Thursday, 2 April 2020

Block

It was bound to happen. I am disappointed but not surprised. My new novel, The Covenant, which was to have been published on July 16th, has now been put on ice until August 20th (fingers crossed). By then, I hope, bookshops will have reopened, distributors will be operating their warehouses again and Amazon will have books back as no.1 essentials. Meanwhile, of course, I can always get on with another book, except...

I can’t write. Well I can, because I’m writing this, but otherwise I am faced with a brick wall.

All I ever wanted to do was write (and read). I turned down very sensible career advice from my headmaster (study law, get rich), because I didn’t want to do anything except be a writer. I made a mess of my first degree because I’d virtually given up on studying in order to write instead. For years my primary occupation, when not having to work for a living, was writing. My secondary occupation was watching for the postman to deliver rejection letters. I never, ever, considered giving up.

And now, with Covid 19, I am confronted with insurmountable inertia. I’ve never experience writer’s block before. I’ve had times when I’ve had to put things aside while I worry over why something isn’t working, or where it will go next, or if I’m bored with it, but I’ve never been faced with such a total lack of desire to write until now.

It isn’t that I am too terrified of imminent death to think of anything else. It isn’t that I am sick with worry, about falling ill, about my nearest and dearest falling ill (which I am), about whether we’ll go mad in isolation (not me, I’m used to it). I am nursing pangs of guilt that I’m not worrying about where the next meal is coming from, whether the house will be repossessed, whether the shops will have anything in or whether my money will run out. I know how lucky I am not to be worrying about those things.

So why can’t I write? Everything else is on hold. I have the perfect excuse to sit at my laptop, without interruption, and write non-stop from dawn till dusk. But I can’t, because everything I was writing, with a contemporary setting, seems now so utterly irrelevant. How can I write about a world that, when we eventually come out of all this, will no longer exist? Should I turn to writing historical drama? Somehow everything historical is now imbued with a heavy weight of inevitability, leading to an inexorable present that is sinking like a stone. All I can see, looking back, is greed, stupidity, bigotry, pointless conflicts and an endless stream of futile mistakes, peppered with plague and disease. Plus ça change. Should I write about the future? It will be dystopian, won’t it? It always is, and that now seems a little pointless, when faced with the actual thing.

I think I shall just have to dig the garden, plant seeds and crawl back inside the 1530s with Hilary Mantell. It’s going to end with a decapitation; if that doesn't cheer me up, nothing will. Then, when it’s all over and the world has decided which way up to land, I’ll start again.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Threnody

I sing of Pippin, family friend,
Window yowler,
Loving lap-warmer,
Soothing snuggler.

Lean lady of the lane, she did not rest
Sleek sable-suited sentinel of the high hedges.
Purring prey pouncer,
Mistress of mangled mice,
Sharp-toothed shrew shredder,
Wren-wrangler,
Fierce foe of pheasants (or would be, had they been smaller).

Eighteen Easters, she held sway,
Mitsy’s mentor with firm paw.
Provisioner of the Pear Tree,
She did not hold back:
Gift-giver (mostly spleens).

Weary now, wait no longer.
Marooned in maidenhood (my doing),
Diana's new moon bow bends, beckoning.
Stellar dust once more, stream star-ward.
Hunt now the high ways with Orion.

Friday, 20 March 2020

Horseshoe nails and consequences

While we worry about the effects of Coronavirus in the near future, here is a story to entertain. It’s not fiction exactly, it’s history, and history is always subjective, not a science, open to challenge and re-evaluation, but this is my version and it makes a good story. Allegedly.

There is an old rhyme:
     For the want of a nail, a shoe was lost.
     For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
     For the want of a horse, the rider was lost.
     For the want of a rider, the battle was lost.
     For the want of the battle, the kingdom was lost
     And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

No one know what kingdoms will be lost when one little nail messes things up.

