Tuesday, 29 September 2009

A Study in Bafflement and The Magic of John Fowles

A month ago I was asked by superweblogger Norman Geras to write a piece about a novel that had affected me. I wrote a piece for him and because at the moment I am thinking about time and shape-shifting now here it is for you:: John Fowles 012

Some thoughts on John Fowles’ novel ‘The Magus’.*
‘… it must substantially remain a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent. My only plea is that all artists have to range the full extent of their private lives freely. The rest of the world can censor and bury their private past. We cannot…’ John Fowles, in his introduction to the revised 1977 edition of The Magus.

Of the hundreds – even thousands – of novels I have read in the last forty years The Magus is one of only two novels - the other is Alan Garner's Owl Service - which I read to the end and then turned straight back to the beginning to read it again to find out what the heck it was about.

My bafflement is not unique: many people emerge from reading this long novel with a feeling of floundering, of not-quite-knowing. John Fowles wrote to one schoolgirl, ‘What one writes is one’s own explanation, you see, and if it’s baffling then the explanation is baffling…The Magus is trying to suggest that reality, human experience is infinitely baffling…’

The Magus tells us the story of Nicholas Urfe, a kind of mid-century intellectual everyman touched by post-world-war-blues and the edges of existentialism, shot through with heavily-worn learning and the cynical naiveté of personal, sexual and political inexperience. Nicholas is a fool rushing in where only magicians and shapeshifters tread.

Fowles tells us elsewhere that as a child, being short-tongued, he used to call the ‘earth’ ‘urf’ and perhaps that’s where Nicholas’s surname comes from. Occasionally, as I re-read the novel to write this piece, I wondered whether Nicholas Oaf might provide a better clue to this intriguing character.

The young, intelligent, self absorbed Nicholas goes to the Greek island of Phraxos to teach in a high school, just as John Fowles himself did as a young man on the real island of Spetsai.

John Fowles 011
On Phraxos, bored with the school and the teaching, Nicholas falls in love with the light, the landscape and the natural environment of the island – as did Fowles in his diary:

I walked through a small brake, and a woodcock flew off from under my feet. A lizard scuttled away. It was very warm, airy; I struck off the road and came to a cliff facing westwards. I sat on the edge of it, on a rock, and the world was at my feet. I have never had so vividly the sense of standing on the world; the world below me.’

Fowles obsesses about the light, writing again in his diary - ‘It and its absence are life and death. It reveals everything and spares nothing. It can be both achingly beautiful and consoling; it can be terrifyingly ugly.’ – and simply all of this is all reflected in the novel in the way the Island weaves its spell on the young Englishman Nicholas Urfe.

John Fowles 010
The spell is personified in Conchis, a millionaire resident who lives in an exquisite villa on a headland. Using beautiful identical twins as bate, he lures Nicholas into his world in which nothing is what it seems and reality changes according to Conchis’s whim and will. To unleash this magic, Conchis tells Nicholas fantastic stories which change form and meaning; he uses masques and staged scenarios masterminded by himself, playing mind games with Nicholas – and of course with the reader, who is driven to identify with Nicholas’ fear and angry bewilderment, in order to hang onto the crazy course of the novel.

It strikes me that The Magus is a narrative of mind and meaning that can only exist in novel form. There was a disastrous – even laughable - attempt at a film which focused ridiculously on sado-masochistic sequences which are only one illusory element in the series of games which Conchis plays on Nicholas Urfe. The more successful filming of his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman had a screenplay by Harold Pinter who cleverly tackled the job by treating the screenplay as a kind of metaphor for the novel.

But we need no esoteric knowledge to relish this novel. It works on so many levels – it works as a quest novel; a novel of adolescent rites of passage; a novel of place and the natural world; a novel shot through magic realism, (meeting Matthew Strecher’s definition - what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something 'too strange to believe.
This novel can be all things to each reader. Perhaps it is this all-encompassing nature – so full of adolescent energy, firing on all cylinders – which is baffling for the kind of reader who wants a safe journey, a sure narrative and a distinct - more or less predictable – ending. She or her needs this to take him or her through a novel.

I read The Magus twice: in its first edition in 1967; then I read his revised edition in 1977. How odd, you would think, to revise your novel and put it out there again! At the very least this showed that The Magus, for John Fowles, was clearly unfinished, highly personal, business. (There is another discussion there…)

But for me there is no doubt that The Magus is John Fowles’ masterpiece. It is an historic novel of the mid twentieth century - trailing the smoke of D H Lawrence, Alain-Fournier, James Joyce, Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre, but marked by its own distinctive signature of intensity, its sense of magic, its confusions, its challenges to the reader, all of which are entirely unique to John Fowles.

