Friday, 31 July 2009

Easington, Changing Landscapes & Storytellers

Yesterday I went across to Easington to work with writers there on the Tall Tales Morning%20in%20Easingtonproject. Every time I go there now I am struck by the wooded hills and denes that surround the village and the colliery areas. I especially like long straight road down through Easington colliery ending in the sea, which seems to rear up to meet it. I can only imagine - in a kind superimposed sepia - the surrounding tangle of historic but now absent pit heads and mountainous pit heaps that are deeply (affectionately, even nostalgically) embedded in the minds of my writers.

One of our objectives in this project is to pay respect to this honourable and dramatic past, but also to evoke stories with a modern feel and a modern context.

Our objective today is intense, high level editing of some of the stories they have already produced, which Avril and I have read and treated to an initial edit. There is some great stuff here, fresh and interesting - a new take on this village which already rejoices in great natural storytellers.

Editing oneself is not easy - the big task is to gain some critical distance and to be prepared to develop instead of defend. And everyone here is wonderfully up for it. Having read a lot of these early drafts Avril and I evolved Ten Golden Rules which will definitely allow these good writers become better.

The Tall Tale stories have strengthened and deepened in the process: Agnes has written a wonderful evocation of fear in a mother living in these streets, showing courage under stress, nervous about the drug culture that is threatening her beloved son; Ann has written a story of people in a close knit street community who turn on a stranger; Terry has written a lyrical and quite modern tale of early marauders on this ancient coast; Mavis has written a tale of a missing child that turns into a ghost story; Joan has produced one of her intricate and rhythmical rhyming verses that are not only funny but finely crafted; Susan has written a truly comical, well crafted story about dancing miners; Mary’s insightful story returns us to the drug problem as a woman sits on a bench outside a chemist and tells a stranger how and why drugs are rife in this innocent village.

In the afternoon I work one to one on individual story tellers and Avril gives a poetry workshop to generate poems focusing on a changing place. The writers set to with vigour and the poems that are emerging are so very original and promising.

On the way back, both over-stimulated and exhausted , we stop to have tea and biscuits with my friend Judith, looking out over her tree lined garden. She serves tea in her grandma’s delicate cups and we are revived. The talk is always good with Judith. We talk about nearby Easington, and her husband Bill - who is passing through to the garden - tells us Easington people are the salt of the earth.

Just so!


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Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Star Climbs The Wall

When do we know we are truly psychic? How can we recognise that our experience of insight is more than just a very common sixth sense? In the ‘work in progress’ extract below  from my new novel At The Maison d’EstellaStar - also called Stella, begins to recognise the greater depths of her psychic gifts and get to grips with what they imply.


… In all the times I played here with Mae as a child, I’d never been inside this place. We found it forbidding then, like a witch’s castle. Now I peered into the  pitch black and smelled the rotting leaves and the faint ripe scent of dead animals. But then I looked upwards to see that the tower held a bowl of lighter night sky, enclosing the beltBishop's palace etc 005 a of Orion the Hunter.  

Halfway up the wall was a platform. ‘That’s for us,’ said Ludovic.   ‘You must be joking,’ I said.  ‘I’ll show you,’ he said. ‘It’s possible. I tried it. You have to do it rock-climber style.’

He made me face the wall and stood behind me. I could feel his chest against my shoulder blades, his thighs against mine. Then he took my hands and made me reach up and curl my fingers into stone crevasses. He reached down, slipped off my shoes and showed my feet where to grip. So we climbed the wall, he like a crab’s shell on my back. He smelled faintly of sweat and turpentine and his breath was like honey on my cheek.

After some hauling, gasping and giggling we were standing upright on the platform in the darkness. I peered through a glassless window into the mantle of the night, screwing up my eyes to make out the giant trees, each with its own core of darkness.

Suddenly a wave of intense feeling rippled through me from my heels to my head and back again. All at once I could sense every living being who had ever been in this spot on the earth - from eighteenth century gardeners, back to seventeenth century revellers, back to Roman camp  followers, back even further to Celtish men in hoods, following one after another, in a line. The place was teeming with these people, talking, shouting, pushing. My head and my body were aching with their presence on the surface of my time.

Ludovic gripped my arm tight and pushed me forward. ‘Look! North!’ he said. So I turned my head towards the North,  where the polluting lights of the town no longer stained the night. There, the sky had retrieved to its dense night-time  blackness and the stars were intense points of light. Orion, Calliope, the Pleiades and Pisces were all there, shapely in their dispensation. Perhaps the gods were here with us, to witness to the events of this night.