Once upon a time, back in the Middle Ages, Venice was the great trading power in the Mediterranean, so aggressive against its rivals that it even persuaded crusaders to divert from their intended goal, Jerusalem, and sack Constantinople instead. That is one horseshoe nail with far-reaching consequences, but I digress. Back to trade... Other Italian city states wanted a share of the action too. Genoa moved in on the Black Sea and established a large fortified trading base at Kaffa (now Feodosiya) on the Crimean coast.

One day some Genoese merchants, out for a stroll, got in a bit of a barny with a bunch of the Mongol locals, in the course of which a local was stabbed to death. This is my horseshoe nail. The end result of that street brawl was economic upheaval, the collapse of feudalism, the rise of capitalism, the Reformation, the break-up of Western Christendom and, ultimately, Hitler.

How?

The brawl and the death led to a riot against the Genoese, who locked themselves in their sea-side enclave. The angry locals besieging them were joined by the Mongol army, but the siege began to falter as sickness started to spread among the soldiers, as it tends to do in siege situations. Rather than simply give up, the Mongols took a last swipe at their enemy by catapulting their dead into the Genoese stronghold. The Genoese merchants tried to deal with the corpses but in the end decided to give head for home, escaping by sea.

Their first major port of call was Messina in Sicily – by which time some on the ship were dead and others were dying. The inhabitants of the port realised that they’d brought an unwelcome visitor and forced them out to sea again, but too late. At each port where the ship tried to put in on its return to Genoa, it brought the Black Death with it. Everywhere that ships and trade went, the Pestilence went too, all around the Mediterranean, all across Europe, to Spain, to Scotland, to Moscow, mutating at it went, from bubonic plague (pretty deadly) to pneumonic and septicemic plague (totally deadly). In the course of 3 years, till 1350, about a third of the population of Europe was wiped out, especially the old, sick, weakened and malnourished.

After such catastrophes, populations often spring back – the strongest have survived. A new generation was born. Then the plague returned in 1361 and hit especially hard at the young. This time there was no instant recovery. The population in England (and conquered Wales) took another 500 years to return to its 13th century levels.

The result of it all, in England at least, was the collapse of feudalism, which had been built on the backs of vast armies of peasant labourers tied to the land. Now they were in short supply, and despite attempts to round them up and bring them back when they ran off to the big cities, they became uppity. They revolted. Attempts were made to put them down, but there was no stopping the flow. Land owners had to start paying for labour and renting out land. Meanwhile, in the cities, merchants were on the rise, relying on money and trade instead of forced peasant labour.

It had been happening for a long time, of course. Earlier Medieval monarchs, in desperate need of money as well as feudal levies, had relied on the only source of capital, the Jews, since Christians weren’t supposed to soil themselves with usury, charging interest on loans (the basis of most modern economies). Edward I, finding himself in more debt than he liked, had solved his problem by defaulting on his debts and throwing the Jews out of England. But that left him needing another source of finance. Italian banks, which had learned not to be squeamish about charging interest, stepped in and, when kings, once more, defaulted on their debts, the banks went bankrupt. Kings started borrowing off their noble subjects instead – and they too went bankrupt.

But then there were the merchants of London. By the early 15th century, after the plague, a Lord Mayor of London, who had bankrolled Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V, munificently tore up the debts the king owed him, to show he was so rich he didn’t need repaying. His name was Sir Richard Whittington. (The cat was added to his legend a few centuries later.)

It took the great landowners a few more centuries to realise that they were no longer the real power in the kingdom, but the city was already on top.

In matters of faith, the Black Death knocked the wind out of easy early Medieval piety. The Church failed to save people. They were abandoned, forced to confess to other lay men or even, God help us, if all else failed, to women. Priests died as fast as anyone, faster if they were properly dutiful in attending the dying. God hadn’t saved them. Many abbeys that should have supplied replacements or offered help, locked their doors to keep contagion out, and their street cred plummeted.

Anti-clericalism rose. The Church was left wallowing in corruption. Early “heresies” of men like Wycliffe were fought with flames, but no fire could stop the eventual emergence of Protestantism under Luther, Calvin and the rest. Europe was riven with religious division – which still staggers on in Northern Ireland and certain football grounds.

