On the outside, Daniel Polansky is a fun-loving, carefree, sofa-surfing, globetrotting adventurer without a care in the world. Words pour from his MacBook effortlessly, the brilliant Low Town trilogy surely sprang from his brain onto the page without mediation of conscious thought… Well, that’s the insouciant outside. He has spoken wittily and incisively about the reality of a writer’s life: on inspiration in these pages, and the writing urge on his own blog. Obsession, angst, frustration, epiphany – they’re all here in these trenchant and funny insights into the craft from a writer whose work just gets better and whose every word I read as much as a fan as an editor. The sheer diversity of his work is shown in his forthcoming novella ‘The Builders’ on Tor.com (‘a post-apocalyptic reimagining of The Wind in the Willows’) and A City Dreaming, currently only in MS (a mind-bending urban fantasy that is like The Dresden Files on drugs).
Most immediately, and the end of this thread, the 26th February marks the publication of Daniel’s vast, compelling, bravura Those Above. Yesterday I was looking through Daniel’s own book-map, marking the scenes by seasons, characters and action in obsessive, almost storyboard detail. It is a document of astounding detail and one to which we referred often in the editorial process — without it my input would have been akin to pulling out bricks in load-bearing walls in a World Heritage building… with inevitable, disastrous consequences. The book-map shows planning is much part of an author’s craft as innate brilliance.
So Hodder and the Hodderscape team are proud to present this, the first in a two-part epic fantasy called ‘The Empty Throne’. It has been likened to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire crossed with ‘Tolkien Elves crossed with D&D Deva crossed with The Capitol’. Told from multiple perspectives Daniel inserts the reader into four very different brains. One, the street gang urchin, Thistle, has a voice that’s a little Warden-like, familiar from the Low Town books. The other three: the grizzled General Bas, the scheming Eudokia, a wonderful fantasy variant on Livia from I Claudius, and the servant of the exalted Those Above, Allium, show a winning deftness of characterisation. And then there’s the gorgeously evoked, almost baroque world of these glittering beings who have enslaved humanity.
Those Above is an enthralling, immersive read and when complete in a year’s time, The Empty Throne will mark one of the most remarkably ambitious epic fantasies of recent years.
In the early part of the 21st century Tad Williams embarked on his dark epic fantasy trilogy, The Bobby Dollar series: The Dirty Streets of Heaven, Happy Hour in Hell and Sleeping Late on Judgement Day; the last just published last Thursday. So what are the main differences between Dollar and his predecessor Dante? Is it simply the difference between the medieval and the modern?
Well, for a start, Bobby is an angel with an angle; an angel advocate to be precise, arguing for the rights of the departed. He’s a maverick who is not really comfortable in his allotted task of being an angel advocate, particularly, as here, when he loses a client and unmasks a massive theological conspiracy. In Bobby’s world, Purgatory doesn’t get as much a look in as Hell or Heaven, though you might argue that his imagined Californian city of San Judas exhibits signs of the purgatorial from time to time, inhabited as it is with cursed were-pigs, psychotic demons and Satanic multinational companies. Or perhaps Purgatory is the Third Way, a breakaway movement of syndicalists on both sides of the fiery divide who have split away for the strict edicts of the Almighty. Their existence gets Bobby in trouble when one of his souls goes missing before it’s been judged, and the rest of the trilogy develops into an eschatological missing persons case.
In Dante, Heaven and Hell are about politics, particularly in regard to those who have aided or thwarted Dante’s own political ambitions. Don’t fancy an eternity gnawing someone’s skull on the frozen plains of Cocytus? Then don’t diss the Guelphs! In Bobby’s world, Heaven and Hell are more about business. In the Above and Below rigid bureaucracies obtain: the Eternal War is organised along the lines of big industry, the various angels and demons vying for the custom of our souls speak in the vernacular of corporate lawyers, Harvard business grads or Mafia enforcers.
At least Bobby doesn’t have the same problem as Dante — though he too may appear to be in his middle years, he is in fact immortal. He suspects that, in his past life, he was not exactly sinful but certainly badass… but he can’t remember. Bobby likes earthy, fun-loving guy stuff, probably exactly the stuff that got Dante stuck in the dark woods in the first place; namely wine, women and song, all of which are to be had at the local angel bar, The Compasses.
