Friday, 18 December 2020

Winter Trees

 Since my writing group went online, I've mostly done the weekly tasks I've set them - and it's been fun and quite liberating trying out different things. Most recently, I set them to write a poem about winter. (You can see the task here.) My poem was very generously and kindly received - so here, very trepidatiously, because I know I'm not a poet, it is. 

Winter Trees

They look dead, don’t they?

Beautiful, but dead. That incredibly complex

Network of branches, held aloft against a thrush-egg sky:

An exquisite grey etching, done by the cleverest artist

With the finest pen. But of course,

They are not dead: only resting,

Preparing for spring. It’s all happening

Inside those enigmatic trunks and branches,

Powered by invisible roots and fungal filaments.

All they need from us

Is to be left alone.


Their backdrop is the sky.

Sometimes dull grey cloud, perhaps

With a tinge of sulphurous yellow,

A warning of storms ahead. But sometimes –

Ah, sometimes!

They trace their intricate patterns

Against a sky of perfect blue,

Which has a softness summer skies

Can’t match: the chalky blue of

Ancient frescoes. And then too –

That jewel-like blue, that you get

Just before sunset, when in a last splendid gesture,

The sun throws gold at the trees

And they flaunt their splendour

With all the brilliance

Of a mediaeval manuscript.


And then again – not often,

But all the more precious for that:

Silvered by frost, they glitter

With icy magic. Or snow falls,

To highlight each stark line,

While below, new shapes appear:

Softly sculpted drifts,

The delicate tracery of birds’ footprints.

And there is

A silence, as the world holds its breath,

Before we arrive, with our sledges and boots,

Our shouts and our litter.

🅲 Sue Purkiss

Friday, 30 October 2020

A Claxton Diary, by Mark Cocker

 If there's one thing that the lockdown reminded many of us, it's that nature is immensely important to us. For reasons that should be obvious, but also because a close relationship with nature soothes us, calms us - heals us.

I'm not suggesting you should use this book as a substitute for a walk in the woods or a spell in the garden - but it can reinforce the real thing by providing you with a regular, beautifully crafted little dose of the natural world by a writer who has observed it closely and intently for many years. To quote the book cover:

"For seventeen years as part of his daily routine the author and naturalist Mark Cocker has taken a two-mile walk to the river from his cottage on the edge of the Norfolk Broads National Park. Over the course of those 10,000 daily paces he has learnt the art of patience to observe a butterfly, bird, flower, bee deer, otter or fly and to take pleasure in all the other inhabitants of his parish no matter how seemingly insignificant."

This book contains a collection of these observations - mostly but not exclusively from Norfolk - in the form of a diary which takes us through a year's seasons. The author observes meticulously, and describes with exactitude - but he also has a huge amount of background knowledge with which to contextualise his observations.

A particular favourite of mine is the entry for 18th September 2014, and it will serve as an example. It's about swallows. He begins with a single swallow, perched on a wire. "It looks cute, but that enamel-blue bird is made of something tougher than steel. Very soon it will follow its instincts south over the English Channel, down through France and Spain and across the Straits of Gibralter. In a single non-stop odyssey it will then traverse the greatest desert on Earth."

He goes on to discuss the swallow's migratory journey in more detail, and to reflect on its symbolic resonance - the significance of its blue colour, and what that stands for in various contexts; the reason why Estonia recently chose the swallow as a national emblem; what its changing distribution tells us about climate change. But he ends with this: "We should cherish swallows for what they gift to us and for what they tell us about ourselves."

So what does this book gift to us? Well, it provides us with a few minutes of peace and focus on the natural world, in a day which at the moment is likely to feature too much dark news, too much to worry about and to fear. It shows us - or reminds us - how to look, and how each part of nature - including ourselves - is inextricably entwined in a vast and extraordinary whole.

It teaches us, perhaps, the value of stillness.

Saturday, 24 October 2020

The Wild Silence, by Raynor Winn

 This book is a sequel to The Salt Path, which I reviewed here. That was the story of how Raynor Winn and her husband Moth, in their fifties, lost everything after a dispute with someone who had been a lifelong friend over investments: they had to walk out of their beloved Welsh farmhouse with virtually nothing. On top of that, Moth was diagnosed with a cruel terminal disease, corticobasal degeneration, or CBD; he had about two years, they were told.

