I want to be Leonard Cohen



I want to be Leonard Cohen & be absurdly beautiful, right through my life, a beauty only added to by ageing.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & write in the mornings on an old typewriter, next to an ashtray in a cold water tenement in New York. Or on paper, in a sunny yard, round the back of a cottage on a Greek Island. In the afternoon, when I was done writing, I would have tasteful affairs.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & always wear incredibly cool suits.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & give off a permanent air of sad-eyed eroticism because I understand the eroticism of sadness, the sadness of eroticism.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & have lovers who are all dark and gypsyish, & our affairs will end with heartbreak but without rancour. We will all of us stay friends. They will be grateful I touched their lives. We will eat casserole together and discuss poetry and wine.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & be possibly religious but in a good and unobtrusive way that upsets no one.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & sing in a voice like caramel coffee and tell people I’m not a singer.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & probably be a really good cook, without making a fuss about it. I would cook for my gypsyish lovers, we’d eat chachouka on a warm Mediterranean night, there’d be laughter and someone would have a guitar.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & absolutely control the words. “The words control me,” I would laugh. I’d shrug and smile in a way that also conveyed shrugging, and some pride.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & be above rock music.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & be brave enough to approach cliche and win.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & to have written many masterpieces.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & move you even with a Casio backing.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & know about Lorca.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & stroll through the market nodding at fishermen and stray cats who all trust me & sense I am like them.

I want to be Leonard Cohen & leave at the right time.




All I could do today

There are some days, as a writer, when the business of making fictions seems a wholly inapt response to real life. You lose a loved one, a relationship ends or, more and more often, you look at the news and you respond with a horrified groan. You know you won’t work today. There’s a whole subgenre of pieces, starting with September the 11th, where an appropriately heavyweight novelist tells us how, for a day or so, the pages went blank, the urge to create was stilled. By the end of the article, of course, they are back at their desk and raring to go. Because what better response to these times of dread and frenzy than the words carefully chosen, the imagination used to enter another mind? I’m sure that tomorrow I’ll think that. Tomorrow, but not today.

Today we woke up to learn that, in the absolute best scenario, America has elected a man with no qualms about pretending to be a racist to win power. A man with the ethics of a pick-up artist and the moral sophistication of an angry cokehead is now the leader of the world’s only superpower. A majority of the American electorate looked at the crudeness of his worldview, his poison broth of fear and hatred, racial hostility and disdain for women, and saw, not just something they could live with, but something they liked. Writing comic literary fiction feels an ill-judged response to this. Any response that isn’t a squeak of fear feels, at this stage, obscene.

Tomorrow I will work myself up to the correct response. Writing fiction, I will argue, is about finding the right voice. Fiction, I’ll persuade myself, is superior to polemic because it allows for doubt, for a multiplicity of voices. Against the droning voice of certainty, of ego, we wave our flags for nuance, for scepticism of absolutes, for the patient exploration of imagined lives. I’ll tell myself this tomorrow and a lot of it will be true. Tomorrow, I’ll get back to it. I’ll bang on about the civilising tendency of literature, as if a dash through Middlemarch could have swung this the other way. Today though, I’ll worry that every writer, at heart, is filled with a Trumpish urge. The urge to cancel out other voices, to exalt ourselves and dominate, to drone above the subdued sound of others.

Donald Trump’s voice. It’s a curious voice, an interesting voice, or would be if it weren’t so frightening. Something happens to Trump’s voice after the first bellicose ramblings, the weaponised jokes. There are moments, as he monologues, when he seems in danger of overhearing himself. Watch him discuss Citizen Kane, say, or notice the childish hankering for a kitschy form of beauty and Trump becomes Tony Soprano, he becomes Caliban, the brutish man who is smart enough to see there is something better, forever out of reach. You can see this in his love of his daughter, a love he lacks the language to describe outside of his rapists’ lingo of tits and ass. At times you can see the pathos of Trump, as he hovers on the verge of an awful self-knowledge. Defeat might have been good for this version of Trump. It would certainly have been good for the rest of us. Victory has closed off Trump’s chance of finding redemption, but I think we can forgive ourselves for not shedding too many tears about that.