Unlike Dante, Dollar is not motivated by a heavenly womanly ideal but a very demon-like one: Casimira, Countess of Cold Hands: ‘she looked like Wonderland’s Alice as dressed for success by a committee of manga-reading Japanese business men’; ‘her eyes were a big as a doe’s’ under the dome light, but none of Bambi’s relatives ever had a gleam like that.’ When we first meet her she is doing the Devil’s work hanging out in campus bars seducing frat boys and girls then driving them to suicidal despair. Bobby, being Bobby, falls head over heels and soon they are having steamy sex in Casimira’s velvet-swagged safe house; ‘an antique version of a sultan’s harem’. From that moment on Bobby’s journey is going to take an opposite route to Dante’s: that is mainly down rather than up. His muse is whisked off to the infernal depths by her boyfriend Eligor, the Prince of Hell, and Bobby decides to effect a rescue. William’s hell is slightly more corporate than Dante’s. There are all the same kind of rings of punishment and burning rivers but also a massive elevator to take you conveniently up and down the various levels of torment, all of which Bobby will enjoy at some time or other on his trip.
But, in the end what propels readers through both epics is not the theological but the eternal story: boy meets girl, gets separated from girl, goes through hell to get her back. You may know how Dante ends up in his quest for Beatrice, but for the Bobby/Casimira romance you’re gonna have do the pages.
It might surprise readers of this blog but publishers do, indeed, organise booze ups in breweries. For decades the Crime Writer’s Association annual prize giving lunch was held at the Whitbread Brewery Buildings in the City of London. Many years ago, or perhaps in fact 2002, scenting new author blood, I took myself to the presentations.
As every year, editors and agents circled one particularly vulnerable looking group of writers: the shortlisted authors on the CWA’s Debut Award. In fact, now I wonder if I wasn’t in fact one of the judges that year, and was thus already alerted to the extraordinary amount of authorial talent cast into the vinous seas of that bibulous lunch… These unhappy souls in the main looked back at the encircling, snapping throng with a certain dismay but one stood out from the rest, exhibiting a strange equanimity and calm. A tall, handsome, bespectacled, red-headed fellow. This turned out to be Edwin Thomas, current nom de plume, Tom Harper. After the awards, intrigued by his sangfroid, I pursued him to the nearest pub only to find that he had already signed up with his current, excellent agent and was also nearly in the clutches of a rival publisher. I shed hot, bitter tears into my Campari and Soda …
Years passed. Despite my watered-down Campari, Edwin and I became firm friends and he ended up living but a hundred yards away from me in London. I remember his garden decorated with old wine barrels and fishing nets for the launch of his seafaring crime series set in the Georgian period, The Blighted Cliffs. At the same time as Edwin was embarking on his seafaring odyssey his agent, Jane, came to me to suggest a new series of books. The theme was historical crime again, but now the setting was the First Crusade: murder investigations into that epoch of widespread slaughter? A bit like investigating murders in the middle of the battle of the Somme — but I was game. Edwin became Tom, the other books (alas, for they were very funny) vanished and we have been together almost ever since.
For a while, inspired by The Da Vinci Code, Knights Templars were all the rage. Tom flourished. But already he was champing to explore other areas of history (he is an expert in many eras). His writing turned to complex literary, conspiracy thrillers and he has been hailed as ‘the thinking man’s Dan Brown’.
The five books that followed have taken the reader on dual time lines, rides through ancient, medieval and modern times and to a dazzling array of esoteric and exotic locations. Lost artefacts, lost books, lost codes, weird visions… A breath taking and hallucinatory experience in every one all penned with perfect description, pace and characterisation. Once as I sat, my unused red editorial pen dripping like blood upon his immortal pages, I found characters from one of my own books suddenly appear in a virtual reality scene. The walls closed in… once I had escaped the asylum (again) and ended up at my new workplace, I was delighted to renew our relationship with The Orpheus Descent (Plato! Orphic Myth! Pythagoras! Disappearance! Murders!) followed.
And now Zodiac Station. If there is a literary meme I love above all else it’s the ice-bound thriller. Mary Shelley had it banged to rights. Alistair Maclean added submarines in Ice Station Zebra, I recently wrote about the terror in The Terror. Who would want to be stuck with Jack in the icebound Overlook Hotel? And as for The Thing… What more could a reader want on a warmish English summer evening?
