Identifying parents: deep-rooted desire or dismissible distraction?

As I said in my previous post, De Vries has three major themes: whether murder can ever be justified, why some people are prepared to risk everything to discover who their parents are/were and the secrets held by old houses.

Today, I’d like to take a closer look at the second theme. Why is it that a significant proportion of people who cannot identify their birth parents – such as those who have been adopted, or whose parents have been lost in war or some other catastrophe, or who have experienced the denial of parenthood by one parent (usually the father), or who are the offspring of a sperm donor or even who have been abandoned in early infancy – grow up with an insatiable desire to discover who their biological parents were, while others in a similar situation either display no interest in finding out or are actively hostile to the idea?

My first boss and his wife had three adopted children, each with different biological parents from the others. They were adopted in the 1960s, when adoptive parents had minimal contact with the biological parents and the latter had very limited rights. Adoption societies of the time made it clear that they were facilitating a ‘clean break’ from the natural parent (usually the mother) who had offered the child for adoption. Often the mothers were very young and coerced into giving away their babies by the demands of their parents and the disapproval of society as a whole. It was considered shameful to be an unmarried mother and the welfare state did little to help girls and women who found themselves in this predicament. The prospective mothers were often sent to unmarried mothers’ homes when they began to ‘show’. Spalding had such a home, Carisbrooke House in Haverfield Road. The girls who came to it were probably from other towns; similarly, Spalding girls would be sent to towns some distance away. Soon after the birth, the baby was adopted and the girls would return home as if nothing had happened – though the experience cruelly curtailed their education and there was little psychological support for the trauma of having had to relinquish the child. The headmistress of Spalding High School was considered to be very progressive for allowing one of my classmates to return to school after she had a baby. The year was 1969.

My boss’s two adopted sons showed no interest whatsoever in their biological parents. Like Kevan de Vries, they entered the family business at a young age and enjoyed the privileged lifestyle and well-heeled standard of living it offered. His adoptive daughter felt differently. She went to huge lengths to track down her biological mother and eventually settled in the USA, where her mother had emigrated, and changed her name to the name her mother had entered on her birth certificate. Despite having been brought up in a loving and affluent household, just like the two boys, she was never able to identify with the adoptive family.

During the same period, issues of parentage frequently became more convoluted, not to say dishonest, when the woman was older and married to a man who was not the father of the child. Divorce carried a stigma almost as powerful as unmarried motherhood, so few women would choose it; on a more practical level, most divorcees and abandoned wives were forced to live in penury. This was decades before British law changed and became almost always in favour of the woman if she had children and Britain became the ‘divorce capital of the world’. The alimony awarded by courts was usually meagre and little attempt was made to force defaulting husbands to pay.

A woman who bore a child whom she knew or suspected not to be her husband’s therefore commonly passed the baby off as his. Some husbands were complicit, knowing the child not to be theirs but still preferring to raise it as their own rather than end the marriage; others were genuinely taken in by the wife’s claims. As an adult, a friend suspected that the child of one of her neighbours was in fact her half-brother. The boy was small and fine-boned, with tight black curls like her own and those of her two siblings. The mother was a tall, heavily-built woman with fair skin and hair whose other children all looked like her. My friend later discovered that it had been an open secret in the neighbourhood that this boy was her father’s, but the woman’s husband had accepted responsibility for his upbringing and treated him exactly like the others.

In the 1950s and 1960s, some early efforts were made to identify fathers reluctant to acknowledge their children and make them contribute to their maintenance. Proving paternity was, however, largely based on the results of blood tests: it was possible to prove that a man was definitively not the child’s father, but, unless he had a very rare blood group, not to prove conclusively that he was.

The advent of the much more reliable DNA tests – though the earliest ones were not as reliable as claimed at the time – helped women to assert who the child’s father was, be believed and consequently obtain financial support, which became much more robustly enforced by the law than previously. Even more crucial, however, was the shift, from the 1970s onwards, in social attitudes towards parenthood. Gradually the stigma of being born outside wedlock was removed. More and more couples elected to have children without marrying and if they subsequently split up they were much more likely to agree on joint care – or at least joint financial support – for the children.

Kevan de Vries is fifty when De Vries begins.  During his lifetime, the whole spectrum of social attitudes towards children not born to a conventionally married couple takes place. Viewed in this light, it is perhaps not surprising that as a young man he is happy to have his mother and grandfather sweep the question of his paternity under the carpet, whereas in middle age he develops a burning desire to understand the identity of his missing parent, even at the risk of losing his liberty and physical contact with his own son.

A brief footnote: John and Limming were the first and middle names of one of my close relatives. His mother named him after her own eldest brother, who was gassed in the First World War, and the father who refused to acknowledge him. She was determined that he would carry his father’s last name in some form, even though it was denied to him as a surname. He spent his whole life hating it and would omit it from official documents whenever possible.

Justifiable homicide

De Vries, the ninth DI Yates novel, will be published soon. As I mentioned in a previous post, it is the sequel to Sausage Hall, although each can be read independently of the other.

De Vries sets out to explore several themes: Why do some people become obsessed with discovering the truth about who their parents are, even at the risk of putting themselves in danger or losing their liberty? Can murder sometimes be justified? And, perhaps a little more whimsically, can buildings hide secrets and even, in certain contexts, develop personalities of their own?

