Toddlerville: or Why Writing in a Café Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

I wonder… Did JK Rowling have kids?

I am now Living the Dream. By which I mean: here I am, on what to the office-dwelling population is a normal working day, sitting in a café and scribbling in a notebook.

It’s true that I’m doing this in a somewhat self-conscious manner. I’m pausing every now and then to scan the room under cover of sipping my green tea, wondering whether anyone is looking at me. Wondering whether they’re thinking “Look at that woman on her own, writing away in that notebook. I wonder what she’s doing? She looks an intelligent sort. Perhaps she’s a writer?”

The fantasy

The fantasy

But of course, no-one is doing that.

That might be because they have other things to think about, or that they’re just not as nosey as I am, or because actually I don’t look intelligent at all. But the main reason that they’re not looking around full stop is that they’re all engrossed in their children. Those small people who’ve colonized all the lovely places I’d dreamed of idling in looking arty, just as soon as I’d relieved myself of the millstone of paid employment.

I look around the room and every table has a minimum of one babe-in-arms. Most have two or more, surrounded by a hinterland of buggies and bags and bits of plastic in primary colours and scraps of clothing in – I’d be prepared to put money on it – organic cotton. And this isn’t Hampstead or Primrose Hill, for Christ’s sake. This is Lewisham. Where are all the pimps and drug dealers? They’ve been driven out by the bloody parents.

The result is a constant soundtrack of squealing, squawking, burbling, gurgling and the occasional distant bark (we’re in the middle of a park, but the dog owners are keeping a respectful distance). Which brings me back to my original question: did the JK Rowling who sat in a café penning her future mega-sellers have small children?

The reality - only with more chairs

The reality – only with tables

To be clear: I’m not imagining that any such creatures were with her at the time. It takes only a moment’s observation to see that if they had been, her time would have been spent cajoling, scolding, pleading and mopping, not getting Harry, Ron and Hermione to do battle with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. But surely she must have had that talent, peculiar to the parents of toddlers, of blocking out the cacophony they produce?

Did she, I wonder, also have a coffee budget? How forgiving were the owners of that café, wherever it was, unaware of how this daily drinker of single lattés (I’m just guessing here; they might have been cappuccinos) would one day put their establishment on the map?

And do these omnipresent parents have coffee budgets too? Did they take into account in whatever calculations they made about the financial cost of parenthood (assuming that they didn’t simply shout “Babies!” and abandon contraception) the sheer quantity of caffeine they would apparently need to get them through the Vale of Tears that seems to be years 0-5?

I’d like to think that I could wait them out; that if only I ordered another tea, then another, and perhaps another, eventually – as well as needing to find the loos – the parents would leave, taking little Matilda or Moses to baby massage, or baby yoga or baby cross-country skiing, and the space could once again be used by people higher than 2 feet tall, speaking at a volume that wouldn’t trouble a jet engine.

But the hope is a vain one. There is a never-ending supply. No sooner does one group depart than another arrives to take its place, clad in the same clothes, talking about the same things, taking the same supply of toys and soft-covered books and plastic bottles from the same bags hung in precisely the same way from the handles of the same buggies.

This is their world, and I am the interloper. I feel like Neville in I Am Legend (the book, not the film – damn you, Will Smith). Joining their ranks is unimaginable. I have only one option.

Next time, I’m bringing headphones.

Why So Serious? A day in the life of a civil servant

I don’t plan to join the ranks of those who for a brief period worked alongside the civil service and, having failed to make any meaningful contribution whatsoever felt themselves qualified to opine on its shortcomings (yes, Digby Jones, I’m talking about you). The truth is that the civil service is stuffed to the rafters with thoughtful, intelligent, conscientious people who do their very best to give their political masters what they want, whilst being pilloried in the media by those who find it expedient to blame their own failures on officials who are constitutionally prevented from answering back. bureaucracy

That is not to say, however, that the civil service is faultless. After 17 years of working within it, my humble opinion is that its fundamental problem – contrary to what Yes, Minister would have you believe – lies in its treatment of every part of the business of government with equal and total seriousness. In short, it lacks a sense of perspective and occasionally – and worse – a sense of humour.

Whilst names have been changed to protect the innocent, the following is a 100% faithful account of what happened when an area of policy responsibility recently moved from one Whitehall Department to another. For the uninitiated, the following is a quick guide to who’s who in Government bureaucracy:

Secretary of State: Minister who heads a department of State and is a member of the Cabinet. Usually addressed as Secretary of State for X & Y policy area, unless the Department they lead has delusions of grandeur, in which case they are the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary or Home Secretary.