It is customary, at this stage, to move to a redemptive conclusion. I could defend the need to keep creating stories and reading them. I wouldn’t be lying- I think this. And tomorrow I’ll believe fully in the need for fiction, for comedy, the need for us to find laughter in these dark times. Those of us who organise will continue to organise, those who have opinions will continue to voice them, those of us who can enliven our little circle of influence will carry on trying to do that. We’ll carry on and we’ll survive, if we can, and the next four years will pass. We’ll write and we’ll read and we’ll listen and we won’t let that droning voice become a monologue. Today though, I’m averse to redemption. We should get drunk now and fuck someone dear to us, we should try and read something beautiful, we should draw cocks on pictures of his orange hateful face and we should try not to do any harm to ourselves. And tomorrow we’ll start again.

My Debut as Pornographer

A few months ago, I met up with the splendid sex maven & woman of letters, Florence Walker, who very kindly asked me to write something for the Erotic Review, a title she then edited. As someone whose aesthetic was formed in the nineteen nineties this prospect pleased me. I associated the journal with the young, glowering Will Self shooting up with Sebastian Horsley, heavily lipsticked debutantes in ironic corsets, spank narratives written by randy Classics professors and a general air of optimistic hedonism, lost to our more sincere and troubled age. I also imagined they’d have pretty cool parties. I’d never really written pornography before but my Eagerly Awaited Debut Novel has the word “lovers” in the title and I have often thought I could easily win a Bad Sex Award, possibly for something I’d written. So here is my attempt at creating powerful stirrings, the success of which depends on you:


How to find a Literary Agent



A few weeks ago, after many years of trying, I managed to find a literary agent. Since then a lot of people, who I’d previously thought of as friends, have asked me for advice and help in finding one themselves. Rather than answer each of these worthless parasites individually, I thought I would put these tips online, in the hope that you can profit from them.

  1. It helps if you are good. I don’t mean you have to be a genius -it probably helps if you are definitely not a genius. But you have to put the hours in. You have to write a lot and read a lot as well. Even in a fairly bad published novel you get a sense of someone who knows what all the words mean and has taken the time to put them in the right order. In my case that meant a thousand words a day minimum, two unpublishable novels in my bedside drawer, and countless ruined relationships and sabotaged careers. Unless you too are prepared to mess up your whole life for this you might want to consider a different job.
  2.  It helps if you have connections. I hate this as much as you do, by the way. In particularly low periods, I would google writers I liked, bitterly anticipating the familiar details of private school and Oxbridge. The literary world can often seem like a narrow elitist clique, not least because it often pretty much is. But connections don’t have to mean that you were eg in the Bullingdon Club. In my case I’ve met or chatted to a lot of writers just by being active on Twitter and talking a lot about books. When I finished my manuscript I asked a few of them to read it, a handful said yes and when I wrote to agents I was able to include quotes from them saying they liked my work (see point one, above). If Twitter appalls you (and you’d have a point) then there are writing groups, classes, chance encounters etc. And if you absolutely have none of these, then contacts aren’t essential. Having contacts will only rarely make up for you not being good and if you are good you will eventually not have to worry about having contacts.
  3. On a similar note, don’t be daunted if literary agents seem drawn from a small section of society and if this section is not your own. The important thing to remember is a) all of  them got into this from a love of books and b) the most important factor of all is usually sales. So if you have a brilliant novel it really won’t matter where you came from (this does matter in terms of time to write, access to education, ability to survive as a writer etc all of which I will discuss in a later post). My advice is try to get over any justified hang-ups about how posh the publishing world is while quietly working to build a socialist utopia in your spare time.
  4. Finish your manuscript first. We’ve all read stories about a photogenic 22 year old given a five book deal on the evidence of one page, one paragraph, a single word etc. This makes the news because it hardly ever happens. And you aren’t a photogenic 22 year old. Are you? No, you aren’t.
  5. Find your agent. Normally this is the point where you get told to buy the Writers and Artists Yearbook but I found this website just as helpful: http://www.litrejections.com/uk-literary-agencies/  It lists most of the current UK literary agencies, with links to their websites and details of how to submit. Rather than submit to the agency as a whole it pays to look at the individual agents. Make sure they seem to like the sort of thing you write. More useful than this however, is to try and pick the youngest one on the team. They’ll be hungry for fresh clients and trying to build a career. If you pick someone at the top of their profession they might well have less time for you. If they already represent Salman Rushdie, they aren’t going to waste time turning you into him.
  6. Write a decent introductory email. This is surprisingly difficult but the best formula is a) Who you are b) What the book is about and c) if you have them, quotes from writers who like your stuff. If you like one of the agent’s writers it doesn’t hurt to mention this either.
  7. Most agent websites will have detailed instructions on how and what to submit – generally your first three chapters and a synopsis. Ignore this and send the introductory email. Some will get back to you politely suggesting you do what it says on the website. Many will ignore you altogether. But some, if your email is good enough, will get back and ask to read the whole manuscript. This is important because it means you can add this sentence to your introductory email…
  8.  “I should warn you that other agents are reading the manuscript in full, but I’d still love the chance of working with you”. If an agent knows other agents are keen, this will encourage them to read the whole thing as well. This is good and will save you writing a synopsis.
  9. You should definitely write a synopsis anyway. Boring, I know.
  10. Be patient. It took 3 months for me to find an agent and there were times I considered quitting. You will get rejected, you will get ignored, you will probably want to give up. And remember an agent is only the first hurdle, you will have this to go through with publishers as well. But if your book is good enough and you have a thick enough skin, eventually you will get there. Maybe. You might get there.Oh well, it’s a worth a go.


