Friday, 2 December 2016

New book... hurrah!

It's always a lovely moment when you can actually hold a copy of a new book you've written in your hands - and here's A Time To Live, published by Ransom, which popped through my letter box this week. It's a story for 'reluctant' teenage readers, so naturally, it's short - a mere 5000 words.

It's set in rural France during the war. A young British airman escapes when his plane is shot down, and Sylvie finds him. He's injured, and she's determined to look after him - but her father is very much against doing anything to attract the attention of the German occupying force. He's not a collaborator - he just wants to keep his family safe. So Sylvie knows she must keep the young airman secret; but he's injured, and infection sets in...

I think it must have been so difficult, living in occupied France. To us from a distance, the resistance fighters seem - were - heroic; but at the time, if the resistance blew up a train and as a result you, your friends, your family, were at risk of being shot in reprisal - well, how would you have seen them? It couldn't have been easy, working out where the moral high ground lay and plotting your own path across it. And yet there are lots of documented stories of incredibly brave actions on the part of ordinary people like Sylvie and her brother. I hope I've done justice to them in this story - and I hope it will find readers who'll enjoy it!

There's more about about 'reluctant' teenage readers here.


Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Autumn leaves

A long and rather lovely autumn suddenly hit the buffers a few days ago, and roared off amid howling winds and relentless rain. In Cheddar, where I live, water poured off the Mendip Hills and roared and tumbled down the gorge, bringing with it rocks and mud and causing the road to be closed. The reservoir, which after a dry summer was emptier than I've ever seen it, is filling up rapidly, much to the relief of the water birds.

But a couple of weeks ago, I was staying with my son in his family in Brussels - and I don't think I've ever seen such glorious autumn colour. Near where they live, in the south east of the city, there is a beech forest. It's called the Forest of Soignes, and large as it is, it's just a remnant of a much larger forest which has existed since Roman times. We've walked there often - but what was different this time was that we'd acquired a map, which showed how the different sections join together. My ten year old grandson is, unlike me, a superlative map reader, and so we set off to explore.

The forest is divided by roads, and crossed by paths and drives. It's well-used, and yet very quickly, the sounds of traffic die away and the peace of the forest surrounds you. There are pools to reflect the autumn leaves, and in one particular area, fungi flourished. Here are some pictures.

The map reader!

We also travelled south into the Ardennes, and the colours here, in a town called Bouillon, were even more beautiful.

All through this autumn, as I scuffed through drifts of brilliantly coloured leaves, I kept hearing the words of a half-forgotten song. Finally, yesterday, I tracked it down. It's called Forever Autumn, and it's from Jeff Wayne's musical adaptation of HG Wells' The War of the Worlds. Martians have invaded the earth, and in the resulting turmoil, the narrator has become separated from Carrie, his sweetheart. The song is a lament for her, and for autumn, and for loss. Here are a few lines:

Through autumn's golden leaves, we used to kick our way
You always loved this time of year.
Those fallen leaves lie undisturbed now,
'Cause you're not here...

But of course it's a song, and you need to hear the words with the music. So here you go.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Award for East West Street

Very pleased to hear that East West Street, Philippe Sands' book about the history of genocide and crimes against humanity, has won the 2016 Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction. Very generously, Sands has said he will give his £30,000 prize to a refugee charity.

I wrote about the book here.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

NIGEL: My family and other dogs, by Monty Don

I know that a lot of the people who read this blog are in America - so I'm guessing you probably won't have heard of a gardening presenter and writer we have over here called Monty Don. He heads up a weekly programme called Gardeners' World. It gives topical advice, and there are items about interesting gardens all over Britain, from tiny London plots to gorgeous stately homes: but at the centre is Monty's own garden in rural Herefordshire - Longmeadow.

It's a beautiful garden, divided into various sections. There's the Jewel Garden, full of brilliant colour; there's the Dry Garden, which is dry because it was created on top of a courtyard, there's a vegetable garden; there's a pond and an orchard and a mound created from a pile of spoil, now a vantage point where Monty and co can sit and watch the sunset with a glass of wine. And there's a potting shed, of course.

Monty is the centre of the programme, of course. But over recent years, the true star has turned out to be not Monty, but his dog, Nigel: a charismatic golden retriever who steals every scene. As Monty says:

When we are filming it is uncanny how he will always find just the one position where the combination of sunlight, flowers, the whole composition of the scene - about which he cannot possibly have the slightest notion - all come together to work perfectly around him.