In a future post, I’ll take a closer look at the mystery of parentage. For now, I’d like to consider the second of these themes. Wishing to find out more about whether murder can ever be excused, I looked up the term ‘justifiable homicide’. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that in different countries there is quite a range of legislation ‘allowing’ murder (i.e., not prosecuting the perpetrator). Internationally, the most frequently invoked law is one that absolves the murderer of blame if s/he killed while fearing for her or his own life, or the life of someone else in the immediate vicinity.  In other words, the murder has been committed in self-defence. However, the precise definition of what legally constitutes self-defence is often unclear. For example, English law allows someone to exert only ‘reasonable force’ when defending property from an intruder, even if the intruder is trespassing in the middle of the night and the householder claims that s/he was terrified. The well-publicised case of Tony Martin, who shot dead a teenage boy and injured his twenty-nine-year-old burglar companion when they broke into his remote farmhouse in the early hours of one morning in the year 2000, remains controversial. Martin was convicted of murder, later downgraded to manslaughter. He served three years in prison before being released. Twenty years on, public opinion is still divided on whether he should have been convicted at all, but his conviction was the result of careful application of the law. The plea of self-defence therefore seems to depend on a number of factors, including the circumstances of death, how the law may or should be interpreted, the verdict of the jury if the perpetrator is taken to court and, finally, the views of the presiding judge.

Some countries allow or condone types of killing that others would not hesitate to regard as murder. Abortion and euthanasia are allowed by some western jurisdictions, condemned as murder by others. So-called ‘honour-killings’, while they may still be against the law, may attract lower sentences than other kinds of homicide in the countries where they are most commonly practised. (I take a closer look at honour killings in Rooted in Dishonour.) Perpetrators of ‘crimes of passion’ – i.e., murders committed in the heat of the moment, usually against a partner or spouse who has been caught ‘cheating’ or his or her lover – may sometimes be judged leniently, even sympathetically, especially in Latin countries, and a much-reduced sentence consequently handed down.

Whatever one’s stance on this, the logic that dictates that not all murders are equal when it comes to assigning culpability is not hard to understand, even though it is often controversial. But what if the murderer were under no particular pressure when s/he committed the murder? Would it make any difference to the degree of culpability in terms of, say, such a (possibly extenuating?) circumstance as being unexpectedly accosted – perhaps at home – by someone who might not have been at that moment an obvious direct threat, but who had previously inflicted personal – or close-to-personal – harm on him or her? And what if the victim were a totally reprehensible character with no counterbalancing virtues whatsoever? Could the case ever be made for letting the murderer of such a person go scot free, with his or her crime condoned or even tacitly approved by the authorities?

That was the conundrum I had to address when I started to write De Vries.

De Vries: the new DI Yates novel. Writing a sequel

De Vries is the sequel to Sausage Hall, the third in the DI Yates series and among the most popular. It will be published in March. It is indelibly etched on my memory as having been written during the first year of COVID. I’m sure many other writers will have particular memories of what they wrote in 2020.

Readers of Sausage Hall have been asking for a sequel ever since it appeared in 2014. I have found their enthusiasm uplifting and should like to take the opportunity to thank them for it.  As soon as Sausage Hall was published, I knew I would write its sequel one day, because the story of Kevan de Vries is far from finished when it ends. Seven years after the curtain went down on de Vries, now exiled to his luxury home in Marigot Bay, it seemed the time was ripe, not least because the seven-year gap features strongly in the plot and is instrumental in deciding de Vries’ fate.

All the DI Yates novels prior to De Vries are standalone. Although the same central characters appear in all of them and some of the minor characters feature in more than one, De Vries was my first attempt at writing a novel whose plot depended on the plot of an earlier book. After giving this a great deal of thought, I decided that I wanted De Vries to work as a standalone novel as well as a sequel – I always feel those authors who expect their readers to read novels 1 – 8 in order to understand novel 9 are cheating. This presented some interesting challenges which I hope I have managed to address successfully, mainly through the use of ‘need-to-know’ tasters. There are snippets of information about what happened in Sausage Hall dotted throughout De Vries – enough, I hope, not to fox or bore the reader – without spoiling Sausage Hall for those who come to it afterwards.

I’ve previously told readers of this blog how my eagle-eyed daughter-in-law picks me up on discrepancies of fact and characterisation between the novels. Spotting and eliminating such errors seemed even more vital this time. She and my editor both re-read Sausage Hall before embarking upon De Vries and I re-read it several times myself – the first time I have read one of my novels all the way through again after it was published.

As it happens, I remembered the plot and characters of Sausage Hall quite accurately, more so, perhaps than some of the more recent DI Yates novels. Nevertheless, re-reading it was an unusual experience because it also reminded me vividly of the specific occasions on which I worked on certain chapters. For example, it was during one of many court adjournments when I was doing jury service at Sheffield Crown Court that I read of the links to Lincolnshire of a famous historical character that gave me the idea for the sub-plot; I was on holiday in Germany when I started writing about Florence Hoyle’s journal. The German holiday house was on a farm in the Munsterland and I remember sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop, the brilliant sunshine streaming through the open door. (Less edifyingly, I was also eating banana cake.)

