Here’s the first of what I hope will be weekly vlogs on my life as a writer. First up, some views on the necessity of self-promotion, and the subtle art of professional book promotion. See the video on the Close of Play FB page (posted 23 August 2016)! More next week.
August 24, 2016
August 15, 2016
The following interview features at the new PJ Whiteley author website, launched today. Go to www.pjwhiteley.co.uk
I strive to be profound, but accessible, alternately funny and serious. I am not keen on the distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ fiction – I agree the terms apply respectively to James Joyce and Dick Francis, but most writers lie somewhere in between.
I write about the world that I know, because I have so rarely encountered it in fiction and drama, and I think there’s untapped potential. I agree with Toni Morrison’s advice to ‘write the book you would wish to read’. I don’t share the current craze for historical fiction; I mean, look at the momentous times we’re living through! THIS is history, right here, right now. I’ve lived through the Berlin Wall collapsing, the UK voting to quit the European Union, Leeds United being cheated out of the European Cup in 1975.
My characters are complex, and become challenged about how they see the world, themselves and others. I like to explore interests and passions, that may be sporting, political or religious, so that the reader gets to know more about the individuals than just career choices and relationships – there’s some fire that’s burning within.
While I love a great thriller, for example the books of CJ Sansom or James Patterson, I’ve made a conscious decision to avoid baddies and corpses. I am fascinated by characters who strive to be good but find it difficult, like Elizabeth in Close of Play, or who are fundamentally decent but haunted by a terrible act long ago, like Yvonne in Marching on Together.
August 8, 2016
Day three of the Olympics, and I’m struggling to become engaged in the swimming, cycling and other contests. Partly, this is a sulk because, unlike in 2012, they’re not being held in London, and partly because my sports-viewing time has been taken up by the gripping Test Match between England and Pakistan; I attended the Friday’s play at Edgbaston, and followed much of the rest on the TV.
Of course, another reason for many folk turning away from the 31st modern Olympiad, the first to be held in South America, is the extent of the doping scandals, especially in athletics. I wish I could say that cricket was a haven from cheating, but match-fixing scandals have blighted the sport in recent years. In the current series Mohammed Amir had just ended a five-year ban. Given that he was only 19 at the time of his involvement in the scandal, and that he went to prison, I think he deserves another chance, but not everyone agrees.
For my forthcoming novel Marching on Together, I’ve been looking into actual and suspected match-rigging in European club football in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve established only two cases of referees accepting bribes, but some highly suspicious results hint at more, as this 2009 Telegraph article shows. The new opus features a central character for whom the most notorious, but unproven controversy, the European Cup Final of 1975, had momentous repercussions, still affecting her life in August 2014, when the events of the novel take place.
Taken together, however, it is sadly difficult ever to be completely certain that a professional sporting event is clean and fair. The place on the podium seems to be all that matters.
In this context, it is worth dusting off the code of conduct of upper-class British sportsmen from the late 19th Century. It came to be known as the Corinthian Spirit, although there appears to be no explicit link to the mores of the ancient city of Corinth, nor to St Paul’s letters from the Greek city.
The code, however, was real enough, ensuring that cheating, even in a small way, was utterly taboo and could result in social ostracism. The emphasis was upon the love of the game and fair play. In some amateur football teams in the 19th Century, this even extended to volunteering to retire a member of your own team if the opponents lost a player through injury. The code was strict: You walk when you’re out. You never cheat, even if you could get away with it. You always accept the referee’s decision, even when he’s clearly made an error. You never accept or offer a bribe. You applaud your opponents. You accept there is physical risk and you don’t complain when you’re hurt. You always play to the best of your ability.
Much was lost when the Corinthian spirit became crushed by professionalism and the ‘win at all costs’ mentality took hold. As Brian, the main character in Close of Play, laments:
In England, until around 1960, there was something known as ‘amateur’ status in the counties. Gentlemen who were wealthy enough to play distinguished themselves from the professionals who earned a wage, and considered themselves higher in social status. Until the 1950s you had to be an ‘amateur’ to captain England. At the level of the clubs, especially in the south, there was an emphasis on ‘friendly’ fixtures honouring the amateur ethos and the spirit of the game, rather than leagues where the emphasis was more upon winning and chalking up points. Amateur status introduced an absurd sort of social distinction, so it had to go. But as ever with social progress, the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. Out went the old school tie, class distinction and much nonsense; but also out of fashion was walking when you were out, applauding your opponents, and generally playing to the spirit as well as the letter of the laws of the game.