There are many things that emerge from The Salt Path and its successor, The Wild Silence. But one of the main elements is the rock-solid relationship between Raynor and Moth. So when they found themselves in this terrible situation, the one thing Raynor was not going to do was to simply accept the diagnosis and the doctor's advice - which was to avoid all strain and rest as much as possible.

Another element - which is explored even more thoroughly in this second book - is Raynor's profound connection with the land, with nature. Brought up on a farm, shy with other people, nature is her solace and her inspiration. So perhaps it wasn't surprising that she should turn to nature for relief. She suggested that, against all the dictates of caution and common sense, they should take to the wild and walk the South-West Coastal Path - despite the fact that Moth could hardly walk and would have trouble carrying a pack. (In any case, they had so little money to buy food or any other necessities that their packs must have been relatively - but only relatively - light.)

And it worked. They had an extraordinary journey, which resulted not in a miracle cure, but certainly in an improvement in Moth's condition. And at the end of it, a stranger offered them a refuge - a flat in Polruan, where they could live while Moth did a degree in sustainable agriculture, which he hoped would then bring him emploment.

This is where the second book picks up the story.

Often, a sequel is a rather paler version of the book it follows. That is not the case here. It seems to me that Raynor has gained confidence in her writing - not surprisingly, considering the huge success of The Salt Path. She writes absolutely beautifully in this book, and very effectively investigates subtle and complex ideas and emotions - as well, of course, as providing rich and evocative descriptions of nature.

The structure of the book is complex. She is exploring different aspects and periods of her life simultaneously; in the first section she is taking care of her mother, who has been taken to hospital following a stroke. Alongside this we find that she and Moth are still, three years later, in Polruan, and that Moth, despite increasing weakness, is nearing completion of his degree - whereas Raynor has become increasingly reclusive and anxious about meeting people. She has to make a terrible decision about her mother's care, and, staying in her mother's cottage, memories come back to her of her childhood. We begin to see that her current state is rooted in the past, and we find out how she met Moth, and how their relationship developed.

Later, she describes how the writing of The Salt Path came about. In the beginning, she knows nothing about publishing and has no expectations of success - she is writing about their extraordinary journey in order to capture it for Moth, who, to her dismay, is losing his memories of it. But of course it does become a success, and this leads to a new phase of their lives, when a wealthy businessman asks the two of them to take care of a farm he has bought, which is exhausted from intensive farming and almost devoid of wildlife. He wants them to bring it back to life, to re-nature it. At first, they are doubtful: the house is a damp and crumbling wreck, the farm will take a lot of work to enable the land to recover. But, never able to resist a challenge, they take it on.

In the last section of the book, they decide to undertake another ambitious walk: Moth is getting weaker, and they are convinced that what he needs, as before, is to literally and metaphorically stretch himself.

So they go to Iceland, with their friends Dave and Julie, whom they met on their first walk. They only have two weeks, which unfortunately fall at the end of the Icelandic summer and at the beginning of its fierce winter. Crazy? Well, perhaps - but when did that ever stop them?

Here is an example of Raynor's writing. She is describing the process of writing, of reliving, the coastal walk.

I stood in the dim evening light, faced the wall and spread my arms wide and the rain came stinging on gale-force winds, pounding my face, battering the rucksack. Winds roaring through granite-block cliffs, hurling crows through wild grey skies.

Here's another:

The soft rain became vertical rods of connection between land and sky, drops bouncing from the river with the force of a pebble, leaving ripples expanding and reflecting.


Thursday, 8 October 2020

Mr Keynes' Revolution, by E J Barnes

I have just finished reading this book, which is a novel about the influential economist  J Maynard Keynes. I thoroughly enjoyed it and am only sorry it came to an end when it did - I gather there will be a sequel, and I'll certainly be buying that. 

