Hay days

P1010767Literary 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.

Of Men, Women and Mountains

Stu and me at the sea cliffs, Sutherland

Stu and me at the sea cliffs, Sutherland

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.

On the Eiger

On the Eiger


Man of action

IMG_1870 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.

Something to read

lauterbrunnen valley 30 April 2015

Mist rising in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

Trapped indoors between heavy rain sluicing down the mountain and mist swirling up from the valley floor, I turned to my book. I’d brought a big fat one, We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas. It’s a minute detailing of Irish-American family life, practically in real time, but even that wasn’t long enough to last out the rain. Aghast at being bookless I had a hunt along my host’s shelves, and a thin paperback fell into my hand. The Life of Rebecca Jones, by Angharad Price.

My host is Welsh, like me. I was interested to discover a novel translated from Welsh and I glanced at the back cover. ‘Price’s book can claim a place on the shelf beside Berger, Sebald and Ondaatje. Widely hailed as the first Welsh classic of the 21st century’.

I started reading.

Oh my goodness. What a discovery.

I finished it at a sitting, as they say. It was like falling down the rabbit hole, tumbling into a place and time long gone, but which I once knew well. The book is a work of poetry and social history as well as fiction, spare and quaint and stoical, and at the same time wildly romantic. As sonorous as a chapel organ, it’s the story of a farming family scraping a living off the mountainside in a harsh and lovely place. I sat in village school with children like those described here, and went to play in their farmyards and hay barns. There was tea in the farm kitchen, bread and butter before bara brith, and always a plain-faced clock ticking on the shelf above the range. The book tells of sheep shearing and haymaking and Sunday chapel, temperance and black Bibles and the births of children, early deaths and family agonies and the circuits of memory.

After I closed it I sat thinking and looking out at another view, a different place but in its way as sharp and particular as rural mid-Wales. I was pondering on families, and the way memories shift in the mind’s mist. Tomorrow I fly home to check the proofs of Daughter of the House, and after that begin over again.





Now, what’s on the telly?

I read the report below in one of the book trade online publications:

“New YouGov research reveals that the most desired jobs in Britain are not what you might expect; they are not even the most reliably well paid ones. Instead of actors and musicians, it seems that an aura of prestige still surrounds the quiet, intellectual life enjoyed by authors, librarians and academics.

Being an author is the number one most desired job in Britain. Not only would the most people like to be one (60%), the smallest percentage would not like to be one (32%). The only other jobs preferred by a majority are equally as bookish: librarian (54%) and academic (51%). Although there is a slight tendency to not want a career in law, it is the fourth most desired profession.

Men are far more likely to want to be train drivers, Formula 1 drivers, astronauts and MPs, while women are far more likely to want to be interior designers and librarians.”

I’m astonished by this. Can it be true that 60% of people in this country want my job? Anecdotally I’m aware that most people do look beyond the wafting-about-with-a-notebook and lots-of-time-for-coffee idea of authorship to glimpse the murky reality of deadlines, reduced marketing spend, fear of exposure as a total fraud, silent envy of others’ bestseller listings or literary prizes, yoked to the constant gnawing loneliness of the professional writer’s life.  I think it’s more likely that the weird statistic (Lies, damned lies etc) actually reflects a widespread and wholly natural yearning to express our inner emotions, to give shape to our dreams, and to share the fruits of that creative drive via what seems the most accessible route. To have a creative as well as a functional outlet, and maybe get rich at the same time. (Not many authors actually do get rich, by the way. I think the average earnings of a writer, as published by the Society of Authors, is in the region of £12,000 pa.) For myself, I would love to be able to paint or sculpt, or to play the violin. But I know I can’t and never will. Writing, though. Why not? We can all physically do it, whereas the vast majority of us couldn’t pick our way through Für Elise or draw a shoe box in perspective. I’m not saying this relative facility isn’t all to the good. Letters (once upon a time), diaries, blogs, stories, pieces for the parish mag, novels of adolescence or retirement and everything in between – it’s somehow satisfying to think of all those accretions of human experience and imagination laid out for others to share. But actually being an author is another condition, altogether uneasy. I know lots of writers, and the real, true ones exist in a constant state of pain. Whoever would want that?

Sebastian Faulks, excellent novelist and successful writer, declared last week in a magazine column that he’s had enough of the author’s life and is looking for a day job. He misses the water cooler chat, the team work, the sociability and the PAYE packet. He writes that 25 years alone in a garret has driven him a bit mad. Ah, how that does resonate.

I have just finished the final work on DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE, which will be published on July 30. It’s been a long haul, and I am so happy with the book that has finally emerged. I’ve also helped to plan a big wedding and that’s now over… so I feel this week as if I have suddenly popped up into a big bright world that’s full of things to do. And what have I done so far? Well, I’ve watched telly. Indian Summers, for non-UK readers, is the current big drama series, set in Simla in the heyday of the British Raj. The story pace is a bit hectic for me, but I’m loving the long shots of green hill station scenery and distant white Himalayan peaks. Simla is not Srinagar – to me not so beautiful or exotic  – but the atmosphere does take me straight back to gorgeous Kashmir, where I spent some time researching THE KASHMIR SHAWL. I’d go out there again tomorrow… if I didn’t have to look into violin lessons and enrolling in train driver school, that is. But the one I am really looking forward to is a film, Desert Queen, about my heroine Gertrude Bell. She is played by Nicole Kidman, with Robert Pattinson as T. E. Lawrence (double hmmmm). Bell’s life story is fascinating, and there’s a really good biography by Georgina Howell. It’s not so well known that in her young womanhood she was a pioneering mountaineer, and a very daring one. There’s even a Swiss Alpine peak named for her, the Gertrudspitze, and the next door one is the Ulrichspitze, after her mountain guide. I’d really like to go out and climb these, and I think they are just within my envelope. Now, there’s a project. But what about my hands, my violinist’s fingers, on that jagged granite?

Dog days of the year

photoThe last walk of 2014, all along the frosty Alde estuary wall from Snape to Orford in Suffolk. Marsh and river views with the monochrome brushstrokes of copses and church towers in the distance, low winter sun shining straight into our faces. I was with old friends, talking as we went, and we easily covered twelve miles. Their engagingly silly labradoodle probably did twice that distance, dashing ahead into the distance and then racing back again with its ears and tongue strung out like bunting.

Today, January 1, is grey and gusty. The fish and chip shop in town is doing good business though, and the visitors perch along the sea wall before removing just enough of their layers of bobble hats and scarves and coat collars to allow them to eat. Rows of beady seagulls watch and wait.

New year. I’m excited about a new book idea, travel plans, my daughter’s imminent wedding. It’s a good time. The edit of DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE is almost done and I’ve really enjoyed the rather meticulous process of cutting and stitching and picking up dropped threads. The young editor who has done such good work on the text is getting married on the same day as my daughter… I like this auspicious coincidence. The wheels grind slowly in book publishing, and it seems likely that the hardback publication will now be in September, not May.

THE ILLUSIONISTS paperback is still scheduled for April, and there are some new cover designs for me to look at: any thoughts would be really welcome.

ILLUSIONIST approaces CompositeA very happy 2015 to everyone.