Friday, 10 July 2020

The Covenant and the low heat of technology

My new novel, The Covenant, coming out in August, is set in West Wales in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Set a novel in that period in a city, in London or Manchester, and it wouldn’t be difficult to paint a period that everyone with any knowledge of history would recognise.

My characters would be flag-waving for the Empire and possibly their sons would be out there, carrying our trade and accompanying our adventurers around the world, whether the indigenous people wanted us or not. They might be soldiers embroiled in Afghanistan (plus ├ža change) or crushing rebellions in China and fighting wars in South Africa and the trenches of Europe. They could be participating in administrations that were starving millions in India, or they could be at home working in the clamour of industry, in cotton mills or ironworks, in banks and shops.

Motorised vehicles were appearing and my characters would travelling around on bicycles or in omnibuses. They would be totally at home with the railways that could carry them to every corner of the land. If they were very daring and very rich, they might even be taking to the air. They would have gas lighting in their houses or, if grand enough, might be installing electricity (although my mother, living in Cardiff in the 1920s and early 30s, still had gas lights in the living rooms and candles upstairs). Their world would have been quite recognisable to the reader, industrialised, confident, profiteering and surging forward.

But a novel set in rural West Wales is going to lack most of those markers that would help a reader place it in time. It’s an area that, until recently, has existed in an alternative time zone out of kilter with the rest of the world. It wasn’t surging anywhere. Even when I moved to the area in the early 1980s, I felt I was slipping into somewhere still marooned in the 1950s, if not earlier. Researching for my first novel, A Time For Silence, set in the 1930s and 40s, I read newspaper articles on the introduction of electricity in the 1950s – and that was just in the towns. Official reports had noted the poor housing, hygiene and malnutrition prevalent in rural Wales at the start of the twentieth century and it was still being blamed for the high level of TB in 1939. A diet of potatoes and tea was not uncommon.
In the 1980s we were told about an old lady, in living memory, who used to live a few doors away in what must have been a traditional long house, with cows occupying one half of the building. Each morning the cows would come in, through her front door and hall,  politely tilting their heads so their horns wouldn't disturb the pictures on the walls, as they made their way into the milking parlour. 

The gentry of the area would not have been troubled by primitive housing or malnutrition and they probably had homes in London as well as their country estates. They would have been au fait with everything fashionable, modern and advanced, but ordinary people, who had never moved far beyond their own parishes, were still living in a world only a very small shuffle removed from the world of their ancestors one or two hundred years before.

West Wales was not totally isolated in world terms. Ships were sailing to America from ports like Cardigan, Newquay and Aberystwyth in the 19th century, but inland the area lagged behind. Railways had been threading through the country, expanding horizons spectacularly since 1825, but branches only extended into North Pembrokeshire towards the end of the century – to Cardigan in 1886, and Fishguard in 1906.
the Cardi Bach

Motor cars began to appear in the 1890s – the first one was driven on British roads in 1895. By 1900, when Prince Bertie acquired one, there were still only a few hundred in Britain. Very few would have made their way to West Wales, especially to isolated villages where roads were still mud tracks.

In the big world, agriculture was becoming ever more mechanised, with mowers, reapers and binders, seed drills, steam engines and, finally in the 20th century, tractors. But these were not for the small-scale farmers with a few acres.

In The Covenant, a relatively wealthy farmer acquires a tractor in the course of the Great War, but the Owens, with their 24 acres, 1 rood and 8 perches, continue to rely on sickles and scythes. Partly poverty and partly an obstinate but pious determination to labour as Adam had done.

By 1919, the wealthy farmer has the luxury of a Ford Model T, but the Owens are still using a horse and trap or taking a daring ride on the charabanc from the nearest market town.

Newspapers were in circulation and, like every other community in Britain, from the largest city to the smallest hamlet, my characters feel the impact of the Great War, the shared patriotism and the private grief. But it is their little patch of land that really matters to them, not the fate of the Empire. It’s their minister’s decision to become a missionary that really opens up their horizons and that’s a matter of the next world, not this one.

published by Honno Press August 20th 2020
available for pre-order now

Saturday, 4 July 2020

The Covenant: Down on the farm

My new novel, The Covenant, which will published in August (available to pre-order now!) is set in the late 19th/early 20th century in West Wales, which was, and still is, relentlessly rural, centred around small market towns and railway halts.

