Well, I went searching in the garden for any signs of spring yet again. I found some primroses:
and some polyanthus:
and some rather reluctant daffodils:
and some tulips:
and the first bit of blossom on the damson tree:
By way of contrast, here is the crabapple tree now:
and the way it looked about two weeks earlier than this last year:
As you can see, this year the first tips of the leaves are just beginning to show green, testament to the terrible spring we’ve had.
After a harrowing few months, David has now been given the all-clear, so we are getting back to normal – normal being the usual slogging away researching and writing, with intervals of gardening and house maintenance. Oh, and knitting. David’s biography of Lord Moncreiff of Tullibole has a provisional acceptance from Dundee University Press, subject to getting some financial sponsorship from somewhere (not something we would pay out of our own pockets). Yes, this does smack of sharp practice, but it is getting to be the norm for academic books, a situation which is not a happy one.
As some of Lord Moncreiff’s law cases involved notable Victorian scandals – such as the trial of Madeleine Smith for poisoning her lover and the Yelverton trial on desertion and the legality of a marriage – I think this is a book of wider general interest, like The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Consequently, I think David should aim for a more commercial publisher, but (whisper this) you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
My own latest novel, The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez, is out looking for an agent with a genuine interest in historical fiction. It went out on 10 April, only for me to discover that he had just departed on holiday till the end of April. On return he’ll no doubt be snowed under with work for his existing clients, so I’ll probably have to wait a very long time. Such is the fate of writers these days. Waiting and waiting, and then perhaps no response at all.
On 27th April, David and I attended a lunch of the Historical Writers’ Association in Chester, which was a great occasion. A good lunch and excellent craich as the Irish would say. The whole issue of the offhandedness of agents and publishers came up, inevitably. One author had (some time ago) written a novel set in ancient Greece, which Louis de Bernières had read and said was ‘the best thing since Mary Renault’, but publishers wouldn’t touch it. Another had written a book set in Renaissance Prague. It was published, was well reviewed, but rapidly faded. I’m going to be reading this one, so will let you know what I think.
There was a general consensus amongst us that authors need agents and publishers less and less nowadays, given the easy route into digital publishing, but we all agreed that we do need someone to do the marketing, something none of us enjoy. I have friends (you know who you are) who have done very well out of digital publishing, simply sidestepping the traditional publishing route, but they spend a great deal of time on marketing. Not something I want to do.
Now research I do love, but have very nearly finished the preparation for my seventeenth-century novel, which I hope to start actually writing very soon, within the next couple of weeks, probably. I now have a pretty clear idea of the characters in my head, and the general trajectory of the plot. I never plan ahead in fine detail, as that always suffocates the creative process for me. I know where I will start and finish, and the major milestones along the way, but otherwise I let the details of the story develop as I write.
Also once again the bulk of my reading this month has been research, but I found time for Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, an excellent examination of what I’d call the higher levels of a writer’s craft. Definitely recommended for both writers and keen readers.
We’ve only fairly recently discovered the television programme Countryfile, which explores the British countryside – wildlife, history, architecture, crafts, country life, farming, and much more. In one programme this month they were on the Broads looking at the Nancy Blackett, the red-sailed sloop which once belonged to Arthur Ransome and which has now been restored. He bought her with the proceeds from Swallows and Amazons and named her after one of the characters. It was on this boat that the sloop Goblin was based, which features in We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea. As a child I was sailing mad and had my own boat. My aunt and uncle gave me We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea for Christmas when I was just twelve, and I remember reading it with a torch under the bedclothes right through from start to finish in one night! After seeing the original of the Goblin, of course I had to read it again and found it as gripping as ever, even though I am very well acquainted with the outcome. I think it is the most thrilling of Ransome’s books.
Four children, the ‘Swallows’, are accidentally swept out to sea while they are anchored in a thick fog near Felixstowe. Once they realise what is happening, they are past the Beach End buoy and in amongst dangerous shoals which could wreck the boat, as it spins out of control. The only safe course is to hoist the sails and head towards open water right out in the North Sea. The fog is followed by darkness and a terrible storm, which prevents them from sailing back towards England, so they are forced to sail on and on through the night until, with the dawn, they spot Dutch fishing boats and a loom of light over distant land. How the four children react to the ordeal in their different ways is wonderfully depicted and the adrenaline rush for the reader never lets up! I’m not sure how much Ransome is now read by today’s children and teenagers, but I don’t think you can go wrong with this one.
