change your ink stained shirt), it’s time for lunch.

  10. John Howard says:

    Admin…. Listen to your gut.. Nothing more to be said.

  11. SteveB says:

    Would readers feel cheated after the events of ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’?

    I’d trust you, not to let me down.

  12. Keith says:

    Hi Chris, this disturbs me., Try not to worry. Perhaps collaboration with Joanne? With Bryant and May, you could take us anywhere, they are your creation. Another stand alone adventure, you did this with Full Dark House. Your readers won’t mind I’m sure. We’d love you even more for it. Stay strong!

  13. Richard says:

    One more Bryant & May? Yes, please.

  14. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    ‘Would readers feel cheated after the events of ‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’?

    Of course not.
    I would happily read the experiments as well.
    Five minutes at a time is good when a day at a time is too much.

  15. admin says:

    Anna-Maria, I’m thrilled you started reading again. That’s the important part. Stu, ‘forget spelling and syntax’ – not on my watch, even relaxed. And I do use a reservoir pen whenever I write to friends overseas.
    Keith, Joanne and I discussed the idea of setting up an alternative book festival for all the authors who aren’t considered worthy enough for Harrogate and (the now disgraced) Hay.

  16. Roger says:

    If you feel like it, get on with another Bryant & May. Your religious admirers will start praying double-shifts for you. Either you will finish it, which would be a triumph, or you can leave your readers in the situation Tony Hancock and friends found themselves in in “The Missing Page” and gain posthumous revenge. In fact, the really malevolent thing to do would be to leave a deliberately unfinished B&M for us to worry over.

  17. Patricia O'Brien says:

    Whatever you write is entertaining.
    That was. x

  18. Vic says:

    You got there first Roger. I knew I should have forsaken lunch.
    “….one more Bryant & May, but what if I don’t finish it?”
    I’ll add: An everlasting blog site with your dedicated followers forever discussing, arguing, dissecting, researching, proposing solutions and therories.

  19. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin Good to know about the reservoir pen. Write with it more. That free form handwritten ‘how I feel’ exercise I suggested would, of course, not be for public consumption. Also good to learn that you (and other UK authors) will be getting royalties from secondhand sales for the first time, at least from Bookbarn and World of Books to start. A piddling sum perhaps, but let’s hope the government chooses the right post-Brexit copyright ‘exhaustion’ scheme for authors (could that even be possible ?).

  20. Brooke says:

    What SteveB and Cornelia said. So what if you don’t finish the next B&M installment…have fun with.
    A vote here for a writers’ Salon des Refusés. Readers are desparate for works beyond the pablum usually offered by publishers. Please include an online subscription component to capture a wider audience–it’s not hard to do, and easier on the writers than traveling.
    Unlike your book shelves, Life is messy. Deal with it and do something special for Pete. .

  21. Brooke says:

    What Roger and Vic said…I was going to mention Dickens’ Drood but thought it would be in poor taste. Serialize it; installments on Patreon or other subscription only digital site.

  22. Peter+T says:

    I’ve just discovered that I’m a long-term reservoir pen user, lover and collector. Fountain pens! Best of all the Parker 51 Vacumatic with double jewel and blue diamond.

    If you feel the urge toward another B&M, go for it. Finished or not, the journey is always more important than the destination.

    There’s a line in a film: “We’re all prisoners, babe.” Which we are if we abandon our journey and drift into mental incarceration. Who is more liberating than Arthur Bryant?

  23. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Peter+T I have a Montblanc Meisterstuck 149 which I inherited and which I fondle regularly — but use a really terrific and inexpensive (as these pens go..) TWSBI Diamond 580AL Silver for day-to-day writing. In fact the entire range of TWSBI reservoir pens which is highly rated and priced from about £50-95 can’t be beat, in my opinion. They’re lightweight (perhaps for some, the only drawback) and have a diamond faceted barrel that prevents the pen from rolling off the writing surface. They are also transparent, which allows for monitoring the ink level. Of course, even the finest fountain pen can’t guarantee the quality of the sentences it forms. Maybe down the road they will come with AI to correct that obvious flaw.

  24. Stu-I-Am says:

    @admin I now have ‘London Bridge,’ but it’s under mental lock and key — much like a child holding its breath to get their way — and so shall it remain until I receive an assurance that you have made a start on ‘The House That Jack Built’ (or similar…). I’m sorry to have to resort to this meaningless emotional blackmail, but you leave me no choice. So get cracking — or I’ll be sorry.