Rereading the novel yet again I was worried in case I would find less in The Magus to relish. But in fact there is more. Since I last read it I've written a good number of novels myself. So now, as well as still appreciating all the other elements, I am reflecting on the courage, the originality, the riskiness of the writing and the structure of the novel. And, strangely, I am now in the middle of writing a novel myself which is set in an ancient magical place and involves unexplainable time illusions that may baffle the reader.
This has been a bit of a risky departure for me, but re-reading The Magus has been inspiring. It is as though John Fowles (who tends to scatter Frenchisms in his prose) is shouting across the ether. ‘Courage mon brave!’

If you liked it then, you will like it now. Worth a second or third read for anybody ...


Monday, 28 September 2009

The Imagination and Starr in Trouble

Work in Progress.
Following on my theme of The Imagination as a tool for the writer, here's an extract from At The Maison d'Estella where Starr, who is in deep trouble, contemplates her situation and 'remembers the future'.

(From the chapter called The Fox...)

I crouch here in the smallest of spaces. I think I've been in this poky stinking space for two days and two nights. There's a slit high in the wall and in daytime it fills the room with grim grey light; at night the room is pitch black. I've made marks in the hard earth floor with my heel: one for each night. I thought straight away that keeping track of time would be a useful thing to do

I have to use the corner of the room as a latrine and I survive on water thrust through a hole in the door every few hours. For two nights I have not even seen the night sky. At first the darkness by night and the dimness by day is all engulfing. But this forces me inwards, makes me contemplate this dream I'm inhabiting or which is inhabiting me - I don't know which.

Every hour or so I deliberately bring Modeste’s face before me. And then I call up Tib’s honest, wise stare. I've been bringing into my mind the day I saw them both in Agde, the town they now call Good Fortune. I think of them on the canal boat – Modeste with his book and the boy swimming in the water, racing the boat. I remind myself of Modeste in the guise of Louis, the twenty first century scholar with a mission.

I remember lying on the roof of my house, Olga by my side, looking up at the night sky for Virgo.

I remember Madame Patrice in the café with Misou her little dog. And I conjure up the vision of Tib’s mother Serina who - in her deep soul - is also Madame Patrice and also loves Misou. And in these two dark days how many times have I conjured up that backward glance of the Empress which contains so much of my Siri in its bright gaze?

This is all very hard but I have to make this painful effort to to remember the future, to give myself some distance from this stinking room where I am forced to use the corner as a latrine.
Only a glimpse, but I hope you like it.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Imagination 3: Down The Rabbit Hole

Curiouser & curioser.

Or It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards. Lewis Carroll

What a great novel is Alice - a world where a girl tumbles through time and space by means of a rabbit's burrow or that very mysterious and terrifying thing - a mirror; where a cat's smile becomes its own whole self; where being suddenly small or suddenly large is thrust upon you without your willing it; where a queen can be a devil and irrational executions are the norm; where bad and good and strange and comical dreams tumble over each other and assault the senses.

Lewis Carroll, a mathematician, is an example of one of those scientists to explore the creative vision, whom I mentioned in my last post (Below). For an expert in that most rational discipline of mathematics to create Alice's successive strange worlds is a wonderful illustration of the notion discussed there.

Interestingly, few people recall Carroll's mathematical papers these days whereas Alice is thoroughly embedded in our national, if not our international, subconscious.

When I recently was reminded of Carroll's notion that 'it's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards', my bones shivered with agreement because I often think that I remember the future.
There is a crazy logic to this, if you take on board the notion - as I have - that time is not linear. Rather it is like a spinning top or a whirling dervish, where one gets glimpses of things past and things future by the accident of the spin. If you catch glimpses of places and people in the past or the future, they - by definition - can catch a glimpse of you. It may follow that you can glimpse yourself in another time, another place: in the past or in the future. Hence 'remembering' your future. The why and how of all this are inaccessible to conventional logic. It is a matter if intuition and insight.

So far, so unscientific. Or, as some might say: so far, so crazy.

But is seems to me that the only way we can express this concept is to weave it into fictional stories that are seen as surreal, magical, or perhaps coded psychological metaphor. Look at Lewis Carroll's Alice novels. Look at Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (Carroll? Carol? There we go!) Look at Henry James' Turn of The Screw...

Curiouser and curiouser...

A propos, my next post will be a passage from the novel I am currently writing (At The Maison d'Estella) where I am trying to loop together some of the mad stuff above into my own narrative of strange events in the life of Starr, my central character.