I shivered….


Not done yet, but it’s on its way…..Wxx

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Monday, 27 July 2009

Magpies, Canal Boats, and a Bottle of Red

I was thinking how we writers are like magpies. picking up bright things here and there, shaking them around like bits in a kaleidoscope so to make a grand, brand new pattern. If the shaking up works, then  the diamond seeds of the original  elements will - with luck - create a new truth that shines out and strikes a universal chord in those who encounter it.


Let me travel back with you a month in time: I am walking along a narrow tree-lined path along the Canal du Midi in southern France. The canal glows greenish silver, the nightingales are treating me to the longer version of their song. A turtle  is keeping pace (or is it keeping flipper?) with me in the middle of the canal.

I am relaxed, relishing the experience second by second, but my sharp magpie eyes are missing nothing.


This part of the canal  is lined with boats of all kinds and sizes –many houseboats;  some rather up-market tourist boats; some boats housing summer water gypsies; one boat which looks like a junkyard on water.

On the covered verandah of one houseboat I note DSCN0297 a man of about sixty - a long, fit, silver haired, well-seasoned kind of man in drill trousers and bare feet. He’s lying on a long garden seat with his legs over one end, reading one of those old green and cream Penguin books – battered and well used. He looks English but I would not swear to it.

I walk on and by a long boat I pass a group of men on the bank, barbecuing something that smells of garlic and tomatoes and burnt flesh. Their v0ices rumble. They don’t look like tourists. Just further along is a girl with glossy dark hair swinging from a rope-swing fixed up on one of the great trees that line the canal. On the back- swing of the rope she glances back towards the men, the image of flirting temptation.

FurthDSCN0308er along I note a plump elderly man who  is organising his water bottles on the roof of his narrowboat, filling them from a large container. He smiles politely. ‘   ’jour  Madame!’  I bask in this French politeness and move on.

Half an hour later I return the same way. (I like doing this, whether driving or walking. The perspectives on a return journey are entirely different from those on the outward journey).

Now, the plump old man from the narrow boat is way ahead of me on the path, a bottle of red wine in his hand. The girl on the swing is  talking to the barbequing man.  A small child  is clinging to her, his arm around her neck. When I finally reach the houseboat again, the plump man is sitting at the table with the silver haired man. The bottle of red is open on the table, glasses half full. And these two men are talking, gesticulating. It looks like some pleasurable nightly ritual to me.

So there you are: a magpie’s collection from a summer afternoon walk, ready for the kaleidoscope. One shake of the kaleidoscope and I could have a short story. Another, and I could have the makings of a novel. Another could give me a pilot of a TV Series and … and….

Mrs Wood, my wonderful, very original, art tutor once said. ‘Once you learn how to look, you will never be bored.’  She was right there wasn’t she?



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Friday, 24 July 2009

Cafe Culture, Julia Darling & Things Overheard


I relish the fact that writer Natalie Goldberg and my late, Juliagreat, very lamented, friend Julia Darling have both, in their times, been great advocates of writing in cafes.

While I was in Agde in France I posted here a eulogistic piece about scribbling in the Cafe Plazza and the cafe on la Place de La Marine. In fact my delight in getting away from the desk, out into the street, into the inspiring neutrality of a cafe did not start in France. It is an old habit that I found I shared with Julia.

Julia was not just a great tutor, poet and playwright, she was a novelist and lyrical poet who wrung every last drop of joy and delight, love and affection, out of her writer’s life, before her tragically early death.

For several years she came here to give wildly popular workshops on her own and sometimes alongside me. Despite her great gifts she was modest and comradely - as well as merry, enabling and respectful of others’ talent. She always worked alongside the work-shoppers, never sat on a pedestal above them. She risked herself alongside them in the read-around, saying, ‘Well this is mad, but…’

Julia was the mistress of original, telling, firecracker metaphors and knew the magic of the right word in the right place. The work-shoppers would go off inspired to write closer, to do better.

When lunchtime came around she’d rush off, either to swim, or go to the nuts and bolts cafe near the old Post Office. She did this for rest, for refreshment, and inevitably, for inspiration from the other tables, where bin men and office workers would stoke themselves up with cake or a good fry-up for the afternoon’s work. Things overheard there would be filed away in that considerable intelligence and become natural resource for her in her writing. She had a sympathetic and an empathetic ear for the natural dialogue of so called ordinary people.