Some gave up on religion entirely, opening the way for the rationality of the modern era. Others became fanatical in their beliefs instead, convinced of God’s punishment and determined to find scapegoats. Edward I had deprived England of one easy target, but on the continent murderous anti-semitism swept country after country, because it went without saying that the plague must have been caused by Jews poisoning Christian wells. Anti-semitism had been simmering for centuries, ever since St John put the blame for the crucifixion on the Jews, but they remained the main focus for amorphous fear, rage and insecurity until Hitler arrived to milk it with such industrial efficiency.

So, don't get involved in a street brawl, because you never know where it might lead. I am sure coronavirus will be brought under control and vaccines will be developed and economies will strive to right themselves, but I am intrigued to know what the really long-term results will be.


Saturday, 14 March 2020

The Memory: interview with Judith Barrow

Fellow author Judith Barrow's new novel, The Memory, comes out this week and I can vouch for it being a gripping and very moving read. I've interviewed her about it - well, cornered her and demanded answers - and this is what she had to say.

Q: You’ve written four volumes of a family saga about the Howarth family. Your new book, The Memory, moves into new territory. What is it about?

A: It is new territory for me but families fascinate me; there’s a wealth of human emotions to work with within a family unit so, from that point of view, I don’t think I strayed too far with The Memory. In the Haworth trilogy and prequel, there is still an underlying theme of reactions to a situation. But the difference between those books and this one is that those characters, as well as reacting in a domestic setting, respond to a wider situation; their lives are affected by what is happening in the outside world.  In The Memory it is only Irene Hargreaves, the protagonist, that the reader learns about; mainly from the claustrophobic atmosphere she is living in presently, but also through her memories.

But you are right in other ways; it’s a more contemporary book than the others and also it’s written in a different style. The book runs on two timelines: Irene's life from the age of eight, after her sister is born and her grandmother comes to live with the family because her mother refuses to accept her second daughter, Rose, a Downs Syndrome child. That’s written in past tense. The second timeline, over the last twenty-four hours is written in the present tense and shows Irene’s life as the carer of her mother, who has dementia. Irene is trapped by the love she has for Lilian but which vies with the hatred she feels because of a memory; something she saw many years ago. Driven to despair and exhaustion she believes there is only one solution, one way to escape from the life she is leading.


Q: What inspired it?

A: I don’t know that it was inspired by any one thing. The Memory actually began as a short story I wrote a long time ago, which just grew and, which, in turn, started from a journal that I’d kept from when I was carer for one of my relatives who had dementia. I read many articles on coping with the disease at the time, but writing how I felt then helped tremendously. Writing like that always has; it’s something I did through many years from being a child. Then, during the time I was looking after my aunt, I was asked, by someone who worked for the local branch of the Care in the Community organisation, to write notes about the day-to-day situation of looking after her, for a project they were carrying out.

Another memory was of was a childhood friend of mine; actually the son of one of someone my mother knew. The boy was a Down’s syndrome child, though I didn’t realise then. We would sit on the front doorstep of their house and I would read to him. Or chat; well, I would talk and he would smile and laugh. I didn’t think that it was odd that he never spoke; my mother had told me to entertain him so I took books along or regaled him with stories; things that had happened in school. Thinking about it, I never even wondered why he wasn’t in school either. Anyway, one Monday after school, I went along the lane to their house and the front door was closed. I didn’t understand; one day he was there and the next gone. No one explained that he’d died. I‘m not sure I even understood what that meant anyway. So, I did what I usually did; I wrote about it; how I felt losing a friend. So, from finding the short story in a drawer I was clearing out, and remembering the journals, came The Memory.


Q: Did you find it difficult or refreshing to move on from the Howarths?

A:  I’m not sure I have moved on; Mary Haworth is nagging at me to write the last years of her life, so who knows if I’ll give in.

I lived with this family for over a decade and, to be honest, I could have picked any of the other characters and written their story. Each one has existed both within the three books of the trilogy and alongside them; sometimes they disappeared from the main stories and I often wondered what they were doing when I hadn’t got my eye on them.


