Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Happy Christmas!

Hope you all have a lovely, peaceful Christmas - though I know that for so many people this year, Christmas will be far from peaceful. The world seems a grimmer place than it did last year; let's just hope things get better in 2017.

In the meantime, here's a snowy picture of Cheddar. (It's a cheat: no snow yet this year.)

And I'm sorry there haven't been many reviews lately. Someone put me on to Robin Hobb a few weeks ago; she writes long fantasy novels - lots of them, and they're ADDICTIVE. I'm currently on the third trilogy. It doesn't seem a bad idea these days to take refuge in another world...

Normal service will be resumed in the New Year...

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Coleridge's Cottage at Nether Stowey

A couple of weeks ago, while the weather was still sharp and bright and frosty (as opposed to dim and damp and dismal, as it is now), we went down to Nether Stowey, which nestles at the foot of the Quantocks, not far from the coast of West Somerset. It's a beautiful spot. Close by is Alfoxden, the house where William Wordsworth came to stay in 1797. He came there in part to recuperate after a turbulent few years in which he became inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution (and fell in love with a French girl, Annette Vallon, who had his child), only later to be horrified by its excesses.

A particular reason for choosing this area was that his friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was living in a cottage in Nether Stowey with his wife Sara and their baby, Hartley. They were very close at this time, and were collaborating on a book of poems which they were to call Lyrical Ballads - a book which was to create a colossal shift in the language of poetry, and in the kinds of subjects which inspired it. The two poets wanted to move away from the elegant, mannered artificiality of the Georgian Age, in favour of something they saw as much closer to life and to nature and to a deeper reality, something fresh and new and exciting.
Alfoxden is the white house near the centre of the picture.

Alfoxden is a large white house which looks out towards the sea; Wordsworth was able to afford it because he'd recently been left a generous legacy by a friend. Coleridge's cottage, which has just been restored by the National Trust, is small and must have been very cramped for a family. After its recent refurbishment, it looks charming. But when the Coleridges first rented it, the house was suffering from damp and neglect. Samuel and Sara worked hard to make it more habitable; Sara sewed curtains and I expect they white-washed the walls; regular fires dried it out - and friends, particularly Wordsworth, dropped in regularly. The conversation must have effervesced - it was such an exciting time, with new developments in astronomy, ballooning, exploring and science: a time when there wasn't the division between art and science that there is now, a time when anything seemed possible. These men were close to the centre of it all. So was Dorothy, Wordsworth's sister. But Sara? Well, probably not so much. Sara did not,have an easy time of it. There was a story we were told at the cottage: that one morning, Sara was warming milk for the baby on the fire. She accidentally spilled some of it on Samuel's foot, scalding it so that he was unable to go on the walk he was planning with a couple of friends.

He was disappointed, cross with Sara and very sorry for himself, and he limped off outside to sit under a lime tree and gaze out in the direction his friends had gone. And according to the story, this was the starting place for his poem, The Lime-Tree Bower. It's an eloquent, passionate poem, full of awareness of loss, the passing of time and separation from friends.

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm'd mine eyes to blindness! They, meanwhile,
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness, and wind down, perchance,
To that still roaring dell, of which I told...

But I have to say - I feel sorry for Sara. I mean - he missed a walk with his pals - it wasn't the end of the world! She didn't mean to spill the milk. And if he'd been helping her, instead of sitting around planning his day out with his friends, perhaps she wouldn't have been in such a fluster and it would never have happened. But that was the way it was with them. The marriage wasn't to last.

The Trust has done a brilliant job with the cottage. At the moment, it is decorated as it might have been in Georgian times; there is a Christmas tree, but it's hung with dried slices of orange and (perhaps?) little bunches of cinnamon sticks - not with glass baubles and tinsel. (I had always thought Christmas trees were a Victorian invention, but apparently this is not so: Queen Charlotte is thought to have introduced them, in the 1780s.) There's a scent of cloves and other spices, and wood smoke from the fire. The volunteers are dressed in clothes of the time, and they're knowledgeable and very welcoming; you're encouraged to touch things and try clothes on, to sit down at a desk and write a message with a quill pen dipped in ink - not easy! - to read from the extensive collection of books that line the walls of the reading room.