This is interesting, as although she was a bit of a maverick, she came from a distinctive upper class intellectual background. But she was uniquely classless in her apprehension of the life and people around her - so very refreshing in writing circles that can be riddled with all kinds of snobbery.

Much has been made of the graceful and poetic way in which she tackled the process of dying - writing of its challenges with frighteningly forensic insight and luminous grace. To be honest, though I prefer to think of her in terms of the way she lived. She was a joy to be with, wryly witty and always kind. She was inspirational and prepared to be inspired. She lit up any room she was in with her broad smile and wide eyes.

In my own cafe sojourns eavesdropping is of secondary importance to a clear table not far from the window and staff who will both take care of me and ignore me. Mostly I sit here and fill my diary with plans; make both creative and practical lists; draft these posts for my blog; scribble the next chapter for At The Villa d’Estella; read a heavy tome about ‘Gaul in Antiquity’ for said novel. And so on.

These times away from the desk are essential for someone who works from home. Surrounded by strangers, I work very quickly, get a great deal done. (I’ve been thinking that this perpetual desire to get away has something to do with my Pisces star sign, which I wrote about recently…)

But yesterday as I was walking to the cafe I passed two men talking. One man was saying to the other. ‘…and as well as that I’ve got this cancer ripping away at my insides…’ This so perfectly expressed a combination of anger and stoicism that it made me want to cry.

And it made me think again about the exceptional and radiant Julia Darling.


(AFTERNOTE I see now that Julia’s star sign was Leo - Generous and warm-hearted - Creative and enthusiastic - Broad-minded and expansive - Faithful and loving. But her sign tipped into Virgo - Modest and shy - Meticulous and reliable - Practical and diligent -Intelligent and analytical. I am thinking about all this because my mind if full of Stella, the astrologer in my new novel. But thinking now about Julia, all this fits…)

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Tuesday, 21 July 2009

The Dictionary Game and The Boy Who Likes Chocolate

Angus, sixteen - who likes chocolate - has been feeling restless after a year of The Joys of ChocoLATE living industriously in preparation for pending GCSEs and more latterly deprived by temporary injury of the explosive relief of his beloved rugby.

The really hard times begin when the exams are done and dusted. Being advised to rest! chill! take it easy! is difficult when one has a black hole in a head which had - until very recently - been packed with facts and figures, concepts and theories, poems, plays and sophisticated equations. Games on TV and occasional sessions with the guitar go nowhere near filling the black hole in the head. And this, I feel, is where the restlessness comes in.

I want to help, and - being the pedant I am - I suggest a bit of challenging reading to fill the black hole. I have just been reading about the Dead Sea Scrolls (research for At The Villa d’Estella) and had come upon a very sharp series of Very Short Guides by OUP, including one very well written one on my subject, by Timothy H Lim. In the back of the book is a very comprehensive list of subjects from Archaeology to Machiavelli, from World Music to The Russian Revolution.

The chocolate eater gets his eye on the VSG s to Philosophy, to Consciousness, and to Logic. Then, while the little books whirr here from the Planet Amazon, he picks up from my shelves Fear of Freedom by the wonderful Erich Fromm. As he gets stuck into this book he whoops with delight, discovering that Erich Fromm has ideas that fit in with his own – sometimes very original – worldview. Then the little books arrive and the whoops continue right through the consumption of the books on Philosophy, Logic and Consciousness.

Then one day he throws the last little book aside and asks I fancy playing a game ‘for a bit of a rest’? He calls it The Dictionary Game. He’ll pick ten words at random and test me on them and I have to pick ten words to test him. And so on. We amaze ourselves with how many words we actually seem to know.

Then something strikes me and I tell Angus that when I was even younger than he is, my mother used to play this very game with my brothers and sister and me. That was in a tiny house a tenth of this size of this one, where the money was in very much shorter supply than the love and the language.

So we agree, he and I, that playing these clever games does not depend on wealth or privilege but on the nature of the people who play. And he tells me of this new word he has just invented – lucaviatic. He says it means eccentric but brilliant.

That must be a compliment.


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Sunday, 19 July 2009

Astrology and Blooming, Buzzing Confusion

Researching novels leads you down strange pathways.

Star signs? All nonsense of course. But which of us does not have the desire for some 12-pisces[1]shape, some purpose in the randomised pick-and-mix of human experience? We might discover that shape in the certainties of organised religion or the world of science and the academy.

Last week I talked with David S about coincidence. He doesn’t believe in it. He thinks there is something more than coincidence behind coincidences. We talked about ideas from CJ Jung which refer to synchronicity and the conscience collective – a kind well of human experience, wisdom and perception which, some say now, may be genetically accumulated.