Q: Did you have to do extensive research or rely on your own experience when dealing with the issues in The Memory?

A: Although I researched extensively for the Haworth series, with The Memory there was little research. I have had first hand knowledge of caring for relatives with dementia; I cared for two of my aunts. One had lived with us a long time before she developed the disease; so I saw the changes in her personality before we lost her. The other was what one would call an “off the wall” character always anyway, so we just went along with how things happened. I relied on how things had happened over the years; I trusted on my experiences as a background for the book

It was only for Rose, Irene’s sister, a Down’s Syndrome child, that I needed help. Besides reading extensively about the lives and ways of children with special; needs I also have a friend whose husband worked in that sector. He was very generous with his time and with his knowledge.


Q: Is there much of your own childhood in the book?

A: This is a difficult question.  In The Memory it was recollections that hovered at the back of my mind constantly as I wrote. The tension and atmosphere that a selfish or perhaps I should say, self-centred parent can bring into a home isn’t something you forget. I know the way the feelings in a room can change when an angry or irritated person walks in. It’s something I’ve always been aware of throughout my life. Writing it into The Memory, as with all my books (although in a different way than I experienced) has helped me to understand what was going on at that time. I have written my autobiography but it caused friction between my sister; an extremely private person, and me. So it’s still sitting in a drawer and will probably never see the light of day.

In The Memory I wanted the story to revolve around two things: the way the memory forces Irene to face it and how she works out what she will do. It’s that memory that has formed the relationship that Irene has with her mother, Lilian. It’s a relationship of distrust, even hatred sometimes but also of a grudging love.


Q: Some of your characters are more lovable than others. Do you feel the need to find something positive in all of them?

A: Well, I don’t think that in real life there are many people who are all bad –or even all good, come to think of it. I always want to get under the skin of all my characters, so I always write what I call a ‘character sheet’ about them: their physical appearance, where they fit into their family and society, their characteristics, work, habits, that kind of thing. I suppose that comes from being a creative writing tutor. Or perhaps it’s something all writers of novels do; I don’t know.

 Also, I’m aware that the characters lived a life before I found them; they have backstories that have affected how they are. And we’re back to memories! Who was it said “Memory is a record of your personal experience…through memory you live the life you are living today...” Hmm, perhaps it was me… somewhere. So, yes, I do feel I need to find something positive in all my characters; it makes then as true to the reader as they are to me.

 Mind you, sometimes I fail. I do remember Terry Tyler’s comment in her review of A Hundred Tiny Threads: “A moment later I was reintroduced to Bill Howarth (Mr Prologue), a thoroughly unlikeable character who grew increasingly despicable, and all of a sudden I realised I was engrossed. I do love a well-written nasty piece of work, and Judith Barrow has done a masterful job with Howarth. He'd had a bad start in life, yes, but I didn't pity him; my loathing of him grew more intense as the book progressed.


Q: Do you find writing a release or a torment?

A: I suppose, like many writers, it can be both. I escape into my writing in difficult personal times; it’s something I’ve managed to do since childhood.  So that’s a release. The torment comes when the words don’t flow and I’m pushing the stories along and, all the time knowing that the words are rubbish and I will delete them by the end of the day.

The absolute joy arrives in a flash when I open a manuscript to go over the work I’ve done the day before and I think,’ I don’t remember writing that; it’s quite good.’ Then I can get going on the writing again and I lose myself … and the day… in it. Then it’s a release.

Well, thankyou, Judith, for responding to my nagging and I highly recommend the new book.

 published March 19th by Honno Press.

Friday, 6 March 2020

Coming fairly shortly: The Covenant

I now have a cover for my next novel, The Covenant, which will be published on July 16th. It’s the prequel to A Time For Silence and is set in the same isolated Pembrokeshire cottage of Cwmderwen.

Both books feature a ruined cottage on the cover, but not the same one. Long before I thought of writing any book set in the area where I live, I stumbled on a derelict cottage just two fields beyond the end of my garden. Literally stumbled. I lost a boot in the process as I explored, wriggling under barbed wire designed to keep cattle from straying, into a strip of wood that descended into a deep valley.

