Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Earth and High Heaven

May 17, 2017

If life has its ups and downs, then life with two children has its UPS and DOWNS. I was going to begin with some of the laughably low points, but I found myself repeatedly pressing delete as I realised what grim reading they make – revolving around various combinations of poo, sick, boobs, and tantrums. And then the ups are all so saccharine – they make for even grimmer reading! So instead, here’s an UP which has nothing to do with children.

Many of you will know how much I adore and admire Persephone Books. Their smart, secretive dove grey covers hide a multitude of delights, and I’ve written about many of them here.

So what an up it is to have my name inside those very dear grey covers!

Earth and High Heaven 1

I was beyond honoured to write the Preface to Persephone Books’ newly republished Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham, a little-known Canadian writer. It’s about a love affair between a Jew and a Gentile during the Second World War in Montreal. It interrogates how we treat migrants, misogyny and anti-semitism while being an unputdownable story of love against the odds. I urge you to read the book; and to further the cause, here is my Preface in full:

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Earth and High Heaven 2The first time I read Earth and High Heaven, I kept on turning back to the beginning; I must have read the opening sentence at least a dozen times. As Marc and Erica’s story of love against the odds grew increasingly desperate, I was ever keener to clutch at a tiny piece of hope in the phrasing of the first line:

One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met …

Surely, I pleaded, the ease with which Graham uses the plural ‘they’ and the casual turn of phrase imply a well-established couple, fondly looking back to when they first met. This was my shard of hope, and yet, as soon as Graham offers it, she withdraws it:

… for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September, 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaronson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was a Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes.

The hopeful ‘they’ swiftly unravels. Moreover, we are given Marc’s potted biography in sharp contrast to the concise description of Erica – ‘one of the Westmount Drakes’ – and we cannot help but fear the improbability of two people from such different worlds ending up together.

From the first sentence, Graham sets up a will-they-won’t-they tension that hooks her readers in agonising uncertainty until the very end of the book. A contemporary reviewer described it as ‘Romeo and Juliet in Westmount’, a parallel which isn’t lost on the novel’s protagonists. When Marc and Erica hear birdsong during their first weekend away together, Marc says: ‘Romeo and Juliet had a nightingale but all we get is a whippoorwill.’ Erica corrects him:

“Incidentally, it was a lark, not a nightingale – remember?”

She repeated softly,

“‘It is the lark that sings so out of tune,

Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.’”

 Shakespeare’s lark is ‘so out of tune’ because, unlike the nightingale, he heralds the coming morning. Romeo and Juliet’s first night together will also be their last, so it’s no wonder the birdsong is full of ‘harsh discords and unpleasing sharps’. With this doom-laden omen called into play, we can’t help but worry that Marc and Erica’s time together will be similarly snatched away all too soon.

Graham’s choice of clans for her star-crossed lovers – Reisers and Drakes, Jews and Gentiles – is especially potent given the book’s timing. Written in 1944 and set two years’ earlier, rarely has the plight of the Jews at the hands of the Gentiles been so keenly felt.

Her decision to write so overtly about Canadian anti-Semitism was, however, both brave and unusual in the contemporary political climate. In the Canadian academic Max Beer’s study of Montreal’s response to the Holocaust, he argues that in order to avoid charges of anti-Semitism, which was becoming associated with Hitler, ‘the plight of European Jewry was camouflaged, hidden in a language that did not specifically mention the Jew’. So, for instance, Canadians argued against ‘refugees of Europe’ emigrating to Canada, rather than calling them Jews. Beer points out that the Canadian Jewish Community helped with this camouflage. They worried that ‘too much emphasis on Jewish suffering in Europe would lead not to sympathy but to an anti-Semitic backlash’, so the specifically Jewish nature of Hitler’s target was ‘sublimated to a theme that spoke of universal suffering under the Nazis’. After Kristallnacht, the editorial in the Montreal-based Canadian Jewish Chronicle argued:

To-day it is the Jews who have been reduced to serfdom, decreed into helotry, made lower than the worm. But to-morrow? … To-morrow it will be the Catholics, the Protestants, all Christians whose doctrine of love is anathema to the savages who have sprung up upon the seats of the mighty in Germany.

The international press was also complicit in masking the specifically Jewish nature of the Holocaust. During the War, the front page of The New York Times mentioned Hitler’s targeting of the Jews only six times, and the discoveries of gas chambers in 1942 were confined to the back pages.

In Earth and High Heaven, Gwethalyn Graham defies this oblique treatment of the Holocaust. Marc tells Erica about his cousin, ‘shot trying to escape from a concentration camp’, and Graham has a habit of ominously referring to the ‘pre-war’ figure of sixteen million Jews, implying the devastating decimation which was ensuing. She also shows the appalling extent of anti-Semitism in Canada, listing the various Montreal establishments that ‘don’t take Jews’, and even compares it to Nazi Germany, when Erica challenges her father with:

“We Canadians don’t really disagree fundamentally with the Nazis about the Jews – we just think they go a bit too far.”

Why, in a climate of reticence, and in what is ostensibly a romance novel, was Gwethalyn Graham bold enough to confront the plight of the Jews head on?

Graham believed that writers ought to engage with contemporary politics. In 1945, when an interviewer asked about her taste in reading, she declared that Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a searing critique of Soviet Communism, was ‘the greatest novel of the last ten years’. From her first published article in 1936, “Women, Are They Human?”, which argued for the rights of married women to work outside the home, to her letter to the Montreal Gazette in 1960, protesting at the Canadian Prime Minister’s support of South Africa’s readmission to the Commonwealth, Graham’s writing reflects her life-long concern with social injustice.

Her biographer, Barbara Meadowcroft, describes Graham’s childhood ‘in a home where international events and social issues were discussed round the dining-room table’. Graham’s mother, Isabel Erichsen-Brown, helped to organise the Equal Franchise League to campaign for votes for women in Canada, then joined the League of Women Voters, which educated women on public questions. In the 1930s, Graham and her mother helped Jewish refugees and welcomed them into their home in spite of widespread anti-Semitism. Her father, Frank Erichsen-Brown, was a barrister who supported his wife’s causes; once, when an all-male audience was heckling a suffragist speaker, he silenced them then urged them to listen to her ‘extremely important message’.

Clearly, Gwethalyn Graham grew up with an awareness of social issues, and a sense of moral justice, for which she knew how to fight. She had also spent some time in Europe, when she attended a Swiss finishing school, and again in 1938, when she went to England, France and Switzerland following publication of her first novel Swiss Sonata, which drew on her experience at the finishing school. Swiss Sonata is set in January 1935, at the time of the Saar plebiscite; the school acts as a miniature League of Nations, with tensions rife between pupils from many countries and of different religions.

So Graham was more attuned to the problem of anti-Semitism than many of her fellow Canadians, but perhaps the reason for such a passionate argument against it can be found within the pages of Earth and High Heaven itself.

