The Panopticon

I once read a book that said you should be careful what you do when you step out your front door, as you never know where your feet might take you. I wrote my first poems around the same time. I was seven, living in a caravan on the outskirts of a mining village, and the library van came around once a week. I read everything in that library van. A few days ago a friend from that time rang me up, she works on a library van now, and she was really excited — as The Panopticon had just come in on her list of new releases.

It’s funny how things go. I watched my son go into the sea the other day, naked, happy, one-years old and fearless. I drove past places that once were fiction. What is a place that once was fiction? It’s a place in your heart where your mind does not plan to return too. I picked up a pen, and it became a chisel and I hammered on a great ugly hulk of stone — stood back one day to see what it had become.

The Panopticon, is a wisp of a dream that has now become a solid thing. It is a beautifully crafted hardback book, with an exceptional attention to detail. I adore it. The colour on the inside is a perfect, deep blue, the moon on the front would glow a little in the right light, and the front cover is a scene from the novel come to life. Does that happen?  It seems it does. I don’t believe in crocodiles, and by that I mean I don’t believe in being hugged in never-ending circles toward death — and passing that off as life! It’s grim. Pointless. We have to take risks, go for it, quietly repeat to ourselves at regular intervals — fuck it! We can sit at the devils crossroads and refuse to trade our souls for guitars, or gold. I’ve sat at a lot of crossroads, in fact I’ve slept at a few, and many other, stranger places. And, this morning I picked up my novel from the doormat … how unbelievably cool!

I wrote this novel in bed in Peckham (mostly) with a view of a tree and a church spire from the window. The next door neighbour had (among other things) a couple of mattresses outside in their garden. Over a summer I hammered out the first draft. While everyone I knew seemed to be off travelling or at festivals, I was doing twelve hours a day, seven days a week, immersing myself in it. I’d look up at night and the house would be dark and I’d go and pour a drink and wonder why I was doing this, but I couldn’t stop. Whoever tells you it is easy to write a novel … lied. It’s not easy. It changes you, it takes you somewhere and alters your chemical make-up. At least — the good ones do, or it has done for me. At the end of that summer the leaves on the neighbours mattress had turned from green, to brown and gold, then black, sodden with mulch. I had 140’000 words to begin sculpting with, it was — the start. I went back to uni, thinking of the experiment, and cigarillo smoking outcast queens, and wondering if swimming feels like flying if you have fins, and live in the sea.

I sat in my publisher’s office a few months ago, we were going through the final edit and having a whiskey. The sun was going down over London and all the chimneys and rooftops were golden. It felt like a moment I would always remember. I have been extraordinarily lucky to work with some great people on this novel, who created a stunning book to have, and to hold. They are quite old school, my publisher, and agent. By this I mean — they have a genuine and deep abiding love of literature, of well made quality hardback fictions, of allowing a writer to take risks and respecting why it is vital, and necessary. Heinemann is one of the oldest literary imprints still publishing today, and were first founded in 1890. As you might imagine by a house that published Dostoevsky, or Oscar Wilde, they still make books that are built to last.

So here it is, only a few weeks to go and The Panopticon goes out into the world on its own, and like the mad monk — I salute it. I’d stand up for it. I’d arm wrestle for the thing in a bar, and while I am now putting one word in front of another and working on new ways to sculpt worlds from words … The Panopticon is off to France where it is being published by  Metailie (I can’t even speak French) and it is also being published in Czech. In the meantime, I am off to read it to my oldest school friend, she died last year — and I know she would be really proud. Salut, salut. Jx

‘Ferocious and devastating, The Panopticon sounds a battle-cry on behalf of the abandoned, the battered, and the betrayed. To call it a good novel is not good enough: this is an important novel, a book with a conscience, a passionate challenge to the powers-that-be. Jenni Fagan smashes every possible euphemism for adolescent intimacy and adolescent violence, and she does it with tenderness and even humour. Hats off to Jenni Fagan! I will be recommending this book to everyone I know.’ Eleanor Catton, author of The Rehearsal.

120 Days of Sodom

I’ll return to Sodom in a minute. I am distracted by obscure pirates. There are a few under-archived female pirates and one in particular is one of the great female outlaws I’m going to research and resurrect. I could handle a pirate ship and a few years whiskey for water. I’m not a bad shot either. Perhaps the most successful documented female pirate is Ching Shih who terrorized the China Sea in the early 19th century. She commanded 1800 ships and about 80,000 pirates. Not bad for a girl who started out in Canton’s floating brothels.

There was Alvilda in Finland, Charlotte de Berry from England in 1636, Rachel Wall from Pennsylvania in the 1770s, Jane de Belleville a Frenchwoman who assisted the English at the 1345 invasion of Brittany. Anne Bonney and Mary Read were two famous pirates, thought to be lovers. Anne Bonney was Irish and often sailed her black flag in the Caribbean. After they got arrested in the 1720s both women pleaded their bellies so their executions would be delayed. While Read is thought to have died in childbirth, Bonny disappeared. There’s a grave for her many, many years later in 1782 South Carolina, then eighty years old, with eight children, grandchildren and a husband. A happy end for an outlaw.

Pirates aside I saw a production of Noel Cowards Design for Living the other week. The play still stands up and the sets in the Old Vic were stunning. Some of the 1930s stuff dated not so well but most of it seemed fairly contemporary, the acting was a bit theatre but still a great play. I’ve been reading Sole, the hardback collection by David Oprava out on Blackheath. It’s a great one to collect, the hardbacks are limited edition and will sell out quickly.

I also picked up the uncut Salo or 120 Days of Sodom by Pier Paolo Pasolini which was banned everywhere and promises true filth, degradation and violence in this uncut version. Like many films billed as the most disturbing ever made – it might just be total kitsch bollocks. I don’t know why capturing the essence of filth seems to elude so many? One can but live in hope.

Here’s Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson, singing Relator.