Alice Afternote. Curiously, just now on Australian Al's interesting blog there is this wonderful photograph of a river forcing its way through a man-made tunnel (part if a lovely gold rush story...) In the photograph you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. This made my mind leap straight to Alice as she made her way down the rabbit hole.
Only connect!

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Imagination 2: You are not the only one

You may say you’re a dreamer, but you’re not the only one… John Lennon.

I used to think that the imagination was like the soul. You knew it was there but you could never find it in any physical form.

But a few years ago I was asked by novelist/psychologist Charles Fernyhaugh* to join a conversation about a possible research project investigating what happens in writers’ brains when they write – which parts of the brain becomes active, which remains blank. The project didn’t materialise, probably because of the prohibitive cost of the machinery involved and the lack of funding. I have to admit that it was fun for a while thinking of us writers as highly informed lab-rats. It would have made good copy for a novel.

It was one example, however, of scientists making an imaginative leap to further knowledge. Developments in science and technology are littered with Eureka! moments of high imagination, where unlike elements are put together to propose a new truth, a new concept, a new way of looking at things. Often these are come upon by scientists prepared to take a creative risk, or artists who take on the disciplines of science. Think Leonardo da Vinci. Probably some keen academic is busy making a list of such perfectly rounded people as we speak.

I was nine when my father died but in my imagination he was just such a man. A gentle soul, he was a skilled electrician who loved to read. In our cellar in Lancaster he put things together that made new sense. He invented his version the ballpoint pen. He used brown wrapping paper to make up books of cartoons with sewn spines. Later, after he had died, one member of my family called him a dreamer in a disparaging tone.

Perhaps it is genetic. In my early years I was called Dilly Day Dream. I remember one day trying out the idea of walking the mile home from school backwards. Half way there I got sick of doing it and turned round, only to smash into a lamp-post.

I used to read books that were far out of my league in terms of context and experience and imagined my way into those exotic worlds. I wrote stories which I myself made into little books with sewn spines. And hid them. It was a very private world.

I talked to people who weren’t there. I rehearsed conversations that didn’t happen. I lay in a high place in our local park and watched the people far below, small as bees, and made up scenarios of their lives. Without knowing it I was creating my own apprenticeship as a writer, developing my imagination muscle to the point where it has become a professional tool.

But I was doing something else. I was escaping what was - for a time - a hard, dreary and colourless life: a life that involved estrangement and bullying. My inner life was my protection.

Similarly this inner imaginative life can contribute to the survival of people who are confined. The poetry and writing of prisoners is an escape into their imagination, away from the depersonalising routine of incarceration. One woman I worked with in prison wrote ‘I remember the time I was living with my Grandmother in Jamaica and the good time we all have together when I was growing up. I look up at the blue skies and the sunset is the most beautiful. I remember lots of moonlight and the green grass and the trees. And that time my grandmother said to me, ‘Shirley you must remember this all your life...’

In life, as in prison, dreaming and imagining are crucial survival skills.

* His site
(Painting of Pale Street by Fiona Naughton http://www.fionanaughtonartworks.com/)

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Imagination and The Wisdom of Others

I wanted to write something here about the potency of the imagination not only for writers, but for everyone and anyone. So - as is my custom - I gathered lots of quotations to mull over. But I was so floored by the wisdom of others that I thought I'd leave a selection here for you to enjoy on their own. I'll write my own take on the potency of the imagination in my post tomorrow.

Here we go:

Imagination disposes of everything; it creates beauty, justice, and happiness, which are everything in this world. Blaise Pascal

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create. Albert Einstein

Probably the difference between man and the monkeys is that the monkeys are merely bored, while man has boredom plus imagination. Lin Yutang.

It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards. Lewis Carroll

The man who has no imagination has no wings. Muhammed Ali

I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant. Ursula K le Guin.

Personally, I would sooner have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopedia Britannica. Stephen Leacock.

... and finally the inimitable Emily Dickinson:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb—

As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—

For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—

And they will differ—if they do—

As Syllable from Sound—


Glorious food for thought... Wx

(Painting of Tyne Bridge Floating by Fiona Naughton www.fionanaughtonartworks.com)

Sunday, 20 September 2009

I know, lets have this big party…

Party 001

Welcome to my At Home party, where I am launching The Woman Who Drew Buildings. At first I think it will be casual evening, where people will drift in and out of the rooms and we we will talk writing, novels, books, inspiration, Poland, publishing and possibly the state of the nation. 27

Not a bit of it! By seven o’clock more than seventy people are through the door – chatting, talking and filling the rooms and the hallway with wonderful life.