Permanent Secretary: Civil servant who leads the department. Responsible for delivering what Ministers want and accountable to Parliament for achieving value for money for taxpayers. Also has the happy task of deciding what to do when those two things are mutually exclusive.

Director General: Civil servant who is one layer down from the Perm Sec. Responsible for a large area of policy, or for all corporate issues (finance, legal etc). In almost all cases, whatever collection of things they are responsible for is known as a “Group”.

 

Following a machinery of government change, the Department for Administrative Affairs has inherited a new policy responsibility – staplers. Of course, it will need a new strategy and set of initiatives to demonstrate why the previous department was so rubbish and that things are going to be different in stapler world now that the DAA’s in charge. But first things first: the bit of the department into which stapler policy has been absorbed – the Hole Punch and Envelope File Group – needs a new name to reflect its new responsibilities.

The Hole Punch and Envelope File Group’s strategy team swings into action. Advice is written covering options. The person leading the stapler policy team is asked to comment on it – should staplers be added to the title, or would it be better to start with a clean slate – say, the Stationery Efficiency Group? Great minds apply themselves to the question.

A second version of the advice is circulated with a request for the stapler policy lead to comment again. She does.

Time passes.

Everyone is still sitting in their old seats, but a pop-up banner has appeared in their bit of the office announcing to visitors that they are now entering the territory of the Hole Punch and Envelope File Group. The stapler team are restive – is their work going to be any more important to HPEFG than it was to their previous group?

Overnight, a post-it note is stuck to the banner. It reads, in red biro, “AND STAPLERS”.

The stapler policy lead asks whether there’s any news. There isn’t.

More time passes.

Then one afternoon she sees an email attaching a four page document: advice on a new name and mission statement is being submitted to the Permanent Secretary. The covering message notes reassuringly that checks have been made, and it is certain that any changes to HPEFG’s title do not need to be announced to Parliament.

More time passes.

Then one day another email appears: the Director General has discussed the matter with the Permanent Secretary, who has discussed it with the Secretary of State. They have concluded that the new name of the group should be…

The Hole Punch, Envelope File and Staplers Group.

The stapler policy lead allows herself a little smile and taps out an email to her team to let them know the good news. At last, staplers are on the map! (Though not literally, because you’re not allowed to stick anything on the walls in the open plan.)

Ping!

Barely has she pressed send when up pops another email. This one is from the Director General’s office and it has a red exclamation mark next to it. The stapler policy lead opens it at once. It reads:

“I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone this, but please do not tell your teams about the Group’s name change yet. The comms team are currently working up a communications strategy to manage this.”

The stapler policy lead goes into the ladies loos and rocks quietly back and forth.

Fermez les yeux and brace for impact

I’m so excited today I can hardly string a sentence together. And that would be ok, because what I’d really like to do is to cut the prose and list, shamelessly, the places you can see my book online.

That’s MY BOOK.

My. Book.

Oh, but you’d be interested to take a look? So kind of you to say so! I don’t want to bore you. And I won’t be offended if you don’t click on any of the links. Though the cover art really is quite fab. Intriguing, even. Just the right sort of thing for a thriller.

Well go on then, you’ve twisted my arm…

Fermez les yeux 

Just - aggghhhhh!

Just – aggghhhhh!

Didn’t I say it was in French? Ah well, they have excellent taste, the French – everyone knows that. The Germans too – there may be a post on that subject coming up in, say, July or so.

So… here it is, at long last. I have the artwork and a publication date – 10 February – and in the next day or so I expect to get my hands on the book itself. That’s a real live, honest-to-goodness book, with an actual cover, and a spine, and pages with words on them. My words.

Not that I’ll actually be able to understand many of them, it being in French and all. I only have a GCSE and my characters don’t spend all their time telling each other what their name is, and that they live in London, and asking if they could they have a white coffee and a ham sandwich, and what’s the best way to the post office.

But still. They’re my words en français. At least I hope they are.

I’ll be honest: alongside the excitement, there’s more than a hint of trepidation. One part of me understands that this is a first book being published in translation. That it’ll be a pebble dropped into the ocean of new books. That it’ll be a struggle to get anyone to read it at all.

I know all of that, and it doesn’t matter: I’m still ridiculously happy to think that my characters will be let out to make their way in the world. At the same time, I feel the first faint stirrings of obsession and paranoia.