When Erica first meets Marc at her mother’s cocktail party, they immediately have an ease with each other, a feeling of connection. In the course of their conversation, Erica asks Marc where he lives and he tells her about his ‘awful’ rooming house. Erica suggests an alternative, but Marc dismisses it because, he says, ‘the janitor told me they don’t take Jews.’ This has a profound effect on Erica, as she realises how often she’s heard casually anti-Semitic remarks and seen signs against Jews ‘in newspaper advertisements, on hotels, beaches, golf courses, apartment houses, clubs, and the little restaurants for skiers in the Laurentians’. She reflects that ‘until now she had never bothered to read them’ because, as she explains to Marc:

‘You see, the trouble with me is that I’m just like everybody else – I don’t realize what something really means until it suddenly walks up and hits me between the eyes. I can be quite convinced intellectually that a situation is wrong, but it’s still an academic question which doesn’t really affect me personally, until, for some reason or other, it starts coming at me through my emotions as well. It isn’t enough to think, you have to feel …’

This is the great moment of awakening to injustice for which Graham prepares us in her epigraph from A.E. Housman’s collection of poems A Shropshire Lad. She quotes the moment when the speaker goes from ‘I slept and saw not’ to becoming aware of:

Horror and scorn and hate and fear and indignation –

Oh why did I awake?

The words could just as easily be voiced by Erica, and also by Graham herself. Following a short and disastrous first marriage, Graham – like Erica – had an affair with a Jewish lawyer. Like Erica, she wanted to introduce this Jewish lawyer to her father, and, as in the novel, her father refused to meet him. Graham’s affair didn’t last, but her friend Joyce Tedman Austin described it as an ‘overriding passion’; her sister argued, however, that Marc Reiser wasn’t based on any particular affair, rather that ‘every man Gwen dated seemed to be a Jew’. Whoever is right, at some point a love affair with a Jewish man induced a similar moment of awakening in Graham, directing her passion for social justice towards Canadian anti-Semitism in this novel.

earth and high heaven

Gwethalyn Graham does not, however, confine herself to the Jewish cause. As soon as she has set up her opposition of Jews versus Gentiles, she complicates it. She shows that Montreal’s Gentiles are split into English and French Canadians – a divide to which Graham would return in Dear Enemies, her published dialogue with Liberal politician Solange Rolland, in which they sought a greater harmony between the two groups. Graham shows how English Canadians are further split along class lines:

[Erica] got a job as a reporter on the society page of the Montreal Post and dropped, overnight, from the class which is written about to the class which does the writing … she had ceased to be one of the Drakes of Westmount and was simply Erica Drake of the Post’.

She also stages the perennially complex power play between men and women – noted in details, such as Erica’s irritation when her friend René orders lunch for her in a restaurant, and explored more deliberately, as when her father tries to persuade Erica to leave the Post in favour of the family company:

As a woman you can just go so far, and then you’re stuck in a job where you spend your life taking orders from some fathead with half your brains, whose only advantage over you is the fact that he happens to wear trousers.

Graham’s Montreal is not just a city divided between Jews and Gentiles, but one split by numerous, complex, jostling rifts. As Vicky, the thoughtful Canadian heroine of Swiss Sonata, reflects, ‘Isn’t it funny how people will subdivide themselves, no matter how little space they have?’

Graham sets up so many divisions in order to point out the paradox of how they are at once utterly meaningless, and devastatingly meaningful. At one of the novel’s crisis points, Erica’s mother – who, in a show of solidarity with her husband, refuses to meet Marc – asks Miriam, Erica’s sister, what she thinks of him. Miriam replies:

I can’t tell you what Marc’s like, except that he’s the same kind of person as Erica, he’s the other side of the same medal. They just seem to belong together, that’s all.

It is an intriguing image. Marc can be ‘the other side’ of a division to Erica, and yet they remain part ‘of the same’ thing. It encapsulates Graham’s urging us to look at the greater unity beyond petty divisions. Crucially, Miriam refuses to describe Marc: ‘I can’t tell you what Marc’s like’. Instead of the wealth of prejudiced generalisations with which Marc is burdened, and which cause these divisions within society, Miriam lets him speak for himself.

In Swiss Sonata, the headmistress reflects on her own shortcoming when it comes to understanding the girls:

One’s theories remain intact only so long as one generalizes from ignorance, and avoids particularising from knowledge.

In Earth and High Heaven, time and again, Erica attempts to persuade her father to stop generalising so that he might see Marc as an individual, not as a Jew:

‘But we’re not talking about “Jewish lawyers”,’ said Erica. ‘We’re talking about Marc Reiser.’

Erica is sensitive enough to realise that she too suffers from this affliction. When Marc tells her about his brother David:

She kept trying to dismiss the feeling that something about Dr. David Reiser did not seem to fit, and then, suddenly angry at her own evasiveness, she swung around and deliberately faced it. Her surprise was due to the fact that Dr. Reiser did not sound like a Jew.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect about our habit of seeing individuals through generalisations is that the person suffering from the discrimination can become complicit with it. Towards the end of the novel, Marc’s brother David tells him that when he was passing through Montreal, he decided to look up the Drakes to ‘see what it was all about’. After months of not being allowed to meet Erica’s parents or even set foot inside her home, Marc is astonished as David describes how he called for Erica and had a drink with her father. David tells him:

The point is that it takes two to play the game Drake was playing, and he couldn’t have got away with it at all if you’d behaved like an ordinary, intelligent human being, instead of like a Jew with an inferiority complex.

The critic Michèle Rackham calls this suggestion that Marc is partly to blame ‘unsettling’. It is, but it is also empowering. For if Marc is partly to blame, then he is also partly able to put it right. Rackham draws our attention to Marc’s lack of agency in the book, from when he stands around like a piece of furniture at the opening cocktail party, to when he tells Erica that, in spite of being a lawyer, in Montreal he feels he ‘can’t change anything’. Rackham argues that Marc is cast as the helpless Romantic heroine, whereas Erica – or ‘Eric’ as she is often called – is the hero, in her androgynous clothes, with her job at the Post, and her role as something of a ‘surrogate son’ to Charles. In that case, the great turning point of the novel is when Marc finally understands that he is in part to blame, that his actions aren’t meaningless, and so he can in fact be an agent of change. Gwethalyn Graham urges us not just to see other people as individuals but moreover for us all to act as individuals, rather than carrying on along the ‘particular groove’ society carves out for us.

earth and high heaven

The timing of Erica and Marc’s affair is precise: the four months from June 1942, when they first meet at a cocktail party, to September, when Marc is drafted abroad. Throughout the novel, Graham draws our attention to time passing, noting, for instance, that Marc and Erica talk to each other for half an hour at the opening cocktail party, and repeatedly highlighting the clock in Erica’s father’s office. This sense of time ticking is heightened by the War, which we hear rumbling relentlessly in the background, imbuing each moment with added urgency.

Yet Graham also shows us how time can be seized and stretched into something quite different. Each moment Marc and Erica spend together pushes against the boundaries of time as meted out by Erica’s father’s clock, and, conversely, every moment apart feels insufferably long. After their second meeting, they arrange to meet on the Wednesday for dinner, only for Marc to phone and ask to see Erica that very night instead. In showing us a love which refuses to be bound by time, Graham also gives us a love which is timeless.