De Vries himself is one of the most complex characters I have tried to create. He’s not exactly likeable, but he is charismatic; the reader feels sympathy for him because he’s suffered more than his fair share of misfortune – but he brought much of it on himself. Is he a murderer, or has he been framed? I won’t say any more, because I don’t want to spoil it if you’re interested!

I don’t have the finished jacket for De Vries yet, but I will post it on this blog as soon as I can. I’m thrilled with it – it’s an original sketch by Sophie Ground, a very talented artist friend and daughter of my friend Madelaine, herself also an accomplished artist.

I’m also delighted that all the Yates novels except Almost Love – which I’m rewriting; it will be back again in the autumn – are now published by QuoScript, a vibrant new publisher specialising in crime and YA fiction.

I may not have the jacket yet, but I can share the blurb from the back cover.  I hope you find it intriguing!

Wealthy businessman Kevan de Vries returns to the UK after an enforced absence, travelling incognito and taking up residence at ‘Sausage Hall’, his ancestral home in Sutterton – secretly, because he must evade being questioned by DI Yates about the disappearance of Tony Sentance seven years previously. Sentance’s sister Carole persistently lobbies the police to have her brother declared dead so she can inherit his estate. She believes de Vries murdered Tony.

De Vries knows he risks imprisonment by coming home, but he’s obsessed with learning his father’s identity, never disclosed by his mother.

Agnes Price, a young primary teacher, becomes increasingly concerned about the welfare of one of the children in her class. Leonard Curry, a schools attendance officer, is sent to investigate, but is attacked. Someone frightens Agnes when she is walking home one night. Shortly afterwards, Audrey Furby, Curry’s niece, disappears… 

De Vries is the sequel to Sausage Hall; each novel can be read independently of the other.

Eight months in Fiji: how Heather’s COVID year changed her life

I thought my readers would be interested in the post below. It tells the story of how Heather Anderson, whom I worked with during my ‘day job’ trip to Australia in 2019, was marooned in Fiji after the country was locked down because of COVID and had to stay there for almost nine months. I think it is an extraordinary story of resilience and creative thinking. Heather’s achievement while exiled from her family was immense – and, as she says herself, the experience will have changed her forever. I’m sure you will be as impressed as I am!

Heather Anderson, walking at sunset in Fiji

No one will forget last year, the ‘COVID year’. Most people worked – are in fact still working – from home, and many have found ingenious workarounds to enable them to carry on almost as normal. Few, however, can claim to have experienced new adventures in 2020, the year when monochrome surroundings and hugely reduced personal interaction became the norm. 

Heather Anderson, Cambridge Academic’s Sales Support Consultant in Australia and New Zealand, has an entirely different story to tell. Heather planned a five-day visit to Fiji in March… and ended up staying for more than eight months, trapped by the country’s lockdown as the pandemic reached Australia and the Pacific region.

Shortly after Heather arrived in Fiji, COVID infections in the region began to escalate, but Fiji itself was still clear of the disease. Its government therefore made a swift decision to close its borders, largely because the village lifestyle of the Fijian people would make social distancing, self-isolation and quarantining impossible. This decision was not taken lightly: inevitably there was a huge economic price to pay, as the country depends solely on tourism. However, the initiative worked: Fiji continued to be COVID-free for nearly the entire time Heather was there. Just a few cases arrived from overseas during June, an outbreak that was contained by quarantining those infected.

The Australian government organised one repatriation flight, in April, but Heather did not hear of it until it was fully booked. Every month for almost nine months, she booked herself on a scheduled flight home that eventually was cancelled. She finally reached home – she lives on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland – on 6th December 2020, following a repatriation flight to Brisbane and quarantine.

Heather continued to do her job for the whole time she was away. Because the visit she had planned was so short, initially she had not intended to take her laptop and other working tools with her, but changed her mind at 3 a.m. on the morning of the outward flight. Once she realised she would be marooned in Fiji, she managed to purchase a WiFi modem and set up her ‘office’ in a village on Viti Levu, the ‘Coral Coast’. 

She explained her situation to some of her librarian customers and some already knew, from discussions with her colleagues. She is grateful to them for the support she received: she says they were very empathetic; most of them checked on her each week, sending funny jokes, video snips or just supportive notes. 

Michael Cowley, the Sales Director of Cambridge Academic in Australia, contacted Heather regularly to check on her wellbeing and she continued to join weekly video calls with the Cambridge HE/Library team: “My direct academic team in Australia were wonderfully supportive and showed so much care and compassion, which was really great. That got me through the working weeks.”

Despite all the remote support she was able to channel, Heather found it extremely difficult to adjust to the knowledge that she would be detained in Fiji indefinitely, even though she was also very aware that others in the world were suffering more because of the pandemic. At first, time dragged when she wasn’t working, but then she realised she could be of huge practical help to the islanders, who had lost their jobs. Heather takes up the story.

“I got involved in raising funds for the youth in the area I was staying. Their parents had all lost their jobs, because they worked in tourism and they were really struggling to feed the children and get them back to school. The picture of me below, in the Fijian jumba (it is red), was taken at the main fundraising event. Altogether we raised $25,000FJD for the young people, which was an enormous help in taking pressure off their parents.”