And that morning, someone sat by the fire in the tiny parlour and read some of the poems that were well-known at the time - including The Night Before Christmas, which was popular then in America. But most memorably, he read an excerpt from Coleridge's own Frost at Midnight. At his feet was a wooden cradle, and he rocked it gently with his foot. The firelight flickered on the walls, and when he began - very beautifully - to read, it was as if we were actually there, with Coleridge himself, in the middle of the night, with nothing stirring except a candle flame and the occasional mouse.

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet's cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.

The parlour. It's much smaller than it looks in this picture.

I did English at Durham, and I remember a good many lectures on the Romantic poets and the significance of Lyrical Ballads. But I think I learned more about Coleridge and Wordsworth and what they were trying to do in one hour in Nether Stowey than I did in many hours in lecture rooms and libraries. A sense of place - such a powerful force, and here so skilfully mediated.

Afterwards, we went down to the coast at East Quantoxhead. The rock formations there are quite extraordinary: I wonder what those late 18th century visitors to Coleridge, intensely curious and observant, made of them?

 A version of this post was first published yesterday, on The History Girls.

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!).

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Summer's end

And what a strange summer it's been here in the UK since the referendum result. Tempers seem to be heightened, everyone's suspicious of everyone else's motives, plots are suspected round every corner... but since the extraordinary round of political back-stabbing and resignations at the end of June, nothing much has happened: there's been a sort of a brooding lull over the summer.

Well, that's all as maybe and there are stirrings in the undergrowth which suggest that the uneasy peace will soon be at an end. But meanwhile, here on the Mendips, the seasons roll on as they always do. The sloes and hawthorn berries seem very abundant this year, and there are lots of blackberries too, though they're a but puny and sour so far. Here are a few pictures - I've played about with a couple of them!

This is a view of the reservoir from Roundhouse Hill. I found this option called 'Posterise' ...
Sloes and blackberries.

Ragwort - it's an ugly name, and it can do ugly things to cattle or horses. But it creates a bright splash of gold in an otherwise tired-looking hillside.
 Old man's beard is apparently also poisonous - though it usually isn't eaten. Plus, it chokes other plants. (Is there a bit of a theme developing here?) But the seed heads are lovely - feathery and graceful, gleaming when they catch the light.

A convolvulus flower. I hate this plant in the garden. The flowers are beautiful, but the plant's another thug. It wasn't a very good picture - it was windy, and I was holding onto the dog with one hand, so there was wobble - so I tried to enhance it. I hoped the finished result had a touch of the Georgia O'Keefe's, but I think I was kidding myself.

 Next time, back to books!

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, by Chris Packham

Chris Packham is on the right
For readers in other countries, Chris Packham is a very popular presenter of programmes about nature in the UK. When my children were young, in the 80s, he fronted The Really Wild Show - with Nicola Davies, amongst others, who's since become a very successful children's author. More recently, he's been presenting Springwatch/Autumnwatch, when all the BBC's outside broadcasting capability decamps to a reserve somewhere and for three weeks, Chris and his co-presenters investigate what's happening in the natural world. The highlights are too many to mention - the horror stories include the revelation that in times of hardship, the strongest owl chicks in a nest will eat their younger siblings. The nation watched and recoiled in shock - but Chris calmly put it into context: in the wild, you do what you have to do to survive. The mother owl had been unable to find enough food for her chicks because of exceptionally wet weather, and it was a case of one chick surviving, or none of them.

He is completely unsentimental, but he waxes lyrical about some pretty strange things - he's very keen on animal droppings, for instance - and will always stand up for creatures that most people revile, such as - off the top of my head - slugs, for instance, pointing out the beautiful complexity of their life cycle. And he's a fearless campaigner; he was arrested in Malta when he went there to publicise the number of songbirds killed there by hunters; and he's under fire at the moment from Sir Ian Botham, among others, for protesting the futility of grouse hunting.