Keynes was a member of the Bloomsbury Group - Virginia Woolf, her sister Vanessa Bell, Bunny Garnett, Duncan Grant and co. Known for their interesting private lives as well as for their writing and painting, they have often been the subject of films and TV programmes. Keynes was a central figure - and financially a godsend to the others, but he is a fairly shadowy figure in accounts of the group. This is surprising when, as this book does, you look at his life. He was a hugely influential economist, but he too had a colourful private life. He was happily gay until, all of a sudden, he watched a Russian ballerina dancing across the stage as the Lilac Fairy - and suddenly, he was not. Despite practical obstacles (Lydia turned out to be already married, although, fortunately, to a bigamist) and the opposition of some of his friends, he married her - and the marriage, on the evidence of this book, looks like being a happy one.

I don't know anything about economics, but the author doesn't shy away from the subject, and clearly explains the issues with which Keynes grappled. (In her note at the end of the book, she reveals that she studied economics at Cambridge, so that's perhaps not surprising.) But she also makes him come alive as a man, revealing his intelligence, his directness, his loyalty to his friends, and his charisma. Lydia, too is brought to life: practical, down-to-earth, warm, funny. There are a whole array of other characters who also tread the boards, and I look forward to meeting them again in the next volume.

Recommended for people who, like myself, enjoy Jane Thynne's books, which are set in the next decade in Germany - and for anyone with an interest in the Bloomsbury Group, in economics, or generally in that period between the wars which, with hindsight, seems full of doomed gaiety.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell

 It was announced that Hamnet had won the Women's Prize for Fiction just after I had finished reading it. I haven't read any of the other books on the shortlist, but nonetheless, I'm sure that it's an absolutely worthy winner - it's a marvellous book.

I actually bought the book a month or so ago, but it took a while before I could bring myself to read it. Why so? Well, Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play by quite a margin. I taught it for A-level many times, and I've seen several productions, so I know it well. (The best was with Kenneth Branagh as the prince many years ago at Stratford; he managed to speak the verse as if it was the natural language of speech, while at the same time losing none of the poetry - quite brilliant.) There are many lines in it that I love, but there's something about the overall tone of it that really moves me: elegiac, desperately sad.

When I was teaching Shakespeare, I had some notes that I'd written about Shakespeare's life and times which I used to give out as an introduction: it seemed to me that students needed to know where Shakespeare was coming from - literally and metaphorically - in order to be able to understand the verse. So I knew about his life: I knew about Hamnet, his son. 

Then, a few years ago, I was asked to write a book about his life and times for schoolchildren, so I read up on it again. I was amazed at how few actual facts are known about him - even the generally accepted dates given for his life and death are, to an extent, guesswork. But the death of his son at the age of eleven is known, though not the cause of his death. And I noticed, as who could not, that his death was followed not long afterwards by the play with the very similar name; spelling was notoriously a matter of choice, and the similarity was too close to be missed - though the play is based on an old story of a Danish prince with a similar name again, Amleth.

So - I knew that Hamnet was going to be about the death of Shakespeare's son. I knew it was going to hurt, and it does. But the way that Maggie O'Farrell tells the story is really so clever, and so beautifully done, that it's worth the pain of reading about the death of a child.

At the centre, it's about the strange marriage of Shakespeare and his wife, normally known to us as Anne Hathaway, though here called Agnes - perhaps to make us see her afresh. Again, little is known about Anne or about their marriage: mainly that she was several years older than him; that they spent much of their married life apart, he in London and she in Stratford; that they had three children, Susannah and the twins, Hamnet and Judith; and that in his will he left her his 'second-best bed', which has occasioned some discussion.

So Maggie O'Farrell has a lot of leeway. She uses it to create in Agnes a rich, complex character: an unusual woman with a knowledge of medicinal herbs and a mysterious ability to see the future. She and Will - who is never actually named in the book - are very much in love. But she knows, though it hurts her deeply, that his destiny is in London, not in Stratford.

We meet Hamnet straight away. Initially, it is his sister, Judith, who is ill. But with our foreknowledge, we can see that what ails her is the plague, and we know that Hamnet is the one who dies - so even as we warm to this kind and gentle boy, we know that he doesn't have long left. He searches for someone to help his sister, but can't find his mother - the only person around is his abusive grandfather.

The focus then switches to Agnes, who is out gathering herbs. We learn through flashbacks the story of her relationship with Will, touching down from time to time with Hamnet and Judith back in Stratford. It's heartbreaking and rivetting. When Hamnet dies, and Will returns, she cannot believe it when he tells her he will return almost straight away to London: she is understandably furious with him. The way that Maggie O'Farrell resolves this, through the medium of the play, Hamlet, is a quite extraordinary piece of writing.