So tip the rainwater out of your deckchair and dive into Tom Harper’s newest, Zodiac Station, a novel of the Frozen North. The desolation of the setting, the pressure cooker environment of an isolated research station, the presence of a killer, or killers, the lies and deceptions in the multiple narrator threads… Zodiac is a delicious, pulse-pounding thriller that will puzzle and enthrall.
Zodiac Station publishes today – and the short story ‘Polar Vortex’, set at Zodiac Station six months before the action of the novel, is still available as a free ebook wherever fine ebooks are sold… but not for much longer!
Last night the Dodo let the Hodderscape Team off their incubating duties to honour her cousin The Kraken at the annual Kitschies Awards for ‘the intelligent, progressive and entertaining in works speculative and fantastic’ . We nearly fell over ourselves to escape the hatchery and went mob handed and thirsting for rum to The Seven Dials Club in Earlham Street. One problem was immediately apparent: we had only one blue wig to share amongst the four of us. Note to self: next year remember to dress with ‘tentacular flair’ as the Kitschies co-founders Jared Shurin and our very own Anne Perry suggest.
However, wherever one roams the Dodo is not far away. Past the siren call of Kraken Rum the first person to encounter the team was none other than the spectacularly-gifted Sarah Anne Langton, creator of our Beloved Bird Leader. We genuflected and obeised and sidled past to take out seats. Jared made a great speech which somehow connected Science Fiction and Cheese — it raised a mighty cheer. Anne Perry, resplendent in cocktail dress and cephalopodic necklace, entranced and mesmerised. Behind her glittered and glimmered the prizes: the bedazzling tentacles she had created in her sub-oceanic lair on the South Lambeth Road.
The awards began. The huzzahs from that moment on barely relented. Malorie Blackman, our beloved Children’s Laureate, received the Black Tentacle for achievement outside the normal range of Kitschies voting classes. Our heads were still ringing with the applause when Lee Harris and Adam Christopher carried off the Inky Tentacle on behalf of Will Staehle for the gorgeous cover of The Age Atomic. Events were practically tripping over themselves now. Onto the stage bounded the ever-effervescent and supremely witty Kate Griffin to award the Debut Golden Tentacle to Anne Leckie’s jaw-droppingly brilliant Ancillary Justice; her Orbit editor Jenni Hill received the suckers on behalf of the author. Now the vast crowd grew hushed as Nick Harkaway, a man who lives tentacular flair every moment, took the stage. The time of the Red Tentacle had come. You could almost hear the sea weed waving. Nick extoled the glorious array of candidates and, indeed, we wept to think there could only be one winner. It was to go to a book which everyone has been and will be talking about: Ruth Ozeki’s beautiful A Tale for the Time Being. Her suave UK agent Caspian Dennis seized the cephalopodic limb, raised it triumphantly over the tentacles of the mob below and the awards, alas, were over for another year.
With drooping plumage the Hodderscape team returned nestwards, assured once more that in the hands of the Kitschies and their lovely circle of friends the future of the speculative and fantastic will always be safe.
To learn more about the Kitschies, head this way.
‘Actually, I must be going to work,’ I say, waving my digital camera in one hand and my book bag in the other.
‘So what exactly is it you do anyway?’ he asks. Oh no: he’d asked THE question that no book editor can answer. How do you explain what we do? I hold up the camera. ‘Well today my colleagues and I will be taking a picture of our Shelf of Glory.’
He appears baffled. ‘What is A Shelf of Glory?’ he asks.
‘Well, it’s like when you have a hobby, an interest in something and you collect rare and wonderful things that reflect that interest and . . . put them on a shelf . . .’ I conclude lamely.
‘Oh, so what is your interest?’ he asks suspiciously, perhaps conjuring up a rather seamy picture in his mind. All the same, I can see he’s beginning to regret this conversation, perhaps suspecting that the longer it goes on the more likely it will be that I’ll ask him to build a Shelf of Glory right here in the living room in addition to the other dozen or so extra tasks I’ve dreamt up this morning.
‘Well, you know, science fiction… ’
‘Like Slanislaw Lem? So it’s books that you have in the bag?’