Recently he wrote this memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, which shows very clearly how he came to hold the views he does. A child of the sixties and early seventies, his story echoes that of Billy Casper, in Barry Hines' wonderful book, Kes, about a working class boy who catches and trains a kestrel. Like Billy, Chris as a boy has a profound empathy with the natural world. In Kes there's a bit where Billy describes the sensation of putting his foot into a welly full of tadpoles - the boy Chris does some very similar things: the 'sparkle jar' incident of the title has something in common with that incident.

But this isn't a book 'like' Kes. In fact, it's not a book like any other I've ever read. It is a series of memories, not related chronologically, interspersed with accounts of sessions with a psychiatrist/psychologist whom Chris saw ten or so years ago, when he was suffering from a crippling episode of repression. I don't know how he wrote these - how did he remember everything they talked about? Or is it an approximation of what they said - a way of exploring his inner being, rather than an accurate representation of what was said? Whatever - these sections cast a light on his
memories of his childhood, and vice versa.

The writing is extraordinary, rich and lyrical and full of a 'passionate intensity', to lift from Yeats, who, like Bruce Springsteen and Shakespeare, seems to have a quote for almost every occasion. Here, for example, is his summation of an incident where he came across a cloud of moths in a wood.

Without the restless insects the place seemed stunned, stupefied, shocked by that ballet of gossamer violence, the wonder of plain and simple things drawn together to conjure such beauty, transforming that bubble of urban air into a theatre where an astonishing performance was fleetingly played to an awed audience of one, the memory of which would sparkle for a lifetime. And he knew it then, in that moment of dazed happiness, what a gift, what a thing he had seen, what a treasure he held.

It's not the easiest of reads, but it is immensely rewarding, on several different levels: notably in its minute and loving observation of the natural world - but also in its evocation of the world of a sensitive, driven, bemused boy who finds it much easier to relate to creatures than to human beings.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The growth of a book - from the germ of an idea to 'The Things You Do For Love' - by Rachel Crowther

I'm very pleased to be introducing my very first blog tourist - Rachel Crowther. Rachel's thoughtful and highly enjoyable novel, published by Bonnier Zaffre, is about a woman at a turning point: a highly successful surgeon, Flora Macintyre loses her career and her marriage at the same time, after she retires to nurse her husband through his final illness. The book is about how she - and her two daughters - negotiate the next part of their lives, and in so doing find they must also come to terms with the past. 

I'll be reviewing it soon, but in the meantime, here's Rachel on what inspired her book.

A long time ago (writes Rachel), when I had a small baby, a job as a hospital doctor and a few thousand words of a novel that I’d written on maternity leave, I had the wonderful good fortune of meeting Fay Weldon – an idol, both then and now. To my embarrassment, the journalist friend who took me with her as chauffeur told Fay about the embryonic novel, and among many words of wisdom I’ve treasured from that occasion was her pronouncement that it’s hard to manage more than two out of three things – work, babies and writing – at a time.

Since then, often struggling to manage even one thing properly, I’ve regularly been astonished by quite how much many women juggle – but I’ve also been very much aware of the cost. Guilt, maybe. A belief that they are not good mothers, or good doctors, or good wives or daughters or friends or sisters. Having no time to themselves, to think or read or sleep, let alone write. Marriages that are perhaps complicated by their success, or at least their preoccupation with careers in which they have to fight harder than their male colleagues to succeed.

As the women I’d looked up to and admired in my twenties and thirties approached retirement age, I began to wonder what it would feel like for them to let all the plates they’d been juggling all these years fall to the ground. There was an influential and hugely energetic consultant I’d worked for as a junior doctor who very sadly died on a mountain climbing expedition around the time she was due to retire, and I was haunted by the thought of what she might have done in retirement: whether she’d have had as busy and fulfilling a time after stopping work, or whether she’d have found it hard, having invested so much in her career, to manage her life without it. Then my aunt, a lawyer who had sustained a brilliant career for several decades while her children were growing up, retired early – and almost immediately seemed just as busy again, and in particular blissfully happy to be a granny.