Enforced exile and collapse of the local economy was not all Heather and the islanders had to contend with:

“During April we were hit by a Category 5 Cyclone, which wiped out all the plantations these families were relying on for food and money – they had hoped to sell their produce at the markets – so the fund-raiser really helped raise hopes and gave immediate relief.”  

Heather is an inveterate animal lover – she particularly likes penguins! – and spent the rest of her spare time on animal welfare:

“I fed all the dogs in the village every day for over eight months. In partnership with Animals Fiji, I also ran an

Some of the dogs Heather fed and cared for

animal de-sexing clinic to help the many stray and starving dogs on the island. I also ran mini-education sessions for the kids and adults in the village, to give them basic tips on how to care for their animals and how to carry on feeding them after I left. I am now sending monthly payments to those families to purchase extra food for the animals they own and pay for basic medicine to cope with fleas, ticks and worms.”

Dog walking in the dunes

Heather says that one of her main ‘positives’ was that she lost weight rapidly while she was in Fiji – almost sixteen kilos altogether. She thinks it was mainly the result of eating ‘clean’, simple foods and walking on rough terrain, especially sand dunes. Taking up fishing also entailed a lot of walking. 

“The Government imposed military curfews for the entire time I was there, which was unnerving at first but seemed to work well. Most people obeyed them. For several months, the curfew lasted from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. every night, then the restrictions were gradually eased, so it was running from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. by the time I left. 

“I really tried to keep positive and busy, but deep down I was struggling every day. I knew my husband, at home in Australia, was unwell. Each month my hopes were raised that I would be able to fly home and every time the flight was cancelled. I felt very fragile when I was told that I might not be able to leave Fiji until mid-March 2021.

“Just after I received this shattering news, my cousin sent me a list of repatriation flights which I hadn’t been told about, even though I had registered for absolutely every aid I possibly could. I shall be forever grateful to my cousin for giving me the heads up! I phoned immediately, to learn that there were only twenty seats available on a flight arranged for November 22nd and all had been taken. I explained how long I had been away and begged to be allowed on the flight. I boarded it as passenger twenty-one! I had two days to put everything straight and get to the airport.  

“When I was finally on the plane, mask on and no one either side of me, I cried and cried: more tears than I thought possible. Finally, after months of trying and failing to go home, I was on my way. 

“As soon as I the plane landed in Australia everyone on the flight was sent to a quarantine centre, so I had made it home only to find myself in ‘prison’ for fourteen long days. It wasn’t a major setback in the scheme of things, but I found those fourteen days the hardest of all. “2020 has taught me so much. I am stronger than I ever gave myself credit for and I appreciate all the little things in life. I know now that kindness and open hearts will get you through almost anything. Material things truly are overrated. I was in a place where people barely had enough to eat, but the love and support of the families I knew and the smiles on the beautiful kids’ faces were riches of a much more worthwhile kind.”

Heather, 2021

[I wrote this post for the Cambridge University Press blog and it is with permission from CUP that I am also publishing it here.]

Are you going to sleep?

I’m sure that you will, at one time or another, have come across and been amused by Hannah Hillam’s ‘Are you going to sleep?’ cartoon meme, with the brain acquiring its own separate existence, floating above the bed and saying or asking something that wakes the girl up to eye-saucer-wide alertness. Such astute insights remind me that many of us experience sleeplessness and devise ways of overcoming it.

Often, when I can’t sleep, I play word games by making up a set of rules and then searching in my mind for words which adhere to them. Sometimes my hit rate is spectacular; on other occasions, I simply fall asleep – which is the object of the exercise, unless the game grows so interesting that I willingly become wider and wider awake. (Occasionally, I draft in my husband, who is usually initially annoyed at being disturbed, but then enters into the spirit of the current game with gusto, adding – to my annoyance, his own rules.  😉)

The following day, I usually remember the rules of the game, but the words themselves have floated away into the ether. Today, I have made a special effort to remember the words from a game I’ve been playing over the past several nights, substituting new ones when the originals, despite much brain-racking, have been lost. 

I’ve turned my set of words into a very short story, just for fun. I thought my readers might like to share with me a spot of hilarity as we approach the happy season of what has been the most sombre year, I guess, that any of us can remember.

Can you spot the word rule that I used? And what leeway I gave myself?

Enjoy!

Revolutionary and somewhat farinaceous Lady Louise, succumbing to a year-long compulsion of god-daughterliness, met the ambidextrous quantity surveyor bivouacked beside a zinziberaceous crematorium for equatorial hippopotamuses. He was voyeuristically observing the trouble-making kindergarten nurse, full of maliciousness, separating out xiphopaguses by the washing-house as she, importunate, planned a pre-accusation, much to his unexpectation – and later nauseation, although  supported by documentation – that he had stolen her oleaginous juice-extractor.

Bloomsday

Ulysses

Today is Bloomsday, June 16th, the date that James Joyce renders unforgettable in UlyssesUlysses was finally published in 1922, but the novel celebrates the day in 1904

Joyce aged 22

that Joyce first met his long-term (and eventually ‘legal’) common-law wife, Nora Barnacle, who was then working as a chambermaid in a hotel in Dublin. Since I first read the novel in the 1970s, I’ve always quietly celebrated Bloomsday when it has come round each year and still enjoy dipping into Joyce’s account of the perambulations of Leopold Bloom in Dublin on this day. I’ve written about it before, too, but today I have a new dimension to add, something I’d forgotten about for decades.

