Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Big Sky and Simon Serailler

When I started this blog, I didn't really mean it to be a series of reviews. I meant it to be a way of keeping track of what I read. A friend, writer Adele Geras, says she keeps a note of everything she reads. When I heard that, I really wished I'd thought of doing it. I read quickly, and I read a lot, and have done ever since I was a child borrowing books from Ilkeston Library; just think, if I'd done that, I'd have books - whole shelves - full of titles by now!

Well, I didn't, and I haven't even managed to keep this blog going. But I've swept the floors and brushed away the cobwebs and I'm going to have a another go. Incidentally, it was very nice to see that I've acquired a few new followers while I've been gone - welcome and thanks to you!

So first, a bit of a catch-up about books I've read and enjoyed in the last month or two. Disclaimer: probably because I read too quickly, I don't generally remember books for all that long. Also, I read quite a few of the following on my Kindle, and it's notoriously difficult to go back and check up on things on a Kindle. So apologies for a possible lack of detail and/or accuracy.

I'm an admirer of Kate Atkinson, and particularly of her Jackson Brodie books. Big Sky is the most recent one - and I got this from the library and have it beside me, so that's a plus.

Brodie is an ex-policeman, now a private investigator. He's not actually very good at his job, though somehow or other, he usually manages to sort things out. As Crystal, the sort-of heroine tells her stepson at one stage: "Claims he's a detective... but he's shit at detecting." Crystal is a great character: the trophy wife of a wealthy businessman with an obsession for keeping things neat, tidy and wholesome - why, you will quite correctly be asking yourself? Her past, and her strength of character, are gradually revealed. She may look like a Barbie doll, but she's a tiger when it comes to defending her young. She's one of a whole array of nuanced, flawed characters: Kate Atkinson gets inside the heads of even the bad ones and, without laying it on with a trowel, lays bare their complexities.

The book is very cleverly constructed: different chapters are related from the point of view of different characters, and it's not at all obvious how they relate to each other or where the story is heading. I can't really say any more because it would spoil it. Just one thing: if anyone has read it/does read it, and understands why it's called Big Sky, would you tell me? I think I must have missed that bit.

Susan Hill is another writer acclaimed for both her 'literary' fiction and for her crime novels - if, indeed there is a distinction, which I don't think there necessarily is. I hadn't read her Simon Serailler novels until recently - thank you, to the friend who recommended them!

Serailler is one of those intelligent, attractive, intuitive police officers who crop up from time to time in crime fiction. He reminds me a bit of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey: like him, Serailler is fatally attractive - fatally, because he is unable to commit himself to anyone, so scatters broken hearts in his wake. He also solves crimes: the small country town where he lives has nearly as many serial killers knocking about as Midsomer. Like Kate Atkinson, Susan Hill is a very good story teller, who likes to get into the heads of all her characters - victims and perpetrators as well as the forces of law and order. She also develops the stories of Simon and his family as the series progresses - particularly his sister, Cat Deerbon, and his very odd father. There did come a point at which I felt there was just too much about the misfortunes of the Serailler family - they really do have a lot of bad luck - and so I've taken a break from the series: in particular there was a storyline involving the father which didn't convince me. But the first few books were very gripping, and I do like the sound of Simon's apartment overlooking the cathedral close. The first in the series is called The Various Haunts of Men.

This really has nothing to do with the books. It's just a big sky, up above Cheddar Gorge.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Signs of autumn

Today is gorgeously sunny, and it's clear that summer is staging a comeback. But still, there are signs of autumn about. Dusk is dropping earlier, and some mornings the air is cool.

Earlier this week when I took Nessie (dog, not monster) for a walk up on the hill, I looked out for concrete signs that autumn is coming, and here they are.

Beech mast. There are masses of these nuts on the ground in the woods, which will clearly make the squirrels, Nessie's sworn enemies (How dare they diappear up into the trees like that? SO unsporting!) very happy. I wondered if it was just that I haven't noticed them in previous years, but recently read in Isabella Tree's book Wilding that there's such a thing as a 'mast year', when you get bumper crops of nuts and suchlike. So maybe that's what this is.

This feather was floating on the surface of a dew pond in the wood - the same one where, a few months ago, thousands of tadpoles gradually turned into tiny frogs, a process that - incredibly - I'd never witnessed before. It's wonderful how you keep learning things. I only found out recently that the reason you don't see many birds about in high summer is that they're hiding away because they're losing their feathers. ( You can imagine the avian protests: "But my dear, I can't possibly go out looking like this!")

Fungi are starting to appear. If anyone knows what this one is, do say: it was out in the open, on top of the Mendips. I've googled images of fungi - who knew there were so many, and such splendid ones? I was particularly taken by a bright purple one called a Violet Pouch. But I haven't managed to find this one.