They’re feelings that aren’t entirely unfamiliar.

Because there were times when I hated this book. When I was so sick of rewrites I felt I knew every single word off by heart. That I felt like I never wanted to look at it again. It brought me some of the greatest highs of my life (getting an agent; hearing that the big five were taking it to acquisition stage) and some of the biggest disappointments (none of the buggers were offering).

After a while, the disappointment faded. I appreciated what I had – a brilliant agent who was passionate about my book and who’d given it as good a chance as it could ever have got; a deal for the French rights with an established publisher; the idea for the next book and a glimmer of an idea for the one after that. I might not have had Euromilions-winning levels of good luck, but it was definitely five-lotto-numbers-and-the-bonus-ball territory.

All my passion for Waking Sara – for that’s what it was called back then – both love and hate, subsided into a gentle affection. I looked back on the days of the rewrites with a head-shaking fondness. I regained a sense of perspective.

Until now.

The release date is 10 February (just in case you didn’t get it the first time). That’s a whole 24 days away. And yet – someone has already given it three out of five!

I mean, I suppose it could be worse. I think I’d rather have a boringly middling mark than out and out disdain.

I think.

But couldn’t my unimpressed reviewer even had added a few words of explanation?! I mean, that book was the result of three years of my life! But no, he/she (or possibly even the default setting on a computer programme somewhere – I live in hope) has just given me my mark and got on with their life as if it doesn’t matter. Hmph, I say. Hmph.

And then there are the discounts. Not that I mind them in themselves – €15.90 is a lot of money for a paperback novel – but it’s the indecent haste of it! My poor little book isn’t even out and it’s having 5% lopped off its price without so much as a by-your-leave. It’s as if it’s already on the way to the bargain baskets! (Mind you, though, it is a bargain. So if you want to brush up on your French…)

And then the final indignity. Amazon, whom I once bravely defended on this very site, have got my name wrong. How they’ve managed this, I’ve no idea, but I can say with absolute certainty that I have never, ever been called Clarence. Not even in a French accent.

Anyway, if you or anyone you know speaks French/would like to speak French/ knows someone called Clarence, there’s a book out next month you’d absolutely love.

John Fowles, Alexander the Great, and finding your fulcrum moment

“There comes a time in each life like a point of fulcrum. At that time you must accept yourself. It is not any more what you will become. It is what you are and always will be.”

John Fowles, The Magus

I planned to start this blog anew today in the kind of spirit that comes over many, even most of us at this time of year – a dollop of optimism, a dash of cod philosophy, the pinchiest pinch of the confessional. I had a quote in mind, something I half-recalled about how we are free and how that freedom is terrifying. I thought it was John Fowles.

I took down my copy of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the first of Fowles’ novels that I read and the one I love the most. I flicked through it but couldn’t find the quote. I did what anyone would do in such circumstances – I turned to Google.

I still didn’t find the quote. If anyone reading this knows the one I’m talking about, please let me know – otherwise I’m going to have to read the whole book again, and I have a horrible feeling that I’ll discover it isn’t there at all. And then I’ll have to re-read The Magus – which feels like hard going for January; and then The Collector, which is too creepy for winter reading. And then I’ll feel guilty about that copy of Daniel Martin that’s been sitting on my bookshelf for years and which I’ve never got around to. And there are so many other things I wanted to read this year and frankly, after the last few days spent stuffing myself with chocolate, and cuddling the cats, and dozing through the second half of yet another Miss Marple on DVD, it all seems just a little bit exhausting.

So for once, Google did not provide. It did, though, lead me to a whole pile of other Fowles quotes, courtesy of Goodreads. After a quarter of an hour or so looking through them – and feeling that familiar mixture of admiration and despair that comes with reading work you can’t fail to acknowledge is about three million times better than anything you could hope to produce yourself – I came across the little beauty reproduced at the top of this page.

It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?

Because I’d been thinking about whether, in considering a fairly big change in my life (never fear – I’ll bore you with the details of that some other time) I was being true to myself or delusional, honest or selfish, brave or foolish. And here, it seemed to me, was someone saying – when you truly know yourself, it doesn’t matter. When you truly know yourself, there are no choices left to make.

Fowles is too sophisticated to suggest that this fulcrum, the point at which, finally, one understands oneself, comes at a particular time in life. Well, he’s either too sophisticated or he knows and isn’t telling.

