Friday, 25 October 2019


Note - this post first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure.

I had a lovely day last Saturday at a book event in Corsham, Wiltshire, along with several other authors. Corsham is the home of the renowned Bath Spa creative writing department: many in the Scattered Authors' Society are alumni of the MA in Children's Writing, and I think there are several who teach there.

I imagine it's because of the proximity of the department that Corsham seems to be a very writerish sort of a place. It also has the gloss that comes from being one of the settings for Poldark; yes, Ross first set eyes on Demelza in the picturesque streets of this very town!

But part of what the CorshamStoryTown event was about was finding out the stories of people who live there. As I understand it, there were opportunities for people to go along over the weekend and have their stories, memories and anecdotes recorded - it all sounded really interesting. I didn't see much of this side of things, though, as I was in Corsham's rather splendid library along with Sharon Tregenza, Jasbinder Bilal, Chris Vick, Jak Harrison and Julia Seal, at a mini book fair.

I've never taken part in a book fair before, but I certainly would again. It's a very relaxing way to meet and chat to young (and older) readers, and also to meet other authors. I've long been rather envious of the lovely network which you instantly belong to as a graduate of the Bath Spa courses, as Sharon, Jak, Chris and Jas do, so I'm very grateful to Sharon for inviting me along to this event - it was so nice to actually physically meet up with other writers: something which I realised I very rarely do except at the wonderful Scattered Authors' Society gatherings.

Jak, Chris, Sharon, me, Julia and Jas (l-r)

So off I went, armed with a tablecloth, lots of books, twinkly lights (thanks to Sharon for that suggestion!), book stands, and my trusty (but sadly not blue) rhododendron. (Jack Fortune is all about the search for a blue rhododendron in the Himalayas, but I've not so far managed to get hold of a true blue artificial one.) It was jolly nice and somehow quite surprising to see all my books spread out in one place instead of being tucked away in drawers and cupboards: several people commented on how many there were, and as I chatted to young readers, I realised that there's actually quite a nice spread of titles for different age groups. I've often thought it was a drawback that I've written very different books, rather than producing a recognisable 'brand' of similar books aimed at a specific audience, but I began to realise that in some ways, it's no bad thing - there was pretty much something for everyone.

Sharon and I

There were other interesting things too. My most recent book, Jack Fortune, about plant-hunting adventures in the Himalayas, got a lot of interest, but the book I sold most of was Emily's Surprising Voyage, which is set on the SS Great Britain. Naturally so, as many children 'do' the Victorians and Brunel, and, certainly in this area, go to visit the ship in Bristol: the book is now on sale at the ship and doing well, but I do wish that I, and the publisher, had managed to get the message out to schools about it more successfully.

Another was something I realised as I talked to people about Warrior King, my book about Alfred the Great and his fabulous daughter Aethelfled. This book, like Emily, was originally published by Walker. The cover they designed was beautiful, and it featured Alfred (looking rather as if he'd just escaped from Lord of the Rings) standing in front of a marshy landscape.

When it went out of print, I republished it myself. I was quite keen to appeal to adult readers, so I used a moody black and white photograph I had taken of the land around Athelney, where Alfred took refuge from the Vikings and where much of the book is set.

But talking to people about the book, I realised I had to do a lot of explaining about the story - the cover didn't do much of it for me. Neither cover made the point that most of the story is told from Aethelflaed's point of view; and that's important and unfair to her. Nor would girls looking at either cover realise that it's a book about a girl, as well as about a king. So I'm going to see if I can do something about that.


Another comment came from a great children's book enthusiast with whom I've been in touch on social media, but whom I hadn't actually met before. She said she'd had no idea that I'd written so much. (Please note - I do realise that I've written very little compared to many other members of the SAS!) So how did that happen? Or rather, not happen? How come that with all the blog and social media posts I do, I somehow haven't managed to talk much about my books?

All of this, and the conversations with children, made me think. It's very easy, particularly when you are geographically a bit out on a limb, to brood (just ever so slightly) on the prizes you didn't win, the books that didn't get published, the stories that got away. But in so doing, it's easy to lose sight of the virtues of the books that did see the light of day: a bit like my grandma, who spent much of her life brooding over the son she lost in the war, to the detriment of the daughter who lived.

So apologies in advance, because from now on I'm going to start paying a lot more attention to those neglected children...