Not the agriculture you find in the east, broad rolling acres of golden grain around spacious farmhouses with cathedral-sized barns, but a web of tiny fields, their banks and hedges probably dating back to the Bronze Age, supporting cows and sheep and a few sparse crops, around cramped, isolated cottages with a couple of sheds and maybe a pigsty.  The high hills are windswept unfenced commons where sheep and wild ponies roam among crags and standing stones. The valleys are deep, with steeply wooded sides, their flood-plain floors only suitable for meadows, not valuable crops. This was never a rich area, but in the past it got by. Just.

In the past, of course, Britain was almost entirely agricultural, and land was the only recognised currency of wealth. Even when commerce and manufacturing became the real mainstay of the economy, true wealth and the prestige it conferred continued to be seen in terms of land ownership. Millionaire merchants and entrepreneurs all dreamed of a country estate and being elevated to the rank of landed gentry. Their aim was to sit in their country mansions, living off the income of the land and occupying themselves with balls and hunts and an occasional sally to Westminster to run the country.

one of many old farm implements collected by my neighbour
Their status however was doomed. The age of the country house was coming to an end. Death duties in the 20th century have been blamed, but the real culprit was the 1846 ending of the protectionist corn laws which had kept the price of grain artificially high – great for the landowners who got the profit, but not great at all for those simply trying to buy bread to keep their families alive.

The abolition of the corn laws didn’t have an immediate catastrophic effect but by the time the USA began to open up the West with its vast prairies, and ships had become so much faster, bigger and better, the influx of cheap grain brought about a major agricultural depression in Britain that lasted from 1873 to 1896 and even then left the industry on its knees until the Great War, when the urgent need for home-grown food brought a temporary reprieve.

Estates were doomed but so too were the peasant farmers who had once made up 95% of the population. Born on the land, knowing only farm work, their one goal was a secure tenure of a patch of land they could call their own, even if they paid extortionate rent for it. The arrival of mechanisation helped the well-off, but the poorest farmers were left with their scythes and their milking stools, clinging on to their acres for as long as they could. To be landless was to be at the bottom of the pile, to have no option but to head for the factories and leave the rural communities behind.

Land is the holy grail in The Covenant. Cwmderwen consists of 24 acres, 1 rood and 8 perches. (A rood is 1/4 of an acre and there are 40 perches to a rood, a perch of course being one square rod).Today it would barely rank as a smallholding, especially when the steep slopes of scrub oak are deducted from its productive worth.

I based it on the “farm” attached to the cottage where I now live. All I have, today, is a modest garden, but up until the 1950s its land amounted to 20 acres, 1 rood and 26 perches, as defined on the old tithe maps. Even in the 19th century, farmers would have struggled to get by on so little. Most would have supplemented their income by labouring on larger farms or pursuing crafts. The owner of my farm was a shoe-maker as well as farmer. In The Covenant, Thomas Owen is also a carpenter. But for him, all that really mattered, all that gave him meaning and status and proved Divine grace was his 24 acres, 1 rood and 8 perches, to be defended to the death.

published by Honno Press, August 20th 2020
prequel to A Time For Silence, continuing the story of the Owens of Cwmderwen, to World War II and beyond.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Getting the Picture: children's literature

All through my childhood, bed was a place for two things; sleeping and reading. I read before going to sleep and I read when I woke until summoned to get up for school. Weekends were wonderful – I could read in bed all morning. I know I began with picture books – Smoke and Fluff was one of the first, and then the Beatrix Potter and the Flower Fairies books.

Gradually I moved on to more and more words – Heidi, The Silver Sword, The Hobbit, the Narnia books, Storm Ahead, the Swallows and Amazon series, but pictures remained an important part of the books for me. That’s the great thing about children’s books – they are so often illustrated. It’s not that I couldn’t manage words without pictures. It was more that illustrations, beautifully done, told an alternative version of the story, with extra hidden lines. I did have a few old school stories, passed on from a second cousin. They came in red cloth binding, on thick yellowing paper, with titles like Phyllis of the Fourth Form, usually involving hockey sticks, but lacking pictures, so they were never my favourite.

As illustrations go, nothing beats those by Pauline Baynes in the Narnia novels, and the Swallows and Amazons novels always had maps, which are every bit as good as fine art. I can still lose myself for hours in an Ordnance Survey map.

 Besides the novels, there were the annuals, presents from uncles and aunts – Rupert, June, Bunty. I wasn’t too taken with them, but I did like the children’s reference books. Look and Learn, the Child’s Encyclopaedia of World Knowledge, atlases with pictures of minerals and constellations.

As I grew older, I had the thrill of buying my own – The Incredible Journey from the school book club; Hunt Royal, my first purchase from a real shop (the book department of Boots).

The older I grew, the more advanced my reading and, alas, the fewer the illustrations, until pictures were left behind. Fortunately maps lingered on.