Hope this helps, budding writer types. Any questions, stick ’em in the comments.

A Quick Explanation of What I Will be Doing With This Digital Platform

Hello. I am Robert Palk. I am a 35 year old failed writer, only now I have an agent and everything so I might not be a failure after all. Unfortunately failure is very much my main creative inspiration, so if I do find success I will probably lose that, and fail. Which will in turn give me more inspiration. If I reach a state of mild and cult-y success in which I can pay the bills but aren’t exactly AS Byatt, then I shall probably be at peace*

Anyway I shall be posting here, when the mood takes me or I can’t find a publisher for stuff I’ve written but still want you to read it. Mostly about books and stuff but the “and stuff” may cover a lot of ground. My novel, if you were wondering, is called Animal Lovers and is about a man whose wife leaves him to protest about the badger cull. So if you like heartbreak and/or badgers you’ll probably really like that. Keep your eye out. I’m also working on a new one. Maybe I’ll post about writing it and you can feel you’ve been part of my “creative journey”, midwives almost, at the birth of a masterpiece, and you can all rush out and buy it. And you can, of course, reach me through the comments facility which will create an exciting sense of intimacy. Anyway, talk soon.

*This isn’t true. I want to be MASSIVE






Eulogy for a friend



A dear friend of mine passed away this week. A few people who couldn’t be there have asked to see the eulogy, so here it is:


I met him, of all places, at Confirmation Class. I was still high voiced, obedient, trusting in God and my elders. David was different. With a year to go before Secondary School he was already a grown-up, the first adult I’d met who was the same age as myself. He was taller than the rest of us, even leaving aside the explosion, the burning bush, of hair climbing from his head. His voice was an octave deeper than mine. He sat there, listening to the vicars, with a look in his huge eyes that didn’t bother to hide his scorn. “Come on,” the look said, “I haven’t got all day. When are the rest of you going to catch up?”

