C.A.R. Hills
Ralph Goldswain, Jonathan Steffen
Mansel Stimpson, Gary Armitage, Ian Rankin
J.W. New, Frances Fyfield, D.J. Taylor
Wendy Brandmark, Robert Mullen, Peter Parker
et al

August, 2016. I got very excited about the first draft of this 'final' chapter. However, it’s a piece of writing I intend to scrap.

The action takes place in an exhibition space in Leeds. It involves Charles, newly released from prison and on a day return from London, and me, down from Scotland.

Standing together, we are looking at a copy of
The First Folio, placed inside a glass vitrine, the book open at the double-page that has an engraving of Shakepeare by Martin Droeshout on the right. According to Ralph Goldswain’s ‘no sweat Shakespeare’, one of only two authentic likenesses of the bard.

I suggest that the image of Shakespeare puts me in mind of Jeff New. That my recollection of Jeff from the hour I’d spent with him in Witney was no different from the image we are considering. From there we go on to talk quite a bit about Jeff New, Ralph Goldswain and Ian Rankin, and about which if any of the PEN2 writers might still be read in 400 years time. And we speculate a bit about what fellow writer’s name Shakespeare may have had tattooed on the back of his neck, hidden from the world by a high collared shirt.


The reason that this scenario is likely to be jettisoned is because of how Charles responded to it. In other words, the same day I emailed it to him, he wrote back as follows:

Dear Duncan,

I have just read Chapter 23, and I am afraid I think it is a total disaster. This is not because of any lack of talent in yourself - it is clear to me that you have considerable abilities - but because what you have written here is falsehood. Not even the finest writer in the world can get away with deliberate falsehood, about what really happened or about what that might imply. Not Shakespeare himself could have done it. He always wrote the truth. Imaginative truth. In your case it is factual truth that is the problem.

Up until the end of Chapter 22, you were basically telling it like it is about yourself and about your 31 other fellow writers, and because you did this with great patience, fairness and humour, putting up with all the foibles and difficulties that human beings inevitably throw in each other's paths, the result was full of a sort of quirky charm which could attract a lot of discerning readers. This still holds good. All you have to do is to continue in Chapter 23 with the same honesty and good judgement and all will be well.

I do beg you to let me come to Edinburgh next Friday. I am horrified by what you have done to your book, partly because I know that my own chances of success are now closely bound in with yours. Perhaps a final chapter based on a real conversation between ourselves will not be a masterpiece. But it will be a true account of a real event by a writer of talent. That should be enough.

Please excuse my frankness, Duncan. I hate in a way to have to hurt you in this fashion. I can be very unfeeling, unkind and unfair sometimes. But about writing I understand. And it is because I want you to succeed that I am writing like this.

All the very best to you, friend as well as ally, Charles


What Charles means is that we didn’t really meet in Leeds to look at a First Folio together, and the fiction of such a meeting riles him. He takes his own biography seriously and thinks I’ve respected it up to the end of chapter 22, but disrespected it in that final scene.

Because Charles doesn’t like what I’ve done, I guess I must abandon it. I can’t have my main man - my primary PEN pal -pissed off by the final chapter. And I hope that whatever takes its place will prove more palatable to him.

However, I’m not meeting Charles in Edinburgh next Friday. I know he wants us to have afternoon tea in what he refers to as the Muriel Spark hotel on Princes Street, his thinking being that a conversation about Spark would allow us to talk more about Ian Rankin and other PEN contributors.

Despite how it might appear at times, I am still too much the God-like author to allow someone else to dictate the end of my book. So instead the final chapter, dear reader, is intended to be this one you’re reading. I am trying to carry on with patience and humour, putting up with all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that are thrown in my path.

Today I’ve sent Jonathan Steffen part two of the book, including the draft finale. If he tells me he loves that Shakespeare scene then maybe – just maybe - I’ll reinstate the original ending and try to persuade Charles to change his mind about it.


OK here we go. Just in from JS:

Dear Duncan,
Thank you very much for sharing the final chapters of your book with me and, indeed, allowing me to accompany you on your authorial journey over the past few months. I think you have written something that may acquire cult status if given half a chance. Certainly I hope it gets a bit more marketing support than
PEN New Fiction 2 ever received!
It’s true that there is something unmistakably poignant in your account, for all its wit and flourish (and the ending, by the way, is a very good flourish). One wonders not just what happens to writers (which you explore with an engaging mixture of method and whimsy in the current book), but what happened to these people to make them ever want to be writers in the first place. With apologies to Ian Rankin, who on earth would ever wish to become a writer after reading this analysis?


