Daughter of the House is published today. It feels as though it’s been a long time coming, but it should be in bookshops and available on line right now. There have already been some great reviews in the press and in the book blogs. Saga magazine has a good one – I love the idea of being the thinking woman’s popular novelist. Maybe I’ll make this my motto! Today I’m out doing interviews, and all the time I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the real readers – you – will enjoy it.
I love doing the research for a novel, especially when it calls for travel to somewhere exciting. Daughter of the House involved thinking myself back in time, though, instead of getting on a plane. Wikipedia and Google are useful for chasing facts and getting dates correct, but not much more than that. The trick of researching a novel is that you don’t know what you’re searching for until you stumble across it. You can’t beat a slow browse along the shelves, picking up books almost at random. I use the London Library, and can easily lose a few hours wandering in the stacks. A million books on open shelving soon lead to a notebook full of scribbled notions. Writer’s gold.
Remember school nature walks, on hot afternoons when Miss didn’t want to be in the classroom either? Recently I unpacked some long-stored books and amongst them was Polunin’s Wild Flowers of Britain. So I took it with me on an ordinary walk, and identified 25 species without any difficulty. It was like being transported back to the Std II form room, where the wilting flowers brought back in hot 6-year-old fists were placed in labelled jam jars on the windowsill. All together now: herb robert, red and white campion, germander speedwell…..
The GR20 (one of the grandes randonnées, great walks) of France is actually in Corsica, switch-backing over the wild mountains that form the spine of the rocky island.
It’s a famous route, and as I discovered it’s actually rated the number one long-distance trek in Europe. And oh, how it shows. Outdoor types flock to it. Mostly as bands of youngish men, striding under heavy rucksacks, leaping up in the mornings to be the first off and therefore the first to finish the day’s étape. This tended to be hours ahead of my own departure, once I’d struck my little tent and fumbled the bits of an overnight bivouac into my heavy rucksack, so I was invariably a couple of miles and lot of metres of vertical ascent/descent behind the leaders.
Looking up as I toiled up a steep gully I would sometimes see tiny figures outlined against a burning sky, visible for a few seconds as they teetered on the col before vanishing into the plunge down the other side. Coming along at a slower pace allowed me to admire the scenery: stopping for breath I enjoyed clumps of hellebores bathing in a cup of shade, laricio pines pasted against the horizon, the maquis emitting sharp gusts of scent, and there were often distant views of blue sea behind us or rock spires crazily rearing ahead. Usually however the uphill scrambling and the necessity of keeping a sure footing limited perspectives to close-quarters views of the rock. And what gorgeous rock, for a climber. The baked granite was bleached pearl in full sun or deepened to purple and charcoal in shade. It was crusted with quartz and seamed with dolerite, and all the way it was flagged with painted route markers in bands of red and white – in the brightest light the slash of scarlet gleamed like spilled blood (that’s maybe a mood indicator of my own). Underfoot the rock’s dry, grainy warmth offered excellent friction to feet and fingers. The days of walking were tough, but always pleasurable. It was the nights that provided the significant hardship.
Out on the mountains there was enough space to swallow the crowds. There were the horizon glimpses and the floating sound of distant voices from a picnic on a plateau high above, otherwise only emptiness. Unfortunately in the evenings, hundreds of dirty and hungry trekkers would converge on a series of mountain refuges, none of them any bigger than a hut. The morning’s early departers had smugly arrived hours ago and bagged the few beds in the hut dortoirs, as well as the best camping spaces within reach of the single standpipe and the iffy lavatory block. Their laundry would be jauntily pegged on the hut terrace. For the later arrivals, it meant pitching a tent on a rocky incline or a long stagger through pinewoods alive with ants. A late sign-up indicated a long wait for the third – once fourth – sitting for dinner in the crowded hut. Even if very hungry, you lose your appetite for a bowl of cold tomato penne by 9 pm when everyone else is fed and getting noisily stuck in to the Corsican beers.
Come the morrow, brushing off the remaining ants I’d unzip my tent to blink at the early birds yet again steaming up the mountain, poles briskly clacking on the shale slopes. An hour later, breakfasted on the leftover bread crusts and a blob of jam someone had dropped on the table top, I’d follow them. It would take as much of an hour of crystal air, cistus blossoms and the lovely rhythm of uphill climbing to restore my spirits. I’d even overtake the languid French couple in matching Lycra, the pair of doughty helicopter nurses from Seattle and perhaps the Austrian guy with the 25kg pack, and be glad to see them, but on the whole I’d rather have had the hills and the huts to myself.