Huge thanks to Sharon Tregenza in particular for inviting me, and also to the other writers whose company I so enjoyed, and to the extremely hospitable library and Paper Nations staff. (Our event was under the auspices of Paper Nations.) And the next time I go to a fair, I'll remember to take my toy rat. (A reference to Emily, which I think may go down rather well.) You have been warned.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

The Clara Vine series, by Jane Thynne

I first came across the Clara Vine books a couple of years ago. I’ve just re-read them and caught up the newest one, Solitaire - and I think I’ve enjoyed them even more this time round.

The story - because it is one story, albeit with different, wholly engrossing episodes - begins in Berlin in 1933 with the arrival of a young Englishwoman, Clara Vine. A rather unsuccessful actress, she has heard that the film industry in Berlin is expanding, and, as this coincides with a wish to put a distance between herself and an unwanted suitor, she decides to try her luck. 

She comes to the attention of Goebbels, the minister for propaganda who also has responsibility for the film industry. Through him she meets his wife, and through her the wives of the other men at the top of the Nazi Party - a potentially useful situation which is not lost on British intelligence. Clara, in short, becomes a spy  at the heart of the Nazi war machine. 

There’s so much to enjoy in these books. Clara is a fascinating character. Jane Thynne explores the elements of her upbringing and character which have led her to be a good spy: her reserve, her self-sufficiency, her ability to inhabit different personas, to hide behind a mask. She’s a subtle creation: she isn’t an expert in self-defence, she doesn’t get into fights: she survives on her instinct, her intelligence and her quick wits. She’s kind and loyal, and she is in some ways vulnerable. She’s a character you come to care for. 

Each book centres on a mystery of some kind - a murder, a missing person, a plot that has to be uncovered. But all this is set very firmly in the context of Berlin in the years of the Nazi ascendancy. Clara is right at the centre of things, so through her Jane Thynne can tell us how they managed to coerce a whole population to go along with their awful creed: how they convinced the people that they were under threat from enemies within and without, and that the only chance of salvation was to trust in a charismatic leader. It makes chilling reading - more so now than when I first read the books a few years ago. 

The research behind all this is formidable. Jane Thynne is immensely knowledgeable and informative about life in Germany during this period: both the big historical events and the minutiae of everyday life, down to the name of a popular lipstick, the details of the food people ate, the cut of a uniform. She weaves actual incidents - the capture of two spies which almost destroyed the British intelligence operation in Europe, a plot to kidnap the Windsors, Eva Braun’s suicide attempts - into Clara’s story, and does this with such skill that it seems completely likely and natural. 

I think she’s a really excellent writer. I’m astonished that no-one’s made the books into a TV series as yet, and it surprises me that they aren’t far better known. 

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Sightlines, by Kathleen Jamie

A couple of months ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was about to go on a course on nature writing (at Ty Newydd – I wrote about it a few posts back). She chuckled, and said, “Oh, but nature writing’s so boring, isn’t it?”

I was taken aback and lost for words. Now, I would say to her: but what do you even mean by nature writing? How could it be ‘boring’ to read about something which I know she loves, just as I do? How could she not be interested in reading about what gives life to us, and makes our planet apparently unique - and how it is under profound threat?

Or perhaps I’d just give her this book by Kathleen Jamie and say, “Just give this a try. Go on – do.”

Kathleen was one of the tutors on the Ty Newydd course. I had heard of her before, but though I’d given this book to a couple of other people as a present, I hadn’t actually read it myself. I’ve just remedied this, and have found it completely engrossing – and therapeutic. It’s autumn, which is a beautiful season but has at its heart the fading of things – the fading of light, the falling of leaves, the gradual death of flowers. Of course it’s not all bad – there are birds that arrive as well as those that depart, and there are already buds on the bare branches. But still – it’s a season when it’s easy to succumb to a generalised feeling of sadness. And there are one or two things going on in the outside world which are also just a tad worrying.

So there have been mornings when I’ve woken up feeling gloomy. But as soon as I begin to read a chapter of Sightlines, I am taken into another place - and what a relief that is. That is perhaps a cliché: certainly, it’s my stock, easy answer when someone asks me what I like about reading: “A book can take you into another world…” But in this case, it really feels true. The book is a collection of essays. In most of them, Kathleen travels to Scottish islands, though there’s also one where she goes to a Norwegian museum and reflects on whale skeletons (in other essays, she writes about encounters with living whales); another where she decides she needs to see inside the body, not just outside, and examines pathogens under a microscope; another where she recalls an archaeology dig, from which the discovery of the ancient skeleton of a young girl lingers in her mind.