So this is my proposal for your next book. Working title: Paperback Writer: What makes people think they want to write. I predict strong sales, particularly if you put an image of Marilyn Monroe working on her memoirs on the cover.

All best as ever, Jonathan

I don’t have to think about this very long before replying:

Dear Jonathan,

Thanks for your comments on my book. So the sadness in PEN PALS prevails over the wit and flourishes? I recently gave Mansel Stimpson three chapters to look at and his conclusion was similar:

'I did feel that the essential nature of the book reflected strongly the sad situation of so many writers who achieve only modest success or no success at all.  Even if the contributors surveyed here provide a few exceptions (a fact which helps to avoid any suggestion that you are exaggerating the case), I suspect that this downbeat aspect will emerge as a major theme.'

I'm beginning to accept that PEN PALS is primarily a disillusioning read. This is partly because, as you and Mansel tell me, so many of the writers have failed to be accepted as such by society at large. I had thought that the success IN THEIR OWN TERMS of a few of the writers (say Jeff New, Ralph Goldswain, Gary Armitage and - most importantly, because my voice is omnipresent - ME) would give the book a certain joie de vivre. And this may well have been the case if my father hadn't died in the middle of the book's writing. The deep sadness that Dad's death has caused me, notwithstanding my attempts to pirouette around it, inevitably casts a shadow on everything I've written since. 

The urge to write can make life a joy. But life itself comes to an end and where's the joy in that?

My tattoo hurts; it calls to the axe's blade. Have you noticed that the two best known traditional forms of execution - hanging and beheading - attack the neck?


Yours in trepidation, Duncan

PS Oh, and thanks for suggesting that my next book might be called Paperback Writer: What Happens to Hollywood Actresses. That would certainly have a melancholic edge to it. However, I think I'll go with your other suggestion PEN PALS 2: What makes people think they want to write. So get ready to write me another 30-odd emails when that gets off the starting line!

Perhaps the glossy surface of the postscript isn’t effective, because Jonathan replies more or less straightaway.

Hi Duncan,
Don’t be despondent. You’ve produced a great book. It’s true to life, and therefore reflects the sadness inherent in this strange calling to letters. Just think of Cervantes, who ended his life in poverty despite the rip-roaring success of what he knew to be a masterpiece that would transform the course of literature.
If your grief at your father’s death permeates the book – as it does – then this is also rightly so. You are writing out of the moment and from the heart, and what you write is authentic, even if you strive for busy ebullience.
Anyway, very happy to contribute 30 emails to the next book. I seem to recollect your describing me as “urbane”. I need to be. The project currently on my desk is the correcting of a film script about the analysis of cow manure. I’ve had to watch the film, which has made me think very differently about cows.
Take care and stay in touch! Jonathan

Jonathan has been a most encouraging PEN pal and I’m grateful to him. It is indeed 30 emails he’s sent me. Charles has sent even more communications. While a group of four PEN pals - Jeff New, Wendy Brandmark, Bill Thompson (in the early days) and David Taylor - have sent half the number that Jonathan has.


After that, the numbers of incoming written communications go down, ending with Gary Armitage who I’ve heard from once by letter. Of course, Gary is only sitting there at the bottom of the list because he doesn’t do email. I phoned him once, had a stimulating chat, and a few days later received a signed copy of a book by his alter ego Robert Edric, which led to a second long and involved call.

Since then Gary cum Robert has been left out of the loop, which seems a shame. So why don’t I phone him now? It’s nearly noon and I recall that his daily routine is to write until about 11am.

Soon we’re speaking. I ask him what he’s been doing in the six months since we spoke, the period in which I’ve been writing and revising
PEN PALS. He tells me that he wrote a book in January, revised it in April and May, and the typescript is now sitting on a shelf awaiting his further attention.

‘What is it about?”

As I listen, I make the odd note so that I’ll be able to put together the gist of Gary’s comments later.

The new book by Robert Edric will be called
Mercury Falling, and will be set in the Fens in 1954, though 1695 is much invoked. The authors Henry Green and Cormac McCarthy have inspired the work in dissimilar ways. A man will be mulling over his many disappointments in life.