He goes on to point out the irony that the move towards professionalism and leagues made matters much harder for immigrant and second-generation cricket teams in London, as they could not afford their own ground. More generally, the Corinthians, though mostly colonialist in outlook, were relatively benign compared with the violent and racist regimes of South Africa and the southern USA. On the field of play, different races were equal, enabling West Indian superstars to emerge such as George Headley and Learie Constantine as long ago as the 1920s. The latter became a peer in the British House of Lords in 1969.
There was much about the attitudes of the public school boys who upheld the Corinthian values that seem dated now, but they were more liberal than they’re given credit for, and they upheld some noble values too. We owe them an apology.
July 5, 2016
I’m very pleased to announce that I’ll be a panel member at a session of the Margate Book Festival on the evening of Saturday 20th August. Panel host is my publisher Matthew Smith of Urbane, and the theme is ‘Get Published’. I plan to talk on the theme of perfecting your craft as a writer; creating something special, with a publishing deal as a by-product.
Given that it took me 17 years between starting Close of Play and seeing it in print, I can attest to the value of patience!
The session runs 18.30 til 20.00 and is FREE, but you do have to book a ticket, as space is limited. More details via my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Close-of-Play-430639067061210/ .
I’m also running a summer promotion for Close of Play, which now has over 20 Amazon reviews, and its first print review, in which the Church Times described the book as ‘…well written, but above all well observed’.
June 16, 2016
Partly by chance, my research and writing work on business and economics in Europe, and employee rights, over the past couple of decades, means I’m in a position to critique some of the points made in the EU referendum debate taking place here in the UK. Four of the recurring arguments are infuriating me. I mean, they’re just wildly misleading, so I feel duty-bound to point out some of the more glaring errors and omissions. There are two on each side, so here goes:
“The people warning of the economic impact of Brexit also warned us that not joining the euro would be disastrous, so we can safely ignore them.”
This is a very weak and illogical argument. The single market and the single currency are very different things. The former was well put together, the latter was not. Being in the single market but not the single currency gives access to 500 million customers tariff free, with the instant price flexibility of a different currency. The statement is not even consistently accurate. Gordon Brown and William Hague did more than anyone to keep Britain out of the euro, but they are now warning of the negative economic impact of Brexit.
“Our rules are set by Brussels/We’re run by Brussels.”
This statement is a huge exaggeration, that contradicts another key element in the Brexit argument. The UK has autonomy over spending priorities, economic policy, the regions, criminal law, its own currency. David Cameron’s deal exempted Britain from ever closer union. Also, the statement ironically undermines another part of the Brexit argument, that the UK is a major economic and diplomatic power that can be independent. If we have zero influence even within Europe, how on earth are we to have even greater influence globally, having just given up a place on the Council of Ministers and annoyed all of our strategic allies? Brexit could lead to less influence, autonomy and status, not more.
“A vote to stay in the EU is essential for workers’ rights.”
The UK has a very strong record on workers’ rights. The right to strike, with immunity from litigation for damages, has existed for more than a century, and was maintained during two World Wars. The Equal Pay Act 1970 pre-dates EU membership. Until 1977, in West Germany, a wife needed her husband’s permission to work; until 1958 a married West German woman’s salary was automatically the property of her husband. Two of the most enlightened UK measures were passed by Conservative Governments: elected trade union leaders and the Living Wage. This argument is a double fail by the Remain camp because it buys into the Brexit myth that we’re “run by Brussels”.
“People who want Brexit are xenophobes.”
There’s a nasty edge creeping in to the Remain camp, which is to insult the other side. The EU has serious flaws: lack of accountability, mass unemployment in the Eurozone, and the groupthink in the Brussels elites that equates more institutional integration with more social integration, leading to poor strategic choices. Brexit could trigger a move to a Federation of Europe that is less institutionally integrated, but more accountable and sustainable. It’s unlikely, in my opinion, but this is a respectable opinion to hold.
Whether we vote Remain or Leave next Thursday, we need to have much, much better conversations.
May 16, 2016
It’s taken for granted, in our scientific democratic age, that public policies, and the settled view on potentially controversial matters, must be ‘evidence based’, in pleasingly rational contrast to beliefs based upon superstition or an established religion.
It sounds like progress, but in recent years I’ve come to learn that the phrase ‘evidence-based’ is not a synomym for ‘honest and scientific’. The problem with evidence is that it’s like statistics: you can use factual evidence to prove any case you wish to promote, if you are selective enough. I have come across PR officers, and even eminent scientists in the pay of a vested interest, who treat evidence rather like a toddler treats a fruit cake studded with sweets: picking it over for their favourite bits.