It’s been a busy week, a Party 002hectic few days and today has been truly mad. G has worked his socks off making sure everything in the house is right and he and the lovely T have made sure that the tree is lit by fairy lights. And, thanks to B, G, and my good friends Avril and Gillian of Room To Write – I am still sane and the party looks set to go.

(Here are Tony and Penny from WHSmiths who brought the books and kept smiling…)

Here is my friend Gillian in the kitchen with A, (The Boy Who Likes Chocolate), and Lynn, who is off soon to Australia. A and his stepbrother C play a blinder, pouring drinks, chatting and charming the socks off strangers. The food is fantastic: I’m allowed to say thaKitchen ConferenceGillian and Lynn and the Boy She liked Chocolate.t, because I only did the humble things like charcuterie, boiled eggs with paprika, and cheese. But my friend, chef Anton did the proper dishes – Polish meatballs with sour cream dip, Polish* fresh plum cake, and Polish cherry dumplings. He has researched them especially for me and they are fantastic. We catered for masses and I wonder if we have gone well over the top and will be eating leftovers for a week. But no – the food vanishes in double quick time, so that must be thumbs up for Anton’s wonderful food.

Gillian (a chartered librarian, writer and literary Good Egg who reads my manuscripts last, before the publisher sees them) holds the fort brilliantly in the kitchen while I hold fort in the rest of the house trying to greet and talk to everyone. My friend Avril talks to many people, not least the wonderful writers from our group project in Easington.

Listen 2

Then, at seven o’clock, I get to say my few words my study. It’s very, very, crowded and unfortunately not everyone can squeeze in. Still, I know they’ll get the message as I float around between the rooms as the evening progresses.

The few words are of course about the The Woman Who Drew Buildings and also about the wonderful Mary Davies who was the inspiration for the novel. I tell them that my secret mission is to take this opportunity to celebrate twenty one years as a published writer. (I ask B how many words that is and he says, ‘Oh! About two million.’ Well here’s to the next million, then…Party 003)

Gillian McKay has helped me dream up this party. She’ s in command of marketing for Headline Publishing for York To Aberdeen. (I think that’s right…)

She’s an apparently quiet, small Scottish dynamo of a woman who is both supportive and protective of her writers and will always go the extra mile (often literally…) to help them. She loves bookshops and writers in equal measure and is secretly formidably efficient.


She arrives at five and never stops smiling, working, talking, helping, pouring wine, reassuring me right through the evening. She has this lovely smile and really looks as though she is enjoying herself, which she assures my she is. B – a hard worker himself – thinks she’s marvellous.

Apart from everything else, Gillian’s special mission tonight is to take care of Tony and Penny who have brought the books from WHSmiths.Party 005

They are great – so helpful and interested. Tony tells me he has just finished the new Dan Brown and takes an interest in my display of my back-list novels on the bookshelves. He asks about my novel called Self Made Woman - set in Russia in 1991 - but, alas, out of print unless you can find one on good old Amazon. I’m thinking maybe someone should bring that one out again…

(Note here my battered 35 year old desk that I bought at an auction for two pounds. That desk has seen a few manuscripts.)

Listen 2

I would love to list simply everyone who came but the list would flutter out of the window and up into cyberspace. Still, Terry from next door caught a few guests with his camera. So I’ll try to name at least these:

Here above are Elaine and Janet from the library and Eileen and her sister Marion. And the backs of the heads of Linda and Mary, very keen writers.

6 13

Flowers 003Here are flowers brought by my good writer friends Pat, (whose back you see below) and Liz and Fadia.

IMG_7533Here is Jackie, writer and business woman, who came with her creative daughter & Fred with whom I used to teach & Sheila who worked at the University Library

And 24how nice that David Shapiro, of WHSmiths at the MetroCentre, Gateshead turns up with his wife Susan. (Centre here) They are both great readers and Susan reads my novels and likes them. Hooray!

Another David from Easington is there (with glasses), as is Bill Gates (facing).

I meet his wife, my friend Judith every time they are in England to continue our decades-long conversation. Alas, they are off to back to America again soon.

P 7

With her back to us, writer Norma - whom I always want to call Marilyn - and Sheilagh, in the green dress, who brought a triple layer chocolate cake and her blessing from Lourdes. Just inside the door is John, Avril’s husband, who likes writers. 12

And here is Lynn again, with Steffa who has just retired from running a primary school with a very fine reputation. And below Jane and Jeannie who always seem to be laughing

P 5 Theresa an Grahame

G and the lovely T keeping an eye on things.