The important thing, of course, was that I had a vast library to choose from, and there were always more and more. If there’s one thing (and there are actually lots of things) that would put me off wanting to live in the past, it’s the thought of not having that vast array of imagination to disappear into as a child. Where would be the joy in having nothing but chapbooks of unnerving rhymes or sadistic fairytales, or improving tales with terrifying morals, warning of the terrible fate awaiting children who told lies, disobeyed their parents or ate too much? Charlie and the Chocolate Factory without the humour and charm. For most children, of course, no fiction at all. Just learn your letters and when you can, read the Bible.

This is the dilemma facing my protagonist Leah in my latest novel, The Covenant, which will be published in August. In the 1880s there could be, theoretically, an increasing selection of books for a child who craved a vision of a wider world, but not necessarily for a child in a God-fearing Welsh-chapel family where religious tracts were the only alternative to the Holy Scriptures.

Thanks to the loan of books, Leah reads Uncle Tom’s Cabin because that was translated into Welsh in the 1850s. She moves on to The Settlers in Canada, because she wants to explore the wide world, if only in words. What she has to settle for, instead, is a very narrow world, in which books are a dangerous thing, giving people ideas and dreams.

Many regimes have figured out how dangerous books are. Churches and Fascist states have rushed to burn books. One of the best loved books of my childhood was Bambi, by Austrian Felix Salten, subtitled Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde (A Life in the Woods). While Disney was making it into a cute cartoon (I never have seen the film), the Nazis were banning and burning it as a dangerous allegory of their treatment of Jews. Beware of reading. It leads to thinking.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Drawing a Likeness: describing characters.

How much detail do you give in describing a character’s appearance? Do you convey with precision the shape of their nose, their eyes, their lips, their hair, the quality of their skin, the size of their waist, or do you leave it vague? I have read and enjoyed cinematic book in which every detail is described so precisely that all readers would conjure up an identical image of each character. Personally, though, I lean towards keeping it very very vague.

I am inspired in this by various sources. Firstly, my Latin teacher at school who was much like Mary Beard in her enthusiasm for the subject. She thought Latin should be a spoken language and wanted us to read Virgil’s Aeneid as an exciting novel. Unfortunately, she left to have a baby and was replaced by a hapless peripatetic teacher with the result that the whole class failed their Latin GCE. But I digress… What I vividly remember was her delight in the lack of physical descriptions of people. Dido was ‘beautiful,’ but we’re not told in what way she was beautiful. We are left to conjure up our own idea of a beautiful woman. I have always liked the collaborative idea of readers being involved in an active way in a book by having to fill in gaps with their own imagination. Everyone conjured up their own image of Mr Darcy until Colin Firth fixed him in stone.

My second inspiration was Michael Frayn’s The Tin Men, a brilliantly comic read from 1965, which features Hugh Rowe, an aspiring writer (aspiring is definitely the word in his case) whose attempts to write a novel mostly concentrate on producing lurid autobiographical notes and choice reviews for the cover. When he does finally make a stab at writing the book itself, he embarks on a description of his hero:

“…The fingers grew from strong well-formed hands, with russet hair on the back of them, and the hands were attached to the muscular arms by broad sinewy wrists. There were four fingers and a thumb on each hand….  Rowe stopped. There was a great deal more to be said before Rick could be taken as fully established, of course – the number of buttons on his shirt, the thickness of hair on his chest, the size of his shoes, whether his trousers were done up with buttons or a zip. But perhaps it would be best to skip it for now….”

I have always taken poor Hugh Rowe as my model of how not to write a novel.

The third and probably most significant reason why I generally don’t describe my characters is that I am hopelessly face-blind. In fact whole-body-blind. A friend asked me once to describe someone who had called at her house while she was out. I had had a reasonably long conversation with him on the doorstep, but all I could say, with any certainty, was that he was a man. Was he tall or short, dark or fair, fat or thin? No idea. Colour of hair, eyes, was he clean shaven? I could only gape like a goldfish. I couldn’t even hazard a guess at his age other than him being somewhere between 18 and 65. Probably. She laughed. Please God, don’t ask me to work with a police identikit.

As in real life, I don’t really see my characters in any physical detail. I see inside their heads well enough, and I see out through their eyes, but mostly their faces are an unimportant mystery. Of course sometimes I have to add some physical details about height, build, colouring, because it serves a purpose and adds a significant understanding to the story. “Janice smiling, gaps in her teeth, flaking skin, thin fair hair straggly and knotted, always a scab of dried snot under her nose.” (The Unravelling). It applies in my latest book, The Covenant (due to be published August 20th) where a certain degree of physical description is essential for reasons I shall not divulge.
Mostly, if I feel a need to describe them in any way, it’s more in terms of the impression they give to other characters. “Nothing big or loud, no star qualities, just a slightly neglected one-eared teddy bear, or a comfortable old slipper, quiet and affable.” (Michael in Shadows). If I describe Tada, in The Covenant, as looking like an Old Testament prophet, I am sure most readers could picture that for themselves.