One of my Covid-19 lockdown projects has been to ‘bottom’ my study and sort through all the books and papers living there. I’ve almost completed this task. Sometimes it has been stressful: I knew I’d have to be ruthless and select some items for recycling or other forms of disposal and I’ve done so, discarding items that logic dictates I will never truly want to use or look at again, despite the happy memories they inspire and the tug of my hoarding instinct..

Many things remain sacrosanct, however, including some discoveries that have surprised and delighted me.  Among these is a privately printed guide to the Martello tower that Buck Mulligan, the first character to appear in Ulysses, lives in in the novel.

The Martello Tower

 

A foolscap-sized pamphlet printed on hand-made paper, it is entitled James Joyce’s Tower, Sandycove, Co Dublin and was written by Joyce’s most famous biographer, Richard Ellman, and published in 1969.

James Joyce's Tower

I acquired it in the very hot summer of 1976, when it was sent to me by William ‘Monk’ Gibbon, an Irish poet and man of letters – in fact, long before then he was known as the Grand Old Man of Irish letters – whom I had contacted when I was carrying out research on George Moore, an Irish author who lurked on the periphery of the Gaelic Revival.  As a young man, Gibbon knew W.B. Yeats, John Millington Synge and Lady Gregory and George Moore, as well as Joyce and Oliver St John Gogarty, the real-life inspiration for Buck Mulligan. When I wrote to him, he was one of the last living links with these writers.  He had also kept in touch with ‘George’ Yeats, Yeats’s wife, until her death a few years previously. He told me fascinating anecdotes about all of them and sent me several gifts, including the book about the Martello tower and a hand-written poem of his own, inscribed on a sheet of the same type of hand-made paper as the book.  He had written out eighty copies of this, of which the one I have is numbered the fifteenth.

An Alphabet of Mortality

I’m posting a copy of the poem, but, in case some of the words are difficult to read, I’ve also transcribed it.

An Alphabet of Mortality

A’s for Arrival on the arena’s sand

B is our distant Birthright, long forgot.

C are the Cards, dealt deftly, to each man.

D is the Desperation of his lot.

E is for Eagerness, which conquers sloth.

F is our Folly, immense, which drags us down.

G are the hallowed, haloed, laurelled Great,

who scorned Happiness, that tinselled crown.

I the insatiable, insistent self.

J all its Jealousy and petty spite.

K is the coloured Kaleidoscope of our views

and L our longing for more stable sight.

M is the makeshift Madness of most lives.

N is Lear’s ‘Never’ to the fifth degree.

O’s the Occasion, haste or hesitate.

And P? Pride, Prejudice and Pedantry.

Q is the ultimate Query all must ask.

R the much-varied Responses from the dark.

S the great Silence, which puts speech to shame

and T the triumph when men leave this mark.

U is the infinite Universe, where there’s zoom,

when all the lies are dead, for Veritude.

W’s recovered Wholeness, which may yet

give X in the equation exactitude.

Y is for Yearning.

So, having overlooked

The many-lettered joys which, too, have been,

I, at the stake, do now recant and say

The Zephyr of my hopes was sweet and clean.

 

On the reverse side it is inscribed to me, with the message “to she …who knows that whatever the rest of it may say the last letter of my alphabet is the truest.”

It is dated December 15th 1976, the date of his 82nd birthday; he must have written the poem to celebrate it.  He lived until 1987.

As I re-read it, it struck me that this poem contains sentiments that are very relevant for our present times (also his use of the word ‘zoom’ made me smile – he had, of course, no idea that in 2020 it would achieve fame as a brand name for a virtual communication product).

Happy Bloomsday, everyone!

Bookshelf

Awakening of Spies: Review

Awakening of Spies

This spy thriller is the impressive first novel of a series planned about Thomas Dylan, who is plunged into ‘security’ work when, shortly after his graduation, he agrees to attend an interview for an organisation that needs a linguist. It is the 1970s. The job, which Dylan accepts, means working for the Defence Intelligence Service (DIS) as a civil servant. He is warned that there is no glamour attached to being part of the DIS, which is poorly regarded by both MI5 and MI6.

A boring future seems to beckon: he is convinced he has chosen – or, rather, fallen into – the wrong career, but he is very quickly sent to Zandvoort in the Netherlands on an undercover operation in which he is set up to fail. However, despite failing as resoundingly as expected, he quickly finds himself on his way to South America on a more important mission. It is to retrieve a device called ‘The Griffin’: ‘Garble-Recognition-Interrogation-Friend-or-Foe-Inboard Nautics – Master Control Unit’.  The Griffin is never explained more clearly than this, but a reader well-versed in tales of espionage might assume it to be something like a portable 1970s version of the Enigma machine.  All the usual suspects are after The Griffin, from the CIA to British Intelligence to various assorted Russians, Israelis and Arabs, not to mention the South Americans on whose turf the action takes place, some of whom are not South Americans at all, but escaped Nazi war criminals.