P 4

Talking to Pat after signing Lynn’s copy. You can see my little writer’s doll sitting on the library steps…

Flowers 002

And here are the flowers sent from London by my very special Debora and Sean to underpin a terrific day.

As with all parties , this one was simply made by the people who came. And thank you also for coming to my party…. wx


Looking out at the tree with fairy lights and looking forward to the next party …wx

* To those not yet in the know, Poland in 1981 is a central theme in The Woman Who Drew Buildings.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Plums For Writers From A Good Man on Sunday

Darl6In order to build up energy for the busy week ahead, leading up the big party launch on Thursday for The Woman Who Drew Buildings I decided to take Sunday off: no writing, no reading, no thinking, no brooding, just a blank mind and a relaxed body. 

But my good intentions and Sunday lounging were dive-bombed by  Mariella Frostrup interviewing William Boyd on BBC Four’s A Good Read – a genial, articulate interchange full of little plums for all good novelists to gobble up.

Here we go again!

William Boyd  is an interesting mixture -  laid back, articulate, self possessed -  a witness to the Biafran war as a growing child and a product of Gordonstaun, the austere Scottish boarding school . He writes clever, accessible, literary-comic, occasionally darkly-comic novels (First one I read was A Good man in Africa. Brilliant.)

He and Mariella discussed his new novel Ordinary Thunderstorms,  his film writing, his other novels, and - best of all -  the state of the novel from the inside. His comparison of the importance of the novel vis-a-vis the film was masterly.

 There were lots of Plums From The Boyd Basket:

  • Fiction is no more a hoax than is historical writing …’
  • The novel – although it’s ‘made up’, invented, to achieve authenticity – is the more powerful because history is shaped by  forces that the author cannot replicate.                (I suppose the proposal here is that  a novel  is more whole, more capable of delivering a fully worked, authentically imagined truth.)
  • To find out about a time or a life, read the fiction of that time. (This pleased me, as it has always been part of the pleasure of the research when I write my stories. For instance as well as all the usual research for my WW2 novel A Thirsting Land, - which has early scenes in Alexandria, - I studied the whole Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell.(Beautiful, well located, complicated, contemporaneous novels.)  
  • I would also add to that the fact that magazines and newspapers of any modern time can add great, if coded, insight. I have this treasure trove of  magazines (see above) from 1939 t0 1945, bought from a junk shop who had acquired them from a farmer’s wife who had stored them for fifty years in a barn …)  I studied them, for the same novel.
  • Any life is an aggregate of good luck and bad luck.  - A perfect firework to light up the structure of a novel.
  • He talked of authentic randomness. Another firework! I’ll have to think a little – a lot - more about that.

I have always listened to the radio. Today I was reminded that it is a basket of juicy plums: a whole mountain of plums standing there in the literary market place. Perhaps very good for a writer on a quiet Sunday afternoon. And proof that there’s no rest for the wicked.*


* For the record, I have written a novel called this:  No Rest For the Wicked. It starts on the day of the funeral of Sarah Bernhardt in Paris in 1923 and is about this rather picaresque travelling theatrical troop…

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Brain Surgeon and the Possibility of Writing too Much

From My Window (2) OK, I write a lot. I’ve written since I was eight and have written almost constantly since since I was eighteen or nineteen. I write, research, think about or plan my writing most days including so-called holidays.

Essays, reports, theses, poems, stories, articles. novels, now this weblog - you name it, I have written it.

I love to see the word on the page.

I enjoy seeing the pages in my notebooks full of my own writing. I like the smooth sheets of typescript as they shoot off the printer in their hundreds. I like the scribbled, densely edited sheets waiting to be transcribed yet again. I like the crisp new pages in the published books, miraculously reflecting the paragraphs that started out as speculation in my notebooks.

In my work I meet a lot of aspiring writers and am very impressed by their ambition to write a good story, a fine poem, a great novel. I have been privileged to see these great things happen.

But I am bewildered that - for some - the delicious, enticing activity of writing itself is seen as a chore. I hear how hard it is to get down to the writing. Such aspiring writers will cite meetings, obligations, domestic work, child care, parent care, challenging hobbies, gardening, cooking, the washing, cleaning the car, doing the shopping, a bad leg, a bad cold – all these things are cited as reasons why individuals find it hard to find time for their writing.