A bee on a thistle.

The blackberries in the lane opposite our house started to turn black at the beginning of August this year, and they're much larger and juicier than they usually are. I did cut the brambles back earlier in the year - I don't know if that has anything to do with it. Or perhaps it's to do with that mast year thing again.

And finally, something from the garden. This is a large abelia bush. It is covered in these pale lilac flowers, which the bees absolutely love. The newest leaves are a foxy, tawney colour which glows in the sun, and it flowers from August right through till late autumn.

The lavender in the garden is almost over now, but the bees still visit it, seeking out the few little bits of goodness that remain before moving on to the abelia next door.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Ty Newydd

Last week, I was on a writing course in North Wales, at Ty Newydd, not far from Criccieth. People in the writing world will have heard of it; it's the Welsh equivalent of the Arvon writing centres in England, and Moniack Mhor in Scotland. The centres all provide courses with a similar structure on a variety of writing forms - script-writing, memoir, fiction, children's writing and so on. 

Ty Newydd, once the home of Lloyd George, now the Welsh Writing Centre.

At Ty Newydd, you arrive on the Monday in time for dinner and introductions, and leave on Saturday after breakfast. There are two tutors, and often a guest speaker on Wednesday evenings: the mornings are taken up by workshops, the afternoons are free for you to write, to have one-to-one sessions with the tutors or to go for a walk down to the sea or the River Dwyfor. All meals are provided by a cook called Tony, who somehow remains completely calm while delivering a clear and entertaining commentary on what he's doing (everyone helps with clearing up and preparation one evening during the week) and producing amazing food. I was lucky enough to have a spacious room in a newly refurbished cottage; through one window trees shifted restlessly in the wind, while through the other, sheep grazed on the other side of a stone wall.

Workshop session with Mark in the garden...

...and with Kathleen inside.

Horatio Clare - a brilliant speaker - and rather a lot of feet.

The course was on nature writing, and the tutors were Scottish poet and prose writer Kathleen Jamie, and naturalist, broadcaster and writer Mark Cocker. The mid-week speaker was Horatio Clare, journalist, writer and lecturer in creative writing. (I wrote about one of his books in the post before this one.) I've probably missed out some of the things they do: they are all fizzing with talent, energy and enthusiasm for the craft of writing in a variety of different forms, and they were generous with their time, their expertise and their encouragement - Mark, incredibly knowledgeable about nature and passionate about how special and unique this planet of ours is: Kathleen, quiet, intensely focused not only on poetry, but on how writers should react to the current climate emergency. This was not about lyrical descriptions of beautiful views - though that certainly came into it: although everyone really wanted a break from politics, they were inescapable: dark shadows massing around the castle walls.

I write for children, so why, you may ask, was I on a course in nature writing? (To be fair, I think that was something the tutors wondered too, and probably some of the other participants - who were mainly poets, and it seemed to me wonderfully good ones.)

Well, I can only say that when I was browsing through the courses on offer earlier on in the summer, there was something about this one that just sounded right. It was as if a light came on, or a trumpet sounded, or a signpost appeared. I wasn't entirely certain why, but I knew that this was something I really wanted to do.

I do not have a burning desire to become a nature writer - whatever that is - or a poet. I write the occasional poem, when a thought comes to me that won't work any other way, but to be honest, my poems are more like prose that's just been chopped about a bit. But place is very important to me. My books have often been inspired and I think enriched by the landscapes in which they are set. The Willow Man is set in Bridgwater, but suffused by the atmosphere of the nearby Somerset levels; and a climactic scene takes place on - and was shaped by - Brean Down, the spur of the Mendips which juts out into the chocolatey waters of the Bristol Channel. Warrior King, about Alfred the Great, had for its birthplace Athelney, also on the levels, once the island surrounded by marshes where Alfred took shelter from the Danes - and not so very different now, over a thousand years later. I visited the places where Alfred fought - near Wayland's Smithy in Oxfordshire and above Eddington, which used to be Ethandun, in Wiltshire. In all these places, it was so easy to imagine the events that took place there so long ago: they all had in common a powerful sense of the distant past - and of something very close to magic, which also found its way into the book.

And so on. 

The river. Now how, exactly, do you convey in words what you see here?

The sea, looking towards Criccieth.

But there was something else, too. It's always good to hone your craft, whatever that craft is. And listening to the poets and the tutors focusing closely on language, on finding exactly the right word or image, was really humbling. If you get a group of children's writers together, the discussion will be fascinating. But I think it's fair to say that it will in general centre on story, voice and character, rather than on the nuts and bolts of language. Please note: I am NOT AT ALL saying that children's writers are not good writers or stylists - just that they tend to have different priorities. If you're writing for children, you need to make them want to turn the page: too much description will make them scowl, though you certainly need enough to set the scene, to create the world.