So far, so unscientific!

But we seem to need it. Look at the way some of us unscientific folk embrace the work Einstein, Schrödinger and others, who have challenged to notion of a linear time in warping, bending, reversing, and even breaking the received wisdom of time’s straight arrow, using the mechanics of relativity and quantum physics.

It seems we live in this world of blooming, buzzing confusion and look always for patterns which will explain it all. Religions of every sort - as well as the schools of scientific theory and academic concepts – flaunt their holy books, their heroes and their villains and offer us comfort, in that if we follow their rules they will make shapely sense for us, out of our individual confusion.

Reading the stars in the night sky and interpreting them to ascribe character and to predict the future - if time’s not linear then the future is there to see! - is the most immediate and possibly primitive of these processes. And like many people, over my morning coffee, I read my stars in newspapers and magazines. There is a lady in Easington who has offered to do it for me in person but I haven’t as yet taken her up on it. She calls her self a shaman, which is interesting,

My own favourite thing is to check out personality types designated by the stars . I am Pisces -‘ impressionable, compassionate, sensitive, artistic, mystical, meditative, spiritual, a medium, also escapist - tendency to flight, dependent , masochistic. Can be mendacious. (ie tendency to tell lies – come to think of it I tell lies (ie stories) for a living!) And paranoid. (eg Why is nobody in Germany reading my deathless prose?)

I have to tell you that, in my case, all these aspects of personality are more or less true. I might have dozens of other characteristics but even these link back to these qualities one way or another.

Looking at other Pisceans I can see these qualities coming through. Lots of actors (including Ellen Terry, Elizabeth Taylor and Bruce Willis); many writers(including Anais Nin, the inspiration for this whole blog); politicians (including Gordon Brown and Bill Clinton); inventers and thinkers (including the aforementioned Albert Einstein). I imagine as well that prisons and psychiatric units will have their fair share of rather more anonymous Pisceans, with their mendacity, paranoia and desire to escape.

du_scorpionhy1b Talking of prisons, the joint star sign of the Kray Twins (see my novel The Lavender House) was Scorpioresourcefulness, penetrating insight, strength in crisis, psychic power, charisma, strong sexuality, interest in occult, secretiveness, jealousy.’ This case illustrates that given characteristics are not value free. They can be turned on their heads and applied with death-dealing negativity.

So far, so very unscientific, you might say.

But I am preoccupied by all this at the moment because Stella, the central character in my new novel At The Villa d’Estella, is a professional astrologer. Even through her life-changing adventures in France she still posts her astrological columns to the magazines that employ her. Although she is somewhat creative in generating her copy – she’s a Piscean, after all – she has taken to the work like a duck to water because all through her life she has sensed dead people and seen through time.

As I say, researching a novel takes you down the strangest pathways but this might be the strangest yet…


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Sunday, 12 July 2009

Metro Centre, Marble Halls and Concrete Jungles

I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls…

The words of this song drummed through my head yesterday as I walked the bright white malls of the Metro Centre, marvelling at its day-lighted openness and its seemingly endless colourful array of goods to buy.

Even my best friend wouldn’t call me a shopper but I have to admit I'm very tempted as I move through Marks & Spencer and make my way to my destination: WHSmiths

I have always loved WHSmiths – buying school stuff for my kids at the beginning of term and for myself - ink pens, ink, notebooks , biros, pencils, paints and art books. As well as all this, in the recent decade I’ve enjoyed the way WHSmiths' book stock has expanded to incorporate a wide range of titles, from useful factual books to an extensive range of fiction, including prizewinning titles, well priced classical works as well as fiction ranging from the so-called literary to the so-called popular mainstream fiction: all great to pick up after you've bought your pens and protractors!

So it’s a wonderful treat to see my own books on their shelves - Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker amongst others. My special treat today is -alongside my writer friend Benita Brown and Headline’s petite Scottish whirlwind manager Gillian Mackay - to have tea and cakes with WHS manager David Shapiro and his assistant manager Darren.

David (whom I met last year alongside the dynamic WHS Northern boss Peter Day) is both a keen reader and very interested in the writing process, so we have lots on common. Add to that the fact that he - like me - loves France, and we are away! David tells me a very good ghost story which I've tucked away to think about later. Anyway, after coffee, cakes and much talk, Benita and I get down to signing piles of our books, while Gillian and David stick on the pretty silver stickers.