“Sounds like the two Robert Edric titles I’ve already read,” I say, “
Gathering the Water and Sanctuary are both extremely hard on their male protagonists.”

I take the opportunity to say that I felt sorry for Branwell Brontë, though he was his own worst enemy and in many ways risible. I add that I recognized his egotistical behavior from many of the artist groups I’ve observed over the years. It’s common for men to think a great deal of their talents and to indulge themselves in all sorts of ways, while the women get on with essential tasks, including the creative work.


Gary makes a different point. He says that if you had a group of 50 people in a hall in the present day, and they were asked to raise their hands if they thought they were creative, everyone would do so. And that it wasn’t right. Well, I have some sympathy with Joseph Beuys’s credo that everyone is an artist, but I don’t get a chance to put this. Gary, as forceful in conversation as I remember him, has pushed the discussion on a step or two.

He wants to know if I saw the piece on ‘My Working Day’ by Val McDermid in this week’s Saturday
Guardian. Well, I did, as it happens. The part of it that Gary wants to flag up is where Val McDermid says just how much of her year she has to spend doing things other than writing. In other words, when you are a successful writer you have to spend an awful lot of time being interviewed and doing readings and so forth. That kind of life is not for Gary.

Quite a subtle picture Gary is painting of the creative writer. In fact most people seem to get it wrong. Branwell Brontë, Val McDermid (no fault of her own) and the roomful of creative types, for starters.

I realize that Gary Armitage, though he does have a book published each year, sees his success in the same kind of terms as Ralph Goldswain and Jeff New. That is, to have written certain exquisite books gives him a sense of accomplishment. To get out there and sell thousands of those books via a publisher’s publicity machine and the media would give him none.

Somehow we get onto the subject of Will Self. Gary is shortly going to listen to his debut on
Radio 4’s Just a Minute. As it happens, I caught the first transmission of that show a few days ago, and tell Gary that Will Self does extremely well. Not only is Self a superb ironist and irritating pedant, his focus is unshakeable and he thinks on his feet very quickly. A pretty impressive skill-set.

However, Gary has a bone to pick with the celebrity author. Will Self published a book called
Walking To Hollywood a few years ago. The main section takes place in California but a shorter section consists of another walk made in east Yorkshire, which is Gary’s territory. Will Self didn’t seem to take issue with, or even notice, the accents he came across in Hollywood, but made everyone he spoke to in Yorkshire sound the same and bizarrely idiotic. If ever Gary finds himself in an audience listening to Will Self then he will raise this issue.


“Well, expect an erudite and intelligent riposte, that’s all I can say.”

I imagine Gary in an audience of fifty at some northern literary festival event, with Will Self sitting on stage asking the question: “How many people here think of themselves as uncreative?” Up goes a single hand: Gary’s. Not because he really thinks he’s uncreative, but because he thinks that with one pointed question he is about to wipe the grin off Will Self’s complacent, cosmopolitan (com-cos?) face.

Apropos of Will Self’s most known affectation, Gary tells me that he had to look up two words the other day. The first was ‘craquelure.’ Do I know what that means? No, I do not. “It’s the network of fine lines on an old oil painting.” Gary has to spell out the second word for me. “C. L. I. T. E. L. L. U. M.” But I am none the wiser. Gary tells me that if I imagine putting my lips together, then parting them. The stickiness that attempts to hold the lips together is clitellum. I tell Gary that as a rule I don’t commit new words to memory, but that I might make an exception in this case.

I feel I have kept Gary from his own company for too long. So I ask him for his address so that I can send him a print of the chapter that concerns him. I need his permission to take the liberties I have done. He tells me that the name of his house is ‘Glenfinnan’.

“Like the whisky?” I venture.

“Shame on you, Duncan. Glenfinnan is the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard and began his attempt on the English throne.”

I laugh nervously. “Not my favourite person. That joker’s conceit ended with Culloden awash with Scottish blood. In other words, another of those male characters you could very effectively tear to shreds.”


As we take fond leave of each other, Gary tells me about the stacks of chopped wood he has to protect himself against the coming winter, the racks of candles he has at his disposal and the cellar of wine bottles. Yes, Gary knows exactly how long he could survive in his cave. Alone. With pencil and paper.