There’s a lesson. Don’t choose no. 1, whatever it is. Everyone else already has, obviously. Next time I’ll go for 7 or 8. See you there.
Literary festivals bloom like flowers in springtime, some of them choice and fragrant and others more on the weed spectrum, yet Hay remains one of the brightest. It’s partly to do with the gorgeous setting of the place, in a lush scoop of meadows straddling the Welsh border a long way from motorways and railway stations, and somewhat to do with the alternative nature of the town – crammed with second hand bookshops, artisan delis and practitioners of quaint wellness therapies. Mostly, though, it’s the unique Hay-ness of the Festival itself that still appeals. There’s something magical about seeing locals and metropolitan literati and strutting slebs gathered with ordinary book-loving folk – most of whom will have travelled for many miles and fought almost to the death for a room in a B&B – in a series of big tents in a field to listen to people talking about their ideas. The amateur days of flapping canvas and mud avenues are long gone. It’s a slick and no doubt massively profitable operation, as the names of the various stages indicate: e.g. the Tata Steel tent and the Good Energy stage. (The Barclay’s Wealth Pavilion has vanished.) Bill Clinton’s over-quoted description of it all is ‘Woodstock for the mind’. Outside the big white sheds, though, there’s still just enough trampled grass and ice cream and limp bunting to recall something else for me – it’s more like taking your brain to the village fete.
This year it didn’t even rain. I went to a dozen events in three days – amongst them Tom Holland’s impressive delivery of the Christopher Hitchens Lecture, Steve Hilton (Cameron’s ex head of communications) whose likeable manner masked his eye-wateringly rightwing content, the admirable Germaine Greer, and Simon Armitage who was promoting his latest book about long-distance walking. He said a couple of things about writing and walking that chimed for me: that he doesn’t like to be the kind of writer who sits at home and writes, because if he did he’d just be writing about his study wall. And that he travels because it is a way of looking at things that are familiar, but to see them as a stranger. Exactly.
Almost at random I’d picked a talk by Professor Andrew Scull on madness and civilization. As often happens, it turned out to be the most stimulating of the lot. For example, he described how what was known in the First World War as shell-shock became combat fatigue in the Second, and is now termed post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s a character in my new book (Daughter of the House – coming in July! Did I mention??) who is ruined by his traumatic experiences as an ambulance driver in the First War, so I was fascinated to hear about society’s changing attitudes to battle and mental illness.
My three friends and I had unanimously but independently picked only one event when we ordered our tickets. This was to do with memory and learning, and clearly it sounded enticing to all of us. It turned out to be a couple dancing a tango and performing conjuring tricks, neither to a very high standard. Why? I have no idea.
Their audience gave them a polite hearing. That’s Hay for you.
I was away last week in the north of Scotland, climbing with my old friend Stuart. As well as being an excellent technical climber he’s an enthusiast for books about mountains and mountaineering, and the postman regularly brings me a package from Stu containing a surplus volume or two from his vast library. While we were away I was reading one of his offerings, Mountain Holidays by Janet Adam Smith, a crisp account of Scottish and Alpine excursions in the 1930s. I enjoyed it so much that when I got home again I went back to my own shelves to look for some of my old favourites. Even those who plan to get no closer to the actual mountains than a postcard of Mont Blanc will find some unexpected and brilliant armchair adventuring here.
One of the great reads is Annapurna (1952) by Maurice Herzog, the first man to climb an 8000-metre peak (there are only 14 in the world). It’s a riveting account of disaster and triumph, and it concludes with the second-best closing line in mountain literature, the luminously calm ‘There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men’. The very best ending is Eric Newby’s, in A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958). Newby and his companion Hugh Carless bump into Wilfred Thesiger in a miserable village camp in the lower Panjshir. Getting ready for another night of privation the pair blow up their air-beds. ‘”God, you must be a couple of pansies”, said Theisger’. In the similarly stiff-upper-lip language of The Ascent of Nanda Devi (1937) H.W.Tilman writes of reaching the summit with his climbing partner Noel Odell, ‘I believe we so far forgot ourselves as to shake hands on it’.