Wherever she goes, she is supremely attentive. She looks, she listens, she tastes, she touches, she thinks, she explores, she reflects. And she does this so effectively that the reader is right there with her, feeling the force of a wind strong enough to knock you over, seeing how gannets glint against a storm cloud, shocked at the speed with which killer whales slice through the water.

But she doesn’t simply describe what she sees. She muses, considers, makes analogies, asks questions. The reader follows not just her physical journeys, but the path her thoughts take. At the back of it all is an awareness of transience. As she says in the book’s final paragraph:
There are myths and fragments which suggest that the sea that we were flying over was once land. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was a forest with trees, but the sea rose and covered it over. The wind and sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing’s beat and it’s gone.

(She is flying in a helicopter as she leaves a remote, storm-swept island, where she had found a dead swan, describing its outstretched wing as a full metre of gleaming quartz-white, a white cascade: the swan’s wing, the wind, the helicopter flight – they all link into a chain of thought.)

Boring? Not remotely.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

St Cuthbert’s Church in Wells

A few years ago when I was feeling rather sad, I happened to go into St Cuthbert’s in Wells to get some Christmas cards. It was November and the weather matched my mood.

I am not a religious person, but being in the church lightened and lifted my mood. It was very marked. I came out feeling - well, it sounds fanciful, but blessed. 

Today I went in again, to see if it would have the same effect. It wasn’t quite as noticeable, but there was something: I felt soothed. It’s not a feeling I’ve had in any other church, though I have had a similar sense on the hill and by the sea. 

Anyway, make of that what you will - while I was there I noticed a couple of things. One was the ceiling, which is extraordinary: I can’t imagine how I failed to see it before. They call it an ‘angel roof’ - for obvious reasons - and it dates from the 15th century. 

The other thing relates to Saint Cuthbert. Apparently no-one really knows what the link is between him and this church - he’s very much a product of the northeast. He is associated with Lindisfarne - a place I’m very fond of - and he’s buried at Durham, where I was at university. During the war, he’s said to have saved the cathedral from destruction during a raid by German bombers, by summoning a mist to cloak the tower and hide it from view. I’ve written a short story about this. 

The only apparent link with Somerset is that he’s said to have appeared in a dream to King Alfred and encouraged him to keep on fighting the pesky Vikings when, to be honest, any sensible person would have given up. And I’ve written a book about Alfred, called Warrior King. 

I don’t suppose any of this means anything at all. But I like the sense of there being links. And I like the feeling that maybe - just maybe - I have Saint Cuthbert in my corner. 

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Girl. Boy. Sea. - by Chris Vick

For quite a while now, I've not read much fiction, either for adults or for children, which has really 'blown my socks off.' (For the attribution of this very useful phrase, please see this post about an enthusiastic guide at the Lascaux Caves.) 

But happily, that's recently changed - I've read several very good novels indeed. I've just finished this one, and it's blown my socks right to the other side of Cheddar Reservoir. It's called Girl. Boy. Sea., and it's about exactly what it says in the title: a girl and a boy adrift in a boat on a wide, wide sea.

Bill is crewing a boat with half a dozen other fourteen to sixteen year-olds - they're getting in shape for the Youth Sail Challenge. They are twelve nautical miles north of the Canaries when they get warning of a nasty squall. The boat is badly damaged; everyone else manages to get into the life raft, but after a series of mishaps, Bill finds himself adrift alone in a small boat, the tender. 

More storms ensue, but gradually subside. Bill has managed to grab some supplies from the boat before it sank, so he has some food and water - enough for a few days. Then he comes across another castaway, a girl clinging to a barrel. She is a Berber, and her name is Aya.

They manage to communicate, in a mixture of French and English. She will say very little about where she is from, what her story is. At the beginning, Bill realises that now he will have to share his meagre supplies - but it is such a relief to have company that he soon forgets about this, and they become close. They drift for days - puzzlingly, there is no sign of anyone searching for Bill, although he is sure that his parents will be determined to find him. They drift on, under a hot sun. Bill works out a way to make a small supply of water through evaporation (he is a very resourceful boy) - and they manage to catch some sea creatures which they eat, raw, because they have to if they want to live.