In the minute after I’ve put down the phone, I’m considering the image that Gary has left me with. Gary Armitage is his own man, very much so.

Then I look up ‘clitellum’ online, and find that it means something altogether different from what Gary has told me. Ciltellum is the thicker section of a worm found close to the head. It’s part of the reproduction system of worms.

In normal circumstances I would email back this definition and a correspondence would ensue. But Gary Armitage has a foolproof method of separating signal from noise. He doesn’t have a computer. So that’s that.


Ian Rankin does not live in a cave. He is interconnected man par excellence and nothing demonstrates this better than his Twitter stream.

I’ve just reviewed it for the month of August, 2016. Only two days went by without Ian telling his 100,000 followers what he was up to. Many days involved multiple tweets and retweets.

On Aug 1, he used his 140 characters to tell the world that he’d had an idea for a short story two days before and had written it that day from start to finish. Woops, this paragraph is 160 characters, and counting.


Let’s take a complete week of tweets, August 8 to 14. On Monday he tells us that the next day he’ll be appearing at a Festival Fringe venue to talk books, music and films with a pal. On Tuesday, he retweets a woman who had tweeted her concern that Scottish children shouldn’t be too upset if their exam results weren’t what they hoped for. On Wednesday he’s off out in the evening to catch a band. On Thursday he’s off into town again to see ‘one of those fancy London comedians’. On Friday he plugs a new edition of his 1997 novel Black and Blue. (This gets retweeted 28 times and 190 people go to the trouble of ‘liking’ this message. Well, why not. The eighth of his Inspector Rebus books, it was the first to be adapted for television back in 2000.) On Saturday he attaches a photo of packages (containing books?) addressed to him at the Oxford Bar. On Sunday…

Actually on Sunday, August 14, Ian Rankin didn’t tweet. Maybe he retreated to his cave that day.

In the coming week, the Edinburgh Book Festival got going, Ian tweeted about that several times. He also announced that he’d got the job of proofreading his new book, the one he’d been worried about not having any ideas for back in November 2015. Also, as in the previous week, on one day his tweet involved the reporting of a good deed. He asked his followers if anyone knew a Petra Hartmann, because he’d found her purse on an Edinburgh bus, which he’d handed to the driver.

The next week began with the announcement that he hadn’t managed to see any Edinburgh Festival shows or spend time in bars with friends, because proofreading always came first. Ha-ha.

Do I need to go on? The twitter stream is a beguiling mix of self-interest, charm, reportage, charitable acts, and more. Ian Rankin’s at the centre of a network. People are tweeting him all the time, feeding his phone with jokes, compliments, invites, photos, wind-ups, recommendations, and so on. He has got a lot of options. And he seems to make good choices. I mean, Ian Rankin absorbed a lot of music, comedy and literature in the month of August, a hell of a lot of contemporary culture.



All that talk of Edinburgh in August has made me feel I should have agreed to meet Charles. But I need to wind down this book and another meeting with Charles would not help achieve that. So instead I write, along vaguely similar lines, to DJ Taylor, Ralph Goldswain, Frances Fyfield and Robert Mullen. I feel the last named has been relatively neglected because (in fact) it was well on in the writing process that I first made contact with him. This is my latest email to the Edinburgh man:

Dear Bob,

I'm approaching the end of PEN PALS. Just writing the final chapter now.

I thought I'd attach chapter nine for you to look at, if you've got time. Our own exchange features towards the end of it. If there's anything you'd like me to alter, delete or add, please let me know. Of course, anything you have to say will be of interest to me.

As for this last chapter, I'm trying to mention quite a few of the original PEN writers, striving for final insights.

One thing I've just done is look at Ian Rankin's Twitter stream for August. Having done that, my response is
: ‘What happens to a tiny minority of writers? The more people like them and pay attention to them, the more they like other people and have time for them.’

What do you reckon? Was your August spent in Edinburgh and was it anything like Ian Rankin's?

It’s pouring down today, but still mild. Have your thoughts turned to Spain in November yet?

All best, Duncan

A day later this comes in from Bob:

Hello again.


Thanks for sending the sample chapter, what you have used of mine is fine as it stands.  I have not, so far as I can tell, been either misquoted or mistreated.

