In Search of Henry Part Two

The following post contains *spoilers* regarding ‘Existence Is Futile’

Last week I confessed that I had never visited Oxford when I wrote ‘Existence Is Futile’.  This week I promised to explain a little more and share my experiences of my search for Henry at the end of December.

When writing a novel nowadays locations are somewhat easier to write about.  Thanks to the advent of the internet, in particular google and google earth it is relatively easy to get a sense of how anywhere on earth looks aesthetically.  The difficult part of crafting together a coherent account is the specific details.  I recall that when I was writing about the Psychiatrist’s office I had a great problem decided where precisely in Oxford it should be located, so much so that I actually started looking at random buildings on google images before I eventually settled on this one.

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I found this on google photos with a description of its precise location so I was able to pinpoint it on the map.  In the book it is first mentioned like this:

He broke into a jog as he passed two archways with locked gates, before finally catching a glimpse of her entering a doorway into a two-storey monstrosity with a jutting roof.

This building is integral to the story and thus, I was desperate to actually find it and take a photograph there.  Unfortunately it no longer exists.  I have stood on that street.  I have searched the surrounding area and it isn’t there.  I suspect that it has been ‘modernised’ and it is now unrecognisable.

I did get some things right.  The Morris Garage is somewhat iconic.  The Harris Manchester College really does look out-of-place.  Although it was closed when we visited, I was able to poke my head over the fence and confirm that at least half of the buildings look like they belong in a Hollywood film.

Probably the boldest passage that I wrote about Oxford was the following:

How he had fallen instantly in love with Oxford from the moment he first set foot on the High Street.  An eclectic mixture of churches, university buildings, theatres and shops.  The garish, the gothic and the damn right peculiar all sharing living space, in Henry’s mind it was a perfect allegory for 21st century society and a perfect advertisement for all which is magnificent about Little England.


These pictures from my phone really do not do Oxford justice.  It is a beautiful, if not peculiar city.  It has a wonderful oddness to it all.

I suppose the last thing I should mention is Magdalen Bridge.  It appears again and again in the book and serves as a catalyst for change several times over.  Given the importance to the story line(really trying not to give too many spoilers) I was probably most worried about this.  Would it be tiny?  Would it be ugly?  Would there be just a stream below?

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Magdalen Bridge was huge and more picturesque than I had ever imagined.  It made its role so much more practical than I could ever have imagined.

Oxford is a city, albeit a small one, where some of the brightest, most brilliant and biggest bastards ever produced in Great Britain have been sent away for education.  It is rich in history, drowned in tradition and contains the aristocratic quirkiness which belongs with a historic British city. When I visited Oxford I had feared that perhaps it wouldn’t be a city fitting of Henry Tomlinson, now I am certain that it is the only city that ever could have.

In Search of Henry

I have an ignominious confession to make.  At the very end of 2015 I went to Oxford… for the first time in my life.  However, it isn’t as scandalous as it seems, as I thought I had been there before. Only, I hadn’t.

When I wrote ‘Existence Is Futile’ I had a clear desire to write about Oxford.  My decision to loosely base Professor Henry Tomlinson on Richard Dawkins’ public persona meant that Oxford felt perfectly apt.  I had a vague memory of racing my brother on a university square whilst my parents hummed the tune to Chariots of Fire, culminating in the greatest slow-motion finish in the entire history of everything ever that wasn’t ever filmed in slow motion.  It saddens me to acknowledge the fact that this vague memory quite probably never happened.

The fact is that lying is somewhat the purview of a writer.  If a writer is able to make a truth pliable, and make you believe that what isn’t is, they have performed the greatest of tricks.  The creation of a new reality.

The truth is that lies come in all manner of shapes and sizes.  They can be gargantuan.  They can be tiny.  ‘Existence Is Futile’ contains three individual rather tiny lies based around typical English names for things.  Although these are somewhat innocent lies, each one has its origins in the absurd reality of my green and pleasant homeland.

The first one struck me when I began researching Oxford as a location.  It was whilst researching the county where Oxford resides that I became somewhat enamored by the village names that can be found on the map of Oxfordshire.  Hampton Gay, Islip, Little Coxwell, Pishill, Little Farker and Horton-Cum-Studley are a mere selection  of the flamboyant magnificence that this county has to offer.  Did you catch it?  Did you even notice?  Little Farker was my creation.  It may surprise you that when I christened Henry Tomlinson’s village Little Farker it wasn’t initially for the purpose of easy jokes.  It was because somehow it fit snugly, like a bug in a rug.

Little Farker wasn’t my only use of poetic license.  England has a somewhat peculiar obsession with pub names.  They range from the damn right dull to the borderline offensive.  The pub name I used does not exist.  Here is a quiz question for you….

 I will give you the answer next Tuesday.  In the meantime take a look at this Metro article about some of the more interesting pub names in Britain.