Too soon, we have to leave, to get to Waterstones, where they are very polite and have their nice piles of books, but sadly we have no opportunity here for book talk. So now we break for a sandwich lunch in Debenhams (scarlet blouses, nice shoes…) More book talk here - about what makes a good cover, a good agent, a good editor, a good story location and an historical novel as opposed to a contemporary one. And we talked about Gillian's cats - 'the girls'.

I have a great fancy for a cat. I tell her about my daughter Debora's cats

Then on, on, from the faux marble halls of the Metro Centre to the concrete jungle of Washington, a Sixties new town, built near Washington Village, the ancestral home of the family that bred George Washington, father of the American nation.

Norman (Benita’s husband) is kindly driving us but when we reach the town his satnav goes crazy, sending us up blind alleys and - one time - nearly back out of town. At last, though, we're saved by a lone taxi driver who tells us to aim for the Gala Bingo and the Police Station. So we edge our way nearer the library.

We end up in a Kafkaesque spot – all grey walls with their backs turned to us and concrete steps leading nowhere. We venture up one flight of concrete steps, then another, then along a concrete walkway. Still we are lost. We ask a lone passerby where the library might be and he points towards a wall of glass just beside us.

Glory be! Here it is! Once inside the building we’re in another world: a brand new state-of-the-art library with curving shelves, bright open spaces and friendly faces. Library heaven! We're treated to a good welcome with tea and biscuits before we go to meet a wonderful crowd of readers who ask intelligent and interesting questions - not just about our current novels, but about earlier ones (eg The Lavender House ( my London novel) and A Woman Scorned (about Mary Ann Cotton, allegedly a 19th Century Mass murderer) - which they had also read!

They are a great bunch of people. So, the odyssey through the concrete jungle has been well worth it. Such a pity that the forbidding concrete, the back- turned design, the baffling, unlabelled roadways, should hide away this community of great people.

Come to think of it, there may be a novel in there somewhere…


Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Fenwick Frolics

Sandie Cover One upon a time in my well spent-youth Newcastle was a happy hunting ground for unusual clothes and frothy coffee in good company. On occasion we would hitch-hike down from our small Northumberland college - I lived in Harry Potter’s castle, but that’s another story – and spend the afternoon in Newcastle trying on clothes we couldn’t afford, drinking frothy coffee in juke box cafes, and once – I think it was someone’s birthday – having high tea in Tilley’s restaurant where the waitresses still wore black dresses and white aprons.

Years later, with our children, my friend Pat and I would meet in Fenwick’s cafe for coffee and cakes. In those innocent days we used to let the children take the escalator to the next floor on their own (!) to play in the toy department. Meanwhile Pat and I would talk up a storm about the meaning of life – perhaps particularly our lives – and drink more coffee. After a while we’d go up to fetch the children from the toy department and bring them down for ice cream - and get on with being mothers.

I remember now that I bought my un-weddingy wedding outfit for daughter Debora’s wedding in Fenwick’s French salon – a long narrow skirt and jacket in navy blue velvet. I’ve worn it happily many times since.

And now this Thursday (tomorrow!) I’ll leave my desk to be on the othebooks Etc 028r side of the counter at Fenwick’s – signing copies of the paperback edition of SANDIE SHAW AND THE MILLIONTH MARVELL COOKER.

People often ask me what a book about. Well, I wrote about this one in an earlier post, saying.
Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker’ is about:
Friendship and salvation between women & authentic factory life when industry was booming & the birth of celebrity culture & changes in access to higher education & college life & about changing cultural attitudes brought about by the
Sandie_Shaw_RHB_small[1]Women’s Movement & the nature and hesitancies of young love & the experience of immigrants moving into British life & the ironies, assumptions and secrets of institutions

But most of all, I say, I think – and hope - it’s a very good, funny, touching, rites of passage novel about this student from a small Northumberland college who works in a factory one summer in the 1960s ….

I’ve been wondering what I should wear for this particular Fenwick Frolic. Perhaps I should have found time to fit in a visit to Fenwick’s French Salon.

I’m certainly looking forward to it. I wonder if my good friend Pat will turn up. I hope you’ll come too. wx

12.30 pm Fenwick’s Book Department. Thursday 9th July 2009

Monday, 6 July 2009

Sunny Gardens and Very Special Booksellers

Apart from being a crash course back into Old_Whitworth_Hallmy own over-busy life, coming home from the sunny Languedoc to sunny Britain has been full of treats. One is seeing all my special people again. Another is driving today with B through the Durham Dales under a Turner sky, the car just about brushing the full green hedgerows that are now looping urgently onto the narrow roads.