It oughtn’t be a surprise to find that the novel retains its power. For how many of us reading Earth and High Heaven today, in a different continent, in a different century, feel that we know an Erica and a Marc, or indeed that there is an echo of Erica and Marc’s situation in our own? When it was first published, the novel was a hit not just in Canada, but it topped the American bestseller lists, was translated into eighteen languages, and sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide. Its international success is testament to the story’s universal appeal, which is what Samuel Goldwyn must have seen when he bought the film rights for $100,000, planning to cast Gregory Peck and Katherine Hepburn as Marc and Erica (though, alas, the film was never made).

Since the Second World War, societies have grown infinitely more diverse, and yet we still all know people from different backgrounds who, like Marc and Erica, have struggled to be together in the face of prejudice – whether they practice different religions, are from different classes, or have different shades of skin. Gwethalyn Graham wrote Earth and High Heaven to confront the divisive prejudices that were all too prolific in Montreal in 1944, but – sadly – her call to arms resounds just as urgently in Britain today.

Gwethalyn Graham

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Three things

March 7, 2016

Last week was an exciting one, because THREE pieces of my work were published in various places.

Spectator

Here is my piece about book thieves in the Spectator. Bookshops might seem like sanctuaries, but they are in fact full of thieves pocketing everything from Mr Men to Ottolenghi… And you can also hear me talking about it on the Spectator’s podcast here. I come in at 18.50, just after all the men have finished talking about the much more minor issues of Donald Trump and the EU.

Cockfosters TLS review

Then here is my review of Helen Simpson’s absolutely amazing collection of short stories Cockfosters, published in The Times Literary Supplement. Apologies for the pay-wall avoiding low-quality photo.

The Fishermen by Obioma

Last, but by no means least, I am thrilled to be writing for this lovely website Five Books. They have the ingenious idea of asking people to recommend Five Books on a certain subject, relevant to their own work. I talked to the very charming and intelligent Chigozie Obioma – whose debut novel The Fishermen was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – about boyhood and growing up. You can read it here.

I’d love to know what you think of them!

Now I am on a train on my way to Scotland to walk through the beautiful highlands while talking about Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Angel for an Emily’s Walking Book Club special at writers’ retreat Moniack Mhor. Heaven. Happy March everyone. More soon.

Moniack Mhor

Park Notes

June 13, 2014

Life chez Emilybooks has been terribly busy over the past week, and I’m sorry for the delayed post. Some friends came to stay, prompting a jolly few days of chatting, wandering and lazing, rather than concentrated reading, So I’m afraid thoughts on A Portrait of a Lady won’t appear until Monday.

I thought, however, that I better reveal our secret little hop back over to London. The husband and I spent Tuesday and Wednesday back in the big (VERY BIG after tiny Lucca) smoke, feeling a little like we were skiving school. London was lovely and cool after the heat of Italy, and looked especially beautiful in the sunshine, with everyone out on the pavements and so sunny tempered. I loved having a proper strong cup of tea in a caff, accompanied by toast and Marmite. It was such a joy to be able to chat so easily to the waiter about a mutual love of Marmite and the weather (of course) after so many weeks of suffering the painful embarrassment of being able to say little other than ‘Grazie’ several times.

Park Notes launchThere were a couple of reasons for this little jaunt. Firstly, it was the book launch for Park Notes – a beautiful collection of writings and pictures inspired by Regent’s Park and curated by Sarah Pickstone, whose striking paintings I wrote about here. Very excitingly, the book includes an essay on George Eliot by me!

What makes it particularly thrilling is that I am giddy with admiration for so many of the other contributors. Of course there are all the dead ones – Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Mansfield to name a few – but among the living are the formidably intelligent Marina Warner, Olivia Laing – one of the most elegant writers of place, insightful Lara Feigel, brilliant Iain Sinclair and the mighty Ali Smith. And all this interspersed with Sarah Pickstone’s gorgeous work.

I could go on, but feel it’s in rather bad taste to review one’s own work … So I will leave you with one of my favourite quotations from the book, which comes from Ali Smith’s reliably inspiring short story ‘The Definite Article’:

I stepped out of myself and into the park, I stepped off the pavement and into a place where there’s never a conclusion, where regardless of wars, tragedies, losses, finds, the sting of the sweetness of what’s gone in a life, or the preoccupations of any single time, any single being, on it goes, the open-air theatre of flowers, trees, birds, bees, the open vision at the heart of the old city.

Of course there’s nothing I’d love more than to know what you make of the book. You can buy a copy from Daunt’s here, or please do go and support your local independent bookshop.

There was another reason for our brief return… It was time for the twenty-week scan for baby Emilybooks! I know I’ve been rather secretive about it here, but it’s the sort of news that is quite hard to slip into a post about EM Forster.

All was looking very well, and it was wonderful to see the little person wriggling around, even giving us a little wave. Might I also add this to my defence of such excessive ice cream consumption in recent weeks? Calcium, you see, is vital to help build all those little bones.

Ice cream time in Lucca

Henry James is coming on Monday. Have a lovely sunny weekend!

The Next Big Thing Meme

December 12, 2012

The splendid novelist Anna Stothard has tagged me in ‘the Next Big Thing meme’, which means this week you get a bonus blog post from me. It’s a chance to tell you a little bit about my novel, which, let’s hope, will be the Next Big Thing.

What is the title of your next book?

A London House … I think.

What genre does your book fall under?

Fiction. Most of it is set in the present day, but there are also some historical chapters.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I’m afraid I just don’t know for most of my characters, but I would love Bill Nighy to play Roger, an eccentric old man who lives on a houseboat. Anna, the main character, is trickier. Perhaps Romola Garai, who seems to have a habit of playing the main part in film adaptations of many of my favourite books.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

One night, two girls break into a derelict house, where the air is thick with stories of the people who have lived there in the past.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Perhaps it’s morbid, but I absolutely love buildings in various states of decay. I love to imagine them in their former glory, and wonder who might once have looked out of the broken windows, or trod on the rotting floorboards.

A couple of years ago, bulldozers were hard at work on a big school near where I live. There was a stage in its demolition when the whole back wall of the building had been taken off, so that you could see into each of the different classrooms and each one was painted a different colour. It was like looking into a box of paints, an image which really tugged at me. I began to imagine pulling off the walls of other houses, looking into all their rooms, painted and wallpapered in different colours and designs. It made me think about the marks and impressions people make on their houses by living in them, and how many stories lie hidden there in the smallest things.

Several books have helped to inspire me with my one – here are a few of them:

Inspiring books

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My agent is Andrew Kidd at Aitken Alexander.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Just over a year and a half.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Hitchcock and Picasso both have cameo roles.

Now it’s my turn to tag – too thrilling! Wayne Gooderham – journalist, blogger, collector of second-hand books and curator of an exhibition of book dedications now on at Foyles, and Samantha Ellis – playwright, blogger and writer of a fascinating-sounding book about literary heroines, consider yourself the next bearers of the meme.