Anyway, from the exercises we did, and the way the poets and non-fiction writers talked about their craft, I gradually realised that I have sometimes been coasting: that sometimes I reach for the easy word instead of the right word, even - horrors! - for a seductively available cliché. (Though, resistant to the last, I would still tentatively suggest that sometimes the first thought and the easy word is the right one.)

It became obvious during the week and particularly during my tutorial with Mark that even when I was trying specifically to write about nature, a story or a character would come pushing its way through. Accepting this, and following up on a suggestion of Mark's, I wrote the beginning of a new story. In fact it almost wrote itself, and it's such a joy when that happens.

Hydrangeas in the garden. You can see a tiny bit of sea, if you look very hard!

On top of all that, I had the pleasure of being in a very special place with a very interesting group of writers. 
The garden was filled with bees humming among the lavender, and it was a twenty minute walk down to the sea, or a ten minute walk down to the River Dwyfor. The team who run the centre are efficient, friendly and welcoming.

Just one word of warning. If you decide to go, and the course of your choice happens to be in the summer holidays, be wary of choosing the rail line that hugs the coast and ends up at Criccieth. I did this, but when I changed at Shrewsbury and the Transport for Wales train arrived, it had only two coaches instead of the four it should have had, and people who took the train regularly said that that this kind of thing often happens. It wasn't good. In the end we switched to coaches, but there wasn't enough room for everyone. 

On the other hand, coming back was fine, and the views are lovely. But I'd think twice, if you're travelling in August, and go to Bangor instead.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

The Light in the Dark, A Winter Journal - by Horatio Clare

I've read other books by Horatio Clare. Some are about nature and about the people and places he meets on his travels: Orison for a Curlew, for instance, is about his search for the slender-billed curlew, which is thought to have become extinct - a search which took him through bits of Europe which tourists mostly don't visit. Icebreaker is - fairly obviously - about a voyage on an icebreaker. But both of these are about the people as much as the journey: he is clearly very interested in and intrigued by people, and he's a generous, sympathetic observer.

He's also written three books for children - I wrote about the first of these, Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot, here. I thought it was enchanting: full of magic but with a very serious side to it. It's about a father who suffers from depression, and how his small son copes with this and helps his dad to fight against it. It deals with the subject in the most imaginative way, so that although the story is about depression, it's not the least bit depressing itself. On the contrary, it's an adventure, full of energy and delight,with Aubrey, lively, brave and sensitive, as its invincible hero.

The Light in the Dark covers some of the same ground - though in a very different way - and allows us to meet Aubrey again. For Aubrey is Horatio's son, and Horatio does indeed suffer from depression. This book is about the winter of 2017-18. Horatio's depression is linked to the seasons, and is worse in the winter (towards the end of the book, it's diagnosed as cyclothymia, a milder version of bi-polar disorder, which is exacerbated by the seasons). The book charts his struggle to master it, or at least to prevent it from impacting too much on his family, whom he clearly loves very dearly. But it is also about winter itself, and particularly about a northern, countryside winter: this was the winter of the Beast From The East: a dramatic, snowy winter, not the kind that kills you with dampness.

Published by Elliott and Thompson, this is a very beautifully produced book. My copy is a hardback, with a slip cover by Dan Mogford, which shows snowy hills against a sky shading from navy to lapis to turquoise. It is framed by the black silhouettes of bare trees, and sprinkled with stars which, magically, change from gold to silver according to the angle at which you hold the book. It's in diary format, but is divided into sections by tiny drawings of snowflakes.

It's an account of this winter, but of other times too: of Horatio's childhood on a sheep farm in Wales, of his meeting his partner, Rebecca, and a magical Christmas in Venice; of journeys he's taken and people he's met. Although he writes honestly about his depression, it is not a depressing book. On the contrary, it is affirming of life, of love, of nature. The language is rich, pictorial, precise: for example - There have been ominous sunsets like spilled fire under brooding cloud, and in daylight the bare trees reveal the country and its creatures in a clarity the other seasons deny. (There is a lovely balance and rhythm to that sentence.)

And about what the depression does to him: ...somehow I must not let the worry make me a terrible father and a ghastly person to live with. I will fail at this - I am failing at this, I know. The negative, like an egg hatching, produces a kind of dark thing which sits in my mouth, spitting out gloom whenever it can. I try not to speak.

But then on the other hand there's Aubrey, and joy: Up into the wood we went, Aubrey poking the runnels, delighted by trapped air bubbles and white-starred ice. He was tremendous this half-term morning, climbing rocks, telling stories about sea-planes and snow troopers, whipping through his letters...

The book is a treat: each word is to be savoured. And I hesitate to say it, because I know it's a bit early, and you don't need my advice anyway - but it would be a perfect Christmas present!