The plot is a relatively simple one – the novel tells the story of Dylan’s adventures as he tries to track down The Griffin.  Both pursuer and pursued, he is continually trying to figure out which of the people he encounters are really who they say they are and which ones can (or can’t) be trusted. Among them is the intriguing upper-class (anti-?) heroine Julia, whose uncle is (allegedly?) a bigwig in the security services. The narrative is written in the first person, which works well: during the course of the novel we see Dylan progress from a greenhorn apprentice spy to a much more mature operator whose rite of passage has included killing as a duty of his new profession.

What makes this novel stand out, apart from the fact that it is beautifully written, is that it is a spy thriller for grown-ups. The plot may be straightforward but the relationships between the various characters are intricate, their underlying rationale complex; yet despite the welter of detail and counter-detail, the author never makes the reader feel lost or, as so many spy writers do, leaves her or him feeling that the book is teetering perilously close to the edge of credibility. Landers has also accomplished the difficult trick of showing a profound understanding of the milieu which he describes without over-parading his knowledge.

There is some violence in Awakening of Spies, but it is not gratuitous or unduly sensational (I’m mentioning this because I know some of my readers don’t like too much bloodshed).  Both death and sex are described in a restrained way – there are no James Bond-type shenanigans. If you’d like to try a good spy thriller without the Boys’ Own escapades, I recommend this novel. And I’m already looking forward to the next one in the series.

Awakening of Spies is published by Red Door Press. ISBN 978-1913062330

There is no Planet B: review

There is no Planet B

Written by Mike Berners-Lee, brother of the more famous Tim, this book is difficult to categorise. It is part economic text, part philosophy, part psychology; sometimes worldly-wise and sometimes quite naïve. It continually switches the spotlight from the universal to the personal, from the state to the individual. The author appeals to the latter alternately – sometimes abruptly – as sensitive planet-lover, average citizen and fellow-sinner. Thought-wise, Berners-Lee is the descendant of Sir Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Malthus and Tom Stoppard, with sprinklings of the Archangel Gabriel for good measure. The book triumphs because of Berners-Lees’ racy, informal style: he has achieved the difficult coup of turning a disquisition into a page-turner.

Mike Berners-Lee is described by Wikipedia as “an English researcher and writer on carbon foot-printing. He is a professor and fellow of the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University and director and principal consultant of Small World Consulting, based in the Lancaster Environment Centre at the university.” Berners-Lee is the mature adult’s Greta Thunberg. He tries, and mostly succeeds, not to fall into knuckle-rapping piety. The great strength of his book is the force of the scientific and statistical evidence he has amassed about the sustainability – or otherwise – of Planet Earth as we know it. A huge corpus of data has been packed into this relatively slim volume. It exposes the plight of what he memorably calls the “Anthropocene” – “the era in which human influence is the dominant source of change to the ecosystem”.

That statement immediately raises the question of the fake news peddled by those who claim that global warming isn’t happening. He repudiates this with a workmanlike definition of what truth means to a scientist:
“…there is no such thing as one person’s truth as distinct from another person’s truth. If something it true, then it is a fact. Period. There is nothing subjective or personal about it. A person’s view of the truth is a different thing altogether and always is personal.”

He provides a statistician’s bounty of lists and charts that illustrate the carbon footprints of different foodstuffs, the relative benefits of and damages caused by different kinds of fuel, the energy consumption of the rich versus the poor, etc. They certainly make you think, and there are some surprises: for example, relentless facts demonstrate that production of biofuels steals food from the starving.

The charts contain so much information that it can be difficult to absorb it all. Consequently, and because the author appeals directly to the reader so often, it is tempting to view the data through a personal prism, rather than objectively. Thus I can award myself gold stars for not consuming beef – which he proves incontrovertibly is the most carbon-expensive food on the planet (even more expensive than the asparagus flown in from Peru, so often the beef eaters’ favourite retort) – and for running a very old car. If I’m honest, I deserve no praise for either of these – I don’t like beef and cars per se have never interested me. What brings me up sharp, though, is that dairy products are also environmentally greedy. As a very occasional meat eater, I consume a lot of dairy; as a small-boned woman, I have been persuaded by my doctor that this is essential to avoid osteoporosis. Should I consider reducing my intake drastically, for the sake of the planet? Leaving fossil fuels in the ground also makes perfect sense, but I live in a place where there is currently no viable alternative for heating.

Berners-Lee is not an economist in the conventional sense. Neither am I; but, as it was my misfortune to have to teach Economics as a subsidiary subject for three years when I was MBA course director at an English university, I understand the basic principles of ‘the dismal science’. I therefore admire the chutzpah of the counter-economics feats he has pulled off. For example, when acting as consultant for the Booth’s supermarket chain, he persuaded them to offer “buy one, get one free next week” as part of a push to reduce consumer waste of food. This runs entirely against the first economic principle of retailing, which is to get people to spend at least the same – and preferably more – every time they go shopping.

Another economic principle he tries to buck, but only hypothetically and much less convincingly, is the dynamic of scarce resources. He gives the example of two charities, one of which is doing well, the other less well, and suggests that the latter will applaud the former and be glad for its success, because both are working for the greater good. I have on several occasions either taught or worked with charity officials and I can report that they are at least as cut-throat as all but the most thuggish businesspeople. Not only is their own charity – of course – very close to their hearts, but their personal prestige and, in all probability, their livelihood, depends on its success. And who is to decide which charity is most worthwhile? Enter the Archangel Gabriel?