Regardless of whether your book requires it, I would be happy to meet up with you the next time that you are in Edinburgh, and have a little free time.  I am likely to be here for the rest of the year, having put off my next trip to Spain until the Spring.

Cheers for now, Bob

That’s interesting, another offer to meet in Edinburgh. But having put off Charles would it be right to meet Bob?


David Taylor has also replied to my email, giving me permission to quote his emails, stating his enjoyment of the chapter he principally appears in, and giving me a short list of factual corrections. He also reiterates his fascination with the whole project and his intention to review the book when it eventually appears in print. Good lad.

And Ralph Goldswain has given me permission to quote what he had thought of as being his off-the-cuff comments. He asks to be kept informed about the book as he would love to read it in its final, published form. Nice one, Ralph.

Just as I’m starting to fear that Frances Fyfield isn’t going to reply to my email, she does do. In her case, as well as attaching the chapter she principally appears in, I mentioned that her name crops up a few times in chapters 20 to 22, and asked her if she would like to read that material. This is how she’s responded:

Hi Duncan,

Sorry to take a while to reply.  The last of the summer visitors linger on, and we still have a heatwave.  Please send some Perthshire rain, we could use it.
Read chapter 4 with interest.  What a dogged investigator you are!  Didn't appreciate you would produce emails verbatim, but never mind. I don't think I want to see any more, feel free with it.  And I didn't much like being described as hard and raven-haired by anybody, but that is mere irritation/vanity.


Good luck with the new final chapter.  As to your 'tentative conclusion’, ie the more people like (the writers) and pay attention to them, the more they like other people and have time for them.' I don't relate to that, insofar as it doesn't apply to writers in particular.  Attention can breed a kind of affection, inter-reaction, as it does in children, right? Success makes some people more effusive communicative, others not, depending on who they were in the first place.
Writing?  Not much this year, yet.  Knee deep in Puccini opera scores for programmes for Radio 4, and delighting in partner's grandchildren.  The nine-year-old bookworm/writer of the two is claiming Writers Block.  Serious discussion required, with ice cream.  Perhaps that's the key to it all.
All best, france

That email blows hot (heat-wave) and cold (ice-cream). In particular, Frances says about PEN PALS, ‘I don’t think I want to see any more’. I’ve been trying so hard to keep some kind of communication going with all of the contributors, but it doesn’t always work out.

Of course, the email from Frances is still full of interest. How do I interpret what she says about my tentative Ian Rankin conclusion? She points out, possibly thinking of herself, that some writers who are praised by readers and the media, are turned off by the experience. They shy away from it. They prefer the silence of their writing rooms. They prefer to listen to the voice that speaks in a whisper from within.

Frances Fyfield’s attitude reminds me of Gary Armitage’s. Interesting that the two writers of fiction who – along with Ian Rankin - have published the most novels since 1987 adopt this anti-publicity stance.

Though if you turn away from the external voice that feeds you compliments, there can be only one outcome in the long-term. Media silence. Leaving Ian Rankin free to clean up as far as book sales are concerned.



One day before my trip to Edinburgh. Plenty time to explore the writer’s residency idea again. Which I seem to want to do.

Who would I invite up here? Not the contributors who have died, obviously. That’s, Giles Gordon, Kathrine Talbot and Elsa Corbluth. Not the contributors who have disappeared without trace. That’s, Margaret Browne, Kara Lind, Edith Cope, Mary Haddingham and John Bainbridge. And not the contributors who have excused themselves from consideration. Sorry to lose you, Bill Thompson, Peter Whitebrook, Penelope Shuttle and Jeff New.

That leaves 20 potential residents if I include myself, which I most certainly do. That’s too many for my father’s house to host at any one time, so of necessity the residency would be split into several.

The first might involve what I’m going to refer to again as the marginal writers. I mean those who have spent the last thirty years primarily doing something other than creative writing. That’s Suzi Robinson, Carol Barker, Alex McAdam Clark, Deborah Singmaster, Dan Corry, Anonymous and Jonathan Steffen. I baulk at labelling Jonathan as marginal. After all he has got a chapter to himself in
PEN PALS and will be a vital presence in the finished text. But he should be proud of the paid work he has done. Just as the other marginals no doubt are. I think it’s something the group might explore together, perhaps with a view to producing a website or a book called: Why I Am Not a Writer. The strap-line might read: ‘All the Positives of Choosing Another Way of Life’.