As writers do, I started thinking not just about real-life examples, but ‘what ifs’. What if a woman who’d made it in a truly male-dominated world – surgery, for instance – had done so partly thanks to the support of a husband who had driven a hard bargain in return? What if she found herself retired and widowed at more or less the same time, so that she lost her career and her marriage at the same time? What if she actually gave up work to nurse her faithless husband through his last illness – and why might she do that, pray? What if, after he died, she realised she’d lost sight of her daughters, and that she had no interests, no hobbies, no friends – absolutely nothing to fall back on?

Rachel Crowther
(Photo:Roger Smeeton)
That was the beginning of ‘The Things We Do For Love’. I actually started with a line constructed as a sort of pastiche of the famous opening of Jane Austen’s Emma: Flora Macintyre, retired, widowed and entirely without occupation, had nearly twenty-five years of life expectancy left to her and very little idea what to do with it.

As novels do, ‘The Things We Do For Love’ took a circuitous route from that first germ of an idea to the finished article. For a while it was going to be a pair of novels, one from Flora’s point of view and one from her daughters’, rather like Jane Gardam’s Old Filth novels or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series. At various points there were three daughters rather than two, a literary festival in France with a fully fledged organising committee, a medical crisis in a French hospital – and the shadowy woman Flora meets on a cross-channel ferry in the first chapter reappeared several more times throughout the book. Quite near the end of the editing process, Kitty’s second-string boyfriend was cut, events were reordered, relationships were subtly reshaped.

But the basic premise stayed the same through all this, and it remains the driving force for the novel. What price had Flora paid for her success, and what exactly was the final reckoning she’d been left to face? How was she to rebuild her life when so many things had gone from it? Had she, as she believed, failed as a mother and lost her daughters for good? What had become of the things she’d done for love?

Rachel's website is hereFor more dates on her blog tour, please see below.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Very special places...

I've been fortunate enough to be away from my desk a good deal over the last couple of months. Now I'm back, there are all sorts of things I want to catch up on writing about - but before I do that, I just want to take a little time out to reflect on some of the special places I've been to recently.

I don't mean 'special' simply in the sense of places that are interesting/fascinating/stimulating to visit, because they're beautiful or full of history or whatever. I mean it in the sense of places that soothe you and calm you: and much more than that - that fill you with a sense that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the world is in balance - that 'all manner of thing shall be well', to steal from Julian of Norwich.

The first two places come from a trip to Canada for a family wedding. We flew from Bristol, with a chirpy new Icelandic company called Wow Air, changing planes at Keflavik, the airport for Reykjavik. Coming in to land, we saw low mountains in the distance, scattered with blue lakes and patches of snow: closer to, the landscape was treeless, almost lunar. As we taxied towards the terminal, we saw swathes of blue flowers that looked from a distance like lupins.

We were all set for the stressiness that usually comes with airports - crowds, miles of corridors, inaudible announcements. But Keflavik wasn't like that at all. As we entered the small building, we saw that our departure gate was just on the other side of the corridor. So we had time to wander around. The shop was full of Icelandic woolly jumpers, scarves, and toys; puffins on pottery, tea towels, and cushions; little trolls and a postbox for letters to Christmas elves. On the walls of the airport were lines from Icelandic poems and sagas. I particularly liked this one, from a Viking poem, the Havamal: Better weight then wisdom a traveller cannot carry. It was all rather magical, and a world away from Heathrow or Toronto or even Bristol.

But once we were on the next leg of the flight to Toronto, things got even better. I glanced out of the window, expecting to see the Atlantic - and saw this. It was a breathtaking landscape of jagged mountains, broad glaciers, and snow-filled chasms. It was Greenland, and it was glorious.

A little later on, we were over the ocean - but what an ocean! It was liberally scattered with ice floes, some quite large, many tiny: glittering and ethereal.

The next place with a touch of the numinous (can I say that? Of course I can. It's my blog, and I'll say what I want to!) was a small town in Ontario called Paris. A river runs through it, broad and shallow. I think it might just be the friendliest town I've ever visited. We had breakfast overlooking the river: upstream, long freight trains occasionally trundled over a bridge. Birds stood on rocks, sunning themselves. This was the day before the referendum result, and in the sunlight and the peace, all seemed right with the world. (Ah, those were the days!)