This brings me to the nub of what’s most difficult about this book. Even the most public-spirited of us cannot comprehend, in absolute terms, of what the greater good consists. In a world of seven billion people, most of whom are, shamefully, living from hand to mouth each day, how do we decide and who makes the decision? The one per cent in whose hands most of the world’s wealth lies? And what difference can we humbler – but still by world standards very affluent – individuals make? Berners-Lee offers advice on this in almost every chapter. Much is of the ‘no-one is too small to make a difference’ Greta Thunberg sentiment. Some seems over-optimistic or impractical: for example, only vote for politicians who are in sympathy with saving the environment; if no-one meets your standards, vote for the least bad. (I should be intrigued to know how Berners-Lee voted in the 2019 UK general election.)

The least satisfactory chapter is the one in which he describes how he and colleagues have worked with clients to reduce carbon emissions. Because he must summarise, his accounts seem both arcane and too much like plugs for his mates. The systems thinking he illustrates is a bit clunky, too. (I wonder if he has come across the work of the – sadly, late – Peter Checkland, another scion of the University of Lancaster, whose subtle and flexible Soft Systems Methodology was my bible when I taught strategic management.)

These are minor quibbles, however; There is No Planet B is an astonishing achievement, a seminal work that just might change Anthropocene Man’s hell-bent pursuit of his trajectory suicidal. The lockdown offers a perfect time to read this book and reflect on the messages it sets out so eloquently. Perhaps we can emerge from the current crisis stronger, more thoughtful and kinder to both ourselves and the planet and, in the process, find ways of avoiding the much bigger crisis that is hurtling towards us.

There is No Planet B is published by Cambridge University Press. I read it in paperback format (978 1 108 43958 9; £9.99); it is also available as an audio book, read by the author – more details here: https://www.cambridge.org/core/audiobooks-from-cambridge  The book is also available online to academic institutions from: https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108545969.

Peace in Europe Day

This has been a strange weekend for everyone, despite – or even because of – the blue skies and sunshine, now replaced by a cold, grey front from the North Pole. On Friday, it was seventy-five years since ‘VE [Victory in Europe] Day’. In the UK, all kinds of celebrations had been planned for this, most of which haven’t happened because of the Covid-19 lockdown. There is some hope that they can be held on 15th August, on ‘VJ [Victory in Japan] Day’ instead. I wonder. When the lockdown started, no-one imagined it would still be in place towards the end of the summer, but it may well be.

My daughter-in-law, who is German, told us about a conversation she had with our five-year-old granddaughter about this European anniversary, providing her with the relevant history that she really did want to know about, for, though the family lives in Cambridgeshire, she has relatives in the Münsterland and elsewhere whom she visits regularly; she also speaks German very well indeed. She knows that her great-grandparents chucked bombs at each other. Her mum’s words speak for themselves:

“VE Day. I’ve been thinking about the right words all day. It is one of the very few days when I find British life… awkward.
For me, the 8th of May has always been a day of commemoration and, primarily, of remembering the liberation from fascism and the Holocaust. I have absolutely no problem with celebrating this and the end of the war, but I suppose what makes me feel uncomfortable is the choice of the name for this day. Victory in Europe.”

Between them, she and her daughter decided to rename the day ‘Peace in Europe Day’ and – in and with, socially distanced 😉, their local community – to celebrate peace, not victory, as something perhaps more relevant now than it has ever been since 1945.

Here, at home in the Pennines, we have reflected a lot on how far we have come as a nation since the Second World War and I don’t mind saying that we are both committed Europhiles, who are happily English but also proud of being European. We love the country we were born in and all that makes it unique, but we love Europe too; we identify, quite rightly, with our nation, but not to the detriment of other nations; we are not jingoistic and we are weary indeed of the ultra-nationalistic nonsense we’ve heard all our lives and, especially, over the past three years or so. When our son and daughter-in-law were married in 2011, we hung German and British flags in our hall, where they have remained ever since, accompanied now by a banner of the twelve Chinese horoscope characters in silk and an Indian textile designed to celebrate Diwali, both acquired on my forays abroad. They hang there together in solidarity, companions in peace and shared interests from four very different countries, a testament to new global friendships with likeminded people. Our granddaughter takes it for granted that they are a permanent part of our household.

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In the village where I live, several families hung out Union Jacks. Flags are evocative props – they stand at once for national pride, military prowess and a strong sense of identity. When my husband was a child and his family were living in the south of England they made a pilgrimage back to the north once a year to visit his grandmother, who always hung out Union Jacks on the hedge to welcome them after their long journey.

Flags 4

In retrospect, these same flags were probably the ones she purchased to celebrate the original VE Day. When I was a child growing up in Lincolnshire, we all waved flags on Flower Parade Day (though I never understood why) and, when we visited the seaside, our parents would buy us little packets of paper flags to stick in sandcastles. There was always a Union Jack among these, though my brother and I both liked the red and green Welsh dragon best. Children enjoy the simple realities, rather than the symbolism, which they only later come to understand. We are delighted that our granddaughter has shrugged off naïveté about this very early.