Eventually Aya begins to tell Bill stories, apparently from the Arabian Nights. Bill is enthralled, just as the Sultan was in the stories, and the stories are entrancing. 

And then, when they are almost at the end of what they can cope with, they spot an island. It's tiny, but it has water and coconut trees. Unfortunately, it also has another inhabitant - one who Aya is not at all pleased to see.

The adventure continues: it would spoil it to explain how. Suffice it to say that the story opens out: it comes to be about some of the harshest realities for people living on our planet. The island (which, we learn later, appears on no chart) may seem like a paradise island compared to the hell of drifting without food or water on an unforgiving ocean, but in truth, it provides no escape from the hell which humans create for each other.

Yet, as Aya explains when she tells the first of her stories, about Pandora's box, there is always hope. And there is love and kindness, in the relationship between Aya and Bill, and as evinced by some of the adult characters who help them. It's a beautiful book. The writing is spare, with short sentences that move the story crisply on: yet it's also, when it needs to be, lyrical. For example, this: 

There was metal sky above us now, and light ahead. It was a race to the light, but we were losing. The storm drew over us like a cloak.

I suppose you would say that this is a book for teenagers. But really, it's for anyone who appreciates excellent writing: if adults don't read books like this, they are missing out. It deals with big themes, but also, viscerally, with the reality of what it would actually be like to be adrift on the ocean. It's elegant, in its lack of any extraneous verbiage. I'm chancing it here, because it's a long time since I read any Hemingway, but perhaps there's a hint of The Old Man And The Sea about it. And perhaps, too, a hint of The Lord of the Flies, though it's ultimately much more uplifting than that. 

And just a word about the cover - I can't find a credit as to who did it, but I think it's completely stunning.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Wilding, by Isabella Tree

Wilding is an extraordinary book. It's horrifying, uplifting, a catalogue of things to despair about, a litany of things to be hopeful about. It changes the way you see the world - even well-known and much-loved landscapes. It's sobering, but also intoxicating.

It's about an ancient estate in Sussex called Knepp Castle. Charlie Burrell, the husband of the writer, Isabella Tree, had taken the estate over from his grandmother in 1987 and immediately set about modernising it: '... he began doing what every modern farmer is supposed to do: rationalise, intensify, diversify, and, if possible, spread fixed costs over a larger area.' The five tenant farms were struggling and ready to give up, so Charlie took them all back and began to amalgamate the dairies, streamline and improve farm buildings, and invest in expensive machinery. What happened next is complicated - but basically, for all sorts of reasons, it didn't work. By 1999 it was clear that the business was not viable: intensive farming, which was supposed to lead to healthy profits, was in fact resulting in huge losses. It couldn't go on.

It just so happened that in 1999, they had invited a tree expert called (appropriately) Ted Green, to come and investigate whether a 550 year-old oak tree could possibly be saved. He was optimistic, and he moved on to examine the other great oaks on the estate. He explained to the Burrells that they too were at risk - and the reason wasn't age: it was ploughing and compaction of soil due to cattle grazing. 

A tree's roots may extend two and a half times the radius of the crown, not far below the surface of the soil, where oxygen is available. But the roots are just the beginning. From the roots there extends a network of mycorrhizae - tiny filaments of fungus which take carbohydrates from the tree, but in return supply it with water and essential nutrients. It's far more complicated than that - but if this huge network is disturbed, the health of the plant, or tree, is affected. It's also affected by insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, all of which are part of the armoury of a modern farmer.

This is just one tiny piece of the jigsaw of reasons that made the Burrells decide to take a radically different approach: they would allow nature to take the lead, and see what happened. They were inspired by a Dutch ecologist, Frans Vera, who had used a similar approach on a reserve in the Netherlands called the Oostvaardersplassen. He believed in minimal intervention, in allowing natural processes to develop. This would, he thought - and actually did - result in a tremendous increase in biodiversity. It began when huge numbers of greylag geese found the marshy land, and consumed the vegetation that would otherwise have clogged up the open water. But to keep the geese coming, they needed grassland. So they introduced old, tough breeds of cattle and horses, similar to the large animals that would once have grazed the land thousands of years ago. And they left them to get on with it.