A second residency might involve Mansel Stimpson, Peter Parker and C.A.R.Hills. It might seem reductive to put the three gay men in a class of their own, but I think something powerful could come out of it. For Mansel and Peter are sensible, hard working, intellectual adults, while Charles is something else, an altogether fascinating man who simply
is and does, without limits. Peter has known Charles since the late seventies, and Mansel has known Charles since the mid-eighties, while Peter and Mansel have hardly ever met (though they did meet on January 21 1987). Let the three share this house for a fortnight, interacting on all sorts of levels. Then let the three of them write a C.A.R. Hills book together, consisting of alternate chapters. Would it be as compelling a book as I recently thought Jeff New, Charles and I have in us? Perhaps C.A.R Hills could be the lynchpin in any number of triangles made up of PEN2 contributors.


What would a residency consisting of the women writers be like? I mean, Wendy Brandmark, Frances Fyfield, Val Warner, Connie Bensley and Elaine Feinstein. The inter-generational aspect of that line-up has much of offer. I see the younger writers (though still in their late fifties and sixties), feeding off the older writers, and vice versa. Wendy and Elaine share a Jewish heritage. Val and Elaine went from state school to Oxbridge. What do Frances and Connie share? Well, they are both so modest that neither sees herself as a writer despite all the published works on their cv. All five of these writers struck me as being kind (several of them raised concerns about how other individuals might be affected by what I’d written in PEN PALS). In a house awash with kindness, a new kind of confidence might emerge amongst women writers.

I've noticed that Wendy's new book
He Runs the Moon has been getting reviewed by bloggers on their websites. For example, and The several reviews of Wendy's book that I've read are respectful, even enthusiastic. So although national broadsheets have largely ignored it, the positive qualities of the short stories have not gone unnoticed. I think that Val, Connie and Elaine, though modest, are all concerned about their legacy. Wendy, being a practising teacher, might lead a discussion or even a workshop about how the internet can play a part in ensuring that creative writing both sees the light and does not disappear without trace. He Runs the Moon is a slow burner, in my opinion. The internet should allow it to be around for a sufficiently long time.

Not sure it’s a good idea to have an all-hetero (male) residency, but I’m going to explore that possibility right now. Six of us. Ian Rankin, David Taylor, Ralph Goldswain, Robert Mullen, Gary Armitage and me. This time around, the house would be awash in creative confidence and goodwill. And, of course, at the first opportunity we would all be off to the pub.

It’s only a ten-minute walk from my father’s house to a large Wetherspoons pub that used to be the Blairgowrie branch of Woolworths. In mid-week the place is quiet, so we could sit around two tables. At one table would be Ian, David and Gary: those authors who have achieved notable public success. Around the other would be Ralph, Robert and me: individuals who have taken much personal satisfaction from their writing over the last thirty years. Being a generous soul, I expect Ian would offer to buy the first round. So that would be six pints of ‘Rebus’.

I suspect the division between public and private success would start to break down pretty soon. It might be pointed out that although Gary has published a book a year, he’s sold virtually no copies compared to Ian. I reckon that Gary would have no objection to moving over to our table. Indeed, in my mind’s eye he starts to tell us a joke as soon as he sits down: “Will Self walks into a bar...”


Me: “Do you mean John Self or Will Self?” (I'm conscious that Ian Rankin is a big admirer of Martin Amis, in particular the John Self voice in

Gary: “Duncan, who is telling this joke?”

“Well, I make the Martin Amis jests around here. So if it’s
John Self who’s walking into the bar, I guess it should be me who’s telling the joke.”

“This isn’t a Martin Amis joke. I can't stand the man.”

By the time, Gary has finished his joke we’re all well on the way to feeling relaxed (both tables) and ready for another drink. Muttering sarcastically (to the entertainment of us all), Ian gets to his feet in order to repeat his good deed of twenty minutes earlier.

Ian and David have been chatting non-stop when suddenly David, smiling modestly, shaking his head sadly, gets up and moves over to our table. Ian would like him to stay – who wants to be in a pub on their own when there’s a party going on at the next table? But David is far too humble to be comfortable with the ‘success’ label that he’s been landed with. He’s not a success. Not compared to Ian Rankin. Besides, he’s got a thing or two to tell me.