The river a little way out of the town.
Just two more places. One might seem a bit odd. It's St Pancras Station. I was there last Sunday, to meet my grandson, who was coming to stay with us for a week. His train didn't arrive till late afternoon, so I'd taken advantage of my trip up to London to go to a special exhibition at the British Museum, about Sicily. It was very interesting and I'd enjoyed it, but the museum itself and that part of London were very crowded - a bit stressful for a fool used to a quiet hill in Somerset. So when I got to St Pancras, I sat down just opposite the gates from which Oskar and his father would emerge - and a wave of calm swept over me. There's a piano there, and somehow or other there always seems to be someone passing by who can play it, and play it well. So I sat and listened to the music, and watched people strolling past, breaking into smiles as they met friends and relatives - and it was just lovely. I didn't think to take any pictures, but this may suggest the atmosphere.

There is something very special about St Pancras. There's always a whiff of excitement about it, of possibility; you could do through those doors, and up those stairs, and the train that awaits you will take you direct to Europe, with all its variety, beauty and history. (Yes, yes, politics again...) Yet it's not stressful at all - not like Paddington, for instance. I love it.

My final magical place is at the edge of things, where the sea meets the shore. We've been to several different beaches this week with Oskar, in search of perfect castle-building conditions. When the sea sparkles on the water, the waves spill onto the sound and the seabirds cry - well, it's very heaven.
Oskar working on a moat system.

This is at Brean Down, not far from Weston-Super-Mare; the land you can see in the distance is the Welsh coast. (For anyone familiar with my book The Willow Man, I used Brean Down as the setting for the hunt for Ash, in the last chapter.)

Do share any of your special places - well, unless you want to keep them to yourself!

Friday, 22 July 2016

A Library of Lemons, by Jo Cotterill

Now, I have to admit that it's some time since I read A Library of Lemons. As you will have noticed, things have been happening in Britain lately, and like many others, I've suddenly become addicted to news and comment programmes, and to following discussions on Facebook - some of which, I may say, have become very heated: and not just the ones about Brexit and the turmoil in the Labour Party. Somehow, the whole tenor of discourse seems to have become more extreme: people are becoming more angry, less kind. It's all very worrying.

I've also been away a fair bit, and will probably post about some aspects of my travels as time goes on. But for now - A Library of Lemons. This is a VERY GOOD BOOK. I will admit that Jo Cotterill is a friend - when you're a children's writer, you tend to get to know other children's writers. But I wouldn't be writing about it if I didn't think it was good - not just good, in fact, but special.

Special in what way? Well, it's a contemporary story about a girl who loves reading and writing - Calypso. Since her mother died, her father has taken refuge in keeping Calypso - and life - at a distance. He is wrapped up in the book he is writing - about lemons - to the extent that he often forgets about minor details like shopping for food. Calypso follows his example by keeping herself separate from her classmates; anyway, her life is so different from theirs that this isn't such a difficult thing to do.

Then a new girl arrives at school - Mae. She is warm and friendly, and she makes it clear that she wants to be Calypso's friend. She too loves writing: the girls bond, and Calypso finds her reserve melting when she meets Mae's family - particularly her mother, who welcomes Calypso with warmth and generosity.

Well, of course things go wrong. But they don't go wrong in an obvious way. For instance, a well-trodden path would have been for Mae to get bored with Calypso, and become tempted away by other, more popular girls. But what happens is far more subtle than that. Somehow, there's real truth in how Jo writes - she doesn't choose the obvious option. One of the exciting things about reading is that sometimes, you read a sentence or a paragraph and you think: 'Yes! I've felt like that, but I never put it into words - in fact I'd forgotten about it, but now I see that's just how it was'. And this happens over and over again with this book. Pretty much at random, here's an example.

...Mae and I... it feels strange to say 'Mae and I', even in my head... we had a conversation. And then it broke. Did I break it? I don't know. Sometimes the rules of conversation are too hard to work out. It's easier to stay silent, or alone.

'Sometimes the rules of conversation are too hard to work out.' That sort of brings me back to where I started...

PS By a funny sort of coincidence, another friend has written a book about lemons which is probably exactly the book that Calypso's father was trying to write. It's The Land Where Lemons Grow, by Helena Attlee, and it's a lovely book, rich with stories about every kind of citrus fruit you've ever heard of and lots you haven't!

