Saturday, 4 July 2020

In honour of National Meadows Day!

We have experimented this year with a mini-meadow in our front garden, and it’s giving us - and, I hope, lots of insects - a great deal of pleasure. So, as it’s National Meadow Day, I thought I would share a few pictures!

Monday, 29 June 2020

The Jackson Lamb series, by Mick Herron

There have been positive outcomes of the lockdown brought about by the pandemic, and one of them (if you're a book enthusiast, as I clearly am), has been the amount of material generously put on line by book festivals and other providers. I've seen all sorts of interesting talks which should have taken place at book festivals I would never have gone to (but may well in the future); and I've also seen a few given by eminent authors who belong to the Society of Authors (which is a sort of writers' trade union).

One of these was given by Philip Pullman, writer of Northern Lights and great champion of authors' rights. I've heard him speak a couple of times, the first time in a bookshop in Bath over twenty years ago. He didn't seem to have changed all that much, and was just as interesting to listen to. 

The interview took place over Zoom, with Pullman in his study, telling us about his working habits and about some of the things he keeps around him. At one point he picked up a book, and began to enthuse about its writer, Mick Herron, saying how marvellous he was and how he always looked forward to his next book. I remembered this not long afterwards when I was in search of something - preferably a series - to read, which would take me out of lockdown life and into some other place - I didn't particularly mind which place, so long as the story was gripping and well told. If you've had a wander through this blog, you will know that I like detective/crime series: this is in that neck of the woods, but it concerns spies.

And what a curious bunch of spies they are. They inhabit a crumbling, unsavoury office block in London called Slough House, where every room seems to have an unpleasant stain somewhere - either on the carpet or on the wall - which is what's left over from some kind of incident involving the splettering of bodily fluids. These are failed spies - rejects from the department's more glamorous headquarters in Regent's Park. Sometimes they have been ejected because they've made a spectacular mess-up, like leaving secret files on the tube, sometimes because of a car-crash in their personal life - alcoholism, for instance, or gambling. Sometimes they're there simply because they got in someone else's way - someone, for instance, like Second Desk (sort of second-in-command) Diana Taverner, who is completely ruthless and entirely without any moral sense: or like Peter Judd, a politician with scruffy blonde hair and a bicycle, who hides his - well, yes, ruthlessness and lack of any moral sense - behind the facade of a bumbling would-be comedian.
The expectation is that the slow horses ( a play on Slough House - geddit?) will eventually get fed up of the mindless and pointless admin tasks they are given to do, and resign, thus saving MI5 the expense of a redundacy package or similar payoff. But the slow horses all quietly dream of redeeming themselves, and returning once more to the Park, so they keep on keeping on, despite the mind-numbing boredom and the creeping despair.

The person at the apex of Slough House is Jackson Lamb. Lamb is a relic of the Cold War: he shares the DNA of George Smiley, but also of Warren Clarke's perpetually disgusted detective, Dalziel. He is flatulent and foul-mouthed, cruelly sarcastic - and very funny. He's also very effective. When the point is reached - as it always is - where everything has gone horribly wrong and it looks as if the end is nigh for one or all of his failed spooks, Lamb is suddenly silently there, just in time to provide a solution and prove to the corrupt bosses at MI5 that they underestimate him at their peril.

Of course, if all the slow horses did was to push paper across a desk, the stories would lack a certain something. But somehow or other, they always seem to become involved in a live case: like a group of ragged Don Quixotes, they're always galloping to someone's rescue - and into danger and jeopardy.

I agree absolutely with Philip Pullman, and with all the bodies which have awarded him numerous prizes and awards. Mick Herron is not only a brillant storyteller: he's also a terrific writer. There are echoes of John Le Carre, but also, particularly in certain passages which dwell lovingly on the utter decrepitude and hopelessness of Slough House, of Charles Dickens. And he's also very funny. I particularly cherish a character called Roddy Ho, a computer geek, who has absolutely no clue as to how awful he is as a human being. And Shirley, small, fierce, foul-mouthed, but incredibly brave.

There are six in the series so far. The first is called Slow Horses, and you really should read them in sequence. But just a word of warning; if you're looking for something to make you feel positive about the state of the nation, this series is not it. If, on the other hand, you're after glorious characterisation, twisty plots and sharply ironic writing, you have a treat in store.