And So I Have Thought of You – The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald

November 26, 2012

I have been reading these letters for many months, a few at a time, at odd in-between moments – in the bath, waiting for the kettle to boil, or for the toast to be done. Penelope Fitzgerald is one of my literary heroines, and this chunky collection of letters has been a trusty companion, a reliable source for a quick fix of inspiration, a smile, and a sigh of relief that such a good writer existed.

I love the precision of Penelope Fitzgerald’s writing and often, when I’ve been angsting over how to begin an article or how to write something clearly, I’ve read one of her letters for inspiration, sitting down and trying to write the piece straight away afterwards, in the vain hope that some of her style might have seeped into my own. I could never hope to be half as good a writer, but certainly reading a letter has never failed to help.

The feeling I get when reading other people’s letters is the glee of an eavesdropper. All these nuggets of gossip and in-jokes and reassurances and wonderings and news. It is such an astonishing privilege to have this window into a personal, off-the-record side of a great writer. Even though it’s perfectly legitimate to read these published letters, it is hard not to feel those butterflies of naughtiness, of seeing something you oughtn’t, the exquisite fear of being caught.

There is so much in these letters, so many stories – some just hinted at, others sketched out, and others which develop over several years. Each holds its own distinct pleasure.

The hints are often gossip about other writers. There’s this to one of her editors, Stuart Profitt:

I realise now that you can’t get hold of Malcolm Bradbury, he seems to be made of some plastic or semi-fluid substance which gives way or changes in your hands.

Or this postscript to Stuart Profitt’s predecessor, Richard Ollard:

Poor S. Rushdie, or rich S. Rushdie, whichever you like, that was a publicity campaign that went dreadfully wrong. I don’t think he ought to go into hiding, though. My local Patel grocery on the corner tells me that it is not a dignified act.

She’s so clever in her insults! While I love these flashes of brilliant wit, they leave me longing to find out more about what she thinks on the subjects.

Then there are her sketches. Here is one of Fitzgerald’s finest, which appears in a letter to her daughter Maria, and could easily be lifted straight out of one of her novels. She describes a ‘surrealist tea-party’ in Rye, where the guests were:

a trendy cleric, his dull wife, a long-skirted daughter, going up to read English at Hertford, who evidently hadn’t wanted to come, and Henry James’s manservant (still living in Rye, but with a deaf-aid which had to be plugged into the skirting) who couldn’t really bear to sit down and have tea, but kept springing up and trying to wait on people, with the result that he tripped over the cable – and contributing in a loud, shrill voice remarks like ‘Mr Henry was a heavy man – nearly 16 stone – it was a job for him to push his bicycle uphill’ – in the middle of all the other conversation which he couldn’t hear.

It’s too perfect and had me in stitches over my burning toast!

Then there are the longer stories. The attempt to write L.P. Hartley’s biography, which in the end defeated her; the dire financial straits of her early married life, manifest in instances like being unable to afford to buy towels from John Lewis; her endless attempts to persuade her editor of the worthiness of a book she longed to write about the Poetry Bookshop; the struggle to be recognised as a writer. With respect to this latter strand, her correspondence with her editors at Duckworth, where she began her writing career, is eye-opening. She wrote this to Richard Garnett there:

It worried me terribly when you told me I was only an amateur writer and I asked myself, how many books do you have to write and how many semi-colons do you have to discard before you lose amateur status?

It’s too appalling to think of her editor calling her an amateur writer! Later she writes to Colin Haycraft, also at Duckworth, about her decision to move to a different publisher:

You did tell me, you know, that if I went on writing novels you didn’t want it blamed on you and that Anna thought I should do detective stories and also, by the way, that you had too many short novels with sad ending on your hands, and I thought, well, he’s getting rid of me, but in a very nice way. I don’t at all expect you to remember everything you say to 32 authors, but the trouble is we take all these remarks seriously and ourselves too seriously as well, I expect.

Luckily she moved to Harper Collins, where she found a much better editor in Richard Ollard and his successor Stuart Profitt. Reading their letters are a delight, as their warm literary friendship is conjured on the page:

Just to thank you for taking me to the party, I should never have had the resolution to go otherwise and indeed I noticed many people, obviously female novelists, standing about looking at a loss, and I was grateful not to have to do this.

Or here:

Meanwhile I feel that if Angela has gone and mice have got into the air-conditioning the Harper Collins palace must be almost untenable. But I’m so glad that Stuart’s Big Book after many worries is proving such an enormous success – what energy he’s got! If he gets this place in Herefordshire I suppose he will have to arrive up at week-ends and put together the roof and chimneys and then walk miles over Hay Bluff &c for exercise, but I expect that will be as nothing to him.

Her letters to Chris Carduff, her American editor, are also a treat. I especially love the fact that he calls his cat Charlotte Mew, after the poet associated with the Poetry Bookshop. It is to him that she drops this perfect line:

on the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.

Gosh these letters were such a pleasure to read! The only sad thing about them is the gaps – the missing years and people, thanks to faulty archiving or tragic incidents like the sinking of her houseboat. I see that Hermione Lee is writing a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald; she’s written a little about it here for the Guardian. I am literally on the edge of my seat with excitement for it – I’m sure that Hermione Lee will succeed in filling in some of these gaps, fleshing out those things that are only hinted at in these letters, shaping everything into a powerful narrative. Until then, I will happily read and reread her novels, and perhaps I might just start again on these witty, wry, wonderful letters.

Under the Net

October 24, 2012

I found Under the Net a terrifically inspiring novel. In part, of course, there’s Iris Murdoch’s astonishingly good writing – the sentences like colourful silk, her talent spread with such luxurious thickness across the pages. (Can you believe it’s her first novel?!) But moreover, it was thanks to the main character, Jake.

Jake, or, to give him his full name, James Donaghue, is a writer who is somewhat lost in the world. We meet him just as he’s being turfed out of his Earl’s Court lodgings, and accompany him on his subsequent wanderings across London in search of various friends. Drinking steadily – either in pubs or from his own supply kept at Mrs Tinckham’s Soho shop (‘For a long time I have kept a stock of whiskey with Mrs Tinckham in case I ever need a medicinal drink, in quiet surroundings, in central London, out of hours’) – Jake is down on his luck. His wanderings see him sink lower and lower until eventually he stops wandering and can’t bring himself to get out of bed. It is indeed a low point, but luckily Jake is made of stronger stuff and pulls himself together. The novel ends with him looking at his old manuscripts and feeling that he has potential:

These things were mediocre, I saw it. But I saw too, as it were straight through them, the possibility of doing better – and this possibility was present to me as a strength which cast me lower and raised me higher than I had ever been before.

It’s a wonderful feeling of optimism founded on truth and realism, rather than naïve illusions. I finished the novel feeling excited for Jake’s future, feeling that he was at the beginning of the path to success. For a writer suffering from her own little crisis of confidence, this was the perfect novel to read.