I’d like to reassure myself that it comes with the wisdom of old(er) age. But somehow I can’t see a 30 year-old Alexander the Great twiddling his sword while he surveyed the greatest empire of the ancient world, wondering whether he was fully expressing his creative side.

Surely some people must just get it.

But whilst part of me would love that certainty, that clarity of purpose, another part can’t help feeling that this is all just a little bit deterministic. It suggests that, at your core, there’s something fundamental and unchanging. A “real you” that you can find if you pull back the layers, like onion skin, and that when you’ve reached it there’s no choice but to live with it, make use of it – chop it up and make a Bolognese sauce. Or something. onion skin

Perhaps this is my problem: making choices. Because choosing one option inevitably means discarding others. Alexander the Great couldn’t have been history’s most successful military commander and, say, Wimbledon Champion. Even if he was really, really good at tennis. I mean, what if the Siege of Halicarnassus had clashed with the qualifiers? Or if his coach had told him that flinging around a spear would be detrimental to his back swing?

Perhaps sometimes you just have to choose. And maybe making the wrong choices now and again is okay. Maybe it’s doing that very thing, and recognising when your choices haven’t been for the best, that brings you to your own fulcrum moment.

Good luck for all your choices in 2016.

Beauty and inspiration – or dealing with a ridiculously good-looking vet

When I started writing this blog I read lots of advice about what you should and shouldn’t do to attract your audience and keep them interested. Apparently, you should never bang on about how long it’s been since you last posted anything. That’s partly because you should be posting regularly so the need for an excuse doesn’t arise, but also because no-one cares except you. Either your readers are interested in your stuff or they aren’t – you’re not going to convince them with sad tales about how busy work has been, and that nasty bout of flu, and how you’re now sporting an attractive Harriet Potter type scar in the middle of your forehead as a result of an uncharacteristic bout of fainting and an unfortunate collision with a basket of bath oils.

So none of those excuses here. Promise.

All the same, whilst topics for posts came and went, it’s taken something a bit special to give me the spark of inspiration to fire up poor, neglected Mrs Holder and put virtual pen to virtual paper. I won’t keep you on the edge of your seat any longer. That something special was yesterday’s encounter with the World’s Most Good Looking Vet.

By vet, I should be clear: I’m not talking about a grizzled ex-soldier with haunting war stories, but a lovely, warm-hearted human being who spends his life being kind to animals. Yesterday was the second attempt at getting our cats to what’s known in our household as the V-E-T for their jabs. Embarrassingly, we lost this annual battle of wits two weeks ago when the most timid of our two felines, Poppy, displayed a frankly supernatural ability to work out that Something Was Up and hastily exited stage left, legging it under the garden fence and refusing to come back until well past the allotted appointment. This time, though, the Husband and I had a battle plan and arrived at the surgery – which, to protect the innocent, I shall say only is located in south east London – on time, with two cat carriers complete with occupants.

Now this is not the first time we’ve visited this particular vet’s. We’ve been turning up regularly, usually shaken and scarred from the Clash of the Cat Carrier, for the last six or seven years. We don’t often see the same vet, but here’s the thing: they are all of them, Zoolander-like, ridiculously good-looking.

Almost as good-looking as the vets at our surgery. Almost.

Almost as good-looking as the vets at our surgery. Almost.

Where they find these people I do not know. Perhaps there’s a vet school somewhere that only takes students from Models One. Perhaps the head vet, who is – naturally – a George Clooney/Richard Gere type (though not in a way that would make you worry for your hamster) travels the globe searching out potential colleagues able to meet his own standards of aesthetic beauty. Perhaps they’re all injecting themselves with some kind of Ridiculously Good-Looking-Making serum. However they do it, it’s almost a trial to deal with.

Let me tell you how it goes.

 Scene: Yak and Husband, sitting in reception each with a cat carrier on their laps. Plaintive mews are emanating from one, eerie silence from the other. There is a door to the left and a figure emerges.

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet:        Patsy and Poppy Cooper?

Husband:                                            Yes, that’s us.

[Yak thinks:                                        Oh God, not again…]

 

Scene changes: Yak, Husband and Ridiculously Good-looking Vet in small consulting room.

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet:        Everything okay?

Husband and Yak exchange looks.

Yak:                                                     Well, they really don’t like the cat carriers, and they don’t like coming to the vet’s, so we’re all a bit traumatised actually…

[Yak thinks:                                        It’s this guy again. I think he’s the most good-looking of all of them. Is he the most good-looking? He must be. Surely he must be. But then there’s the one that looks like George Clooney…]

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet:       Ok, which of them is the most scared?