PS - The interface where posts are written has just been redesigned - and as a result I've just discovered a whole stack of comments awaiting moderation which I didn't know about. Quite a few were spam, but by no means all. So if you've noticed that your comment hasn't appeared - my apologies! And thanks for comments that went unacknowledged.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Chatting to General de Gaulle

As you will probably have seen on the news, President Macron recently visited London to celebrate the anniversary of Charles de Gaulle's famous broadcast from Britain at the beginning of the Second World War, in which he called on the French to continue to resist the occupying army.

This reminded me of a story told by Phyllis Goddard - a wonderful lady, now in her late nineties, who used to come to the writing group I run in Cheddar until she became too frail to do so. Phyllis has lived for many years in Cheddar, but she's from London, and she wrote many pieces about her memories of her life there before, during, and after the war.

One that had us all on the edges of our seats when she first read it was the story of her encounter with General de Gaulle. It happened like this.

Inside the Royal Empire Society - now the Royal Commonwealth Society

When she left school at sixteen, Phyllis's first job was at the Royal Empire Society in the West End. Phyllis was from the East End, and at first she was awestruck by her new surroundings, but she soon settled in. The R.E.S. was a club where members could come and stay, or just drop in. Visitors, particularly those from abroad, would often use it as a forwarding address for their mail, and to begin with, Phyllis worked in the office where this mail was sorted and forwarded or stored. But after the bombing began, there were staff shortages, and she was often called on to be the duty receptionist.

One evening, she noticed two officers sitting talking. She couldn't quite work out where they were from, as they weren't wearing their caps. But one of them, who was particularly noticeable for his great height, came over to the desk with a query, and she realised from his accent that he was not British.

He got chatting to Phyllis, asking her about her family, how old you had to be to be called up, whether women were also conscripted, and so on. The next evening, she received a note from the hall porter, saying that the two men were not to be charged for their visit: the bill was to be sent to accounts. That was unusual, and she was intrigued.

Later that evening, the two men left, but before they did, the tall one came over to see Phyllis. He thanked her for chatting to him the previous evening - perhaps their conversation had provided him with a brief respite from weightier matters? - and gave her a brown envelope. This is how Phyllis described what happened next.

I opened the envelope and inside was a small card and a very nice cream coloured scarf, edged with the blue, white and red colours of the newly formed Free French organisation. I picked up the card and read the words 'Thank you'. On the reverse side was printed 'General Charles De Gaulle'. I was lost for words!

I wondered if those two officers had sought 'sanctuary' in our lovely building and had been in the War Office during the day making arrangements to move on to where they would be safe to do their war work?

Hitler missed them though. They had left when he dropped two bombs on the R.E.S.

Later, in 1944, a 'flying bomb' destroyed our house, leaving no trace of my Free French scarf, but no bomb could destroy the memory connected with it.

The General, broadcasting his famous speech from London to the French

The whole story, along with several others by Phyllis, was published in the first anthology of work by our writing group, Through The Barn Door. This book was intended for families and friends; it is still available, but at quite a price! (Click here.)

Two more recent anthologies, Just Write, and Encounters With War, are available from Amazon at a VERY reasonable price. Profits from both go to the Cheddar Youth Trust.

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

Blood & Sugar, by Laura Shepherd Robinson

The lockdown ought to be a really good opportunity to catch up on reading. I'm reading a lot, as I always do: but I'm finding it difficult to find books that I can really get into. Friends are saying similar things; many are retreating to books they remember from childhood, because I guess they take us back to a safer, more innocent time, and because, by definition, if they're favourites they're likely to have offered a gripping read. And a gripping read is certainly what I'm after at the moment. I'd also quite like something soothing, something that offers hope for the future. Some people are drawn towards dystopias and other novels about disasters - Camus' The Plague would be an obvious one - so that, I suppose, they can compare the fictional pandemis to the real one. I don't want to do that. I stopped reading dystopias a long time ago; pictures of a destroyed world peopled only by feral gangs have no appeal for me.

And as an aside - I do find it very heartening that in this current extraordinary situation, although there is bad news in plenty, there are also so many stories of people doing kind things, finding imaginative ways to adapt and to help others. That doesn't usual happen in fictional accounts - things usually turn very nasty very quickly.