Totally surrounded by tangled trees, the cottage was an intriguing sight, long abandoned but still bearing signs of the last people who had lived there: a rusting pot in the cavernous inglenook fireplace, a broken picture frame by the little parlour fireplace. Its image stayed with me and provided inspiration for A Time For Silence when I came to write it some years later. But I could no longer access it easily, to see what time had done to it, because the surrounding farmland had switched from cattle to sheep, with more solid fencing that I could no longer wriggle under. So when I was looking for a picture to illustrate the cottage in A Time For Silence, I sent my publisher (Honno) a photo of a cottage a few miles away, taken by a friend (thank you, Duncan Ball!) and that is the one that appears on the cover of my first book.

But since 2012, footpaths have opened up, trees have been cleared, and the cottage, Tycwm, is now accessible again, exposed to full daylight. The upper floor, which had been collapsing when I saw it first, had been removed, and preparations were being made for restoration. So one of my photographs of it, rediscovered in 2016, is now on the cover of The Covenant.

The two cottages are very similar – in fact almost identical to any of a hundred around here, including my own house before it was extended some time in the 1960s. Two up, two down, and little else. My own home, like my fictional Cwmderwen, was once a farmhouse on a farm of little more than 20 acres. Tycwm, on the other hand, was only a gamekeeper’s cottage, still inhabited by a large family at the beginning of the 20th century. It must have been a cramped place to raise a family, and gloomy amidst the trees, a long way from any road.

Ironically, the pheasants that had once kept a gamekeeper busy at the cottage have now been returned to live in the same valley, to provide targets for a local shoot, but most of them seem to have moved into my garden.

The Covenant is now available to pre-order.
A Time For Silence is also available.

Friday, 28 February 2020

TV detectives on the page.

I have been watching TV crime dramas since I was knee-high to a bank robber. I’ve taken in everything from Dixon of Dock Green to White House Farm. These days, now that I have 150 TV channels to make my heart glad, I am usually stuck on ITV3, with endless repeats of Poirot, Frost, Midsummer Murders and Morse. Although the BBC has produced many, and American TV even more, you can't beat the ITV series for haunting and stylish theme tunes and opening credits.

I know that authors can have very different attitudes to adaptations of their books. Colin Dexter was obviously happy with having Morse taken out of his hands, since he appeared in every episode, whereas R D Wingfield wasn't so happy with A Touch of Frost. It must be disappointing to find your work ripped up and remodelled by other hands, although I defy any author to say they wouldn't love to be in a position to risk the disappointment.

It has recently occurred to me, tearing myself away from the screen, that though many of my favourites began as novels, I had never read any apart from a few Agatha Christies. So I decided to try a few and see how they compared with the TV series they spawned.

I began with Last Bus to Woodstock, by Colin Dexter, the first novel to introduce Chief Inspector Morse. I don’t expect TV adaptations to stick to the book, so I wasn’t expecting the Morse in the book to be identical to the Morse of John Thaw, and he isn’t. Which is fine. I would have been interested to explore a different character, though I can’t say I like him. The phrase ‘dirty old man’ comes to mind. I didn't particularly like this Morse and there wasn't really anything about poor Lewis to like or dislike.

I found myself put off by the style of writing, though I suppose it's what you would expect of Oxbridge. Do people perambulate? "Impatient at the best of times, and this was not the best of times, he waited restlessly and awkwardly, pacing to and fro, consulting his watch and throwing wicked glances as the portly woman inside the kiosk who appeared ill-equipped to face the triangular threat of the gadgeted apparatus before her, an uncooperative telephone exchange and her own one-handed negotiations with the assorted coinage in her purse." ... And breathe. I can't help thinking of Disraeli's description of Gladstone as being inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity.

