Sunday 19 July 2015

Looking at the Stars, by Jo Cotterill

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a gathering of children's writers in Oxfordshire. It's an annual event, held in a mellow golden stone manor house owned by the Society of Friends - the Quakers. It's a lovely setting, and the conference is always a great opportunity to relax and re-charge the writing batteries in the company of other writers.

This year it was all that, but it was also enormous FUN. There were drama workshops (hand on heart, I have to say my Somerset pie-seller had to be heard to be believed, though even that palled into insignificance beside the panel discussion examining the TV potential of poodles juggling avocados), hilarious (no, really) insights into the financial constraints of publishing, and a wonderful variety of readings from works-in-progress, ranging from the chilling-and-absolutely-spell-binding (Katherine Langrish) to the oh-please-stop-our-sides-are-achingly funny from John Dougherty. And outside the set events, there were of course hundreds of conversations about the ups and downs and twists and turns of the writing world.

Charney Manor

Everyone takes a few of their books and leaves them lying around on windowsills and shelves, and on the last morning, bartering takes place, of the you-can-have-my-book-if-I-can-have-one-of-yours variety. (I always find this a bit tricky, because I want everyone else's books, but never think anyone could really, seriously want one of mine.) Anyway, I came home with a lovely little selection, and the first one I read was Jo Cotterill's Looking at the Stars.

Now, I had heard of this book, and I knew that it was up for a number of awards - it was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the UKLA Award, the Oxfordhire Book Award and the Nottinghamshire Book Award - and probably for others too. But I didn't know what it was about. I did know that in the past Jo has written contemporary, hard-edged fiction for teenagers, and that more recently she'd written a series called Sweethearts for 'tweenagers'; and looking at the cover, which shows the silhouettes of two children holding hands against a background of stars and a sort of mosaic pattern, I imagined that this was going to be a sort of romance with perhaps a touch of magic or fantasy.

But it's not. The story is set in an imaginary country, but it's not a fantasy country. It's a paradigm of all the countries which are governed by a repressive regime, where girls and women are not allowed to speak unless they are spoken to, where certain groups are purposely turned into scapegoats, where death is dealt out at a whim, and where the uncertain and desperately hard life of a refugee seems to offer the only chance of safety.

The main character is Amina. At the beginning of the story, where she is living with her family, in poverty but just about in safety, her inability to conform and her lively imagination are seen as dangerous disadvantages. But when their live are turned upside down, these very qualities are the ones which will save her and those around her. There is a magical moment when she tells her first story in the refugee camp, to try and reach out to a little boy who has been traumatised by things he has seen. One by one, people from neighbouring lean-tos and tents creep closer, drawn by the power of Amina's story-telling. Like Scheherezade, she tells a story each night: news spreads, and while they listen to the stories, the refugees are reminded that other lives are possible, that there may be something beyond the horror.

As Jo says in the notes at the end of the novel, it's 'about hope and human resilience'. But it's also about the power of stories. In a sense I was right, because there is magic in it - just not of the wand-and-wizard variety.

Have you read any good teenage novels lately? It would be great to have some recommendations!

Thursday 2 July 2015

In Tearing Haste - letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor

Last week, I was wondering round my local bookshop, Waterstones in Wells. (There are no independent bookshops within easy reach, and this Waterstones, previously Ottokars, is a very good shop which has always been very supportive. They did a lovely window display when The Willow Man came out, even commissioning a willow sculpture as a centrepiece. For six weeks or so, The Willow Man was their best-selling children's book. Oh, those were the days! And they hosted a book launch there for Warrior King, and that was nice, too.)