‘Ah, no.’ Actually all my SF books are in boxes (because of the builders) so I show him what I have got, the smallest piece in our display, a black shot glass showing a bright orange mushroom cloud and the text ‘Los Alamos, The Atomic City’: the city of the Manhattan project (‘I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’ J. Robert Oppenheimer, paraphrasing Vishnu in the Bhagavad Gita).
Even more baffled he shakes his head and goes back to the paint samples.
Want to show off your Shelf of Glory and win some books? Enter our competition here!
I first met Daniel Polansky outside a restaurant without a door. After we had wasted a few seconds looking for a handle he airily suggested we jump through the window instead. This turns out to be a metaphor for our working relationship: set him a challenge and he’ll just jump right on through it, round it, over it, into it. After three critically acclaimed Low Town novels, no matter how hard the task presented to him, Daniel still does everything with unstudied craft, insouciance and urbane ease.
I have loved the three novels I’ve been privileged to work on but as a publisher I never live in the here and now. Publishers can rarely tell you what day of the week or, indeed, what month it is, because we’re always thinking a year or two years ahead. What we don’t do is live in the moment. So when Daniel had delivered the script of She Who Waits I was already thinking of the future. As was he: Daniel had an idea and the novel Those Above was born. I don’t want to spoil anything but think an epic fantasy retelling of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and you’ll get an idea.
2014 is the year of Project Polansky, a new challenge for him, and one for me. In the bulletins that follow I, and a raft of other people engaged in the agenting, editing, jacketing, marketing, publicity, printing, selling and production of his book in the UK and overseas are going to talk about every facet of bringing it to life. The Project starts now and will run up to publication on 9th October when Those Above is published.
Where does a book start? Well, the next post is going to be Daniel and Inspiration. How does an idea come? Where is the best place to have an idea? At your desk, staring out of a train window, doing the ironing? (in my case those last two). Does an idea come fully formed, as a single overarching CONCEPT, or is it, for example, sparked by a single imagined line of dialogue, or a scene. Where does the scene come from? Are dreams important? How much is original, how much regurgitated from our cultural memes?
Let Project Polansky begin!
James Cameron has called Gravity‘the greatest space film’ ever made. I don’t know about that myself but I’d certainly put it up there with my three other all-time favourites*. All these four films are about survival in space.
My other three are:
- Solaris: the Andrei Tarkovsky version, not the George Clooney version (sorry George you can only be in ONE of my four best ever space films and your Solaris wasn’t ever going to make the cut). Tarkovsky’s ineffable, glacial adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s masterpiece is mind-blowing. It’s all about the disintegration of the human intellect when confronted by unutterably alien intelligence.
- Alien: no need to introduce this masterpiece that spawned a blessed and beloved franchise and a taste for stomach-popping monsters. Oh, and it’s about survival against aliens with nasty teeth and acid spit as opposed to, in case (1), alien intelligence.
- Apollo 13: well, this was actual history to some of us and had us glued to our TVs showing the actual unfolding, potential tragedy and heroic survival of it back in April 1970. It’s about winning through against all the odds, but most particularly against technological SNAFUs — SNAFUs which become slightly more meaningful when you’re 238000 miles from home than, say, when your fridge packs up on Christmas Eve.
Now (with mild spoiler alert) Gravity majors on the themes of loneliness and madness and technological disaster – but, sorry to say, has no toothy aliens. First, as the opening credits roll away and you are greeted with some of the most mind boggling cinematography of Earth you will ever see from orbit, you have to ask yourself what in the world would persuade you to (a) take a space flight in the first place (b) make a spacewalk: you’re only tied to the space craft by a flimsy old tether for Sputnik’s sake! It’s no surprise that when things go wrong Sandra Bullock’s Specialist Dr Ryan Stone starts exhibiting the first signs of extreme strain and inevitable psychosis.
Moving onto theme (3); despite the easy banter and insouciance of George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski (and he has a really cool jetpack!), you kind of have to be on the side of Stone. It will just take a tiny tiny accident out here to make you very dead and the accident that happens isn’t tiny at all; it’s kind of large but also kind of vague, perhaps deliberately scripted so as I, for one, didn’t believe it. Did I hear it right, the Russians blow up one of their own decaying satellites with a nuclear missile: surely some mistake?). Anyway, at this juncture of the movie we can get back to at least the tagline of Favourite Movie 2. The other thing that the opening sequence perfectly conveys is the utter silence of space (no air, no vibrations, no sound waves) so here comes the immortal tagline from Alienagain: ‘In Space No One Can Hear You Scream’.