But back to finding gripping reads. I haven't had an awful lot of luck with this lately, and have been re-reading. I went back yet again to the comfort reading I've written about elsewhere in this blog, Elly Griffiths' series about Dr Ruth Galloway. That kept me going for a while. Then I reached further back, to a novel by Howard Spring, written in 1946, There Is No Armour. There are some throw-away comments which are uncomfortable for a 21st century reader - he was of his time - but he is a skilful story teller, and he writes beautifully - as in many of his books, his subject is families and relationships, how they develop over time: usually set in Cornwall and Manchester, and rather cleverly weaving in important events of the twentieth century.

And then someone on Facebook recommended this book, Blood & Sugar. It's by Laura Shepherd Robinson, and unbelievably, it's her first book. It's set in London, mostly in Deptford, at the end of the 18th century, against the background - well, foreground really - of the slave trade and the abolitionist movement. At the beginning, the body of a man is discovered hanging from a hook on the dockside. He has been horribly tortured and he's been branded.

The man is called Thaddeus Archer. Our hero, Harry Corsham, comes into the story when Archer's sister, Amelia, comes to see him, saying that her brother is missing and appealing to him to find him. Amelia points Harry towards Deptford, and he quickly identifies the body as that of his old friend - and determines that he will find his killer.

Harry is one of those leading characters who has you hiding behind the settee as he repeatedly forces his way into danger, fearlessly asking questions and barging in where he's clearly not wanted. 'Just stop it,' you groan. 'Go home! No - don't go there! Are you crazy?' But he doesn't take any notice. On he goes, putting his livelihood and his (admittedly rather odd) marriage at risk, because he simply will not give up. He's made a promise to his dead friend, and he's determined to keep it: even more so as his enquiries bring him face to face with the horrors of slavery. The author spares us nothing here. She makes us face up to the realities of this hideous trade, through the stories of individuals as well as through the central, appalling event around which the story hinges: and though poignant details, such as the blacksmith who has openly for sale iron slave collars to fit the neck of a four year-old child. It's almost unbearable.

The characters are complex. No-one is quite how they seem when we first meet them. Layer after layer is stripped away from them as we learn what forces have shaped them, so that in the end, we feel, if not sympathy, at least some level of understanding of even the cruellest villains. The historical background is handled with great confidence and expertise. (I've just discovered that the author is the daughter of Tony Robinson, of Blackadder and Time Team fame - so I guess an interest in history is in the blood.)

And the plotting - well, I find plotting hard, so I really admire a facility with it in others. And this book is incredibly tightly plotted. It's very, very clever. I read it on Kindle, but I wish I'd had a proper copy - there were a lot of times when I needed to go back and check what was happening, and that's not easy to do with a Kindle.

It's a powerful, gripping read, and it will certainly take you far away from the lockdown. But I'd advise having a sofa handy. You know, to hide behind.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christy Lefteri

We first meet Nuri and Afra when they are in a reception centre for refugees in England. We learn that Afra was an artist, but now she's blind. We learn that Nuri is haunted by the knowledge that he has killed a man with a bat. He is also haunted by a child called Mohammed, whom no-one but he can see. And we learn that his and Afra's young son, Sami, is dead, but that his mind shies away from thinking of this.

Nuri and Afra are refugees from Aleppo in Syria. As the book slides between past and present, we discover that Nuri was a beekeeper, who worked with his cousin, Mustafa, who was a genius with bees. Mustafa is already in England. He's doing well, thanks to his boundless enthusiasm for bees; he has started up new colonies, and is also teaching other refugees about bee-keeping. He sends encouraging emails to Nuri, he's eager for them to be together again - yet when, after a difficult and dangerous journey, Nuri finally makes it to England, he is curiously reluctant to get in touch with his cousin and tell him that finally, he and Afra have arrived.

In a complex network of flashbacks, we are told what life was like in Alepp before the fighting began. Nuri loved his work with the bees; Afra painted marvellous pictures; their son was a delight to them; they would have Sunday dinner each week with Mustafa and his family. Times were good. But all this changes horribly. Brutal, pointless executions take place every day - in this way, Mustafa's teenaged son Firas is killed, and it is days before they even find his body. Bombs drop indiscriminately: one kills Sami and renders Afra blind. And so they decide to leave. The only way out is with smugglers, via dangerous, massively overcrowded refugee camps. Eventually they make it to England, but it is by no means certain that they will be allowed to stay.