  25. Michael James Pitcher says:

    Please more bryant and may ,maybe short stories would be less taxing, all good wishes for your health

  26. Peter+T says:

    Stu-I-Am, The Wing Sung 601 is an excellent everyday pen at around £25. It has most of the style of the classic Parker 51 vacumatic. The vac system allows it to contain a huge volume of ink and gives the special pleasure of vacumatic filling. Unlike the old Parkers, it has a little window to show ink level (there may be a transparent version). Are they a Chinese rip-off? Hard to say. There were Parker factories in China that, post-WWII, continued making and evolving the old designs for a Chinese public that always esteemed good fountain pens.

  27. Helen+Martin says:

    My favourite calligraphy instructor says that writing with a quill on vellum is the next best sensation to sex. I offer it for what it’s worth. We have a number of Lamy pens calligraphic nibs (fine med. and broad) and with a viewport in the side to monitor ink level. Comes with cartridges. Very nice and lower than the fifty pounds cited above. The most important factor is the quality of the line laid down. The Parker 51 was always a good choice because it wrote so well. There’s also a Parallel pen which feeds ink between two tiny metal sheets (hence the parallel) and although it’s used mostly by lettering artists the finer sizes are very good indeed as an every day pen, especially for those who fly because it really does NOT leak during flight.
    Sorry, please resume normal conversation.

  28. Laura H says:

    I would take every word of Bryant and May that I could get and be happy for it. Finished — not finished —— irrelevant.
    I have done cancer. You need to do what you gotta do and we are irrelevant. But just so you know, even if it were just a postcard’s worth of words, I would treasure them.

  29. Peter+T says:

    I suggested the Wing Sung 601 as a good and inexpensive (c £25) substitute for the 51 Vacumatic, but my comment disappeared. Try one and forget biros.

  30. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    What Laura H said.

    A couple of years ago, a child saw me writing with a fountain pen, and didn’t know what it was. I demonstrated and explained. Perhaps if writing on paper continues to exist, proper pens will survive as well.

  31. Stu-I-Am says:

    I seem to have lost track. Who is the current Minister of Loneliness — assuming there still is one? I lost interest after the first two departed.

  32. Ken says:

    I don’t wish to intrude on the pleasure which huge numbers of people get from The Shawshank Redemption, but there is nothing unreasonable about detesting it. I didn’t see it until years after it was released and by then it had gained a reputation as a masterpiece. I was so disappointed. It’s not a terrible film, in the way that films featuring mutant sharks are terrible, but it does take the most obvious and least interesting option at every turn.

  33. Stu-I-Am says:

    Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, according to Oscar, I presume that you’re flattered by Alexander McCall Smith’s new (started two years ago) series featuring the characters (literally and figuratively) of The Department of Sensitive Crimes of the Criminal Investigation Authority, Malmö, Sweden. Although the concept of a special group of oddballs investigating unusual crimes is generically the same, the comparison pretty much ends with the name of the department. Compared to B&M, the crimes are downright ‘cozy’ and there’s certainly none of the fascinating historical background. Smith does try to up his game humour wise which, although a praiseworthy effort, and which may be another parallel, pales by comparison.

  34. Jonah says:

    Fowler, you’re a hero! Your blog is an inspiration, although I suspect you’d rather not be writing about cancer and instead basking in the sun in your castle in Spain (“Babes in Toyland” reference). I believe you wrote of a pied-a-terre somewhere in Iberia.
    You deserve all the praise for your B&M books on these pages. (Hope now that I’ve used the acronym B&M, next time I see it, I won’t wonder if it stands for a sexual modus operandi.) Until “London Bridge” is released in the States, I have “Roofworld” and autobiography #2 to read.
    As for “Shawshank Redemption”: I liked it at the time but can’t comprehend its huge popularity. It remains the #1 most popular movie on as “determined by IMDB users”. Maybe some of us who are less enthused about the film should register as a IMDB voter to knock it down a few pegs.

  35. Paul+C says:

    If you start a new B&M but don’t finish it ? Could I respectfully suggest that you write a very detailed plan or synopsis first so one of your crime writer pals could finish it ? I hope you don’t mind the suggestion.

    Laurence Block completed an unfinished Cornell Woolrich novel and Robert L Fish did the same for Jack London. They are both pretty successful I’d say.

  36. Helen+Martin says:

    Finally got around to looking up the TWSBI pens, which look to be an ideal buy. There is a store in our area but not my pen specialty shop. I must ask them if there’s a reason. Now I have to look up the Wing Sung Peter mentions. Fountain pens will never die. Vancouver Pen Shop has people from all over as customers. Doctors, surprisingly enough.

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