I'll read this book again. It is quite beautiful.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

CUTTING FOR STONE - Abraham Verghese

First of all, an apology: I read this book some weeks ago. I always intend my thoughts down straight away, but what usually happens is that I pick up the next book - and the next - and get involved in that, and so it goes. Then, by the time I get round to a review, I've forgotten the details and can only do a broad-brush review. Still, on we go!

This book is set in Ethiopia. It's big - 533 pages - and it's big also in ambition and sweep. At the centre of it is a family story. In the year 1954, twin boys, Marion and Shiva, are born to a Carmelite nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, in the hospital where she is a nurse, in Addis Ababa. It is a highly unusual birth: firstly, because she is a nun; secondly, because no-one had realised she was pregnant; thirdly, because the father, a brilliant surgeon named Thomas Stone, had absolutely no idea that he had even slept with Sister Mary. He loves her, but he doesn't realise it till he realises he is about to lose her - she doesn't survive the birth. Distraught, he disappears, so the twins are affectively orphans.

However, they are brought up by loving stand-in parents: Hema and Ghosh, both doctors at the hospital. Characterisation is one of the many strong points of the novel: there's a whole cavalcade of beautifully realised characters, eccentric, strong-willed, generous, funny - and these two head the procession.

Not unnaturally, living at a hospital and born of two medical people, the twins also become devoted to medecine. Marion narrates the book, and is a very different character from his brother, who has something other-worldly and mystical about him: Marion is hard-working and practical - though he too has his dreams.

Underlying the family story, though, there are two other preoccupations. One is medecine. Born and brought up in Ethiopia of Indian parents, Abraham Verghese is an eminent American physician, and he writes at considerable length in this book about surgical procedures and new ideas in treatments. I must admit I skimmed some of these - but he writes beautifully about them, and I am lost in admiration for someone who can at the same time have eminent careers as both a devoted physician and a brilliant writer.

The other story he tells is about Ethiopia. Many years ago I flew with Ethiopian Airlines to Tanzania, changing planes in Addis, and I remember looking at the flight attendants and thinking what stunningly beautiful people they were. I know Ethiopia produces outstanding long-distance runners, and I've wondered sometimes why Rastafarians revere Haile Selassie, the former president of Ethiopia - but that, until recently, was pretty much the sum of my knowledge about it. This book told me a great deal more, and by one of those serendipitous moments, there was a recent documentary on BBC4 which added to the picture.

Altogether, a tremendous, absorbing read, with the added extra that it took me to places of which I knew very little. 

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Sir Ken Robinson: 1950-2020

I was very sad to hear yesterday that Ken Robinson has died at the age of 70. He was an author, speaker, and international advisor on education, and his particular interest was creativity, and ways in which schools should be able to foster it. He was against standardised testing and various other straitjackets into which successive governments have put education: he was for maximising the huge potential of children.

I was lucky enough to hear him speak over twenty years ago. He was inspirational - a brilliant man and a brilliant speaker. He had that gift of speaking to a whole room as if he was just chatting to a group of friends; he was warm, witty, funny, original and immensely knowledgeable. I am so sorry he's gone.

The link is to a Ted talk he gave in 2006, which has been seen nearly 20 million times - it's the most watched Ted talk ever. If you watch it, you'll see why.


Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Chanel's Riviera, by Anne de Courcy

After finishing Overstory, I felt I wanted to read something that was easier, less emotionally demanding. Non-fiction, I thought. And right on cue, up popped an offer for history books for 99p. This one appealed; I remembered seeing an intriguing film about Chanel some years ago; also, this book covers an era that's interested me for quite some time - in fact, I've written two novels set in Europe during the war years. (Don't go looking: neither has so far been published, though I live in hope. Well, you have to, don't you?) I think somewhere else on this blog I've written about Anne Sebba's Les Parisiennes, which deals with the topic of the very different ways in which French women respnded to the exigencies of war. Chanel, I knew, was one of those who found herself a handsome and very useful German lover - no mean feat as she was almost sixty.