Anyway, I was in the mood for a non-fiction book - something not too heavy, something to fit the summer season. Nothing about wars or other horrors - something to escape into. And I saw this: In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte Mosley. The swallows flying across a blue sky with letters in their beaks looked just right, and besides, I used to be practically a neighbour of Deborah Devonshire. Well - we both lived in Derbyshire. Granted, I was brought up in a council house and then a little terraced house in the ex-mining area in the south of the county, whereas she presided over Chatsworth, one of the grandest stately homes in the entire country, set in the glorious Peak District (and I think the model for Pemberley, in Pride and Prejudice) - but still, I'd been round her place, even if she'd never set foot in mine. And I knew she was one of the famous Mitford sisters, of whom one (Diana) married the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley; another (Unity) became obsessed with Hitler, was very close to him for several years, and shot herself in the head when war was declared. Nancy wrote sharp, funny novels, including Love In A Cold Climate, and Jessica (Decca) became a communist, eloped to Spain during the Civil War with her cousin Esmond Romilly and later became an American citizen and a political activist and investigative journalist, associating with Martin Luther King and Maya Angelou. Debo herself married the Duke of Devonshire and transformed Chatsworth into a massively successful concern which attracts huge numbers of visitors and employs a great many people.

So quite an interesting bunch.

Chatsworth House - Debo called it 'the old dump'.

About Patrick Leigh Fermor, I only knew that he was a famous travel writer. I had never read.his books, though I knew we had one or two on the shelves.

Well, In Tearing Haste turned out to be a tremendous treat. They both lived very long lives: Patrick - Paddy - travelled a good deal, and eventually settled in Greece, and so they wrote to keep in touch. (How will this work in the future? Will there be compilations of emails and tweets...?) They moved in some very lofty circles - Debo writes of meeting the Queen Mother at various functions (Debo was fond of nicknames, and for some reason refers to the QM as Cake - Paddy becomes 'Whack'), and she was a good friend of the Prince of Wales. But she knew people in very different circles too: she was a friend of Lucian Freud, the painter - which by all accounts wasn't at all an easy thing to be; she knew Kennedy and Harold Macmillan well, and she had lots of farming friends - she was very knowledgeable about rare breeds and obscure cattle diseases.

Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire

Although they had many friends in common and some of their circles touched, they had very different interests. Paddy, above all, was passionate about writing and was immensely widely read: Debo declared that she loathed reading - she freely admitted that she had never read even any of Paddy's books. But she certainly shared the family talent for writing; her letters are lively, funny and entertaining, with a tremendous zest for life and a complete lack of sentimentality. She must have been about 85 when she wrote this; she was moving out of Chatsworth into a  much smaller house (well, obviously!) in nearby Edensor, and writes to Paddy about the difficulty of sorting out what to take. If I were in that position, I think I'd be feeling mournful about the passing of time and life etc etc - but not Debo:

There are marvellous entertainments called car-boot sales and that's what I need. You can buy a Rembrandt for a few quid in any old field. So why not sell a few?... I MUST go and fill a cardboard box.

Paddy's letters are marvellous. He was an inveterate traveller and adventurer (he swam the Hellespont
when he was 70), and he clearly loved company, even though he chose for his home a remote spot on the coast of Greece. During the war, he worked undercover with the Cretan resistance: in one famous exploit, he and a group of friends kidnapped the German general in command of the island. At one point, he tells Debo, the general was gazing out to sea, quoting thoughtfully from a Latin poet; Paddy picked up the quotation and completed it, and from then on the two men developed a rapport - and many years later, they met again and reminisced about old times.

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Neither Debo nor Paddy ever seems to have wasted time feeling sorry for themselves. Of course, they had huge advantages and, compared to most of us, they led very privileged lives. But they experienced personal tragedies too - inevitably, in such long lives. They don't dwell on these, just write in a very matter-of-fact way about, for instance, the death of a dearly-loved spouse or sister, and then go on to talk about other things. They both seem to have had a great capacity for enthusiasm and joy, and I think this is what makes them such good company.

Am now reading A Time Of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor's account (written thirty or forty years after the fact: how did he do that?) about his journey on foot from London to Constantinople (through, amongst other places, the Germany of the 1930s), begun in the winter when he was 19. As you can imagine, it's fascinating. And there it's been, sitting on our shelves for heaven knows how many years, somehow just ignored until now. So many books, so many treasures.