I tend to reflect, then, about priorities. For me, to sustain it at the centre of my life, writing needs to be very near the top of my list of priorities. For me, it has come second only to the safety of my children and the serenity of my home. For me, this lifelong writing apprenticeship has developed the imaginative skills, the focus, and the intellectual organisation to write the stories that bloom and blossom in my mind. Each novel is a new adventure.

I can see that my sense of priority is in contrast to a more dilettante approach to writing where writing is a pleasant and rewarding hobby, as much for personal satisfaction and literary identification as for any desire to be a professional writer. This is absolutely fine. Such people are great fun to work with and can produce excellent writing.

Closed Brown Book

It’s interesting, though, that occasionally I sense that because I write a good deal and - amongst other things - write a full length novel each year, it is seen as not quite right. That somehow the quality of the writing must be less. In some mouths the word prolific becomes loaded. Yeah, I am too polite to say, as prolific as Charles Dickens, as prolific as Honore de Balzac, as prolific as Anthony Trollope.

I stifle my feeling of unease but I long to say read the books! Read the books…

Only once have I responded outright and that was when some rude person used the term churning out. ‘Yeah,’ I said, flinching. ‘You’re right. I churn out books like brain surgeons churn out operations.’

Ah, well…


Thursday, 10 September 2009

Four Books on My Mind in Newcastle.

001Dolly Theft Best Talking about your work to numbers of strangers is not for the weak- kneed. On Tuesday night I was booked to talk to a group of readers at the new Palace of Books, Newcastle City’s six storey’d glass fronted multi-million pound library. G. who dropped me off for the train (and eats girders for breakfast), told me he thought I was very brave.

To be honest, no matter how many times I do this, it’s never easy. It’s like cabaret. You put on your make-up. You wish you looked like Gwyneth Paltrow. You choose your outfit. (Black ,with that favourite pleated tourquoise scarf that falls around all the time.) You wait in vain for someone to wish you to ‘break a leg’ as you go on.

I am especially early, to see this wonderful new facility and also to gather my wits before ‘going on’. In the neat little cafe where I have home-made lemonade and coffee, I bump into Carole McGuigan, a talented playwright and actress, and we talk about Julia(Darling), whom we both miss. Carole is now revising her first novel so we have lots to talk about.

Sheila Naughton, services manager at The City Library who comes to find me, reminds me that Newcastle is a hotbed of writing talent, nurtured by New Writing North, under the indefatigable Claire Malcolm and figure-headed by internationally esteemed Mslexia Magazine, edited by a quiet Americam, Daneet Steffans. Lots of wild writers up there.

In the room is a very nice crowd of people. Beside me is a table full of my books – mainly Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Sandie Shaw RHBCooker (about which I am to talk as it’s is out now in paperback); a sprinkling of The Woman Who Drew Buildings (new in hardback) and a few of my back list including Family Ties and The Lavender House. Borders have done me proud.

I look at the bright, interested faces and read passages from Sandie Shaw and the Millionth Marvell Cooker – an easy novel to talk about, as (although it is fiction), it has an unusually close connection to my personal and family history. I go on then to share with them fascinating inspiration for my new - very different - The Woman Who Drew Buildings which is launched in hardback this week.

the woman who drew buildings[1]

The first smile of appreciation and the first spurt of laughter are like bulbs going on in my head. Now I no longer need to feel brave.

The questions they ask are penetrating: life experiences are shared. Then among the very good questions one lady asks a very familiar one, ‘When did you first start Writing?’

This is my opportunity to produce from my bag a small book protected by cling film. This is my very first published book – a children’s novel, written in 1972, called Theft. 005 Best It was published by Corgi Transworld and the editor who bought it was a great woman called Anne Wood, the first Children’s Editor for the Transworld’s Carousel imprint. Anne went on to invent the Teletubbies and become a great force on children’s media.

I went on to write a lot more novels.

I thought I owned the only copy in the world, of this little, thirty odd year old paperback. But this very morning a new copy came through the post, courtesy of Amazon world wide second-hand market. (Odd when your own books become collectibles) Amazing! The people here in Newcastle share my pleasure at this surprise.

I know they have enjoyed it. There is a real buzz in the room at the end. One woman comes up to talk about fate, and how things are pre-ordained. Others come up to say thank you, how much they enjoyed it. One woman says it was great. Best yet! (In a programme of talks.) Her friend nods vigorously. Great endorsement.

I have talked here before about how I love and treasure libraries and now I love Newcastle City Library. Thank you Sheila and your colleagues. Your library has style. That’s confirmed for me when the driver actually opens his taxi door for me as Sheila waves me off.