The first part of Anne de Courcy's book  deals with the Riviera in the thirties, and it is a delicious look through the keyhole at the lives of the incredibly rich and cosmoplitan group of people who made the south of France their playground and luxurious retreat at this time. Chanel herself had a palatial house built, with no expense spared, where she entertained large house parties; guests and neighbours included Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Igor Stravinsky, Serge Diaghilev, Edith Wharton - and later the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (who do NOT come across well). So, you know, just the kinds of people you and I have to tea all the time.

Chanel came from a childhood of extreme poverty. When she was twelve, her mother died, and her father abandonned her, leaving her in the care of nuns in a convent, where she was pretty much confined for seven years. (Apparently she later gave differing accounts of her early years, but this much seems to be undisputed.) She then, by virtue of becoming the lover of various wealthy men, opened a milliner's shop, which later became a fashion house; but her main fortune came from the famous perfume, Chanel No. 5 - though it continued to rankle with her for many years that she ad given away too large a percentage to the developers of her perfume, the Wertheimers. She must have been very, very rich: she bought houses for her brothers and supported various people, quite apart from spending money on herself. She had a large collection of jewellery - ropes of pearls of all different sizes: diamond cuffs and bracelets, ruby thises and emerald and sapphire thats. She had, naturally, a large staff, and an apartment in Paris: when she gave that up, she made do with a small flat above her atelier and an apartment at the Ritz.

She was very loyal to her friends, and was seldom without a lover or two. She was capable of great generosity, but also of casual cruelty: she closed her fashion house at the beginning of the war (having paid her staff low wages) without notice, thus depriving her workers of an income just at a time when they would have most needed it. She was anti semitic in general terms, yet she could go out on a limb to try to rescue Jewish friends who had been arrested by the Nazis - by calling on her German lover and associates.

All of this comes in the second part of the book, which deals with the German occupation of France. The contrast is great. The wealthy elite seem to have been so preoccupied with living their gilded lives that most of them simply did not notice what was happening in other parts of Europe - or if they did, they simply shrugged their shoulders, downed another glass of champagne, and assumed that none of it could possibly affect them. The Duke of Windsor, after various people had gone to a lot of trouble to organise a ship to take him to England and safety, refused to come unless the royal family issued a personal invitation, and a promise that he would be fiven all kinds of special attentions. This wasn't forthcoming, so he refused to go - eventually condescending to agree to be driven though Spain to Portugal, with, of course, vast amounts of luggage - while the roads of France were choked with refugees who had fled with only what they could carry.

Anne de Courcy reveals how life was under the occupation for a range of individuals: how things became harder and harder as the Germans commandeered most of the food and imposed increasingly cruel restrictions. She also makes it clear that the appalling treatment of the Jews in the unoccupied zone was largely undertaken by French, not German politicians and police: and she deals with the difficult period after the war, when collaborators were punished - pointing out that almost everyone, to some degree or another, had to collaborate in order to live.

It's very much a book of two halves, both of which are fascinating.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

I hardly know where to start with this book, which I've just finished. It is quite extraordinary.

It's about trees. It's a novel, but it covers some of the same ground as non-fiction books such as The Hidden Lives of Trees and Wilding (see review of the latter here): namely, recent research has shown that trees are far more conscious beings than we ever dreamed of: that they communicate; that they defend themselves, that they are hosts to vast numbers of other organisms; that even in death, if they are allowed to lie where they fall, they will host more life - not just regrowth, but quantities of animals and insects and other froms of plant life. So when you knock down an ancient woodland (supporters of HS2 please note), you are destroying a whole eco-system which has been developing for hundreds of years - and which will take hundreds of years to replicate. Planting new trees doesn't do the job, though it's better than nothing. And that's not to mention what trees do in terms of soaking up carbon dioxide.

Like Wilding, Overstory makes you adjust the way you see life on our planet and our place within that incredibly complex network of systems. For so long, we have seen ourselves as separate and superior to nature. We've plundered the earth for what we want, and while we didn't want too much, that was okay. But now, we want more and more, and we take more and more, and the planet can't cope. We have to see and understand this if we want life to continue to exist on our beautiful, once-in-a-universe planet - or at least, if we want human life to continue. We are part of nature; we aren't separate. If we destroy forests, we destroy our own future.