David does not think that state school to Oxbridge followed by rejection by the literary world is a significant pattern. He says I've been fixated on Charles, Jeff and myself and ignored other facts. For example, the fact that Elaine Feinstein went from state school to Oxford and managed to establish a literary career. She got her big break when the sister of Ted Hughes offered to be her literary agent. Olwyn Hughes, like her brother, was educated at a state grammar school.

This is true. I accept today what I wasn't able to take on board before Jeff New parted company from

But David isn't finished yet. He tells me my analysis of public school advantage/state school disadvantage is also flawed. As only between 5 and 10% of the population is educated at public school, if the majority of editors were from public school, selecting ex-public school alumni as their authors, they would be soon be in trouble. Why? Because say there were 10 public school editors fighting for a share of the 5 million potential readers educated at public school. And there was one state school editor (or public school editor with the sense to pick writers who were educated in the same way the vast majority of readers were). Well this editor, with his state school writer, name of Rankin or Rowling, would make an absolute killing from the 50 million potential readers who have come up via the state school system.

This is true. Fact: the writer who has made it big from our group was not educated at public school. That fact has been staring me in the face all through this project, but I have been unwilling to face it. I was far too happy with my triumvirate of state school losers. We three little maids from the wrong side of the tracks (as if).


While Ian (generous and amusing to a fault) is at the bar once more, I extract from my bag a few of the copies of Rankin books that I’ve collected in the process of writing PEN PALS. That’s to say: Let it Bleed, A Question of Blood, The Falls, Fleshmarket Close, The Naming of the Dead, A Good Hanging, The Complaints, The Impossible Dead, Standing in Another man’s Grave, Saints of the Shadow Bible and Even Dogs in the Wild.

As a group, we admire the titles and covers. The hardbacks amongst them range from 2001 to 2015, and in that time three different design strategies have been employed by the publisher, all very effective at making a book look like it could be compelling reading. Robert Mullen in particular feels that his own book, Call of the Camino, would have benefitted from this kind of investment in presentation. But then it was marketed as a guide rather than literature, much to Bob’s frustration.

The most recent three Rebus books have benefitted from the same slick design. In the background, an atmospheric black and white photo of an outdoor environment, full of fragmentary suggestion. In the foreground, four horizontal blocks of colour overlaid with words in black type, followed by a black block saying something about Rebus in white type. REBUS IS BACK… THE NEW JOHN REBUS… REBUS: SAINT OR SINNER…
Even Dogs in the Wild, has pink blocks of colour, Standing in Another Man’s Grave has orange blocks, and the four yellow blocks on the third book contain black capital letters thus:



I would suggest to Jeff (blast! - why isn't he here?... OK, there is good reason why he isn't here) that he might change the title of his
Satires to Saints of the Shadow Bible. Actually, Shadow Bible in itself would do. Less is more. Though I know Jeff knows that as well as any of us here.

I suggest to Ralph that he signs the three most recent books so that we can give Ian something in return for all this beer he’s buying us. Ralph knows I’m alluding to his own signing of three copies of
PEN New Fiction 2 back in 1987. But I point out another precedent. Yes, I produce my copy of The Prose Factory by David Taylor, which has been signed ‘Last and least, Jeff New’ on the final page. This is enough for Ralph who begins to sign the books on the title page. Coincidentally, the first five letters of ‘Ian Rankin’ are the first two and last three letters of ‘Ralph Goldswain’, so Ralph signs his name so:


Sometimes I wonder if I’m dreaming this book rather than writing it.

But an Ian Rankin signature is not complete without a hangman motif, I point out. Sometimes the hanged man looks like a pound sign, I tell the team. Sometimes it looks like a cross. Between us we get the books convincingly signed and given over to Ian when he joins us. Predictably, he takes this in the right spirit. I notice Ian taking a photo of the pile of books with his iPhone. No doubt a sharp little report on how the residency is going will be appearing on Twitter as we speak.

It’s miles to the toilet in Wetherspoons. When I get back to the bar I find that the room is black with smoke. I grope my way to the exit where the rest of the pub’s clientele has gathered.

Perhaps I should have said that at a third table sat Mansel Stimpson, Peter Parker and C.A.R Hills, their residency running in parallel to the hetero one. Anyway, they are standing with the rest of the
PEN PALS residents. Nine of us in all.