After the train, another taxi! (No G or B for a lift – both on rugby duty…) Sitting here in the taxi it dawns on me that I’ve had four novels on my mind today: 1) Sandie Shaw and the Millio013nth Marvel Cooker, 2) The Woman Who Drew Buildings, 3) Theft, and my exciting new one (4) which is now in process and always on my mind, The Miracle of The Maison d’Estella.

As we draw away from Durham I realise this taxi driver is talking a lot - about adjusting to his father’s new girlfriend, and all the problems in his life. How he lives alone. How his father at 74 is going off with his girlfriend to another part of the country to live. He rambles on about the family house which, to his regret, is being sold.

I ask how he gets on with his father’s new girlfriend. ‘That’s immaterial!’ he barks. I am silenced. He asks if I have family at home. ‘Yes,’ I say, stretching the truth a bit, ‘a very large husband and a very large son.’

I make sure he drops me at the end of my road, not outside my house. As I walk along I can see (with my peripheral vision) that the taxi hasn’t moved on. Luckily there is a large van and two cars in the road, which will obscure just which house I enter. When I get inside my darkened empty house I double lock the doors, front and back. (Now there’s a fifth story when you think of it…)

And maybe G’s right. It is brave to be doing what I’m doing.


Hope you’re enjoying the novels.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Holocaust Survivor and the Little Children

 Sylvia Kindertrasnport 006 bestLike many who grew up in the years after the second world war, the events and outcomes of that war are hard wired into my intellectual system, providing markers for the nature of virtue and evil that survive in me to this day.

At the time my childish mind grappled helplessly with reportage of  the terrible acts that could only be called evil. Later in my life I read and studied more about the war and was able to contextualise, if not bury, such horrors.  Even so, it’s been necessary to  revisit these deep feelings regularly as the anniversaries of the war have rolled out in the half century between now an then. And this week again the newspapers and media are full of it, focusing on the significance of the seventy year anniversary of the declaration of that war.

All this has brought to my mind an event earlier this year at the small library in  Spennymoor where I chaired a discussion between eighty-seven year old Sylvia Hurst and a large group of child and adult readers. Sylvia was there to talk about her autobiography Laugh or Cry  which recounts her life before and after she escaped the Holocaust in 1939.

The children of Ox Close School – bright faced and interested -  reminded me of myself at that age. Bizarrely, it was Red Nose Day, so they streamed into the Library in fancy dress, red and green hair sporting painted faces. Some girls wore party dresses and pyjamas. Some boys came in football shirts. They, with a sprinkling of adults, were there to meet Sylvia Hurst, nee Fleischer, who as a young girl, escaped Nazi Germany on the last train - the kindertransport – sent by their families to safety in England as the war clouds were gathering.

In the library the children sat in orderly rows on  mats and listened as Sylvia spoke eloquently of her happy pre-war life as a member of the loving family of an affluent corset maker, who so believed in Germany that he refused to leave. In the end, like his wife - Sylvia’s mother who loved haute couture – he died with other members of the family, in extermination camps.  Richard, Sylvia’s younger, thirteen year old brother, had also stayed. Mr Fleischer thought the kindertransport would be too dangerous for him. Richard was taken by the Nazis but survived the camp to which he was sent.  Sylvia told the children, ‘You know, those living skeletons you see in the pictures? He was one of those the end.’ Sylvia Kindertrasnport 012

But now she reassured them  that - in his eighties now - Richard lives in America and has had a long and fulfilled life.

Sylvia, at sixteen, was too old for the kindertransport, but had escorted younger children so far, and by some blessed error, was allowed to continue.  After a hard journey Sylvia arrived in England where - her pristine German sense of cleanliness offended - she first lived in a flea-ridden house in the East End. Then she went to rather reluctant relatives to live with them and work in their factory. Later she she went on to be a successful West End dressmaker and designer, then on to lecture in Manchester on fashion design, and finally she moved up to Tantobie in County Durham, where she  ran her own pub and restaurant.

Sylvia sat there in the library  full of energy and occasional laughter as she told her tale. She had combed her once blonde, now grey curls down over her shoulders because – she told me - she thought the children would like it that way, see her as a heroine or a princess…

Still, you might think this was heavy duty material, for ten year olds! But these children had been prepared by their teachers, having read appropriate  material and looked  at an  Ann Frank exhibition that  was touring at the time. (I have to admit I stifled a thought that the horrors of the Holocaust had been tamed by being ‘on the curriculum’.) 