It seems nonsensical, but Under the Net can best be described as a poetical farce, underlined by philosophy. It is a comedy of errors, of everyone being in love with the wrong person, chasing around after each other in a complete muddle, but written about in perfectly beautiful prose. Underlying its silliness is the idea – discussed by Jake and his friend Hugo – that language isn’t able to convey the truth, that everything we say is only an approximation, that ‘the whole language is a machine for making falsehoods’. They decide that words lie, but actions don’t. (Incidentally, they have this discussion while taking part in a cold-cure experiment – ‘The experiment was going forward at a delightful country house where one could stay indefinitely and be inoculated with various permutations of colds and cures’ – a delightfully dotty situation.)

Jake – a writer – relies upon language, this apparently false medium. But the book sees him stop writing and rely on actions. He looks for people, he follows them, he gets physical work, he does things. He turns from words to actions. But of course the trick of the novel is that it is all a written thing, his actions are related via Murdoch’s language – and very beautiful, wonderful language it is too. So are all his actions, as they are related by words, no more than lies? Is the whole book a lie?

Well it is fiction – a creative lie of sorts – and yet it is told so well that the story has written itself into my understanding of London as much as the city’s real history.

I love the Londonness of Under the Net. The other night I found myself wandering home across Blackfriars Bridge, looking up Farringdon Road towards Holborn Viaduct and thought instantly of this passage:

The sky opened out above me like an unfurled banner, cascading with stars and blanched by the moon. The black hulls of barges darkened the water behind me and murky towers and pinnacles rose indistinctly on the other bank. I swam well out into the river. It seemed enormously wide and as I looked up and down stream I could see on one side the dark pools under Blackfriars Bridge, and on the other the pillars of Southwark Bridge glistening under the moon. The whole expanse of river was running with light. It was like swimming in quicksilver.

Yes, that’s right, Jake has gone swimming in the Thames. It is the result of a pub crawl that began in Holborn, meandered around the City and ended in this swim, achieved with drunken canniness by catching the tide on the turn, so avoiding being pulled out to sea by the current.

Scene after scene has etched itself onto my London map. There is the bit where Jake and Finn (his right hand man) steal a film star dog – Mister Mars – from a bookie’s Chelsea apartment. There’s Jake’s long walk home from a film studio in Deptford, having escaped the police. There’s Mrs Tinckham’s shop in Soho, of course. Funniest of all – I think – is the scene where Jake is sitting on the fire escape of Sadie’s Marylebone flat, eavesdropping on her conversation with the bookie when he realises he is being watched, with some degree of concern, by the neighbours. They decide that Jake must be ‘an escaped loonie’, and the scene builds to a comic climax when the charwoman fetches ‘an extremely long cobweb brush’:

“Shall I poke ’im with my brush and see what ’e does?” she asked; and she forthwith mounted the fire escape and brought the brush into play, delivering me a sharp jab on the ankle.

Jake decides ‘this was too much’ and descends the fire escape. The neighbours confront him in the street and so, ‘uttering a piercing hiss I suddenly rushed forward toward them’, making them scatter ‘in terror’. Ha ha!! Welbeck Street will never be the same again.

Perhaps it is all lies, but lies so brilliantly told, they win over truth any day.

It’s truly a magnificent book and moments from it will accompany me on my own London wanderings. I shall just leave you with one last brilliant quotation because I can’t resist:

Starting a novel is opening a door on a misty landscape; you can still see very little but you can smell the earth and feel the wind blowing.

What a perfectly Autumnal vision of reading.

All Passion Spent

July 3, 2012

I read Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent in a completely heavenly way. I was recovering from a Friday night hangover and the husband had vanished off to lug a load of sandbags around in an architectural manner. I made a pot of coffee, a huge bowl of muesli (my Achilles’ heel, see my last post) dotted with leftover strawberries from the night before, and climbed back into bed where I lay reading All Passion Spent from start to finish, as the sun streamed through the windows and my headache gently evaporated. I can think of no better way of spending a Saturday morning.

I came to All Passion Spent with a feeling of relief, of at last, finally, phew. I have wanted to read something by Vita Sackville-West for such a long time. First at university, when studying Woolf, there she was, endlessly popping up her elegant head and begging for a little more attention than there was time for. Then for my literary hen party (more details here) we had a beautiful afternoon strolling around her home, Sissinghurst. I since learnt that we were taken for a troop of literary lesbians, come to pay our respects to this ultimate literary lesbian. Apparently they get quite a few such groups, and rather fewer hen parties.

The gardens at Sissinghurst are famously beautiful, and they are definitely the most beautiful gardens I’ve seen anywhere in the world. They make the little rusty bathtub with its heroic raspberry bush on my windswept roof terrace look rather miserable, actually, but no matter. To go there is to enter garden heaven. I remember reading about Vita Sackville-West’s gardening in Alexandra Harris’s remarkable book Romantic Moderns:

To plant bulbs in the middle of a war was to assert one’s firm belief in the future. She made a point of planting a slow-growing magnolia in spring 1939, wanting to believe that there would be someone there to see it in a hundred years time.

I think it’s a wonderful – and a very feminine – way of asserting one’s defiance.

So it was with joy that I climbed back into bed with my copy of All Passion Spent and a feast of a breakfast. Every page, sentence and word were a delight to read.

The book opens with the death of Lord Slane, a great statesman, leaving his children, who are mostly in their sixties and perfectly ghastly, deciding what to do with their newly-widowed mother, Lady Slane. They devise a frightful scheme whereby she will be parcelled off between them, paying each of them for her keep for a few months of the year. Lady Slane, ‘the very incarnation of placidity’, quietly defies them and plants a slow-growing magnolia.

Not really. She quietly defies them and says she’s going to move into a little house up in Hampstead. Back then, in 1931, Hampstead was rather less chi-chi and rather more bohemian than it is today, and to these residents of Chelsea’s Elm Park Gardens, it might as well have been Peckham. We get a lovely scene of Lady Slane shuffling off on the underground (she is eighty-eight after all) up to Hampstead, her mind running off along little paths as the stops go by.

Lady Slane saw the house thirty years ago, but by some miracle, it is still there, waiting – as it were – for her to rent it. The eccentric Mr Bucktrout, owner and agent, is happy for her to rent it, so long as he can come round for tea once a week. So Lady Slane settles down up in Hampstead, and the rest of the book is given over to this quiet ending of her days, with the company of Mr Bucktrout, her loyal French maid, a jack-of-all-trades, and Mr Fitz-George – a long-lost acquaintance who first met her when she was the very beautiful Vicereine of India.

You’ve probably gathered that there’s not a tremendous amount of action. Most of the narrative is given over to Lady Slane’s memories, as she sifts through parts of her life, making her peace with it, looking back at who she was and what she’s become. This reflective nature of the prose allows for some interesting meanderings on various ideas. For instance, we get this on happiness:

But what was happiness? Had she been happy? That was a strange, clicking word to have coined – meaning something definite to the whole English-speaking race – a strange clicking word with its short vowel and its spitting double p’s and its pert tip-tilted y at the end, to express in two syllables a whole summary of life. Happy. But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? It meant, if it meant anything at all, that some uneasy desire wanted black to be black, and white, white; it meant that in the jungle of the terrors of life, the tiny creeping creatures sought reassurance in a formula …

That night, I stayed up embarrassingly late leafing through a volume of my (heavenly) collection of Virginia Woolf’s letters, picking out the ones to Vita Sackville-West written at around the time of All Passion Spent. For, as well as being her lover, Woolf was Vita Sackville-West’s publisher; indeed, the Hogarth Press made quite a sum of money from both All Passion Spent and her previous novel The Edwardians, which were both bestsellers. I hoped Virginia Woolf might have written some thoughts on All Passion Spent, or offered some advice, one writer to another. But then I found the following letter to Vita on Friday 25th April 1930, sent from Monk’s House:

“I don’t think I can stand, even the Nicolsons, on happiness for three quarters of an hour” I said at 8.15.