Husband:                                          Poppy – the black one.

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet:       Ok, let’s take a look at her first, get it over with.

 

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet takes the lid off one of the cat carriers and lifts out a black cat. The cat has gone floppy, playing dead. He cradles her gently in his arms and carries her to a weighing scales.

[Yak thinks:                                       Oh, he’s so gentle with her! He’s definitely the most good-looking one. The way his eyes crinkle at the edges… Oh My God, he’s kissed her head! HE’S KISSED MY CAT! Though – is that entirely appropriate?]

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet:       She’s lost a little bit of weight.

Husband:                                          They haven’t eaten much of their food for the last couple of days. They’ve gone off their usual stuff.

Yak:                                                    Yes, they’re ever so fussy, the pair of them. We have to change the brand every so often…

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet:        That’s cats for you. The thing to do when you’re choosing cat food is to look at whether it’s fixed or open formula…

[Yak thinks:                                        Oh God, he’s looking at me. I have eye contact. Eye contact! Am I being normal? God, please let me be acting normal…]

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet:        …because if it’s fixed formula, it contains what it says on the packet, but if it’s open formula…

Yak:                                                   No! Can they really do that? I didn’t know they could do that!

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet:       Yep, if it’s open formula, one week it can be, say, chicken, the next week, it’s whatever’s cheapest from the abattoir floor…

[Yak thinks:                                       He must know how good-looking he is. Maybe I should just say something and get it over with. Address the elephant in the room…]

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet:      Consumers just don’t know. So sometimes their pet gets ill and they think, well, it can’t be the food, because they’re having the same thing they always do…

Husband:                                         Goodness, I had no idea…

[Yak thinks:                                      I could just say it. ‘Look, I’ve got to acknowledge this. You really are spectacularly good-looking…’ Oh God, he’s looking at me again. Why can’t he look at the Husband more often? It must be the woman-as-carer thing. I’m not blushing, am I? Please don’t let me be blushing. I should just say some words. Say some words!]

Yak:                                                  To be honest, we just keep trying to find something they’ll eat. I mean, we’ve tried Felix, and Gourmet Perle, and they eat it for a bit and then they just stop, refuse, as if they’re saying, “What is this crap?” And I bought loads of Science Plan, and that has a 100% taste guarantee, right? And they just wouldn’t eat it at all…

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet:       And what about drinking?

Yak:                                                   Well, they never touch the water we put next to their feeding bowls, but…

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet:        They like running water, right? Sinks, toilet bowls…

Yak:                                                    No, actually. I mean, we bought them one of those drinking water fountains and they hated that, wouldn’t go near it…

Husband:                                           They like drinking from glasses…

Yak:                                                    Yes! We have these two little glasses outside the bathroom and they drink from those. They seem quite happy with that…

[Yak thinks:                                        He’s still looking at me. I’m being normal, though. My voice sounds ok. I’m definitely being normal. Well done me! I bet most women don’t manage to be this normal around him…]

Ridiculously Good-looking Vet turns away and starts tapping on a keyboard.

Husband (sotto voce):                      Calm down – you sound really stressed!

Yak (irritated):                                   What are you talking about? I’m not stressed.

[Yak thinks:                                        Well, I don’t know what he’s talking about.]

 

Honestly, it’s a nightmare.

Still, at least it’s got me writing, and I do have a book to get on with. They say beauty’s good for the artistic soul, don’t they? I’m sure I’ve read that somewhere. Maybe I could go back every time I need to put a dent in the word count.

No, that would be ridiculous.

Though now that I think of it, Poppy hasn’t been quite herself today. I’ll keep an eye on her.

Just in case.

 

Amazon’s amazin’ – so sue me

There are a lot of people out there getting their knickers in a twist about Amazon. They’re doing terrible things to the publishing industry, apparently. They’re single-handedly sounding the death knell for sweet little independent bookstores everywhere. And they kick puppies.

I like sweet little independent bookstores as much as the next person, I do. (And I really like puppies.) The thing is, the Amazon-haters are just so demanding. They want me to pay more for my books – and to do it with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. They want me to spend my precious hours of free time getting on the train to my nearest non-chain bookstore, failing to find what I want on its shelves, ordering it, and then heading back out in a week’s time to pick up my purchase.  They want me to sacrifice the joy of finishing a really good book by an author I’ve never read before and immediately finding another one by the same writer, downloading it onto my Kindle, and getting stuck in.