And so now Monty has written a book about him. But it's not just about Nigel. Monty has always had dogs, and here he writes about many of them. As he does so, he tells us quite a bit about his life, and particularly about Longmeadow. But the focus is the dogs, and his relationship with them. It's full of a sort of calm wisdom, and in a completely un-pushy sort of way, he passes on advice about how to live with dogs (and how to deal with the pain when the time comes when you must part with them). He's gentle but unsentimental, amusing and kind. It's a delight to be in his company as you wander through the book, following Nigel as he hunts out tennis balls, swims in flooded fields and flops down close to wherever Monty is working.

If you're interested in gardening and in dogs, this is a book you will thoroughly enjoy. Or it would make a perfect Christmas present for the right person. Reading it is like spending time in that sunshiny garden - without having to do any of the work!

Sunday, 16 October 2016

There is a post elsewhere...

Two posts from me elsewhere today: this one is over on The History Girls, and is about a wonderful visit a few days ago to Athelney (where Alfred undoubtedly burnt the cakes)  - to see this, click here.

The other is a review of The Wolf Wilder, a magical children's book by Katherine Rundell - that's here.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The book I wish I could have written...

(This is a second outing for this post, which first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure yesterday.)

Last Christmas, I was lucky enough to be given a very generous book token, and I've had a very jolly time choosing books that have caught my eye from my local Waterstones, in Wells. One of the first was a book by Marcus Sedgwick, called The Ghosts of Heaven. He's an author I admire, and I think this book was shortlisted for the Carnegie, so it was an easy choice.

However, when it came to the top of the pile and I opened it, ready to plunge into a good story, I found that it was written in verse. To my shame, I decided that this made it 'difficult', and I wanted something at that time that didn't require a lot of effort. So it went back on the pile, and I only picked it up again a few weeks ago.

And it was the strangest experience. Because as soon as I opened it, I saw a drawing - a line which traced a spiral. Why was that strange? Because ever since I can remember, when I've doodled, in lessons or lectures or boring meetings, the spiral is one of my go-to doodles. If you look in any of my notebooks or old exercise books, you'll see it (along with swans, trees, faces, and abstract, cross-hatched scribbles). You have to concentrate hard to do a perfect spiral; it very easily goes astray, because it's difficult to keep the distance between the lines even. So it focuses the mind - though possibly not on what it's supposed to be focused on.

There is a mathematical way to create a spiral, and the spirals which illustrate The Ghosts of Heaven probably used it. You have to use the Fibonacci sequence. This is a mathematical concept - I am terrible at maths, and so I'm not going to try to explain this here; just google it, and you'll get a much better explanation than I can give you. But it's all tied up with proportions and patterns that appear in nature: you see it in a snail shell, an ammonite, the curled up frond of an emerging fern. And it's central to this book.

So that was the first thing. The second thing was that as I read, I realised that the first section of the book is set thousands of years back in pre-history, in the time when our ancestors made beautiful paintings in caves. Now - three years ago, I was in France. About half an hour from Cahors, there is a cave called Pech Merle. It's one of the very few painted caves which the public are still allowed to visit. I was fascinated, of course, by the engravings and paintings of bison, deer, horses, aurochs and so on, with their extraordinary economy of line and clever use of the natural form of the rock face.

But I was truly moved by the hand prints, like this one. They looked so fresh; they could have been made yesterday. It was so easy to imagine someone - probably a woman or a child, because the prints were quite small - placing their hand on the rock, blowing the ochre from a thin pipe to make a negative imprint - then standing back to see this mark that they had made, smiling with pride, telling the others to come and see. They created a vital connection which threw a bridge across 24,000 years.

I kept thinking about those hand prints. I tried to write a story which would incorporate them, but it didn't work, so I abandoned it. Then, recently, I thought of another, very different way I might be able to use them. I'm working on that now, and I'm a little bit hopeful.

But Marcus Sedgewick has done what I tried to do in that first version - and done it triumphantly. He has incorporated spirals, and cave painting, and hand prints: and he's solved a lot of the problems I came across - and solved them so cleverly, so elegantly. Problems such as what kind of language you use to express the thoughts of these early people; what the purpose of the paintings may have been. He's done what I couldn't do. (So it's a good job I'm trying to do something quite different now.)