If I keep it vague, at least it will save me from any disappointment when one of my books is made into a Hollywood blockbuster and my characters take actual form on the screen. It’s bound to happen eventually, of course.

available for pre-order now

Friday, 12 June 2020

The Edited Version

I have recently spent a weekend working through the type-set version of my next book, The Covenant, due for publication in August. It's already had numerous edits but no matter how carefully it was done before, there are always one or two mistakes that jump out at me at the last moment, and this was my last chance to correct them before it goes to print.

It is very satisfying to see the work finally polished and ready for publication but, to be honest, it’s not what I’d call fun. One of its drawbacks is that it comes at a point when I’ve rewritten, re-arranged, edited, re-edited and revised so many times that I may sometimes feel thoroughly sick of the whole thing and never want to read the book again (That feeling doesn't last).

Before this last check comes the copy-editing stage, correcting the spelling and the punctuation, eliminating repetitions and inconsistencies, pointing out timeline errors, suggesting rearrangements for clarity, which I can then accept, decline or rearrange. The great draw-back of this stage is that I sometimes finishes up with pages that look like a bowl of spaghetti.

Proper full-scale editing is a wholly different matter. Lovely. I know some authors who hate being edited, who resent the very idea that someone should dare to pass judgement on the words they have carved out of their very souls. I thought that, forty years ago, when I first fancied myself as a writer. Not that I ever got as far as being edited, but I did bridle, in advance, at the thought that it might happen. How dare anyone presume to suggest that I might have got something wrong?

A couple of decades ago, I acquired an agent who considered herself as an editor as well. She said ‘It’s great but could you tighten it a bit?’ Tighten it? What was that supposed to mean. I asked which bits needed tightening and how. All she would say was ‘just tighten it a bit.’ There is nothing quite so irritating as that sort of imprecision, like the Emperor Joseph telling Mozart he’d written too many notes.

Some years later I found myself being edited properly and I found it was a remarkably enjoyable experience. A bit like bathing in warm cream. Even when it was suggested that sentences, paragraphs, even entire chapters, were eliminated entirely, it was still so flattering to think that someone was taking the trouble to go through my book, word by word and analyse it in such depth. I am not talking about proof-reading, where typos are corrected and anomalies pointed out (my father did that for 45 years). I mean the work of an editor who assesses if a book really hangs together, if its plot, pace, characters, dialogue and theme are worth the paper it’s going to be printed on.

I don’t always agree with my editors. Sometimes I fight my corner, but I respect their professionalism, especially when it’s devoted to my book. Pure vanity. It’s like receiving a detailed and insightful review, even if it’s slightly negative (just slightly). It means someone has bothered and there’s nothing so agreeable as that.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Keeping it in the Family

I was slightly surprised when my first novel, A Time For Silence, was classified on Amazon as a family saga. My publisher had told me it was crime fiction and I had thought of it as a simple mystery. Besides, it was a single book and I never expected to add to the series. Surely a family saga has to fill half a shelf on the bookcase, like the Forsyte Saga or the Poldark novels.

But of course it doesn’t. A family saga follows the affairs of members of a family through a period of time and that’s it. It can be one volume or a hundred. It can involve crime, like mine. It can focus on family relationships or it can use the family’s affairs as a means of reflecting changes and events in the world beyond. In fact a family is a perfect vehicle for just about any form of fiction except, perhaps, something like Robinson Crusoe.

So when I thought about it, I agreed that A Time For Silence was indeed a family saga, following the trials and tribulations of the members of one family, from the marriage of Gwen Lewis to John Owen in 1933 to her granddaughter’s ham-fisted investigation in 2008 or thereabouts (it was published in 2012). Soon its reach will be extended because its prequel, The Covenant, will be published in August, taking the story of the Owen family back to the 1880s. Well, I was determined never to take the story further forward, but there was nothing to stop me taking it further back.