“Well, we can always shut them off” said Leonard. At 9 I leapt to my feet and cried out,

“By God, I call that first rate!” having listened to every word.

This is (for a wonder) literally true. How on earth have you mastered the art of being subtle, profound, humorous, arch, coy, satirical, affectionate, intimate, profane, colloquial, solemn, sensible, poetical and a dear old shaggy sheep dog – on the wireless? We thought it a triumph: Harold’s too.

Evidently, Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson were on the BBC radio discussing happiness. I suspect that some of the ideas they talked about then, might have seeped into her musings on happiness in All Passion Spent. And Woolf’s litany of affectionate praise for Vita Sackville-West’s art on the wireless is, I think, apt for her writing as well.

I could go on about All Passion Spent for yonks – her thoughts on growing old, on being young, on being a woman, on frustrated dreams, on money, on family … but I shall confine myself to one last particularly lovely passage. Do forgive the very long quotation, but as Virginia Woolf said, she is ‘a dear old shaggy sheep dog’ and it is a very very long sentence which needs to be written out in full. I think it one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read:

She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting around this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air, or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, but altering the pace of the progression not by one tittle; never brushing the carriage with their wings; flickering always, and evading; sometimes rushing on ahead, but returning again to tease and to show off, darting between the axles; having an independent and a lovely life; a flock of ragamuffins skimming above the surface of the desert and around the trundling wagon; but Henry, who was travelling on a tour of investigation, could only say ‘Terrible, the ophthalmia among these people – I must really do something about it,’ and, knowing that he was right and would speak to the missionaries, she had withdrawn her attention from the butterflies and transferred it to her duty, determining that when they reached Yezd or Shiraz, or wherever it might be, she also would take the missionaries’ wives to task about the ophthalmia in the villages and would make arrangements for a further supply of boracic to be sent out from England.

But, perversely, the flittering of the butterflies had always remained more important.

All Passion Spent is in many ways a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s polemic A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf argues, among other things, that a woman cannot write fiction without money and a room of her own. She also writes about how the literary tradition is male rather than female and complains that the very sentence which was used so effectively by men was ‘unsuited for a woman’s use’. She argues that a woman’s experience is different from man’s, that what women want to write is different from what men want to write and so they need to find new tools of expression, ‘knocking that into shape for herself’.

Woolf wrote of the moment as ‘an incessant shower of innumerable atoms’, but I rather prefer Vita Sackville-West’s expression of it as ‘the flittering of the butterflies’, darting beautifully and playfully around the male cart which presses ever directly onwards.

And indeed we find this image of the butterfly moment appearing elsewhere in Vita Sackville-West’s writing. Here it is, in Twelve Days in Persia, which she wrote a couple of years earlier:

It is necessary to write if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clasp the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.

Fine inspiration for any writer.

The Accidental

May 29, 2012

I like nothing better than a coincidence, especially when one of the coinciding things is in the book I’m reading.

Last week I wrote about a first-class coincidence which ended up in a trip to Venice. It’s hard to top that one. You might find this week’s coincidence a little more humble, although, for me, just as satisfying.

It was Saturday night. That morning, we had accidentally bought an enormous fish. (Long story. Here is probably not the place for it.) Some friends were coming round to eat it with us, but they weren’t here yet. The husband was cooking the big fish. I had been hovering over him saying annoying things like, oh I wouldn’t cut the lemons like that. Maybe you should put some almonds in too. No don’t bother about doing that with the leeks. It wasn’t long before I was told to shut up and banished from the kitchen.

So I concentrated on finishing my book – Ali Smith’s marvellous The Accidental.

I love Ali Smith. This sounds like the sort of fluff that people churn out to go on the back covers of books but I really do find her writing dizzying and exciting. There’s so much energy to it, so much pizzazz. I was struck by how similar The Accidental is to her most recent book There but for the (which I wrote about here). Both books involve a stranger turning up in a very middle-class set-up and acting as a catalyst for some big changes. Both books also feature, among others, the brilliantly imagined voice of a young girl. In The Accidental we have twelve-year-old Astrid Smart, whose geeky delight in things like the way her hand leaves a mark on her face after she’s slept on it, or how her name is only two vowels away from asteroid is completely enchanting.

So I was very happy to get out of the kitchen and return to the dysfunctional world of The Smarts. But just three and a half minutes later:

‘Oh my god!’ I shrieked, jumping up, striding back to the kitchen, where the husband was busy chopping. ‘Oh my god, oh my god, guess what?’

‘What?’ He used the kind of voice that a grown-up might use to a tiresome child.

‘You know I’m reading this book?’

‘Which book is it again?’

‘You know, the Ali Smith book. The Accidental.’

‘Which one’s that again?’

‘Oh never mind. But guess what?’

‘What?’

‘Well they all watch a film. And the film they watch is The Lady Vanishes!’

No reaction.

‘Listen to this:

It said it was filmed in Islington, Astrid said. Did you see? Did you see? It said at the end, when it said The End, that it was filmed here.

By the canal, Michael said. There was a film studio there.

No way, Astrid said.

No, there was, Michael said. Really. They did costume dramas, things like that. That’s definitely where they made that film.

No way, Astrid said again.’

‘Well there you go,’ said the husband.

I realise that at times of excitement I sound quite similar to Astrid, the twelve-year-old girl. Poor husband.

But I’m not just excited about the fact that Hitchcock’s brilliant film The Lady Vanishes was shot at the Gainsborough Studios, the site of which happens to be about a five-minute walk from my flat. I’m excited because right now, that is exactly what I’m writing about in my novel.

Good coincidence!

I’ve already told you about my novel, but in case you’ve forgotten, it is about a derelict house. Two very different young women make friends and then explore this derelict house, which is right next to The Rosemary Branch pub (where one of them works), which happens to be very close to where the Gainsborough Studios used to be. The interesting thing about the book (let’s hope) is that the house then tells stories of who used to live there through various traces, such as the layers of wallpaper, the coal hole, and – as you might remember from a couple of weeks ago – a forgotten piece of a 1930s toy.

I decided on one of these old train set mini advertisements – just the right size to slip between the floorboards and lie forgotten for the best part of a century, waiting to be discovered by someone looking for something else that had rolled off into a corner.

