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.

Nature notes

Squeezing the very last juices out of this long autumn before sitting down to properly begin the DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE edit, with an afternoon walking another lap of the Capital Ring from Crystal Palace to Wimbledon. It’s not an area of London I know at all, or can even remember visiting before, having spent my forty-odd years here living at the diametrically opposite corner. Who would have thought that Upper Norwood is full of grand houses and startling views over the Kentish weald or the far-distant Shard and Gherkin? At this time of year the huge gardens are all scarlet berries and drooping butter-yellow foliage, and the quiet pavements thick with black-spotted sycamore leaves. As in a previous blog entry (the One about Sewage) we are still admiring the triumphs of the Victorian water engineers. This Moorish-looking brick temple complete with cupolas is another pumping station, built in 1888 for the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Company. No self-effacing utility exteriors in those days. It’s all BLAM! Get an eyeful of THIS!

IMG_1540And one other long walk, following the Suffolk coast. A spell of damp weather after a sunny summer has intensified the colours to saturation point. The purple-russet of that bracken looks good enough to EAT, while the gorse is still bright with flowers. Oak and birch leaves are genteelly fading against the glossy background of pine and spruce. Any day now there’ll be a heavy frost, and everything will pitch straight into winter.

IMG_1542Back to work. Today I’ve re-read my text with my editor’s detailed notes in front of me, and am reminded yet again what a gulf there always is between what I think I’ve written, and what’s actually there on the page. After a month of not looking or even thinking about it, coming afresh I have to agree that I’ve undercooked the love story quite seriously – as a result of trying not to overdo it! It won’t be difficult to flesh it out (ahem), and I’m really looking forward to stitching in some new scenes, and at the same time cutting otiose pages, slashing the adverbs, smoothing out the time scale, and turning it all into seamless perfection. I hope.

Actually I’m itching to get started.

More later.


It’s a thumbs up

The verdict is in on DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE. Thank you to the regular readers of this, who reassured me during the waiting weeks.

All’s well. There’s a bit of editorial tweaking to be done, but nothing major. The editor’s notes will follow, after which there will be a bit of bargaining, and then I’ll go away and make the necessary amendments. Apparently these are mostly to do with the timescale, which is a long one for me – from 1910 to 1934. I have written the story in four discrete sections, but my excellent editor takes the view that these should be smoothed together so that the story runs more seamlessly. It’s a fair point, although I’m not yet sure how it’s to be done. But from experience I do know that it’s much easier to edit existing material than it is to write from scratch, so I don’t feel apprehensive. The book will be published (I think) next May, following on from the paperback edition of THE ILLUSIONISTS in April. Hurrah!


Here’s the latest version of the proposed cover. Any thoughts, anyone??

I’m at the coast again for the winter season, with a view over the grey North Sea, reading history and turning over ideas for the next novel. I love the progression from being totally absorbed in one book to the slow seduction by the next.

The one about yoga

This is where we stayed

This is where we stayed

The shady terrace of an old house in a Berber village, deep in the folds of the hills overlooking Marrakesh, was the perfect spot for a week of yoga. I was there with my daughter, who is supple enough to take the lotus pose and can stand on her head at will. I can do neither, or not without some inelegant heaving and hoicking first, but I’m ready to give anything a try and hence the week’s retreat. I’m still a newcomer to the asanas scene, having only taken up yoga last Christmas – rather unwillingly – as an alternative to running and rock climbing, which are the activities I really love. But past the age of 65, I glumly discover, the knees and hips start to get rickety and the spine painfully compresses as the discs lose their spongy resilience. There’s not much to be done about it – just try to find something to do that doesn’t demand so much of the brittle body.

The daughter and I and the double down dog

The daughter and I and the double down dog

This retreat was quite a forgiving one. There were no rules about turning vegan, or forbidding a margarita at sunset. Classes ran from 7.30 to 9am and 4 to 6.30pm, so there was plenty of time in between for sunbathing and exploring. The daughter and I pushed on at our different ability levels, and for the rest of the time we read or talked. I devoured three books from the Man Booker list – Howard Jacobson, Ali Smith and David Nicholls. All good. I liked How to be Both best of the three. It’s got an interesting structure, and a kind of fierce delicacy about it. This is by no means a book blog, but it’s the title off the list I would recommend. That said, I still haven’t read the winner, or Neel Mukherjee.

Emptying the mind during the meditation sessions was much harder than taking the crow pose. There’s always some little voice inside my head. Hello? Listen to that bird. My nose is itchy. Will there be pancakes for breakfast? Especially now. It’s a month since I sent in the completed manuscript of DAUGHTER OF THE HOUSE, and I still haven’t heard anything from the publishers. They are busy people and have to go to a lot of meetings with each other, but a month feels a really long time to be left in a state of anxious suspension. What if they hate it? What if they’re trying to find a way to tell me? Maybe it’s terrible. There’s that bird again.

According to our excellent teacher, you are supposed to gently acknowledge the intrusion of the thought, then bring your attention back to your breath. Slow inhale, hold, slow exhale. Slow in, hold….

Well. Maybe I have learned a little.