The final lie which I must confess to is that I changed the name of the hospital in Oxford.  All across England are hospitals named after Saints.  I personally think it is a terrible idea.  It is something Professor Henry Tomlinson would never stand for.  The idea of naming a hospital after a Saint is as rational as naming a slice of bacon after a pig and is as just as likely to improve the pig’s future as a patient’s.    I named the hospital in ‘Existence Is Futile’ after a somewhat obscure Saint named Dymphna.  According to Wikipedia Saint Dymphna is the patron Saint of:

St. Dymphna is the patron saint of the nervous, emotionally disturbed, mentally ill, and those who suffer neurological disorders – and, consequently, of psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists. She is also the patron saint of victims of incest.

I do hope it worries you that the same Saint that cares for the crazy apparently cares for the health care professionals that also care for the crazy. It is like a one stop solution with extra incest thrown in free of charge.  I think it is somewhat obvious why she seemed the perfect choice.

When we decided to go and visit Oxford it occurred to me that I could use it to trace the path of Professor Henry Tomlinson.  So we did it.  Unsurprisingly, we found a somewhat different reality to the one in ‘Existence Is Futile’.  Oxford wasn’t exactly as I had written.  It was almost like someone had used it as a basis, and then created a work of fiction around it.  How bloody infuriating!

The next part of ‘In Search of Henry’ will be published here on Tuesday 2nd February.

 

The Other Side Of The Fence

Each and every one of us is an armchair critic.  We can’t help it.  It’s part of human nature.  We are all insanely competitive whether we like it or not.  It’s the reason we feel a compulsion to grade strangers farts, to use names rather than descriptions and to lie constantly to people who demand that we tell the truth.  The truth is that we need our own opinions to comfort us, yet from time to time we are willing to sacrifice them for some other perceived greater good.  Which is why publishing something is a form of psychopathic masochism.

Perhaps I will start with a picture.  Imagine a county long jump competition.  A young boy takes his run up, speeds down the runaway and leaps with all his might.  And lands considerably shorter than the rest of the competition.  He is conscious of the fact and looks around towards his mother for confirmation.  She smiles and says ‘well done’.  And yet he knows it’s not.  He knows that despite the fact he gave his best, it wasn’t anywhere close to good enough.  Yet his mother’s lies are enough to cast doubt in his mind.  This snapshot, this moment, could be the moment that ruins the rest of his life.  It could be the exact second when he discovers that finishing last is acceptable.  Or perhaps that his efforts are futile so it doesn’t matter if he tries.  Or maybe he realises exactly then that he is shit.  That he can’t win.

The reason I mentioned the previous image is to highlight that life is a constant stream of momentary perceptions.  When I first published my book, I was amazed that I sold one copy.  The idea that someone, somewhere was reading my book was a thing of beauty, a source of amazement.  After sometime reviews began to appear in different places.  To start I was terrified each time I found a new one.  It was as if deep down I felt as if I was a fraud, and that eventually someone would notice that and I would receive a 1 star which would outline exactly why I am a shit writer.  A year and a half later and that 1 star hasn’t appeared.  I still struggle not to overanalyze every single review.  I still find criticism where there is none, and I probably always will.  And yet the reviews still roll in, in batches of 4 stars and 5 stars.  From time to time, when I am feeling low, I read the reviews again.  And I pinch myself, and can’t help but wonder whose book they are really talking about.

In the beginning I was sure it was just friends being friends.  Only saying nice things because they were duty bound.  Now I have read reviews from a considerable number of strangers and have been blown away by their kindness.  I suspect it’s something like what a doting parent feels.  This thing, that grew from within me, has now left me and made a number of people happy.  I’ve come to realise that how I feel no longer matters.  The most important thing is  how people feel about Professor Henry Tomlinson.  I no longer feel anxious or scared when I read people’s reviews.  I only miss Henry Tomlinson.

No News Is…

Right, first up I want to let you know that like Lazarus, I have arisen.  Turns out it wasn’t my deathbed after all, it was just my bed.  Therefore it’s safe to say I’m not dead.  However it’s -7 degrees outside, so even if I was dead it’s so fucking cold that I probably wouldn’t notice.  I know what your thinking.  How charmingly British?  First post for ages and he is already talking about the weather.  I’m not.  I’m talking about not being dead, got it?

Not much has happened on the ‘Existence Is Futile’ front, apart from 1,500+ people liking the book’s Facebook page.  Which is pretty awesome.  What would be more awesome is if some of these people bought themselves a copy of my book.  If you’ve already read it, I have something for you to do.  Review it.  The best way to support my book is to share your opinion about it with the world anywhere you can.  If not the story of Professor Henry Tomlinson will never be anything other than a silent and deadly fart trapped in the anus (yes anus) of history.

In other news I have been sidetracked again from editing my other novel.  It is difficult to return to a project which has been put to one side for so long.  Still I hope to pick up the pace after Christmas (bah humbug) and have it ready to send out in spring.  There is a legitimate reason for this delay.  Recently I was offered the chance to embark on an exciting new project in an entirely new and unforeseen direction.  For now I am loath to say more about it, until it is officially completed.  What I can say is that I am sure it will surprise a lot of people.  Incidentally it is not a sex change, I am not learning the bagpipes, and despite what the Russian newspapers say I am not the new prima ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet.   For now you’ll have to remain patience, I will reveal more here when the time is right.