So the boy who used to have this train set – this very elaborate train set, with all these extra bits – who lived in the house in the 1930s … well, funnily enough, he loved trains. And, for those of you who haven’t seen it, The Lady Vanishes is set almost entirely on a train. It was filmed in 1938 in the Gainsborough Studios, round the corner from the house where this boy lived. According to the (real-life) lady who works in the pub (who’s lived round here forever, who I interviewed as another fun bit of research for the book), people who lived round here used to hang around the studios to try and get work as extras.

Now, if you were a ten-year-old boy who was obsessed with trains, who knew that a film all about a train was being made round the corner and that if he were to play truant and skip school for a day, he might be picked to actually be in the film – recorded forever on celluloid, on show to thousands of people in the cinema, him, there, next to a train… well you’d do it, wouldn’t you?

So you can see him in the film. Near the end, Michael Redgrave says to Margaret Lockwood. ‘Well, this is where we say goodbye.’ There he is, under the sign for platform 7, in his shorts and pulled-up socks, looking curiously at the camera and at this pair of famous actors, just before they hop into a cab. That’s him – the boy in my book.

This scenario had been whirling around my brain for the whole week. How feasible was it? What would the inside of the studio have looked like? What were the names of all the bits of equipment they would have used? Was that scene definitely shot in the studios, or could it have been done at the real Victoria Station? How would they choose the extras? Would he have got away with skipping school? Would he have made any friends while he was waiting for them to shoot that scene? Would they have given him something for lunch, while he waited? So many questions, spiralling around as I perused books in the British Library, listened to Margaret Lockwood on an old Desert Island Discs, watched and re-watched The Lady Vanishes … so you can imagine my surprise when in this completely unrelated book there was a mention of the very thing that had been so on my mind. And not just the film itself, but that it was filmed in that studio, in Islington. (Incidentally, should you be able to shed some light on any of these questions, I’d welcome your knowledge with open arms and a big thank you.)

It’s hard to describe the feeling. Shock, surprise, amazement. A sharp intake of breath. A feeling of wonder. Confusion. It really was completely extraordinary. And, of course, I began to doubt the very nature of coincidence; I couldn’t help but wonder whether this wasn’t merely accidental, but something bigger and more profound.

Thinking about it a little more logically and unexcitably, I shouldn’t be surprised at coming across some connection in The Accidental because it is a book rich in references. There’s a long, very funny description of Love Actually, for instance, passing comments on masses of authors – from Roth to Larkin to Austen to Shakespeare, plenty of songs from the seventies, and much much more. Ali Smith characterises the various members of the Smart family in part by giving them their own cultural references, things that they cling on to as their individual ways of understanding the world, their points of identity. Really it would be odd if I hadn’t found something amongst all of them that was occupying some other part of my brain.

As for The Accidental, aside from its accidental chime with my book … I found it a wonderful, inspiring read. Perhaps it’s not for everyone. Some people, inevitably, will find the stream-of-consciousness style of writing irritating. Some will find the scenario of a stranger just inserting herself into a family’s holiday home too unlikely.

But if you can put these quibbles aside, if you can appreciate the experimentalism and see that Ali Smith is thinking about ideas like representation and the importance of the different points of view (I suppose a bit like Hitchcock), then really it is an astonishing feat. I love the way that the same moment is replayed in each of the characters’ minds utterly differently, each obsessing over a different aspect and missing the rest. It shows quite how hideously dysfunctional the family is, how much it is hiding behind convention and appearance. Smith also captures how terrifying teenagerhood and that awkward moment just before teenagerhood can be, and the cruelty of other children. And she shows how much everyone wants to believe in something, how much people want to be rescued, how much people will invest and imagine in a stranger.

Like There but for the, The Accidental reminded me a little of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, in which all the characters have their own voices and revolve around the empty centre of Percival, who never speaks. Here it’s the same set-up but the empty centre – the character whose head we scarcely enter is Amber, or Alhambra. I suppose The Accidental shows just how much we are capable of projecting onto emptiness.

So I really shouldn’t project too much meaning and significance onto this empty accidental coincidence of The Lady Vanishes. And yet, it’s so hard to resist feeling like it’s a sign from the universe that I am on the right track.

Hurrah!

Toys

May 14, 2012

This week was a very exciting one – my first ‘By the Book’ column was in the Spectator. Those of you who have been reading EmilyBooks for a little while might have seen some of my pieces for the Spectator’s Book blog, but this was the first time I was in the actual mag, in the physical printed thing. For the inaugural ‘By the Book’, I thought that David Cameron and George Osborne – who were accused of being too posh to know the price of a pint of milk – should take a leaf out of Brideshead Revisited and be a little more like Sebastian Flyte. You can read it here. The best bit is my little bookish picture!

Amidst the tremendous excitement of seeing my name in print – repeatedly showing smiling friends, proud family members and even bewildered newsagents my column – this week I have been rather preoccupied with toys. In my column I wondered what David Cameron and George Osborne would call their teddy bears, if they were to follow the example of Sebastian, with his dearly-loved Aloysius. (Perhaps Ted Heath?) The thought crossed my mind again when wandering through the magical Pollock’s Toy Museum this weekend and seeing such lovely creatures as this:

According to his label, he has a military bearing and a squeaker in his body. There was even a little teddy bears’ picnic assembled in another cabinet. (I suspect that David Cameron’s bear wouldn’t be allowed any milk with his tea.) But my trip to Pollock’s Toy Museum wasn’t just to hunt out possible parliamentary teddies, it was to seek inspiration for my novel.

Some of you might remember that I’m writing a novel about a derelict house. Yes, I’m still writing it. But it is going well – I’m edging towards 60,000 words of the first draft, which means I’m substantially nearer the end than the beginning. The novel is about a young woman called Anna, who moves into a canal boat with a strange older man called Roger (first Jolly Roger, then Dodgy Roger), makes friends with a barmaid called Eliza and then the two girls explore a nearby derelict house. So far so Swallows and Amazons I hear you think… but here’s the twist. We learn about who’s lived in the house over the past hundred and fifty years, through remaining traces such as layers of wallpaper, the coal hole, a mysterious piece of wood with Hebrew writing on it, even the very bricks in the walls. And all these historical chapters are based on fact.

Which means that sometimes I have to do rather a lot of research, and some other times I get to go on jaunts to rather idiosyncratic museums. Anna and Eliza are going to find a little broken bit of a boy’s toy from the 1930s. Luckily Pollock’s Toy Museum had several contenders. I thought perhaps a wheel from this rather smart car:

Or else there were masses of train sets to choose from. I suppose they could find a train wheel, but I am particularly fond of these little mini advertisements, which were used to decorate train sets:

And I loved this destination board too:

Tough choice. Perhaps the train paraphernalia is a little more original, but then it would be so easy for a wheel to come off a car, and spin off into the corner, where it could lie covered in dust for a very long time indeed. Although, I suppose those little advertisements or place names are very slim pieces of tin. Slim enough to slip between the cracks in the floorboards, for instance. Hummm… I shall have to get my imagination whirring into action.

Pollock’s Toy Museum is utterly enchanting. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Every inch is packed with so many things. The Victorian science experiments sets were far more exciting than the ones we get today – they included little jars of mercury and the like. There are early building blocks from brands like Meccano, old Penny Dreadfuls, beautiful dolls houses filled with mini-everything, and – best of all – E.M. Forster’s toy soldiers, donated to the museum by King’s College Cambridge. Quite why Forster had his childhood toys with him up at Cambridge is psychologically intriguing to say the least.