But these children here asked wonderfully searching and insightful questions, drawing even more  extraordinary  information from this unique lady. Subjects ranged from brainwashing, to haute couture, to the kind of things Sylvia had chosen to put into the the single suitcase she was allowed to take on the train. (Her father said she could choose any suitcase to take with her. She chose a fine crocodile skin case, which she later regretted because it was so heavy!)  The best question for me was the girl who asked what it felt like, to go through all this.

So Sylvia  in her still strongly Sylvia Kindertrasnport 010 accented English,  described again the joys of secure family life in pre war Germany  being shattered by inhuman, shameful events that no child – so person – should endure. As she spoke she used examples from the children’s own world here and now to illustrate her loss and her suffering as a child.

It felt to me like magic, then, as these children used their considerable imaginations to enter the world of this lady -  seventy six years their senior – and grasped something of her extraordinary life. In this way they transformed their technical understanding of a bit of the history curriculum into genuine empathy with someone who had lived it.

In the tea break that followed , one by one the children came up and cuddled this old lady, almost as though to comfort the little girl - not much older than them - who had been left alone and had lost her family in the Holocaust. Sylvia Kindertrasnport 002




Friday, 4 September 2009

Sunflowers like dinner plates and Australian Champagne

Yesterday I was just trying to gather my thoughts to complete an article about Sunflowers 005 John Fowles’ The Magus for Norman Geras when there was a knock on the door and I was confronted by the man from the florist with an armful of sunflowers like dinner plates. This lovely bouquet was from Sherise, Celine, Gillian and Maura at my publishers (Headline) to celebrate publication day for The Woman Who Drew Buildings. Headline knows brilliantly how to mark the day. Thank you wonderful Headliners.

Of course we will have the proper big launch party very soon, but the day one’s book is out there in the world is is so very special and the flowers were a great start. 

Mid afternoon my friend Avril came with chocolate and we had coffee and talked of writing which must do justice to our work with the women in prison( see last post). Also we talked about what a joy and privilege it is to write for a living and the importance of staying positive in an uncertain world. We laughed a little and cried a little and came away smiling.

So I  didn’t get back to the Magus article.

Later, I went out to dinner with my clever friend Judith Gates and we drank Australian champagne to celebrate my publication day and her discovery of a relative born around 1760 something who shared a name with her husband Bill (or William as it says on the record). Just think of it – born before the French Revolution! Just imagine!

No getting back to the Magus article after that.

But today I have finished  the Magus piece and sent it to Norman.  So this post celebrates a task enjoyed and completed. Celebrations all round, then.


PS We had Australian Champagne (called something else, of course…)  because that was what the restaurant had. In fact it was very, very good…

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Durham Book Festival and Writing on the Edge

051 I was at a meeting yesterday a Low Newton Women’s prison  to discuss a forthcoming event at the Durham Book Festival where a panel at the Gala Theatre Durham City on Tuesday 27th October will discuss the benefits of original writing in prison.

It will be a full session.

Readings by actresses of some writing by women in the prison will be interleaved with the other elements:  Charlie Darby Villis, the inspirational prison librarian, will make the crucial link with reading; three writers - Avril Joy, Richard Hardwick and I  - will give our view on our different experiences and will read extracts  from our own  creative fiction which spring from our experience working in prison – in Richard’s case also working with homeless young people in shelters and hostels. His novel is called Kicked Out. Avril will read from her novel Bad Girl.   I will read from my short story collection Knives. My work at Low Newton was a direct inspiration for many stories in this collection.

This event is part of the legacy of the work in original writing and reading that Avril and I completed with the women at Low Newton before my second residency ended last year. This included our own ‘Litfest Inside’, planned to coincide  with the Durham Litfest of that year, also our Orange Prize Project where prison readers paralleled the process of judging the short list.  Also a wonderful and resonant book of the writings of the women with whom we worked – The Self Revealed – which has been admired by many outsiders.

All this was done without outside support. But this year the Durham Book Festival (which replaces the Litfest) is directed by the dynamic  Alison Redshaw and she and Durham City Arts are fully supporting this initiative both in and out of the prison. Hooray for her!

 I look forward to working alongside Richard; it’s always good to meet someone with similar preoccupations. We have already started a discussion - which may go on - about how one renders material so distinctively factual into authentic prose fiction without stealing people’s lives.

As I said to Richard, my work with women in prison was life enhancing and life changing. It resonates now through all of my work. For instance the new novel The Woman Who Drew Buildings begins with a young man, just out of prison, making his way to the house of his mother, whom he has not spoken to for two years.

I have close memories of the women which continues to resonate through my life. They made a difference to me.  I hope I made a little difference to them.



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