Well, anything more on Gravity would be a MAJOR spoiler. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller, a story of heroism, a tear jerker, visually boggling and beautifully scored . My only complaints would be the 3D effects seen in a small cinema were, to this viewer, rather apologetic. But some were ingenious also: that moment when the tear shed by Stone impacted on the camera lens was a weird one. And the smear stuck there for several seconds, drawing attention to itself, accentuating the fact that we were looking at all this through a camera … hmmm. Poignantly self-referential? Yes, the whole thing would have been amazing at the IMAX! That’s what you get for not heading off to the biggest screen available to see one of the biggest, mind-blowingest films ever made.
*Favourites that is, outside the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. Those somehow seem very different to the films above. Discuss.
The topography and culture of fantasy has changed. It’s nearly 80 years since Middle Earth arrived with its exotic landscapes populated by reluctant yet noble heroes, a myriad different races, histories older than time. The map and the journey back then were huge: the roads went ever on, through trilogies, tetralogies and more…
To my mind at least, in recent times, the landscape of secondary world fantasy has turned inwards, to the dystopic, disenfranchised of society: the new protagonist is an anti-hero. In the Low Town novels that man is Warden, embittered war veteran, disgraced secret agent, drug lord, with baggage as big as a mountain, as big as the bag of Pixie’s Breath and Choke he’s about to flog to his equally disenfranchised clients on his blighted turf, a turf he will fight to the nails for. He’s a man with shivs aplenty, not least the eponymous Straight Razor.
Sure, the Low Town novels form a trilogy, sure there are imagined worlds, Rigus and the Thirteen Kingdoms, and they’re inhabited by exotic people. But these books are all about how one character sees the world, and, in Warden’s case, viewing is a pretty jaundiced experience. His eyes have seen plenty bad things and survived the seeing.
It’s the voice that seduces: the aphoristic one liners, the sparking dialogue, the dissonant feel that, though this might be Rigus, it might be related by a character from The Wire or Sam Spade: it’s real and strange all at once. The occasional dazzling flare of magic illuminates the darkness that hangs over the Low Town slums as Warden plots, schemes and disposes.
How could you empathise with his moral ambivalence? Because like a Dave Gemmell hero he is morally rooted. He doesn’t go after the weak or infirm or the insane. Self-serving bureaucrats, bent politicians, betrayers of trust and stone killers are his breakfast of choice. The grim moral universe of the Low Town novels is our own modern universe, reflected back. That’s what makes the novels resonate, what makes the Warden one of the great fantasy creations.
Oliver Johnson is Daniel Polansky’s UK editor. The final instalment of the trilogy, She Who Waits, publishes on October 31st.
Is it an alien pathogen? A bio warfare experiment gone wrong? The effects are the same. An infection spreads from the contaminated waste, causing metal sarcomas to sprout from the bodies, and take over the consciousness, of those afflicted. The pathogen is spread by bite so the shambling undead might be called ‘zombies’… but they’re something more. Much more. They seem to be connected to a hive mind intent on the destruction of humanity. Soon the world is laid to waste, and humanity teeters on the brink of annihilation.