My very favourite toys, when I was little, were my cuddly animals. I had a selection, ranging from Charlie the caterpillar (who had different coloured socks on each foot), to Jeremy Fisher and, most favourite, were Chip and Dale the chipmunks, with their respective black and red noses.

When I was about five years old, I had a rather traumatic revelation about my cuddly toys. We went on a holiday to Disneyworld, where my parents bought me an Eeyore soft toy. I really loved that Eeyore. I was going through an acute Winnie the Pooh phase, and felt particularly affectionate towards the poor melancholy donkey. He was instantly drafted into the upper echelons of my soft toy society, and Chip and Dale were made to move up to make room for him at bedtime. So far so good. Until we left Disneyworld and went on to some other bit of Florida. Once we got to the new hotel, we made a terrible discovery. Eeyore had been forgotten. I’d like to say that I handled it with sophisticated and mature aplomb, but, of course, I was a nightmare. The previous hotel was telephoned. Had housekeeping found it in the room? Could they perhaps find out and then post it to us? But all this to no avail. Eeyore had completely disappeared.

I think perhaps I might have got over this loss. I did, after all, still have Chip and Dale, who were very trusty companions. And perhaps, I reasoned, Eeyore had just wandered off to find another home. Perhaps he didn’t like all the company – he definitely keeps himself to himself in the books. But then the thunderbolt came:

‘Oh well, we’ll just buy another one,’ said Mum.

I didn’t understand. There wasn’t another one. Eeyore had gone away. That was Eeyore, there couldn’t possibly be another Eeyore.

‘Don’t be daft,’ I was told. ‘There are plenty more Eeyores. We’ll just go to a shop and buy another one. It will be exactly the same.’

It was a horrid moment. Because if there were millions of Eeyores, all exactly the same, then there were also millions of Chips, Dales and Charlies too. These were my friends – and suddenly they were made to seem just mass-produced things, not real at all.

Looking back on it now, it reminds me of Margery Williams’ classic children’s story The Velveteen Rabbit, which is about a boy’s toy rabbit who is desperate to become real. It’s a very sweet story, and there is a very sad bit in it too. There’s also that famous quotation, often pulled out for weddings and the like, about becoming real. I won’t quote too much here as it’s too naf, but the gist is, you become real when you’re really loved. It can hurt, and it takes a long time:

That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept … Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand… once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.

Bit schmaltzy, but I think it can just about be forgiven in a children’s book.

The point is that toys are only toys to adults – to children, more often than not, they’re real. And wandering round Pollock’s Toy Museum, bearing this in mind, is completely astonishing. It is filled with all these things that so many children have loved so much. One can peer around inside other people’s imaginations, glimpsing all those funny scenarios and whole worlds that have sprung up around these little props.

I suppose really that’s what writing the novel is all about – recreating some of these lost worlds from a few little clues. At least for one of these 1930s toys, one little lost world might be resuscitated.

 

Walking To the River

April 4, 2012

One of my most favourite things is going for a walk. I am at my happiest when strolling along – definitely not too fast or strenuously – looking at beautiful scenery, be it on Hampstead Heath, Hampshire, or Hackney Wick.

Aside from the views, one of the things I love most about walking is talking. I wrote about Matthew Hollis’s biography of Edward Thomas here, in which he wrote about Thomas and Frost’s habit of ‘talk-walking’. They’d go off into the fields and walk for hours, talking all the while, usually of poetry and other lofty things.

No doubt my own talk-walks are a little less high-brow than Edward Thomas’s. But I love the way that once one’s limbs are loosened, one’s tongue is loosened too. All sorts of things that one might normally struggle to talk about come bubbling up like water from a spring – and one babbles away quite easily.

Of course, if there’s no one for company on a walk, then babbling away to oneself looks at best eccentric. Virginia Woolf did it, striding through the Sussex countryside, stomping out the plots of novels, talking to herself all the way. I might hum to myself a little, but usually, if alone, the talking goes on in my head, my thoughts chattering away silently to themselves.

When I feel a bit stuck with my writing – when I get a horrid feeling like there’s a blockage in a key synoptic pathway in my brain – a walk usually sorts it out. Although, when I walk, my thoughts refuse to follow a straight trajectory and dart all over the place making nothing at all coherent, just a very satisfying scribble. It’s when I get home afterwards and sit down to write, that I find the scribble’s unlocked the blockage and I’ve leapt ahead. Phew.

I feel sure there must be plenty of women who walk and write. There’s Virginia Woolf for a start, and there’s also Olivia Laing, whose To the River is just out as an attractive paperback. But, with these exceptions, I really can’t think of any other women who write about walking.

It’s so peculiar! If you think of the big names in English nature-writing (aka walk-writing), they’re all men like Edward Thomas, Robert Macfarlane and Roger Deakin. Travel further afield and there’s Patrick Leigh Fermor, Norman Lewis and Laurie Lee. Where have all the women gone?

Well perhaps they just walked and talked or walked and thought, without writing it down afterwards. Perhaps we women don’t share the stereotypically ‘male’ impulse to spot and catalogue things obsessively, or perhaps we simply don’t have enough confidence in our walks to commit them to paper. Or perhaps I am just yet to find these elusive women walk-writers. I’d be grateful for any pointers, those of you who know something I don’t.

Well, I’m very pleased that Olivia Laing wrote about her walk along the River Ouse. She walks alone, letting her mind meander along all sorts of fascinating watery diversions. Among other things, we get a folklore tale of faeries, a good bit about the Styx, the tragic story behind The Wind in the Willows and there is the frequent tug of Virginia Woolf, who, of course, drowned herself in the Ouse.

I particularly like the way Olivia Laing doesn’t always pretend to be in a bucolic dream in the middle of nowhere. We are jolted back to the twenty-first century by having to cross an A-road, gobbling a curry for supper, or overhearing a filthy conversation in a pub car park. This is definitely the English countryside of today, which makes the moments of wildness all the more special. Our countryside is now cris-crossed by noisy roads, and our rivers, often as not, end in container ports, changed from meandering streams into ‘an industrial river, dark as oil, its surface opaque and unrevealing’.

But the rivers are still there and one can still find beauty in their surroundings, even if that beauty can be jagged and rather unexpected. Laing gives us both ‘the elder foaming with flowers the colour of Jersey cream’ and the sugared fennel seeds in the Indian restaurant, leaving ‘the ghost of aniseed … on the tip of my tongue like a word I knew but could not speak’.

It’s an intensely lyrical book, beautifully written about beautiful places. It’s a book that above all has made me want to put my shoes on and stride out towards a river. And I would never neglect to bring with an enormous and delicious picnic a la Kenneth Grahame’s Ratty:

coldtonguecoldhamcoldbeefpickledgherkinssaladfrenchrollscresssandwidgespottedmeatgingerbeerlemonadesodawater

Thanks Olivia for the reminder. Yum.