I was given this book for Christmas, but put it aside a couple of times: its subject matter is not easy. But we hear every day of the plight of refugees, and our country, like others, is becoming increasingly hostile to them. We see footage of overcrowded camps, of people in small boats being shot at by soldiers to prevent them from landing, of small bodies lying on a beach. And it feels as if there is nothing we can do, so what is the point of reading about them?

I'm not sure what the practical point is, apart from that maybe, we will be moved by what we read to contribute money to charities working with refugees. But there is a point, of course. Books are a window into other lives. This book shows us very clearly what it is to be driven from your home by an impossible, unbearable situation. It shows us exactly what it is like to live in those camps. It shows us that some people are very bad, but that others are very kind.

Christy Lefteri is herself the daughter of Cypriot refugees, and she has worked as a volunteer at a Unicef supported refugee centre in Athens. She's listened to the stories of many refugees. So she knows what she's talking about.

When Nuri is in England, he finds a bee with deformed wings in the garden of the B&B where he is staying. With the encouragement of another refugee, he begins to care for it. It cannot fly, and he doesn't expect it to survive, but the other man buys small plants which will provide it with food, and Nuri makes up some sugared water for it. Against all the odds, it adapts to its new surroundings - it goes on living, as Nuri and Afra must learn to do, despite all their losses.

It's a wonderful book - Christy Lefteri writes beautifully and handles the flashbacks very skilfully. I hope someone will make a film or a TV serial of it, so that it will reach a wider audience. I hope that our government, and others, will realise that refugees are not just someone else's problem, easy to forget about because they are in a far-off place.

(Apologies that there's no cover image - for some reason I wasn't able to upload one.)

Saturday, 8 February 2020

The Lantern Men, by Elly Griffiths

I first discovered the Dr Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths almost three years ago while on holiday in Norfolk ( I was on the lookout for something to read, and found the first book, The Crossing Places, in the Norfolk Wildlife Trust visitor centre at Cley. (Which, if you've not been there, is a marvellous place, built on a slight rise and looking across the salt marshes to the sea.)

Ruth's beloved salt marshes

The book was about a forensic archaeologist (a specialist in bones, particularly ancient ones) called Ruth Galloway. Ruth is a woman after my own heart - she hates the gym, wouldn't thank you for a spa experience, enjoys her food and drink maybe a little too much, and is interested in the far-distant past. In this first book, she is asked to help in a police investigation; DCI Nelson is investigating some bones which have been found on the salt marsh, and hoping they are the solution to an unsolved case which has haunted him for some years.

Well, sparks fly. The investigation is a page turner, but the heart of the book, and of the intense loyalty which the series inspires in its readers, is the central group of characters and the relationships between them. As well as Ruth and Nelson, there's Nelson's beautiful wife Michelle, his sharp-tongued mother in Blackpool, his sidekicks Judy and Cloughie, my particular favourite Cathbad the Druid - and others besides. Elly Griffiths writes with a dry humour and a keen eye for the complexity of human relationships - and she continues to do so throughout the series of - so far - twelve books. I don't often re-read books, but I've re-read this whole series at last twice. It's just so nice to be in the company of the gang, and to follow all the unfolding drama of the relationships between them. One of the pleasures is that there is drama, but it's so true to life: people muddle through and make mistakes, and things go wrong and sometimes they go right - and that's just how it is.

The drawback is that once you've read the series and gasped at the final cliff-hanger, you then have a whole year to wait for the next installment. A period of mourning ensues, and that's where I am at the moment, because I've just finished the latest one, The Lantern Men. And what a cracker it is. The gang, though some of them have moved away, are all, by means of a cunning plot, drawn back to the Norfolk coast which is the true home of the series, and into a tale of murder, yes, but also of myth and local legend. I'm not going to say any more than that because I wouldn't dream of spoiling the story for you. (My only slight quibble is that I would have liked a little more Cathbad - but then again, what there is of him is pure vintage.) I tried to read it slowly, to make it last, but there it is. I read it in a day. I think it's one of the best of the whole series, and that's very high praise.

Of course, if you're new to the series, you should start at the beginning. You could read The Lantern Men on its own, but you'll want to know the back stories so you'll end up going back to the beginning anyway - so why not do the right thing and start at the beginning? I envy you, I really do. You have not one, but twelve treats in store.