The next time was Secondary School. Most of us were nervous, suddenly smaller, consigned back to childhood. But David was up and stomping around, gesticulating with enormous ink-covered hands, arguing, explaining. At twelve years old he was already an authority on alternative comedy and the films of Kubrick and Lynch. While we listened to whatever guitar band had shuffled into the charts that week, he would listen to electronic music made by Frenchmen in long coats. He had the shining arrogance of untested talent. He made things, he made art. He was the first person I met who used to write for fun. He made an animated film about our Science teacher – David could be very unforgiving of Science teachers. At an age when most of us were desperate to conform, to turn ourselves into anthologies of popular attributes, he was forever himself. He couldn’t care less about coolness. The category was too small for him. He was defiantly intelligent. He was cleverer than his friends, cleverer than some of his teachers and, being fourteen and combative, he wasn’t shy about saying so. England doesn’t always forgive people who remind us that we’re thick, but as a teenager David got away with it. He was loved for being himself. Girls, who I was far too scared to talk to, would be roaring with laughter after a few seconds in his presence. The world looked set to give him room, budge up and let him flourish.

It doesn’t last, of course. The confidence of a smart fourteen year old would be alarming in an adult. And life finds ways of softening that carapace, losing that layer of skin. I’d see many versions of David in the years after we left school. A trip back from university revealed a Manchester David, the hair cropped and tamed, a ring in one ear, hanging round Canal Street, cheerfully letting go. Just when I’d got used to this new relaxed hedonist, another David joined me at Goldsmiths, a conscientious student in Lennon specs, spending long hours reading impossible books of theory. He would talk about ideas as though he and the ideas were having a fight, and you were never quite sure who would win. But the hardness of youth had gone, replaced by an amused kindness. Some people don’t get toughened up by life, they get softer, they get gentler. They become porous, liable to damage. The look in their eyes turns unguarded.

About ten years ago I was back in Accrington and David told me, half-seriously, that he had recently seen God. Well, I thought, it was you who told me God didn’t exist, I suppose I better listen now you’ve met Him. A woman joined us at our table and calmly announced that she had seen God too. I had been outvoted and I felt a little left out, that he had gone so far ahead of me it was impossible to keep up. He was still full of ideas. He had plans for some huge work on Accrington. He talked about the way the town was designed, the preponderance of churches, the hidden significance in every street. But it was as though the ideas he wrestled with were starting to win the fight. He came back to London and he didn’t have an easy start. Still, he managed to fashion a life. He worked, he studied. I was living with someone then and she took to David immediately, would invite him round to dinner. He was quieter, at this point, less likely to take on a room. He would often retreat into thought. But sometimes if you sat him next to the right person, you could listen in and hear him charming their socks off, doing, one on one, what he used to do to an entire school.

I sometimes felt sad that he would never write that book, never make the films he talked about as a kid. I now think this doesn’t matter. Against a lot of odds, David managed to be decent. He managed to be interesting, he managed to be kind. That’s more than a lot of us do. In the last week, so many friends have contacted me, most of whom only knew David in the last ten years, and the same word has been used of him over and over again- “David was a gent.” To do this, to be a gent when life could so easily have made him otherwise- this was David’s great achievement. He was a brilliant boy who became a good man and may not have known how much he was loved for either.

Over the last few years, I’m sorry to say that I lost touch with David. I assumed he was battling through life, as was I. I assumed there would always be time. I never really told him how much he meant to me. When I heard the news I wrote a few words which I posted on Facebook and which I want to end with now:

It is 1993. I’m sitting in your bedroom in which the bin always needs changing and smells slightly of orange peel. You have a poster on the wall of either Blue Velvet or Jack Nicholson, something like that. Sophisticated. We are talking about how we should get some weed but it is 1993 and weed has not been invented. You are playing me Pink Floyd and I am saying they are shit, because it is 1993. You’ve made a cartoon about Mr Williams and I expect you’ll carry on with that, make films. We start talking about Rik Mayall, who was still alive then, and about the film 2001 and sometimes we even talk about girls, who were still an alien species. It is 1993 and we are smarter than everyone, young, and we know we can do pretty much what we want to, that the world will make a space for us. It is 1993 and nothing bad has ever happened. Rest in peace, David. Rest in peace, old friend.