Trees at Tyntesfield, in Somerset, UK

So how do you tell that story in a novel? Well, this is how Richard Powers does it. The book is set in America. It features nine individuals, beginning with a fairly brief history of each of their lives. (The book is very long, so he has plenty of time.) He is very good at this. Each character is very real, very complex; each is smart in different ways. So for instance, the first story concerns a family descended from a Norwegian immigrant who moves out west, bringing with him some seeds from an American chestnut tree. Most of them don't survive, but one does, and grows into a vast and beautiful specimen which exercises a strange fascination over the Hoel family. Partly this is because a disease has killed off most of these trees: the Hoel tree has so far survived because it is so far west - but the disease spreads inexorably, as these diseases do.

Each year one Hoel after another takes a photograph of the tree. Eventually, the last descendant, Nick, creates art installations around the tree, and becomes more and more passionate about trees. Eventually, he meets up with the other eight, who by very different paths have also become desperately concerned about the way big business is destroying woodlands that existed long before white people colonised America: in the end, they take drastic measures which have a huge effect on all of their lives.

I can't pretend I understood everything in the book. In particular, there is a character called Neelay who creates virtual reality games. I have never played computer games, so I don't understand the simplest things about them - and this story line becomes very complex indeed.

But even so, I found it absolutely compelling. Here is a sample of the writing. The character is Patricia Westerford, a scientist and academic who lives in a hut in a forest.

The trees are busy tonight, fixing carbon in their dark phase. All will be in flower before long: huckleberry and currant, showy milkweed, tall Oregon grape, yarrow and checkermallow. She marvels again at how the planet's supreme intelligence could discover calculus and the universal laws of gravitation before anyone knew what a flower was for

The book is an astonishing achievement. Heart-breaking and inspirational in equal measure.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

The Water's Daughter, by Michelle Lovric

Michelle Lovric writes fiction for adults and children: a common theme of all her novels is a Venetian setting, and it's very clear from a reading of any of her books that she knows Venice very well, and loves it very much - I think it could certainly be argued that Venice is absolutely at the heart of her writing. She also writes non-fiction; most recently she collaborated with Gemma Dowler on a book about her mudered sister, Millie Dowling, which topped the Amazon and Times bestseller charts. She's also compiled numerous anthologies.

(Image taken from Michelle Lovic's website.)

This book, which is for children, follows on from several others set 
in the past, and in a parallel Venice . Geographically it's remarkably similar to the city we know today, but it also features a whole troupe of magical creatures. I was particularly delighted to meet the mermaids again: charming, beautiful, but very down-to-earth (!) creatures who live underneath the city and are distinctly foul-mouthed, owing to the fact that they learned their language from pirates. But new to this book is a whole palazzo full of magical creatures who have been transported (by mistake) from Arabia - including a beautiful and utterly amoral djinniya, who has great powers - which, fortunately for Venice, she is not very competent at handling. 

Its human heroine is 12 year old Aurelia Bon, the child of appalling parents who at the beginning of the book are planning to force her to marry the unpleasant son of an unpleasant family; her only other option is to be immured in a nunnery. Aurelia is not the kind of girl to put up with this sort of treatment - she has an extraordinary gift (when she touches a building, her fingers sense its history) and with this, and with a naturally strong personality, comes a firm sense of her own importance. She runs away, and encounters all sorts of dangers but also all manner of wonders. 

She has to battle against all sorts of enemies: a jealous historian who envies her ability to pull the crowds, and has designs on her magical fingers; her ghastly suitor and his family; the very creepy priest in charge of the nunnery; a bunch of pirates (who have lots of saving graces); a group of venal politicians/businessmen whose aim is to such Venice dry of her wealth; and the djinniya. The tussle between the latter and Aurelia is positively epic: they're both powerful, both very selfish, and both actually rather likeable - more so as the book goes on and they have to face up to some uncomfortable truths about themselves.

The book is a glorious flight of imagination, with excitement, humour and glamour in shed loads. I would put it at the upper end of middle-grade - particularly near the beginning, there are some quite scary bits, which might be a bit challenging for younger children - but for the right reader, it offers a gorgeously rich reading experience. And there are the other Venetian children's novels to move on to - it's not essential to read them in sequence.

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...