Monday, 3 February 2020

The story of a book cover

In my last post, (sorry - I know it was some time ago!) I wrote about a book fair I attended in Corsham, Wiltshire, with Sharon Tregenza, Jasbinder Bilal, Chris Vick and others. It was good fun - and it gave me some food for thought.

I had a number of books on display. I'm not a particularly prolific author, and I'm a bit of a butterfly - my books are all quite different. I've always seen this as a disadvantage, but on this occasion, it turned out to be be a good thing, because there was something for (almost) everyone: Spook School and two similar funny fantasy stories for younger children; Emily's Surprising Voyage, which is a story set on Brunel's ship the SS Great Britain in the 19th century, beautifully illustrated by James De La Rue; Jack Fortune, which is a middle grade historical novel about a boy who goes plant-hunting in the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century, in search of the elusive blue rhododendron; and Warrior King, which is a novel about Alfred the Great.

They all attracted attention - except for Warrior King. The reason for this was pretty obvious.

The book was originally published by Walker. I loved researching and writing it, and I had high hopes that it would make out of Alfred a hero of the stature of King Arthur - with whom Alfred is often confused. Arthur is, or was then (this was before Bernard Cornwell's books and the subsequent TV series) much more famous than Alfred, and this struck me as particularly unfair as Arthur isn't even real - or at least, the Arthur of the stories isn't.

They designed a beautiful cover for it - this one. It was blue, and had a hunky, brooding warrior on it. The sales team, I was told, were keen to appeal to boys who were interested in Lord of the Rings, and it had that kind of feel to it. I loved it - though I was a little concerned when a bookseller who had hitherto been very supportive of my books expressed concern, asking how could he sell a book with a cover like that to girls? And there was every reason that girls would like it: two thirds of it is seen from the point of view of Aethelflaed, or Fleda as I called her in the book. She had been a great discovery: I needed a child for a point-of-view character when I came to write about grown-up Alfred (the first bit of the book is about his childhood) - and was delighted to find he had a daughter of just the right age - who as an adult became a ruler in her own right of a neighbouring kingdom, Mercia. So she was obviously a girl of character who learned a good deal from her father. And there's also a charismatic British woman called Cerys - and a brave Frankish princess called Judith Martel.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the book didn't sell in zillions and went out of print. I got the rights back, and decided to reissue it through Amazon Createspace. Lots of adults had read it and enjoyed it, so I thought I would try marketing it as a book for a wider audience, not only for children. And so the cover I made for it is sombre and moody: I used a photograph of floods on the Somerset Levels near Athelney, where much of the story takes place. There is a regular trickle of sales, small but satisfying.

But at the book fair, I watched as children's eyes slid over Warrior King and lighted on Jack Fortune - clearly because it was sending out signals that here was a book for grown-ups. Hm, I thought.

So I decided to bring out a new edition that would a) be clearly for children/young people, and b) would make it obvious that it wasn't just about the king, but also about his daughter. I toyed with various ideas as to how to do this; and then I remembered the work of a friend on Instagram called Norlemann, who posts wonderful pictures of Viking re-enactors in Norway. On impulse, I sent him a message to explain what I was after, and ask if he had anything I could use.

Now, I called him a friend just then, but he was only  a friend in the sense that I followed him and often 'liked' his pictures. It turns out he's an art director and professional photographer - and yet he agreed to do a special shoot, with his daughter as Aethelflaed - just because, he said he and his daughter, Minna, believe that historical fiction is valuable and there should be more of it. Such kindness from a stranger! And when the photographs arrived, I thought they were stunning.

The next hurdle was fitting the photograph I eventually chose - with help from friends - into an Amazon template. That wasn't as easy as it could have been. In the end, I used Canva to add title and text to the front cover - and here it is.

It would be lovely to hear your thoughts - but do forgive me if I'm not able to implement them. There are some changes which would be easy to make, but others would be very fiddly and might possibly result in my brain imploding. (Basically, changes to the front cover would be tricky: changes to the rest of it, less so.)

All I need to do now is add the content of the book. But first I will tweak it; and in a prominent place there will be an acknowledgement of the generosity - and skill - of Lasse and Minna. Oh, yes, and then it would be really very nice if it would sell lots of copies to the children for whom I originally wrote it...