Well, it's all much more complicated than that. But perhaps you begin to get the idea. At the beginning of the book, Isabella Tree writes about turtle doves. There are now a number of pairs of turtle doves at Knepp - but almost nowhere else in Britain. The decline in numbers of this bird is far greater in the UK than anywhere else. Our population density is actually higher than that of India: there are so many of us that the pressure of any 'spare' bits of land is immense. Here in my own place, Cheddar, over the last forty years small orchards have disappeared, large gardens have been halved, fields are disappearing as we speak - because there are more of us, and we need more houses. So the wild places are disappearing, and with them, the nourishment that turtle doves, and many other species, need. 

Of course it's not all bad. There are success stories, such as the reintroduction of red kites, the increase in otters due to cleaner waterways, and so on. But overall, it's a sad story. 'In 1966, according to the RSPB, there were 40 million more birds in the UK than there are today.' There's a terrible list of declining species, but perhaps an effective indicator of the situation is that in terms of lost biodiversity, the UK is ranked twenty-ninth lowest out of 218 countries.

The book tells the story of how the 'wilding' of Knepp has led to massively increased biodiversity, and to the reappearance of masses of species of flora and fauna which have become rare elsewhere in our crowded country. It's absolutely packed with evidence and information - so much so that it's actually difficult to take it all in at one reading. One thing - it is not anti-farming. Clearly, this approach cannot be put into practice everywhere. But there is an enormous amount to be learned from it, and much that can be applied elsewhere. Even in small ways: I know now that ragwort, far from being the poisonous pest I had believed it to be, is actually an enormously valuable food source for many birds and insects during the autumn months - and is only very rarely damaging to horses and cattle. (Had I actually taken note of the evidence of my own eyes, I would have realised this; there is a great deal of ragwort on our hill, and in thirty five years, I've never once heard of any of the cattle that graze up there being made ill by it.) Towards the end of the book, Isabella Tree discusses how she envisages lots of small patches of wilderness in the UK - but joined up, connected, so that wild life has its own habitat alongside ours, instead of being gradually squeezed to the margins, and then to extinction.

Ragwort on the hill

On the nature-writing course I attended recently, and which I wrote about a couple of posts back, I was surprised to hear one of the tutors, Mark Cocker, say sadly after a walk down to the sea that he had passed fields that were little more than a desert in terms of wild life. But now I know exactly what he means. He talked also about how we, like all other living things, are part of a complex network of systems - like, perhaps, the ancient oaks with their mycorrhizae: everything is interdependent. If we lose a species of dung beetle - it matters. Yet we are losing masses of species, some we may not even have known existed.

We need to know about this stuff - and this book is a very good place to start.

Monday, 2 September 2019

A charm of goldfinches

You might look at this picture and think - why? Nice sky, reservoir in the distance, but otherwise there's nothing much to see - just a big patch of rather dull looking scrub in the foreground.

But this morning, that scrub was full of life. I stood and watched it for a while. It's mainly brambles, buddleia and ragwort - you can just see a golden ragwort flower in the centre, but mostly it's gone to seed.

First I saw the butterflies. Mainly white ones, a few patterned brown ones which I think were probably Painted Ladies - I couldn't get close enough to be sure.

Then I saw a couple of goldfinches. I only had my phone with me, so knew I wasn't going to get a good picture, but tried to raise it very slowly and - up they flew. But not only those two. At least twenty fluttered up into the sky, and off they flew as one, dipping and diving, all together - not golden as they caught the sunlight, but silver. Magical.

I looked again. I saw a small bird, I think on a thistle. It was palest grey, quite difficult to see against the thistledown, with a soot-black head. I'm guessing it was a blackcap, though I'm no expert. Even more slowly than before, I raised the camera.

Too late again. But it didn't matter. The picture shows an absence of birds and butterflies. But they were there. I saw them.

Just before the goldfinches, I had come through a wood where, a couple of weeks ago I saw this flower. This picture really doesn't do it justice. It was more of a ruby red, jewel-like, with the white stamens a sharp contrast. I've never seen it before up on the hill (which is in the Mendip range, so limestone.) I showed the picture to my friend Liz, who is a botanist, and she told me it's called 'codlins and cream', or more prosaically, greater willowherb. It normally grows in great numbers, apparently - in ditches. Isn't it a lovely name? But it's a bit odd, because I can see where the cream comes from, but a codling is apparently a green apple. I think it's quite interesting that the single plant was noteworthy for its beauty - it really stood out in the green of the wood - yet although I'm sure I must have seen it growing in its normal habitat, I've never really seen it before.

I'd intended to take a better picture of it today, but I couldn't see it. I guess the flowers had dropped.