My greatest favourite is Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spider (1959). This classic doesn’t so much describe the first ascent of the Eiger North Face as haul the quivering reader bodily up the mile-high face. I first gulped it down as a teenager, and the words Hinterstoisser Traverse and Death Bivouac never fail to shiver my spine. Accounts of tragic expeditions are always fascinating because they give more weight to the precise combination of bravery and selfishness that compels human beings to climb high mountains – Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void (1988) wins the prize here. I once sat on a plane out to Kathmandu next to a climber who was reading this book. He couldn’t raise his eyes from the page for long enough to lift his drink. Mislocating his own mouth, he poured a beer straight into his lap and went on reading, oblivious. Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air (1997) is equally unputdownable, a forensic account of the unfolding of a tragic season on Everest.
It’s not all about the remote Himalayas, though. W.H.Murray’s Mountaineering in Scotland (1947) recalls days and nights with friends on Ben Nevis, Cir Mhor on Arran and the Cuillin of Skye with modest affection. Murray also gives the recipe for the mountaineer’s cocktail known as Mummery’s Blood, consisting of equal parts of rum and Bovril, served boiling hot. He claims that a pint ‘lowers angles, shortens distances and improves weather’. Well it would, wouldn’t it?
Other books that jump off my shelves include Gwen Moffat’s Space Below My Feet (1961), about becoming the first female mountain guide, a nice contrast to Janet Adam Smith’s writing. Al Alvarez’s Feeding the Rat (1988) is as essential as Annapurna. Alvarez is a poet who neatly defines climbing as ‘chess for the body’, and the title of his comic retelling of climbing exploits relates to his theory that climbers keep on doing it as a way of easing the constant gnawing of some inner rodent. After an epic day on the Old Man of Hoy, a fearsome sea stack in the Orkneys, Alvarez is asked ‘How’s your rat, then?’ ‘He over-ate’, Alvarez answers. ‘I think he just died’.
The fiction section isn’t quite as crowded, but there are a couple of gems. H.P. Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness (1931) is wildly eccentric, even bonkers, but it’s eerie and peculiarly memorable. The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956) by W.E.Bowman is a wicked spoof of some of the more square-jawed mountaineering classics, and is one of the funniest books I have ever read. There’s also, ahem, my own White—a love story set against an Everest ascent.
If there were to be just one book for the armchair mountaineer, though, it could well be Mountains of the Mind: A History of an Obsession by Robert Macfarlane (2003). This erudite, passionate book is part history, part personal memoir and part meditation on that essential mixture of bravery and selfishness and the ever-entwined wonder and terror of mountaineering itself.
May there always be a new book—whatever our particular fascination– waiting to be read. And possibly a pint of Mummery’s Blood somewhere to hand.
Here is my eerily tidy workstation this morning, April 23. Honestly, I haven’t prinked it up for the picture – it really does look like this, and the reason is that the paperback of THE ILLUSIONISTS is out today and the hardback of DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE is due on July 30. I finished the last and final work on DAUGHTER a couple of weeks ago and I’m waiting for the book proofs/advance reading copies to come in. So there’s no more writing on either of the two books that have absorbed me for ages, which means I’m cast adrift at the helm of an empty desk. Waiting for the current to sweep me and it into a new project. Or something of the kind – if only it was really so majestic and natural and ozone-rich. Actually it’s more a matter of disjointedly reading, scribbling paragraphs in notebooks that I immediately mislay, yawning, staring out of the window at people on bicycles, feeling slightly seasick as the idea weighs on my diaphragm, and telling myself alternately ‘it’s going to be brilliant and a work of genius’ or ‘it’s FAR too unwieldy, you know nothing about the subject, think of the RESEARCH, no one will read it. Try something noirish instead with GIRL in the title…’ But after so many years of writing and more than a score of novels in print, I know one thing. You can only write what’s in your head and heart. If it isn’t going to be what the market and the marketeers currently swoon for, then nourish the hope that yours will be the book that turns the tide in the latest direction. Believe in it. There is no other way. I LOVE this business. There are days when I hate it and would rather stick my head in the toaster than sit down at the keyboard, but it’s always, always fascinating. PS The Action Man mountaineer on my shelf is my ideal bloke. Craggy, the strong silent type, comes equipped with crampons, axes and an avalanche shovel. Fits conveniently into a pocket or handbag.