In other words, they want me to act in a way that’s contrary to my own interests.

They say it’s the right thing to do.  They claim it’s worthy. They almost go so far as to suggest that we

An Amazon-hater at rest.

An Amazon-hater at rest.

owe it to the owners of those sweet little independent bookstores. That to expect anything so uncouth as a profit motive to enter their cultured heads is somehow unreasonable! Apparently, I should pay for these corduroy-wearing luvvies to stay locked up in their ivory towers, secure in the knowledge that I’ll keep shelling out more than the minimum of my hard-earned because doing anything else marks me out as an unconscionable Philistine!

Call me a hardened capitalist if you like, but I resent the suggestion that buying books on Amazon is one step away from clubbing baby seals.

And in any case, all this stuff about boycotting it misses the point. There’s no need to don hair shirts to save our independent bookstores: they simply need to focus on the things they can provide that Amazon never could.

Amazon can’t give me a happy hour or two wandering around a store that’s filled with temptations, unearthing a title I would never have realised I wanted until it called to me from the shelf and quickened my heartbeat (the last one was the “The Hallucination of Words”). It can’t compete with the simple pleasure of admiring your new purchases with the rich aroma of coffee in your nostrils and a mouthful of homemade carrot cake. It can’t get people together over a glass of wine to listen to an author or a poet read their work. It can’t do any of those things, any more than independents can offer hundreds of classic works of literature for precisely no money at all.

Amazon makes it easy for people to buy books. It encourages people to read, and to read more. And if if its success means that other retailers have to adapt to survive, that they have to work harder to offer something that people continue to be prepared to pay for – well, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

The hotshot, the hero and the loathly lady – creativity and archetypes

Tuesday evening took me to the environs of Liverpool Street for another treat from the London Writers’ Café – a workshop on characterisation run by Rowan Coleman, author of no less than twenty-three books under three pen names.  When someone has been published that many times with still not a grey hair to be seen, you know she’s worth listening to.

The workshop was great, the Q&A even better.  Having spent the previous hour and a half poring over exercises to get under the skin of the characters in our various works in progress, an annoying little doubt was niggling away at me: was it really possible to invent an entirely new set of characters for any new project? Or if, as it’s often said, a writer’s characters are all really aspects of him- or herself, does the time come when we exhaust our cast lists and begin to reproduce essentially the same people?

What better person to ask than someone who’s half-way through their twenty-fourth book?

Rowan started by saying that she believed all her characters were unique. Perhaps, she suggested, I should buy all twenty-three of her books and let her know whether I agreed? (That’s a challenge I may yet take up – although if anyone reading this has got there ahead of me, please let me know what you think.) But, she mused, perhaps there is a signature that an author leaves on her characters, something that you might discern if you read all her works back to back. Rowan, it turns out, is a fellow fan of Stephen King, and having done just that with a sizable chunk of his output she thought that was the case.

But what then is that signature? Is it simply that a strangely high proportion of The Master’s protagonists are white men of a certain age with more than a passing interest in creative writing? Or is it something deeper – something about their way of speaking and interacting with others? About their way of looking at the world? And do we, as readers, connect with those characters because, no matter how different we may be on the surface, there’s something there that we recognise in ourselves?

Jung hypothesised that there were twelve primary archetypes, including the hero, the innocent and the jester (Bridget Jones’s Diary, anyone?). But a bit more online digging reveals that’s a long way from the end of the archetype listing: the intriguingly named www.howtofascinate.com tells me that there are, in fact, 49 personality archetypes – which, with the help of their “senior strategists” can be analysed to determine someone’s “Personality Brand”.  I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated…

Then there are the archetypes-within-archetypes: eight hero archetypes apparently (http://www.likesbooks.com/eight.html), and sixteen master villains (http://www.tamicowden.com/archetypes.htm) – well, the villains would have to go one better.

The loathly lady - she was furious when she found the artist hadn't painted her best side.

The loathly lady was furious when she found the artist hadn’t painted her best side.

And that’s before you get to Wikipedia, which lists over 130 stock characters. These include the fabulously alliterative (“loathly lady – a woman who appears to be hideous, often cursed”), the satisfyingly rhyming (“hotshot – also known as ‘badass'”) and the weirdly specific (“Herr Pastor – an authoritarian pastor in an ethnic German congregation”).

What conclusion to draw from this little lot? I’m not sure I know, but I’ve decided on one thing: if, as writers, our characters really are aspects of ourselves, I can’t wait to unleash my inner Herr Pastor.