Thursday, 14 July 2016

You really couldn't make it up...

Yesterday, I watched Theresa May making her first speech as Britain's new prime minister. What she said was unexpected: she talked about unity - about bringing people together and healing divisions. It all sounded rather good, and for the first time since the referendum result three weeks ago, I allowed myself to feel a little bit of hope that perhaps there might be just a tiny glimmer of light on the horizon.

And then, an hour or so later, she appointed Boris Johnson as Foreign Minister. Here he is.

And here's a link to some of the reactions to this news.

This is the man who employed his considerable gifts of persuasion to persuade the British people into voting to leave the European Union - in, it would appear, a cynical attempt to further his own career. This is the man who walked away when, against his expectation, he succeeded, and it all started to look a bit too difficult. This is the man who has unforgivably insulted world leaders, including Barack Obama, and who has never run a Government department.

So that's it. I've had it. Life in Britain has become so much stranger - and not in a good way - than fiction, that if a talking animal or boy wizard walked in through the door right now, I wouldn't raise an eyebrow. Back to books it is.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

So that was the result...

... and this is pretty much how I feel about it.

No more words at the moment - but Shakespeare's keep echoing through my mind:

'Lord, what fools these mortals be!'

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

With love to Europe

I have been away quite a bit over the last few weeks, so I haven't posted for a while. And I've been rather preoccupied by the EU referendum; I very firmly believe we should remain in the European Union, and I'm extremely worried as to what will happen if we vote to leave. I have also, like all of us, been very saddened by the killing of the MP Jo Cox.

So I haven't really the heart to post much at the moment, and will just leave you with a few pictures of Vienna, where we were recently. Walking along its beautiful streets, smelling the lime blossom, visiting its wonderful museums and art galleries, I found it difficult to believe that we wouldn't want to be part of a Europe that has such marvels in it.

See you on the other side!

The Karlskirche, with a Henry Moore sculpture in front of it.

Fountain close to the Liberation Monument, which was erected by the Russians, and which the Austrians promised to maintain when they left.

Vienna has so many beautiful fountains. This one is in the Belvedere Gardens, where a gallery houses the most beautiful paintings by Klimt, including 'The Kiss'.

The Stephansdom, in the centre.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

These Shallow Graves - by Jennifer Donnelly

This book has 484 pages; I started it on Friday afternoon and finished it on Saturday morning before breakfast. Yes, I woke up early - but that time-scale should suggest what an excellent read this book is!

It's set in New York in 1890, and it's about seventeen year-old Josephine Montfort. Jo has everything: she's intelligent, and beautiful, and she comes from a prestigious and very wealthy family. She has every chance of making an excellent marriage - but she wants more than that. She wants to be a writer - a journalist.

It seems highly unlikely that she will ever be able to achieve her ambition, and in truth, marriage to her pleasant, handsome cousin sometimes doesn't seem like that bad an idea to her. But then her father is found dead and everything changes; because Jo suspects that there's more to his death than his family are being told.

She enlists the aid of a young reporter called Eddie Gallagher - and quickly finds that she is very attracted to him. Together, they plunge into the New York underworld to seek out the truth. To do this requires great reserves of courage, determination and sneakiness - all of which Jo has in spades.

The novel is brilliantly plotted. It has one of those breathtaking endings where you suddenly see how all sorts of threads have  been expertly woven together, and you feel like cheering. The characters are completely convincing - from Jo and Eddie to Fay, a pickpocket who looks as delicate as a fairy but is as tough as old boots, and the Tailor, a Fagin-like character who runs an army of child thieves.

Like many historical novels with a female central character, the author wants the heroine to have a 21st century sensibility: a desire for equality and independence. This sometimes seems imposed and a little unconvincing, but in this book, this is not the case. The times are changing, and it seems entirely convincing that a character such as Jo would be at the forefront of that.

Published by Hot Key, the book is marketed as being for young adults, but I hope it finds a much wider audience: this somewhat-advanced-in-years adult certainly loved it!