A couple of years ago, investigating the scandal of an unrecognized industrial illness, I learned that a government inquiry had cleared the sector concerned of any wrong-doing. Mmm, I thought, I bet there’s the phrase ‘no evidence’ in the Executive Summary of the report, and I bet the research had been reverse-engineered to produce this phrase. There was, and it had been. The study hadn’t even been completed, so the ‘no evidence’ bit was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It had been carried out by a perfectly respectable scientific institution, but one sponsored by the industry in question.
The phrase ‘There’s no evidence…’ that one hears frequently from corporations, government departments and the like, in practice is sometimes a code for one of the following statements:
- ‘There’s only no evidence because we’ve blocked funding for the relevant research.’
- ‘There’s quite a lot of evidence, but it’s failed to convince me.’
- ‘There’s quite a lot of evidence, but I’ve chosen to ignore it.’
- ‘There’s a huge amount of damning evidence contrary to our policy, but we still prefer it anyway, because we fear the consequences of a change in stance.’
This calculated, selective approach contrasts unfavourably with, for example, the discipline for encouraging reliability of evidence in a court case. This is based on Judeo-Christian principles: one is invited to hold the Bible and swear to tell ‘The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.’ The practice of being ‘evidence-based’ typically means dispensing with the latter two elements of the oath.
Evidence needs supplementing by things like examination of conscience; an understanding of the consequences of one’s actions or inactions; a sense of social responsibility. There is an essential role for concepts that are not testable scientifically: wisdom, judgement, responsibility, care and love. At a very personal level, this means knowing that presenting available evidence in such a highly selective way that it amounts to a deception of the public is morally wrong. You can’t prove this scientifically; it stems from values. As Moses put it (Exodus 23: 1-2 and 6-8):
“You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice. … And you shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the discerning and perverts the words of the righteous.”
This advice is as relevant to an eminent scientist in an esteemed university or investment banker or politician today, as it was for a trader in pre-Christian Judea. We wouldn’t have had the banking crisis, or other recent scandals, if as a society we’d been more or less following this timeless guidance.
- This is a shortened version of an article that appears in the May edition of Church & Town, the parish magazine of St Andrews, Ampthill Bedfordshire UK.
May 13, 2016
I’m delighted to be featured this week in the Industrial Print blog, run by my former colleagues at Personnel Today, Marcus Timson and Frazer Chesterman. The interview with Marcus covered the perennial issue of why people management is not more highly valued in the dominant business model, and of the promising signs that some entrenched views are shifting. An excerpt reads:
Companies that treat their people best, perform best. The problem is that companies that attempt to implement a people strategy don’t always commit fully and therefore it doesn’t work that well. I really believe that people management isn’t a part of the business, it is the other way around – business is a part of people management. The organisations that understand this best outperform the others.
Marcus praises my 2002 book Unshrink, co-authored with Dr Max Mckeown, which identified many of the flaws of the mechanistic approach to business strategy years before they became evident in the banking crisis. By coincidence, Max and I are in discussions about an updated version. More soon… we hope.
April 5, 2016
It’s a year since Close of Play was published, my first novel. The pre-publication nerves didn’t last, as the reception has been overwhelmingly positive; on GoodReads, on Amazon, from book clubs and in several reviews by book bloggers (the easiest way of finding these is simply typing “PJ Whiteley Close of Play” into a Google search. Last month I reached a particularly pleasing landmark as I received the first print review, in the Church Times. It was very positive, referring to the book being ‘… well written but above all well observed’. And it was placed next to Richard Harries reviewing TS Eliot, so I felt extremely bookish.
I’ve known for some time, from non-fiction work, about the extent to which marketing is a large part of the author’s trade. A valuable lesson reinforced by my experience in the past year is that it’s not ‘either/or’ when it comes to deciding between writing quality and self-promotion; it was only when I felt I had completed a story that would genuinely be enjoyed and appreciated that I felt comfortable about promoting it. That’s why it took me years to finish. The next opus, Marching on Together, will not appear until about this time next year. It’s a frustrating wait in some ways, but I’m going to use the time to enhance the story, with the help of a reader panel; identify the strong and the sweet moments in the text; generate ideas to create new ones. There’s always a temptation as an author, with a chapter or a paragraph where the phrasing is only ‘ok’, or the scene is not entirely convincing, to tell yourself ‘Oh, it’ll do.’