The story begins in Iraq under Saddam. The first piece of debris that falls to earth is a re-entry vehicle with a body inside, an escapee from the horror unfolding in space. The cosmonaut is the first plague bringer. The vehicle is moved from the desert to a hidden valley in North West Iraq which soon becomes known as the Valley of Tears. Everyone who comes into contact with the re-entry vehicle dies, quite horribly (yet, of course, they don’t die). Only one man escapes, Colonel Jabril. Following the regime’s defeat in the Second Gulf War, Jabril contacts a team of mercenaries to return to the Valley of Tears. The mercenaries under the command of plucky Lucy Whyte think they are about to get their hands on a pot of Saddam’s gold, but Jabril has another agenda: revenge. (Juggernaut, Hodder 9781444709087 £6.99)
Fast forward to a few years past today. At the top of the world, on an isolated Arctic drilling rig, the Kasker Rampart, a skeleton crew await decommissioning and repatriation. Among them is Jane Blanc, a suicidal vicar who has gone to the wasteland to find herself. But the long-awaited ship, meant to take Jane and the crew home, never arrives. The comms begin to break down amidst news reports of riots and massacres around the world. And then… silence. It becomes clear that no one living is coming. But something is on its way. As food and fuel become increasingly scarce, Jane and the crew of the Kasker realize that they are no longer alone: a cruise ship drifts into the platform’s radar field. Is it a way out for the marooned crew, or has the apocalypse finally arrived? (Outpost, 9781444709049 £8.99)
New York City, a few months after the events described in Outpost. They tried their best to contain the disease but block after block of the city fell until the infected ruled all but its subway system, where a last few survivors hold on. The President has no option. In order to contain the disease, he is forced to make the impossible decision, and bomb New York. Manhattan will be uninhabitable for the next quarter of a million years, but it might be humanity’s last chance. But, when the bomber with the five kiloton nuclear device is just over Central Park, a last, desperate message is received from the ground: ‘Abort the drop; we’ve found the vaccine!’ But it’s too late: the bomb is dropped and New York City becomes a radioactive wildernness. Now Captain Nariko, commander of a specialist fire and rescue crew, is choppering in to see if there is any sign of the missing doctor in the deserted subway station where the last transmission came from. Her success or failure will determine whether humanity has any hope of survival. (Terminus, Hodder 9781444755855 £13.99)
Adam Baker’s three novels (a fourth is to come next year) are minutely described and expertly researched thrillers with a horror edge and a nod towards the science fictional. He specialises in elliptic, economical prose where not a word is wasted. And his specialty is feisty heroines, who take no guff from anyone and dominate the narratives into which they are plunged. Each of these books is a guarantee of an edge-of-your-seat fairground-thrill of a book.
Praise for Terminus:
The book was called Raw Spirit (2003), was subtitled ‘In search of the Perfect Dram’ and was nearly over as soon as it was commissioned.
Iain’s other books showcased every facet of his writing ability: his mordent wit, flashing dialogue, and poetic description. His other books had autobiographical notes, too – but Raw Spirit was the one that came closest to full autobiography.
The Iain of Raw Spirit is Iain, the then-lover of trains, planes and automobiles (he later went carbon neutral and abandoned his former petrolhead existence). Of the many cars he then owned, the Land Rover Defender and not his old Jag, which we had used on a previous trip, was sitting on the tarmac of the tiny Islay airport when my plane touched down. The Defender was much better suited to the ruggedness of the terrain than the Jag. Besides, the Jag’s loose rear view mirror had a habit of dropping down until it pointed squarely at the driver’s groin area, much to Ian’s delight: ‘Objects in the mirror may be larger than they appear,’ he roared with laughter — always a man of quicksilver wit.
Second, the Iain of Raw Spirit is Iain the socialist and political activist: the Second Gulf War had begun days before and Iain had cut up his passport and sent it to No 10 as a protest. The Defender was bedecked with anti-war posters. He was going to make his protests felt even if, for much of the time, the only audience were the red deer that outnumbered the population of the islands by about 10 to 1.
Third, the Iain of Raw Spirit was the Iain who loved maps. He had a huge collection in his home in Fife. Two of his favourites were the OS Landranger maps of Islay and Jura; the unfolded Jura like the jagged flint head on an ancient dagger stabbed at the shores of Argyll. So a necessary prelude to the Raw Spirit journey was studying the maps: any trip with Iain had to adequately prepped.
The Islay landscape was as raw and wild as the maps promised. ‘Great gulfs of view’ he wrote in Raw Spirit, unfurled over moors, charged with newly blooming whin, bogs and lochs. The roads made their lonely ways over a rocky landscape unchanged it seemed since the beginning of time. We gave a lift to an ancient bearded man who was wearing a sheepskin cloak and carrying a staff. He claimed he was studying the early Christian settlements of the Hebrides, but you could believe he was not so much a student as one who had come from the distant past.