Thursday, 19 May 2016

The House by the Lake, by Thomas Harding

Thomas Harding's grandparents were originally called Hirschowitz, and they were Jews who managed to escape from Hitler's Germany just before escape pretty much ceased to be an option. They were relatively fortunate; most of their family got out too. When they came to England, Erich refused to speak a word of German from that day on. For the rest of their lives, they didn't buy German cars, they didn't go on holiday in Germany, their children did not learn German, and they did not speak of the Germany they had known in the years before the war. Only Elsie, Thomas's grandmother, sometimes spoke of it; and particularly, she would tell him about a wooden house on the shore of a lake just outside Berlin, called the Lake House. It was the summer holiday home of her family, the Alexanders, and she spoke of it with longing. It was, she said, her 'soul place'. But when boundaries all over Europe were drawn after the war, the Lake House found itself in East Germany; the Wall ran across the edge of the lake, separating the house from its lakeside frontage. Even if the family had wanted to go back, it was no longer possible.

But after the wall fell, Elsie decided she was going to go back. In 1993, she took with her six of her grandchildren, including Thomas, then 25. She showed them Berlin, and, a vision in black mink and scarlet lipstick, she took them to the Lake House and introduced herself to a bemused Wolfgang, the current tenant, rather less elegant in workman's overalls and a woolly hat. She assured him she hadn't come to reclaim the house (which of course had been appropriated from her family by the Nazis), and then she looked round, eager to see the old house she remembered, still discernible beneath the changes that had been made in the nearly sixty years since she had left.

Twenty years later, in 2013, Thomas decided he wanted to know more about his family's German past. He decided to go back to the Lake House. By now it was empty and it had deteriorated considerably. But he felt himself drawn to it. Why had it been his grandmother's 'soul place'? What had happened to it in the years after the Alexanders left - who had lived there?

As he sought the answers to these questions by tracing the history of the house, he found that he was also mapping the history of Germany in the twentieth century. In broad terms, most of us will know this history. But the book takes us into the lives of the people who lived it - from the aristocratic Wollank family which originally owned the estate on which the house stood, to the Alexanders who built the house and were then forced to abandon it, to Wilhelm Meisel, who became a tenant in slightly murky circumstances and was in turn affected when the communists took charge, to Ella Fuhrmann who was allowed to live in part of it as a caretaker, to Wolfgang Kuhne, who was allotted space in the house by the authorities and lived there for most of his adult years. Finally, it was abandoned to squatters, until the council stepped in and boarded it up.

The author and the house

It's at this stage that Thomas Harding revisits the house. And as he learns more about it, he becomes convinced that he wants to save it. So really, there are two narratives; the main one concerning the story of the house itself, and the secondary one concerning his mission to rescue it from redevelopment.

It's a fascinating and very readable story. It covers so much: how did Germany sink into the madness of the Nazi era? What was it like at the end of the war, when the Russians advanced? There have been excellent studies of what happened in Berlin, but I haven't read much about what it was like for civilians outside the big cities. How was it to live in the shadow of the wall? What happened if you were asked to become a Stasi informant and you refused? All these questions and far more are covered in the book.

And I'm fascinated by how Harding managed to find out so much, just between 2013 and now - and to convert it into this engrossing narrative, Sure, he had a researcher - but even so! I hope he'll be giving a talk at a festival near me some time soon...

Monday, 9 May 2016

Katy's Pony Summer, by Victoria Eveleigh

A couple of weeks ago, I was facing a choice between what sounded like a compelling - but very dark - new detective series on the TV, and a compelling - but very dark - detective novel on my Kindle. Hm, I thought. Not really feeling very noir just at the moment. What to do...? And then my eye fell on the book which Voctoria Eveleigh, whom I met last year on an authors' get-together, had sent me.  On the cover is a picture of a girl (the eponymous Katy), three Exmoor ponies, and the rolling hills of Exmoor. Just the job!

I thought I would just start it, but in fact I finished it that same evening. It's the most recent in a series - I've also read the previous one - about a girl who loves and looks after horses, particularly Exmoor ponies, and her friends and family. It reminds me of the pony books I used to read as a child, by writers such as Christine Pullein Thompson and Ruby Ferguson but these are up-to-date teenagers, with phones and everything.