I’ve also read Tracy Chevalier’s new novel, The Last Runaway (the double significance of the title becomes clear near the end of the book). I was lucky enough to WIN a copy! I regularly read Lynne Hatwell’s blog at http://dovegreyreader.typepad.com and sometimes contribute to the discussions. Occasionally publishers present Lynne with some giveaway copies of one of their new books, and this was the case with the Chevalier novel. I decided to put my name into the hat and – amazingly! – won a copy.
The young Quaker girl, Honor Bright, jilted by her fiancé, decides to travel with her sister to America in 1850, where her sister is to marry an older man known to the family. After a terrible sea crossing, her sister dies of yellow fever before they can reach their destination in Ohio. Grief-stricken and bereft in a foreign country, Honor has to make her way alone, depending on strangers to take her in. Once having reached the home of her intended brother-in-law and his recently widowed sister-in-law, Honor realises she is unwanted and makes a hasty marriage for the sake of security and a place in this somewhat cold and unwelcoming society.
Her new husband is a capable but undemonstrative farmer, entirely governed by his harsh and unbending Quaker mother. Honor finds she has no place here either, and is increasingly unhappy. Parallel to Honor’s story is the story of the runaway slaves who come through Ohio, via the Underground Railroad, an escape route to freedom in Canada. Surreptitiously, Honor begins to help them.
I won’t spoil the story for you by telling you any more. At first I found it a little slow (not quite sure why, as things do happen!), but I soon warmed to it. Chevalier uses a rather clever narrative device. Most of the novel is told in close third person, from Honor’s point of view, but she also writes long letters to her parents and her closest friend at home in England, through which Chevalier is able to convey Honor’s deepest feelings, frankly expressed to her friend, rather more guarded to her parents. It works very well.
I have also read Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, one of her books I hadn’t done before. Those of you who read this newsletter regularly will know that I am a great admirer of her writing. So much conveyed in so little. Human Voices is based on her own experience, just after graduating, of working for the BBC during the war. The novel is set in Broadcasting House, which is an enclosed community for the duration, whose members eat, work and sleep there, some never going home, or even going outside the building. It has its own language and customs, its own hierarchy. Early on, the BBC has made a decision that it will always tell the truth, feeling that truth is more important in war than comfort.
It’s a powerful read, evoking this strange period and situation vividly, at times extremely funny, at others poignant, exploring the antics of some of the crazier artistic types. In one wonderful scene we are taken into the concert hall which has been converted into a dormitory for those who cannot go home:
It was not much use trying to get to sleep. Total blackout was Security’s rule, and since the tickets didn’t bear numbers, and couldn’t be read if they had, newcomers clambered and felt about in search of an empty corner, swarming across the others like late returners to a graveyard before cockcrow. Time, indeed, was the great concern. The sleepers were obscurely tormented by the need to be somewhere in five, ten, or twenty minutes. Awakened, quite often, by feet walking over them, they struck matches whose tiny flames wavered in every corner of the concert hall, and had a look at their watches, just to be sure. Yet some slept on, and the walls, designed to give the best possible acoustics for classical music, worked just as well for snoring. Accommodation, which had provided so much, had never thought of this. No barracks or dormitory in the country produced snoring of such broad tone, and above that distinctly rose the variations of the overwrought, the junior announcers rehearsing their cues, correcting themselves and starting again, continuity men suddenly shouting: ‘…and now, in lighter mood…’, and every now and then a fit of mysterious weeping.
Like all Penelope Fitzgerald’s books, it is wonderfully done, though I suppose I didn’t warm to it quite as much as to my favourites, The Gate of Angels and The Beginning of Spring, both of which I constantly reread. This is probably because Human Voices roams across a very diffuse cast, so the reader doesn’t empathise with one or two central characters. One feels a little distanced. However, all the descriptions of moving about inside Broadcasting House were interesting for me. It’s a very confusing place! I used to chair meetings of the Central Consultative Committee of the Open University in the Council Chamber there, sitting under a portrait of Richard Dimbleby and wielding the very gavel used by major figures in the BBC. All round on the windowsills are ranged awards to the BBC from the occupied countries of Europe, given in gratitude for the BBC’s lifeline of broadcasts to them during World War II.
I’ve now started Jim Crace’s Harvest, but it’s too soon to report on that yet.
On the craft front, cowls were the big hit this month. David liked mine so much that I made him one, in more manly colours:
and I made myself another one in blues, this time:
One of the characteristics of this design is that it falls naturally into concentric circles when you wear it:
I’ve also made David a dark green jersey with cables up the front, but haven’t sewn it up yet, so it isn’t ready to be photographed.
Also not yet ready to be photographed is this jersey I’m making at the moment, but this is what it will look like. Isn’t it gorgeous?
Must get on and finish it.
Till next time,
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