The project nearly came to a dramatic end on our first outing, and Raw Spirit recollects a couple of hairy moments on the road. One of them occurred as we approached the tiny capital of Islay, Bowmore. Iain (stone cold sober, despite the nature of the trip) who was expatiating on the heat exchanger which directed waste heat from the distillery into the municipal pool, took both hands of the wheel of the Defender, which nearly left the road and deposited us in Loch Indaal.
The second moment that nearly brought the book to a premature end came in the very first distillery we visited. Through the good graces of our host, Toby Roxburgh, we had been introduced to the manager of the Ardbeg distillery, Stuart Thomson, who allowed us to taste two whiskies from the cask. And two of the most awesome whiskies they were, particularly the last:
‘I look at the empty glass, then at Oliver the Editor.
“This is the best whisky I have ever tasted,” I tell him.
“You mean we’ve found the perfect dram?” He looks worried. “This could be a short book.”
I smile at Stuart and nod at the cask. “Is it possible to buy any of –?”
Stuart is already shaking his head. “All already spoken for, I’m afraid.”
I nod sadly and tell Oliver, “I think the search has to continue.”
“Your readers will appreciate the efforts and sacrifices you’re so determined to make for them.”
For a moment I think I detect a hint of irony, but surely not.’
If the day before had been the beginning of a liquid quest, the next day, after a quick boat trip across the Sound of Islay, was a literary one. The island of Jura is home to only 188 people and is one of the most uninhabited places in the UK. After a quick visit to the Jura distillery we followed the single track road north east up the coast to a place that few have visited. Eighteen miles of mostly unmade track, the Old Defender rattling and shaking like an iron bucking bronco , Scottish indie rock (of which Iain was strangely fond, as was Martin who turned out to be a friend of many of the musicians we were listening to) blaring on his iPod (new technology then!). Objective: Barnhill, the lonely, whitewashed farmhouse standing on the northern rim of the island where one of Iain’s literary heroes, George Orwell, lived in the last years of his life and finished 1984.
Jura, island of raised beaches, referenced in The Crow Road: ‘we walked where the ocean swells had crashed until the land rose, and touched rocks two and half billion years old; half as old as Earth itself; a sixth of the age of the entire universe … Time was Magic’. We came over the last rise: the whole of the southern gulf opened to view. The Old Defender gave its last wheeze and with it, thankfully, the music also expired. A gaggle of geese, survivors perhaps of Orwell’s flock, honked at us querulously, but that was the only sound. It was difficult to imagine a dying man living in this lonely place writing his masterpiece; difficult to imagine his only egress to the outside world the 18 miles of unmade and single-track road which we had just navigated — and Orwell had had only a motorbike. There had been a choice here, Iain reflected, for little was known of TB at the time and Orwell, worried about infecting others, had sequestered himself. Sadly we were not able to get the key to the house as the housekeeper was away. We had to content ourselves peering in and admiring Orwell’s typewriter, which sits in a front window to this day.
Hidden from view just over the hill from Barnhill was the Gulf of Corryvrecken, home of the world’s third largest whirpool. Iain’s dad had worked for the Admiralty and had told him it was one of the ten most dangerous navigation hazards in all the oceans. Orwell was sucked into it not long before his death. In full flood the roar of the maelstrom can be heard for miles around; ‘the sound of Jura’ it’s called in The Crow Road. But that day, in that long ago perfect spring, the shining sea was smiling and calm and we still had miles of track to retrace and the last ferry was not many hours off. Corryvrecken was left for another day.
Yes, it was beautiful spring time weather, unseasonably so. The surreal war came to our TV screens every night; cruise missiles flying over Baghdad streets, flashes, explosions, Armageddon … but on Toby’s farm, silence and peace reigned. And, in the clear night air of Islay, Iain stared up at a sky more full of stars than he or anyone could count in a lifetime.
Iain Banks passed away on June 9th, 2013.
For an obituary from his friend, Ken MacLeod: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/10/iain-banks-ken-macleod-science-fiction
For The Daily Telegraph Obituary: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/culture-obituaries/books-obituaries/10108884/Iain-Banks.html
Quotations from Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram, Arrow, £9.99, 0099460270
Quotations from The Crow Road, Abacus £8.99, 0349139156
To leave messages: http://friends.banksophilia.com/28-2/
Picture credits: Martin Grey http://www.martin-gray.com/