One thing I have realised is that families are always going to be the perfect material for me to work with because what interests me most about crime or any other significant event is not the event itself but everything that led up to it and all the consequences that flowed from it. Where better to follow that trail than in a family? Just as World War I wasn’t simply caused by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, so a murder isn’t sparked by a simple quarrel. Its origins are found in all the personalities, frustrations, niggles and disappointments that led up to the quarrel. And just as the armistice of 1918 failed to draw a line under the war but had ramifications that led to World War II, so the identification and arrest of a murderer doesn’t draw a line under the consequences of the crime. Survivors carry it with them and even pass it on to future generations. It’s all an endless game of consequences and that’s what families are.

I am in a deadly serious writing group (gossip and howls of laughter over coffee in Debenhams), with two other authors, Judith Barrow and Alex Martin, who have both written huge family sagas engulfing several volumes, and they make full use of everything that a family saga has to offer: family relationships put through the mill, actions whose consequences rumble on through the decades, strands woven and unwoven, and all set against a backdrop of world events.

Judith Barrow’s Howarth Family quartet extends from the days of the suffragettes through both world wars, the post war era and into the libertarian swinging sixties, all seen through the eyes of ordinary people – the ones who never make it into the history books but whose struggles and endurance make the history happen.

Alex Martin’s Katherine Wheel series follows the fate of two families, one born to landed wealth, the other destined to be labourers and servants. It extends from the early years of the 20th century, through World War I to (when the final? volume, Ivy, appears this year), the end of World War II, and by focusing on two families and their reversal of fortunes, it explores class structure, female emancipation, war work, transatlantic relations, the rise of new industries, the decline of the landed classes, property rights, motor racing, the land army, the German occupation of France and the French Resistance. All of human life is here. What’s not to love?

Saturday, 30 May 2020

The Aberystwyth Mystery

About forty years ago, my great-aunt died, the last of my grandparents' generation, and various keepsakes and trinkets came into our possession, including this box. A good, solid, well-made box, but there was, apparently, nothing of real interest in it, just a few beads and buttons.

At the bottom, presumably put there as extra lining, was a small sheet of yellowing paper, which we ignored. The box was used for various things over the years - playing cards, spare fuse wire, keys, monopoly houses fished out from under sofas and kept for safety until someone could remember where the monopoly box had been put, and those little bits you find that must surely be a part of something so you don't want to risk throwing them away in case they're vital.

Years later, I finally fished out the yellowing paper - no idea why - and discovered that it was a double page torn from a pocket notebook in which someone, in faded pencil, had kept a journal of a most exciting visit to Aberywyth. I have no idea who wrote it, or when. Early in the 20th century or maybe in Victorian times. My great aunt was born in 1900, but she lived and died in the Cardiff house that had also been occupied by her sister, my grandmother, and their parents, back to the 1880s, so it could have been written any time since then.

Some of it, I guess, was written on a knee, and is nearly illegible, but here is the thrilling transcript.
Got to Aberys at 5.30, went to our Lodge — out for a walk, returned at 8.30, found our host drunk. Left there to look for another place, found one, returned to bed at 10.10pm. Could not sleep until morning. Found another young man in bed in the same room. Got up, had ham and eggs for breakfast. Went to the Congregational Chapel at 11.0am. Had a very good sermon but the singing was very inferior. Came home, had dinner, green peas and potatoes and mutton. Went out for a walk around promenade. Came to tea at 5.0. Went to the Welsh Baptist Chapel at 6.0. Very good sermon and splendid singing.

Rheidol Valley at Devil's Bridge (c) Trevor Rickard
Went to Tregaron. Aber at 8.30, Llanrhystyd Road, Llanfair, Trawscoed, Strata Florida, Tregaron 9.30 am. Left Tregaron 4.5pm. (Ate?) at the Talbot Hotel, had a (illegible), and went to D. Rowlands the (illegible) Man. Returned at 5pm. Meet JJ and GH at the train.

Went to Devil’s Bridge 11am in a cab. 5 of us had food at Devil’s B. Returned at 7pm from the most beautiful scenery I ever saw. Went to concert at 8pm in the Pier Pavilion.

Went around town in the morning and to Constitution Hill at 2pm, a lovely place. Returned at 5pm and then to Flower show in the Pier pavilion. Grand show of vegetables and flowers.

Suit of clothes, 3 / 1 / 0½
For Constipation  6 / 5
For grave and T?  15 / 0
Miss Broad  10 / 6
Charles  5 / 0

This mysterious journal raises so many questions besides the identity of the writer. Why was he so anally obsessed with time-keeping, but couldn't think of a thing to say about Tregaron? Who was D Rowlands and what did he do? What exactly did the writer have at the Talbot Hotel? Who won the flower and veg show? And what did Miss Broad do to earn ten shillings and sixpence?
One thing is obvious, though. They certainly knew how to have a good time back then. Whenever Then was.