This isn't a review - there would be a lot more to be said about Marcus's book if it was. But it's about that feeling - when the knowledge uncurls, like the line of a spiral, that someone has already written the book that you really wish you could have written. I've never felt that before. It's the oddest sensation, it really is. Like meeting a doppelganger, a person who, impossibly, looks exactly like yourself. It's unnerving, and just a tiny bit sinister.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

East West Street, by Philippe Sands

The tag line on the cover of this book is:


Now, I have a friend who gets restless when talk turns to the two world wars. ‘Why must people keep re-living the past?’ she wonders. ‘Isn’t it time to let it go?’ And my father, who was a prisoner of war from Dunkirk right the way through to 1945, had a similar attitude. When there were programmes around Remembrance Day, he too would ask: ‘Why must we keep remembering? Why can’t we just forget it all?’

(Dad actually did throw some light on this, when I asked him why it was that a contemporary and good friend of his, in contrast, regularly went to regimental reunions and loved reminiscing about his days in North Africa and then in Italy. ‘Ah,’ said Dad. ‘Well, Harold had a good war. Me, you see, I just had an ordinary war.’)

When I was a child, the Second World War was only a few years in the past. But to me then, it could have been centuries ago. It was gone, over: it belonged to my parents’ generation, not mine – just as the First World War was to do with my grandparents’ generation. To be sure, I thought that when I grew up, there would be probably be another war – that must just be what happened – but being grown-up was a very, very long way off so it wasn’t something I needed to worry about then.
But in recent years I’ve become more and more drawn to books about the Second World War and the lead-up to it, and I’m clearly not alone – there are masses of them, both fiction and non-fiction: what we think we know and understand is being constantly re-evaluated. I think the two big questions that draw me are:
  1. How did ordinary people cope with the terrible things that happened to them – with all the loss and destruction?
  2. In the particular context of the Holocaust - how on earth did human beings find it within themselves to treat other human beings with such unimaginable cruelty?
So when I saw the tag line on the front of East West Street, I thought it would be addressing the second of these questions. Well, it doesn’t - or at least, that's not its main purpose. It sets out to do something much more specific. Philippe Sands is an international lawyer, and what he seeks to do is to explore the origins of these two legal concepts: genocide, and crimes against humanity.

He does this by tracing the lives and careers of two of the prosecutors at Nuremberg, where Nazi war criminals were put on trial after the war: Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin. Another significant figure is Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer and the Governor-General of Nazi-occupied Poland; he was one of the men on trial at Nuremberg in 1946. 

There are several strange twists of fate in this story. One is that both prosecutors – who were far from being friends, and seem in fact to have had as little to do with each other as they could manage – came from the same city, which is now known as Lviv and is in the Ukraine, but has changed hands and names several times: in the war it was known as Lemberg. Further, near the end of the trial, the two men – both Jewish – discovered that most of their family members who had remained in the city were dead; and the man who had given the orders which led to their deaths was Frank.

And yet another twist, another thread that binds together the different elements of the story: the author’s own grandfather, Léon Buchholz, was also born in Lemberg/Lviv, at roughly the same time as the two lawyers. Sands knew little of his family’s history. His interest was aroused when, as a human rights lawyer with expertise in cases of mass killings in far too many places, he was asked to deliver a lecture in Lviv. While there, he saw the chance to find out more about his own family. His researches also led him to explore the origins of these new and terrible concepts which had formed the basis for his own career – and the lives of his grandfather’s two compatriots. (Another intriguing twist is that during his research for this book, Sands became good friends with Frank's son.)

It’s an extraordinarily complex narrative, and I found that there were times when I lost the thread and became confused as to which family I was reading about. But it’s fascinating – if challenging – to try to grasp the legal framework which allowed Germany in the thirties to treat (or mistreat) its minorities in whatever way it liked with apparent impunity; part, after all, of one of those questions I asked at the beginning. It doesn’t explain how sane men from a country with a great culture and civilisation could come up with the hideousness of the Final Solution, or how so many others could find it within themselves to carry it out: but it does go some way to explaining how the circumstances arose which made such a thing possible.

I like stories, and I like to look at history through the lives of ordinary people – that’s why I particularly enjoyed Thomas Harding’s book, The House by the Lake. For me, this book followed too many stories and demanded too much close reading: it’s a truly remarkable achievement, but you’ll need to be able to rise to the challenge and be prepared for some serious concentration (or, if you’re a lightweight like me, to be prepared to skip bits!).