It sounds such a lovely life, riding across the moors and having adventures. In this one, Katy agrees to look after a pony who has such a bad injury from a piece of wire that's ensnared its leg that both the vet and Katie's father think it will probably have to be shot. It's hard work - much harder than she anticipates when she agrees to do it, but it's worth it in the end.

There's also another story line about poachers who are after the antlers from red deer - there's a very exciting sequence at the end where Katie and her friend manage to trap them, using their knowledge of the moor to help them.

But I think the main reason I enjoy these books so much now is that Exmoor, where Victoria lives, is almost another character in the book. I'm very fond of it too - we live not far away and we've often visited it over the years. We were there a few weeks ago, and it reminded me what a beautiful and varied landscape it is - if you haven't been there for a holiday, and you can possibly manage it, you really should go. It's not as well known as the other National Parks, but it's so lovely. Reading the book took me back there for a few hours. Here are a few pictures to give you the flavour of it, for those of you who aren't familiar with it - what's particularly special is that the sea is so close, too.

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild

This novel has been on  several prize lists, and I'd noticed that it was set in the art world, which appealed. So I sent off for it, and I'm very glad I did. It's one of those novels that you can lose yourself in, and at 472 pages, it's a gift that keeps on giving...

The title is the name of a picture with an extraordinary past, but which has been lost. At the beginning of the novel Annie McDee finds it in a junk shop, and thinks it will make the perfect birthday present for  Robert, the man she's been seeing. Unfortunately
, the wretched Robert doesn't turn up for the delicious meal Annie has cooked for him; he's let her down, just like all the other men in her life have - but particularly dreadful Desmond, whose loss she especially mourns. But at least it means she gets to keep the picture.

Incidentally, there's an interesting twist to the narration here - because the picture itself takes its turn at telling the story. It's a bit of a tease, though; the tale only unfolds gradually. Meanwhile we learn about all sorts of other people who have been, or are, involved with the picture. I said that Annie finds the picture at the beginning, but actually that's not true. At the beginning, the picture is about to be sold by Earl Beachenden at Monachorum Auction Rooms. It's expected to make gazillions, and incredibly wealthy (and seriously dodgy) people are falling over themselves to buy it. It's all set to rescue the fortunes of the auction house, and in particular, of the earl. But then it all goes horribly wrong when the picture is stolen... And then we go back to Annie, and gradually find out exactly how the picture came to be in the auction room - and where it has been during the lost years.

There are so many things to enjoy about this book. There's a tender love story; there's a whodunnit, and a who's-doing-it; there's a lot of interesting - if rather horrifying - information about the art world; but above all, there's a range of grotesque, charming, and very funny characters.

It's set in a world of wealth and privilege that's almost unimaginable for most of us - but it's a world that the author knows very well, because she is the chair of the board of the National Gallery, and she comes from the Rothschild banking family. Sometimes it shows. Several of the characters are poor, but their poverty doesn't ring true. Earl Beachenden, for instance. Certainly, he's lost his ancestral pile. But he's still the boss of a prestigious auction room and his daughters all go to private school. So it's a bit hard to believe that he has to steal stale bread rolls form buffet lunches so that he'll have something to eat in the evening. And sometimes the dialogue is a little bit clunky.

But that aside, this is a hugely enjoyable book which made me laugh and kept me absolutely gripped. And the ending was the kind where you almost find yourself cheering. Strongly recommended.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Earlier - on a hill near me.

It's clouded over now, and there's a chill in the air - but this morning it was glorious up on the hill. Here are some pictures.

This is Nessie, at the beginning of the walk...

Here are some bluebells in the first bit of woodland we get to. These aren't really bluebell woods; you don't get that intense haze of blue that you see in some woods, so when you do see a patch, it's a very special treat.

When you come out of the woods, you're out in the open, at the top of the hill - this is the best bit, I think, with marvellous views across the reservoir towards the Quantocks. But I took this one further down the hill.

This is the first orchid I've seen this spring.

And here are some cowslips - these have really spread over the last few years.

Really, a very fine walk indeed.