Gary tells me that when I was in the loo, one of the lights in the bar started to spark. Nobody gave it another thought until thick black smoke began to pour out of the light fitting.

Charles, who tells the bar manager that he nearly choked to death in his infernal pub, insists that the police be called. He only desists with this request when he is given a full refund of all the money that Ian Rankin has spent on beer this evening.


Once the smoke has cleared, an investigation finds that a soaking wet copy of a paperback has been introduced into a light fitting in the bar. The book is a copy of The Hanging Garden by Ian Rankin.

Somebody mutters: ‘You can take the beast out of Brixton. But you can’t take Brixton out of the Beast.’

My turn to tell a joke. “C.A.R. Self walked into a bar with Ian Rankin in his pocket. The barman said: “Is he with you?” C.A.R. replied: “That’s for me to know and you to find out.”

At one time I hoped that when the reader got to the end of
PEN PALS he or she would think of Ian Rankin and C.A.R. Hills interchangeably, in terms of ‘success’. Perhaps that will still prove to be the case.

Perhaps I should have said that at a fourth table in the pub sat Dan Corry, Jonathan Steffen, Alex McAdam Clark, Suzi Robinson, Deborah Singmaster and Carol Barker. And at a fifth table, Wendy Brandmark, Elaine Feinstein, Connie Bensley, Val Warner and Frances Fyfield. Yes, the four residencies have merged into one. Everyone else has gone home except the twenty of us who are standing together.

Four of us form a group hug. Or rather a group huddle. The four consist of a single representative from each sub-residency. That's Peter Parker, Wendy Brandmark, Jonathan Steffen and me.

I'm glad to have one arm around Peter Parker's neck. We have far more in common than not. We are both outsiders, as are all the Pen Pals. I've been meaning to communicate to him something about
Housman Country. After reading Peter's book I wanted to establish an indirect link between him and I, through a link between Evelyn Waugh and A.E. Housman. I had a hunch that Evelyn would have been an ardent admirer of A Shropshire Lad, but the literature doesn't suggest as much, and so Housman Country doesn't make any claims about Evelyn Waugh. In Author Hunting by Grant Richards - the publisher of both A Shropshire Lad and the books of Alec Waugh, Evelyn's brother - Richards tells of meeting Mr and Mrs Arthur Waugh and of discussing Evelyn Waugh's success in general, the reviews of Alec's latest book and A Shropshire Lad.

So I felt I was on the trail of something. A bit more sleuthing and I established from
The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, though neither the name 'Housman' nor 'Shropshire Lad' are in the index to the volume, that while at Oxford, as an idealistic eighteen-year-old, Waugh bought a copy of the Riccardi Press's Shropshire Lad and had it bound in quarter black Levant and half parchment. That's exactly how I want PEN PALS to be bound! Eh, Peter? I'm not in an ideal position to see his face - too close - but I imagine Peter smiling his approval and assent. Assent to what? Everything!

I'm glad to have my other arm around Jonathan Steffen's neck. I have established that he is on the mend from the serious riding accident he had in June. He was thrown into a wall by a blind bolter of a steed, breaking his left upper arm and also a rib which in turn punctured his lung. The lung started to collapse and fill with blood, and Jonathan was rushed to hospital to have a chest drain inserted in an emergency procedure. He spent three and a half days on an acute ward and then a further three days on an ordinary ward before being discharged. The recuperation process was very wearing because we are designed to have two arms, but he reckons himself to have been extremely lucky, given the force of the impact, not to have sustained worse injuries. Would Jonathan still throw his last sixpence at anything with four legs and a tail? He very nearly did. But the horse motif remains dominant on his corporate website, so I take it his loyalty to his creativity, his idea of himself, is unbroken.

Charles was in prison for the first six months of 2016, I lost my father, and Jonathan nearly lost his life. If I dipped a bit further into the lives of the other PEN pals no doubt I would discover all sorts of trauma. Trauma and triumph.

I think that's implicit in the group huddle that's taking place. I don't know if all twenty of us are engaged in the gesture of mutual recognition and shared self-worth, because I'm right in the middle of what I'm taking to be a tiered thing.

"Are you there, Charles?"

"Here," says a muffled voice from one side of the huddle.


"Here," says a muffled voice from the opposite end.

So that's all right.


Last chapter