No, no, no!! Never settle for that! OK is never good enough! The story has to hold the attention and convince the reader all the way through. Every paragraph, every sentence, has to fit, has to sound right.
- For my observations on choosing between a genre or non-genre book, see my recent blog at A Lover of Books.
March 23, 2016
The theological discussions in Close of Play rarely get picked up on by readers and reviewers, but these were some of the first to be written. I wanted to have characters who reflected on life; who tried to match their beliefs to their actions, and who wrestled with what they believed, admitting to doubts about the church to which they had committed themselves. It’s true that doubt is more dramatically intriguing than certainty, but the deeper point that fascinates me is that you can’t really escape faith; to a very large extent we are what we believe. I’ve often observed secular people devoted to scientific evidence pronounce with absolute certainty on a complex matter on which they cannot possibly have gathered all relevant evidence. As humans we make mental short-cuts, we seek clarity, we have preferred narratives. In short, we are wired to believe.
So I’m delighted to be able to announce that the book has been reviewed in Church Times (print edition, 24th March, p 34); naturally, the Christian theme is central. The reviewer Rachel Harden highlights an observation early in the book, in which Brian “describes the frustrations of fellow parishioners at the indecisive nature of the sermons, but concludes that he finds such cautious phrasing reassuring: ‘Life is complex, and I rather imagine God is, too’.”
There is a certain charm to the Church of England, in my view, so often criticized for fudging controversial issues, and muddling through. Maybe certainty is a sin; perhaps ‘muddling through’ is the noblest path in a world where people’s views and ambitions clash so sharply. Discuss. Anyway, returning to the review, I’m delighted to report that Rachel approves the story-telling as well as the observations on faith:
“Silly mid-offs apart, the strength of the book is in the portrayal of characters and complex relationships at the heart of any community, as well as the goodness that can be witnessed and experienced by living out the Christian faith rather than criticising the new vicar’s sermons. It does not shirk from people’s pasts, either, acknowledging that any relationship later in life brings inevitable baggage, sexual and otherwise. Close of Play is well written, but most of all well observed. There is a clever denouement: the end chapter provides the reader with up-to-date information on the lives of the characters 20 years on.”
- The review is now available on the Church Times website. An excerpt is free, and the full review is available for subscribers: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2016/24-march/reviews/book-reviews/it-s-not-just-cricket
March 18, 2016
Before you choose, decide, sang Peter Gabriel once. At the age of 15 I was not really sure whether this was nonsense, tautology or aphorism, but of course it’s the last of these. He’s a clever chap, that Peter Gabriel. We’re making decisions all the time, big and small; they merit careful reflection and – this is my favourite, favourite theme in fiction – we don’t always realise how big a decision is at the point of making it. A couple of hundred years ago Søren Kierkegaard made similar points to Gabriel but in far more words, most of them Danish.
In my guest blog at the brilliant Lover of Books blog, published as part of the Urbane week, I discuss the big decision every writer has to make as regards obeying the conventions of drama and what has been proven to engage the reader, versus experimentation and trying something new. There’s pressure on authors not to stray too far from an established formula, but, as I write in the blog:
Do we really want every romantic comedy to have a fairly transparent secret that He has concealed from Her (or the other way around), to be revealed 40 pages from the end causing a break-up resolved when He (or She) is urged by the Best Friend to ‘Go Get Her/Him’, as prelude to the Big Kiss at the end in the airport lounge? Is it not more intriguing to have one situation resolved, while another thread comes loose? The reader wants to be taken by surprise sometimes, by plot or by a person; to have a character who is compellingly vivid and also unpredictable, like Boris in The Goldfinch, or Aoife in Instructions for a Heatwave.
I’m sending out the new opus, Marching on Together, to a reader panel this spring, and I’ll be curious to read the reactions. It’s further from the romcom genre than Close of Play. Think maybe Last Orders meets Fever Pitch with a little bit of Atonement. But it will be different from all those books, because I’m not Graham Swift or Nick Hornby or Ian McEwan. I certainly don’t support Arsenal, for starters. I’m different. Not as accomplished, but no one would write anything if they took great effort to convince themselves they couldn’t.
Will it be any good? I think so. Ultimately you, the reader, will choose. But before you choose, decide.
- Close of Play, was published by Urbane Publications in April 2015. It was shortlisted for the People’s Book Prize in summer 2015. Three free copies are being given away by Sonya Alford at the Lover of Books blog; just click on the link above. Marching on Together, also by Urbane Publications, is due March 2017.