Everything today seems so very English, superbly English. We stop for coffee and sandwiches at Eggleston Hall (recent location for that rather surreal Ladettes to Ladies TV Programme with its quaintly old fashioned air). I wonder briefly whether I’m lady enough to eat their smoked salmon sandwiches.

And on to the Eggleston Hall Gardens, immaculately laid out, nurtured, and lined up in the original walled garden of the Hall. We know from experience that plants we buy here are sturdy and survive, so we buy a dark red carnation plant for my back yard where I sit and read and sit and write. It’s a plant- filled suntrap and less windy than the gardens themselves. At Eggleston I look longingly at bright, bold lupins - my favourite garden flowers - but they are forbidden treats. Try as we may we cannot make them thrive here. Could be slugs, but we don’t really know.

Whitworth Hall Garden This week I’ll also go plant hunting to Whitworth Hall Gardens , very near here. The walled garden there, restored by horticulturalists who know what they’re doing, is very close to my heart. In its prime historical (imagined) state it plays an important role in my historical novel Honesty’s Daughter. In fact I wrote much of the novel in the Hall itself and my artist friend Fiona Naughton painted pictures of the Hall and garden (see here) which were shown at the launch.

But with my return, life is so busy that I’m still waiting for a space to get down to the new novel which powered on so well in France. There is other work to do, as well as some good events. This Thursday I’m at Fenwick Newcastle for the launch of the paperback of Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker (12.30. If you are around do call by …) Then on for signings at Durham WHSmith and Bishop Auckland WHSmith. Then on Friday I will be doing signings at the fabulous Metro Centre in Waterstones and WHSmith. I have this feeling that there’ll be always something there to remind me of the lovely Sandie. I’m looking forward to spending time in these bookshops where I know, having met some of them , that the booksellers are rather – no, very - special.

Before I forget, if you like short stories, I have this rather quirky one in next Sunday’s Express magazine. It’s about a old Dormobile that … well, just read it and see! There are so few outlets for short stories these days that it will be lovely to see this one there in S Magazine.

Sailing Boat (2) But really, really I am dying to get back to the France that now has to reside inside my head. The Maison d’Estella along with Star, and Modeste and Tib are all crying out for attention from the pages of my manuscript which is sitting in its special place on my upstairs desk….


Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Last Walk to La Guingette

The last treat of my two month stay in the Languedoc is - for the second time - to take the mile long walk along the banks of the River Herault to La Guingette, the bohemian music cafe evoked so well by Avril on her post.

As I weave my way with Debora along the narrow mud footpath overhung by trees and encroached by wildly blooming undergrowth, the silver glitter of evening light filtering through the trees reinvents the notion of chiaroscuro. My eye is caught by a cobweb caught in a bush shot through by the late sun. A white butterfly darts around blackberries which are beginning to plump up in the tangled undergrowth. The soaring elderflowers have been transformed to fruit, half green, half red, nearly ready for harvesting. In the distance the we can hear the hum of the train on its way south or north to more sophisticated places than this small town.

And here is the book’s portion! Let me explain. Every good experience that has happened to me here in this place seems by some magic to have relevance to the novel. Tonight’s book’s portion is the slap of oars on the river: the sound of an oarsman as he dips his oar in the river and drives his small skiff forward, slip-slop, plip- plop, in and out of the glassy water, creating ripples that surge right to the edge of the wide river.

It occurs to me that this, more than anything, must have been the sound here on the river in those early years about 290AD, when part of my novel is set. In those times the strong arms of men combined with the winds of heaven were the motor in times when travel, commerce and war all depended on the beat of an oar - or two oars or three oars, or triple decks of oars on triremes, quinquerimes all driving boats to carry, boats, to deliver, boats to batter.

I'm interested that this ancient skill is reflected in the present-day sport - right across this region - of the Joute, a kind of water-jousting where two teams of rowers in painted boats do battle with each other. Their champion, balancing on the high-thrusting bow of the boat, armed with a heavy lance and defended by an stout shield, attacks the opposing champion head on. It is a very brave, fierce sport with local leagues and teams and keen supporters.

The skill here is the speed and the manoevrability of the boats in the hands of the rowers. It’s not hard at all to imagine such ancient skills being put to daily use – in commerce, trade and war - at the time of my novel, in this place whose name, translated from the Greek Agathe Tyche, means Good Fortune.

A bit like a frontier trading post in the Old West of America, perhaps…


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