The real problem though was the fact that although I had seen the TV version many times (admittedly a totally reconstructed story), the day after finishing the book, I couldn’t actually remember who had done it in the end. Nor did I really care. It petered out into an over-long explanation or who, what, why, when and where, going interminably over ground already covered, and I longed for the improbable simplicity of Poirot herding all his characters into a drawing room and revealing all over a nice tisane. I shall happily go back to watching every rerun of Morse (and Lewis and Endeavour), regardless of their unbelievable plots, but probably not bother with another of the books.

Next was The Killings at Badger’s Drift by Caroline Graham, the first Midsomer Murders. Very different in style, of course, being classified as Cosy Crime and, to my mind, much more readable. The setting is as delightfully absurdly twee at the TV version and the characters are larger than life, their physical appearance described in intricate detail, while their characters and motivations are left comfortably untroubled.

Unlike the Morse book, the TV version of this Midsomer Murder didn’t seem to deviate from the book at all, so I knew who was who and what was coming, which slightly deflated the surprise element. The only thing that did surprise me was the difference between the Barnaby of the book, who is unexpectedly dour and grumpy, and the John Nettles version who seemed to revel in Gothic gore amongst the thatch and shrubberies of rural England.
It did leave me thinking how the world has changed in a relatively short time. The Killings at Badger’s Drift was published in 1987, a world when villagers relied on telephone boxes for communication, policemen recorded details on index cards, and no one had a Facebook profile.

The last book I tried was The Crow Trap by Anne Cleeves, the first Vera Stanhope book. Entirely different. I can’t say if it compares with the TV version because it must be the one episode I have failed to catch, but  I found  the Vera in the book sufficiently similar to Brenda Blethyn's portrayal, except that the book has no reference to her sounding like a boy, whose voice is breaking, strangling a cat in a high wind.

What struck me most was that it was simply an excellent book, defying genre definition as the best crime novels do, knee-deep in atmosphere and perceptive character studies. In fact, as Vera doesn’t actually come into it until about halfway through, I’d forgotten what sort of book I was reading and her sudden appearance startled me. Of the three, it’s the only one that left me wanting to move on to the next book in the series.

Now, back to ITV3, while waiting for the call to adapt one of my books...

Friday, 21 February 2020

Women's Lit Lib

A few years ago I was stopped in the street by a girl armed with a clipboard. She wanted to know which women’s magazines I read. I don’t take any magazines regularly, but there are a few that I occasional buy or seek out in waiting rooms, so I listed them: Private Eye, New Statesman, National Geographic, New Scientist, Nature… ‘No,’ she said, ‘Just women’s magazines.’

I was alarmed. Was she implying that women should only read magazines with recipes, fashion tips and advice on the menopause? What is the penalty for a woman reading about current affairs? Am I likely to have a finger or two amputated as punishment?

Why on earth are certain subjects and styles still set aside for women, but none (apart from under the counter porn) for men? What defines Women’s Lit? Is it any book with a cute cover, featuring some lace, pink lettering and girls with Pre-Raphaelite hair – as opposed to covers with enormous Freudian guns and men with chins like the Rock of Gibraltar? 

I am a woman, my main characters are women, my stories revolve around family dramas and domestic crime, but, despite Amazon's classifications, I don't regard my books as Women's Lit. One highly valued review I've received for A Time For Silence says "One might think of it as a woman's book but I found that it works equally well for a man." Phew. I am very glad that reader was willing to read it.

In general, women are willing to read books of every description, including those written by men, about men. If there are men terrified of books by women about women, it’s their narrow choice of literature that should be separated out as Men’s Lit, instead of hiving off “Women’s Lit,” as a minor sub-section of literature.

I will accept that there can be differences in the way men and women write. Give a man and a woman the same subject to write about - say War, for example - and there's a good chance that the man will concentrate on the action, with fast pace and plot complications while the woman will concentrate on character, relationships and feelings, but that really is very generalised. Of two men writing spy thrillers, I’d say Len Deighton is more action and John le Carré is more character, but while the balance swings one way or the other, both deal with both. The truth is, any good book is a mixture of it all, action and character, plot, intrigue, emotional responses and complications in relationships. If there are men can't cope with that, give them a little corner of their own for Men's Literature, and leave the rest of the library for everyone else. Vive La Confusion.