The celebrations were meant to mark the return to peace rather than victory and those creative people who managed to put their mark on yesterday expressed this. My favourites were the staff of my local convenience shop, who dressed as – very glamorous – land girls to cheer and amuse their customers.

Land girls

They all work very hard to support everyone in their neighbourhood, with no discrimination, even though they have their fair share of – how best to put it? – awkward individuals! I’m led to consider that EVERY nation has its own fair share of, frankly, unpleasant people.

Because of my day job, I’m in daily touch with people across the world, all coping with lockdown. Some have very challenging situations to cope with: they live in densely populated conurbations, are looking after newborn babies or have underlying health issues that have confined them to their homes for months. As the effects of the lockdown here make life seem ever more like living in a science fiction novel, I’m conscious of how fortunate I am that my home is in a beautiful place, from which I can walk out for my daily exercise in woods bursting with bluebells and with the air a tumult of birdsong.

Bluebell wood

The spring has seemed particularly lovely this year, perhaps because the enforced stay at home has helped us to notice it more. Listing the positives associated with the lockdown, both the warmth of the season and having access to technology that allows me to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family are jointly top. I’ve learnt some new skills, too: several culinary ones, including a Nigella chocolate cake that guarantees domestic bliss (at least in this household!); I’ve helped my husband make John Innes-style compost for the tomato plants because the garden centres were closed; and I’ve plucked up the courage to tackle my grey roots and for the first time to experiment myself with hair dye (I’m pleased to report I’ve emerged neither orange nor bald!). I’m working on a new venture with an old friend. I’ve had more time to get in touch with other authors to discuss writing; I’ve managed to read even more books than usual. The British Library, which I joined last year, has sent me links to virtual tours of its collections which have enthralled and delighted me.

Of course, there are negatives. Social networking can’t replace face-to-face contact in the long term; the future of my day job is uncertain; and a significant reaction to bee stings has been harder to deal with than if the chemist and the doctor’s surgery had been working as normal. But these things are trivial compared to the most profound truth: that in villages such as mine we know we are cocooned from reality: it’s hard for us to imagine the distress and suffering that is being experienced by patients and NHS workers across the country, or by those in care homes, those who are grappling with Covid-19 at home or those who are afraid because they need ‘shielding’.

Flags and silk figures can’t help here: they symbolise important values, but they are inert. What can and does help tremendously are the small acts of joy that people like Paula, who works in the convenience store and took the trouble both to research and glam herself up in style, bring to the people they meet, by spending time and thought on how to celebrate sensitively.

Spring 2020

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Whether you think that spring begins on 1st March (meteorologists’ definition), 19th March (the equinox) or 25th March (Lady Day), the sap is certainly rising now. It’s impossible to ignore this break-out of beauty as animals, birds, insects and plants and flowers engage in their annual rejuvenation, totally untouched by the human despair at the break-out of the coronavirus. It’s as if we live in parallel universes. I do wonder whether the more perceptive scions of the natural kingdom have noticed humans behaving strangely. Perhaps not; perhaps they don’t care – but it is to be hoped that some are benefiting from the steep global drop in carbon emissions, the newly-clear rivers, streams and canals and the lessening menace of ‘road kill’.

I’ve noticed the signs of spring more keenly this year, possibly because I’ve been at home more (though I’m always at home quite a lot), but more probably because you cease to take for granted what you love about your life when it comes under threat. I’m sure we all have been recalibrating our outlook on life, thinking about what is most important to us and possibly even thinking that some of the new ways of working could become permanent rather than a temporary measure to contain Covid-19.

My garden is only small, but both the pond and the old cattle trough that I was given for my birthday a couple of years ago glisten with frog spawn – the biggest crop I can remember.

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The mint is pushing up through the soil in the planters, each tender shoot furled and delicate as a rosebud;

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and a very handsome pheasant, his feathers mating-resplendent, struts his stuff under the fruit trees, certainly not too proud to eat the seeds that fussy finches and tits scorn and toss from the bird feeders. He’s sometimes joined by a grey squirrel engaged in the same activity. I’m not a great fan of grey squirrels, but this one endears by being enterprising. If the pheasant doesn’t keep his eyes peeled, he misses the next shower of manna as it flows from the feeders because the squirrel will grab it first. He doesn’t seem to think it’s worth chasing the squirrel away. (My cat, by contrast, certainly has designs on the pheasant, although she is only half his size and I think would be no match for his sharp and powerful spurs.)

Although the sun is shining, the chill winds from Europe are still with us and there was a heavy frost last night. We awoke to frozen windscreens and glittering ice. It felt healthy, somehow – bracing, antiseptic, optimistic and beautiful all at the same time.

My writing has been interrupted over the past few weeks by the exigencies of the day job, including taking the same time-consuming measures that everyone has had to resolve as we lock down. But I’m back into De Vries now – it’s the sequel to Sausage Hall – and keenly aware of the privilege of being able to sit here and work on my next novel.

I hope that everyone who reads this blog is keeping safe and well and that, whatever the fears and inconveniences that beset you, there have been some good and happy things resulting from this mass change of lifestyle, unprecedented not only in our lifetimes but possibly in the whole of history.

I’m going to start a new venture soon, to help writers and those who want to read their work, and I’ll keep in touch with you about it, if I may.

With love and hope and very best wishes,

Christina.

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